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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Come Visit My New Blog! http://racheldacus.net/links/

I'll be posting regularly on the new blog because it's part of my new poet/writer site: http://racheldacus.net.

I'm still a Rocket Kid over there, and comments are as always more than welcome. Latest topics I've blogged about:

The Gift of a Poem
Inside Forever
Spiritual Intoxication a 12-Step Program?
Po-Biz: Marketing Your Book

And more. Come on by and let me know what you think, add ideas, links, your blog or website address. Thanks!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

New Blog Site! Come on over

I'm happy to pour the champagne and toss the balloons to announce that I'm blogging now (still a Rocket Kid!) over at my new author site.

Here's the blog.

Come and talk to me. There will be all the same topics and any you'd like to start! Comments, as usual, are welcome and can well start a new topic.

Today I blogged about writer's routines, an endlessly fascinating topic. See you there!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Seasons of poetry

In Northern California we have funny pseudo-seasons. Warm and bright November days that fool you into summer feelings, roses that act as if they’re going to make bouquets more, and this year winter will take a vacation. And then at nightfall, the temp falls, and suddenly you’re in wool and looking at stars like icicles and wondering whether you should just stay home until February.

I find myself writing less and less as the season and earth contracts during fall and winter. The shorter days, the angle of light, the chill, are not my sources of inspiration. I’m an expansionist, if I feel the sun’s touch on my shoulder, I go where it wants to lead me. Mine are mostly spring and summer poems, I find. My inspiration leads me to want to expand my being to include the world in fresh new ways, to incorporate it into myself imaginatively and explore it from within. I think as a writer I have a season of dormancy. Maybe a good time to tell tales, write prose, but poetry for me waits for the new buds. Anticipating their pop and fragrance.

How about you — are you a seasonal poet or writer? Curious.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Poetry E-Book Publishing: Wherefore Art Thou?

As the e-book has come barreling down the publishing highway, poets have been left mostly in the dust. Why haven't poetry e-books emerged on Kindles, Nooks, et al? Several forces are at work, the small size of poetry book publishers being one factor, but perhaps the most troublesome is being the pesky technical problem of not being able to control line breaks in e-book formats. A thought-provoking article about it appeared a year ago or so in Publishers Weekly. "Diverging Roads: Poetry and E-Books." The problem of line breaks shifting around when the reader of an e-book changes the font size has been an insuperable problem for many poetry book publishers and poets.

A few, however, have boldly gone where most poets don't want to go and allowed the e-book to change the line breaks. Diane Lockward's wonderful e-chapbook , Twelve for the Record, (Amazon-Kindle edition) is one of the poetry e-book groundbreakers.  But while the article said that Graywolf Press and Coffee House press had planned to have poetry e-books out by Fall of 2011, they have yet to produce them. Where are the poetry houses in this new e-publishing field? Way back in the stretch it seems. Time to gain some ground?

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

New poems that come in series

Have you ever stumbled on a vein of mineral wealth in your work, a place that has been compressing inside until you open up the seam and it bulges with images and sounds? I've rarely written series poems based on emotional content, though certainly like all poets, my work proceeds in tonal phases. But recently I found an image so striking that it opened up such a seam and I could only work it through side tunnels, one poem at a time, so much was there.

I always enjoy series poems, and especially when they're strong enough to power an entire book. But I never made room for them, or time perhaps. Or conscious awareness of the veins of feeling compressed and "cooked" till ready to gleam. I hope it continues. I'd like to hear about your series poems, if you've experienced this.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How to Become an Artist

I spent some hours yesterday writing an artistic biography of my father, who was a painter. I found myself writing that I learned about art standing near his easel and watching him paint. It was the silent choreography of creativity. He would stand back, leaning forward, hip thrust out, as he considered his next move, like a chess player. Then he'd move decisively forward, closing in on the canvas, brush scumbling furiously in a small area. Then he'd move back again to consider what had just happened. This could go on for hours. The concentration was palpable, like music in the room. The way ideas flowed out of him was transporting. I wanted that, to be engaged in something like that. And I began first to draw, then to write. It's an indelible memory.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

New Poem in Goblin Fruit

I'm very happy that my poem "Kingdom" appearing in the current issue of the fascinating zine Goblin Fruit. They publish poetry "of the fantastical, poetry that treats mythic, surreal, fantasy and folkloric themes, or approaches other themes in a fantastical way." Fun to be part of this imaginative venture!


Thursday, October 04, 2012

Election Madness + Poetry/All the News You Need

Election Madness has seized us again, with the first of the debates between candidates for president. Do we really think any one person in any one office can make a very big difference in our lives? The entire system of our democracy, with its checks and balances, is designed to prevent it. True, there has been an alarming power grab at the top in the last few decades. It created deep divisions in our country. It's the worst of time in America in many ways. But also the best: the Internet is creating a unified world, melding East and West in ways unthinkable only a few years ago. Medical advances increase health and wealth that is spreading around the globe. Where is power? No one understands, least of all those who think they wield it. That's the first humbling lesson someone who steps into the Oval Office learns. They all talk about it and pray about it.

Poetry is, by contrast, a deeper and longer lasting power to touch, change, and heal us. Few word of presidents are quoted as often as Rumi, Emily Dickinson, Whitman, or Shakespeare.

I'm getting all the news I need through election day from those sources, and tuning in only occasionally to the bogus news. The news that doesn't stay news. I wouldn't be a journalist today.

Here's a useful site, if you want to evaluate what kinds of rejections you're getting and what they really mean. Rejection Wiki can show you samples of standard or personal rejections notes from 100+ literary journals. Read, contribute your own rejection notices to expand the knowledge base.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Emily Takes the Stage

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. I reviewed it on Goodreads, which made me laugh. Date finished reading: Never. One to five stars: 10,000. Bookshelf: my iPhone, so I'm never without a Dickinson poem, should the need arise. I'm tempted to only quote Dickinson in a review of this luminary of solitude, this pristine custodian of her own periodic deaths, and this mystically crowned priestess of Nature's God. When my inspiration flags, a Dickinson poem restores zest and also humility. If I had to pick a favorite poet, Emily Dickinson is it. My homage to her:



Emily Takes the Stage

The Day that I was crowned
Was like the other Days --
Until the Coronation came --
And then -- 'twas Otherwise --

Like the Beach Blanket Babylon
lady who carries a city on her head,
some women walk to the soul’s well,
balancing with both hands the water
for their thirsty village,
but you balanced on your slender neck
a galaxy-wide diadem.
It dropped jewels everywhere,
in field and town, in school and parlor,
in letter and note. Children, maids,
and innocents pounced on
those green, glinting stones.
Unlike the Babylon lady,
you didn’t need props
to hold up your crown.
You only needed to lighten it
by strewing and sewing into packets
your wit and gems.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

August poem

Sharing this poem which will appear in my forthcoming collection Gods of Water and Air. I'm not entirely sure from which publisher it will be forthcoming, as I've had some publishing mishaps you can read about earlier in this blog. But it will forthcome. Here's a poem that originally appeared in Pilgrimage:


Anvil of Light


In a forgotten valley studded with runic oaks,
            at mid-August, on an anvil of light
            my breath and two swallows rise and fall.

Nearing to the remembered place,
            a wail of distant insects
            riffles the distance like notes in a weird scale.
            Solitude comes to an intersection

And a figure-eight of melody
            startles up out of the grass.
Involuntary, this godward thing called praise.
            It lights on a weed tip
            and its wings radiate out.

The wind’s tides roll through dry weeds, on and on,
            a Greek chorus of Why, Why, Why.
A mockingbird's tail flicks.
            The silent ring of the lupine bells.

Still, I don’t know where I am
            until I watch a pencil-tick
crawl up a poppy's thigh
and black-spotted wings sprout

from my back. I flap away
            to a dry height from which I can see
            the question’s shape. Here
            is really nowhere. Are you nowhere too?

How can anyone ever trap matter in words?
Or ever make ideas as apple-fine as this air?


Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Future of Publishing and Mine in It

Since hearing that Kitsune Books, the publisher of Gods of Water and Air, my third poetry collection, was ending business operations on December 31, I've researched small press publishing to try and understand what had happened and what to do. I had picked Kitsune partly because they were a rare combination, a press publishing both poetry and prose, and I have a novel to publish. What I've found shocked me, even though I had a picture of the tenuous nature of publishing, especially small publishing companies.

