Saturday, December 20, 2014

Chess Is Life In Union Square

Men playing chess in Union Square, NYC, April 2011
Here's my latest travel photo. This picture was taken in New York City in Union Square in the spring of 2011. I was in New York for a few days to visit a friend who was in town from Ireland. It was my first time in NYC. I stayed at a hotel a few blocks from Union Square. This pic was on my last day, a Saturday, before flying back home to Chicago. I was wandering around the neighborhood before taking a cab to the airport. There was a lot going on in Union Square that day--a farmers market, an anti-war protest, a few chess matches, the blooming of spring. If you look closely, you can see all these events on display in this photo.

The center of the photo is of course the men playing chess. The men are both deeply involved in their game, studying the board, while a woman looks on with her hand covering her mouth. I can't tell if the woman has her mouth covered because she's stifling a yawn or because she's deep in concentration about the game too. In the background there are a few other onlookers watching the chess players...or maybe watching me take their picture or watching the other goings-on in the park. They sit under a tree with pink buds forming--this was in early April, when things are just starting to bloom in the U.S. (I remember my friend from Ireland was surprised to see how late spring starts in America compared to Ireland--she'd been expecting everything in New York to be green and colorful already). Beyond the tree is a protest sign--you can just make it out. The protesters were just starting to arrive. Also in the background is a truck for one of the fruit sellers at the farmers market that was going on that day. The market was just about winding down. The chess, though? The chess went on all day, regardless of everything else that was starting and ending in the park. "Chess is life"--Bobby Fischer.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Moon Poem

Another one from the reject pile, 2nd of 3 rejects in a series. A poem about betrayal in an enchanted setting. It happens. Notes following.

Moon Pie

He stole the moon from the sky wall, fetching darkness where there’d been light, saying the stars would take over the job or he’d give ‘em a kick if they didn’t.

She sat Indian style on the sea, on a skin so white, the color of frost, it made a ring of light, a ripple halo that throbbed with each bob of the boat.

He set the moon in her lap, where it lit up her face and pressed a new weight on the insides of her thighs, the cushions of her calves, and the muscles of her heart.

Together they dug in, their fingers breaking the moon’s crust, scattering crumbs on the waves that set the sea aglow like a pool of fizzing stars.

But he took a bigger bite, swallowed more than half his share, so she was left with just the crescent, and its edges hurt going down.

When he finished he smiled, his teeth a row of glowing rays, his face bright as a bogus dime, a lamp of lurid self-delight.

He floated to the sky and took the space he’d made on the wall, where he hung himself like a clock, tocking pride for time.

Down below she stretched her body out, to match the shape of the piece she’d ate, and made herself into a boat with a bow at each end.

Now any crumb of light, any thing he deigned to drop, she’d catch and keep ‘til his teeth burned to black and his leer left the sky.

When the new moon came up, she’d float back to land, trade bows for legs, and leave the sea to the night as her payment for the meal.

She’d say thanks for dinner, moon, I’ll think of you with every piece of heartache, every slice of sundown, and share with you every waxing of my return. 


Like the last poem I posted, this one got rejected after a few submission attempts. Rejection is nothing new to me. I get rejected a lot. A lot. I'm always disappointed by a rejection, of course, but I try not to take it personal. All writers experience rejection, and throughout their careers. So far all the editors who've rejected (or accepted) my work have been normal and professional about it, whether the rejection just comes with a form letter (most often the case for me) or with a few tepid words of encouragement. But with this poem I had one weird response from one editor even before they (I'm deliberately not using a gendered pronoun, for some privacy's sake) put it in the queue for consideration at their journal. Basically a message asking me if I'm sure I wrote the poem the way I wrote it and do I really mean it. Apparently the long lines threw the editor off, who called them "gigantic" and claimed they gave no chance for the reader to take a breath. In my response, assuring them that yes, the long lines were intentional for this piece, I pointed out those long lines come with punctuation that signal the reader where to pause or take a breath (as punctuation is wont to do). Alas, the editor still questioned my creative choices and gave me some condescending little spiel about technology and why poets break their poems deliberately. I was tempted to submit some Walt Whitman or Allen Ginsberg poems under my own or another name just to see if their long lines would entirely blitz the editor's brain and critical faculties altogether. (I didn't though--of course not.) Again, this was all before my submission was even admitted into the journal's sub system. 

