Friday, November 13, 2015

Your Protagonist's Mess Area

Unless your main character has OCD, everyone has an area they habitually leave in a mess. Mine is my desk. Really, any surface I can pile books and file folders on. The lie I tell myself is that the stack will catch my attention so I can follow up, but the truth is that every stack starts to looks alike and I dread digging in. My mess shows that I'm a literary, writerly, bookish kind of person, with lots of bills to pay and things half-written.

I know women whose mess area is the closet, not because they don't care but because there's an overwhelm of clothes and accessories in there, and in their case it might be a glorious, visually lively mess. For some, it's the pocket. For others, the purse. I know many kitchen mess cooks, who glory in throwing food and dirty implements around, leaving a kitchen like a tornado had cooked in it after just frying a couple of eggs.

What's your character's mess are? Or stark lack of messes? It will say a lot about him or her if you can describe the mess-making and mess recognition moments.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Your Protagonist's Thought Patterns

Emotion is important in fiction, but thought and will are also a huge component of character and character development. You can identify with a character's thoughts and decisions when she's under stress. One of life's pleasurable but stressful activities is travel. Since my novel's main character is on a three-week, intensive tour of Renaissance Italy, stress is a given. May Gold combats it through her Gratitude Practice.

I gave May this habit of enumerating things she's grateful for to associate her to the San Francisco Bay Area, where mindfulness meditation is popular. I also wanted to show that she's active in battling anxiety. She isn't passive. She uses her Gratitude List to steer her thoughts another way.

Is Gratitude Practice just a Bay Area whiffen-poofy idea? Turns out, it's been scientifically proven to have very powerful effects on mood, as this Business Insider article indicates. The article cites passages from The Upward Spiral, Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, by neuroscientist Alex Korb, PhD. Dr. Korb identifies the different brain processes linked to types of thinking. Gratitude, mindfulness, and decision-making are powerfully positive for our brains -- they even can be "the key to happiness," the article claims.

So I gave May the knowledge and will to fight negative thinking with gratitude. It's a key to her journey. I like characters with strong and articulate inner lives. If I'm let inside a character's most basic processes, I can connect and have a feeling of inevitability as the story plays out. And that keeps me reading!

Sunday, October 04, 2015

I'll reading from my book Gods of Water and Air

Next Sunday, October 11, at 3 pm in picturesque Crockett, California, I'll be a featured reader at the Valona Deli Second Sunday Poetry Series. Coordinator Connie Post kindly invited me. If you're in the SF Bay Area and can make it, it would be wonderful to see you! There's an open mic after the two featured readers, and a terrific jazz ensemble plays at 6 pm after the poetry.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Why You Need to Read This Now!

A great title gets us reading
with a good title as a good first line. Or maybe just as hard -- first lines also bear the full weight of the reader's entry -- and have at times despaired over that blank space where the title should go.

When I wrote my article The Challenge of the Title, published by Avatar Review, essays on creating titles have proliferated, along with the need for titles because of the Internet. So if you're at the stuck place and need a little help jumpstarting your title search, here are a few interesting essays for writers on titles:

First from the wonderful PubCrawl, a how-to: How to Create a Fantastic Book Title
I specially like the index card exercise!

Thoughtful comments on titling from poet Alberto Rios in "Titling a Poem, Titling Anything."

And if your muse is really exhausted and just wants to take a nap, let the Random Poem Title Generator do the work. Lake Dazzle is my favorite so far. See what you get by simply pressing the button. (I may write a poem for that title.)

The visual? To celebrate once you've created your fantastic title. Cheers!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Writing My Character's Future Life

Photo: Nadya Phillips, Venice 2015
In writing a novel or story a writer gives lots of thought to what happened to the main character before she or he arrived at the beginning of the tale, but have we considered where she goes after the ending? If you're contemplating a sequel or a series, it's a natural question. But how to begin to answer?

J.K. Rowling planned not only her characters' arcs, but their futures beyond the books. The mechanics of plotting are important in devising a good story, but what's most important is where your character's heart has led her at the conclusion of her initial story. Where she wants to go may not always please the author.

Whether or not the character's organic journey yields another piece of fiction isn't up to the author, unless you're letting the plot lead--in which case, more power to you! You'll probably sell a lot of books. But for me, the character's organic self-development is most interesting. What are her aspirations and fears?

