Saturday, December 24, 2016

Season of Light - This Is Our Family

This is our family every year in December. We're the Hanukkah-Christmas celebrators. My brother and his family are observant Jews, and we celebrate Solstice and Christmas. And we get together and meld our holidays in love.

This particular difficult year, it's nice that Hanukkah and Christmas Eve are one day. Someone in the interfaith community said this coinciding of the two sacred holidays should be taken as a sign that tolerance and brotherhood are what we most need right now.

To me the season of Light is meant to shine with hope. If we can find this sense of the sacredness of one another, we can resist any negative force from within or without, and endure for the symbolic eight nights of holding off the enemies of fear, greed, anger, and selfishness, until we prevail and endure. So I'm lighting candles in my soul for that Light of compassion to descend and cloak the earth. It's what will save the earth and its inhabitants, always. Burn bright with it. This is our family of humanity, its unity. Respect the whole of it. Blessings of the season to you and yours.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

50,000 Words in 30 Days -- Surviving the NaNoWriMo Marathon

It was quite a thing, writing 50,000 words in 30 days. I signed up telling all my colleagues I wouldn't cross the finish line, that I had no intention of it. I wanted to write good words, not fast and plenty words. But guess what? I have a giant competitive streak in my nature. Every day when I checked my writing buddies' progress, a few pulled ahead, of me. It got under my skin. I started writing faster, upping my daily word count. I suddenly felt I COULD finish this marathon, and wouldn't that be a thing?

I began with a head start: a detailed outline and character profiles drawn from working with Lisa Cron's Story Genius book on the craft of fiction. I knew the WHY for my characters, not just the WHAT. I knew what the two sisters each needed to achieve by the book's end and what that was supposed to make the reader feel.

Armed with all that, plus a pre-existing 10,000+ words, I leaped in on November 1. My life, it should be said, was in no way ready for such a venture, and that's why I had to do it. My beloved brother had just died less than a month earlier. I had new family responsibilities as a result. I had a play I'd written in rehearsal, and a novel I'd completed to get an agent or publisher for. I was behind on my client work, swamped with chores and errands left unattended when we plunged into caring for my dying brother, and I was in deep mourning.

And #NaNoWriMo2016 was the best thing that could have happened to me at that time. The daily exercise of writing sharpened my mind and my skills. It focused me in a world - La Spezia in Liguria, Italy -- beyond anywhere familiar, except that I have once been there on the happiest vacation I've ever taken. And it gave me a reachable goal. I'm very goal-oriented, so that was a happy space for, reaching for a new goal.

As it turned out, I got my 50,000 words done by the skin of my teeth, and by dumping raw research into the body of the book, rewriting it, and then deciding to organize chapters later. And now I have two-thirds of THE ROMANTICS CLUB, a novel, roughly drafted. Some of the opening chapters have been polished to a high gloss. I did some editing while I wrote -- can't refrain from wordsmithing, as it's my poetic pleasure to do it -- and I did some organizing and LOTS OF RESEARCH.

In short, I recommend this for all you goal-oriented writers who are wondering how to tackle the next book. You don't have to wait for November. Name your own novel-writing month and try to hit a 1,667-word-a-day pace. Or if you did NaNo, you can use January and February to do some goal-oriented editing, with resources from NaNoWriMo.
National Novel Writing Month

Whatever you do, know you can do more writing than you think you can. That's the message of NaNoWriMo. Go to the website and donate to support this wonderful program that empowers lots of writers -- young and old!

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Holidays Are for Writing and Reading As Well as Socializing

In the spirit of the holidays now upon us, I'd like to offer some fodder for those quiet times you find amid the activities and social life. Reading for me leads to writing, so I often start my writing day by either progressing in a novel or reading several poems. Sometimes digging into a craft book. So here are some recommendations for feeding your head.

Story Genius by Lisa Cron. This is the one fiction craft book you have to have! She's the story whisperer, the one who can help you dig into that beautiful plot and set of characters you have brewing in your brain, but which keeps stirring around in confusing ways. I following the "pantsing" way of writing my first novel, resulting in what Anne Lamott calls "shitty first drafts" -- many of them. I know Anne recommends you give yourself permission to draft without editing, but as someone who spent years writing one book, I'd prefer a more sure-footed approach next time. Here's one of my current favorite quotes from the book: "Don't keep secrets secret from the reader." 

Emily Bleeker's When I'm Gone is an engaging love story from a wonderful writer. It touches deeply on themes of loss, love, and emotional reconnection. While I undergo my own grieving process, I found this novel healing and uplifting. The portrayal of a marriage through the process of grieving its loss is poignant and beautifully portrayed. Bleeker is an author to watch and this novel is one that will keep you turning pages.

