Friday, March 30, 2012

The Writing with Celia Blog Tour!

Writing with Celia is going on tour! In honor of National Poetry Month this year, Joanne Merriam of Upper Rubber Boot Books has organized a spectacular multi-blog tour called "Couplets." Two dozen poetry bloggers are participating, guest-posting and cross-posting on each other's blogs. Read the full details here, and follow the event on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

My first tour post will be Thursday, April 5, when I guest post to poet Anne Higgins's blog, Scattered Showers in a Clear Sky. The next stop is Easter Sunday, April 8, when poet Patricia Valdata will be posting here. Next, I will be hosting Q&A with poet Ann Fisher-Wirth on Saturday, April 21. The last stop is scheduled for Saturday, April 28, when poet Ching-In Chen will be hosting me at her blog, Sunslick Starfish.

I'm really excited, because I've never been part of a blog tour before, and I'm hoping it will be a way for both bloggers and readers to discover new blogs and new poets. It is a wonderful way to celebrate National Poetry Month.

Meanwhile, I've been busy. Took a little time off from blogging and just about everything else to visit my family in Sarasota for spring break. Had a chance to kick back and do some reading, poolside (the best kind!). Ate the best Mexican food ever--twice--at my favorite restaurant of all time, Burritos. Finally saw The Artist, which totally rocked. Everyone should see this film, everyone. It's a lesson in storytelling, and about the payoff of taking risks. Not to mention a tribute to an art form that we allowed to become extinct. To two of them, if you count the beautiful tap dancing, which one hardly ever sees anymore. Also got to see Jennifer Leigh and The New Digs at Mattison's, with The Coolest Man on Earth at guest guitar, my cousin-in-love Greg Poulos.

Every once in a while, one needs a change of scenery. Whether it's a week by the pool or a month blog-jumping, it always helps to shake out the cobwebs and let in the spring air.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Speaking through Red Lips

Taking a break this week from my Workshop Hell series, because one can hardly call oneself a feminist poet and then proceed to do a blog post on International Women’s Day about pot poems, which I will get to next week, God willing. So, little joiner that I am, here I am with some red lips and some thoughts onwhat else?women and writing.

This year’s awareness gimmick is this red lips thing. I must say I’m not entirely sure how it works. I suppose it might substitute the enthusiasm formerly felt about the pink ribbons, now that the Komen Foundation is disgraced. Whatever one does this day or this month, as Maura Judkis of The Washington Post so aptly puts it, the important thing is to remember that celebration is not the same as activism:
Rock the Lips does not link to the International Women’s Day site nor offer details on the day’s themes and events for this year. Women who participate in Rock the Lips might not be aware of the day’s role in bringing important attention to issues such as gender inequality, education and health care, violence against women and income disparity.

International Women’s Day comes at a particularly telling time in the United States this year, as politics and women’s concerns about reproductive health have collided in the Virginia statehouse, on the campaign trail and among media personalities, such as Rush Limbaugh, who caused outrage with his remarks disparaging Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, prompting advertisers to flee his talk show.

Without more explanation and information about what the day means, people who pose for an Instagram and post their photos on the Rock the Lips site may never learn the substance of the women’s issues being raised.
I’m not about to start some rant about all the things wrong with the world today when it comes to women, don’t worry. For one thing, it would take a heck of a lot more than a single blog post to do that; the recent news coverage of women’s issues is just the proverbial tip of the giant, silent iceberg no one wants to heed. But the half-assed enthusiasm of the red lips campaign and Judkis’s comments have started me thinking about my own silences, how I seem to preface every remark I make about women with some kind of apology. Perhaps red lips, in their boldness, are just what we need, as long as they are speaking, of course.

Recently, on Wom-po (the Women’s Poetry Listserv), R. S. Gwynn posted about his experience teaching The Stepford Wives to graduate students:  Next week I will tell them that their overwhelming rejection of ‘feminist’ (and most of them said that they couldn't embrace it because of all the negative associations it had acquired over the years) was so strong that it forced one person present to be silent. That person was Me! Ha!” I didn’t participate in the thread, but It’s been in the back of my mind ever since. All this time I’ve been arguing that the past decade or so has seen a tremendous silencing of women’s voices, it never occurred to me that I was one of them. I’ve been trapped into thinking I talk too much about women’s issues, that I “turn off” not just male students but female ones as well with my “outdated” views on feminism, and my women-heavy syllabi are inappropriate somehow. I’ve even caught myself questioning my poetrywho’s going to want to publish these poems with their twenty-year-old sensibility? WTF, as they say.

Speaking up is supposed to be hard. If you don’t receive resistance to what you are saying, if you’re not called names behind your back and viewed with suspicion or distaste, then you’ve got nothing to speak up for. Otherwise, it’s par for the course. This whole time I’ve been bemoaning the fact that the environment has become dismissive, intolerant, or even hostile to feminist thought, I should have realized that is all the more reason to push the issue. I don’t need to let the feminist stuff go, or to reduce it to fit the times. To do so would be to participate in this illusion that the battle’s over and we’ve won and all that. On the contrary, we need more discussion, a renewal of feminist thought and feminist watchfulness.

