Poem of the Week, by Brenda Shaughnessy

The past few weeks I’ve been obsessively reading the Neapolitan novels, by the Italian writer Elana Ferrante. They’re a magnificent trilogy (soon to be a quartet) about a friendship between two girls (who grow into older women by the end of the three novels). Each novel is big and fat and dense and I can’t even explain what, besides the writer’s psychological acuity, makes them so compulsively readable. Finished the second yesterday and immediately walked to Magers & Quinn to buy the third. What do the Ferrante novels have to do with this poem by Brenda Shaughnessy? I can’t explain that either, other than that there’s a stanza in there about mothers and daughters that throws me right into the dark heart of the dark star that makes that kind of love so, so, so whatever it is. Crucial. Essential. Neverending.

I Have a Time Machine, by Brenda Shaughnessy

But unfortunately it can only travel into the future
at a rate of one second per second,which seems slow to the physicists and to the grant
committees and even to me.

But I manage to get there, time after time, to the next
moment and to the next.

Thing is, I can’t turn it off. I keep zipping ahead—
well, not zipping—And if I try

to get out of this time machine, open the latch,
I’ll fall into space, unconscious,

then desiccated! And I’m pretty sure I’m afraid of that.
So I stay inside.

There’s a window, though. It shows the past.
It’s like a television or fish tank

but it’s never live, it’s always over.
The fish swim in backward circles.

Sometimes it’s like a rearview mirror, another chance
to see what I’m leaving behind,

and sometimes like blackout, all that time
wasted sleeping.

Myself age eight, whole head burnt with embarrassment
at having lost a library book.

Myself lurking in a candled corner expecting
to be found charming.

Me holding a rose though I want to put it down
so I can smoke.

Me exploding at my mother who explodes at me
because the explosion

of some dark star all the way back struck hard
at mother’s mother’s mother.

I turn away from the window, anticipating a blow.
I thought I’d find myself

an old woman by now, traveling so light in time.
But I haven’t gotten far at all.

Strange not to be able to pick up the pace as I’d like;
the past is so horribly fast.

​For more information about Brenda Shaughnessy, please click here.
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The Conjuring of “Firefly Hollow”

Firefly Hollow coverMy new novel for children, Firefly Hollow, with its enchanting illustrations by Christopher Denise, has been in the world for one week as of today. Except not really, seeing as it took a good six years to conjure itself.  (This book is evidence that someone born fast, impatient and jumpy can, over many years, learn the art of patience. Lord love a duck, this thing took its own sweet time.)

The final version was written with a little wooden cricket, a poem (Spring and Fall, to a Young Child), and the film adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are” propped next to me on the table. Since I long ago trained myself out of both superstition and muse-invoking rituals, you know it had to be a tough slog.

For the inside scoop on the process, please click here.

I will be touring around this fall, giving readings and doing signings, and I would truly love to meet any of you who can make any of the dates. Here they are so far, and I’ll update as necessary.

Sunday, August 30: The Toadstool Bookstore in Peterborough, NH, signing copies, 10 am-noon

Sat, October 3 – Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, VT, reading and signing, 4:00 PM

Sun, October 4 – Flying Pig Bookstore, Shelburne, VT, time TBA

Mon, October 5 – Flying Pig school events in Shelburne, VT

Sunday, October 11: Copperfield’s Books, Petaluma, CA, reading and signing, 2 PM

Monday, October 12: Books Inc., San Francisco, school events

Tuesday, October 13: Book Passage, San Francisco, reading, 10 AM, and school event, 12:30 pm

Monday, October 19: Anderson’s Bookstore, Chicago, reading and signing, 7:00 PM

Tuesday, October 20: The Bookstall, Chicago, school events, morning and afternoon

Friday, October 23: Whale of a Tale, Los Angeles, school events, morning and afternoon

Saturday, October 24: Southern California Independent Booksellers Association conference, North Hollywood, 6 pm appearance

Sunday, November 1: Westport Public Library, Westport, CT, I’m giving a talk, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer,” to kick off National Novel Writing Month, 2-3 pm

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Poem of the Week, by Denise Levertov

At a dinner party the other night some friends asked why my mother, born and raised in Manhattan, had lived her entire adult life in the rural foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. I told them she had always wanted to live in the country, that she had spent childhood summers at a camp where her mother had a job. Like my mother, I’m both country and city, but when things get too worrisome I recite poems like this one to myself. Which might mean that at some level, country wins out.

