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Thursday, January 31, 2013

What's Neat on the Net: Visual Edition

Combinations of poetry and the visual have been showing up on my screen all week. Here are a few of them:

1. The first is the release of this year's National Poetry Month poster. See below. Check out past year's posters here.

2013 Poster, designed by Jessica Helfand

2. The second is a series of guest blog posts about mathematical poetry in Scientific American online. They are all written by mathematical poet Bob Grumman, and feature his work as well as that of many others. Pieces tend to include some kind(s) of mathematical element, as well as words and visual imagery. Here's an example below (and if Mr. Grumman or Scientific American is unhappy about my reproducing this here, please let me know and I'll take it down):
Long Division of Poetry, Frame 7
Grumman's own "Long Division of Poetry, Frame 7"

Here are the articles in the series, displaying a wide array of styles while still using the elements mentioned above:

M@h*(pOet)?ica (link to this misbehaves; go to last blog post on list, scroll down and link from there)
M@h*(pOet)ica: Summerthings
M@h*(pOet)ica: Louis Zukofsky's Interval
M@h*(pOet)ica: Scott Helmes (link to this misbehaves; go to last blog post on list, scroll down and link from there)
M@h*(pOet)ica--of Pi and the Circle, Part I
M@h*(pOet)ica - Happy Holidays! (Check out Gary Barwin's "Circle of Ifs") (link to this misbehaves; go to last blog post on list, scroll down and link from there)
M@h*(pOet)ica - Circles, Part 3 (This is the last post. You can link to all posts from this one. Scroll to end.)

3. Lastly, at Maria Popova's Explore blog, a video explanation of why yellow in the room without you isn't yellow on your computer screen.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Writing in the Air

For over a year now, I have wanted to write poems that use space differently than is my natural tendency to do. I have wanted to write poems with more space between the lines, perhaps with indentations in some lines, dropped lines, staggered lines if necessary. Basically I have wanted to write poems with forms that give the impression of space, almost of airiness.

Despite this being my desire, I continue to write little bricks of poems. I've just finished a series of 12 prose poems, each one little brick of a paragraph. Then I wrote a poem of long-lined couplets, space between the couplets, but the lines ran nearly to the end of the page, using it all up, exhausting the space. And then I wrote a free verse poem that still came out rather blocky and firm.

So I decided to reread some of the poets whose use of space I wish to emulate, to see how they did it, why they could do this thing and I could not. And what I noticed right away is that the poems that have the spaciousness I crave are the poems that are going to what appears to me to be scary places for the poet. These are authentic poems that reach somewhere that must be touched with delicacy, or the experience will simply shatter. These are poems that do the balancing act of going somewhere scary and painful and honest and yet being able to come back out. That's what the space is for.

I'm a believer that form and content need to echo one another (and in spacious poems there is room for an echo across the empty space), so I should not have been surprised to find that it is content of the spacious poem that is driving the form. In fact, each time I sat down to write a poem and found it becoming a brick instead of a meandering path through a waist-high meadow, I have known that it had to be a brick because of the cerebral nature of the poem.

So to write the kind of poem I want to write I have to go to the deep scary places within me. And I haven't been going to those places for a few years. The reason is that it takes time and it takes energy to go there, more time and certainly more energy than I have. And I've been wondering why I don't have the time and energy for it. Well, with a job and going to school part-time and raising kids and having a small business in the family, that explains the time. But I do manage to fnd the time to write my little bricks. And the poets whose spacious poems I admire are surely juggling as many roles as I am.

So I think it's mostly a question of energy. It's exhausting to write the honest poem, and as I grow older, the amount of energy I have no longer expands to meet what I need to do. The amount of energy I can expend within a day has a fixed limit, and on top of living a full life, I am living in a foreign country, speaking a foreign language, so that even the smallest tasks outside the home require extra effort.

Still, no excuse. Think of all the expat writers in America writing in English, not even their native language.

So it can be done. And I will continue to strive towards it. But I expect plenty of bricks as I try and fail and and try and fail. And try, and maybe someday succeed.

