Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Observations, October: Part 13

I'm writing this after the second presidential debate. This, the town hall debate between Donald Trump, reality television star turned presidential candidate, and Hillary Clinton, former New York Senator and Secretary of State. The debate was painful to watch, and I won't dwell on it here, but I will say that I think our country needs the arts more than ever. We need a Renaissance, a wave of innovation and insight to offset what seems an increasingly uninformed and divided country. We need to grow, not devolve.

A few other observations from this past month:
  • This election engages. It engages because it infuriates, much like a bad script. I hope the nation does not condemn itself. I hope those who take the trouble to self-educate and read widely vote. 
  • Locker room talk is still talk. This is still a story. It will continue to be a story until November 8th.
  • People who go all-out with Halloween decorations are just good and fun people, in general. 
  • Westworld is reflecting some scary truths.
  • Clowns are just fine. Scary clowns are not. Not all clowns are scary. (Logic!)
  • The news today feels like the bad day-time TV of my youth.
  • The first few cool days in South Texas are divine.
  • Teaching is one thing, teaching well is another.
  • There is nothing as gratifying as a good story.
  • Marginal utility should be practiced with all food and drink. It just makes sense.
  • Loosing the internet at home for an evening can lead to unexpected peace.
  • Reading is good for the soul, so check out my new short story, a ghost story: FORTUNE IN SMOKE at SFWP Quarterly.
Ahti watching Westworld

Creativity: Write about or draw a clown who is a hero, a champion of all things good. By doing so, you may write a fantastic short story/create good art and restore balance to the world.  



Monday, September 26, 2016

Observations on Mood, September: Part 12

Here's the overview of my day so far (if I survive, it might be comical): illness kept me up in pain all night; in the morning, I purchased the wrong item at the grocery, so I had to go back; rain flooded my neighborhood; lunch looked good but wasn't; I finally got reimbursed for a extraneous charge from a company but ended up having to pay more than that for my prescription because I haven't yet met my deductible; I got backed up on work; I took a pain reliever that gave me hives; I logged on to gmail to find that everyone who hasn't gotten back to me in the last two weeks decided to email me today; I had trouble concentrating because I was tired; I responded to a personal email after misreading it, so had to respond again, but the person had already responded to my response, so it kept on; my leg fell asleep when I tried to meditate, then I fell asleep and almost hit my head on the wall (still trying to meditate); I found it difficult to exercise; and so on.

This day makes me want advice, but instead of asking someone, I'm thinking about all the advice I'd give someone else who is having a bad day. Are you having a bad day? Ordinarily, I'd say...

  • Meditate
  • Read
  • Exercise
  • Eat well
  • Talk to a friend
  • Be grateful for what you have
  • Drink lots of water (I say this to people no matter what's wrong)
  • Take a bath
  • Take a long walk
  • Hang out with your dog or cat or bird

I didn't drink that much water today, but I tried most of this other stuff at some point. Now, I'm brooding. I'm dwelling in my misery, digging deep into it and adding up all the factors. In fact, I'm starting to feel a weensy bit better with each word I type, so maybe the secret to being in a bad mood is to just own it fully. Maybe when we try to fight the bad feelings, they fight back.  

Creativity prompt: Write or paint or sketch something inspired by a truly horrible day. (The book above is fantastic, by the way.)

Recent publications (short stuff): Polygon in Chicago Literati, Lottery Days in Literary Orphans.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Interview with the author: Alexandra van de Kamp

After reading her new poetry collection, Kiss/Hierarchy (Rain Mountain Press, 2016), I was eager to ask Alexandra van de Kamp a few questions about her work and routines. I first met Alexandra two years ago at a simultaneously wonderful and disastrous reading that I put together at San Antonio College (wonderful because of the amazingly talented readers and disastrous because we lost electricity, but I digress). Over sweet potato fries and craft brews at The Cove, we got to know each other. I soon found out that Alexandra is not only a nice person but an extremely talented writer.

