Friday, November 29, 2013

Note to self

OK, so maybe I should have thought more about it: walking up the .8-mile gravel road with 800 feet elevation gain to then ride on the gravel to the intersection of State Road and Dry Creek, and then to head down the 6-mile hill to Mosier to do a ride which would eventually end in Hood River at a bagel shop to meet a friend for a mid-morning bagel... I didn't really think about the cold, 24 degrees, or the fog, or how the fog would freeze on the pavement, or how my new bike is so fast and before I know it, goes 40mph, and how wind adds to cold, and before I know it, I can't feel my feet or hands even though I'm trying to use the brakes and I unclip my shoes and almost drag them in front of me in case I slip on the icy pavement, in case I can keep myself from falling...

I'm not sure why I keep doing these things to myself. Isn't there a definition of madness I should be wary of...? I kept thinking that the uphills would warm me, that the sun would emerge from the hills and low clouds, that the famous Gorge winds would start up, even a little, and blow the fog away. At Rowena Crest lookout, I noticed my water in my Camelback was frozen. THAT meant cold. No one was there so no one wondered about this 6-foot crazy woman flapping and flailing her arms in a vain attempt to resurrect her fingers... I was too cold to text Cheryl.
Rowena Crest Loop in snow, not today

Down the hill I went to scramble to Mosier. Five or six deer stared at me when I stopped again to flail and use centripetal force to get blood to my hands. They stared. They didn't run. In the grocery store in Mosier the kind shopkeepers let me stand in the doorway and warm myself. The uphill to the twin tunnel trail helped warm me a bit, and I made it to Hood River and the bagel place. But there wasn't any hot water in the bathroom, Cheryl ordered me a bagel and hot coffee and hot water in a mug, and after 20 minutes I warmed up.

My fingers are swollen as I type this. And from where I sit, I can see Mt. Adams with a lenticular cloud on its top, and sometimes you just have to get out there, no matter how painful. Sometimes you have to start out without thinking of what's ahead or the dangers or the discomfort. Riding's like that sometimes.

So's writing. I don't know where it will take me or how it will freeze me or make me realize how cold I can be or how kind others can be. Those visceral sensations are part of the journey, part of the risk of throwing your body on the path. You might fail. You might get hurt. And you just might learn something about water and fog and ice and forgiveness.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What we hate but do

My mother hated roses, but she kept them. Red ones. In summer mugginess, she entered the cool garage through the side door, tugged on one green gardening glove, then the other, and with her shears, returned to the roses on their spindly stalks. With thorns the size of baby toes, every time she pruned, she pricked herself bloody. "Cut at the 5," she said to me on mornings I followed her, the leaf pattern changing down the stalk from 3 to 5. “That’s where they grow.”

My mother would have hated what I’ve published lately, but she would have read it. The poetry and prose I’m writing now feels like cutting roses at the 5-leaf stalks.

The poetry I’m honored to have published in Elohi Gadugi’s special issue on Home(less) try to make people and moments unforgettable. And the prose that I can’t believe is appearing in The Rumpus (All the Longing in the Body) uses a moment in a drive to Pendleton last fall to look at death and disability and love and moments that reveal loyalty and playfulness and devotion.

Lately I’m writing about things that cut us, that make us grow, that show us that the impulse to write comes from the complicated, loving messages we get, and we are obliged to write what even our mothers would hate but would love us for writing.

Monday, April 29, 2013

good news: novel to be published!

This month in Mosier has put my bones back in. The rain on Sunday, the gentle knocking, is the loudest thing on our five acres in the hills overlooking the Gorge. Besides the hollow trill of Warblers. Yesterday I wrote in my journal and read while tending a burn pile to get rid of the "fuel," the stumps and windfall, that might feed a wildfire during the dry season. And I planted trees. The day before I rode my bike through hillsides covered with Balsam Arrowroot
and Lilacs and goats, and I startled deer, horses, a squirrel rolling in the sand, and a Gray Racer, slithering across the road. And I never felt alone. (Cheryl is away on a training gig.)