I want my character to lead me into strange new territory even if it doesn't lend itself to fiction. I want her to feel the truth of her way forward, much the way I feel my own future: intuitively, letting it cohere until I sense a direction and understand the consequences -- or am too compelled to keep from making growth-producing mistakes.

So it's back to contemplating my character's future before I finish the novel. For my work-in-progress, THE RENAISSANCE CLUB, I've probably overdone the backstory-forestory research, as I wrote an entire two-act play about my characters, only half of which is contained in this book. Stay tuned for a possible sequel or even series. Depending on what my main character feels after she marries
her muse in Italy.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Poetry's Monetary Value

Can writing poetry ever pay enough? And do we need it to?

For those of us taking advantage of the fall season to submit work to recently opened journals, there's a new way to see if any on your target list pay for poems. Most print journal do pay, but only in copies. For online published poems, my stipend is merely the exposure to readers.

But why not get at least a monetary token of the value of all the work that goes into a single poem--and the potential enjoyment the reader has? The economics of publishing poetry can be complex, but some believe that poets should be paid cash.

Jessica Piazza, who blogs at Poetry Has Value, believes we should. She's a poet, professor, and book club facilitator who has created the public document linked above. It lists journals that pay for poetry. She took the radical and interesting step of making the document fully viewable and editable by the public. You can not only use it, but also add journals that pay if you don't see them listed.

Jessica is tracking with monthly posts the money she has spent and money earned during her year-long pledge to only submit poetry to paying markets. As of July 31, 2015, she's in positive territory by $264.50, her net earnings from poetry. Not a living wage, but it beats giving her work away.

I'm considering this experiment in 2016. I may even start sooner. I'm going to publish. Why not get paid, even a little? 

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.

Friday, June 19, 2015

My poem about throwing away soap

I do some of my best writing in the shower. In my mind, of course. Neither pen nor phone can withstand the water. The inspirational quality of the shower may be in part because mine has a skylight. I can wash or just do hyrotherapy in sunlight, watching clouds drift overhead, or listening to rain on the glass. Whatever it is, washing naked in sunlight has to be one of the best pleasures ever invented. Add a beautifully scented soap to the mix and it becomes downright inspiring.

One morning I was sunlight showering meditatively, until I came upon a dilemma. My favorite soap -- one that smells of bergamot and roses -- wore down to a slippery sliver. It kept leaping out of my hands under the spray while I tried to preserve and use it. Common sense said to toss it. But there were many forces at work against common sense, as it turned out And that turned into this poem,"I Throw Away the Soap," published -- I'm delighted to say -- in Prime Number Magazine.

Click on the link to read the whole issue. My poem includes a mini-essay on the sources for the poem and how it evolved. Other pieces in this magazine also include brief comments on how the pieces came about. I love that kind of inspirational craft talk among writers and poets. Sometimes they even act as poem prompts!

Thanks, Val Nieman at Prime Number Magazine, for selecting my poem.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Time Travel Novels Come in All Flavors

Time travel novels seem to travel between genres: you can find them in Mainstream, Literary, Sci-Fi, Mystery, Romance, and Women's Fiction. Between H.G. Wells' The Time Machine and Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series lies a vast continent of uncategorizable stories involving moving backwards and forwards in time.

Having just written a time-travel novel, The Renaissance Club, involving a young art historian and her artist-hero, the great Italian sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini, I've  been reading stories that hinge on magical treatments of time. I like to call them time-bending stories.
Here's one of my favorite time-travel novel lists, from LibraryThing. I love that it encompasses the spectrum of treatments, from Poul Anderson's and Ray Bradbury's serious considerations of time-travel mechanics and consequences to humorous uses of device, as in Douglas Adams' books. However, the omission of Kate Atkinson's intriguing Groundhog Day style novel, Life After Life, is a serious one. I think alternate reincarnations and versions of the same life should count as time travel.

And that's the beauty of the device: its infinite possibilities. In my novel, I have a time-traveller going back to alter a single moment in time and thus erase one masterpiece, changing the history of art. I don't much enjoy thinking about quantum physics and its relation to time travel, but I really enjoy the idea that history (time) branches off into infinite possibilities. Maybe those alternate worlds are contained in those baby universes posited by Stephen Hawking, the ones that might even at this moment be passing through your body.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Kick on the Apogee - by a Rocket Kid

Thinking about being a rocket kid today, growing up in the mushroom shadow of the Cold War and with my father, the bipolar rocket scientist. He used to joke that he blew up rockets for a living. He blew up families, too. But he also created some fantastic art, taught me how to fish and how to be creative, and I still miss the pain-in-the-family factor of his explosive, active, restless, engaging, irritating, fascinating personality.

