Thursday, January 22, 2015

Into the Woods and the Art of Playwriting

I don't usually write movie reviews, mainly because I rarely go to the movies. Since I bought a big screen television and an Apple box and can watch films at home, I now decide whether to see movies in the theater by how much I want their sights and sounds to overwhelm me. As soon as I heard there was going to at last be a movie of Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece musical Into the Woods, I realized I would have to forgo the ability to put a movie on pause, eat my own snacks, and watch in my pajamas at any hour, in order to see this on the big screen.

I was ready to fall in love, based on comments by fellow Sondheim fanatics, and I wasn't disappointed. It was unbelievably good and transporting. Director Rob Marshall created the perfect cast, made the brilliant decision to hire the playwright of the original, James Lapine, and to ask Sondheim to consult on the production. Since he had to shorten the play to fit an acceptable movie length, he had a challenge that most directors sensitive to a major work of art would have found daunting. What to cut? Fortunately, the original creators, being part of the team, were ready to assist and even rewrite.

Can you imagine George Bernard Shaw revising his masterpieces for film? In fact, director Gabriel Pascal persuaded him to do just that, notably on Caesar and Cleopatra and Pygmalion. Caesar and Cleopatra came out looking more like a play than a film, but film was less cinematic in 1945. And film is such a different medium than stage.

While one may inspire another, they can't use the same scripts. I've been lucky enough to write some plays that were performed and videotaped. When I look at the videos, I realize how different are these media. The best-captured stage play wilts under the camera. It's the immediacy of actors right in front of you that makes a play -- especially a musical -- more exciting than a film, or exciting in a different way.

Into the Woods the film somehow transcends the distinction. Maybe it's because the play is so vital and alive, the songs and music so compelling and interwoven into the classic fairytale stories that have been co-opted to the revelation of more subtle and larger truths, but this movie made me feel I was in the front row at the most marvelous staging of the play ever.

Of course, Meryl Streep had a lot to do with it, with her portrayal of the most touching and complex Witch and mother ever. The staging of the hilarious song "Agony," with the two Prince Charmings splashing around in a mountain stream while vying to be the most agonized lover, also did it.

So I came home and watched videos of Sondheim and Lapine revealing how the show was created, and also how they worked on the movie. Then I reread Sondheim's marvelous books. I'm steeped in craft discussions, but it's the songs running through my head like that stream full of agonized princes that makes me know I've seen a masterpiece film of a masterpiece play.

The play begins and ends with the thematic phrase "I wish." Sondheim's Sweeney Todd has been made into a movie. I wish Rob Marshall or someone would next bring to film my favorite Sondheim: Sunday in the Park with George. But as Into the Woods tells us, "Be careful what you wish for." Because wishes come true and then you live with the consequences. For example, I always wished to be a writer ...

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Promoting tolerance, one writer at a time

It seems like a good time to consider tolerance and all its meanings, especially for those of us who write and can give voice to the need for it. The dictionary defines tolerance as: "willingness to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own." I think the key word here is "willingness" -- an open mind.

Last year I joined the staff of Tiferet, a journal founded on the principle of tolerance and compassion. Tiferet brings together writers who promote tolerance. Founder Donna Baier Stein, who named the journal, says the Hebrew word Tiferet means “heart, compassion, and a reconciliation of opposites.” Today more than ever, seeming opposites must learn to come together.

Through a quarterly literary journal, monthly radio interviews, and global community of writers Tiferet brings divergent faiths and beliefs together. inspiring us to create, exchange, and grow.

And in 2015, happily, Tiferet's community and projects are also growing. Tiferet needs to raise $10,000 for another vibrant year of publishing, interviewing, community-building, and more. Hopefully, Tiferet's Indiegogo campaign -- to concludeon February 19 -- will push forward and raise much-needed support.

And hopefully, you can help! Here's a link to learn more:

Tiferet's Indiegogo Campaign - Donations due by Feb. 19

Monday, December 29, 2014

Back to Italy for a week -- while revising my novel

I don't want to finish revising my novel, The Renaissance Club, because then I will have to leave the Italy in my mind. Unless I can conjure up another Italy-centered project or a plane ticket, it's my best form of travel these days, the armchair, or should I say deskchair variety of touring. And there are only two distant places I've ever visited: India and Italy. Of the two, it's more comfortable by far to revisit Italy, though India (twice) had its dramatic or intimately sacred moments and was life-altering. But to see up close the works of Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael, and Bernini, and all the other unbelievably numerous Renaissance and Baroque masters, is not only life-altering, but changes any artist or writer. You can see how it affected so many Romantic poets.

