November 19, 2013
My latest up at the Ploughshares blog:
—Ted Kooser journal entry, December 7, 1972
quoted in The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser by Mary K. Stillwell
A lot’s happened for Ted Kooser since he wrote those lines more than forty years ago—earning the Pulitzer Prize and being named U.S. Poet Laureate, to list just a couple of accolades—but the sentiment still holds. Despite his firm standing in the world ofcontemporary poetry and his continuing commitment to promote poetry as a living and vital art for all, Ted Kooser prefers to limit his “frontage on the busy road,“ by remaining under the radar at his rural Nebraska home.
I lived in Lincoln many years ago and was lucky to know Ted when I worked at the literary magazine Prairie Schooner. I found him to be much like his poems—insightful and wry, but oh so careful with his words. Look at any picture of him and you’ll see what I mean—he’s got that genial and open smile, but like any good Midwesterner you can tell that smile holds a secret or two. So I admit I was considerably curious to read the first full-length critical biography about Ted, The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser, published this fall by University of Nebraska Press.
The biography, by Mary K. Stillwell, doesn’t disappoint. It’s an intimate portrait rich with details of how family history and life on the Plains influenced Kooser’s early world vision, and then how Kooser juggled his creative ambitions as a poet, publisher and “Sunday painter,” along with his obligations as husband, father, and 9-5 insurance executive.
Stillwell superbly illustrates the challenges an artist faces when he connects with artists in the academy but is not part of the academy, and who connects with the pull of bohemia, but who never quits his day job. And while the biography closely examines these elements and others surfacing in Kooser’s poetry, Stillwell also provides a charming and down-to-earth portrait of the poet as an everyman grappling with relationships and mortality and, on the day he’s asked to become U.S. Poet Laureate, having to drop by Bern’s Body Shop because he’s absent-mindedly knocked the side mirror off his Dodge sedan.
Stillwell’s biography is engagingly thorough, but I couldn’t help but have a few more questions, which I’m grateful she agreed to answer here.
To read the rest, click here
October 30, 2013
My latest up at Ploughshares:
Snack Time with Sherrie Flick
Sherrie and the beloved Bubs the dog
When writer Sherrie Flickcoordinated events at the immensely popular Gist Street Reading Series in Pittsburgh, one thing was certain, beyond the high caliber of the visiting writers and the fact the space would be packed: there would be fabulous food. Crusty bread, gooey cheese, in-season vegetables, jugs of wine and—Sherrie’s specialty—plenty of pie.
Sherrie’s flash fiction often incorporates food as a driving metaphor too, and her novel,Reconsidering Happiness, primarily takes place in a bakery. But in recent years, Sherrie’s culinary ventures have moved out of the kitchen and off the page—she teaches food writing at Chatham University, and she is a food columnist, an urban gardener, and the series editor for At Table, an evolving book list at University of Nebraska Press that seeks to “expand and enrich the ever-changing discussion of food politics, nutrition, the cultural and sociological significance of eating, sustainability, agriculture, and the business of food.”
As Sherrie Flick’s blend of food and writing continues to expand, I wanted to discover how this focus on food has evolved in her writing and her life.
KF: You just published a wonderful essay on bread baking and the creative process in Necessary Fiction, where you explain that for you the two skills evolved almost hand-in-hand. Have you also discovered a creative connection with urban gardening?
Sherrie’s garden in the heart of Pittsburgh
SF: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’m writing another essay for the Necessary Fiction series that links my gardening to learning how to play the ukulele. That’s a more complicated connection than my garden’s connection to my creative process though.
For me, some days—most days, really—the garden is a physical manifestation of my creative process. I look at it all crazed and wandering and beautiful and weird in my yard and I think: yes, my friend, that is what the inside of your head looks like.
As fiction writers we rarely get to SEE a physical manifestation of our work. Words on the page become images in a reader’s mind. Gardening helps me see the way I organize—or more correctly—disorganize structure.
September 10, 2013
My latest up at Ploughshares:
“It can sometimes be hard to communicate what goes on at MacDowell. It’s more than inspiration, more than creativity or myth or the eternal human spirit or any other kind of foofy thing you’d want to name—and I’m happy to name all of them. But it’s in the taking of pains, it’s in affirming the craftsman’s simple truth that what’s worth doing is worth doing well, that you will find the root of art’s power to affirm, in the face of so much dark and brutal evidence to the contrary, that life matters, that we matter, and that anything worth doing well is simply worth doing.”
—from novelist and MacDowell Chairman Michael Chabon’s introductory remarks at the Edward MacDowell Medal Ceremony, August 11, 2013.
The MacDowell Colony is one of America’s oldest and most prestigious artists’ retreats, tucked away in the woods of Peterborough, New Hampshire. While its remote campus offers the solitude and freedom that has inspired a vast variety of artists for more than a hundred years, once a year, every August, MacDowell opens its doors to the public for a terrific summer lawn party.
