Thursday, July 31, 2008
As we can see, the post-MFA adjustment is taking time. A fellow Montana MFA grad and I are sharing her studio. Sleeping on the same air mattress. Scrambling eggs out of our single skillet. Reinflating the air mattress. A sampling of college friends, where they are now: head of the radiology dept at Duke University, hi-profile Wall Street stockbroker, professor at Emory working with legislation to protect battered women. As my parents like to remind me, aside from bad marks in cursive writing, my report card showed promise. What went wrong here? A-R-T. Ohnonono, I couldn’t work in a hospital or court or office. I must create.
For work I’m teaching online where I’m learning the joys of emoticons, exclamation points and the sandwich technique:
I am eager to embark on this exciting opportunity. I noticed you don’t pay for training. Is that legal? Again, thanks for this exciting opportunity.
The pay is actually decent, once I actually start teaching (a month from now? A year? From the grave?) For most this job is a part time gig for parents so they afford karate lessons as they organize medical records at some hospital somewhere. Teaching online is the new Tetrus. I’m holding out on full time so I can work on my book. Take my MFA third year, as I’m explaining it. It’s hard. The Visa emits tendrils of smoke as I swipe. I scan the restaurant employment ads with the shameful hungered stealth of drunk-driving by an ex’s house. I worked in the biz for years, have the necessary experience to land a fat job where I can pocket $200 plus a night. For the mere price of my soul. Double hard is that post-Katrina, all the best restaurants in town are (supposedly) in dire need of staff.
The more I sit in hipster coffee shops with my iBook with other black-squared glasses wearing hipsters the more the self-loathing foments.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
- Editorial Assistant, Medical
- Associate Development Editor, Architecture
- Entry Level Copywriter, Web Writing
- Research Associate
- Technical Writer
- Online Teaching, Composition
- Composition Instructor
The following positions have been applied for. Now I wait. At the Logan Square Public Library until I receive an email. I wait. And I wait. The job hunt continues, and because I'm never sure when the WiFi signal here will diminish I cling to the web pages I have open and scour the job postings. In these 80% humidity days I also cling to the A/C.
I've been in Chicago a little over a week now; our super had to kick in our door after his elaborate assembly of picks and screwdrivers failed on move-in day. We still haven't heard back about our mailbox key. So, I sit and hope I'm not missing any important documents other than the mail that trickles through into the "junk mail" bin in my apartment's foyer. I read last night in the Newcomer's Guide to Chicago that the postal service here is notoriously poor. Apparently, decades ago a federal investigation of Chicago-area postal workers took place, finding "stacks and stacks" of undelivered mail littering the apartments and vehicles of those workers. So, if I miss that electricity bill I blame the postal service.
I've made a commitment to explore downtown since I'm less than a mile from the outskirts of skyscrapers, seen in all its glory from Wicker Park, two L stops away. When T & I were waiting on the L platform for our non-rush hour train to amble in I watched the Sears Tower light up as the smoggy dusk grew; damn those two little "antennae" sticking on the top... My commitment to downtown is spirited in intention but feeble in practice. I haven't yet seen Lake Michigan since I moved.
Mostly I stay around the apartment bemoaning the heat and writing a few tercets. I'm writing in smaller lines and stanzas now, mostly couplets and tercets. I have no idea what this means.
I'm reading Jorie Graham's The End of Beauty. While I don't particularly care for the initial poems' focus on Adam, Eve, Shadow, Truth and Beauty, a man's neck hair rising as he sits in the back of a cab that opens a later poem is killer. These poems are written in very long lines, lines that often lope on to a second line. She also uses numerals extensively, fracturing and enumerating experiences in her "Self Portrait" series, two things I've tried to use to some success (long lines-yes, numerals-no). I'm also reading Exiles, Ron Hansen's market paperback-feeling novel of Gerard Manley Hopkins' writing of "Wreck of the Deutschland". I think this perhaps-unfair labeling of tone/market fits the first chapter of the novel well but when he turns to novelize the lives of each of the five nuns who did die in the wreck, his exploration of 19th century religion and politics in and around Germany is fascinating and engaging. So is Hansen's portrayal of Hopkins' turn away from the Church of England to Roman Catholicism for many of the reasons (persecution, etc.) I would attribute to the reason for the opposite switch to the Church of England.