A Reward
–  Denise Levertov

Tired and hungry, late in the day, impelled
to leave the house and search for what
might lift me back to what I had fallen away from,
I stood by the shore waiting.
I had walked in the silent woods:
the trees withdrew into their secrets.
Dusk was smoothing breadths of silk
over the lake, watery amethyst fading to gray.
Ducks were clustered in sleeping companies
afloat on their element as I was not
on mine. I turned homeward, unsatisfied.
But after a few steps, I paused, impelled again
to linger, to look North before nightfall-the expanse
of calm, of calming water, last wafts
of rose in the few high clouds.
And was rewarded:
the heron, unseen for weeks, came flying
widewinged toward me, settled
just offshore on his post,
took up his vigil.
If you ask
why this cleared a fog from my spirit,
I have no answer.

For more information on Denise Levertov, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Andrew Marvell

This past week, while working on a new novel, the line “Had we but world enough and time” kept appearing in my head, like subtitles across the bottom of a movie in another language. Because I wasn’t 1) an English major and b) am a dunce (take your choice; #1 is true but #2 is probably more true), I had to look up the line. Then I sat here reading and re-reading the beautiful poem from which it comes. Familiar lines like “But at my back I always hear/Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near,” are now weaving themselves throughout the new novel. Thank you, Mr. lived-and-died-so-long-ago Marvell.

To His Coy Mistress
– Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

For more information on Andrew Marvell, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Jim Daniels

Sometimes, in the kitchen putting together dinner for a bunch of people, it feels like a carefully choreographed dance – stir this time that preheat the oven lay out the ingredients bring this to room temperature put that in the freezer move this pot to the back burner remember the left front doesn’t work scrub the table get out the plates. On and on. You’re moving within a three-foot radius and every movement is tight and controlled. We are all, every one of us, so good at so many things, and we do those things over and over and over. Why are there not more poems by plumbers and welders and daycaregivers and quilters and tree trimmers? So much applause goes to the public and famous and not the short-order cook, when I know that what I’ll remember, and love, and miss when the time comes, is this: the beautiful ordinariness of days.

Short-order Cook
– Jim Daniels

An average joe comes in
and orders thirty cheeseburgers and thirty fries.

I wait for him to pay before I start cooking.
He pays.
He ain’t no average joe.

The grill is just big enough for ten rows of three.
I slap the burgers down
throw two buckets of fries in the deep frier
and they pop pop spit spit…
psss…
The counter girls laugh.
I concentrate.
It is the crucial point-
They are ready for the cheese:
my fingers shake as I tear off slices
toss them on the burgers/fries done/dump/
refill buckets/burgers ready/flip into buns/
beat that melting cheese/wrap burgers in plastic/
into paper bags/fries done/dump/fill thirty bags/
bring them to the counter/wipe sweat on sleeve
and smile at the counter girls.
I puff my chest out and bellow:
“Thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries!”
They look at me funny.
I grab a handful of ice, toss it in my mouth
do a little dance and walk back to the grill.
Pressure, responsibility, success,
thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries.


For more information on Jim Daniels, please click here: here.