Shortly after we met, we had coffee and realized we were both being considered for positions at the same literary nonprofit, Gemini Ink. Since then, I've had the privilege of getting to know Alexandra as a co-worker (who organizes and hosts amazing public events [always with electricity] and classes in the area) as well as a friend, who is smart, funny, and generous beyond words.

Enough backstory about how I know Alexandra. I am eager to introduce both the woman and her work to you...

Hi, Alexandra! Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. As you know, I love Kiss/Hierarchy. Many of the poems in this collection begin with a narrative easing-in: either an observation that piques the reader’s interest or a direct appeal in epistolary form. The poems invite a reader to glance over the shoulder as a letter is written, walk alongside the narrator as a landscape is consumed, or hold the magnifying glass as persona is carefully taken apart and put back together. Who or what is the audience you envision as you write? Is audience only considered after a poem is complete?

Wow, what a rich question to contemplate! I guess you could say that I try to write poems that invite the reader in, in different ways, and sometimes that is a more narrative gesture (as you have so astutely pointed out), and sometimes it can be the allure of the sounds of words or just a single image that snags in my mind. For example, the title poem in the book, “Kiss/Hierarchy,” actually was triggered by reading the dairies of Anaïs Nin and coming upon a single statement that immediately made me want to respond to it. Nin states, rather coyly, “There are two ways to reach me: by way of kisses or by way of the imagination. But there is a hierarchy: the kisses alone don’t work.” And this statement immediately made me want to challenge/explore the idea of the appeal of kisses and to take on this division that Nin had set up—between the imagination (and its role in our mental lives) and the role of kisses (and the phenomenon that they are in our physical lives).  It also became a sort of game for me to test this dichotomy in our lives between the sensual and the intellectual. So, I guess if I attempted to describe the audience I was writing for (something I do not contemplate very much during the writing of my poems but do wonder about once I’ve written a book and hope it sells!), I would say I’d love to lure in those with an insatiable curiosity about the world around them, who take little for granted about what makes up a daily “reality,” and who are intellectually generous in how they absorb and entertain new ideas. That said, I do not have an over-defined idea of my audience, and I wouldn’t want to over-restrict it in any way. I think my poems tell me what they want and need to say (on a good day!) and the audience for the work comes out of this process.
Available on Amazon
and from Rain Mountain Press

Where were you when you wrote these poems? How long did it take for them to come together?

I wrote all of the poems for this book when I was still living in New York—the North Shore of Long Island, to be exact. I’ve only recently moved to San Antonio, TX in the last year and a half. I take a long time to compile a book of poems (I seem to write chapbooks, collections of 25-30 pages, much more quickly). My husband and I rented a little cottage on the North Shore of Long Island because we were both teaching and working at Stony Brook University at the time, which was nearby. I remember the summer for 2006 being especially fertile writing-wise. I had a span of 1-2 months to write after a really intense semester of teaching, and I just recall hunkering down in that little cottage, letting myself dwell on my first Long Island summer (after having lived in Brooklyn, NY and slogging through some pretty hot and humid urban summers) and reveling in the green around me, the flora and, even the inch worm infestation that summer. All these inch worms were dangling from the trees, little unravelling green bodies. They were a nuisance but I liked them! And this was when I began to write poems more overtly triggered by the sound of words—letting the music of the language become its own logic. This is why you find poems in my newest collection, Kiss/Hierarchy, that are titled things like: “Dear A—“ or “Dear S—“. They were epistle poems, as you’ve pointed out, but epistles addressed to the sounds of letters and to the associations and lyrical leaps that arose for me while allowing words beginning with these sounds to lead the “narrative” in each poem. So it took me 10 years—2006 to 2016—to get the poems I started that summer published and compiled as a full-length book. Of course, I actually wrote most of them by 2014. In that decade I also published two poetry chapbooks as stepping stones to the full-length.

“The Electrician” stood out for me. It seemed the voice in this poem was less exploratory initially, more about asserting a certain power or position in the world. But by the end of the poem, I got the sense that the familiar narrative style is there, behind the scenes, exploring the voice, exploring the assertions. What inspired this particular poem?  