I'm in the middle of reading and reviewing The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement by Diane Lockward, poet and author of another craft book I love, The Crafty Poet. The color red sears the collection, the seethe of articulate anger and outrage over an undefended childhood and life’s assaults and unfairness. Whether she takes as her subject nine renegade monkeys escaped from a testing lab or the red dress (re-dress) of a child dreaming of freedom from abuse, the poet takes “quick, sharp steps like flint against steel” in every poem. Yet there is beauty in her boldness and defiance, poetry in the grieving and acceptance. 

Hopefully something here will spark your creative juices and give you islands of quiet enjoyment through the hectic social season. Happy and Merry days ahead. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Day 18 of National Novel Writing Month - Not Yet Halfway

It's a marathon: 50,000 words of prose, the majority of words for an 80,000-word standard mainstream novel. I'm at a little over 24,000 words this morning.

Why am I doing this? Because writing is bliss and marketing a book is hell. Undergoing the process of trying to get a literary agent, who then tries to get your book a publisher, who then takes more than a year to publish it -- that's anyone's definition of hell. It would fit Hieronymous Bosch's picture of hell. And I've been in it for more than two years with a completed novel I'm marketing. It involves extravagant amounts of waiting, laced with copious rejection. It takes persistence and faith beyond what you think you have.

But working on a new story is heaven. It makes hope, inspiration, and excitement surge. Every act of storytelling is a new adventure. It unfolds one day at a time, in the company of people I'm gradually getting to feel are boon companions, my characters. Like the Fellowship of the Ring, we have a purpose. We have a story to tell. We must sustain hope above all. It's exhilarating, like climbing to an impossibly high peak and standing there to survey all the lands of the earth.

Also, running my marathon has been a way to write myself through the dark woods of grief over my brother's death a little more than a month ago. I would adapt the cliché and say that when things get tough, the tough writer gets writing. I know so many poets and writers who write their way forward, especially in difficulty. It's how we learned to cope with our fatal flaws and the curveballs life throws, such as death, poverty, illness, divorce. I'm telling a new story involving all those.

Here's an excerpt from my spirit guide, Lisa Cron's book Story Genius:

"Only by knowing your protagonist's defining misbelief can you craft a story that will test it to the max, opening his eyes along the way." Those are the best stories, the inward adventures that may be occasioned by outward ones, but always lead to new levels of understanding yourself, other people, and the world.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Finding Peace in Uncertain Times: Poetry Reaches Deep

As a woman in a time when the recently elected leader of our country has expressed such raw misogyny, I definitely feel as uncertain of my future as Matisse's "Woman with Hat" looks. So I was honored to have my poem "Wings Clipped" featured by WordPress Discover in an article about poetry in uncertain times: Chaos, Control: Four Poems for Uncertain Times. Four good poems you will want to read.

And speaking of the woman with hat, I'm delighted to announce that my book Femme au Chapeau is now on Kindle for $2.99 --- complete with a Look Inside the Book!

Another of my books, Gods of Water and Air, is on a Goodreads Giveaway. Click that link to enter and possibly win one of five print copies I'm giving away by December 12. "Poems to unravel love, grief, and joy" -- my Amazon subtitle seems right, right now. I think many of us have experienced these feelings in the last couple of weeks, going through the most intense election I've ever experienced.

Added to that intensity was one far more powerful to me personally: the death of my brother on October 10. It put a lot of things in perspective, a very large one being that I am mortal too. Life is incredibly short -- shorter for some than it might be -- and much longer than had been imagined for others, like my 93-year-old mother. These poems and essays -- and even a short play on the imagined afterlife of dogs -- speak to mortality too, and how important it is to cherish all the love, grief, and joy we're given in a life.

As I think about giving thanks in a couple weeks at a family feast where there will be one empty chair, I'm thankful for it all. Here's an excerpt from one of the poems in Gods, "Accept the Invitation":
The million volatile impressions
you are today strung together
on the ribbon of your name
are not enough for me.

I want no careless window-shopping
around your vicinity, but to plumb
the void, make a hair-raising journey
behind personality. To stand together
in the light that streams
from a hidden source in this world
whenever being meets.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Gaining Momentum in Novel Writing Month - Wheeeee!

Update on my #NaNoWriMo2016 -- today I wrote over 3,000 words. It helps to be doing a lot of scene-setting in an exotic location, which for my book is the picturesque Ligurian coast of Northern Italy. It also helps that I love writing descriptions of scenery and towns. I love researching places I've been or been near. I spent time in Santa Margherita and Portofino, and the little town where I'm setting my book is just down the coast. So it feels familliar, and from the pictures, looks much like the Portofino coastline, where steep green-clad cliffs drop to a sparkling blue and aquamarine sea. Many coves ruffle this coastline, as if someone with a giant spoon scalloped it. Tiny communities adorn many of these bays. The roads go up and down the hills, and the ocean breeze is everpresent.

There, I just wrote more words and I might use them. The key for me is that 1) I have a detailed plot outline and character profiles, and 2) I love Italy! Writing about it brings out the poet in me. So if I have a clear day, as I did today, I can crank out a lot of words, and not just padding words, but good words, words advancing the plot and fleshing out characters and the kinds of things they say.

