Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Tales of Weird Families & Other Quirky Groups of Humans

My interest in this kind of story could be defined as obsessive. What can be more obsessive than something you've lost or something you feel you never completely had? Novels about families and other groups fascinate me because my family never quite cohered and split apart pretty fast. So I read to replace it with a better family, though my secret wish is to see that all families or groups of closely connected people have the visceral conflicts and the unique quirks mine did -- to see that whole panoply of psychological oddity that really is, in my view, the human condition. Perhaps growing up with my parents gave me that idea: a bipolar rocket scientist and painter for a father, and a mother whose idea of fun was to see what lay down any forsaken dirt road, especially if it led to a beach. And those were the pleasant qualities. The darker stuff was equally bizarre and led me to contemplate the labyrinth of light and dark we each are.

So when I began to write my time-travel novel, The Renaissance Club, knowing it would be set in northern Italy and involve an art history tour, I couldn't resist populating it with quirky people. Is there really any other kind? I've been in search of a "normal" family life all my life, and have rarely observed one. When I did, it was so abnormal I suspected it for being a sham, as was the family of my best friend in junior high. All plaid, cheerleading perfection on the surface, roiling weirdness under the table manners.


After such a childhood, it's no wonder I fell in love with naturalist Gerald Durrell's marvelous My Family and Other Animals, as animals in menagerie quantity have played a part in my family life too. Or Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle (read it!). There's a quirky family embodied as Dorothy's companions in The Wizard of Oz. That series became my childhood reading, writing, and collecting passion. I still have the cloth bound editions with John R. Neill's wonderful  illustrations.

After conferring with a college teacher about the politics within a community college, I decided to set as my quirky family group in Italy a bunch of college instructors. The dean is Dad, his wife the mom who really doesn't take care of anybody, and the professors just so many siblings squashed into an uncomfortable though sometimes dazzling road trip. And having lived in a communal house or two in Berkeley in the 60s, I feel qualified to translate family and housemates (or work mates) back and forth, as different categories quirky family. One day I will write about those large cottage-like group living houses in Berkeley, and the odd birds who inhabited them, bringing their even odder friends to dinner, or to dinner for a week at a time.

Friday, February 06, 2015

New poems published, new ideas cooking

I'm having a happy poet week! That's the one in which you have two poems floating around out there in front of reading eyes (presumably), and you feel the wind under your wings to carry you to some new ideas.

Autumn Sky Poetry Daily has today posted my poem, "Prayers for Everywhere." This is the last poem in my book Gods of Water and Air. I put it in that position because I feel a poetry book needs a conclusion that speaks to its unity, and for this collection of memoir poems and essays, a benediction of prayers of praising common things seemed just right. My working class port hometown of San Pedro figures prominently in the book, and I think it was there that I learned to pay close attention (which itself is a form of prayer, I think) to all sorts of lowly objects and beings. Snails crossing the lawn, worms washed out on the road, the little red pods the pepper trees dropped, the kelp whose pods you could pop and see a little gush of seawater. My childhood was full of these and many other textures, and nothing grand except the ocean. So prayers for all these small places and daily objects.

Tiferet Journal just published in their January digital edition my new poem, "The Map of Light." I've been associated with Tiferet for more than a year, through by publishing poetry and also helping to raise funds in support of this wonderful organization, which is dedicated to "heart, compassion, and the reconciliation of opposites." I think our world needs a little more compassion. Maybe a lot more. I hope my poem is a map that fits into that mission.

New publications always send me back to the drawing board. I've been pulling out poem drafts from 2014 and looking at them with an editorial eye. Right now, I'm working on a possible new collection, but sidling up to it, not rushing. I have dedicated 2015 to getting my new novel, The Renaissance Club, out into the world. And then of course once you launch the newest thing, you have to make sure it stays afloat. But poetry isn't an occupation for me, it's a necessity. So I will keep wading into the surf and see what waves I can catch hold of.

I do love a surfing metaphor.

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: rachel@dacushome.com! 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.