So, in response to Judkis’s question, “How do you plan to recognize International Women’s Day?” this is it. This blog post is my manifesto that I will continue to teach women’s writing and write about women and their issues, and to those who roll their eyes in the classroom, you can kiss my pouty red lips.

I’m looking forward to the papers my students will be turning in on Monday about PPD, post-partum distress, a unit based on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” I began when the whole Komen thing blew up (you can read my original post here). Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about Sylvia Plath, perhaps my favorite feminist poet. It’s odd to call her that; so much of the attention she receives is swallowed up by her suicide and her relationship to Ted Hughes that it’s easy to overlook the fierceness with which she wrote about marriage and womanhood in poems such as “The Applicant”:
But in twenty-five years she'll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk.

It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it's a poultice.
You have an eye, it's an image.
My boy, it's your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.
Might she still be alive if she had been successfully treated for her depression, especially her PPD, which she so clearly felt? Many critics and biographers do not recognize the role PPD played in her suicide, just thirteen months after the birth of her son, Nicholas. Tasha Whitton, for example, says of “Morning Song” that
Instead of analyzing the poem in relationship to Plath's own experiences, a more successful approach is to compare the emotions described by the speaker in "Morning Song" to those expressed generally by new mothers. Modern studies of postpartum depression have shed some light on the frequently unusual reactions of mothers to their children shortly after birth, but at the time that Plath wrote this poem such studies were not common knowledge. The feelings that she captures in this poem are not meant to suggest that the mother dislikes the infant but rather that she is confused by the mechanical quality surrounding it.
In fact, there is nothing “unusual” about PPD; according to Leslie Tam, one of the few specialists in the field of reproductive psychology, as much as 80% of new mothers experience some degree of PPD. What’s innocuously referred to as the “baby blues” can quickly deteriorate into major, life-threatening depression and psychosis, however, especially if the woman has a history of such problems, as Plath did.

I’m not suggesting that we go back in time and save Sylvia Plath, nor that we view all women’s writing as women’s writing. Turning a blind eye, however, to cultural, juridical, political, and even medical shortcomings in our culture when it comes to women is dangerous and costly. The last text we examined in my class on the PPD topic was Sex and the City 2, in which Charlotte has to fly all the way to Abu Dhabi and get drunk before she can admit to her best friend that motherhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She is so intent on pretending that the idyllic motherhood of pink cupcake frosting and Electrolux appliances is the natural consequence of giving birth, that even when her nanny finds her crying her eyes out in the pantry, she still can’t admit that something is wrong. One hundred and twenty years after the publication of “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” we still don’t know how to effectively screen for and treat PPD, a condition that is common, treatable, and potentially deadly.

Plath was a great lover of red. Those of us who love her work remember that great last stanza of “Lady Lazarus,” where she writes “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.”  I leave you with “Tulips,” for obvious reasons.

Sylvia Plath

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to surgeons.

They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.

My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water
Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.
They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.
Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage ——
My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,
My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.

I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
Stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations.
Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley
I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books
Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.
I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.

I didn't want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free ——
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their colour,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.

Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river
Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.
They concentrate my attention, that was happy
Playing and resting without committing itself.

The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salty, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Workshop Hell & How to Get Out of It: The Third Circle

Welcome back to hell, boys and girls! This week’s horror is: The Sudden Accident!  And it’s a doozy. A real favorite of the beginner, The Sudden Accident!  combines all that is most terrible about a bad story: flat, boring characters, an unpredictably predictable plot, and a complete lack of awareness of melodrama, as is attested by its professional use in soaps and movies of the week. What is the appeal of arbitrarily derailing your protagonist’s train into a precipice, pummeling his car with an avalanche of boulders, or fraying the rope that keeps him from falling off the mountain? Truly, we must find out.

The Sudden Accident

Let’s start at the beginning: all accidents are sudden. If we could see one coming, we would avoid it, n’est pas? So the whole idea that “Suddenly, a red Toyota swerved out of nowhere in front of Lacy’s car,” is an effective way of injecting suspense into a story is questionable. In general, “suddenly” is a very bad writing word. 99.999% of the time, it’s followed by a cheesy move. If a car has to swerve in front of Lacy’s, please, just have it do so, since “suddenly” is quite the only way it can happen. Otherwise it might just be someone hoping you have some Grey Poupon.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s consider how these accidents happen. Often, they serve as a deus ex machina. You have written yourself into a corner, and offing or crippling somebody is your only way out. Lacy is torn between two lovers, for example. One is her long-time, beloved, faithful husband, the other a bad-boy transient motorcyclist who makes her feel young again. Instead of allowing Lacy to make the difficult decision, you decide to kill her in a car accident (most likely a sudden one).  This is bad writing, because you are not allowing the theme nor the characters to develop naturally. It’s a fake resolution: Lacy hasn’t decided a thingshe’s just dead.

This one’s pretty easy to fix. First of all, nix the accident. Spend more time thinking about Lacy and her lovers, in other words, about character, theme, and plot development. Let Lacy make the choice, not the runaway car in the other lane. Read more about natural plot development in my earlier post, here.