A good writing day. I'm halfway to the 50,000 words mark, but I didn't plan on really counting. Yet I find the marathon stimulating. It wouldn't hurt to make that goal by November 30. While I wait for agents to contact me about The Renaissance Club, I'm still playing in Italy and lining up the next book. They all say it can't hurt in marketing the first. Plus, it's increasingly a lot of fun.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Day Ten of National Novel Writing Month

We've been doing it since before Jane Austen. Girls writing fiction. So in the 2016 National Novel Writing Month, I'm going to guess that a majority of the more than 400,000 participants this year are women. And many will go on to publish their books. Some NYT bestsellers by women that began as NaNoWriMo exercises:
My work-in-progress, The Romantics Club, is a third of the way, if you estimate it by words count. I'm now more than 20,000 words (and 85 pages) drafted on an 85,000-word (goal) novel of roughly 335 pages. That's about the count for my completed novel (available to an interested publisher), The Renaissance Club. And I didn't do it with a quill and ink. Thank goodness for the digital age!

Saturday, November 05, 2016

National Novel Writing Month -- I jumped in with sisterhood

I did it. I signed up to write 50,000 words in the month of November. Partly, I did it because I'm writing a new novel, The Romantics Club, about two half-sisters who inherit a cottage in Italy and along with it, the ghost of the poet Shelley.

I wanted something to distract me from two inevitabilities: death, this one my beloved brother's; and waiting to hear about my completed manuscript, in this case from agents who are reading the whole thing. Death and patience -- of course they seem so similar. Grief and creativity -- who knew they could be aligned.

But I'm writing my way out of grief. The more I feel sad, the more I turn to the blank page and find it blossoming with places I want to go (always Italy!) and people I want to know more about. Sisterhood is a topic in which I can explore my feelings of having been a sister. It makes me cry to write "having been" but I guess I still am a sister to my brother, and to my sister-in-law and a few close friends. Sisterhood fascinates me.

As a child, I always wanted a sister because it seemed like that would make me less lonely. I read about girls I would have like to have as sisters: Dorothy in the Oz books and Nancy Drew. The little girl in Miracles on Maple Hill, and all those fantastic sisters in Little Women.

I now belong to an organization called Women's Fiction Writers Association, and a number of those novelists are participating in NaNoWriMo.

Half a million books will be written in this month -- astounding statistic. Mine won't be finished because my Muse can't be rushed. But the experience feels -- sisterly. And that's a wonderful feeling right now.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Girl Protagonists in Books -- a Literary Trend or Something Bigger?

I spent my morning reading and replying on the Women’s Fiction Writers Association website to a discussion about defining women’s fiction. One of the topics was trends in Women's Fiction, and in that thread the topic of “girl” and “wife” books came up. Bestseller titles tell you much about the trend: Gone Girl, Girl on a Train, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Time Traveller’s Wife, The Kitchen God’s Wife. Girls who are women trying to save themselves, as one commenter on the thread so aptly put it.

Of course, the “girls” are really women. I think it's fiction about women we’re talking about as a “trend.” Women as protagonists in non-romance fiction is becoming a big thing. Goodreads’ Listopia has a list of 749 books with “Girl” in the title! This trend doesn't show any more signs of stopping than books with “Vampire” in the title. 

So what is it about literary trends? They say you shouldn’t write to them because by the time you finish your book, the trend will be dead. They’re actually speaking of agents’ and editors’ ideas about trends, not actual trends in real life or even among readers. I think trends ARE something you should write to, if you feel them and care about them. It’s something you can do beyond voting. It’s a way of speaking up that matters. 

I think the "girl" "wife" trend reflects a big shift underway in our culture -- a mega-trend, if you will, and one I think those of us who want to should chase. It's a re-visioning of what it means to be a woman, and WF is a fantastic medium for exploring these cultural shifts, especially as they pertain to being a young woman in a rapidly changing culture speeded up by technology.

I'm not a young woman, but I like writing about them. I like exploring the way women find themselves, and create or recreate their lives. I'm a rocket scientist's daughter, so I'm fascinated by the impact of technology on cultural shifts and the way women are perceived in the world. These two trends power my fiction and my poetry. I guess growing up in the 60s, when women's roles shifted dramatically, especially in the workplace, has given me a lifelong interest in trends. So I write to the mega-trends and could care less about literary ones.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Notating Nature's Delicate Song

The evanescence in British artist Andy Goldworthy's work is what first caught hold of me. (Click the link for Artsy's wonderful Goldsworthy pages.) He works with nature to make sculptures of the moment, or perhaps the hour, using all natural elements. Ice, water, leaves, twigs, wind, rain are the easel, palette, paints, and media he sculpts with. It's as if he's having a conversation with nature and time, an intense wrestling almost. His work seems to say beauty is all around us but constantly changing, impossible to capture for long. It's as if he's trying to notate Nature's delicate and constant singing.