I actually had an electrician visit our Long Island cottage to fix some old light fixtures, and he was a rather contemplative personality—not something I typically related to electricians (my fault for having a somewhat limited view of this profession), and it made me ponder what it must be like to be the one “fixing light” all day long and toying with electrical wiring. I know the role of an electrician can be a tricky one (and dangerous), but this guy had a sort of laconic air about it all and told me some stories about crawling into tiny, intricate spaces to correct extra tricky electrical problems, and suddenly this persona poem came about. I, of course, had fun playing with the very focused point-of-view of this profession and came up with images like: “I finger the wormy wires, un-cup/the fixtures and peer/at their sex. I know what grows, / furtive as thought, in the porous/ walls of houses.” Each profession has its own obsessions. I am contemplating writing a persona poem about a dentist. Can you imagine staring into people’s mouths all day long—what a perspective that would create?

As a fiction writer, one who stumble-writes the occasional prose poem but has no real academic concept of form, all I know is whether/how a poem affects me. I feel oddly lucky that I get to experience poetry in this way, especially poetry like yours that builds and takes unexpected turns.

Considering this, one commonality I noticed in your book is that after the narrative lure, your poems coil in. I begin to feel the pressure build as your increasingly textured words examine the nuance of life, the moments inside moments (“the liquid bird/ inside that night”). The poetic experience is visceral. 

In other words, you are not afraid to write a sexy poem, a poem with body and swagger. Has your poetry always come out with such swagger, or did you have to work up to it?

Thanks for such a beautifully-written, thoughtful question, Jen. “Poems (that) coil in…”  hmmm I like that idea. I have never thought of my poems having “swagger,” but I find it really interesting that you do! I think I did have to work up to creating a certain crescendo or tension in my poems. Once again, a lot of this has to do with me following the sounds of words. I think this freed me up a bit at a point in my writing life when I was looking for new triggers in my work and was moving away from the more straightforward narrative style I had been writing in (a style I still love, but I was just looking for new ways into my writing process). Because I leaned on sounds as the “spine” of my poem rather than a more linear “plot,” I think it helped a certain energy occur that might not have arisen otherwise. It also built surprise into my writing process. I came up with words and images I may have never considered before just because of riffing on a specific sound. I also learned the importance of embracing a sense of play in one’s work. Not play in a frivolous sense, but a sense of deep play, a willingness to let go of my writing process a bit to allow the unexpected to enter into it or to write with a sense of playing with sounds and the feel and texture of words and seeing where that led me. I do believe in the “visceral” knowledge of language. That it has a breathing, physical presence and power, and I’ve enjoyed leaning into that more lately. It’s shown me the words know more than I do if I just trust in them and their own internal logic. Does that make any sense? I hope so.

The cinematic nods and strong location-based curiosities and appreciations of people and their roles – and what is behind those roles – are recurring themes. What inspires you about film, about our various roles in life and art?  And why?

I have written a fair amount of ekphrastic poetry in my life—poems inspired or somehow obliquely influenced by the visual arts—a painting, photograph or sculpture, etc….  I see film as just visual art in motion, moving images literally. I have learned so much from the world of cinema, how the mood, texture, and light of film can create a whole other reality alongside our own. There is a long history of writing about or through film, dating back to the surrealists like Apollinaire and Max Jacob, who were writing in the early 20th century, when film was just coming into being. The speed of the images in film and the new juxtapositions of imagery and scenery it offered deeply impacted poets back then and has continued to do so ever since, from the avant-garde French poets, such as Pierre Reverdy and André Breton at the time of WWI, to American poets like Frank O’Hara, writing in the 50s and 60s, to contemporary poets now. O’Hara was keenly influenced by the world of film and often dropped cinematic references into his work. His well-known poem “Ave Maria” published in 1964 (Lunch Poems) is an example of this. In this poem, O’Hara’s reference to the soul “that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images” captures the otherworldly, dreamlike feel of the cinema, especially when experienced in a theater. I think the world of movies has given me the permission to write more dream-like work, or poems not limited to a linear logic. In this way, watching film has freed me up as an artist, and I return to it again and again for a certain permission to view “reality” from unexpected angles and to let my work be drenched in an atmosphere or mood I find unusual or intriguing.