This essay, excerpted from my memoir, Rocket Lessons, first appeared in the online journal Small Spiral Notebook.
A Kick on the Apogee

In the 1950's, brash young men fired Thor missiles into the ozone layer. They split the sound barrier for the first time, making thunder over the Mojave Desert. No one yet knew how reach outer space – no one had even been to the stratosphere. Scientists and engineers were working on a fuel mix to give a rocket a big enough kick in the apogee to get into orbit. Anyone could try out his idea, as long as he had a photo badge, a crew cut and working knowledge of calculus. My father had them all.

Dad's first assignment at Space Technology Laboratories was to oversee the development of this fuel, to win the race to propel missiles farther and faster, lift top-secret payloads into orbit, and intimidate the Reds. In those pre-Space Shuttle days, he had to go to Cape Canaveral often, for launches that often turned out disasters. One rocket after another fizzled, exploded or did both while toppling over on the blockhouse. Dad and the other engineers were sometimes trapped for hours or even days while they extinguished the flaming wreckage.

He would leave with a suitcase and a jaunty nod and return a week later in the same gray suit, now rumpled. His narrow gray tie was loosened and the first button of his white plaid shirt open. His black frame glasses slid down his nose as he sank into the couch. It was an occasion when Dad came home. We gathered in the living room and tried to restrain ourselves from jumping on the couch next to him, which rarely had good results. He let my mother serve the first of his martinis without saying a thing. He could not talk much about his projects, but he found creative ways to complain.

"Bitch of a trip! I was surrounded by incompetents." He pushed the glasses back up; they slid down again on the sweat that perpetually beaded his sallow face. His large, green eyes looked watery and bloodshot, as though something in the air irritated him. Something was always irritating him. His nerves were so frayed he carped at anything or anyone: child, cat, chair, newspaper.

"Watch where you're going!" he said to the lamp, when he switched it on and it tipped over. "What's the matter with you?"

Mom reacted as if he had the measles. She offered nibbles and drew the curtains. She admonished us to cocoon him in tiptoe silence. He sat slack, unknotted tie ends splayed on his shirt. Even his crew cut seemed wilted. Holding the martini, he wove expletives into stories with no beginning or end, much of which we could not understand.

"You know what Ramo says to me? He says, 'Bert, you got six inches lift-off on that last Thor?' 'Yeah, Si,' I says, 'before it exploded, we did.' Then you know what he says?"

What was a Thor? Who was Ramo? We did not know, but we pretended. "What?"

"Ramo says, 'You didn't get much altitude.' 'At least it got off the stand.' Jeez, that guy bitches me off."

Then Dad remembered how much he could not say. He drank for awhile without speaking, head twitching in that over-the-shoulder jerk we had come to identify as "Don't go near Dad.' My mother smoothed her wavy brown hair as she stood in the kitchen, looking over the pass-through bar into the living room. She smoothed it again, though it was not messed. Her blue eyes blinked rapidly, as though smoothing and blinking would clear the picture and restore Dad to civility.

After returning from his next trip, Dad yelled at Mom even before putting down his suitcase. Davey and I listened through my bedroom door. Dad was like a Tuva throat singer; he could yell in two different pitches at the same time. For a man only five foot eight and a hundred and forty pounds, he had an amazing bullhorn baritone, which he abused liberally to startle and stun.

"Betty, I asked you to pay that bill three weeks ago. Now they're sending notices and I'm going to have to call them. I don't have time for this malarkey! Can't you do one simple thing while I'm busting my hump? Are you too dumb to understand that if you don't pay the bills, we'll end up in the street?"

Mom's voice did not penetrate steel like his. Her voice was as pale as her gaze, soft and indefinite like the rest of her, as though she were built not to intrude. We could only assume her smooth reply, the balm she poured over him when his gaskets started rattling. We could picture her undermining his blistering monologue by taking his briefcase and setting it down to help him shrug off his coat. It was her job to keep the rocket engineer from putting himself into orbit. 