This brings me back to the devotion I now give job hunting. I've been fortunate enough to find a small group of former and current MFAers (from the Art Institute) that T knows. Four of them are currently unemployed. This makes for more group bemoaning, ending in the lament: "Well since the Trib laid off some journalists, our job marker is saturated..."
Monday, July 28, 2008
Friday, July 25, 2008
Beyond that, the weirdest thing has happened. I had an idea for a story. A real, live fictional story. I haven't written one of those since I was an undergrad over 10 years ago. I keep trying to avoid it but ideas continue to accrete and I imagine that I'll have to start writing it soon. The idea of sitting down and writing sentences is a daunting one, but also exciting. Obviously, I haven't avoided sentences entirely while I've been focusing on poetry. I've even made some forays into literary nonfiction. But ever since I made the choice to focus on poetry, fiction has been a mystery to me. Much like mountain climbing, I could admire the commitment involved and marvel at the strength and skill it took to finish the task, but I just did't understand why anyone would want to undertake the task in the first place.
Anyway, we'll see how it goes and whether I'm actually up to it.
Tomorrow I fly away from Prague and back to the job search, the struggle to create a writing routine, the daily dog-walking, and the steady diet of burritos and cheese toast that I left behind. Tonight, we dine on pork knuckle!
Thursday, July 17, 2008
I am reminded of the first time I heard the term rolfing and thought it must be some wicked fetish thing. Then I learned the truth, which was much less interesting than I'd imagined.
It goes without saying that there's something tedious about visiting a sex museum, or any museum for that matter. The modes of display eliminate any dynamism the objects themselves may have had. Certainly, one's imagination can fill in the blanks regarding the many uses for a copulation bench, but does one really need the presence of the object at all at that point?
Regardless, I have been set the task of writing a stanza using the language of the Sex Machines Museum. Beyond the fact that the institution's James Brownsian name makes me giggle, I've got nothing.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Tomorrow, the members of our workshop have to go to some tourist trap sex museum to write another collaborative poem.
Other changes: The program has a two week option as well as the month-long option, so a bunch of people left and a new batch of people arrived. Since I spend most of my time reading in the dorm room, this hasn't had a huge effect on my life here.
Speaking of reading, I can't get enough of novels. After four years of living, eating, and breathing poetry, all I want now is to lose myself in expansive fictions. I've finished Arnost Lustig's Lovely Green Eyes, Phillip Pullman's The Subtle Knife, and Amy Bloom's Away.
I'm currently reading Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and I'm saving Ulysses for the flight home.
Books are incredibly expensive here. A paperback copy of Pullman's The Amber Spyglass at the English language bookstore goes for about 25 dollars.
In other news, we saw Victor Wooten walking around the Charles Bridge yesterday. Doug's a huge, huge fan of his, so of course he plotyed. Turns out Mr. Wooten was headlining the Bohemian Jazz festival that night. It was free, so we went. Things are never free here, so you have to grab that brass ring whenever it presents itself. It was like any other festival--bratwursts and beer, big crowd, etc. The lady in front of me had a kid on her shoulders and was dancing frenetically so that said kid's butt kept waving within an inch of my face. Unpleasant.
So I'm off to eat some goulash and take a nap. Tonight: Vibe Fantasy at the USP Jazz Lounge.
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Originally uploaded by trina.burke
As I've mentioned, I'm taking a workshop with Jack Myers here in Prague. Mr. Myers has some very definite ideas about poetry, which is not surprising. I've worked with a number of poets who are very passionate and very articulate about their personal poetic aesthetics. However, this is the first time I've worked with an instructor who is so vehement in impressing his own aesthetic values on his students. I'm not necessarily saying that this is a bad thing--it certainly gives me food for thought. I am forced to examine where my resistance to his statements about poetry comes from and this helps me to articulate my own ideas about poetry--which is never a bad thing.
And, despite my disagreement with the very foundation of many of his ideas, I find that Mr. Myers' critiques are often very insightful and helpful. It's a conundrum that, I think, centers around respect. I've heard about this so-called aesthetic war between more traditional and more elliptical (or avant-garde, or experimental, or whatever you want to call them) poets, but I never thought that anyone put much stake in it. It seems easy enough to me to respect what another artist is doing even if I don't get it or I don't like it; that is, to allow that it has a right to exist in the world, that it has value, that it should be made and there is room enough in the world for all kinds of art. What I am seeing here is a different viewpoint, wherein this elliptical poetry is considered to be the naive, overly clever, overly intellectual bumblings of youth. I am getting the message that I'll eventually (i.e. with age and, impliedly, wisdom) overcome my dedication to convolution in favor of simplicity and plainspeak. As the recipient of such messages, this feels like dismissal.