Print publishing, as we all know, is becoming an endangered species, as the sale of e-books now is increasing while print sales remain flat. And poetry publishing is very endangered -- yet poetry itself is flourishing in some ways. As an American art form, poetry is abandoning its academic and literary roots  and becoming, by way of slam, rap, rock, and readings, a folk art. Poetry performance is thriving; the printed word is dying. It's becoming a younger art, a pop culture and social phenomenon.

Like Kitsune Books, most poetry presses in America are operations as fragile as the health or will of its often sole operator. That means a press's entire catalog and backlist of books is vulnerable to sudden disappearance.

Do you ever think to ask a press that's offering you a publishing contract about their gross sales or net profit margin? How many full-time staff members? Or average sales are for a poetry book? I sure didn't ask such questions, not with my last three publishers. And because I remained ignorant, I had unpleasant surprises. Not that they were bad experiences, but that I was unprepared to face how frail these companies are, how they may even be hobbyist ventures, and what little resemblance most of them bear to conventional book publishing and the expectations an author might reasonably have in that context. I have lived and am learning. Who knows, I might start a press myself one day.

What I've learned is: poetry is an endangered species; poetry has never been as popular in the last 25 years; contemporary poetry bears little resemblance to anything in print; poetry is an almost all-volunteer effort; poetry has migrated into other cultural forms. All these are true. Yet something else is happening. Poets are starting self-publishing collectives, publishing e-books, publishing spoken-word CDs, reading on the radio, forming Facebook communities, printing broadsides, making book trailer videos, appearing on Youtube, even showering cities with printed poems. Poetry will never die. Print and bookstores may.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Gods of Water and Air - The Once-and-Future Book

I've made it conclusive: my poetry collection, once to be published by the now-closing Kitsune Books, is now available. I can't go with a two-month publication life for my book, which is the only possibility with Kitsune, as they are closing on December 31 and my book was to come out November 5.

It's a funny feeling, starting over, with a fully finished book -- complete with blurbs and cover art. The process of sharing about this misadventure has made me aware of the fragility of poetry publishing. As a cultural phenomenon, it's on the bubble, nearly nonexistent in terms of media. I heard of some similar problems at Calyx Books, the publisher's ill health and a lack of funding making the future uncertain. So many of these concerns are run by one or a few dedicated poets who give 150% -- an admirable but not always sustainable model in the long-term. Still, I have to admire people like Anne Petty at Kitsune Books who have made small press publishing a wonderful alternative to the corporation-dominated media, and who have kept literary publishing alive. University presses, now feeling the budget heat too, are folding or cutting back in distressing numbers. We are in the midst of a paradigm shift, not an extinction, I feel.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Poet Left at the Altar - Chapter 3

My experience with Kitsune Books has left me thinking a lot about the state of poetry publishing and the poetry community -- its coherences and divisions, its fragility, and its lack of a viable economic structure.

A spider is building a web on the other side of the table outside where I write this. I don't like spiders, but I have no heart for destroying his morning's diligent work, the kind of work I do when I sit down to face my own heart and mind and turn those flowing currents into words. He struggles, he goes back and forth, knotting the invisible into something that can catch things so he'll have a dinner. Could be a she, I don't know with spiders. But I see the invisible and seemingly fragile web of poetry publishing in his/her labor. So easily swept aside by chance, someone walking through the web they can't see. Some life event like illness or death or university budget cutbacks that closes a press and leaves authors and their books stranded.

We have always had poetry, but poetry publishing in books has only been available to a general audience for a few hundred years, a short time in its total history. Maybe we need to look past the vehicle to the substance and find a way to create a more vibrant poetry culture that is independent of individuals, university budgets, indie bookstores, distributors, etc., etc. Maybe we should leave the printing press behind entirely. It has served a great purpose, but does it serve poetry now?

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The Poet Left at the Altar - Chapter 2

It seems Gods of Water and Air won't published this November after all. Kitsune Books is closing its doors shortly thereafter and the situation would orphan my book, taking it out of print after only a month and a half. So I have to accept this loss and move on. Here's another poem from the book that almost was -- maybe the once-and-future book? Thanks to Georgetown Review, which first published the poem.

Squabble

We squabble over a word’s meaning
and history’s precedents while outside,
contained in tidy pots, golden roses
open their blouses. Daisies spin around
bright wheels, each petal unique
as a last exclamation.

Squabble with life
when we could descend like Monet
into its round dot, open a door
and find a tiny gray feather
whose shaft is the perfect arc.

Squabble, when we could arch
like that? Be a tiny, shining spine’s
catenary curve.
I used to gather weeds
from the fields, their disorder
a squabble of vowels, but now see
wisdom in roundness, a floating truth
like a lily on a pond.


The fragility of the small press poetry community is on my mind in a new way after this experience. How many poets are publishing with operations that leave them buying their own books to sell, with chain bookstores emperiling the indepedents, many of whom won't carry poetry anymore because it doesn't sell. We live in a fragile poetry world, sustained, though by the sense of community that increases as the economic uncertainties close presses and booksellers down. What will save poetry? because it has survived throughout history and surely will never die. I think this medium in which you're reading, is poetry's new frontier. I hate to say it, but print is really dying. Perhaps to arise in a new form -- downloadable, printable eBooks of poetry? I have one on my phone already.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Curiosity Gets Us Farther Than Ever

Big morning for a Rocket Kid! The successful landing of the Mars Rover Curiosity made me proud to be the daughter of a rocket scientist. Proud to have grown up with a guy who blew up missiles for a living. Proud to feel that American innovation is breaking boundaries and pushing back the margins of the known world once again. I sit here typing on something more powerful than what they used to send men to the moon about half a century ago. And it's because we did that that I am typing on this little power machine. Mars Rover Lands After Seven Seconds of Terror.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

My Cheshire Cat Poetry Book

I've had a poetry publishing mishap. A rather major one. The publisher with whom I signed a contract a year ago to publish Gods of Water and Air, my new collection, will fold as of December 31. There is still the promise that my book will appear on November 5, but less than two months later, no publisher will be there to keep it in print, distribution, and provide publicity of any kind. I have a Cheshire Cat of a book, it seems. A now-you-see-it-now-you-don't publication. I am in mourning, even though some copies will be printed. Here is one of the poems, with a recording, from a book you may or may not ever see. If you like it, please leave me a comment! I may keep all comments and re-publish the book myself after January 1.

"Every Morning I Try" first appeared in The Cortland Review:
http://www.cortlandreview.com/issue/47/dacus.html#1

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bloghopping - Sunday meandering


Diane Lockward's marvelous Blogalicious has an interesting exploration of Diane's poem about a bumblebee, and how Adele Kenny blogged about it and it found its way into an Italian translation. Diane even has a movie of the poem. I love it when poems transmogrify into other things -- videos, illustrations to an illustration, and increasingly little animated movies.

Speaking of Adele Kenny, her blog has an intriguing poetry prompt today about towns and home. And if you're looking for more poetry prompts, Jeff Newberry has a list of 15 prompts I really like. They're quirky but not weird-quirky, food for thought but not pedantic. One of the them already started off something that has been bouncing around in my head: "Write about your favorite day of the week." Mine's Saturday. Because it's so far from Monday.

Happy Sunday!

Friday, June 22, 2012

To Rome

First he did Paris. Now my favorite city, Rome. I can't wait to see Woody Allen's new film To Rome With Love. It will inspire me to tweak the descriptions in my novel, but I bet he didn't do much with St. Peter's in the movie. How would you describe that largest church in Christianity? I have been wrestling with descriptions of this monumental Renaissance and Baroque piece of sacred architecture that covers more than five acres under its roof and boasts one of the best pieces of sculpture ever created, Michelangelo's Pieta.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Bloghopping

Found a wonderful new zine that spans cultural matters, from film, theater, dance, and plays, to poetry and fiction, to reviews and critical essays. Scene 4 Magazine, based in England, is a rich offering of international voices, views, and images. In the June issue, my favorite is a poetry feature by a friend --  four surreal, witty poems by Alan Kleiman. Take a look at What A Holiday and enjoy a fun ride.