Rivers and Tides, the splendid documentary on Goldsworthy and his work, actually is part of his work by letting us watch him work with fast disappearing natural elements. He describes his work as capturing something "intangible. It is here and then gone." And Goldsworthy shows how quickly that intangible Something, a spirit of beauty in nature, arrives and departs. It's a metaphor for life, of course. It's about time and the sacredness of being alive.

Watching that documentary moved me to a tribute poem. I often like to write poems about pieces of art, but I think this is my only poem about an artist other than my father. This sonnet originally appeared in Image: Art, Faith, Mystery.

Self-Portrait by Andy Goldsworthy
One must have a mind of winter to regard the frost and the boughs
of the pine-trees crusted with snow – Wallace Stevens

He doesn't appear to have a mind of winter,
this man handling shards of ice between
shaking gloves, tacking hewed splinters
together by flashlight. He has a keen
grasp of water's arctic state. His stone
of a mind feels the light’s first crack
and dazzle through his muscle and bone.
He stakes his art on a pre-dawn slack
tide, hurrying an art’s punctilious making
for a sculpture sun’s full glory
will soon undo. But the camera, quaking,
again freezes art's old story.
He rises satisfied with the dazzling rime.
A mind not of winter, but of time.

Friday, October 21, 2016

My brother's art and service created a beautiful life

This week I lost my dearest brother, David Abramson, one of the kindest, gentlest people I will ever know. Sixty-four years was not nearly enough to be connected, so I'm sure we'll meet again in the next rooms of existence. Among the several arts he pursued -- visual and culinary as well -- was the bliss of making music. He wrote songs, he led several bands, and he was always learning more about his craft. In the last year of his life, he was deprived of the ability to sing, and even to talk much. I'm posting this video generously shared on Facebook by his band mate Paul Henry so we can all hear his voice again. There are many more recorded songs, but few videos. I cherish this one! The guy with the long gray ponytail is David Abramson, my little brother who I recently awarded elder sibling status to for his wisdom and support. Rock on, Davey. I'm sure in the between-life you're in now, there's a band waiting for their lead singer.

Art was something we learned at home, from our painter father and musician mother. How making it, at any level, is bliss. I would watch my father at his easel, contemplating intently the strokes he had just made with the brush, dipping it in the jar of turpentine, and a little in the oils on his palette, maybe remixing a color, and then just a dab or two on the canvas. Then he would step back and observe. Then step in again with another idea, This could go on for hours.

I believe it was from observing a creative mind at work that David and I learned that creating is bliss. Our mother was at the piano, practicing her parts in the Pro Musica Chorale performances. Sometimes she would just play a whole piece for the beauty of it. We observed that same absorption and self-transcendence in those creative moments. He took up painting and I took up dance. He would up with music and I with writing as our main forms of making. I'm sure he will be making music in the next room where he has gone, and in the rooms of life beyond that one. I'm sure at some point we'll again make things together, the way we made support and kindness for each other as siblings.
I'm measuring my grief in memories. 

It feels like homework from God,
remembering you, brother.
Digging deeply into the stream
of memories and feelings as they flow
past the stone pillar I’ve lately become.

I sort and weigh the meaning
of having a brother of such fineness,
seamed with gold
as he served his many communities,
silver-haloed by a fine long mane
as if you were the older one,
which would at least have made a little more
sense of your having to leave first.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Listening to the Paint

Every once in awhile, an author should Google herself. I did my routine check last night and was amazed to discover that Prairie Schooner, one of my longtime favorite literary journals, had reprinted one of my poems. "Listening to the Paint" appeared in their 2012 issue, at a time that coincided with the record-breaking sale of an abstract painting. So PS chose to include my poem in their series of reprints.

The poem is about how my father's being a painter influenced me growing up and deciding to become a writer. Click on the link above to read the poem in its entirety, but the heart of it is in these lines:

How many times he loaded the brush,
swiped on those parallel lines. Strokes now fossilized
in the exhibition room’s angled-down lights.
 I have an idea how long that dry rhythm held
because as I waited for my father to speak
I counted the falling dust motes.
The silence art must bear.

This painting is "Joe Funk" and is of a printmaking friend of my father's, a man he shared a studio with in San Pedro, where I grew up. The Exodus Gallery contained the oddest group of people I ever met. You had to climb an exterior ladder to get into the second floor space -- which is probably why the artists could afford to rent it -- and it was a wonderland of strange canvases, tilted pieces of pottery, and best of all an easel with a blank canvas for me to play on. That rich silence of concentration and inspiration floated around the vast space and started me on this journey. 

Thanks to Prairie Schooner and their "Alberta Clipper" series for selecting my poem. Finding it now is like a tap on the shoulder from Dad, who's been gone for seven years. Here's another of his.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Lucky Summer, Happy Author Here

I'm really happy that one of my most recently published poems was "Wings Clipped" and appeared in Issue 4 of a journal called Panoply. Several reasons: 1) I've had a panoply of acceptances this season -- far more than my usual batting average! 2) "Wings Clipped" is the lead poem in my new manuscript, Arabesque (available to an interested publisher) and 3) the poem brings together the two art forms I've devoted myself to: dance and poetry.

