Sunday, August 23, 2015

For the Birds

"Hope is the thing with feathers" led me in an interesting direction: a series of poems with birds in them. Inspired in part by Emily Dickinson's interest in birds and her many bird poems--which I found collected in a book called A Spicing of Birds --I wrote a series to decipher the messages I hear in the silver clamor of morning and evening birdsong.

One poem, "Year Year I First Heard Birdsong", found its way into Tinderbox Poetry Journal, alongside a terrific collection of poems by Marge Piercy, Arielle Greenberg, Sarah Blake, Kerri French, Theodore Worozbyt, and many others. I'm happy to say there are many birds in this issue, and I'm honored to have a poem from my new series in such a great place. Tinderbox is edited by Brett Elizabeth Jenkins, Molly Sutton Kiefer, and Jennifer Givhans.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Bernini the Mage and Master of Space

While I work on my novel in which the great Renaissance sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini plays a leading role, I'm looking at images of his work. I stumbled on a  wonderful article on the three major sculptors of the time -- really, of all time. Bernini, of course, was one.

The author. Charley Parker, calls him "the mage, the sorcerer, the Vermeer of sculpture". He says, "If Vermeer was master of light and time, Bernini was master of space." I love those epithets, especially the mage. He was such a showman, and loved to used theatrical effects that created illusions to make the sculptural subjects live and breathe.

Bernini dominated the Roman art world of the seventeenth century, and he was restlessly innovative, ultimately playing a key role in establishing the dramatic and eloquent vocabulary of the Baroque style. His sculptural and architectural projects combine forms and media in electrifying new ways. A magician indeed.

When I saw Bernini's statue of David at the Galleria Borghese, I was as struck as if that stone David was winding up had been flung at me. The life in the sculpture is amazing -- equaled only by Michelangelo's Moses, I thought. Both Biblical figures by these master contain a mythic power, and they do it with elegant realism.

The Moses was a revelation. This photo (below) doesn't capture the quality. In fact, you have to see these sculptures in person to have the full impact. Video is better than stills, but the quality of light, the ability to walk around them and absorb all details puts the whole picture together in a way nothing else can. I was lucky to see them in person. Bernini was lucky to have such a gift.

If you have a chance, go to Rome. There's no other city like it because of the Renaissance and Bernini.

Friday, August 07, 2015

My Poem in Anthology MEASURE FOR MEASURE

I'm absolutely thrilled to have my poem "Sapphics with Little Rags and Cabbage" appear in the new anthology edited by Annie Finch and Alexandra Oliver, Measure for Measure. Published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2015, the collection is a wonderful way to study the fine points of meter through examples. Annie and Alexandra have organized it by metrical type and added notes on the different meter, which should make it a great way to learn more about new meters you may not have used in poems.

I wrote this about my childhood town, San Pedro, which was then the home of the West Coast's commercial fishery and also the port of Los Angeles. As a fishery, it attracted European immigrants from every country around the Mediterranean, especially Slavic people. To me, daughter of the rocket engineer, these old world grandmas seemed like something out of fairytales. Here's the poem -- as it appears in my book Femme au chapeau (soon to be available as an eBook!):

Sapphics with Little Rags and Cabbage

Fishwives from Zagreb dig in their stony yards.
Complaint-salted stories curl next to their molars
as they bury jars of pennies and nickels,
hedging the day’s catch.

Saturday evenings, grandmothers for hire
come to our house. Mrs. Pinsky’s arms jiggle
and little crosses dangle from ears. She winks,
smelling of garlic.

She salts her pot of Little Rags and Cabbage,
a stone stew she says is made with rutabagas,
rhubarb and thistles from women who, gardening,
glower at mowers.

I curse the Fisher God! they say as they spit.
Him who gaffed me onto this easy coastline.
They keep the sour taste of Vis in their cheeks,
sprouting like mushrooms.

They suffer in suits for ancient traditions.
Mrs. Vukasivich sends to the village
a picture of her Frank in his coffin, writes,
Breathing is over.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Magical realism, poetry & Pattiann Rogers' cat

I've been thinking about magical realism in prose, but today someone mentioned a poem that embodies the magic all around us without ever actually leaving the realism. Pattiann Rogers' stupendous meditation,"Find the Cat in a Spring Field at Midnight" does everything but levitate the cat -- which I would totally have accepted. But Rogers makes the cat vanish and unvanish, Cheshire Cat style, without ever actually leaving the field of realism.  