What is your writing routine?

I wish I could say I have a well-honed routine, but I have learned over the years what works for me and what does not and have come to respect my need for certain parameters to be in place that allow me to write. For example, I write better in the morning than at night (although I’ve learned taking a little afternoon nap can give me a boost that allows me to write in the evening as well).  But I am not one of those writers who finds their groove at 1am! I often let myself read first before worrying about writing something myself. In other words, I know I need to let myself gestate a bit before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. When I was living in Madrid in my late 20s and 30’s, I rented this apartment with another apartment mate, and my bedroom literally looked onto the wall of the opposing apartment (what the Spanish would call an “interior” view because my window faced onto the inside courtyard of the building and not out onto the street). However, I learned that all I needed was to brew a good cup of coffee, and let myself stare out that window, meditating on the opposite white stone all. Really do nothing at all for about 15 minutes or so, and trust my mind to go where it needed to go. Then, I was ready to do some work. So I think I need a certain quiet, the feeling that I don’t have five things scheduled for the day I am trying to write within, and a feeling of permission to let my mind play and wander. And, of course, a computer or journal nearby.
I’ve also gotten less fastidious over the years, and have learned I need not have hours free to write but can compose something in less time and that sometime I write fairly decently when stressed or feeling anxious. My idea of the “perfect writing time” has loosened up. Life is short, and you just can’t wait for things to be “perfect” to write! Sometimes you have to just take a stab and see what happens.

What are you working on now? 

I am working on new pieces for a third book of poems. Some of these poems are influenced by having moved to South Texas in the last year and a half. The green, exotic flora of San Antonio intrigues me. I’ve never lived in a place with palm trees, cactus, and grackles. I also continue to be influenced by the world of the movies and by the textures and sounds of words. And I just let reality be its own “movie” and am open to whatever images or experiences I may encounter on a daily basis. I don’t like to over-pin down what I am currently working on because often I don’t know until I am doing it! I am also working on maintaining a blog in which I offer mini-reviews on poets and writers I admire and post occasional musings on movies and the writing process itself. I also love to write prose poems and am toying with writing a collection of prose poems or prose vignettes. But mostly, I am writing poem by poem and building my next manuscript.

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me, Alexandra!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Reflections from Marfa: 2016

The drive from San Antonio to Marfa is full of snaky roads and rock fall warnings. Taking I-10 through the hill country toward West Texas, the landscape is marked by rampart and cacti; the radio station options go from a few dozen to two. My husband and I listened to horse raising commentary interspersed with a sort of country music free-styling session. Our dog sat in the backseat, at first upright and ears perky, then alert and curious, and finally slouching and timid. Erm … where are you taking me?

The winds hit as I heard the hook “if you’re gonna play in Texas, you gotta have a fiddle in the van,” and things got Hunter S. Thompson weird from there (sans mind-altering support). We stopped at just about every gas station we could find as we made our way further west. If driving to West Texas, remember that bathrooms are an opportunity to seize, not a guarantee.

As the roads twisted higher and the mountains surfaced along the horizon, we noticed fewer road signs and more border control vehicles. Marathon, TX was is a ghost town on the Sunday we drove through, but we were able to find gas and grab a picture from the base of a hill before setting sights on Alpine, home to Sul Ross State University. The town, at about 6K, hosts a few food trucks and a coffee shop with a laundromat attached and a scrabble board ordering menu. Dogs were welcome everywhere, it seemed, and “everywhere” could be exhausted in a few hours with enough motivation and mobility. We walked and soaked in the beauty of the mountains in the distance, and we looked for people, figuring they must be hiding somewhere. We walked.

About twenty minutes away (if you drive hella fast), Marfa waited in all her divine dissimilarity.

Population of approximately 2K, Marfa was once home solely to ranchers but now houses artsy folk from Los Angeles and New York, thanks to the foresight of minimalism without motion. To find art in life and not spend endless conversations debating art philosophies and trying to navigate the ever elusive art circles, Donald Judd moved to Marfa in the seventies thanks to a fellowship that allowed him to expose the small city’s heartbeat with the construction of markers that shone light on the contrast that occurs in life.