 Italy made me aware of art's effects, how it can change the way you see life and its possibilities. Venturing into a radical new place changes you in a way you never could change while staying within your familiar landscape. Any new place changes you, I think, even if it's a truck stop on a desolate highway; but one that is created by an artist can impress more deeply. It can make you more aware of the beauty that nestles within every object and form. That's how Italy made me feel: that a place of total beauty is possible. And that made me think about how beauty is really at the center of life, not the periphery. It's not a mere cosmetic attribute, but a living truth of physical being. Renaissance Italy is the embodiment of the idea that the human form is perfect and divine, irrespective of its apparent individual imperfections. Italy made me feel it could be possible to live inside beauty and to become it. It made me want to write more perfectly and to really look at the world around me, soak up every divine detail of it and be sure I really see where I am.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Good blog reading for writers this week

I've been reading around some of my favorite blogs, from Indiana Review's blog on Five Marks of Oft-Rejected Poems, to Erica Goss at Sticks and Stones writing about the Open Mic Experience (both reader and audience sides). One of the things I LOVE doing as a writer is reading what other writers have to say about their process -- whether it's writing, revising, publishing, reading, promoting, or reading. And this holiday season seems to bring out good reading and writing. Even ideas for gift giving, such as Kelli Russell Agodon's week-long blog posts about Gifts to Give Writers and Readers (the link is to the post that includes The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems, which is on my holiday wish-list). And the always inspiring Blogalicious by Diane Lockward has an article for poets on how to use prompts -- a topic on which Diane is an expert, not only by virtue of her wonderful Poetry Newsletter, but her complex and fascinating book on writing from prompts, The Crafty Poet. It's a season that makes me want to read more, and of course, want to buy more books!

Monday, December 15, 2014

My poem "Better Angel" Appearing at Antiphon

I'm delighted to have a new poem, "Better Angel," up in the current issue of Antiphon, an online literary journal based in England. Described as "providing a showcase for the best in contemporary British and international poetry," Antiphon presents its issues in four "acts" -- a dramatic conceit I find engaging, as a playwright. The idea that each issue builds a story, reaches a climax, and has a conclusion is satisfying to me.

Also satisfying to me is the concept of an international English-language journal. More and more, we write as one world and understand each other, though our versions of English may vary a bit, as poets. Antiphon's archive provides a trove of great reading from poets writing in English from everywhere, and all issues free.

This great journal is edited by Rosemary Badcoe, moderator of the on-line poetry forum Poets' Graves and also an editor of Matter magazine, and by Noel Williams, who is also Associate Editor of the poetry magazine Orbis.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Poetry & Prose -- a Discount for the Holidays!

Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, and Christmas share a common theme: divine Light. When the short days and winter weather keep us more indoors, it's natural to turn within more too. Poetry is such a joy at this enclosed season! I have a wonderful stack of books on my table from recent readings and friends' publications. I've so far spent two solid days just reading -- what a real writer's treat.

For holiday gift giving (through December 31), I'm offering you and your giftees my book, Gods of Water and Air, at a discount from Amazon's discounted price -- just $11 for 130 pages of poetry and prose on art and ballet, growing up a rocket kid, breaking away, relationships, nursing a parent with dementia, and finding the Light in daily life and hardships.

If you'd like a copy at this newly low price, email me:! I wish you happy and peaceful, Light-bright holidays. Here's a poem from the book:

As Yearning Is Red

Sudden as a hat is ripped away
by the wind, he was over my head.
Long, black legs scissored together
as he plowed the seamless sky
with a beak like a boat’s prow.
His wings rowed lazily.

There’s little reason to look up
when I walk. I passed as he paused
to float on a thermal.
I was heading downhill
and he was gliding
down to the creek.
We were nearly eye level.
I had a precarious feeling,
as if my marching feet
had risen off the ground.

His wings rippled several times
as he held onto the wind.
They rippled again:
a lace bedspread shaken out.
He was white as yearning
is red and still as night’s
first sip of moon.

Then the luminous being was gone,
leaving me ruffled and aired,
forever feathered,
able to lift
on the beat of a breath.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

I Have a City of Gratitude on My Head

I am very grateful for a writing life. The city of gratitude for poetry and poets on my head is bigger than the Beach Blanket Babylon lady's San Francisco hat. Like the BBB hat lady, I mentally wear a city of poets, writers, and literary projects for whose support and connection I'm immensely grateful. This year, I'm especially grateful to:

* John Amen and The Pedestal Magazine & Ann Wehrman's review of my book, Gods of Water and Air.
* Ami Kaye and the staff of Pirene's Fountain -- very excited to get the new issue containing a lot of fantastic poetry and my two poems based on Motown songs.
* Dan Veach and The Atlanta Review -- I had a real homecoming experience in the launch reading held in Berkeley (Part 2 of the video coming soon!) on November 23 for the new issue. Being invited to read my poem published in a past issue put me among a stellar group of poets I'm so happy and grateful to have met.

