Thursday, June 22, 2006

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

I love my neighborhood. Where else can you wait on line at Othello's Deli with gruff scruffy men reeking of Pall Mall, picking up their egg sandwiches with mayo, and then see a trim young guy in an Armani Exchange t-shirt walk in, brushing past with a crisp "Excuse me"?

Where else can you walk past a tiny Greek corner restaurant that used to be a private social club and now has signs advertising vegetarian offerings? Then a few paces away see young Williamsburg/Greenpoint hipsters lining up around the block to get into the Bohemian Hall Beer Garden?

Where else do Italian grandmas sweep their patch of sidewalk while their next-door neighbors sit on the stoop smoking and discussing their latest off-off-Broadway project in twangy Midwestern accents?

Unfortunately, my beloved neighborhood has been "discovered." Astoria is the new Park Slope, rife with transplanted Manhattanites looking to buy and real-estate venturers driving the market sky high. We've been in the same tiny 2-bedroom since we moved here, a decade ago in August, grad students, newlyweds without kids or steady jobs. We're spilling out the seams but have to stay put a little longer, I suppose.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Why I Write

Came across this today, written in 2004. It was inspired by a short essay by Terry Tempest Williams, collected in Writing Creative Nonfiction (ed. Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard). It still feels pretty true to me right now.

I write out of necessity, out of desperation. I write because there is no other viable alternative. I write because there is a hole in my heart even though the hole in my daughter’s was repaired years ago. I write because my son has heard me screaming and has started screaming at me. I write because my husband is sad a lot of the time, and it makes me sad, and it makes him less able to help me when I’m sad, and vice versa. I write because there are things I never got to do as a child, as a teenager, as a young adult in her twenties. I write because I always pictured myself in the turret study of a Victorian mansion, typing or scribbling away, sending page after page off into the world, wearing glasses and being a Famous Author. I write because when I was five I thought I would be an artist but I can’t draw to save my life. I write because my dream was always to be an actress, like Julie Andrews. I write because my singing voice is subpar, because my violin is dusty and my calluses gone, because I have given up on music, because there is something to say and I get tired of hearing it in my own head, and sometimes there is just no one else who will listen.

I write because I am good at grammar, because I was the Spelling Bee Champion of my school in both seventh and eighth grades, because English was always my favorite subject. I write because I am obsessed with words, and with books, and because reading is a way for me to get lost and get out of this rattling cage of a mind-body when I feel stuck. I write to thank my favorite authors, the patron saints looking down upon me from literary heaven, and to bless the muse, who may or may not exist in any real sense, but who gives us something to believe in other than the blank page, the pale screen wavering on the monitor, the too-crisp notebook with uncreased spine.

I write to take up space, to say I AM HERE, or later perhaps, I WAS HERE. I write for my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, my children’s children. I write because I have living blood relatives to whom I have not spoken in nearly a decade. I write because the little brothers and sisters I diapered and bounced on my knee now are bouncing their own children on their own knees, and they all live so far away. I write because my parents, my siblings, and even my closest brother have all been taken by a belief I cannot relax into, though I have tried several times because it seems to explain things in a way that satisfies them. I write to understand the way I understand the universe, to distinguish this way from all the other ways.

I write because it hurts. I write because it takes the pain away. I write to stir things up. I write to quiet down. I write to stimulate, even to anger. I write to placate, to ameliorate (that word so close to my own name), to make people like me or at least not be angry with me anymore. I write because I can’t help myself, because it is what I do, because I can’t imagine living any other way.

I write for me, I write for you. I write by hand, I write on a machine and print it out on another machine. I write in the morning, at lunchtime, late at night. I write in the kitchen, in a café, on the subway, in the dentist’s waiting room. I write in summer, fall, winter, and spring. I write in the bright sun, in the rain and snow, in the cold, on the elevated train platform with my gloves on, the ink freezing in the pen. I write because I have no choice, because I have to, because I can’t think of anything else to do, because I can.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

What the bleep do I know about Louise Bogan?