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Poem of the Week, by Tom Sleigh

This past week I was at a lake with parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts and children, the grownups piloting boats around for hours on end so the kids could fish or waterski or tube behind it. Endless making of lunches, endless baiting of hooks. Endless how to wakeboard, how to waterski, how to play poker. Endless patience. Thirty years from now, these same future grownups will be hauling a new batch of kids around behind a different boat. I thought about the adults in my own childhood who taught me how to cook, how to sew, how to stack wood, how to tell a story, how to grow a garden. One day your father’s hauling you up the sledding hill on the toboggan, the next your eyes are glazing over as you teach your kids how to play Candyland, the next you’re sitting in a bar with them drinking Guinness. This small-but-huge poem by Tom Sleigh chokes me up when I read it, for so many reasons.

Boomerang

The sidelong whiplash of his arm sent the boomerang
soaring, pushing the sky to the horizon
until the blade just hung there, a black slash on the sun

so far away it seemed not to move at all
before it came whirling back larger and larger:
would it hit him, would he die — and you ducked down,

terrified, clinging to his thigh, its deathspin
slowing as it coptered softly down and he snatched it
from the air. How you loved that rush of fear,

both wanting and not wanting him to feel how hard
you clung, just the same as when he’d float you
weightless across the pond while waves slapped

and shushed and bickered, his breath loud in your ear …
and after he dried you off, he’d lift you onto his shoulders
and help you shove your head through a hole in the sky.

 

For more information on Tom Sleigh,  please click here.

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August 1 Creative Writing Kickstart class!

Greetings, friends, Minnesotans and countrypeople,

There are still openings available in my one-day Creative Writing Kickstart workshop on Saturday morning, August 1 in Uptown Minneapolis. The focus of the Kickstart is writing from life: where you are now, where you were, and points in between. We’ll do several brief writings, discuss some short published works (provided) and talk about various aspects of craft and process –maybe dialogue, maybe tense and point of view, maybe some other things– in terms of what makes great writing great.

The class will be intensive but fun and low-key. It’s designed for writers of ALL abilities, experience levels and genres. If you’re a longtime writer in need of a boost or someone who’s always had an interest in writing but never known how to sit down and get started, join us!

Limited to fifteen. I’d love to see you there. If you’re interested, please email me at alison_mcghee@hotmail.com to reserve a spot.

Date: SATURDAY, AUGUST 1
Time: 9 am-1 pm
Place: 3554 BRYANT AVENUE SOUTH, MINNEAPOLIS, MN 55408. (The Community Gathering Room in Uptown Minneapolis, right on the corner of Bryant and 36th, between Bogart’s Donuts and Gigi’s Cafe.) Parking on-street. Community Room.
Cost: $75, including hand-outs, payable via check, Paypal, or cold hard cash.
Bring: yourself, a pen and a notebook or your quiet laptop. Lots of beverages and tasty treats and sandwiches and salads available at Bogart’s and Gigi’s.

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Poem of the Week, by Galway Kinnell

The other day in my poetry hut, where people sometimes leave little poems as well as taking them away, I found this tiny poem penned out on a piece of scrap paper. Galway Kinnell, who died last year, was one of my favorite poets; I always sort of had a crush on him, based solely on his photo and a few of his poems. The poem below fits my definition of a prayer. Also, how often do you get to say the word “is” three times in a row?

Prayer

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.


For more information on Galway Kinnell, please click here: here.
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Poem of the Week, by Ellery Akers

I love that the Times has started publishing a poem every week in the magazine. This one floated up off the page at me last week. It makes me think of what writer Anne Lamott calls the three essential prayers: Help, Wow, Thanks. That feels about right to me.

The Word That Is a Prayer
– Ellery Akers

One thing you know when you say it:
all over the earth people are saying it with you:
a child blurting it out as the seizures take her,
a woman reciting it on a cot in a hospital.
What if you take a cab through the Tenderloin:
at a street light, a man in a wool cap,
yarn unraveling across his face, knocks at the window;
he says, Please.
By the time you hear what he’s saying,
the light changes, the cab pulls away,
and you don’t go back, though you know
someone just prayed to you the way you pray.
Please: a word so short
it could get lost in the air
as it floats up to God like the feather it is,
knocking and knocking, and finally
falling back to earth as rain,
as pellets of ice, soaking a black branch,
collecting in drains, leaching into the ground,
and you walk in that weather every day.