Needless to say, the editor sent a form rejection about a week later (for this one and the Crow Crossing Sand poem). The only thing that surprised me was that it took them so long. If you're going to take the time to argue with a writer's choices before even reading the whole submission or putting a poem into a submission queue, then why waste your time and mine with an argument at all? Just go ahead and reject it to begin with. You don't like it, you don't like it. It won't work with your journal's formatting, it won't work. It doesn't fit this issue's theme, it doesn't fit. If it's trite to you, it's trite. If it's pretentious, it's pretentious. It's raunchy, offensive, juvenile, boring, sucktastic, stupid, it's hellbent for the reject pile. Tell me any of those things--just don't try and pick a fight with me about a pretty standard poetic choice that writers have been employing for centuries and lecture me about line breaks like I'm a class dunce who can't even construct a simple limerick.

I was actually relieved when this editor did reject my poems though. I would've been more embarrassed had an editor like that accept my work than reject it. To be honest, I also spent a couple weeks not writing anything and doubting myself more than usual--which is saying something, because I doubt myself about everything pretty much every waking minute. When I finally re-opened a document of a couple poems I'd written first drafts of before the line break debacle, I saw then what I had to do. I took one of those poems, a short one with very short lines, and changed the lines to long ones. I can't say whether it improved the poem or not--but damn if it didn't feel good. ;-) It's the petty victories that get us through the day. Here's that one, a two-for-Tuesday deal:

Fire Letter

A letter I wrote once fed a fire and the fire ate it and shrunk it to ashes
that emigrated to the earth and burrowed between the cracks in a rock dance floor.

The rocks grew flowers the following summer that fit themselves to their stems
like shoes to legs and every time the wind blew the shoes and legs stood fast
waiting for a music like the sound of gray clouds colliding with a red sun.


Friday, December 12, 2014

For The Day That's In It

Guadalupe shrine in Cuernavaca, Mexico
Today is the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Actually, the patron saint of the U.S. and all the Americas. For this day, I'm sharing this pic of a little shrine to the Virgin in Cuernavaca, Mexico. This shrine was set up in a little nook or square cutaway in the wall surrounding the city's cathedral. It was in the part of the wall near the entrance to the Church of the Third Order of St. Francis.

There are at least three images of the Virgin in this shrine: the statue of her on the right, the picture of her hanging on the back, and a small image of her on the front of the vase holding the flowers on the left. If I'd pulled back the camera a bit when I took this pic (in 2010), there would probably be one or two more images of her visible, perhaps on the votive candle holders seen at the bottom of the photo.

The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is all over the place in Mexico--in homes, in churches, in shops and restaurants, in parks, in the zocalos or plazas that form the center of Mexican cities and towns, in jewelry, on people's bodies, in graffiti, on tee-shirts and skirts and dresses, in people's hearts, in the history books and mythologies of Mexico and the Mexican people. The story goes that the Virgin first appeared to a peasant indigenous man named Juan Diego on December 9th, 1531, on a hill near modern-day Mexico City. She appeared to him 4 times over the next few days, asking him to have a church built in her honor on the site where she appeared. When Juan Diego took her message to the archbishop, he was asked for proof of the Virgin's appearance. So the Virgin healed Juan Diego's uncle and told him to gather Spanish roses from the hilltop where he saw her, even though it was December and Spanish roses didn't grow at the site any time of year. Juan Diego collected the roses in his tilma (a cloak made of rough fabric such as cactus fibers) and took them to the bishop. When he opened his tilma to show the roses, they fell to the floor and an image of the Virgin was visible on the inside of his cloak. The image of the Virgin on the tilma remains visible today, which can be seen at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