Sheryl Luna's blog, Dialectical Migrations, yesterday made some good points about Post-Modernism: what is it and what isn't it. Have we moved even beyond that? Luna, whose first collection Pity the Drowned Horses was published by University of Notre Dame Press, has received fellowships at Ragdale, Yaddo and the Anderson Center. I resonate with this statement she makes: "The Post-Modern moves beyond fragmentation and labeling. It is bigger than that. If anything we are all Post-Modern in our sensibilities, our true marginalization in American Poetries. There are simply too many people writing to create such divisions."

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Renaissance Club - Chapter Two, second half

Hoping to entice you with installments -- hey, it worked for Dickens! -- I present the second half of Chapter Two of my novel The Renaissance Club. In this section we meet some of the travelers as they wrestle with jetlag and various personal problems while trying to get to sleep on their first night in Italy. And downstairs in the hotel, a backroom deal is being made.

Chapter Two. Rome. Day One.
 
            Down the hall from the Perls, Art and Eva Manookian were in an even tinier room, and also suffering from jet lag, but in two different ways. Art had fallen into what appeared to be a coma and was snoring so loudly Eva thought it might be heard through the walls.
            Eva was ferociously pacing figure-eights around the room and into the bathroom and back, her uncombed gray-blonde hair frizzed around her like an electric halo. With such magnificent energy, she could have painted all night, especially with Art asleep, leaving her in no danger of his wanting sex, the old satyr. But instead of being at her easel, she was trapped in this dark hotel room with no supplies and a brain full of images.
            The ride from the airport into Rome had been stunning, unforgettable, and (Norman had been right here) indispensable to an understanding of the Renaissance and Italy with its new humanism. Ancient city walls jamming up next to medieval palazzos with rough-piled stone bases, an Egyptian obelisk rising in a Baroque fountain. Italy was a monstrous mess of beautiful art, you could never have guessed from the stately films. She loved this hodgepodge and wanted to take it all in, without a guide, thank you very fucking much. Frothing over with pictures, she felt the curse of the artist: to be unable to forget what you had seen.
            Art’s snoring was driving her crazy. If he didn’t shut up, she was going to smother him with a pillow and make it look like a heart attack. She worked this scenario out while pacing. She often liked to fantasize ways to kill Art. For what? For his cheery calm, for his lack of internal torture. Sometimes for his shaved head and that little silver earring. He could annoyingly hip, especially when he was playing guitar with his jazz buddies. She could kill him cheerfully for that and for his fidelity and for her occasional lack of it. And for his being such an all-around good guy when she was a hot-tempered stinker. Yes, all good reasons. The judge would understand.
            Who was she kidding, she would never paint again. If she had all the light of a midsummer day and a thousand canvases and art supplies that never ran out or dried up in the tubes, she’d never paint, hadn’t painted decently since Rebecca died. How do you make paintings after losing a child? Useless to paint mere things. Damn Art for being able to sleep. She knew what he would say if he saw her pacing like this, he’d know what she was thinking. She had stopped saying these things years ago, after he ordered her into therapy and she had come out of it exactly the same. When the painting stopped, that was the second end of her life. The only reason she had agreed to this cockamamey idea of Norman’s was hoping that maybe Italy could restore her imagination.
            As she had the thought, the small crystal wall sconce seemed to smile at her like a Renaissance cherub, with all the lush sweetness of the period, and a kind of malevolence underneath that she liked. She glared at it until it again resolved itself into a crooked wall sconce.
            She went to her suitcase on the stand and pulled out of an interior compartment a small plastic bag containing a small dollop of ashes. Art would be alarmed if he knew she had brought this bag with a pinch of Rebecca’s ashes to Italy. He would be alarmed because he could not understand that she was never going to stop what he called obsessively grieving. A mother just does not. It would make her feel Rebecca was still close if some tiny bit of her came with them on this trip.
            It was time to rest, if she could not sleep, and without cherubs and madonnas, thank you. She needed a good, muscular Michelangelo to counteract all the sappy stuff. Or a martini, but it was too late now for that.
             Down the hall from the Manookians, Sandra was in a different kind of hell. As one of only three single women, she had been forced for economy’s sake to share a room with Becca, the drama instructor, and her elderly, deaf sister Daphne. Beccas had brought her sister along because she felt she could not leave Daphne alone for three weeks. Becca spent the entire time they were getting undressed and into bed complaining about her departmental budget and the lavish expense of this trip. She had undressed quickly and then lay on her bed staring up at the ceiling, intoning her list of complaints while Sandra got into the bathroom when she could and then got into her bed.
            Daphne, blissful in deafness, said nothing in reply to her sister.
            Sandra lay on her bed listening and staring up as if she, too, were deaf. The complaints were probably intended for her to report to her father, but they bounced off the plate armor of her disinterest.
            Suddenly she got up, startling both the muttering Becca and the nearly asleep Daphne. She stalked over to Daphne’s bed, pulled her suitcase out from under it and opened it on the floor next to the bed. Opening it, she began pawing through the contents, which had to be kept in the suitcase because there wasn’t enough room for her clothes in the one drawer allotted to her by the other two. She pulled out tee shirts and sweaters and skirts and bras until she came to a black thong and a demi-bra that matched it, the bra trimmed in tiny fuchsia ribbons. She laid these things out on the top of the bureau, on the jeans and sweater she had set out for tomorrow. Then she stomped back to her cot, turned her back to the room and putting the pillow over her head, fell asleep.
            On the floor above Sandra, Marianna Waller had been long asleep in the very center of their small double bed when Rick found the farthest edge of wakefulness. Marianna’s dark wavy hair was spread like strands of cloud in a moonlit sky across the pillow and one arm flung above her head, her legs sprawled.
            He stood up from where he had been huddled, still half dressed in his tee shirt and shorts, on the edge of the bed. . Marianna had rolled to the center and then stretched out. He hadn’t undressed all the way and still wore his heavy underwater watch.
            Rick went over to the window and pulled back the heavy curtain to look out. Their window faced onto a small service courtyard and a wall of windows on the other side. Several were lit; travelers perhaps suffering jet lag. He looked down at his watch, which he had efficiently set for Rome time as soon as they had boarded the plane in San Francisco. Two forty-six a.m.
            “There’s no reason to feel like this,” he heard himself say aloud.
            It didn’t matter, because Marianna wore earplugs. The slightest noise could keep her awake and now that she was pregnant, her health was even more delicate and she needed her rest, the doctor told her, and she kept repeating.
            He had a great job, a gorgeous wife, a fantastic house her parents had helped them build. He had just put Norman in his place. He stood at the window combing his long fingers through his thick brown hair that stood up spikey in the front of  his head, thanks to the mousse, giving him the look of a man whose thoughts electrified the air.
            Suddenly he gave a sharp kick to Marianna’s pink suede tote bag in the corner next to him, then he grabbed his toes and hopped with pain for a few satisfied moments. He had succeeded in damaging it not in the least. He stalked over to his cell phone and furiously typed out a long text, then got back onto the bed and fell asleep.
            In a room on the same floor as the Wallers, Norman and Kathleen weren’t sleeping either. Norman was working on his laptop while Kathleen paced in her pink nightgown and tossed out ideas.
            “Hotel Scacciapensieri!” Kathleen said. “That’s even better than the hotel I booked for Siena. I can’t imagine we can get into it, but if we could, there would be no complaints. It’s got killer views of the walled city across the valley.”
            “Really?” Norman asked. “Because you researched so many hotels in Siena, and I remember you saying there were no good alternatives.”
             “I wanted us to be in the city, but we can’t and save money.”
            “Okay, I’m looking online . . . Spell it.”
            “You’re kidding, Norman. You know I can’t spell in English. I certainly don’t spell in Italian!”
            “Well, say it again, slowly.”
            “Ska-cha-pen-sor-i.”
            “Hmm. That doesn’t sound the way you said it the first time.”
            Kathleen turned and faced him, putting her hands on her narrow hips.
            “Norman, just look it up. You’re the researcher. The internetist.”
            “I’m an economist.”
            “Whatever.”
            “Okay, say it again. Slowly.”
            “Sko-chow-pan-sier-y. For God’s sake can’t you find it? We could email and then call in the morning. This one might save us a lot. And it has bathrooms in every room, so Marianna and Rick can’t complain. Plus it has a nice dining room with tables on a vine-covered patio.”
            “Okay, I found it,” Norman said. “If we can book this, maybe we can save a third of what we would have paid the other hotel in Siena.”
            Kathleen sighed. “Let’s hope they can take us. I must have talked to dozens of hotels. More than you have zeroes in your ledger books.”
            “We don’t use accounting books anymore, we use software.”
            “Whatever. Everyone’s computer-crazy these days.”
            “Just relax while you think, walk if you need to. Do you want anything? I can ring the desk if you’d like a glass of wine.”
            “Wine will make me sleepy, and if I’m sleepy I can’t pace, and if I can’t pace I can’t think.”
            “Let’s look at Assisi. Maybe we can save money there,” Norman offered.             “No, forget that one,” Kathleen said. “it’s cheaper than dirt. Next.”
            “Hotel Villa Cora, Florence.”
            “There couldn’t be a more expensive place in all of Italy! Florence is always packed, so this won’t be easy, but maybe we can find something in Settignano, outside the city.”
            “Okay. How do we find something good but cheaper near Florence?”
            “A million phone calls!” Kathleen sank into the chair. “I’m too tired!”
            “You said we needed to do it fast. You’re tired because you feel guilty.”
            “Who elected you psychiatrist?”
            Norman put his laptop aside, got up from the bed, and came over to her. He put his fingers on her temples and rubbed gently.
            “You need a neck rub. You’re all tense in the face, which means your neck is tense.”
            Kathleen gave in and let him rub her temples. They had often started out making love this way, with his gentle touch on her head, but that was years before, when Norman had been handsome in his North Dakota way: lean, with a full, well-groomed head of hair. Now she leaned into his fingers, but then suddenly sprang up.
            “If we’re going to get more ideas out of my brain tonight, I can’t relax.”
            Norman sighed, went back to the bed and picked up his laptop. “Why don’t we look up all the hotels around Firenze tomorrow and get some help to make calls?”
            “Are you crazy? Do you have any idea how many inns, hotels, and villas there are around Florence?”
            “No, but I’m sure Rick and Sandra can help us tomorrow. And maybe we can get one or two others to skip touring and make some calls.”
            “Norman, you would make a hopeless travel agent.”
            “At least I know how to use a computer.” He said it with his head down, staring into the screen.
            “What if you had taken your laptop out and the gypsies had nabbed it? Don’t act like it’s all my fault!”
            Her voice rose to a pitch that distressed him with its potential to disturb people even through the walls.
            Finally he said, “Honey, let’s sleep and pick it up in the morning. Let the group go out and we’ll work. I have to talk to Jacob about finding a guide.”
            Kathleen came over to the bed and got in. Within minutes she was snoring. Norman continued to stare into his laptop, wishing that she had at least thanked him for helping. He knew she felt the responsibility, whatever she said, and didn’t handle criticism well. Rick had been rough on her. 
            At last he powered down, put away the computer, turned off the light, and lay back. Tomorrow they would begin a life-changing adventure. Forming The Renaissance Club was probably the most daring thing he had ever done, after standing up to the school bully Roger Stark. Rome was out there, and his Renaissance. Wide-eyed in the dark, he wondered if Jacob’s friend could guide them. If he couldn’t, this would be a very short adventure.
            He got out of bed and went to the phone, called the desk and got Jacob’s room 
 number, and phoned Jacob. After a few minutes, Norman hung up, put his clothes back on 
 and headed down to the bar. Jacob had news.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