Friday, January 25, 2013

What's Neat on the Net

Cool things on the internet:

1. The entire Harvard Classics series online. We had two bookshelves devoted to this series in our home when I was growing up. It went with the oldest sister when she got married. Now all of us can have it, without dedicating the physical space (sort of want to say to my older sister, nyah nyah na nyah nyah....)

2. Cornell University's natural sound archive--largest in the world--online. Listen to loons, wolves, rain forest ambient sound, almost any natural sound you can think of.

3. My good friend Tracy Slater recently got a book deal with Putnam for her memoir about life as an American woman married to a Japanese man, going through infertility treatments in Japan, along with all the other adjustment one has to make to live abroad. She blogs about it at The Good Shufu.

4. A great interview with poet Sarah J. Sloat, poet and expat in Germany, about chapbooks and homesickness, at Laura Madeline Wiseman's blog. I'm a big fan of Sloat's poetry, and of chapbooks, and a fellow sufferer of homesickness, so if you've an interest in any of those topics, be sure to check out the interview.

5. And from Mental Floss, a list of 17 vowel-free words (or should we say vowel-less?--I once witnessed a debate over the use of childless vs. childfree and now always think of the options and their implications) you can use in boardgames such as Scrabble and Words With Friends. Thanks to my sister Janee for alerting me to this useful list.

6. An interview with poet Eric Pankey at the Milkweed Editions blog, about his new book Trace. At the bottom of the interview is a link where you can read quite a selection of poems from the new book, out from Milkweed Editions this year. From the interviews: "I see poems as speculative spaces and, in such a place, I find myself free to be full of questions, full of doubt."

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


My sister teaches math at Lone Star College, the community college in Houston that's been in the news the last day or so for a shooting. The shooting was at her main campus, but luckily she happened to be at another campus when it occurred. Her husband teaches math at the high school across the street from this campus, and they went into lockdown.

Everyone in my family is okay.

But this situation is not okay.

I don't generally make political statements here because this is not that kind of blog. And I'm not feeling coherent enough right now to make a statement I'll have to stand by later.

But I just want to say this: this is not okay.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Better Late Than Never

And the latest Akutagawa Prize, a Japanese semiannual award for best literary story published in a magazine or newspaper by an emerging writer, goes to 75-year-old Natusko Kuroda. Yes that's right: she's 75 and an emerging writer. Melville House blogs about it, with a quote from and a photo of our newest intrepid literary idol.

Business Cards of the Famous

This is kind of fun. Flavorwire has compiled a post on the business cards of famous people.

Monday, January 21, 2013

What I've Been Reading

All last autumn and into early winter, I couldn't find anything to read that satisfied me. The problem was largely me--even books I had been saving to read didn't please me. I wanted writing that was more surprising, more original. I read plenty of stuff that was well-written, beautifully written, but it seemed to me to be more of the same. On top of that is the problem of getting the books I want to read at a reasonable price here in Japan. Due to the internet I can theoreticaly get pretty much anything, but my budget precludes me getting a lot of what I think I want.

I'm happy to report that recently I have read three books that pleased me.

First is James Arthur's Charms Against Lightning (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). This is a first book but it reads like that of an accomplished author. I had read Arthur's poems here and there online, and was astonished at their authenticity. After reading the book, I've concluded that there's not a single poem in this book that is included to demonstrated cleverness or technical accuity. There is plenty of technical accuity and some cleverness--don't get me wrong--but underlying each poem is a depth of emotional truth, an authenticity, that is almost palpable. My favorite poem in the book is "Ghost Life," I don't find available online, but have a look at these excellent pieces instead:

"Against Emptiness" from 32 Poems
"On Day and Night" originally from The New Republic, available at Verse Daily (and my 2nd favorite poem from the book)
"Song of the Doppelganger" from Narrative (and a spookily well-crafted piece)
"The Land of Nod" from Poetry (another of my favorites)

The second book I enjoyed recently was Inger Christensen's The Painted Room (The Harvill Press, 2000). I'm crazy about Christensen's poetry, but this was my first foray into her fiction, and what a wild ride it was. As author & reviewer Dawn Pendergast said on the book-sharing website Goodreads, "This is the plottiest plot I've ever loved..." It's an implausible story, or stories I should more appropriately say, since not only are the narratives intertwined, but so are the consequences. Magical realism rears its sparkly head from time to time, but then is forgotten as events are taken as truth, only to later come under the suspicions of whose truth? From the painter who comes to Mantua in 1460 to adorn with his work the home of the local duke, to the family and servants living in the household, to the pope, the characters and their relationships are elaborate and convoluted to the extreme. SInce Christensen reveals stunning details long after an event has been explicated, you may find you want to reread all 119 pages of this little book. There's a certain reveal that I'm dying to tell you about, but will end my paragraph about this book in order not to spoil it for you.