For more information on Ellery Akers, please click here.

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Portrait of a Friend, Vol. VI: My Beautiful Friend

One Story findMy beautiful friend, I have been thinking about you.

That’s how the letters between you and L almost always begin. Letters, because that’s what they feel like even though they’re written via email. These letters are almost always long, not intentionally, but because there always turns out to be so much to say.

It was the same way –so much to say– the night you and L first got to know each other. This was the second night of seven that you spent at one of those artist colonies that seem like dreams but actually do exist here and there in the world. Your children were tiny at the time, and a week was the longest you could be away from them, so you applied to the only artist colony willing to let artists stay for only a week.

(That week in New England still, whenever you think about it now, feels like a dream. You had a room to sleep in and a dining room to eat in for breakfast and dinner and a cabin in the woods to write in. At lunchtime, an unseen someone silently left a picnic basket for you by the door because you were there to write and not to be disturbed from your writing, something which still blows your mind when you think about it. You took breaks and biked through the woods on winding paths past other cabins –composers, sculptors, painters, musicians, other writers. You were surrounded by art. A trumpet, practicing the same golden phrases over and over. Giant wooden cut-out sculptures of giant people and giant animals, scattered throughout a meadow. A glimpse of a painter through the window of her cabin, standing back and studying her work. A composer, bent over a table jotting those indecipherable-to-you marks onto music staff paper.)

But back to L, and that first conversation. You and she sat at the table long after dinner was over. There was a bottle of red wine, maybe two, and you kept pouring it into each others’ wine glass. The two of you talked and talked and talked. It waNever done before, Mary Olivers one of those conversations where you open up your heart to someone, where you talk about hard things and easy things, where sometimes you’re laughing and sometimes you’re crying.

You knew right away that L was a kindred spirit. The dining room was empty but for the two of you and in your memory it was dark. Maybe there was a candle on the table? L leaned forward and the light glimmered in her beautiful dark red-brown hair and her eyes were an almost unearthly hazel and she kept nodding and everything about her said that she was listening. That she heard you.

She is still that way. Many years have passed since that night, and you rarely see each other in person –you live far from each other, and she has small children now– but time and distance don’t matter.

My beautiful friend, I have been thinking about you.

Some words that come to mind when you picture L:

Fierce.

Brave.

Hugehearted.

Fierce and brave and hugehearted because if L loves someone, there is nothing she will not do for that person. She was like that with her father and her mother as they fought –and that is the right word here, fought– against the cancer that ended up taking them away from her. You are thinking now of a note from L, maybe a year and a half ago now, that ended with what you remember as being these lines: I cannot lose my mother. I can, not, lose, my, mother.

Poetry, Someday originalYou worried when you read them, because you knew how crazy she was about her mother, whom she called Muth, and you had been by her side in the ether when her father died.

He was known as Big T and you loved him even though you never met him because of his Elvis hair and his huge heart and the fact that he worked as a mailman his whole life, a job you have always admired because if you’re a mail carrier, you keep on keeping on, no matter what. But most of all you loved Big T because he adored L with his whole giant heart.

I cannot lose my mother.

It cracked your heart to think of her soldiering on without the two of them, because despite everything bad and wrong that sometimes goes on in families when you’re growing up –and hers was no different from any other family in that regard– Big T and Muth had their daughter’s back. Like L for them, there was nothing they would not have done for her.

But L did lose her mother. You were on a long, long internetless flight when Great Salt Lake #2Muth left the earth, and when you landed and turned on your cell phone, a call from L came in.

“I didn’t want you to see it on Facebook,” she said. “I knew you were flying and I wanted you to hear it from me.”