New Fringe Magazine interview - Poet Barbara Ellen Sorensen

I'm so pleased to have interviewed Barbara Ellen Sorensen for Fringe. She's a Colorado poet and author of Songs from the Deep Middle Brain (Mainstreet Rag Books, 2010). We have a terrific conversation on the topic of poetry, spirituality, and healing. She's fearless as an interview subject and as a poet, and she also writes essays and poetry on the topic of illness and often set in the beautiful landscape of Colorado and the Rockies.

Also check out a cool interview with Fringe Editor Lizzie Stark on the topic of grownup make-believe, better known as larp, as described in her new book Leaving Mundania: inside the transformative world of live action role-playing games.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Another installment of my new novel, The Renaissance Club -- I won't publish it all here on the blog, at some point I'm going to leave you hanging, but I haven't decided where. You can vote for me to continue -- or stop!

Chapter Two. Rome, Day One.

While Jacob and his friend George were having their conversation downstairs, upstairs in a tiny, high-ceilinged room, May Perl sat down on the bed. Then she stood up again. Now that she could rest, all she wanted to do was stand up, half-asleep, swaying like a sapling in the wind. Her husband, Darren, came over to her and pulled her tense, tall body into an embrace. She tried to soften into his arms but felt that her sticks of limbs wouldn’t relax. He held on awhile and then let go, saying,

“You’re way too tired. I know you didn’t like hearing about Marianna being pregnant. Neither did I.”

She had nothing to say. It seemed ungracious to resent another couple’s happiness, but of course they did, given their own long struggle.

“I brought the sleeping pills,” Darren said. “You should take two. Jet lag is hard to overcome, and by our internal clocks geared to California, it’s about time to get up.”

“I don’t even want to be here,” she said. “You know I didn’t want to come. It was a really bad idea. These fertility drugs don’t mix with traveling. Or with sleeping pills.”

“You need rest. Take the pills. Come on, May, you have to sleep.”

May looked up at him with her wide gray eyes. To Darren, she looked as fresh as only a twenty-six-year-old can look, having skipped an entire night’s sleep. He wanted to loosen her long blonde braid that hung loosely down her back, but he could see she was not in a mood for being held much.

“I might go out for a walk,” she said illogically.

Darren decided that she was beyond knowing what she needed. “Okay, we can take a walk,” he said.

“Oh, I don’t know.” She slumped on the bed, long legs sprawling, leaning back to let her long, straight hair fall behind her like a curtain.

“May, just take the pills.”

“Quit bossing me!”

“You’re being impossible. Do what you want then. I’m going to sleep.”

May watched Darren go about his business with a speed and inefficiency she found more at home to his history department office than a room in the most ancient city in the Western world. He pulled his pajama bottoms out of the drawer he had already rumpled clothes into and closed the drawer, leaving a corner of a shirt caught outside. She felt the usual mix of surprise, annoyance, and attraction, watching his husky arms, covered with dark, curly hair, moving quickly. His thick head of hair and handsome face appealed to her as much they had when they met six years ago, but now his carelessness tempered her response. He wasn’t thinking about her needs.

She had annoyed him. Suddenly she relented. “I know I’m being impossible. I just feel so claustrophobic in this room. It’s got odd proportions. And those tall drapes.”

He came back to where she stood and put his arms around her again.

“Why don’t you call room service and ask for a glass of milk or some mint tea? That always helps you.”

She let the embrace pillow her fatigue and clasped his muscular back with fingers too tired for more than a couple of squeezes. What she really wanted was to talk. He should have been willing to stay up with her, because after all he did owe her for making her come on this trip.

Once again, she wished she had studied something other than architecture—English would have been useful at the moment. She was speechless, her arms as heavy as if holding bags of fatigue. “I don't even like pasta,” she had said in a club meeting when they broached the idea of going to Italy. “Roman ruins and popes are depressing. All I could possibly like there would be the properly proportioned columns.”

She remembered how the middle-aged college teachers had laughed. They didn’t understand why anyone would pass up a trip to Italy. Their jobs were tedium relieved by departmental infighting. They could not grasp the problems of a young, recession-downsized, infertile architect.

“Darren, what do you think Norman’s going to do about the guide?” she asked as she let go of him. “We really can’t pick up just anyone, it’s an art and architecture tour.”

“Well, you could do the architecture part, judging from all the books you bought on Bernini, Borromini, Michelangelo, and Brunelleschi.”

“I can’t. You heard what Norman said about needing a license. I can’t remember half of what we studied, and I sure didn’t bring any architecture books.”

“Your suitcase feels like you did.”