Like the men who built the railroads, the missile men were adventurers. In space, what mattered was audacity, not polish. Manners were not part of their calculation set. But my father was not like the other rocket engineers. Painter, jazz-lover and part-time bohemian, he was blessed not only with a thundering voice, but also with a nervous system that did not permit him to sit down for more than half an hour. Having been brought up in the Depression, he imagined he fit into working class San Pedro, among European fishermen who had come in the early 1900's with their fishing trades, to create what you could call a fish rush. Dad liked, but was not like, these burly, slow-moving Slavs and Italians. Their hands preceded them, while with Dad it was the voice that preceded him.

Today's frontier was the sky, and my father was in the vanguard. He had been recruited for his job by top brass. He had shaken Si Ramo's hand, met Werner von Braun and received his top-secret clearance. Aerospace was a small, friendly pond, but he had yet to prove his worth. The Russians had plans for a manned mission, and that gave everyone in the company a permanent headache. Every project might be the one that put us ahead. No wonder Dad had a bad twitch.

He began his next project – which we later found out was the world's first telecommunications satellite – under enormous pressure. He was at the nexus of an international venture. No one had any idea how high the stakes were; no one had envisioned global communication. It was a time when people used rotary dial phones with cords, and if someone was on the phone, all you got was a busy signal.

All we knew was that Dad was strung tighter than piano wire. When he came home from Florida he reverberated like the top-hat in a drum set, cussing in his own style of word jazz.

"Ramo's got my ass in a sling. Ga-dam bean counters wouldn't reimburse me for the raincoat I lost. Next expense report, I'll say, okay, you sons-a-bitches, go ahead and cross off the raincoat – if you can find it. It's in there. Only it ain't called 'raincoat." Geezacrist, if I don't get this payload into orbit, I can move to Rosarita Beach and fish all day."

He jumped up and wandered around the living room, inspecting the furniture as if to find fault, but he seemed pleased. Mom was nervous. She smoothed her apron and rubbed her lips together to spread lipstick the way she did when guests arrived, even though she did not have lipstick on. Dad repeated himself with glee.

"Move to Rosarita! Fish all day!"

She emptied the ashtray into the bowl of discarded peanut shells and took it to the kitchen, looking like she wanted to keep going on out of the house. But she came back and put the ashtray on the table. Her eyes seemed to have lost color.

A different father seemed to come home from every trip, each more intense and distracted. His gaze seemed more pointed, his hair shorter and his twitch worse. We saw less of him. No more tinkering in the garage making bookcases while he let us hold nails for him. Now he was all business.

"Let's see that report card," he demanded of me one night. The martini glass was empty. We heard the clang of pot lids. Mom was at the frenetic stage of making dinner. We had a few minutes before dinner. This might be a good way to get his attention. I ran to my room, got the report card and proudly handed it over.

He scrutinized my straight A's. Raising his chin, he peered down at me as if he expected one of the A's to wiggle around and become an F.

"Aha, aha … okay. Okay ... Good." That was all he said, giving me a cold look. "Now don't rest on your laurels."

I was in first grade. What were laurels, and how did you rest on them?

After the next launch, his face was the color of his cigarette ash. Settled on the couch, he slurped his drink in silence, spitting olive pits into the dish and often missing.

It was August. Sunlight slanted into the living room from behind the yellow curtains, making a shaft on the couch where he sat, even though it was nearly eight o'clock. He complained that the light was hurting his eyes. Mom closed the curtains and made the mistake of asking, "How did it go?"

Dad lit a cigarette, took a drag so big the cigarette end flared red.

"Ramo sent me to D.C. while he stayed in the blockhouse. My rocket, and he's taking all the credit. I'm stuck in the Pentagon with the brass." He knocked ash off his cigarette.  Missing the ashtray, it dropped onto the teak wood coffee table. He did not even swear, just scooped the ash into his palm and dropped it into the olive dish by mistake.

"You'll get the credit, I'm sure," my mother said soothingly. She was perched on the edge of the armless arm chair in her full-skirted tan sundress. She had put it on and carefully smeared on her lipstick before he was due to arrive.

Dad gave her a peculiar smile and drained the martini. He held up the glass and she poured him another.

"Have you seen the papers?" he asked me and my brother.

We shook our heads. Dad twitched twice, then appeared to change the subject.