Walking around Marfa felt like a large-scale treasure hunt. Unlike geocaching, I didn’t have to move rocks or climb mountains to find my treasures, however. Instead, I needed only pay attention. The barren landscape was dotted with brilliant, clean, minimalist art that seemed to both complement and conflict with the city that it housed. While venturing to Marfa restaurants and bars on a Sunday and finding only two of the seven Yelp suggestions to be open, Chris and I wound up at the one open bar.
This bar could have easily been in a small Ohio town or, really, any small town, but instead of a surly or worn-looking bar tender - someone whose life choices, situations, and work history have been etched into her face, this bar, replete with sticky floors and two-three patrons who looked as though they were there daily, was tended by a woman whose cherubic features and angular style suggested adopted, rather than inherent, struggle. She was clean and smooth skinned and unworn.

After chatting with some of the locals, who were descendants of locals, I came to understand that there is a generations-deep feud between Marfa and Alpine that dates back to ranchers who used to own all of the land. I also came to understand that guests in Marfa are welcome and hospitality is almost a competitive sport. After exploring the outside bar area, which contained a street light and a swing above the gravel floor littered with American Spirit butts, we walked in the cool desert air toward Hotel Paisano, the site of the Elizabeth Taylor Movie, Giant. On the way, we passed a gas station (food!) and a few other small shops and stores that were open only Thursday through Saturday. We ended up eating dinner at the hotel, which was rather good. Though I don’t recommend the fish tacos, everything else was divine.

The thing I noticed most about Marfa was a sort of pervasive peace. Everyone we spoke to was kind in an unrushed way. I caught myself having conversations and feeling an ephemeral tug of the chin downward, as though I had a text to answer or an email to send. What an odd and strung-out sort of feeling. Though I admittedly spent the first day taking a shit ton of pictures and posting them to Instagram, the second day was about accepting that quiet wholeheartedly.

Marfa reminded me how much I crave such time. To be with one’s self and one’s loved o
nes in silence is a gift rarely allowed in our transparency-above-all age. As though planted, a Marfa rainbow greeted us at an art school as we walked around, bellies finally full, noticing the number of cars (mostly trucks, actually) we saw could all fit in a doughnut shop parking lot with spaces to spare. The quietude was mesmerizing and important to me.

When we went to the lookout to see the famous Marfa Lights, we weren't disappointed to see only a few car headlights coming up the road. Each set contained promise, then the emotional equivalent to a shrug of the shoulders. Not indifference exactly, something nearer understanding. We stared out at the mountains, until we began to yawn. A local later told us that you don't always get to see them, and that he thinks they're staged. Perhaps. Some people beg to differ. To us, it didn't matter. 

“Marfa is the place people go to disappear,” a friend said before our trip. I only wish I could’ve kept the invisibility cloak on a bit longer. I turned 37 in Marfa, and I am going to remember the city's influence, artistic and inherent. I will attempt to carry some semblance of its odd peace and simplicity with me this year.  

Creativity prompt: Hire me! I'm accepting new clients through October, and I have a neat infographic up on my website (the things we do with spare vacation hours - shout out to Chris Shanahan for the help): http://www.jenknox.com/writing-coach. :)

In the meantime, go somewhere quiet. No coffee, no food, no books, no computer. Just bring a pen and paper. Write.

Monday, August 8, 2016

A Month of Observations, August 2016: Part 11

Some thoughts in August...
  • The best way to not write is to talk about what you're writing.
  • If you want to feel better about your decision-making skills, put your chess app on Level 1.
  • Name changes are a PITA. 
  • When you have 4 teachers and and only 1 student, that's one lucky student. #truestory
  • You shouldn't sip espresso. If you do, you don't get it. I'll show you how it's done.
  • The right lighting is everything.
  • The right friends are everything.
  • The right place at the right time is cool.
  • The right direction without GPS is genius.
  • The right decision can't be over-analyzed.
  • Adjuncts don't get paid enough. 
  • Nonprofit workers don't get paid enough.
  • The cannabis industry, globally, is something that people like to wave off, then secretly invest in. #truestory
  • If no one listens to you, that's permission to say whatever the fuck you want.
  • When you can get comfortable out of your "zone" and sit well with embarrassment, you're a rock star. 
*Creativity prompt: Write a story in a genre that you never ordinarily read. Just try it. Then read a bit in that genre and see how close you came. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Month of Observations, July 2016: Part 10