The last book that recently I have enjoyed is Carol Maso's Ghost Dance (Ecco, 1986), her debut novel. This is written in the fragmented style of David Markson, whose work I adore, the stark difference being that Maso's fragments are her own narration, broken into short pieces (not all as short as Markson's however) that defy chronology. You have to pay close attention to know which bits to weave together in order to understand an event that is mentioned fify different times throughout the book. There is tons of repetition, which as you know I love, but you have to read carefully even the most iterated portions, because each version will reveal something new, however minute, and some of them will have huge revelations that will help the reader know how one thread ties to another. This is a book for an astute reader, but don't think that it's a cerebral book only. The emotional content of this book can exhaust you. I do have to say there was one scene in the book I found troublingly implausible, but for a debut novel, one small scene that isn't in the end all that important is overlookable.

Friday, January 18, 2013

My Personal Watergate

Yesterday I was listening to word maven Patricia T. O'Connor on the Leonard Lopate Show (she's a regular feature), and she was discussing words that became popularized during the Watergate era, as it is the 40th anniversary of the debacle. The guest host talked about being required by her parents to watch Watergate on TV though she was only a child. She recalled being told, "This is history in the making."

My parents did the same thing. I was only 6 years old but they woke me up to come and watch Nixon resign. I remember lying on the living room floor in front of the television, falling asleep, and my parents prodding me to "Wake up. This is history. You need to see this."

Prior to Nixon's resignation I had a personal experience with Watergate. I was in the first grade. My mother kept us kids busy with activities like practicing the piano daily, and my father, who was an electrical engineer, traveled quite a bit and was often not home. One day when I was practicing the piano, I noticed some audio tapes sitting on the top of it. They were not professionally made tapes, but homemade ones. I asked my mother what they were but she just shooed me away, saying, "They're just tapes." My curiosity was piqued, so I continued to hound her about what kind of tapes they were, and she just told me they were tapes of my father's. Later I would learn that since he was away from the office so often due to his travels, his coworkers had recorded some meetings for him, but at the time of my asking, my mother was just irritated with my questions (she was undoubtedly busy with my other four siblings (at the time she was functionally a single mother of five--eventually she would have eight kids)) and she finally told me to stop asking so many questions about the tapes.

This was intriguing to me; I generally wasn't denied answers to my questions, so I began to be suspicious about those tapes. And suddenly it occurred to me--I had heard on the news that there were some missing tapes called the Watergate tapes, and I knew now where they were. They were on my family's piano. I knew we weren't supposed to have the tapes--everyone in Washington DC was looking for them, and I knew that the president of my country needed those tapes returned. I had to do something.

But what? Clearly my mother didn't want me to know about the tapes. My father shouldn't even have the tapes; I couldn't ask him. I thought about telling my first-grade teacher, Miss Bonsell, but what if that resulted in my parents getting arrested? Our family was in danger (our country was in danger!) and I didn't know what to do. I consulted my sisters, one in the 2nd grade and one in kindergarten. They also didn't know what we should do with the Watergate tapes (actually none of us knew exactly what the tapes were), but my sisters wisely felt that if our parents knew that we knew, they would have to do something.

So we decided to put on a news broadcast for our parents. This was not unsual; we did so many performances for our parents that they had built us a little wooden stage in the basement as our venue. Jennifer was the anchorwoman--she was the oldest, so she was always the anchorwoman. Jamie did the sports and I did the weather (I built weather machines in my dad's workshop until I was nine--all the neighbors used to ask my weather advice, and sometimes they asked me to control the weather, to ensure a good day for a lawn party or something--that always worried me). As the finale to our news broadcast, we interrupted our regular programming for a special bulletin, which my sisters insisted that I do, since I was the one who had found the incriminating tapes.