Thanks to editors of Halfway Down the Stairs, Ithacalit, The Same, Valparaiso Poetry Review, where my poetry and prose appeared in the last 12 months or so. And to editors at Prairie Schooner, Verse Wisconsin, Crab Creek Review, Blue Fifth Review, and so many others who have selected my work in the past.

My city of gratitude is so big it requires helpers to hold prop up on top of my head!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Reading for Atlanta Review in Berkeley this Sun. Nov. 23

I'm very excited about participating in a launch reading this coming Sunday for the new issue of Atlanta Review, published and edited by Dan Veach, poet, editor, author of Elephant Water, musician/composer, and orchid grower extraordinaire. We will read from the new issue, as well as from past issues. I'm reading my AR poem, "Ode to My Purse."

Who knew that so many AR poets lived in the Bay Area! I guess poet Kathleen McClung had an idea, as she conceived of the reading and found Dan willing to come all this way, and then she generously made the arrangements. Once the ball was rolling, more AR alums turned out to be nearby. There will be refreshments, as well as the great refreshment of wonderful poetry.

Here are the particulars -- please join us if you can!

POETRY READING   Sunday, November 23, 2014  3:00--5:00 p.m.
Fellowship Hall, Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian-Universalists
1924 Cedar Street (corner of Bonita),  Berkeley, CA

If you don't know Atlanta Review, here's why you should -- from the journal's website:

ATLANTA REVIEW is an international poetry journal devoted to bringing surprise, wonder and delight to readers around the world. Its unique blend of quality and human appeal have made it one of the world’s best-selling poetry journals. Here you’ll find Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners galore, but also poems that touch the deepest feelings of the writer and the reader. Atlanta Review is a haven for our common humanity, the things that unite us across the boundaries of nation, race, and religion. It is a voice we need more urgently than ever in today’s world. Every Spring Issue of Atlanta Review includes an International Feature with poets from a different country or continent. Each Fall Issue includes at least 20 Publication Prize winners from our International Poetry Competition.


Sunday, November 09, 2014

How to stay sane as a writer

That's perennial question, along with its corollary: Should writers be sane? Or is crazy really better for the work. If there's one thing that drives every writer and poet I know crazy it's the topic of publishing. Publishing is like hunting dragons -- you're not even sure they exist, you know you need some magical arrow that's not in your quiver, and really you don't have a killer's heart. Especially the poets. It's such a contradiction to be the introvert who grew up turning inward, turning to the page, and be expected to do things like:

* Give readings
* Build an author platform (my brother the musician built himself a backyard stage -- I wish building my platform were that easy!)
* Doing (getting) interviews
* Contributing to the writing community by giving of your (nonexistent) time and energy

And all the other recommended author stuff. Having just completed a final-ish draft of my novel, I again read all the books and articles. They all say: Become an extrovert! Reading these lists, I feel slightly overwhelmed. I just want to stay here on my deck, ignoring the beautiful view of trees waving their branches in a soft breeze, ignoring the birdsong that spills out like Mozart improvising, and write words that take me into my own imagined world, where I imagine being a lot of people I'm not. How crazy is that.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

A Saturday Morning Poetry Habit

I've developed habits. Some are not so good, like eating bites of dark chocolate in bed late at night. My white duvet covers are evidence of why this is not a good habit. Other habits are useful, though. Reading, writing, revising, and submitting poems every Saturday morning turns out to be an excellent habit. I have Saturdays to myself and being home alone seems to agree with my Muse. The minute I hear the door shut I get whims, ideas, even some days epiphanies.

Habits have tremendous power, as do thoughts. I like this comment on the power of habits:
Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words. Keep your words positive because your words become your behaviors. Keep your behaviors positive because your behaviors become your habits. Keep your habits positive because your habits become your values. Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.
                                          – Mahatma Gandhi

I've deliberately formed this Saturday morning writing habit, which fell out of a whim, which became a thought, which turned into a behavior, which has now become a habit. Even though I'm writing a novel -- which is like trying to eat your way through a mountain, a ridiculously huge undertaking and one that makes you constantly ask yourself what possessed you to start -- I can't let poetry fall out of my life. If I do, I have discovered, I can't write all the other things I'm supposed to write in my working and creative life. The juice just isn't there. So, Saturday morning.

It's not much, it might not be enough some weeks, and yet I never find on Saturday morning that I am out of ideas. The power of habit seems to unlock the door of imagination as well.

A habit, once formed, can be difficult to break. That's power! Maybe I should just buy a chocolate-colored duvet.