On the one hand, it makes me wonder whether all the things people say about MFA programs might be true--that they are (or can be)an indoctrination into the intellectualization of poetry, producing a legion of sense-eschewing zombies who worship at the pedestals of Jorie Graham, John Ashbery, et al. It is true that, prior to graduate school, I was writing mostly narrative poetry inspired by life events. I was "writing what I knew". However, I also think that those poems were mostly bad. I feel more confident in the writing I'm doing now, but maybe that's just a product of the stroking I've received over the past four years, the sense of belonging to a community rather than floating about in the abyss.
On the other hand, I think I'll keep doing what I'm doing for the most part. I've always kept issues of accessibility and clarity in the back of my head, and I will continue to do so.
In other news, Doug and I went to a number of museums this week. The Museum of Communism. The Veletrzni Palace. The Manes Gallery.
Among the things I saw, some favorites:
A video called "Cheerleader" that featured the artist singing a bad translation of Gwen Stefani's "What you Waiting for?" in a locker room while a group of undressed/undressing men alternately cheered and jeered her.
A wooden sculpture at the Manes gallery entitled "Woman Skier". It wore a hat of tits, had arms of tits, and stood on skis of tits.
A never-ending painting by an artist named Stibinek featuring robo-futurist figures on other planets. There were lots of egg shells and--surprise--tits and vaginas.
What will I remember most about Prague? Tits and vadge, everywhere!!!
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Monday, July 7, 2008
My Camry (equipped with a U-Haul trailer) thinks it's some kind of badass parked with the 18 wheelers in the Econo Lodge parking lot of Salina. I've spent the past twelve hours becoming intimately acquainted with the roadkill wildlife of Nebraska. Feathered, furred, domestic, wild, taloned, pawed, clawed. Too bad I can't work some kind of matchmaking deal with all those taxidermy schools in Montana.
I've also had too much time to wonder what I'm doing.
Two more hell days of driving and I'll be in New Orleans to meet fellow MFA grad Anne Marie Inge. She asked me on the phone the other day that gut wrenching post MFA Q: Have you been writing? I was actually writing pretty soon after graduation, but everything got put on hold for the move. And a kickass trip to Glacier National Park. It's weird to think a few weeks ago I was hiking to Iceberg Lake and communing with mountain goats. And in a few days I'll be slurping oysters in Nola. All it's takes is a lot of driving and fuckload of money for gas.
Friday, July 4, 2008
At the center of the film is the men's disagreement about how the story should be treated. Lustig, ever the fictionalist, insists upon filling in details of what the "characters" were thinking, what motivated their decisions. Wiener, having lived the events, insists that such an analysis is bullshit. He is insulted by speculation about mental processes taht one couldn't possibly know and his indignance over this eventually leads him to quit the project altogether.
Aside from being an enjoyable movie--the banter of these towo old friends who are in their 70's is a hoot--The Fighter touches on ethical questions with which I've been struggling, particularly with respect to an exercise we were asked to do in Jack Myers' workshop this week. The exercise was this: Create a dialogue between two photos of yourself--one as a child and one that was taken more recently.
Here's a part of the poem I wrote:
Instead, you ask how the tides work
and he explains carefully
that the combined force
of all the tails of all the fishes in the sea
pushes the waves in
and draws them out.
You know that's not true.
You think you know everything.
The "you" is my younger self and the "he" is my father. The problem: my father never told me that story. My brother's best friend told me that story. And I believed him at the time because he was cute and I wanted him to like me. But he just laughed at my stupidity. But the poem's not about my brother's best friend (maybe it should be). I chose that story because it illustrates so clearly a larger issue that I'm trying to get at in my father's tendancy to make up answers to questions when he doesn't know the actual answers. It's a liberty I took without even thinking about it for the sake of the poem. I take liberties like that all the time, which is perhaps why I prefer imaginative content to content taken directly from life (both as a reader and as a writer).
My MA thesis prject was a mostly fabricated family history in verse. I've abandoned it mostly due to exhaustion and lack of interest. I did so much fabricating in order to make the narrative interesting to a potential reader that I finally had to wonder whether I should just write something original. Is it important to hang on to the scaffolding of real life events when one must do so much to make them interesting? I keep thinking that this is what's wrong with a lot of poetry--that writers have taken the old saw about writing what you know too much to heart and imagination is no longer as valued as it should be.