Apart from its miraculous origins, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is striking and significant for the ways her physical appearance differs from depictions of European madonnas. The Virgin of Guadalupe is darker-skinned and wears a mantle of turquoise blue--turquoise being a stone and color native to the Americas and well known to the Aztecs--rather than the traditional Marian blue of European art. Underneath the Virgin and the crescent moon she is standing upon, an angel with eagle's wings holds up her the train of her dress--the eagle being another native species to the Americas, a powerfully symbolic bird to the Aztecs, and a reference to the indigenous name of Juan Diego (Cuauhtlatoatzin, "one who speaks like an eagle").

I'm a fan of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I don't know if the story of her and Juan Diego is true or just a clever conversion story, or if the imaged tilma in the Basilica is the real deal, but I like what Guadalupe represents. I like her style. Even here in the U.S., her image is rather common, especially in communities with large Mexican populations like Chicago. There's a painting by one of my favorite artists, Kelly Vivanco, that reminds me of the Virgin of Guadalupe, though I'm sure there's no relation between the subjects. I also have a friend who is a teacher at a public high school in Chicago, a school in a Latino neighborhood with a large number of Latino students, and she told me a revealing story about an image of the Virgin. Across from the high school is a house with a garage door that kept getting covered in graffiti by some of the students. Every time the door got tagged with graffiti, the owner of the house would paint over the graffiti. Soon as his paint dried, it never failed--the door would get bombed again. Finally, the man (who was Hispanic himself) thought to place a poster or portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe on his garage door. The kids never tagged it again. This is a woman who commands respect.

For English speakers who'd like to read more about the Virgin of Guadalupe, I recommend a book of stories and essays curated by Ana Castilo called Goddess of the Americas. It has some great pieces in there by Castilo, Sandra Cisneros, Richard Rodriguez, Octavio Paz, and many others (my favorite in the collection is Luis Rodriguez' "Forgive Me, Mother, For Ma Vida Loca"). The author Clarissa Pinkola Estes (of Women Who Run with the Wolves fame) also has a book about the Virgin called Untie the Strong Woman--the chapter called "Guadalupe Is a Girl Gang Leader in Heaven" is the best of the bunch.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Booma Project

I love maps and I always have. I love them not just for their informational purpose or even for their beauty, but because I find them intensely revealing and meaningful. For me, looking at a map is like reading a person's private journal. Each and every map ever made reveals as much about its maker, about his or her point of view and sense of standing in the world, as it does about the world itself. For example, a map can be strictly local in outlook or global or universal, just as can an individual's way of thinking, like a map of someone's backyard versus a map of the world or a map of the Milky Way. A map can be evidence of human hope and adventurousness, such as a map of someone's travel itinerary, or of human hubris and greed, such as a map of a dictator's plans of conquest. Maps can be biased or prejudiced, drawn to favor one part of the world over another, as in many Western maps (even the ones in schoolbooks for many years) depicting Africa as significantly smaller than it really is, a representation of Western racism as much as a geographical lie

Even the rendering of a map says something about its maker, whether his or her choices were determined by time or artistic skill or purpose. A map can be vaguely drawn or highly detailed. It can be flat or round, textured and colored or plain black-and-white with shades of gray, strictly factual or wildly fantastical, mysterious, misleading, or mind-opening. A map can zero in on only one feature of a place--a map of the pubs of Dublin (a massive undertaking, no doubt), a map of all the gas stations in Peoria, a map of the stars' homes in Malibu, a map of literary landmarks in London (another daunting task).

I have an especial affection for the variety of maps that fit that last example--the literary map. Whenever you combine reading, books, travel, and maps, you got me. So a few months ago when I learned through the VIDA: Women in Literary Arts Facebook page that a new online project was looking for travel-loving writers who'd like to help map some books, I wanted to find out more and maybe even be a part of it. It was a bonus that the project's founder was especially interested in making sure works by women authors would be included and mapped.

