Thursday, October 21, 2010


My friend Michelle reminded me that she wrote a column for me when my kids were born. She was working at The Post-Trib.

"I'm not sure if you ever saw it," she said. "You were a little busy."

I did see it though. I clipped it. I have it in a wooden box for them. Along with two unused diapers the size of a Post-It. Oh, and two knitted hats (from Hannah and Winona and Calla, Michelle's craftabulous daughters). Those hats keep a thumb warm, let me tell ya.

Here's the article. Michelle has won all sorts of awards for her column/editorial writing. To have such a writer writing about my two cookie faces? However crumbled up they were back then?

How lucky am I?

Lucky yo.

Taking the Time to Look at the Past and the Future
by Michelle Holmes
The Post-Tribune, Friday, Nov. 19, 2004

Nearly 94 years and a billion breaths separate Zahra and Amira from my grandmother.

In their Chicago hospitals, the twins' mother reminds her tiny babies to breathe, jostling the little girls when they drift off to sleep in warm incubators.

Sixty miles east at the assisted living home, my mother lovingly adjusts, for the thousandth time, the oxygen tube that offers another moment, another day, another week of life to her own mother.

And somewhere in the middle -- at the very beginning of two lives, and at the very end of another -- I am offered entry.

* * *

In the neonatal intensive care unit, the first thing we do is wash our hands.

Three minutes at the sink, scrub to the elbows, rinse from the top down.

When you weigh less than 2 pounds, a germ is no small enemy.

Purses and backpacks, coats and cell phones are piled in a heap as we step into the nursery.

A sign warns us to tread lightly. "Shh, we're growing."

I do not speak at all, following Amira's parents through the dim room.

My eyes scan for other small lives, but mostly I see tubes and wires.

We'll visit just one baby here. Then the trip across Chicago for another badge and clearance to a second, brighter unit, where parents dare to hope aloud.

Once cradled together in the pre-birth darkness, Zahra and Amira do not know how many miles stand between them now.

Inside their isolettes, each fights her own epic battle.

On this day, almost before they look at their daughter, Amira's parents glance at the computer that hangs above her, where flashing numbers spell out her hold on life.

Briefly, their eyes meet, then turn with pleasure to the tiny form in swaddling clothes that they have grown to love so fiercely.

Today is good.

We can reach inside and hold the tiny hand in ours.

We can exhale.

* * *

Lunch is over at the Sterling House. A lady in a handmade sweater dozes in the lobby. In the dining room, kitchen workers gossip. The halls are quiet.

My girls and I tiptoe to my grandmother's door and peek inside. Eyes closed, she rocks in her easy chair.

Until she turned 90, I rarely saw her sitting.

At 60, she worked two jobs; at 70, she tarred her own roof; at 80, she raked leaves and scrubbed floors; at 85, she chased my babies across summer afternoons.

Today, her heart offers oxygen to live, but not quite enough to move.

So our visiting is different.

At the nursery, we look to the future. Here we listen to the past.

Stories of her father, on a Halloween, with grass skirt and ringed nose, traveling by bus across New Jersey with his famous lemon cake.

Of her uncles, and their "Christman Flying Circus" offering airborne thrills across the Eastern seaboard.

And of the chocolate molasses pancakes her mother, on her deathbed, requested for her mourners.

On this day we can forget the tubes and pills. This day she is ringingly alive, and taken in by the wonder of it.

"I've really lived a couple of hundred years," she says, her eyes shining.

And it seems true.

It is a good day.

And we can exhale.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Is this going to be an "original" post? Probably not.

But like my friend K says, "Sure, everyone does it, but it's like a traditional fixed form now. Bitching about AWP is like writing a villanelle."

It's only October, and I am debating going to AWP in February.

Some people hate going to AWP. Because they think it's stressful. At AWP in April, my friend L and I walked around, and over and over, we heard people say, I AM SO STRESSED. OMG ARE YOU STRESSED? AWP IS SO STRESSFUL.

Later at the hotel, L said to me, "Can I tell you that I LAUGH at people who think AWP is stressful. LAUGH, Liz. Do you hear me laughing? Because I am. I am laughing at those people."