The purpose of the shindig is to award the Edward MacDowell Medal, given each year to an artist who has made “an outstanding contribution to American culture.” The first recipient was Thornton Wilder, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Our Town, was primarily composed at MacDowell; other recipients include Leonard Bernstein, Georgia O’Keeffe, I.M. Pei, John Updike, Sonny Rollins, and Joan Didion.
For the rest of the story, click here.
August 2, 2013
I recently suffered a crisis of purpose with my writing, if only because Americans are more adept at creating entertaining distractions than I think any other people in the world, and I am certainly a part of that culture. Americans love nothing more than another reason to suspend our disbelief. Do we really need another memoir or novel or true crime potboiler? Most of the time I say ABSOLUTELY! Who doesn’t love a good story, well told. And yet at some point we should face the reality that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. . . but then what? For me, I began to find the answers in Mary Pipher’s Writing to Change the World, and then her latest book, The Green Boat, in which she shares how to transform our despair over the state of our world into action. And through action we will find both community and hope. Is this book a perfect blueprint? No, but it’s certainly a start.
Below is the intro of my interview with Mary Pipher, posted on the Ploughshares website. To read the full interview, click here. Read. Share. Repeat. Then get out and rabblerouse.
The cure for knowing too much is not knowing less, but rather understanding what to do with the information we have.
—Mary Pipher, The Green Boat
It’s rare I finish a book wanting to shout from the rooftops how great it is, and even more rare that I read a book I want to buy cases of to hand out at the beach and in church and to leave on the break room table at work. That book is Mary Pipher’s The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture, a wake-up call about the dire state of our earth as well as a how-to guide for dealing with the trauma of that knowledge.
What is so wonderful about The Green Boat is that Mary Pipher doesn’t just identify the myriad problems we face; she also illustrates how to find hope through awareness, then acceptance, then action. For Pipher, that action was (and still is) her grassroots work at preventing the TransCanada energy corporation from building a pipeline through the Nebraska Sandhills and over the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest water tables.
In working with others to create theCoalition to Stop the Keystone XL Pipeline, Pipher not only found hope through action, but also through a community comprised of people who might seem completely disparate on the surface: conservatives and liberals, ranchers and poets, artists and teachers, as well as natives who’d lived in Nebraska for generations and refugee immigrants new to the state, all working together for the common goal of protecting fresh water for future generations.
To read the rest of the blog, click here.
Finally, a few news sites you might find useful. I don’t eat up EVERYTHING these sites post or link to, but it’s helpful to check out more than just the Times, NPR, or Huffington Post. The more informed we are, the more powerful we are:
June 21, 2013
My latest up at Ploughshares:
RAVIOLI AI QUATTRO FORMAGGI
Tuscan Kitchen: Salem, New Hampshire
Courtesy: Tuscan Group
Delicate pasta pillows
with hand dipped ricotta
Light brown butter pan sauce,
In the amount of time it took my waiter to return with my glass of sparking Prosecco andthe complementary bread basket, I had happened upon a perfect little poem.
While eating those delicate pasta pillows in brown butter pan sauce, I considered the art of the restaurant menu, remembering more than a few occasions where I’d been stymied over what to order simply because one dish after another was so delectably described.
I surely wasn’t the first to dwell on the connection between the well-written menu and the well-made meal, but perhaps I could be the first to break new poetic ground by reconfiguring menus into gastronomic verse. I’d be the next M.F.K. Fisher of the eating ode! I’d be the new Calvin Trillin of the culinary couplet! Plus all those meals out would suddenly be tax deductible—a necessary work expense!
For the rest of the blog, click here!
June 1, 2013
My latest blog for Ploughshares:
We all do “do, re, mi,” but you have got to find the other notes yourself.
A teacher hands out tools—pencils or paintbrushes or musical instruments—and immediately begins instructing students in the art of imitation. Children copy letters and paint by numbers and squeak out Beethoven’s Ninth on cheap plastic recorders, and through these acts of reproduction the growth of the artist begins.
Every artist essentially begins as a cover artist. We learn the rules of the color wheel, the narrative arc, how to count in 4/4 time—and then we take what we’ve learned and create, convincing ourselves that despite all the artists who’ve come before we’re making something fresh.
The first song I remember hearing on the radio—I must have been three or four—was “Please Mister Postman.” The song remains a favorite, reminding me of the good ole days of grilled cheese sandwiches and hanging with mom at home listening to AM radio, yet I’m not sure which version of the song I first heard. Was it the Marvelettes? The Supremes? The Beatles? I only know it couldn’t be The Carpenters because their version didn’t come out ‘til I was seven, by which point I’d been listening to the radio for ages.
April 23, 2013
If you don’t live within spitting distance of Boston, maybe you missed the sad news that the Boston Phoenix abruptly quit publication last month. This alternative newsweekly began in the heyday of the sixties, and quickly became the go-to source for more than just the other side of the story, spawning dozens of nationally recognized writers and critics along the way. For decades the Phoenixhad the best and most comprehensive arts and entertainment reporting in Boston—even according to the Boston Herald and Boston Globe, who poached many Phoenix writers over the years. The Phoenix also had a pit bull approach to reporting that’s required when you’re breaking stories like the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal. This foundation of excellent and intelligent reportage and writing was made possible in large part because—in addition to their desire to get to the heart of every story they published—the Phoenix had a paid staff.