Anyway, when I was in the MA program that produced my abortive thesis, the issue of ethics and appropriation came up often in discussion. I always came down on the side of ultimate freedom for the writer and I still believe that if a writer self-censors or is censored by social pressure or loyalty to truth at the generative stages of a piece, nothing good can come of it. But I'm also a realist--there are consequences to messing with other people's stories. Even more, in the case of this exercise poem, I have to admit that it's not just my story--it's also my father's. None of us live in a vacuum of story ownership.
I think of Wiener's anger with Lustig--of the rift in their friendship caused by a writer's obsessive need to fill in the blanks, to orchestrate events and ideas and essentially make another's story his own. No doubt Lustig's additions and revisions would make for a better book. But why do violence to a friend's history? Why not conceive of and write an original piece of fiction instead?
Wiener's story will perhaps never be written in prose. Rather, this documentary serves as the medium for the telling. Maybe a more appropriate one.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
If I can't be creative in my own head trying to draft another poem while staring at the lumber yard across the street, at least there's always the real world to entertain me:
East Glacier, MT. I recently hiked to a glacial lake here with a group. We saw coyote, bears, and host of other animals. We roughed it without cable television and much potable water. But really, sometime your National Park visit isn't complete without a purple spoon.
I discovered the wordy joy of posting for-sale furniture on Craigslist, as I winnow away my belongings. To secure each post users are required to enter those special computer-generated words you see on the screen, obscured with squiggly lines so that spam-happy computers can't weasel their way past this security. I posted about six separate entries, so I had security words like "cheese Chekhov" and "steel oranges". Reminding me of the article I read about CAPTCHA, the name for this security feature, instead of starting Infinite Jest or preparing dried beans.
This may, too, be old news. After tireless attempts by the media to perpetuate rumors about the presidential candidates, Obama got a lot of press for keeping a offshoot of his official website devoted to accepting and officially responding to rumors about his life, his family and his campaign. This seems particularly relevant to our position as bloggers. It's difficult to avoid divulging personal information, or to gossip. If I only discussed my own life, my posts would read as complaints; talking about our interactions with fellow-MFAers and writers helps us (me?) put this experience into perspective, and, yes, makes for more enjoyable reading. Obama's efforts to confront the rumor mill that continues on the television news via a solely electronic forum (I can't say I heard much in the news about him making a public address about this website launch) is an interesting acknowledgment of a problem with the e-medium we use with increasing regularity.
Yesterday, noticing my cupboards grow increasingly bare and I move in 10 days, it dawned on me: I may need a co-signer for an apartment. Since May I've firmly decided to avoid any kind of planning about my move to Chicago. I'll live in the moment-- UHaul will have to pry the trailer lock keys from my clammy, sweaty hands before I let them take it back if I arrive without a place to store my stuff and a floor to place the Aerobed. I haven't received positive responses from any of the handful of applications I sent out for jobs-- so I gave up and figured I'd wait for the temp jobs to tide me over. I don't have an apartment; my partner and I can't muster the courage to commit sight unseen. I don't have a local doctor, a local vet, a local bank account. I made this choice not to choose anything for the future because meticulous planning before I came to Montana only exhausted my print cartridges, and made for little peace of mind. I printed elaborate Excel spreadsheets plotting my drive out here, and the resources in Missoula to help me be a resident. But-- without a job lined up, and my last job now three weeks ended, I'm an unemployed drifter with the financial stability to drift with stuff in tow, firmly committed to my possessions. Landlords need the security to know their tenants will be able to pay the rent, monthly. I can't really prove that. I can make promises, but only that.
This, too, is that time where fellow MFAers still here in Missoula switch conversation to "...now that I'll be looking for an agent/ sending out my proposal...". This marks brave new territory for our graduating class, and the sentiment is widely shared. As Kelly so recently put it, "we're now ejected from the writing womb", and we begrudgingly accept the next step to keep momentum up to throw a manuscript out there to the world and see what happens. I've now searched and agonized over choosing poetry collection contests to submit to. Deadlines cluster around September and October. So, I return to contemplating the dynamics of a collection over an individual poem. It all made sense in thesis meetings, but the stakes seem higher. This isn't for the University Library archive-- this is for the outside reader, who hasn't worked with me for two years. I think this means I better edit.