I remember being a nervous wreck. I wrote and rewrote my copy again and again, looking for the words that would convey the situation without getting us kids in trouble.

"Ladies and gentlemen, breaking news. The missing Watergate tapes have been found. They are on the piano at the home of the Goodfellow family, at 3603 Goshen Road in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania," I announced. My parents laughed. My sisters and I exchanged glances. What did this laughter mean? Soon my parents scuttled us off to bed.

The next morning the tapes were gone from the top of the piano. We never spoke of them again. I suppose the fact that my dad had just returned from a business trip and had the chance to pick them up was the reason, but at the time I was pretty sure that it was because of our news broadcast. Knowing that their kids had known about the tapes convinced my parents to do the right thing. Democracy was safe once again. And my personal Watergate was over.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Poets in Prison

Historically, oppressive regimes imprisoning poets, artists, and intellectuals has not been unusual, but rather has tended to be the norms of such regimes. Given the rigidity of Japanese hierarchical systems and the deference given (even today) to such rigidity, I'm not surprised to hear that in the past Japanese poets have been imprisoned by reigning forces. However, I was surprised to learn that it happened as recently as 1940, and that in at least one case it was over the failure of experimental haikuist Saito Sanki to include a season word (kigo) in his haiku. I shouldn't have been surprised, wouldn't have been if I'd ever thought about it...the forms in Japanese poetry were as rigidly imposed as other forms in Japanese arts and lifestyle, and thus the breaking away from such poetic forms would certainly have been viewed by the militarist government as evidence of threatening westerning forces insidiously invading the minds of the people.

I learned about Saito's imprisonment and that of other Japanese writers during the war when researching for the Japanese poetic forms class I'm going to be teaching this spring. From the article "The Landscape of Identity: Poetry and the Modern in Japan" (first published in  Aufgabe issue #4 in 2004, edited by Sawako Nakayasu, and made available online at the website The New Modernism), comes the following :

"In 1940, Saito Sanki, an experimental haikuist, was imprisoned for the crime of writing haiku without any seasonal reference. Kitasono Katue was arrested in the same year and subjected to a grueling three-day interrogation by Japan’s infamous Thought Police. Virtually all of Japan’s Modernists were arrested, sent to the Manchurian front, or silenced. Nishiwaki Junzaburo, whose first book of poems was composed originally in English and then translated into Japanese, and who introduced the technique of Surrealist estrangement to Japan, found it wisest to retreat to his home town with his British wife, where he began research on the Japanese classics (a much safer pursuit during those times). The careers of many writers and artists were completely destroyed by the events of the war era. Not even the restoration of political freedom after the war could recover all of what was lost."

Read the entire article for a look at the modernist movement in Japan, and the role of women writers in propelling this movement.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Recent Discoveries

Unbelievable Facts is a great name to follow on Twitter. Yesterday UnBFacts posted something I will never forget: "swims" upside down is still "swims." Actually, in all caps it looks even more flippable: "SWIMS".

Also, friend and poet Mari recommended the poetry of Cynthia Cruz last week when discussing books received for Christmas, and by chance I happened upon an interview with Cynthia Cruz in the Prosody archives (Prosody is a now-defunct literary talk show hosted by poet Jan Beatty and writer Ellen Wadey, which can still be accessed on iTunes--scroll down to March 20, 2007.) You can also listen to the interview here (no scrolling required). It's an old interview, but you can hear Cruz read from her first book, and she and Beatty also discuss some of her themes, including veiled violence in childhood.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Your Recipe in Space!

Maybe you'll never go to space, but your secret family recipe for meatballs could.

Listening to the Science Friday Podcast yesterday, I learned that for the Mars program, freeze-dried space rations will be a thing of the past. Instead Dr. Kim Binsted is organizing a space pantry of foods with long-enough shelf lives for astronauts to cook themselves meals, adding variety to what will be a long mission. To this end, there is even a recipe contest for meals in space at HI-SEAS (Binsted's Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation program). Enter and win a T-shirt and a chance for your recipe to make it to Mars.