Another reason for the sudden accident move is similar to the reason for the divorce or death of parents theme, a desire to explore the loss of security involved when a sudden accident occurs. Usually, these stories involve characters who don’t “appreciate” whatever circumstances the accident conveniently divests them of. Lacy, for example, is seriously considering skipping town with the biker, whensuddenlythe car accident leaves her crippled in some way. Horrified by her mangled beauty, the biker hightails it back to Detroit, but the devoted husband takes her home and spoon feeds her through her recovery, helping Lacy to “appreciate” his devotion and “realize” how wrong she was to take him for granted. If your goal is to write chicken soup stories for Lifetime, read no further; that’s perfect. For literary fiction, however, it’s what we call contrived.  It’s still a deus ex machina, and you can fix it in the same way: Lacy must figure out what to do on her own based on her character and circumstances, not on Toyotas and their sudden moves.

I propose, however, that there’s an even more insidious reason why so many beginners’ stories involve sudden accidents: you hate your characters. Yep. Admit it. Why else would you be so compelled to mangle, torture, and kill them? You hate them. They are boring. They exasperate you. They tax you, they heap you. You want them dead, dead! And may God have mercy on their fake little souls. You have become, in short, Anne Sexton’s farmer’s wife. “The Farmer’s Wife” is one of my favorite poems, a seething, scathing cry for help from a woman trapped in an existence so boring death or poetry are the only ways out. You can read the entire poem here, the setup of despair and go-nowhereness that leads to the most brilliant last five lines any poem has ever had:
her young years bungle past
their same marriage bed
and she wishes him cripple, or poet,
or even lonely, or sometimes,
better, my lover, dead.

That’s what you’re feeling, whether you realize it or not, every time your condemn one of your characters to a sudden accident. You just can’t stand Lacy anymore, her simpering, whiny personality, her stupid dilemma between this dude and that. You hate her! So you kill her, or cripple her, anything to end this abysmal story you’d rather die yourself than continue writing. Once Lacy is dead or sort of, she (suddenly) acquires depth. On her deathbed, or her wheelchair, she quite suddenly becomes wise, able to see truths no healthy living person can. You can make friends with her and let her go into the sunset, vindicated, saved. Ahhh.


The sick and the dead are just as stupid or evil as they were when they were fine. Unfortunately, suffering doesn’t always result in the purification of the mind and soul. If Lacy was an idiot when she was fine, no amount of Toyotas can change her into Yoda. That’s the realm of melodrama again, deathbed scenes that feature villains who, suddenly, become victims, elevated by their suffering or impending deaths into deeply philosophical beings who drop pearls of wisdom from their dying lips. No, no, and no.

You can’t rely on swerving Toyotas and falling planes to make your characters interesting. You have to learn to do that carefully, not “suddenly.” If you feel the need to 86 one of your creations, don’t fool yourself into believing you can “suddenly” provide a rescue. What you probably need is a major overhaula reconsidering of the whole thing, from whether these characters are compelling enough to even whether this material is worth writing about. Maybe what needs to die under the Toyota here is the whole story or poem.

If you’re not ready for such a brave decision, consider doing the opposite of what the sudden accident is leading you to do. The character realizes nothing, for example. Lacy’s all mangled in the hospital, the mensch hubby nurses her back to life, and she hates him all the more for it, spits in his face and curses the day she met him, cries herself to sleep every night thinking of the biker who dumped her. It’s still a pretty bad storyno way to get around the artificial device of the accidentbut at least Lacy gains some complexity.

A reversed stereotype is still a stereotype, however, so this is still not a satisfying solution. What you really want, when you reach for the sudden accident, is insight. You’re as incapable of figuring out what to do as Lacy is, and the Toyota helps you just as much as her. Avoid the sudden accident altogether, and think hard about options you might not have considered before: rather than picking between the husband and the biker, Lacy picks neither. Leaves them both and goes back to school to become a rocket scientist or whatever. Let the story sit for a while by itself until you can get some fresh perspective, but don’t succumb to the temptation of the sudden accident.

Another option is, again, to skip the accident, but keep the results. If the accident serves the purpose of making Lacy appreciate the husband she is thinking of leaving, find a way to make that happen naturally. For example, she could come home one day after a particularly sordid encounter with the biker and be strangely comforted by her husband’s quiet companionship. The end. Conversely, biker dumps Lacy, and, instead of coming home and “suddenly appreciating” her devoted hubby, she hates him, hates him for just being there. Don’t have her stab him or anything, just have her sit there on the couch next to him, seething quietly. The end. There may not be mangled body parts strewn along the highway, but you’ll have accomplished a resolution: Lacy moved from being unsure whether she had grown to hate her husband to being pretty darn sure. That’s it, that’s what the story’s about.

Remember, swerving Toyotas, falling planes, and big boulder avalanches might be exciting or even funny, but just for a little while. They’re not human. They don’t feel, or think. They can never hold our interest. Take a lesson from Faulkner:
There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

You can read the rest of the speech here, or you can watch the video below. Or both. Just don’t do it suddenly!

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