“Thank you for lifting it, my back really is out. I’d have left it in the airport and bought everything here, from the skin out.”

Darren smiled. He knew when he was being teased, at least by the time a smile had dawned on May’s face.

“I might as well have sold those books. What good is knowing about architecture now that no one’s building anymore?”

It wasn’t just their hopes of starting a family that were slowly being defeated, but also May's career. It also crumbling after barely launching her fourth year in a firm that designed production houses. When California’s building economy had suddenly turned off new housing like a hard-twisted tap, she was relegated to computer-drafting electrical wiring for school remodels. Everything she touched turned into Epic Fail.

Darren finished getting ready for bed and said, “I’m turning out the light, unless you want to read.”

“No.”

“Try to get some sleep, May. Take a pill. Take two. You’ll need to be rested for tomorrow’s tour.”

He was asleep so quickly she wanted to shake him. She lay in bed, fully dressed, contemplating Darren’s faults. Her husband was really very willful. He had joined The Renaissance Club to add a line to his résumé and then told her it was that she needed a vacation. What she needed was a break from the doctor’s graphs and tables, the six-month course of drugs, and the surgeries he promised lay ahead. They could have signed up for adoption, but Darren was so stubborn he didn’t want a child that wasn’t “their own.”

More than wanting a child, Darren said, he wanted to see her happy again, but he ignored the fact that adopting would make her happy. He said he hoped a country full of art and history would restore the woman and the architect, but after she had studied the Renaissance, overflowing with Madonnas and cherubs—Italy seemed to promise only abundant reminders of their childlessness. And it was an embarrassing place to a woman brought up as an atheist, not to mention to a designer trained in a deconstructivist esthetic. True, her feelings could be a chemical brain warp caused by the drugs.

She wished she could stop being angry, but as she lay in the dark, she couldn’t imagine how. There was only one thing to do. May went to her suitcase and rummaged around noisily enough to wake Darren, if he had been a normal human being. At last she found what she was looking for, her stash of chocolate bars. Italy surely had fabulous food, but could it be counted on to have chocolate dark enough? She pulled out a bar, unwrapped it, ate a third, and crawled into bed in her clothes, feeling lonely, dizzy, and wretchedly confused.

At some point, she fell asleep. She woke up wide awake a few hours later, her jet-lagged system proclaiming it daytime. She took the sleeping pill.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

I'm spending this morning in Assisi, writing my magical realism novel set partly there. I feel the rosy glow of the Subasio stone reflected throughout Assisi. All my characters are affected by this pink atmosphere, so vibrant with the spirit of Francis. Their marital, personal, parental, and artistic dilemmas take a turn here as Italy's magic begins to take hold and love blossoms.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Renaissance Club

Ah, Italy in the spring -- who can resist a trip, even if just in my magical realism novel set in present-day Italy, The Renaissance Club.

The Renaissance Club -- Chapter One, conclusion:

“We have to get a guide fast,” Kathleen said. “If we miss one reservation, it’s dominoes. The schedule falls apart. We don’t want to wind up in bad hotels.”

“Marianna and I can’t stay in any crap-hole,” Rick said.

Kathleen’s cheeks were scarlet. “Moving a group through Italy isn’t easy. I can’t give guarantees!”

Nine people became suddenly, chaotically noisy. Norman watched them patiently with his spaniel eyes. He knew they found his ideas about truth and beauty naïve but he had now seen the beauty he hoped for, and it was his truth. He saw May still smiling at him with her crooked smile. At least he had one ally.

But May’s smile was actually a mask for fatigue so profound her lids felt like they were carrying suitcases. She dimly analyzed her state and realized she had such a bad case of jet lag she was having waking nightmares. She shook her head, trying to clear a one now, of a large orange scampi on her plate that had winked at her. Because she was alarmed, she smiled even more.

“Come on, people," Norman said. “We're The Renaissance Club. This trip could change our lives⎯surely that’s worth a little fuss.”

Norman felt sweat begin to roll down his face.

Jacob supported him, saying, “Yes, change is always part of traveling.”

“We can’t deal with change,” Rick said. “Marianna's health—well, she has a special circumstance.”

Everyone looked at Marianna and then as one at her stomach. Marianna had the kind of stomach they use in weight-loss commercials, so the small bump there conveyed the truth.

“Yes, she’s pregnant!” Rick said angrily. “We didn’t want to say anything. It’s only twelve weeks. But it’s a delicate situation and she can’t take any risks—”

Marianna cut him off. “You don’t have to speak for me, Rick, I’m pregnant, not disabled.”

She turned to Norman and gave him the full force of her displeasure. “I don’t care about your problems,” she said quietly. “I expect a comfortable room with my own bathroom in every city.”

The murmur in the room said she had support for these demands.

Rick added, “Those are the terms. Give us what we were promised or return our money.”

Norman saw fear ripple through his club. If one couple took their money back, they wouldn’t be able to support the tour, not six thousand dollars short.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “Kathleen and I will find new hotels just as good but less expensive. We’ll stay in Rome a few more days, and that means we can see Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and the Colosseum.”

Very pale, Norman pronounced the meeting over. The tired travelers left.

A half hour after they left the room, a tall, olive-skinned man wearing a black Astrakhan coat came in. He looked around, then sat at a side table. After a few minutes, Jacob came back. They nodded to each other and sat down. A waiter came in and took their drink orders. The tall man pulled out a Florentine tooled leather cigarette case, offered Jacob one, and pulled out a solid gold cigarette lighter to light them both up. It was a long conversation, and at the end they shook hands as they rose. George, putting on his long black coat, said, “This group sounds a lot more interesting than that last one, Jacob. They have made their own touring booklets. They studied the Renaissance for a year. I’m impressed.”

“They’re all knowledgeable about the Renaissance. I told them you could give them an unforgettable tour.”

“Did you tell them I’d wave my magic lighter and burn up all their problems too?” George laughed. “Jacob, you always over-promise.”

“So I can under-deliver. I leave the over-delivering to you, George.”

“You make a good foil for me, and I appreciate it,” George said.

“So will you take them on? I know you’ll be disappearing at intervals as you always do.”

“I’m glad you’ve made your peace with the fact that time isn’t real.”

“Will you be telling that to old Cosimo? Or Lorenzo? I don’t think that Einstein quotation about relativity will play well in the fifteenth century.”

George laughed a long laugh that began at his stomach and fluted up and out of his mouth with enough notes to form a song.

“You’d be surprised, Jacob, at the open-mindedness of men who know they have only a few decades to live. How do you think I started the Renaissance ball rolling? I told Cosimo about reincarnation and that he had probably been Aristotle. He liked that.”

“You didn’t. You told that to a Catholic?” Jacob smiled at George with both admiration and envy. “I often wish I could go traveling with you.”

“Maybe one day you will. And you’d be surprised at what a bunch of ambitious medieval Catholics will buy. Jesus taught reincarnation, but the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Niceae decided to dump his teachings. The better to control the masses with fear of death.”

“Good politics. Like making sure to have a few popes in the family.”

“And popes who think the right way. George, you’re not going to give them the wild stuff, are you?”

George laughed another small song of absurdity.

“A bunch of secular humanists? What do you think?”

Jacob shook his head, smiling. “I think you will riff off their questions in a way that makes big-wave surfing look like a sport for the chicken-hearted.”

This got the biggest laugh from George yet. They had risen as they talked and George led the way out, Jacob following. When they reached the far end of the lobby, Jacob held out his hand.

“I’m glad you’ll do it. I think you’ll find this group full of surprises. But I just hope we don’t have another woman like Alathena to get rid of when their tour is over.”

Shaking Jacob’s hand George said, “See you tomorrow, Jacob.”

“Nice and early, I hope. I’ll have Norman send emails to everyone. You’ll find them punctual. Teachers have to be on time.”

“Well, good. As you know, I rarely am.”

George left and Jacob went upstairs to get in touch with Norman.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bloghopping - Stone Path Review and Right Hand Pointing


I found two new literary journals you may like a lot. The first, Stone Path Review, is a new creation of The Edge Magazine poetry editor William Ricci. I like the look and content of this slim new magazine, which is sure to grow. This is the spring issue's lead poem. Look at the editor's statement about his plans, A Work in Progress. Sounds definitely worth following.