"I'm sitting at the Pentagon when they light the candle. I call Kelsey and he says – mind you, I'm sitting there with the generals right next to me – and Kelsey says, 'What if I told you that meco was at 162.5?'"

He said this with dramatic flair, waiting for a reaction. We did not understand, so Dad paced around the room and explained that it meant main engine cutoff, the burnout or first stage of a missile. If it did not happen at just the right moment, the first stage could fall back to earth on the wrong spot – on, say, New York.

He grinned the way he did after bringing home a big yellowtail tuna. He sat down to grind out his cigarette and light another with the big Zippo that clacked open and shut, relishing a rapt audience. Then he sat back on the low-backed couch, his arms sprawled across it, and smiled as he continued the tale.

"So Kelsey's saying that it was supposed to go 164 seconds, but it was short. He says, 'The Able didn't get a big enough kick in the ass.'" He booted an imaginary rocket with his crossed leg.

"Bert!" My mother all but covered our ears, as though 'ass' were the worst word we had ever heard from Dad. Her lips were compressed now, not rubbing around like before. She did not seem to think there was anything amusing about the story.

"Let's just say we didn't throw the ball hard enough. 'It won't get over,' Kelsey says. 'Shit, Mabel!' He looked up at her for a reaction.

Mom was putting the remains of the appetizers onto the tray, along with Dad's empty martini glass. At the repetition of this word, she jerked upright and actually glared.


He smiled. "All right. So I say, 'Where's it going?' and for a few minutes all I hear is Kelsey working his slide rule – 'whissht, whissht' – and the generals are sitting there listening. Finally he says to me, 'Oh, shit, we hit Cuba!'"

There was quite a silence. Mom stood there, still holding the tray, only now it was tilting. The martini glass slid, but she hardly noticed. We all stared, mouths in O's.

I could see her stiffness, sensed her fear. Dad seemed to relish the effect. Something told me he was pumping this into a whopper, but Mom seemed to believe it. I watched him  slumped down and popped an olive in his mouth. He spit the pit into his palm, then dropped it into the dish containing fresh olives, as though everything on the table were there just for him. Drawing it out, he waited for us to beg him to continue.

"So?" Mom was mono-syllabic. "And?"

"I says to Kelsey, 'Maybe we killed a cow in Cuba. Let's get back before they find out.' We snuck back to the hotel and got the hell out. No one knows yet, but it won't be long."

"My stars and garters!" said Mom. "Heavens to Betsy." Even she seemed aware of how odd were these expostulations.

"Did you see the cow, Dad?" asked my brother. "Was it squashed like a bug?" He was at the stage of treasuring the gory green goo of a squashed bug.

"No, dummy, I didn't see the cow. The missile hit Cuba, your father didn't hit it."

"Dodo!" I said. Davey went red. My mother was paler than usual.

There was a pause so intense you could hear the dust motes drifting. A breeze coming in the window smelled of ocean, signaling that it was getting dark and soon time for bed. I shivered suddenly.

Dad leaned forward, serious. "A Florida paper said our missile hit Cuba. The wire picked it up, Betts. It's going to come out that Castro's saying we attacked. There was a picture. That son of a bitch had them rig up our fuel tank with fins and a nose cone."

I thought my mother was going to faint, but Dad seemed to find the whole thing hilarious. He repeated the end of the story a couple of different ways before moving on to criticize the way Mom had cleaned the coffee table.

Oddly enough, there were no ramifications for Dad. In his business, praise and blame were about as predictable as a missile's trajectory. No one blamed the Cold War on my father, but I have always known that the first Cuban missile crisis was years before President Kennedy's.

The next trip brought Dad home in even worse shape. They had fired off another million dollar fireworks, as he called it. If he did not get the next one right, it was his job.

When he did get it right, two years and ten trips later, Dad was eating tranquilizers like peanuts and was as thin as his swizzle stick. Now when he came home, Mom no longer served elaborate martini-and-appetizer spreads. She was busy. She joined the Temple chorus and volunteered at the Assistance League. Dad still bulled his way around the living room of an evening, looking for things to complain about, but he got used to doing without much of an audience. We all had things to do, it seemed.

Mom started having little talks with us about how to behave when he came home from work at night. She collected us on the couch one afternoon and insisted on holding our   hands, which made me suspicious.