OK, so I really have to get this paper finished for the West Chester Poetry Conference. I'm presenting first thing Thursday morning, for pity's sake! It would be nice if I didn't also have to facilitate a discussion on Writing Across Disciplines tomorrow at FIT from 9-12, then run up 8th Avenue to Penn Station for a 1 p.m. train. And if I didn't have some sort of upper respiratory crud in my chest (yes, a cough! a lovely touch as I head to a place where I will be sitting quietly for hours listening to presentations and poetry readings). And if I had more sleep. Etc. etc. etc.

Anyway, I do know a few things about my dear Louise:
  • She was the poetry critic at the New Yorker for nearly four decades.
  • She published a very small body of poems as a result of writing all that criticism (she needed the money, didn't have an independent income like Marianne Moore and other contemporaries).
  • She never completed university but clearly received an extraordinary education, mostly at Boston Latin Girls' School. Yet she had somewhat of a chip on her shoulder about her "lack of schooling."
  • In high school, she came home every day and wrote "a long poem or sonnet sequence." Every day. She was greatly influenced at the time by the Pre-Raphaelites, especially Swinburne.
  • Despite Louise's literary prowess, the principal of her school spoke with her mother and told her "No Irish girl could be editor of the school magazine." She suffered greatly from discrimination she experienced as a "mick" in Yankee New England.
  • She was praised by (mostly male) critics for her skill with rhyme and meter, and for her decorous, reserved, poems unsullied by messy "confessions."
  • Whatever the apparent "detachment" in her work (and I query this notion), her life was at least as tumultuous and racy as that of bohemian goddess Edna St. Vincent Millay (about whom my friend Moira is presenting on our panel).
  • She suffered horribly from depression and was hospitalized three times. One of these visits resulted in the poem "Evening in the Sanitarium." (There is life left: the piano says it with its octave smile.)
  • Her adult ills can be connected to some trauma in her early life: her mother, a handsome and high-spirited woman married to a worker-bee five inches shorter than herself, had numerous affairs and would sometimes leave the family for days or weeks at a time. Also, her brother was killed in WWI when she was a teenager.
  • She was not the most attentive mother herself; after separating from her first husband, who subsequently died, she left her small daughter Maidie with her parents and took a Greenwich Village apartment, immersing herself in the literary scene of the day. Later, friends (including Margaret Mead) chided her for failing to mention she had a child.
  • Her poems are perfected with lapidary skill, polished like gems, precious to the reader, "talismans" according to one critic. I find that many of her lines stick with me, and have for years.

Well, there is much more to say, but I will let Louise have the last word.

Solitary Observation Brought Back from a Sojourn in Hell
At midnight, tears
run into your ears.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Write it! like disaster

Here is what happened. We were watching There's Something About Mary on TV. Contractions had started, mild, far apart, irregular. I couldn't read, couldn't concentrate. I knew it was starting to happen. The baby would be coming soon. The Matt Dillon character, trying to impress Cameron Diaz's character, tells her how involved he is in working with "retards." I cringe, as I am supposed to. I am supposed to think this guy is a jerk. I feel funnier than usual, though, because I am going to have a baby.

Fast forward to a bright sunny room, Segovia playing Bach streaming around, pain and pushing and more pain and pushing pushing pushing "Poosh the baby out," says Anna, the Swedish-Czech midwife who had also been there for our first. The baby comes out. She is on my chest. She is a dark purplish color. I make the midwife and nurse take her to get the color better. They make her pink and give her back to me. I see her face, I feel the roundness and chubbiness of her body. I see her eyes. "Does she have Down syndrome?" I ask. "I think yes," says Anna, too quickly, the wrong answer entirely, so wrong it feels like a slap.

There is a black and white photograph that I believe was taken right at that moment; I am holding the baby, a sheet partially covering my body, and the expression on my face has nothing to do with the pain of childbirth. This is a new sort of anguish, the crashing of worlds, the death of all kinds of particular visions, the beginning of a raw opening into whatever will be the future.

Sometimes we have to go back to those moments, to that point where everything changed forever. Even though it is the last place we want to go, or think our readers (if indeed we have them) want to go. So blogging it? Why not? A good place to start. I am inspired in this by Paul Guest's post , which I read yesterday and cannot get out of my mind. Sometime you just gotta write it. Memoir is life and writing is living. Wherever it happens.