I hear her point. Still, it is stressful, being smart enough to know that such a thing as AWP even exists. It is stressful, being rich enough to spend $1,000 to drink beer and go to poetry readings for four days. Can I keep bringing up Africa? See previous I AM A TOTALLY OVERWORKED INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGNER, DO YOU HEAR ME? post. God, I love Africa!

But seriously, here's is my quandary. I am a geek and when I read the descriptions of all the interesting panels at AWP, I was very excited. Then I went and I was very sad. Those panels made me feel sorry for all of us, for every single person on earth.

My friend K says, "Panels are not the point of AWP. The point of AWP is Book Fair! The point of AWP is Hanging!"

So it seems if I decide to go this year, I have to get over the idea of going for the panels--in other words, going to gather knowledge about poetry and poems and "the industry" of poetry in a formal setting.

"This is a fantasy," K assures me.

It's just that . . . instructional design conferences? They are so dang useful. It is the whole point of them: Utility. In my experience, IDs are not above shit that is useful. I like that about them very much. If you go to an instructional design conference, here is what will happen:

1. You will read the panel description--crystal.

2. You will go into that panel and it will start on time and be in the room it says it's going to be in and be led by the people who are supposed to be leading it.

3. You will be delivered exactly what you were promised. An hour of interactive, dynamic, on topic, applicable knowledge that blows your head off, even if you thought you were not that interested in the subject.

4. You will walk away, uttering a sentence such as, "God, I never knew cognitive load theory could be so titilating."

To be fair, it is the whole point of the instructional design conferences, i.e., the instruction. One upping your peers. Making your panel more interesting, memorable, useful, and fun than your neighbor's. Stuffing your awesome and oh-so-instructionally-sound panel in your lame-o instructional design neighbor's panel's face.

At ID conferences, one is expected to bring one's game to the panel. And those design nerds? Oh, they bring it. Design nerds take games and gaming seriously.

Part of it might be, there are no superstars in instructional design; there is only good design/bad design. But that's not true really. There are superstars in design, even the nerdy kind of design (instruction). But if they gave some stupid presentation, they would get rotten tomatoes thrown at them just like everybody else. They know this, so they would never ride into a design panel on their high-design famousness and blab for an hour, all bumbly jumbly.

Whereas with AWP, I get the strong sense that as long as somebody is "famous," he has license to rattle on loonishly or read a boring and/or insane lecture off an I-Phone. After all, "That's the guy who wrote a 'well-known' poem in 1974. There must be something brilliant knocking around in that bobbly head somewhere. Even if it never comes to surface during this hour-long panel."

Considering I've never been much of a "starstruck" kind of person, I found myself sitting through the panels, wondering a couple of things:

1. Why are there no rotten tomatoes flying through the air right now? Poets are not athletic enough to throw rotten tomatoes maybe?

2. If five people know you--three of them former students--how famous does that make you?

3. Not to beg the question, but . . . most of you are TEACHERS of some kind, aren't you?
Has anyone else gone to any other conferences? If so, how did the panels compare to those at AWP?

Maybe I'm just a bad panel picker? Is there such a thing as a bad panel picker? If so, how does one self-identify?

Sunday, October 17, 2010


I once dated a writer. Given so many circumstances, the word "dated" feels very small, but words are small, so there you go.

In any case, when I was with him, I would tell him all kinds of things--things joyous, things terrible. And sometimes, before I could finish an entire story, I could sense him making structural decisions.

Should it break on




I used to find it unnerving, frankly. But today I am too tired to be unnerved. Today I know we all die, and then there's nothing left, unless there are words, and why shouldn't there be?

The girls' sixth birthday was yesterday, and all day I thought, I should be happy.

I also thought, My daughter is still in diapers. My daughter is still not talking.

I rubbed my daughter's back as we fell asleep and when I was so tired, I could barely think of anything, I thought: My daughter.

In the morning, her seizing wouldn't stop and the ambulance came and D got in and I stayed.

She hates her IV, D reports.

The fact is, she can't use her left arm very well but she's trying if it means she might be able to pull the IV out of her right.

On the phone I sing goodnight to her. It's 8:30: Goodnight, goodnight. Goodnight, goodnight.

D comes back on. "Not responding."

Later, I feel really lonely. It is possible for so many things to be one person's fault. Not even an evil person. Even when you don't want to believe this, it's true. I write my friend to tell him.