Here's the poem, from the December, 1982 issue of Poetry Magazine. In "the star-mingled calls of the toads" the poem steps lightly out of the commonplace and never returns. "It takes a peculiar vision ..." Indeed, it takes a visionary like Pattian Rogers.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Poetry of Magical Realism

Because things just happen.
The blue-beaked parrot lands
on the hummingbird feeder
that dangles from your ear
and begins singing
like Pharrell Williams—
a voice that drops veils of gauze
around sunrise. Suddenly the mountaintop
where you stand unrolls its green velvet
and you walk down into a land
you once knew but that changed overnight.
You believe it more because you are
here in the piazza of nobility,
dragging your rusty sword
into furrows behind you.
Red and yellow blossoms pop open
and transform into fruits
grabbed up by the hungry children.

There is no real logic in the human world, only a shared pretense of it. Poetry recognizes the way our senses carry us and carries us, like magical realism in fiction, into a world where a rising fountain alters time and the passing wind speaks of possibilities hatched from pebbles underfoot. It’s this world in a more effulgent mood,  our own neighborhood put on a floodlit stage where anyone may suddenly enter: Othello, Joan of Arc, Zeus, a cat that flies. 

Poetry and magical realism are like life, only more so. Life here rolls along on hyper-logic rising from an ineffable yearning. Its replete with deep-hued passion that slops over linear outlines. We’ve always believed in this twilight, where the stars grow immense and begin to tell us their ancient secrets. 

I’ve always been in love with magical realism, and books containing magic. The world has always breathed to me that way. In my literary life, I first turned to poetry, where things become other things so easily. They are familiar, yet more vividly alive, and with a new strangeness. One of my early favorite poets, Dylan Thomas, luxuriated in this world, notably in his luminously magical play, Under Milkwood.
Young girls lie bedded soft
or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux,
bridesmaided by glowworms down the aisles of the
organplaying wood. The boys are dreaming wicked or of the
bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrodgered sea. And
the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields,
and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wetnosed
yards; and the cats nap in the slant corners or lope sly,
streaking and needling, on the one cloud of the roofs.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Plastic Surgery in the Renaissance & Bernini's Beloved

I'm working on a series of scenes in my novel about the great Renaissance sculptor Bernini and his mistress, Costanza, wife of one of his assistants in Bernini's busy sculpture studio. Bernini had his servant slash Costanza's lovely face after discovering she had slept with his brother.

I found it hard to get into the mind of a character who could do such a thing, so I delved into the story of Costanza and the grisly cultural context of face-slashings in that era. Every man in Rome wore a knife (even some priests). They were almost as prevalent in seventeenth century Rome as guns in today's America. Italians also had a high sense of honor/dishonor and retribution. There's a good reason the word "vendetta" comes from the Italian.

Put vendetta together with knife and you begin to get the picture. But look at the long-term picture of Costanza.

Costanza wasn't killed by the servant's attack. She wasn't even disabled. She may have been repaired by one of the burgeoning new class of plastic surgeons who were inventing ways to repair the cuts and disfigurements that were common punishments of the time. As Sarah McPhee details in her fascinating new biography, Costanza Piccolomini went on to live a long and prosperous life -- and amazingly, remained married to her husband, who more amazingly continued until his death as Bernini's assistant. There's something that isn't being told in this tale.

And how would she have been patched up to go on in such a successful and public life? According to, the Italian contribution to plastic surgery arose from these early experiments in treating  facial wounds:

"The birth of what we now call plastic surgery dates to the fifteenth century, when the diffusion of nose amputation as a punishment was paralleled by the blossoming of surgical procedures for nose reconstruction. The relationship between the Eastern and the Western world fostered the spreading of the so-called Indian method, based on the use of a forehead flap."

Costanza's nose wasn't under attack, but her beautiful cheeks were. Perhaps they mended to such a degree that she was still considered a beauty.

The story of Costanza and Bernini isn't as simple as is often presented through the lens of our contemporary values. Another common practice of the day was for husbands to offer their wives' favors to patrons who could further their careers. Can you say "pimp" in Italian? ("Mezzano.") The varieties of possibility in this love triangle stagger modern sensibility, but one thing is clear: Costanza was able to heal and thrive beyond this phase of her life.

Bernini's career was also patched up by the Pope, who ordered him to get married and who sent the brother into exile and the mistress to jail. Adulterous women were the ones punished in Bernini's Rome. But at least there was a way to repair. Take a look at the marble bust and see what a scar would do to such a beautiful face.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

New poem up at Eclectica! My Wishing Star ...