"Your father is under a strain," she said. "It's very important that you don't agitate him. Don't ask questions when he comes in, just let him calm down."

I asked, "Why's Dad sad all the time? Is he losing his job?" I did not know what a job was, but I had heard them talking.

Mom was indignant. "Of course Dad's not losing his job. He's sad because sometimes his missiles don't have enough fuel."

"What's fuel?" Davey asked.

"It's like gas in your car. Dad's in charge of making it."

"Why doesn't he take his missile to Chuck's Station?" Davey offered.

I glared. "You're lucky Dad didn't hear that, dummy."

The little twerp must have said something stupid to Dad, because on Saturday Dad took us to a hangar to see the nose cone. It was twice as tall as our roof. The missile, he said, was taller than buildings on Miracle Mile. He wrote our names on the nose cone so they would orbit forever in space. We were famous! and back in Dad's good graces, even if Mom was not. Still, this was not the same old Dad. He cut short every outing, as though eager to get rid of us. He rarely did any scat-singing in the car, just drove, changing lanes and barking at us to shut up and let him drive.

Mom kept on giving us pep talks. They were fine, but when these talks began to be delivered in tears, it was not fine.

"Mom? What's the matter?" I asked when her Don't-annoy-your-father routine wobbled. Her blue eyes scrunched up and three fat tears slid out. We were sitting on my bed. She had come to soothe me after Dad yelled at me about leaving my skates around.

She suddenly seemed to have forgotten what she came in to say. She was staring straight ahead of her, as if looking into my closet, only the closet door was shut. I reached for her hand, but she pulled it away and looked at me as if I were a strange child who had just wandered in. Then she blinked and straightened.

"I'm fine, it's just that your father …"

That sentence never was finished in all the years I was growing up. Dad eventually got his communications satellite into outer space and it became the world's prototype medium for intercontinental telephoning. Our family exploded like a bad launch. Three years later, I went off to college at Berkeley, Mom and Dad divorced and Mom moved with Davey to Berkeley. Only Dad was left in San Pedro. He remarried and continued complaining to fresh ears.

Today I called him, the signal of my phone call bouncing off one of the satellites. I spent the entire twenty outer-space-deflected, long-distance minutes listening to him talk about how the company had passed him over for promotions, taken all his ideas and given other people the credit, then retired him and cheated him on his pension. I could hear the comfortable tone in his voice, and knew he was talking for fun, telling stories and into his second martini.

His voice was gruff, yet articulate. He was choosing his words for sound as much as what they conveyed. He liked the audience of my silence, punctuated as it was with appreciative murmurs. It could go on like this for a long time. As he talked on, shaping his story, I heard his third wife in the background complaining that he had eaten all the olives.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Submit Your Writing Like a Man

While I was appalled to learned about a gender difference in the way women and men submit their writing for publication, as I read Kelli Russell Agodon's essay on the subject, I increasingly recognized my own female style of sending out my work.

Women poets, read this essay on the differences, and see if it rings any bells. She is the author of Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room and was the co-editor of Crab Creek Review for many years. She has seen a lot of submissions and recognized a pattern among them. Maybe this is just one magazine and one editor's view, but as soon as I read it, I started going through my rejection emails and found six encouraging recent rejections I had totally ignored. The  editors had specifically asked me to submit again -- "strongly encouraged" was a phrase that appeared more than once. Some of them made comments about the poems. I ignored all of them casting a stink-eye in their virtual direction. Fortunately, though, I saved them.

I remember feeling embarrassment, annoyance, and a wish to forget the whole exchange. After all, I had selected the poems carefully for these journals and felt they were good matches. And yet I know the odds, the deluge of submissions these (mostly) volunteer editors face. After reading the essay and the emails, I submitted again to every single journal. Crab Creek Review will be included! I'm changing my style to masculine. Life's too short to go away licking wounds. Or to abandon campaigning a good poem.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Zen and the Art of Waiting for an Agent (or Editor)

Einstein was right: time isn't real. I know because I've fallen into the black hole between finishing my novel, The Renaissance Club, and waiting for an agent to offer to represent it. A seemingly endless span in which "Replies if interested" is the new "No, thanks."It's been two months and many queries. I'm growing anxious, which is not a help to a writer.