L--I wish I could talk to you. I have made so many bad choices, Rake. I can't begin to tell you. Sometimes I feel like everything I touch is on a fast track to Pain City.

R--You can't blame yourself for that. You can't, and hey, I am not in Pain at all, I'm in Cincinnati. I know there are others, too.

L--I am stupid. It is really depressing though. Maybe even more depressing that after 20 years you're the only friend I can tell without trying to be okay with it? I am not okay with it.

Monday, October 4, 2010


I've never taken any fiction classes so I'm teaching myself about the mechanics of writing fiction. It's fascinating. I'm learning so much.

So far I've learned: The last two books I've written are lost causes.

My MFA barely taught anything about the technical aspects of poetry. We workshopped our poems. I got comments about my poems from my peers who were as good or bad at writing poems as I was. Anything techie or form-related that I know about poems (and I'm certainly not an expert) I learned by reading handbooks and then parsing up poems on my own.

This makes me wonder: Do most MFAs in fiction learn the technical aspects of story telling? Plot, scenes, scene building, acts, climax, pacing, organization, etc. Or is the focus more on style?

I've asked some people about plot, and I've heard, "Oh just read novels. That's the best way to learn."

No. It's not. Not for me. Because it's not like I've never read a book of fiction before. I feel like I could read hundreds of books of fiction and come away not knowing anything more about plot than the knowledge I started with, i.e., stories have beginnings, middles, ends, the middle is the longest part, there's a high point near the end during which something big happens, somebody changes, then all the loose ends are tied up, The End.

I read hundreds of books of poems but before I read formal handbooks that broke certain things down, all I could say after reading a poem was: "That poem is about this. I really like this poem. I like how it sounds. I like what it means. I like how it makes me feel. I really don't like that poem. It's terrible sounding and it's boring too."

Not that these kinds of observations aren't useful. It's good to know what poems are about and to know whether you like the sound and meaning of them. But it doesn't help you understand how they're working, what structures are in place, what kinds of decisions the writer is making and why--if you're me. Maybe some people learn everything they need to know that way.

In the same way, I feel like in order to understand structures in novels, I need to know what I'm looking for and then REREAD the novel and slice it all up and look at each element closely and then look at how everything fits together.

I find handbooks handy. I find frameworks calming.

Sometimes I read a bunch of reviews of a movie before I watch it. Sometimes I read reviews or descriptions of a movie as I'm watching it. I feel like I can see what's going on better if I do that. It doesn't "ruin" the movie for me, knowing what's going to happen. Not to mention, I don't know what's going to happen (visually)--seeing that I've only read about what somebody else thought they saw. My husband is a visual artist and he finds this behavior completely baffling.




THE POET'S COMPANION by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux





SOUND AND SENSE by Laurence Perrine and Thomas R. Arp

WRITING DOWN THE BONES by Natalie Goldberg [I know I said I don't enjoy books about how to be a writer, but this was the first book I ever read related to writing poetry so I have a soft spot for it. Plus, I reread it about six months ago and thought it was a pretty fun read.]

WRITING THE LIFE POETIC by Sage Cohen [Ditto for this. It's my former classmate at NYU. Go Sage!]


Here is a short convo I had the other night:

Z: When I grow up I'm going to be a poeter.

L: What's that?

Z: Somebody who writes all the poems.

L: Oh. Why? Why do you want to do that?

Z: Because poeters always have work. They have so much work to do, they are always busy and never out of work.

Lorine Neidecker felt the same way I guess.

advised me:
Learn a trade

I learned
to sit at desk
and condense

No layoffs
from this

If I could not be a poet, I would be a conceptual artist. I would spend all day making absurd objects that could operate/function usefully if there was a context in the world that allowed them to.

For instance, I might make gloves with a mile of fringe (if Rebecca Horn hadn't already made something like that) with the hope that maybe at some point, there WOULD be a situation that would arise, rendering my object useful, e.g., if one of the miners in Chile was like, "God, you know what would be really great and calming right now? To rub the fringe of some suede gloves between my fingers. Too bad I'm a mile underground."

Conceptual artist is a terribly embarrassing job title though. Rivaled only by Poet. What could I call myself instead?

What would you be if you weren't being whatever it is you are?