In the middle of her worst fear, L somehow was thinking of you? That cracked your heart even more. You were sitting by a window in the airport waiting for your next flight, and a girl a few seats down glanced at you with curiosity and sympathy when you started to cry.

L is all those things, fierce and brave and hugehearted, to the core. You have watched her do battle for Big T and Muth and also for her special needs child, whom you have never met in person but who melts your heart with his oceanlike hazel eyes, his solemn face, his searching way in the world.

Once, you saw a photo of him sitting in a fast food restaurant, an enormous smile on his usually-serious face. “A mother-son date,” read the caption. You could imagine it so clearly, L and her little boy out on a date, L leaning across the table intent on him in the way she is intent on everyone she meets and teaches and befriends. Her little boy and her little girl are lucky, with L as their mother.

Once, before L had children, she came out to visit for the weekend. This was right after you had moved into an apartment with your kids. You remember her playing Go Fish with your youngest, who was tiny and hilarious at the time and kept saying “Aw, nuts!” whenever she lost, and how L cracked up each time.

Should she have kids, you remember her asking you. An answerless question, because how can you ever tell someone Yes, you should have kids. Having kids is such a beyond-enormous thing to do that you could only shrug, smile, shake your head in an I Cannot Help You kind of way.

Now her girl curls up beside her to read, and she has that same smile and that same gorgeous dark hair, and you look at the photos and shrug and smile and shake your head. And her boy works his way through a world that, hard though it is for everyone, is so much harder for him, and L is rigKamu's hearts card to meht there with him. Fierce.

Sometimes you hear her voice in your head. It’s such a surprising voice: deep and resonant and powerful. If L had wanted to be a radio star instead of a writer, she could have. When you hear her voice in your head she’s saying something that begins with My beautiful friend, even though she doesn’t say that in real life, only in letters.

My beautiful friend, I have been thinking about you.

You’re glad L chose writing over radio, though, because that means you get to read her books. That first night you became friends you talked about the kind of books you write. Yours were all set in upstate New York back then, in the landscape you grew up in, peopled by imaginary people who felt real to you.

L’s were, and are, wild books about a woman who gave birth to herself, about another who worshiped Elvis, about people who you can’t imagine will feel real until you begin reading her books. And then they do. She is a writer of strange and rare talent, as if she lives partly in a world between the conscious and the subconscious and that’s where her books are written. The woman can take a moon pie and a lake and a girl with blue skin and string them together into a metaphor that, against all logic, not only holds but holds a whole world of secrets and grief and love and redemption.

L is on your mind much these days, maybe because you’re partway through her latest novel. That would be the logical explanation, but it doesn’t feel accurate because kindred spirit friendships, like L’s novels, transcend logic. You’re weeding your flowers when suddenly LBook bed‘s wide grin appears in your head and then moments later an email or text or Facebook comment from her pings into your phone. It’s a friendship that operates on an invisible frequency.

Once, many years ago, you and L met up at a conference in New Orleans. You remember little of the conference but everything about the six hours the two of you sat at a second-story balcony in the French Quarter, drinking and eating and talking. People on the street below kept throwing strings of beads up to you even though you both kept your shirts on. Music was everywhere and you remember laughing and laughing for the first time in a long time.

No matter what is going on in her life or yours, L always makes you feel better. The simple fact of her presence.

Once, a few years ago, you met L at Eataly in New York. Big T was gone but Muth was still alive and healthy. L appeared from the train on a winter night, her beautiful dark hair glistening with melting snow, and you flung yourselves into a hug. Wine and antipasti and more wine and then pasta and talk talk talk. At one point you said to her, “I just want to keep being alive! I love being alive!” and she laughed that big laugh of hers.

Not long ago, she reminded you of that night. “Remember that night at Eataly? When you said you just wanted to be alive?”

Yes. You remember. Nothing has changed. You do just want to be alive, as long as you can be alive with people like her.

Blue man group reject

 

 

 

 

 

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