Writing can feel lonely sometimes, but for me, the solitude is the key ingredient, the quiet. When I carve out the time to focus on gears shifting on a bike, or word choice, like "mud clotted with rocks in root balls," not "mud clods and rocks stuck..." in a poem about the burn pile, the space opens in me for connection. That attention to the present allows creativity, gratitude, hope, pain, forgiveness to align like bones.

In that space to create over the past ten years, a story moved through me. At the pinewood table with Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose and so many other brave writers years ago, I walked into fiction. With many different people since then, I've connected those words, felt the healing process of writing about the trauma of my first year of teaching, a year in a boarding school in Delaware, that was so difficult it sent me running away from the East Coast, leaving everything behind.

Writing this novel with different groups of people, with readers who were kind and direct, like Hannah Tinti, Minton Sparks, Jackie Shannon-Hollis, Cecily Portman, sending it out to agents and publishers for their comments and rejection, reading it page-by-page to a group of dear friends last summer, rewriting it last fall, obeying Cheryl's commands to "go write," has taught me about endurance and faith and luck. Writing fiction for publication is a long-distance event. People make it possible. I'm the one who has to put in the miles, do the hills.

Forest Avenue Press, the brain child of Laura Stanfill, is going to publish that novel, Skin Drag. If ever there were a book written by a community, this is it. So many people helped to write it. While I may have sought solitude to connect words to the page, I was never lonely. And writing it helped me heal the utter loneliness of the real events buried in the fiction.

Thank you, writers, friends, readers, agents, publishers, Laura (you can read her press release here). Thanks for your faith. Skin Drag will be something for your hands to hold in September, 2014.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Louder Than a Bomb

"It's not the points, it's the poetry" spins in my head as I ride through Rowena, ride through The Dalles, and head up Sevenmile Hill Road, the back way. The line comes from Louder Than a Bomb, the video about the annual high school slam competition in Chicago. I've never heard/seen anything like those poets, those teachers, those metaphors. And at the end of the documentary, the team, that [spoiler alert] didn't continue in the competition  due to .1 point, realizes that indeed, the poetry matters most of all. Their poetry is crazy loud, crazy good.

So often on a bike ride, my obsession with numbers, the miles traveled, the speed, the time, keep my eyes on my monitor. Today was one of those days when folly is a mirror. Today was the first big ride for me, and my route was ambitious. Over 2,000 ft elevation gain in the last 2 miles. I checked the wind, and I knew there would be plenty.

Didn't figure 17mph headwind, and gusts over 27mph. Didn't figure 38 degrees. The force of the wind was too much for my speed of 3.7mph up the steepest parts of the hill. Physics ruled, and my bike stopped. Around a switchback, on my one earbud I heard Destiny's Child sing, "I'm a survivor." It cheered me up, and I was gaining speed until I switched back, perpendicular to the wind, and the wind almost knocked me off the pavement. Without guard rails, the wind might have knocked me off the mountain. So, I walked and rode and cursed and made it to the summit.

What triumph I had today over numbers and numbness is folly compared with what the young people in the video accomplished every day. In their teenage years, they are better poets than I ever will be. Their metaphors punch. Their grasp of history and popular culture and their family layers their performances with truth; they turn truth into minor chords. The audience feels the truth in the chest.

Once I had the good fortune of interviewing David Wagoner, a poet-god whose poems turn birds into  songs. We talked about the new medium of slam, and he acknowledge that slam poetry gave rise to underrepresented voices. But he feared that the poems were not lasting because of the reliance on sound alone. The interview was twenty years ago, and he hadn't heard:

Adam Gottleib, Breathe Now or Maxwell Street
Nova Venerable, Cody
Lamar Jorden, Shooter

Their poems have pitch perfect sound, depth, the staying power of words that cut, that open up holes in the listener. What I'm saying is that there are tests worth taking, on stage, on paper, on a bike. Writing has an edge, and the edge is what helps move experience, move culture, make judgments like Wagoner's moot. Louder than a Bomb is a movement.