So what to do while waiting so impatiently? I've read many articles on this topic. Google it. But I have just one suggestions: Water a plant. Consider as you thoroughly and slowly wet the dry soil and wait for the water to soak in how long it took the plant to develop the buds that are now showing in late May, promising to open in bright splendor as soon as they have finished developing their full vigor. Consider how like a budding, hardy plant is your book. If you're like me, you've spent many years (six in my case) working on it. If you're like me, that included many revisions, one major plot game-change, and endless copy-editing passes. Consider how like pruning and feeding and watering every day for months that process is. And then tell yourself that this is only one day in the life of your book. One day of not hearing, not seeing a bud open yet, and that as surely as the sun will shine, you will get published.

Why do I say that I will get published? Because of my second suggestion: make a plan. The word "plant" contains the word "plan." Like plants, plans tend to grow stronger, bigger, and more durable, especially if committed to paper. For my book as soon as I hit the Wall of Impatience, I turned to doing something more fruitful. I made The Plan to Publish The Renaissance Club. It consists of tiered options that range from finding literary representation and going with a top publisher to self-publishing, preferably in a collective or hybrid publishing house. But the endpoint of The Plan is Publication.

I am assured of my goal. The waiting has become tolerable, the way I can wait for my twelve rosebushes and five phalaeopsis orchids to sprout buds and eventually give me glorious flowers. It's a certainty. That makes waiting easier. One other way to make it easier: read all about the industry and how to get into and survive in it. Here are a few interesting articles.

Why Self-Publishing Doesn't Work and How It Can 
How to Write or Not Write Plot
What Does a Good Development Editor Do?
Get Your Query Critiqued
How To Title Your Book - by Agent Rachelle Gardner
Social Metrics That Matter

And remember -- no matter what anyone tells you -- your pen is golden.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Time's Mysterious Flow: Poetry, Fiction, and Hummingbirds.

When you spend most of your life in midair, how do you travel through time differently than someone does when spending your time seated among a throng of thoughts?

Most of my days and nights are spent sitting and thinking. It must look like an odd life to a hummingbird. Like a sloth of some upright kind. But I think time moves faster for me than the hummingbird, who dives to the feeder and pokes a tongue into the sugar water while I pause, spinning in his blur of wings, both of us suspended in differing flows of time.

His life is short. Mine seems endless. Some of my mornings are arranged by a muse who is a conductor of time and coincidence. Who makes me turn my head at the moment the hummingbird swoops into view.

I'm thinking today of my brother's surgery, which is going on right now. I'm also thinking of how  each petal fell from the bouquets that filled the house a week ago for my birthday. I felt each one's soft thud on the table. I'm still feathered with good wishes, but the whir of anxiety rises. Time keeps us frozen in an illusion of separation, but only if we think of it as a forward progression. It may not be.

That's why time-travel interests me, and why I chose to set the story in my novel The Renaissance Club in sudden shifts in time, in the attendant meetings and connections that are possible if time flows in all directions at once.

We often meet in the etheric space of memory, those who are present to me and those who aren't.  Einstein's theory says time is an illusion. So do the Vedas and Buddhists. Poets, of course, already know about time's mysteriously directionless flow. We hover in our memories and sip the nectar of possibilities. We are always hovering. In my book, the main character must choose a century to remain static in. I, the author, never have to choose because there's always another book, poem, or way of looking at my own story.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Time-Travel Novels -- Who Hasn't Rocketed Back?

Because I've written a mainstream (not fantasy) novel involving time travel, I'm reading as many of them as I can find. Lo and behold, besides the obvious science fiction writers, it turns out that many literary and mainstream authors also have used the device of traveling through time, including: Marge Piercy, Stephen King, Erica Jong, Michael Crichton, Kurt Vonnegut, Anya Seton, Alan Lightman, and Chuck Palahniuk.

Time travel stories come in all shapes and sizes, from the predictable scifi to literary novels like The Time Traveller's Wife. Goodreads lists more than 1,000 under "Best Time Travel Fiction." Amazon has one for Time-Travel-Novels-Worth-Reading. They can be SciFi, literary, fantasy, magical realism, or unclassifiable. Kirkus Review has an intriguing list, Recent Novels that Use Time Travel to Great Effect. The Huffington Post's Top 10 Time-Travel Books is intriguing. And of course, the granddaddy of all contemporary time-travel novels, Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, which to me reads more like historical fiction that was simply kicked off by a time trip and sustained by the tension of wondering if the main character can return to her own time.