The journal One from Jacar Press also published one of my poems -- "Elegance" -- that brought together those two arts. Even though this lovely art form broke my back, I would do it all over again. I suppose that might be a form of courage. And publishing that poem helped me have the courage to focus the opening section of my book around the way these arts and injuries shaped me.

This year I've had 16 poems accepted so far, which is much more than ever in any 9-month period. They're all from this manuscript, which makes me feel it's strong. I campaigned the poems to support publishing the book, but I never expected so much so quickly.

To be part of new literary ventures is also an exciting privilege I've had this season. The new and beautiful Peacock Journal recently published four of mine.

And they did me the kindness of pairing the work with a beautiful image that means a lot to me, as it's involved in my new novel, The Renaissance Club (also available). Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa figures in my story, and when I met this sculpture in Rome, its power is partly why I wanted to write the novel.

 The other new journal I was happy to participate in is Mockingheart Review. They took three of my favorites from Arabesque, including my favorite dream poem, "Giraffes."

Gingerbread House published one of the poems that surprised me the most to write -- a poem about a dead-drunk superhero called "Transparency" -- and they paired it with original art that was just perfect. Thanks to the editors for that pairing! 

I have a poem forthcoming from Prairie Schooner, and I'm waiting to hear on a few more. But all in all, 2016 has been a bonanza for this poet. And in other ways, a most interesting series of literary adventures. Some of which I will have to wait to tell. Thanks for listening to my surprised delight.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Get poetically inspired -- go on a meditation-vacation

A new scientific study came out following people who had recently been on resort vacations and those who were meditators who had been on meditation retreats. The interesting thing is that the beneficial effects on their bodies, though similar, were different. And meditators seemed to have the longest term benefits. Their immune responses and ability to resist stress were stronger for a longer time than those who had simply greatly relaxing vacations.

Here's an article that gives a simple overview of the research -- interestingly enough, in Money Magazine.

So how about Meditation Vacations? Going somewhere where the goal is intensive meditation WHILE in a beautiful resort. It happens. I just went to one, and am hoping that once I get over the jetlag, I'll find my resistance to stress much higher.

But HERE'S THE PART NO RESEARCHER STUDIED: I caught 10 poems in 5 days while on my meditation-vacation-retreat at the South Carolina coastline. My normal pace is maybe five poems in a month. Clearly, the inspiration index was through the roof on a Medtiation Vacation. The Muse was hanging out on those beaches and patios, under the oak trees and at my buffet lunches and dinners. All I had to do, it seemed, was feel a stirring of idea, pick up my phone, and dictate. Of course they're all rough drafts, but THAT MANY POEM DRAFTS in five days is unparalleled in my life.

So roll it all together -- resort vacationing, meditation as a focused slowing down, and writing! I've been on active vacations three times as long in which I didn't get either as relaxed or inspired.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

To obtain a great cover image, try pleading "Poet in Poverty"

It was great fun to correspond with Matisse's great grandson in order to obtain rights to use this image on the cover of my poetry collection Femme au chapeau. Happy to say it will be available as an eBook in September! Pre-order price for you is $2.99, until 9/26/16. You can go here to pre-order:

Poet Barbara Crooker did a wonderful review of the book on Smartish Pace, mentioning "exquisite figurative language throughout". She cited my "unusual and surprising subject choices", such as "the differences between men and women, as revealed in their choice of razors and bathroom accessories ("The Difference"), the unattainable/remote mother ("Piano Lessons," "Apple Pie Order," "Laparoscopy," "Beauty by a Sideboard"), the self-explanatory "Ode to My Purse," the olfactory genius of dogs ("Dog Sniffing"), the state fish of Hawai'i ("A Pot of Humuhumunukunukuapua'a"), manual typewriters (the hilarious "Ode to a Smith-Corona" which has to be explained by its equally funny end note)."

Best of all, this quintessential ekphrastic poet -- check out Crooker's books, especially her New and Selected -- said of my poems about paintings: "Dacus embodies the best of ekphrastic work, which doesn't merely describe works of art, but responds to them, allows the paintings to take her someplace else, and brings us along with her."

Monday, August 08, 2016

What If Your Heroes Won't Play Nice?