Thanks to Poetry Editor Jennifer Finstrom for selecting my poem "My Wishing Star on a Long Ride" for Eclectica's July/August 2015 Issue. Summer is often a time to remember childhood, and the poem centers on my memory of a month of horsebackriding at Hunewill's Dude Ranch. The memory is as starry as the night sky seen from our cabin door. My mother, brother, and I rode the same huge, gentle Morgan horses every day, learning about grooming them, herding cattle, and taking a day ride into the High Country of the Eastern Sierras. It was a full ranch and healing family experience after the upset of my parents' divorce. When I was thirteen, it seemed just about a month of heaven.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

On Death and the Ocean

Even if you're the rocket scientist's daughter, growing up in a fishing community gives you an early acquaintance with two immutable forces: the ocean and death. One of my grammar school friends had a father who fished on the tuna fleet. One season, he just didn't come back. In a restaurant in San Pedro, you can see photos that show why this wasn't a rare occurrence. The tuna boats in the 1950 were low-slung, and the men hauled the enormous tunas overhead so fast the deck became slick with scales. Fishing in a turbulent sea, a rogue wave could wash men overboard. Those tuna boats weren't exactly equipped for rescue missions. That might just be the end, as it was for Mr. Svicarovich. 

This poem, from my book Gods of Water and Air, celebrates the ocean's devout widows.

San Pedro Trilogy

1. Matriarchs

Widows like lighthouse beacons
with no answering ship.
Old Croat women with black buns
behind square faces staring
grim as garden gnomes
from porches as we children skate by.

Ears studded with fire-opals
or tiny crosses, these matriarchs
nailed to their many losses.
They let the gulls do their screaming.
No one hears them moan to themselves
like boats sawing against the pier.

No one knows they keen with sea bells at night,
Their bellowing erupts into empty houses.
The low-slung purse seiners bob at rest,
their tall cross-masts in dockside rows.
Family enterprises, net-hauling boats
that ride low on waves, flinging their crew
into the sea.

Men who haul herds of tuna
into tanks, unload their daily catch and wait
for a price from the Forty Thieves’ Market.
Yankelovitch and Salieni fare alike
on a good day, though not a bad one, barely
get a living from the sea, less fed than the pelicans.

But fishing’s still a good business,
and most San Pedro families put their men to sea,
the Portuguese and the Slavs, Italians and Czechs.
Here because they know the ocean trades,
they finger rosaries side by side at Mass, count
their catch, then drink and dance
the surplus away at summer festivals
on the docks where bands play loud

beside the bobbing boats in the breakwater dark.
Sea smells drift, mixed with frying squid,
always a scold of salt in your nose,
on the beach the burr smell
of rotten seaweed. The harrying gulls.
Everywhere the ocean’s devout widows.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Want a literary agent? Watch this.

If you're an aspiring novelist who has put in the good work on learning your craft, and now wants to proceed to the getting publishing part, I hope you, too, read scores of books, articles, and blogs about the publishing industry. (The MUST-READ on this topic: The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published from The Book Doctors, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry.) 

After giving myself a basic pub-biz education,  hiring my  editor, Arielle Eckstut, and finishing my novel, I had to get up to speed on what to do next. I did a lot of stuff, but watching and listening to agents talk about their experiences and careers revealed much I find nowhere else. Plus, it just made them human, which really helps when you're trying to communicate with them. 

So as part of your agent search, set side a few hours and enjoy these lively panel discussions on Youtube:

Poets & Writers - publishing industry candor and humor with: Michael Szczerban, senior editor at Regan Arts, leading a discussion with agents Amy Berkower of Writers House, Eric Simonoff of the WME Book Department, Molly Friedrich of the Friedrich Literary Agency, and Meredith Kaffel of DeFiore & Company about how editors and agents work together on behalf of authors. Published on Feb 2, 2015.

The Hollywood Reporter - an hour-long interview with: Jodi Reamer (Writers House), Kim Witherspoon (Inkwell Management), Robert Gottlieb (Trident Media), Sloan Harris (ICM), Eric Simonoff (WME), Christy Fletcher (Fletcher & Company). Published on Apr 12, 2013.

To find more, check out Poets & Writers Live on Youtube. Or, you know, Google stuff like a maniac. That's my formula. 

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Talking Back to Emily D

I'm engaged with Dickinson through her letters and poems in a kind of long, late-night girls-sitting-up-and-braiding-each-other's-hair kind of conversation. I can't read anything she's written without wanting to talk back. She inspires the opposite of passivity! She makes me think and feel so much, and she connects so well with what's been going on inside me, those ineluctable currents of being that need closer and more passionate examination before they slip away into other currents.

I'm so pleased that Valaparaiso Poetry Review has published one of these midnight conversations in their Spring-Summer issue! "What Respite" is the poem, springboarding off a line in an Emily D poem. Please feel free to join our conversation. With or without braiding.