Do we have the movement in Portland? We have Verselandia, in its second year. Want to hear what's raw and sweet and so loud it breaks? Let's all go, and then, we'll know to forget numbers, to look up at a summit, to honor poetry more than points.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

the love of a writing community

This morning, the sheen on the street is shiny gray, and the clouds are as thin as veils. What moves through me like those clouds is news of a friend with lymphoma. He's an athlete, a writer, someone who waits at the end of a reading and approaches you and says the thing you hoped someone would hear and say out loud.

In the Q & A portion of the Brave on the Page reading at Powell's in early January, someone asked if a writer should join a group. One audience member felt writing groups were a waist of time. Some are. Some break poems over their knees for the sheer pleasure of breaking. Some whitewash the pain out of stories. But then, there's the one or two that fit, like cashmere sweaters just the right size. They're hard to find. They're hard to create.

Here's a profile of one of the groups that tastes like sweet corn soup on a February day:

--the Dangerous Writers in Portland began with a few charismatic leaders, bent on bending rules, indoctrinating eager, vulnerable writers with a new vocabulary and new rules.

--the members were ferociously dedicated, meeting each week, and making sacrifices to be there (some folks spent so much time writing to make the weekly page count that they didn't eat enough, didn't meet daily obligations.)

--the responses in the group to writing were stars drawn over words doing their work, spicy and seductive, with discussion of the "bumps," so gently put and so honest that the writer felt powerful enough to gather feedback, to ignore feedback, and to keep rolling down the lane with feedback as a bumper.

--the group socialized outside of writing time, with invitations sent to everyone in the group.

--to change things up, there were annual parties and annual writing challenges.

--sporadically, news of publications and honors went out, with each person published willing to share his/her connections or queries or websites or process.

--people showed up, for each other, for readings and weddings and hospital visits.

--resources like agents and web skills and toboggans were shared.

--rules about how to write fiction (first person, personal, etc.) that the group started with changed as the group opened up and changed tables and grew, and the writing opened up and grew.

And what's grown is a community, one connected by email and Evite and fireworks in Estacada. We don't all write together around the same tables. We don't write the same things. We don't live in the same place. Even someone who has moved to San Francisco, who has just received news that he has lymphoma, can reach out and ask the dangerous writing community for book recommendations, can ask for laughter and for a 57-word flash fiction piece that includes a word from his chemo regimen. And he will get books and writing and love. It's that kind of group. It's that kind of love.

Friday, February 1, 2013


Middle English retret, from Anglo-French retrait, from past participle of retraire to withdraw, from Latin retrahere, from re- + trahere to draw. First Known Use: 14th century.
1 a (1) : an act or process of withdrawing especially from what is difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable (2) : the process of receding from a position or state attained retreat
of a glacier>
b (1) : the usually forced withdrawal of troops from an enemy or from an advanced position (2) : a signal for retreating
c (1) : a signal given by bugle at the beginning of a military flag-lowering ceremony (2) : a military flag-lowering ceremony
2: a place of privacy or safety : refuge
3: a period of group withdrawal for prayer, meditation, study, or instruction under a director

January was a l-o-n-g month, but there were moments of retreat. There is so much "treat" in retreat. What great pleasure. While the root is in "draw" as in "move away," I'd like to think of it as the artistic kind, to draw an image of what's core, what's in your heart. There's also the time and space to draw out creativity, to conjure the demons and the dreams. A retreat is whatever you need it to be.
Cecily & J in cool hats
One weekend Cecily Portman and Joanna Rose spent the weekend with me in Mosier. Good wine and cheese and cupcakes were as much part of the retreat as writing in the corner of the house we claimed, as walking in the crisp air, as spinning circles under the constellations, pointing and pretending to know their names. 
Linda and me
And the next weekend I spent with Linda Vogt, my pal from CCC, the woundrous Journalism instructor emeritus. She's working on a mystery novel, which she's generously sharing with her pals. While the meals were not gourmet without Ms. Cecily and Ms. J around, we had enough coffee and chocolate to get us through. While we were there, we were totally withdrawn from the world, in a frozen fog, for day after day. We barely saw the Columbia River Valley, and didn't even hope to see the icicles of Mt. Adams and Hood. Rafi had a great time, too. 
Whoever you are, I wish you the ability to find a retreat, a place to breathe, create, do whatever you need to do.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Stafford birthday

New years bring stacks of resolutions, the climb toward light, taxes, reflections on civil rights, toppled resolutions, and more. Lucky for us in Oregon (and some others around the world) we celebrate social justice and equality and crystal imagery every year through William Stafford. January marks  a migration. His poems are a flock landing every year. Or maybe I'm the one that gets to fly into his poems and feed seasonally.