What if you can't get your two favorite heroes from history to play nice? That's the problem my main character, art historian May Gold has in my WIP novel The Renaissance Club. She has a plan to get her idol, Gianlorenzo Bernini, the rock star artist of the Renaissance, and his chief rival, architect Borromini, to play nice and work together. Trouble is, she has to travel four centuries to bring it about. Time isn't giving her much time, and Borromini is out for blood. Here's an excerpt:

“Hear me out,” May said. “If you ask him for advice, then the project becomes his to share, and that gives him an incentive to defend it. Even against those he has stirred up.”
Bernini wasn’t convinced. She had a bad feeling in her stomach, wondered briefly if it was the sausage from last night, but when he replied, it vanished.
         “Shrewd woman,” he said, smiling now. “You would make a good courtier. But the man truly hates me for taking the job he assumed would be his—Architect of St. Peter’s. I doubt anything can change his hatred.”
         He was wavering, but considering her idea.
         She elaborated on her reasons. “But he loves his reputation. Being your advisor could enhance his standing a lot. Surely he will recognize how a partnership of geniuses will promote you both.”
She had to say so herself: it was a brilliant idea.
“He may be a genius, but he’s also depressive egomaniac.”
His anger for a moment almost seemed to be directed towards her, so she adopted his strategy. She fought his opposition with an audacious turn.
“He is going to be completely taken by surprise at your invitation to collaborate. And if he is a genius architect, he will recognize how valuable it will be to him.”
It was the truth, and Bernini saw it. He broke into a laugh and his face lit up with his most charming smile.
“For you, I will try it! My note to Borromini will be the roses I lay at your feet, for coming here at my request.”
She was delighted. “That’s much better than roses!”
He sent the invitation immediately and Borromini’s reply came within an hour. He would come that afternoon. May was very excited to meet another giant of the Renaissance, the architect whose buildings proudly refused ornamentation because their complex geometries were so beautiful that colors, paintings, and statues would have been a distraction.
Francesco Borromini arrived just after one in the afternoon. He came toward them from the door at the far end of the studio, so she could watch him approach. He was everything she had imagined, with his pale face and Van Dyke beard, good looks sabotaged by his scowl—such a contrast with Bernini’s very public and ready charm. Borromini wore a knee-length dark brown cloak, old-fashioned and dour for the period. Under it he wore black, making him dark from hair to shoes. She could feel the anger simmering under his melancholic greeting.
“Cavaliere," he said, bowing.
Before he lowered his head, she saw the grim expression that revealed the temperament. That depressive, suspicious nature had resulted in Borromini withdrawing from working under Bernini, his young rival, at St. Peter’s. It was a banked fury that scared her and reminded her that Borromini would die by grotesque suicide, on his own sword. She wondered, as Bernini bowed in response, whether this meeting had been a good idea.
“Maestro,” Bernini conceded as Borromini rose unsmiling to stare at him, waiting. Bernini’s bow put a fleeting smile on Borromini’s face.
Despite their evident mutual dislike, May was excited. It would benefit them both if they could work together to rescue the bell tower project. And if that changed history, so much the better for history. She was playing God. She felt almost up to the part.
But Bernini wasn’t playing his part. He was just standing there silently waiting. She prompted him, “You wanted to ask for some advice?”
Borromini turned to her with a disgusted look. “Is this one of your models? Why is she here?”
May was suddenly frightened. She felt the chasm between cultures and centuries and realized she was out of her depth with such male chauvinism that they hadn’t yet even invented a term for it. It simply was the way things were—women were inferior and to be treated as barely existing.
Bernini came to her rescue. “She is not my model. She is my adviser on … matters of politics. I’ll thank you not to insult Signora Bellini.”
He had improvised a distinguished Venetian name for her, thinking quickly to give her social superiority over Borromini from a region wouldn’t be very familiar with.
This was the moment to say something, but she had no idea what. If a curtsey was right, she didn’t know how to execute one. She opted for the nobler slight dip of her head. Borromini, out-maneuvered, dipped his. He hesitated and then executed a lavish bow to her.
May was very glad she had not made the mistake of a bow, as she had in St. Peter’s—a masculine bow, which had made Bernini laugh. She reminded herself to be feminine, but not subservient. Feminine and noble, whatever that was.
“It seems politic for you both to consider working collaboratively on the bell tower design,” she said, hoping that by filling in the blank she would gain the advantage for Bernini.
Borromini turned to him. “So, Cavaliere, is this why have you summoned me?” He made his disdain clear.
“You are to consult with me,” Bernini said in a commanding voice that May didn’t think was going to help. “I acknowledge your engineering proficiency, and I want you to … to …”
He was choking on the word “advise.” He just couldn’t say it.
“You seek his advice, isn’t that right?” she said softly, hoping only Gianlorenzo heard.
Borromini allowed himself a smile. “You seek my expertise about the bell tower project, is that it?”