And then there's the pithy Right Hand Pointing, a zine that publishes short poems and stories, with art. Edited by Dale Wisely and John Sharp, the magazine is designed to be read in sequence, a smooth all-in-one read because of the brevity of the contents. What you'd expect from editors named Wisely and Sharp.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My poem "Flight" in Valparaiso Poetry Review

I'm so pleased to have a new poem in Ed Byrnes' excellent Valparaiso Poetry Review. "Flight" is from my forthcoming book Gods of Water and Air, to be published by Kitsune Books later this year.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Renaissance Club - another excerpt - Chapter One

No

I've been asked to share more from my novel The Renaissance Club. It's great fun to do it! Especially if there's an interested reader. Here's the next installment of Chapter One.


Norman looked down the side street at a larger-than-life-size nude statue on a plinth. The figure suddenly turned its head, combed its curly beard with his fingers, and gave back a challenging stare. It must be one of those street performers, Norman thought, like the ones at Fisherman’s Wharf who paint themselves silver and stand still as statues, then move and surprise the tourists for tips.

“Just look at that,” he said to his wife. “So lifelike. You could swear he’s alive but he stands as still as if he were stone. Did you see him move?”

From behind her large, opaque sunglasses, Kathleen glanced at him and then at where he pointed and said, “Norman, it’s just a marble figure. Look at the white eyes.”

Norman shook his head, blinked to settle his contacts, and decided to make an appointment with his optometrist when they got home. She was right. It was just a statue.
“Is it Zeus, do you think?”

As they passed, she looked briefly at the statue, her generous curves straining the tight silk suit, yellow hat shading her pink cheeks.

“Why would you ask me? Was Zeus Greek or Italian?”

“Greek, if you recall,” Norman said, trying to keep the professorial tone from creeping into his voice. “But as we learned in our club meetings, in the Renaissance they rediscovered classical Greek art. So it could be Zeus.”

“Honestly, Norman, I didn’t exactly take notes. You did that for all of us. And turned it into a booklet we all have to carry. Can we go on down to the shops now?”

He fingered the small card in his pocket, his smallest walking guide to Rome, and wished he had brought the large one so he could identify the statue. Vagueness bothered him, names and numbers anchored an indefinable sense of drift that always threatened to overtake him.

“Sure,” he said, unconsciously slowing his pace.

Kathleen said to her daughter, “Sandra, just think: Bulgari and Fendi are right down there.” Kathleen poked her in the shoulder and pointed down to the bottom of The Spanish Steps.

“Cut it out, Mother.”

Norman laughed, hoping to dissolve their tension. “You can take the girl out of Dallas but you can’t take Dallas out of the girl.”

Then he thought that maybe he made that joke too often. Kathleen did not smile.

“Norman, you promised us an hour away from history and in Rome’s best shopping,” she replied. “I’m not being a princess. I want one hour to do what I’m interested in, out of your three weeks of art and history.”

“I know, honey. I just don’t want to miss anything. Anything I’d regret when we go home.”

“Well, neither do I,” she said, and squared her jacket like a fighter adjusting his mouthpiece.

“Okay, we’re going,” Norman said.

Sandra averted her face from her parents, these middle-aged coots. She liked the word coots, with its reference to ducks, quack-quack-quacking as they strolled. She pulled out her phone and talked a note into it, pulling her fingers through her hair and letting the wind ruffle up her bangs. She couldn’t be less moved. Rome simply felt like the place that was going to free her, if she worked her plan right.

Norman strolled even more slowly, moved by the city’s earthy colors in this golden light. Its ancient ruins, towers, and palazzos brought the Renaissance alive for him. They made Concord, California seem flat and unreal, and his life there like a headless statue. Here he could touch stone walls that might have been old when Jesus was young. He could memorize every forkful of pasta and stroll past columns bearing the initials S.P.Q.R.—The Senate and People of Rome. Life here meant no longer counting time on his pocket planner.

Wasn’t that why he had formed The Renaissance Club, to first study and then visit the Italian Renaissance—to be reborn as they had been, by a humanism that was nearly lost in twenty-first century American life? He couldn’t wait to watch his fellow Renaissance Club members enter a city with two thousand years of history embedded in its bones. He wondered if it would change them as quickly as it had changed him. They would be arriving in a few hours. He did not quite know how to tell them about the loss of their guide, but he would figure it out.

The three Wesleys paused to look out over the view, the light sharpening tiers of tiled roofs and the far-off, enormous domes of St. Peter’s.

Each of them looked out over a different city to fall in love with.
Norman leaned on the railing, watching not the view but the olive-skinned women passing by, the old men with hooked noses, and the girls with dark eyes. He saw in their faces Da Vinci paintings, a beauty inborn in every Italian. One woman stopped and stared back, a feeling of recognition growing on both sides. Then she turned and walked away.

Kathleen saw in the streets radiating off the Piazza di Spagna clothes to suit her prettiness and to decorate her own best canvas, herself. The slim Italian women around her in their shades of avocado green and stiletto heels made her itch for her credit card, the one Norman didn’t know about.

Sandra saw stories within the many windows curving away to the horizon, stories she itched to take down. She lifted her phone and spoke into it, but the dictation scrambled her Italian and she had to type instead.

As Norman leaned on the railing, a pigeon flew onto it, startling him. He looked over at its iridescent head and then past it, recognizing the famous house where the poet John Keats had lived and died.

“Girls, do you want to see the Keats and Shelley Museum?” he asked. “The immortal poet lived and died right here, in that building next to the steps.” “I do,” Sandra said. “Truth is beauty, beauty truth. That’s all you need to know. Keats.”

Sandra looked at her father and then at her mother. Kathleen shook her head.

“We have only one hour,” Kathleen said. “Don’t let’s waste any more time on history! You can’t get Prada in Assisi.”

“You can’t get Keats and Shelley there either,” Sandra murmured. “Thou still unravished bride of quietness . . .”

But Norman was not listening to his daughter, he was looking at his wife whose blonde and pink beauty made him as glorious to him as Rome. She was right, it was going to be three long weeks of art history lectures, and she deserved a little of the kind of thing that was her fun. Besides, a little shopping would be good for their plain Sandra, who spent too much time in her head and on her cell phone.

The pigeon turned and gave him a penetrating stare and Norman felt for some odd reason accused until the bird fluttered away. Then he felt uneasy about Kathleen carrying the club funds through these crowded streets, now that she had changed the dollars into lire. They should hurry back to the hotel, but he had promised his girls this grand shopping hour, and after all the time they had spent helping to organize this tour, he owed them that. They had attended every meeting of his Renaissance Club for months and were now sharing their Italian vacation with nine other people. Kathleen had mapped out the itinerary, getting the best rates a travel agent could find. Sandra had helped with computer work because to Kathleen computers could either be productivity tools or just things to spill coffee on.

So he now rushed them down the long flight of the Spanish Steps to the Via Condotti. Its narrow sidewalks were thick with bodies veering around and jostling each other. It was a pickpocket’s paradise. Kathleen and Sandra kept stopping and then Kathleen would race ahead while Sandra lagged, forcing Norman to watch in two directions. They weren’t being cautious. Sandra let her purse dangle away from her body and Kathleen leaned over to look in windows, her backpack a target. He had read that in Rome innocent-looking children could be pickpockets. Thieves on scooters could zip past, cutting purse straps to grab. But in an hour they would be back at the hotel. He practice patience, waiting in front of yet another window, combing his hair with his fingers.

“Kathleen, can we either go inside or move on?” he finally said.

“If you don’t want to shop with us, go back to the hotel,” she said. “You can go back and make calls, but I want to buy Sandra something. We’re not going back until I find her something lovely.”

They went in. Marshaling his cheer, Norman followed as they browsed the aisles. Kathleen steered Sandra over to a display of stilettos.

“If you wore something like that, you’d be really attractive, Sandra, These would show off your good legs. We could do something with your hair, maybe cut it and get some highlights.”

“Mom, do you want me to look like a hooker?”

“Well, right now you look like someone cut your hair when they weren’t wearing their glasses. Try those. I’m going to buy you some great shoes today.”