If you haven't been to a Stafford reading, you should go. What happens is that 3-4 people get up and read one of his and one of theirs, often in response to his, and then, the audience is invited to read one of his. Oh, the poems are gentle and accessible and poignant. What happens is that everyone in the room realizes he or she is a poet, he or she is gifted with the ability to set down in words some impression, some insight, some flash. Everyone is able and invited to write.

Here is a list of all the readings in the metro area. Click HERE.

I'd like to invite you to two of them in which I am involved:

Wednesday, January 16, 6 to 8pm
Clackamas Community College
19600 Molalla Ave.
Oregon City, OR 97040
Roger Rook Hall 220


Sunday, January 27th, 1:30 pm,
Molalla Public Library, 201 E. 5th St., Molalla, Oregon.
Hosted: by Larry Anderson and Kate Gray. Sponsored by the Molalla Writers Group.
Featuring: Larry Anderson, Brian Biggs, Maureen Cole, Kate Gray, Carol Hausholder, Steve Slemenda, and Esther Wood, who will read Stafford and Stafford-related poems followed by reader/audience discussion of his work, life, stories, anything else of pertinence. Guests are warmly invited to read their own work and/or related poems. Those not interested in reading poems may sit back and enjoy! The film, “Traveling in the Dark” will be shown, with a short discussion to follow.
Contact: Kate Gray.

Stafford invites everyone to write. I do, too.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Brave at Powell's

Being the first one to read in a line-up of powerful, kind writers means being the first  to sit back down, being able to enjoy the rest of the evening after the adrenaline flushes. The reading last Monday night at Powell's was electric. The place was packed as you can see in the photo.

Laura Stanfill, editor of Brave on the Page and founder of Forest Avenue Press, is a force for writing in Portland. She is sweet-sweet, like the taste of a lilac blossom, and strong, like rivers. She brought 42 Oregon authors together in one anthology of interviews and "flash essays" about the craft of writing, and the books are print-on-demand through Powell's mini press, called the Espresso Book Machine, which prints a book while you wait. It's pretty cool.

You can see how many people (150+) came on a drippy Monday night. You can see the rapt attention. What you can't see is the love in the room. Laura's introductions for each of the writers set the tone. She called Gina Ochsner her literary hero. She described her devotion and relationship with each of us in such a tender way that a yellow brick road became our path to the podium. And each writer who spoke or read offered really specific and loving tips for writing.

One person who offers practical, winsome advice is Yuvi Zalkow. His video series on writing is painfully poignant. There are few voices in the world as compelling as his. Scott Sparling, whom Joanna Rose also hosted on the panel about writing, is a generous and kind craftsman. He spoke about not liking his characters, the challenge of crawling into personalities so unlike his own.

Two things I heard, in particular, are still rumbling inside me. Joanna Rose talked about the difference between fact and truth, which Kristy Athens illustrated by saying something about small towns, which I can't quite remember, like most of the population of Oregon lives in small towns, but truth is that small towns do not thrive. Fact is the writers spoke about the craft of writing; truth is the writers talked about how to live a writer's life, how to survive.

me, Robert Hill, Kristy Athens, Tom Bell, Gigi Little, Scott Sparling, and graphic novel in background, thanks to Julia Stoops for the photo

Another was the image Gina Ochsner created in her piece, "Cynicism," in the book. She described her son being pinned in a wrestling match, how the dominant wrestler became a blanket on top of her son, how the coach yelled, "Great position. Now look up, stand up, let him slide off you," something like that. What love from an incredible coach. What an incredible way to approach cynicism, approach the crushing weight of doubt.

Writing is such a lonely act, and people like Laura create community. Writers who are brave and speak about doubt and despair and triumph in real and specific terms grant us permission to risk in writing, to love in all its mess and mystery.