The last two weeks have been confusing. Human behavior is confusing. It's why we need art and meditation, poetry and stories. I'll just dive right in today and see where this goes.

  • Serrano peppers are hotter than they look. Take note.
  • Trends move so fast now that you can wait pretty much anything out without much effort.
  • Patience is not passivity.
  • Orange is the New Black is a great show (I really didn't think it would be).
  • People buy more guns when there are shootings, and more guns mean more shootings. That's math. 
  • Pokemon Go is all the craze, and a million copycat apps will be there to claim similar appeal when it fizzles (it's a good idea, and I suppose this is more of a prediction than an observation).
  • When your ceiling caves in on your couch, you can see it as a horrible thing or an opportunity to get a cuter couch (see: cute red couch).
  • Going home is unpredictable. I spent ten minutes looking around, trying to show my husband the way to a park that had been replaced with condos over a year ago.
  • Serrano peppers are burning my lips right now. Excuse me...
Check out my new essay in Black Fox Mag about community and writing. And writing communities.

Creativity Prompt: Write about an unlikely craze. It can be something as simple as gold pants or as complex as a new doctrine that has taken hold of the collective psyche.   

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Month of Observations: Part 9

As the world seems caught in a maelstrom of violence, I've been spending as much time as possible at the gym or park, listening to Thich Nhat Hanh's Peace Is Every Step and other similar books. In other words, I've been trying to find my center. Or hold on to it. This pervasive sadness and anger can seem too much to handle some days. I know that I'm not the only person who feels this way.

One way I've found that helps is by being in nature. The heat in Texas sometimes intervenes, but I get out there when the sun is taking a break. It doesn't bring full balance, but it helps. Speaking of nature, I have one new piece out entitled OUR SKY, THE OCEAN (written a while ago). It's based on a true story. Loosely. And it's categorized as YA fiction here. If you read it, let me know what you think.

So. In interest of maintaining some consistency in this blog, here are a few observations I have for the last month:
  • Violence invites more violence, which only leads to further violence. We are NOT all the stars of our own action movies, as some will have us believe. 
  • Getting "revenge" on animals is about as productive as getting revenge on the weather. 
  • Many of the people of San Antonio are gracious and compassionate, even in the face of pure hatred. 
  • Conversely, the service at TxDPS and DMV sites can be a litmus test for calm and tolerance.
  • When it comes to long-form writing, starting small is the way to reach the finish line (the paragraph-long goal beats the few-page goal and usually results in just as much writing)
  • Sushi is fun to make and so incredibly cheap. 
  • According to this article in Electric Lit, the top earners in writing can bring in more than I expected (and less than I made as a bagger at an Ohio grocer): https://electricliterature.com/what-writers-earn-money-c109bfb04d3d#.h3hwh6fq7
  • Piggybacking on that last one, it often seems that the more noble the profession, the less one is paid, but I think this will have to change because do-gooders/teachers/social workers know how to make shit happen with few resources and no time. Watch out! 
  • Varying a diet is better than eating the same thing every day. (Obvious one, but I need to remind myself.)
  • Reading YA is surprisingly gratifying as an adult. (Just finished Pigman and Made You Up - Recommend both.)
  • Taking one's own advice can seem damn-near impossible sometimes.
  • I could discuss The Lobster for days on end and get nowhere, so don't try to discuss it with me. 
  • Small acts of kindness, even as small as a smile, can stick with others. Kindness is just as contagious as violence. 
Have a peaceful week.

Prompt: Stop watching the news for a full day, then free-write. Free-write again after a day you've been following all the news (internet or TV).

xo Jen