Norman noted that Kathleen had appropriated his treat to them as her treat to Sandra, but Sandra wasn’t going to take any parental treat.

“Thanks, Mother, but I don’t wear that trashy shit.”

“Don’t swear at me, Sandra! Please.”

“You swear enough for both of us, Mom.”

“Girls! Let’s make some decisions. We still have work to do.”

Neither woman paid attention to him. Sandra drifted behind her mother. Kathleen stopped and picked up a peach suede shoe. A handsome, dark-haired clerk stood nearby but offered no help. Probably he was thinking she could not afford even the one shoe. He gave her a sharp look. She put the shoe down and moved on, but when Sandra came to it, he gestured, inviting her to pick it up.

“Prego,” he said, without smiling.

Sandra responded to his invitation and handsome face with one of her rare smiles, picking up the shoe her mother had put down. She reached past him to get it, brushing his arm. He didn’t step back but leaned in and picked up the other shoe.
“This one would suit you, with your pale skin.” He smiled his brilliant smile, one that said he knew exactly how handsome he was.

“Grazie per il complimento,” Sandra said. “Si deve vendere un sacco di scarpe.”

The clerk, to whom she had just said he must sell a lot of shoes, laughed. “Your Italian is very good,” he said.

Sandra moved on, carrying the shoe. She put it down in another row and he followed, looking at her as if now seeing something he had missed before. Sandra and Kathleen browsed their way through the store before Sandra agreed to try on a pair of olive pumps. The young clerk fitted them on her narrow feet, looking up at her and pushing them on with a slowness that annoyed Norman as Sandra smiled down at him. Then she nodded, got up, letting Norman pay.

As they emerged from the store, Norman said, “Let’s stick together and hurry. We have to be careful, there are thieves just waiting.”

“Norman, I’m a travel agent. You think I don’t know all this? You think I’m not the one who told you all this?” Kathleen said.

Norman refrained from reminding her that she hadn’t worked as one for twenty years. He just said, “I wish you hadn’t worn a backpack today.”

But she and Sandra lagged behind, and finally Norman, pushed beyond his patience, sprinted ahead. He knew they’d catch up at the big corner. He had to walk off his irritation, giving him momentary relief in swift motion. But at the corner, he turned back and couldn’t see them, even though he had only gone half a block. He stood there, dancing anxiously in frustration. Finally they emerged from a small street they obviously had ducked into, lured by another shop.

He walked back toward them, faster now, angry. Before he reached them, he saw the ragged-haired woman in a long green skirt rush up behind Kathleen. She had a blue shawl wrapped around her hips, as if she were in costume, and she pulled a small boy in a bright yellow shirt by the hand. He was too far away to be heard shouting. The woman cut the straps of Kathleen’s backpack and at the same time, the little boy got the wallet out of Sandra’s purse. Norman waved at them as the gypsies ran. Kathleen and Sandra had not yet felt the theft.

The gypsies were quick, dodging around tourists who didn’t even seem to feel them brushing by, as if they were made of fairy silk. He watched in surprise, running himself, as they navigated the crowds at what seemed unearthly speed. By the time he caught up to Kathleen and Sandra, they had discovered the loss. Kathleen’s cheeks were bright pink. She and Sandra were looking around, having no idea in which direction the gypsies had gone.

“They came up behind you,” he said, out of breath.

“Get them!” Kathleen shouted.

Norman ran past, his chubby frame agile enough to dodge slow-moving tourists. A sprinter in college, he could keep them in view, but every second it became clearer that the young woman, even in her long skirts and pulling the boy, was too fast. She seemed to float. They dashed into a side street and he put on his last speed burst, reaching the street and looking down the length of it, seeing no sign. He trotted along, looking into shop windows. Not a sign, amazed at their vanishing. Sandra had made him read a website about Rome’s professional thieves and how they wouldn’t snatch a purse without an escape route, but their speed seemed supernatural. Someone must have been waiting to open a door for them.

He bent over, panting, hands on his thighs. What was Kathleen thinking, wearing a backpack? And what was he thinking, not to have insisted they go straight back with the cash. He hoped it wasn’t much. He wanted to greet his club members with exciting prospects, and not just problems.

Norman shook his head as he breathlessly approached the girls. He could hardly explain to them how quickly the gypsies had vanished. All he could do was shrug and tell them it was as if they had been heading for a house nearby and got in so fast he couldn’t even spot where they had turned.

They walked silently back to the hotel.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Rome in My Mind

On this rainy April day in Northern California, I'm enjoying my own novel's first page, set on a sunny April day in Rome. For now, I'm going to Italy in my mind.

Chapter One. Rome, Day One.

Norman Wesley had walked the city for only two days, but already the sumptuous face of Rome had changed him from community college dean with a blank wall life to a man riding a time machine into the world of Medicis, Michelangelo, dynastic popes, and levitating saints. He had just three weeks to figure out how not to go back.

Norman and his wife and daughter picked their way through the piazza above the Spanish Steps. Norman steered his girls past painters capturing views of the Eternal City to sell to the tourists, each small canvas a different window on jewel-like Rome. At each vista, Norman, the son of a Methodist church organist, let go a little more of the idea that plainness is a virtue. The Renaissance domes, stone gods, and lion fountains put him into a kind of trance, seducing him, making him want to spend his life in this capitol of beauty and passion.

As if approving of his wish, the wind gently lifted his carefully combed-over hair. He smoothed and held it, snagging a few hairs in his college ring. A few more hairs bald, he felt that the more Italy changed him, the happier he was. Rome had already taken his preconceptions about the Renaissance. Even after the year of studying it, he felt he had traveled to a distant planet full of unexpected sights. And Rome made him feel distant from his family in a way he could not explain, but which was strangely delightful.

He looked down the side street at a larger-than-life-size nude statue on a plinth. The figure suddenly turned its head, combed its curly beard with his fingers, and gave back a challenging stare. It must be one of those street performers, Norman thought, like the ones at Fisherman’s Wharf who paint themselves silver and stand still as statues, then move and surprise the tourists for tips.

“Just look at that,” he said to his wife. “So lifelike. You could swear he’s alive but he stands as still as if he were stone. Did you see him move?”

Monday, April 09, 2012

To Self- or not to Self-(Publish), That Is the Question

And it seems the question that won't ever be definitively answered. But this interesting article sparked by some controversail remarks by Jodi Picoult gives some new (to me) reasons for self-publishing. Still, for my novel, I'm thinking print and conventional publisher, for a little help widening my audience, however modest the publicity and distribution such a publisher might provide. Oh, to BECOME an aggrieved midlist author so I can take back my rights after six months and self-publish to continue selling the book!

Here's another article on the economics of self-publishing. I don't think most of this article is right, but it's food for thought. I have absolutely no opinion. Yet.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Renaissance Club - excerpt


I've been talking for months now about the novel I'm working on, the one set in Italy. I thought I better produce some evidence, if only to show that I'm not making it up. Well, I am making up the novel, just not the story about writing it. So here goes. A short synopsis and a little taste.

THE RENAISSANCE CLUB

A month-long art history tour of Italy promises its organizer, middle-aged professor Norman Wesley, a new life of freedom from his messed-up marriage and deadening career. His fellow colleagues at Mount Antioch Community College, The Renaissance Club, wander through Italy with him, following broken loves and unsatisfied desires. Enter some down-to-earth saints come alive from their sculptures and paintings, and four couples find the marital deck shuffled and art and love proved to be chameleons. Their enigmatic tour guide, George St. James, keeps losing his gold cigarette lighter, which, passing through many hands, kindles surprising transformations.

EXCERPT -- CHAPTER ONE

At eight o’clock that night, nine tired Renaissance Club travelers stood in line at the concierge desk of the Grand Hotel. The eighteenth century grandeur of the lobby was filled with a crush of Italians in jewel-bright cocktail dresses and dark suits shouting at each other across the dark green and gilt expanse of a vast room. The club members stood in line to get their room keys, feeling dowdy and wrinkled after a twenty-three-hour trip as they slowly edged toward the desk. The vaulted, chandeliered space was filled with chattering, smoking Italians that seemed to be in a Fellini film, herded together into small groups by an energetic, tiny woman in a pouf of green taffeta and feathered hat. A man in an olive green suit jostled past them pulling along a woman in a strapless green dress. Green, oddly, was the dress code.