Click here to read the rest. . .
March 31, 2013
While I work on my next blog for Ploughshares, I wanted to share this little TedED talk on the power of fiction. If you’re not familiar with Ted talks, and you’re ready to slip down the Internet rabbit hole for a few hours, check them out. Ted talks are the best of what the Internet has to offer–a free exchange of valuable ideas, insights, and inspiration.
I’ve watched many on my own, shared many with friends, and shown the shorter TedED videos in my classroom. I show Vi Hart videos in math and science (and after I showed Hart’s fabulous fibonacci video this year, I followed it up with this great video of a kid in NY who created a solar collector based on the fibonacci pattern of oak trees), and I also show TedEd videos on linguistics and writing techniques during literacy. This morning I watched this video on the power of fiction.
I wasn’t surprised at all that I’m not the only one believes that sometimes the greater truth–and power–is found in a novel rather than a newspaper article, a song rather than a speech, and a painting instead of yet one more proclamation from a politician who cares more about his reelection campaign than he does about his constituents.
March 14, 2013
Another blog of mine up on Ploughshares begins thus:
February 25, 2013
It was with a heavy heart I received the news from my friend, Scott Sargent, that his father had died. Memory and distance can trick the brain into freezing time altogether, and this can be particularly true when it comes to teachers and friends we leave behind after high school. I hadn’t seen Mr. Sargent since my graduation from Gilford High School decades ago, so in my head he’s still the same as he was then, flattop haircut and short-sleeved dress shirts, a different striped tie for every day of the week.
Mr. Sargent didn’t look like an English teacher, he looked like a math teacher or an engineer or like an actual military sergeant—the kind who would flip a quarter onto to your bunk and give you two weeks of latrine duty just because it didn’t bounce high enough off the blanket.
It didn’t help that while the other English teachers at Gilford got to serve up The Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye or Lord of the Flies—books with enough intrigue or violence or adolescent angst to make any lesson slightly more manageable—Mr. Sargent had the trying task of teaching early American Lit. The curriculum consisted of Pilgrim journals, Puritan sermons (mainly of the fire and brimstone variety), Emerson essays, and, worst of all, Henry Thoreau’s Walden, a book that seemed just as torturous to a sixteen-year-old as calculus or SATs or a gym class first thing in the morning.
And we didn’t even have a proper classroom—we were shoehorned into a tiny, windowless space in a corner of the library that probably had been storage at some point or an office where the librarian hid to catch up on reading the Life or Outdoor magazines that never seemed to remain on the racks. There were no desks, so we all just sat on the floor in a semi-circle around Mr. Sargent, who sat in one of the only available chairs, crossed his legs, balanced whichever thankless text we currently had to read, and began to teach.
And we all know what happened next, right? Even Mr. Sargent would have to agree that this is one of the oldest stories in the book, whether it was part of his early American Lit curriculum or not. I know I wasn’t the only one who ended up scrawling Emerson quotes on my notebook—the most popular was “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist”—or the only one who grudgingly admitted Thoreau had some pretty good points. (I was probably the only one who tacked a poem on my bedroom wall by the Puritan Reverend Michael Wigglesworth, but that’s a story for another time.) Emerson and Thoreau were rebel punks and Wigglesworth was possibly the original Goth—as for the deceptively meek Emily Dickinson? She was easily the trickiest of the bunch.
I’m not sure how Mr. Sargent led us to a place where we could find value in what we read, where we could somehow connect words that were centuries old to our own world of Joe Strummer and John Hughes and the all-too enticing anti-Thoreau sentiment of “Greed is Good” from Wall Street. I think his gift had something to do with his sense of humor—this wry little smile he’d get once we wore ourselves out with complaints and finally happened upon the truth that he knew was there all along—but more to do with a deep and genuine kindness. His smile didn’t mean he was laughing at us—though we sure deserved that more often than not—it was just benevolent amusement that it took us so darn long to figure everything out.
And I wonder now if we were shoehorned into that tiny room by design rather than lack of space. It wasn’t much smaller than Thoreau’s cabin had been, and it certainly was spare. There was just us on the floor with our notebooks and pencils, and Mr. Sargent sitting in his chair, legs crossed, book on his lap.
I suppose you could say that in addition to having this frozen-in-time image of Mr. Sargent from my 11th grade English class so long ago, memory and distance also have allowed me to idealize his impact on me as a writer and teacher and an ever-evolving nonconformist, but I really don’t think so. With that vintage flattop and a different striped tie for every day of the week, he was probably the first real nonconformist I ever knew; Emerson and Thoreau would be proud. I’m proud too, that I could call him my teacher.