The rules state that you can only use ingredients from the list of long-shelf-life food items that will be included in the mission. This list includes salmon, cornmeal, and maramalade, along with ethnic items such as the Japanese furikake, sushi rice, wasabi, and shiitake mushrooms. Thai curry is on the list, which gives me one more incentive to become an astronaut. It's a longer list than I would have guessed at; take a look! (And you can suggest ingredients to be added to the list--scroll to the bottom if you've got a must-have item to propose.)

The deadline is March 8th. Finalist recipes will actually be tested during a simulation mission. So get cooking, cosmonauts.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Sleepy Brain

Today I read Roxana Robinson's essay in the New Yorker about how she writes in the morning, maintaining part of her dreamstate from the night before by avoiding noise (even a coffee grinder's noise), news, and conversation prior to writing. She's trained her husband to limit conversation in the morning. She doesn't appear to have kids or she'd know how futile it would be to try and train them to silence.

Yesterday I read the blog by Ellie Robins at Melville House advising writers not to go to sleep till the wee hours as "sleepy brains  think more freely" (which she admits, is true of brains still sleepy after waking up).

Would I like to access this sleepy brain? I would. But I already get up at 5 or 5:30 just to get on with the day and so does the rest of my family. I've tried getting up earlier than that to have some quiet creative time, only to have my husband and kids decide that since I'm up, they'll join me. I try to stay up late at night, but I'm exhausted from being up so early and on the go all day, and I end up falling asleep wherever I am. I do get writing in--in the early afternoon, which no one has ever advised anywhere. But that's when the people in my life are off doing their own things and I can be alone. I'm making it work, but without the bonus of the sleepy brain. (If I use caffeine to stay up late, does that count as sleepy brain?)

Some time in my life I'll have the luxury of trying out the effect of sleepy brain on creativity. It just isn't now.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Today's Tiny Drama

There is a charter school we'd like our older son to go to starting next April (new school year here starts in April). We've been preparing our application for months now, and it had to be submitted today. In person. By a parent or guardian. So I got dressed in a suit, a severe gray suit, put on all my makeup (not just a quick powder and eyeliner job), and even used hair spray. I took off the extra rings I usually bedazzle the world with. I was going for the conservative, conformist, not-going-to-cause-a-ruckus-even-if-she-is-a-foreigner mom image.

On the way to the school I stopped by the shrine to drop off our New Year's decorations for burning. In Japan, New Year's decorations, even the chopsticks used for the three days of the New Year's, are sacred and cannot be thrown away, but must be burned by a priest at the shrine. I also made a small donation towards the burning, though I didn't pray as I'm not a believer.

On the way to the train station, my shoe felt weird, my special orthopaedic shoe that I've been wearing since injuring my foot 8 months ago. It doesn't call attention to itself by being outrageously ugly, this shoe, but if studied, its extreme utilitarianism will reveal it as orthopaedic. I looked down and saw that the buckle that kept it at the right pressure for my foot had broken. A few steps later, I knew that keeping the shoe on my foot painlessly sans buckle was not an option. So I stopped at a convenience store, bought a box of safety pins, and used one where the buckle had been. It nicely slipped right in both loops the the buckle had held together . Great, I thought. Now I'm no longer conservative, conformist, not-going-to-cause-a-ruckus-even-if-she-is-a-foreigner mom, but punk rock mom, with orthopaedic shoes. Maybe no one will notice this bit of flashing silver on my otherwise black shoes, I thought.

On the train, the other passengers looked down at my shoes, then up at my red hair and blue eyes, then back down at my shoes. So much for no one noticing.

I arrived at the school 45 minutes after it had begun accepting applications. I took a number and sat down. My number was 81. There are only 90 spots available next year in the school, and more parents were streaming in the door behind me. Competition is going to be stiff. Still, I thought it lucky that my number was a perfect square (81 = 9 squared). I studied the people submitting their applications before me (the first 80!), saw who they bowed to, who they greeted, etc. I have to mimic other people's behavior in Japan since I don't have a natural social sense for what is appropriate here. I watched people get to the end of presenting their documents and then reach into their wallets for the application fee. I'd forgotten all about the application fee! It was only the equivalent of $22, but I often (to my husband's consternation) carry very little cash in my purse. I surreptiously peeked into my bag and saw that I had $23. I could pay the application fee, but I wouldn't have enough to buy a $2.30 train ticket home. If only I hadn't bought the safety pins or made a donation towards the sacred bonfire.