Bernini seemed unable to utter, “yes,” so he bowed again.
Borromini bowed even lower. Bernini bowed again. There seemed to be a pissing match in progress that May didn’t understand. She guessed that whoever spoke next would be the loser.
“Might you be concerned the towers are too heavy for their bases?” Borromini asked.
Score one for Bernini, who eked out the merest of smiles. “You are correct, sir. I have concerns. I might consider your thoughts on the matter.”
May was thrilled.
Borromini smiled broadly and said, “Because you’re already trying to decrease weight in the South Tower as it is built, I understand your dilemma. You must be aware that your design may prove too heavy for the bases already constructed by our predecessor, Maderno.”
Bernini was the one to scowl now. “That is exactly what the cowardly author of the scandaglio wrote against my plan. I wonder, Maestro, whether or not you are acquainted with the author of that insulting document?”
To May, this was tantamount to an accusation. Borromini seemed to agree. “You think I would write such a public rant? Why would I jeopardize my own reputation with the pope? No, I had planned to wait until your tower is finished and then we will see if it stands. Of course, my estimate about the weight may be entirely incorrect.”
This was to have been the moment when Bernini asked Borromini to help calculate what had to be done, but Borromini had succeeded in getting Bernini to fume. This wasn’t what May had envisioned. How had they managed to collaborate at St. Peter’s? Surely they could find some common ground.
“Stonemasons have been consulted,” Bernini said defensively, “and they assured us that my design for the towers is not too heavy for the bases.”
His haughtiness wasn’t helping. May could see Borromini’s mood had a deeper and darker color than Bernini’s. He could afford to bait Bernini, because the Cavaliere was notoriously emotional. With a lurch of disappointment, May realized that was why Borromini had come. This had been a terrible idea. These two artistic titans were hoping to mortally wound each other. As a result, both would fall.
         “I remember this anonymous critic mentioned that your towers will cost twice as much as Maderno’s original design,” Borromini said. “I suppose you justify that on the basis of the pope and his taste for extravagance. He seems to always prefer the most elaborate design to the most pure one.”
         “You impugn all my designs at one sweep!”
         Bernini’s steam was frothing over. The dour Borromini now shot May a smirking glance. He was going to milk this encounter in the hope of getting Bernini to do something he might regret. She saw now that the greater maneuverer in this meeting was Borromini, though Bernini always had the greater luck. That luck lay at the core of Borromini’s hatred and thus it would never change.
She felt the tightness of her sleeves and bodice, the surreal way her breasts wanted to spill over the top of the dress. She couldn’t catch her breath. She couldn’t imagine surviving the oily poison of this atmosphere between them.
“Cavaliere, you must rise or fall on your own calculations,” Borromini said grandly. “I do not know why you summoned me, if you have no wish to listen. I cannot help you.”
“You always were a stubborn ass!” shouted Bernini.
“And you, Cavaliere, have always been a thief.”
“What do you mean?”
“The devious way you stole my rightful commission for the Four Rivers Fountain. A pickpocket’s ruse robbing a true artist.”
“Rightful commission?” Bernini shouted.
Borromini’s voice rose too, cracking in a higher pitch. “Your esthetic is as common as your heritage.”
“And how would the son of a stonemason appreciate esthetic refinement?” Bernini shouted.
Borromini was already retreating, but at this last insult, he turned. Throwing one side of his cape over his shoulder to reveal his hand on the hilt of his sword, though not drawing it, he answered.
“As easily as the son of a mediocre carver of small statues can understand the complexities of geometry.”
It was amazing that Borromini, renowned for his temper, had managed to bring the poised Bernini to near-hysteria. Her hopes were at an end. She just hoped there wouldn’t be a duel, and she had to remind herself that history had recorded none between them.
               Borromini turned again and with an insulting swagger departed.
               Gianlorenzo turned to her and said, “I don't need him. I don't need any of them. I am going to build taller towers than anyone ever dreamed. My towers will complement Michelangelo’s perfect dome. That is how I will silence my ignorant critics!”
               She said nothing, knowing that Borromini had been right about the engineering. The added height would cause the bell towers to crack. She had done nothing but goad him into daring too much height. The entire basilica, had been built on underground springs that would destabilize the foundations. But those facts would be manipulated, and a pope who was far from Bernini’s champion would tear down Bernini’s towers.
               “Why did you insist that I invite him?” Bernini’s anger was still hot. Now it found its target in her.
               May couldn’t wish Bernini’s passion crushed, but it was going to be. She couldn’t imagine living such a reckless, passionate life as he did—but passion was the essence of his art. She didn’t belong here. Her ideas would create dangers for him and this culture could suffocate her.
               She turned to say she was leaving, but before she could, she was caught by a dazzle of afternoon light that struck the window.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Magical realism - why do we love the magic so much? (+ 3 great books)