The travelers quickly unpacked and found their way back to their private dining room where Norman, Kathleen, and Sandra waited for them at a long table decorated with large silver pedestal fruit bowls and tall silver candelabras that glinted against dark green walls, making them feel they were seated in a jewel box.

Norman Wesley surveyed his club with satisfaction.

“It’s wonderful to begin our first happy dinner party in Italy,” he said. “I must make a few brief announcements. First, we’ve changed our plan. We’re staying in Rome’s best hotel because we got a discount.

Eva Manookian, the art instructor, looked sharply at him and said, “Norman, how much of a discount?”

“Let’s say it’s a grander hotel at exactly the same price as the one we were booked into.”

Waiters served the table gnocchi and, exhausted and hungry, they all began eating with such concentration that few even looked up as Norman said, “I must announce that we’re having a sort of imbroglio. A bit of crisis.”

No one was listening. He always had trouble commanding attention when he chaired Mount Antioch College meetings, so he tapped his water glass with a knife.

Little response. In all the meetings he’d ever chaired, he had never tapped such a knife against such a glass: real silver on real crystal. He tapped again, then raised the knife to again tap, but Kathleen put her hand on his sleeve and tugged. As the dining room grew completely quiet she said,

“Jesus H. Christ, Norman! Spit it out.”

He looked down at her, surprised. His spouse looked like an agitated sunset in her coral suit and pink face.

“I have to call it a crisis,” he said, “because the shortage of funds will revise our plans, but of course hidden inside every crisis is an opportunity. Essentially—”

“Shortage of funds?” someone said.

“Why are we short, Norman?” Eva asked.

But abruptly, Norman burst out coughing and couldn’t go on.

Eva said, “Kathleen, can you translate for him?”

Norman waved at Kathleen, drank some water, opened his mouth and looked at his fellow travelers. He felt as if he had never seen any of them, though they had been meeting for more than a year to study the Renaissance.

Rick Waller, the IT instructor, now stood up, letting his lanky height emphasize his assumption of leadership. He often challenged him when Norman waffled.

“Just tell us what the hell happened. What do you mean, shortage of funds? We have a right to know.”

Rick’s wife, Marianna, looked at Norman and nodded. With her wavy long dark hair and large serene eyes, Marianna was always the most beautiful woman in any room she entered. Now she looked at Norman, flashing at him the force of her displeased beauty, which Norman felt as a douse of chilly water.

“Why are we suddenly short of funds, Norman?”

Sandra reached up and touched his arm.

“Dad, tell them about the gypsies,” she said, and fixed her pale eyes on her father in the way that young women thought meaningful. He brushed her hand away. pulled it back and began typing on her phone.

Rick sat down and also pulled out his phone and began typing. A few others looked down at their phones, so as to avoid the awkwardness.

But Norman had two dilemmas to reveal, and he chose the first one. “Several turns of event have unsettled our plans somewhat. Our esteemed guide Massimo, the Renaissance expert we hired to escort us throughout Northern Italy, has . . . well—”

“He’s lying in a hospital,” said Kathleen. “Apparently, having to escort American teachers around Italy gave the Pope’s tour guide a heart attack.”

They all looked at Kathleen, who frowned back.

Eva said, “I’m sure we can just pick up a guide specializing in the humanistic philosophy of the Renaissance. Let’s just step out onto the sidewalk and hail one. Oh, Guide, oh Renaissance Guide! Hello?!”

“I know someone who might help us,” Jacob Ismail said.

Jacob had been teaching at Mount Antioch for only a few years. Norman treasured his suave middle eastern good manners and his ability to create harmony. Perhaps because he refused to join departmental political brawls, most club members considered Jacob an outsider. Norman had no idea how to go about finding a replacement guide qualified to conduct a Renaissance art history tour, but Jacob had lived in Rome and specialized in Medieval-Renaissance Studies. Norman silently prayed that he could pull off a quick miracle.

“Yes, but what does he cost?” Eva said.

Jacob said, “The man I have in mind taught at Oxford. He lives here part of the time. George might do it just for free, for the fun of escorting such a well-prepared group.”

Eva found no way to complain about a free guide. Shaking back tawny bangs from droopy seventy-year-old eyes, she said, “I’ve said all along we should guide ourselves. We’ve studied the Renaissance. I teach art and Darren teaches history. Why do we need a paid guide?”

She was too tired to completely glare at Norman, but with what little eyelid power left to her, she tried.

“Eva, we’ve discussed this,” Norman said. “Italy has strict regulations about guides.”

“If you’re worried about silly regulations,” she retorted, “let’s just pretend we’re talking among ourselves. What are they going to do, arrest a bunch of Americans willing to spend money in their country?”

Eva hadn’t wanted to come on this tour, but did because of her husband Art’s interest. She liked to bicker with her husband—they often referred to themselves as The Bickersons—but she rarely denied him anything. She figured anyone who would put up for twenty-five years wit her temper was worth keeping.

Norman said quietly. “Eva, my job is to steer us clear of problems. We can’t add breaking Italian laws to the ones we already have.”

“What are our problems, Norman?” Rick said. “What happened with our money?”
Norman, besieged, confessed. “The gypsies hit us on the Via Condotti. We were carrying some group funds, they got it all, and now we’re a little short.”

“Exactly how short?” Rick persisted, his voice rising in annoyance at the way Norman was drawing it out.

He was about to go on when Marianna gestured to him to pick up her tote bag and get something out of it. This totally undermined his stance. He reached down and hauled the pink suede bag into his lap, put his hand in and searched through its contents, then pulled out a mirror and lipstick and handed them to his wife with a disgusted expression.

Norman, given a moment to gather himself, summarized.

“Number one: We lost our guide. Number two: We lost some money. Number three: We need to find another certified guide and address how to deal with the shortfall. It’s simply a matter for decision-making. I know you’re all tired, but surely we can manage that tonight.”

Marianna merely shook her head sadly. It affected everyone like the simultaneous snuffing of a hundred candles.

Rick said, “Give us the amount we’re short, Norman.”

Still Norman hesitated. Kathleen’s complexion was moving beyond cotton candy pink to bright orange, an interesting combination with her blonde hair. Sandra looked up and opened her mouth just as Kathleen boiled over.

“Norman, just fucking tell them!”

Sandra smiled.

Rising, Kathleen said, “Here’s the situation. I changed some of the club’s funds into lire to get a good rate and before we could get back to the hotel to put it in the safe, a gypsy cut off my purse and ran. Unfortunately, Norman wasn’t fast enough to catch her. We lost about six thousand dollars.”

“What the hell, Kathleen,” Rick said, frowning deeply. His thick dark eyebrows loomed over his thin face. “You lost our cash—now it’s yours to replace.”
The group was suddenly, chaotically noisy.

Rick said, “Let Norman find us a new guide. This trip was his idea.”

Rick spent most of his time assigning code and logic to an illogical world. He was satisfied that he had solved their problems and assigned responsibility in two sentences.

“A theft isn’t my fault!” Kathleen shouted. “We don’t have that kind of money with us. Besides, we all agreed to share responsibility on this trip.”

She didn’t mention that they had used up all their credit, raided their savings, and used some of their own funds to pay extra so the group could stay in Rome’s best hotel. The more she thought about it, the more the whole thing seemed like Norman’s fault.

“Our money was your responsibility when we handed it over,” Rick persisted.

“That must seem to you like the easy solution,” she said, “but Norman and I don’t have enough, even if we wanted to.”

“Are you just crazy?” Rick said, as always using unrelenting offense to win. “Why did you turn our funds into cash and then walk around Rome?”

“What do you know about Rome? You can’t just dash across town.”

Rick stared at her and said, “How can you even be arguing about this?”

“I don’t see that we should be responsible for an accident,” Kathleen retorted. “We said we would all share responsibility whatever happened.”

“Flagrant carelessness isn’t an accident.”

Kathleen repeated, “We said we’d share responsibility.”

Norman hurried to add, “She’s right, we can take care of this as a club. We’re on an adventure, aren’t we?”

But no one in the room believed this was part of an adventurer, or for that matter took Norman seriously as an adventurer.