And now I'm irrelevantly wondering why the hyphen in time-travel. After all, Time is a place to travel through like any other. You don't write European-travel guides, or California-travel books. Google makes hyphens irrelevant too, I noticed.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Time-traveling in Italy

While researching time-travel novels as I work on my novel, The Renaissance Club,  I saw that Google can grab plenty of articles that answer the question, "When is the best time to travel to Italy?" But none answered, "The Seventeenth Century." It seems Rick Steeves and Frommer's can't propel me back in time to the Renaissance and Baroque to watch splendors of art and architecture arise from the workshops of  Gianlorenzo Bernini and his competitors. That's where I set my lyrical adventure and love story. With plenty of Italy atmosphere, and today I'm coming up with some finishing touches (fine-tuning of language). Thinking about the next time-travel adventure story, involving colonial America, and George St. James, the time-wielding travel guide. And still thinking of this guy.
Cavaliere Gianlorenzo Bernini


Saturday, May 02, 2015

Multimedia poem - "Chopin Reigns"

In my nostalgia for the rain that has forsaken California this year, I went back to a marvelous multimedia remix by the inventive poet/publisher Nic Sebastian and talented visual artist Kimm Kiriako. Here's a video version of my poem "Chopin Reigns", in a fruitful remix that I sincerely hope will serve as a rain dance to propitiate Indra and bring us the wet stuff soon.

Video poetry is in its infancy, but what a glorious infancy! Check out more from the creative mind and voice of Nic Sebastian and Poetry Storehouse.

Friday, April 24, 2015

On Poetry Jeans & Noticing Something Closely

Here are some fresh ideas for National Poetry Month at Tweetspeak, the Best in Poetry & Poetic things. Including photographing your poet jeans in a creative way. I think if I do that, I will have to write about it. Also from Tweetspeak, some unusual poem prompts.

How has your poetry month been going? Mine is rich with poetry everywhere I turn -- for reading, listening, and writing. I didn't go for the poem-a-day exercise, but rather the read-a-poem-a-day direction. Also I have revised poems every week, if not every day, and in batches. I pick out poems from a manuscript that speak to each other and see where they want to go next, keeping all three or four open as I work on each one, going back and forth, and if there seem to be connections strengthening them.

Over at Blogalicious, Diane Lockward is featuring a poetry book a day, complete with blurbs and sample poems and links to poems from the book online. What a gracious way to celebrate poetry month! I liked especially the sample poems from Adele Kenny's book A Light, a Thirst, or Nothing At All.

Read a poem today! Buy a book! Or just notice something very closely. To me, that act is poetry.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Reading Fiction Breeds Compassion -- and I Hope Writing It Does Too

Scientific studies have confirmed what avid readers know: reading novels makes you a more warm-hearted person, more likely to understand your fellow human beings, and quicker to empathize with them. And not just ONE study, but several scientific studies, have identified activity in the brain that leads to this result. And not only fiction, but specifically literary fiction, was determined to have this salubrious effect on the human heart-mind.

As a reader of novels, and now a writer of one to hopefully come out in 2015-16, I feel better about devoting an embarrassingly immense amount of time to worlds that are described with a certain subtly disparaging tone as "fictional." But as psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York say, "Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience, it is a social experience."So those "pretend" worlds I lived in as a child, and still inhabit as an adult writer -- they're good for my "real world" relationships. Which include my relationships on social media. It's as real as you need to get, because whatever is in your mind is your reality.

And now, back to working on my novel, The Renaissance Club. I hope that by transporting you back to 17th century Renaissance Italy and introducing you to a time-traveling young art historian who gets mixed up about whether she lives in the "then" or "now," the story will support your own inner journey of understanding human nature, love, and time.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Celebrating Poetry Month - You can get my book at a discount

I'm celebrating the month in yet another way -- giving a hefty discount on my recent book, Gods of Water and Air. From now through April 30, you can get a copy directly from me for only $11, including shipping. Email me if you'd like one:

Poet and essayist Molly Fisk said : “In Gods of Water and Air, Rachel Dacus turns a painterly eye onto both the nooks and crannies of our world — ‘hints of rose madder in the cerulean,’ a palm tree’s
‘rigid, rattling arguments’ — and ‘the blue immensity’ that holds us all.