After all this going wrong, my presentation of  documents went quite smoothly. I answered the questions, paid the fee, and was on my way. Trekking back to the station, I stopped at a convenience store that had an ATM and found that (for an outrageous fee) I could withdraw some money. I was on my way.

Mission accomplished.

Now I'm just wondering whether or not to replace the buckle on my other shoe with a safety pin.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Rejection in Reflection

So I got a rejection email today that stung me particularly strongly. I had aimed above my usual standards, it's true, and while I was realistic about the chance of receiving an acceptance, I couldn't help but hope in a small hidden part of myself that this would be the breakthrough for me. I wasn't surprised when it wasn't, but I felt rather condescended to by the actual rejection letter. After stewing about this all morning, I went back to reread the letter and to try and identify what it was about the wording that was bothering me so much.

And I discovered that it wasn't really the letter, which was nicely if ambiguously written, so much as it was just having someone somewhere decide that I was not worth her support.

Here's the actual wording, which as you can see is diplomatic and not meant to discourage and was not all that condescending either (though maybe a touch):

Thanks for sending in your manuscript. We rely on submissions like yours, since a good portion of what we publish comes to us unsolicited. Unfortunately, we won't be able to accept this one for publication—we're a very small company, and can only put out a few each year. Please feel free to submit again in the future—as our tastes are continuously changing.

Thanks again for your efforts,

This is how I read the letter (or remembered it all morning anyway):

Thanks for letting us reject your manuscript. We rely on submissions infinitely better than yours, since a good portion of what we publish comes to us unsolicited, and in your case also unwanted. We would never in a million years accept this one for publication--we're a very discerning and elite company, and can only put out the best of the best each year and yours didn't even come close. Please feel free to submit again in the future if you've had a brain transplant or maybe a complete breakdown of personality resulting in yours being replaced with one that has talent--as our tastes are continuously changing ha ha not really but we say that to make you feel better.

Thanks again for letting us reject you,

Sigh.  I'm somewhere betwixt reading between the lines and projecting, I'm afraid.

(And if you are wondering why I don't say who the publisher is, it's more about me being ashamed at having aimed above myself than about protecting her. She did, after all, write a very nice rejection letter.)

Rereading what I've just written I think to myself, "Jeez, Jessica, what did you want her to say?" Yes, I wanted her to say Yes, but given that she can't, there's not a good way for her or anyone to reject something as personal as poetry. As personal to me as my poetry. No matter what she says, I'm going to hear something else from inside myself, and doesn't that suck for her? And for me? Sure does.

I'm going to have to try to do better next time. Because there will be a next time. There could be one now, if I go and check my inbox, which, excuse me, I'm going off to do.

Your Handwriting as a Font

Have you ever wanted to make your own handwriting into a usable font? Jojoebi Designs shows you how.

My handwriting is illegible enough that I won't bother, but if you do, let me know how it works out.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Mary in the Cloud

Wave Books has uploaded lectures and talks by Mary Ruefle. Wow.

Possible post titles are still popping into my head. For example, I should have put this post with the previous one and called them together Emily in the Ether, Mary in the Cloud.

Emily Online: Digital Dickinson

Amherst College is opening its archives of Emily Dickinson's writings online to anyone, worldwide. Have a peek at her handwriting, her original unusual lineations which defy typesetting, and also her correspondence and even recipes.

Okay, I've been downtown to do errands since writing the above paragraph, but possible titles for this post keep popping into my head: How about e-Emily. Or Download Dickinson.

Do you have any?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Line Break Lists Open Readings

The Line Break, a Poetry and Wine Blog, has updated its list of presses with open readings. Handily indexed as to the month in which the open reading begins, as well as with a list of always-open open readings, this is a great resource. Plus there are links to other lists, such as book publications contests, small & independent presses, etc.

A great resource for finding a home for your work in this new year.