Picking up my last pay stub at the English office today, my "replacement" (I was really the interim until a permanent hire was made for that position) offered me the kind words of wisdom from W. C. Fields, which I, terrible at remembering anything verbatim for more than 12 minutes, will attempt to paraphrase: "Life is full of boring moments punctuated by bouts of sheer terror." Sounds about right.
Some background. Within two month’s time – between October and December of last year – the following events transpired: I graduated from my MFA program, I got engaged, I started a full time job, I bought a house. Luckily, no pregnancy, or I’d have no other major life events to look forward to. On top of all of that (or because of it?) I started suffering from a series of chronic, daily migraines impervious to any medication. (On good days, I like to think of the pain as a novel idea gearing up for its birthday.)
Which brings me to here. The bad news (which we’ll get out of the way) is that I’ve spent only three hours since graduation writing. Yikes! There is some good news, though. I’m working my dream job as Managing Editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review. I teach one fiction writing class at ASU each semester. I’m planning my wedding. I’m making my mortgage payments. To manage my headaches, I’m trying to eat better. And occasionally, I even exercise. In list form, the two sides of that scale appear obviously imbalanced. The good side is winning, right? Then why does it feel just the opposite?
I believe firmly that new schedules require adjustment, that taking care of one’s body is just as important as taking care of her mind, and that sometimes, it just isn’t possible to do all you want to do. But I also believe that the major difference between a writer and anyone else is the writing itself, that the pressures of “real” life are always going to make it difficult to find writing time, and that it is possible to prioritize activities so that the most important of them (breathing? writing?) get their due attention.
Given that in the last six months I’ve found barely any time to write at all, and that exhaustion, job-juggling, doctor’s appointments and event planning are – often – the stuff of every-day life, I’ve been pondering some frightening possibilities. Among the questions I’ve asked myself these past six months: What if I’m not cut out for writing after all? Is it enough to work with writers and writing, without actually writing myself? Why, when I know that American Idol isn’t even that interesting, do I flop on the couch instead of writing? If I spent the same amount of time writing as I do feeling guilty about not-writing, would I have already written the most amazing novel ever? Etc.
Here’s what a friend recently said to me: “You’re going to spend parts of your life not writing. It’s just the way it is. If you wrote all the time, you’d be a crazy-artist-writer person and no one would like you.” Was she just trying to make me feel better, or does she have a point? I like my beau and my cat and swimming and eating and my wedding plans and our ping pong table and yes, even reality television. I also like teaching and editing and reading and (yes!) writing. I want all of it. And I’m hopeful that balance is possible, that this new life just needs some time to settle down, that with some negotiation, discipline and routine, leaving the MFA life behind is a step toward being a “real,” living, working, breathing and writing writer.
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
I've attended one workshop (moderated by Jack Myers for the first half of the month and Roger Weingarten the second) and the other participants, for the most part, are very assertive and serious about their writing. Many are in MFA programs or have just graduated. A couple are undergraduates, and a few more are non-student poets. The program itself is well-organized. Our suitemate at the dorms is a UM MFA grad (circa 2003) who is serving as the TA for Robert Everzs' fiction workshop. He's attended the program in the past and says that the participants are usually older on average, but this year the intake skewed particularly young. Staying in the dorms (as opposed to a nearby hotel, which was the other, more expensive option for accommodations) bears this out. Doug and I are 10 years older than 90% of the other participants. Oh, to be young and drunk in Prague...the 3 AM in-dorm dance parties and the morning-after one-upping reminds me of the good old days back in Missoula. Where have the months gone?
In addition to my workshop, I'm taking a "survival Czech" class to learn the basics of the language. I still don't know how to ask where the bathroom is (beyond doing the pee-pee dance with a supplicant look on my face, which works about half the time), but I have confidence that I will eventually learn this and many other useful phrases.
The local diet is the stuff of my dreams--cold cuts and cheese for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And beer. Unfortunately, I sometimes feel as if I'm being stabbed in the intestines after such a meal. And then there are the dreams. On my first night here, I dreamt that my pug went into a violent seizure and shit a live snake. I woke up that morning to the sound of what I think might have been a nightingale. I'm still recovering from the cognitive dissonance.
I've done a little writing and a little journaling. I wake up every morning at around 3:30 and read for an hour before I can go back to sleep. I've just finished Amy Bloom's Away.
So that's it for dispatch #1. Pictures next time. Na shledanou.