Magical Realism Fiction – Why Do We Love the Magic So Much? (Plus Three Great Books)

I just finished Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Now there’s a mouth-watering title for a devout reader, a magical sounding name like Penumbra and a reference to books. We just know we’re going to have a great escape reading this book. And I did. I could hardly wait until evening, when I could pick up my device and tap the pages forward, learning about a mysterious underground library and how it might relate to Silicon Valley. I was so enthralled I signed up for SF Bay Area author Sloan’s newsletter. The magic in this magical realism novel was one part conspiracy, one part occult, and one part technology. The perfect elixir for me, also a resident of the Bay Area. FIVE STARS!

But what is it that makes us crave magic in our stories? I think the very telling of a tale implies that the listener will be lifted out of ordinary reality. After all, a novel is a device, a machine made of words in order to evoke feelings and realizations. It’s a crafted object. Real life has its magical moments but they’re usually few and far between, and a novel with magic in it lets us binge on that otherworldly feeling.

Another book that made me binge-read was Aimee Bender’s TheParticular Sadness of Lemon Cake. In that lovely, sad, and affirming story, a young girl can taste the feelings of the person who created the food she eats. This makes life very difficult, as most people have a lot of unpleasant feelings, so she starts not wanting to eat. But of course ultimately this draws her to want to create food herself. FIVE STARS ISN’T ENOUGH FOR THIS FABULOUS PIECE OF LITERATURE!

I find magical realism more compelling that straight-up fantasy. It has to do with the fact that real life has its magical dimensions and moments -- moments of inspiration, transporting love, and heightened perception. Magical realism doesn’t put me on another planet the way fantasy does. It keeps me on this one, and despite the chaos and destruction we hear about every day, this form of literature encourages me to believe in those magical dimensions I've experienced as being more important. It urges wonder and allows hope. 

We need wonder and hope right now, more than ever. They’re built into human consciousness, and the headlines, which are the opposite of magical realism, tend to shut them down. So magical realism makes me feel more opened out than reading the news.

Another magical realism book I recently tapped my way quickly through was Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells. I have to give it only FOUR STARS. There was something a little too folky, small-town nostalgia about the writing. There wasn’t quite enough realism for me. I often felt I was reading sketches of characters, rather than characters in their depth and reality. Bad things happened to good people, but I remained unconvinced. Still, the magical trope, the special gifts each of the three sisters had, and the prophesying apple tree (nice evocation of the Garden of Eden), hooked me as magical elements that evoked wonder and belief. And yes, hope.

I’m just starting a new one, hopefully. David Pandolfe's Jump When Ready starts with a narrator in the afterlife, much like Amy Tan’s Saving Fish From Drowning, another good magical realism read. Stay tuned for more micro-reviews of these.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

My Poem "Cone of Silence" at Blue Heron Review

The writing life is a little like surfing: being tumbled under the tide but also catching some wonderful waves. I've just caught one of those good waves! I'm happy to say my poem "Cone of Silence" is up this month at Blue Heron Review.

This online journal has a mission with a tagline from Hafiz: "An awake heart is like a sky that pours light." I'm thrilled to have my work alongside that of many fine poets, and to have this particular poem appear now. It was an experiment, a different process and outcome than I'm used to in writing poetry. Maybe it's more flash fiction than poem, or prose poem, or mini-essay. I threw off the bit and bridle of line breaks and avoided deliberate rhythms. No rhyme appeared as I drafted.

I was trying to write without thinking of form, only of content: recording an internal experience by way of pure imagery. The silence came as an opening and welcoming: of birds, trees, hills, skateboarders, houses -- whatever I passed. I was in an interesting state and later all I wanted to do was note it down for reflection. Later I put in the line breaks, made difference word choices, added assonance, alliteration, and near-rhyme. I attended to latent rhythms, and after doing all that, I went back to the original and made just a few tweaks. Honoring the spirit of silent acceptance.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Poetry & Prose -- the Twins in My Life

If you have an addiction to writing like I do (and a writer by definition is an addict), perhaps like me you can't contain it within just one literary genre. I began with poetry, getting swept up first in the poems of the haiku poets Basho, Buson, and Issa. Issa (Kobayashi Issa 1763-1828, one of the Big Four of Japanese haiku) charmed me with tiny masterpieces that evoked a stunning attention to the natural world, like this one:

How beautiful!
The Milky Way from a hole
In my sliding rice-paper door

Here's a lovely article on Issa

But it was Dylan Thomas' Under Milkwood (beautifully read by Richard Burton in this recording) that put me into orbit -- verse as drama! As enchantment, creating and then playing in a whole world of your imagination. The seaside town of Milkwood that he created reminded me of my childhood San Pedro, port of Los Angeles, with its old world, fishing community.

So poetry and prose intermingled in my developing love of language and literature, and I've had trouble ever since keeping them apart. Memoir, fiction, drama, and verse all call to me at different moments, and I never have less than two projects in different genres going at a time. I want my prose to be poetic and my poetry to be narrative. I love descriptions of landscape in memoirs and fiction.

Dewfall, starfall, the sleep of birds in Milkwood. Listen! It is night in the chilled, squat chapel ...

I knew by age twelve that I wanted to create my own Oz, Milkwood, Our Town, windy Japanese hut, and many other places evoked by poets and writers. I'm still working at it, the Italy in my mind being the latest of my locations.

Here's a wonderful video of Robert Hass on Issa and haiku. Enjoy his interview and reading! These seventeen-syllable, three-line poems are minuscule dramas in verse. Just what I continue to reach for in my work -- that surprise and dramatic reach.