The project is called Booma: The Bookmapping Project, and it's been up and running since June this year, with an inaugural "Daily Spot" entry that maps Robert Hass's San Francisco-set poem "The Harbor at Seattle." The mission of Booma is to map places in the real world that have been described so memorably by writers in their works. The project's interest is in reminding both lovers of books and travel how "the worlds of stories overlap with the real world," and it aims to "provide a platform for building and accessing the world's largest database of geographic information distilled from books." That sounds like quite a long, large, and ambitious project--but as most true bookworms tend to have long, ambitious lists of books they've read or plan to read, and most travel bugs are capable of thinking in long distances and making large, ambitious globe-encircling plans, the Booma project probably has the perfect kind of missionaries to accomplish its mission.

Booma's founder, David Herring, is a Tucson-based educator who explains the motivation behind Booma in his own comments on Booma's first Daily Spot entry. He writes:

"Robert Hass’s attention to location shaped my view of California long before I ever made my first trip to that storied state, and I specifically remember craning my neck to look for the steep side of Telegraph Hill as we drove through San Francisco years ago. More than with any other writer’s, Hass’s descriptions of place have unexpectedly bubbled into my consciousness during my travels and reminded me that I have known some places even before visiting them, which is at the heart of what Booma is."

So what kind of information does Booma provide for readers and travelers? Booma has so far mapped nearly 80 places and pieces of literature with its interactive Daily Spot feature. These spots each focus on a particular poem, novel, short story, play, or other piece of literature that notably describes a real world place. The named place may be the subject of the entire written work or may be just mentioned in one especially well-turned phrase or memorable chapter or paragraph. In any case, Booma's Daily Spot entries provide a relevant place-based quote from the work along with an interactive map pinpointing where in the world this place of song and story actually is. Booma users can also read a little bit in each entry about the written work (its overall plot, when it was published, or its initial reception by readers, for example) and the place in real life (such as how many people live there, what grows there, what famous events may have occurred there, and anything else that makes that place unique). For users who'd like to learn even more, links to where the written work may be purchased or read in its entirety as well as more info about the author and the place being described are provided. What's especially great is that in the 6 months since Booma has been live, places from all around the planet have been mapped (from Tucson to Tbilisi, from Nigeria to New York City) and writings from all throughout history have been featured (from Homer's The Iliad to Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter to Roxane Gay's An Untamed State and Cheryl Strayed's Wild). There are entries for lovers of Brit lit and lovers of Irish lit (yes, a chairde, there is a difference) and for lovers of poetry and lovers of non-fiction.

Along with the Daily Spots, Booma plans to be a digital resource for mapping longer pieces. Entire long poem and books will be annotated and mapped, such as Cormac McCarthy's southwestern American and Mexican-set novel All The Pretty Horses. Both fans of a book and teachers and students then can use Booma to enhance their study and research of a book or their understanding of and involvement in its story and setting. Herring himself has mapped entire books before, beginning with James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

As I mentioned above, when I first heard about this project, I thought I might like to contribute. So I contacted Herring back in July and have since contributed several Daily Spots, on works by John Millington Synge (Aran Islands, Ireland), Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, North Dakota), Toni Morrison (Michigan and the Midwest), Frank O'Hara (Manhattan), and Wendell Berry (Kentucky's Red River Gorge). I've really enjoyed writing these entries, as each one has given me the chance to learn more about some of my favorite writers and works and the places that served as their inspiration. I also enjoy reading all the other contributions, whether the subject is a piece of writing or a place I'm familiar with or not.

I also think Booma has the potential to be a valuable resource for teachers and students of creative writing as well as literature. Considering how much the importance of place has been a recurring theme in storytelling and literature--right up there with romantic love, death, and war--I think it's worthwhile to use maps and other information about places as a means to understand a text and the processes of writing and creativity. How does a real-world place serve as a door to creativity? How does the inspiration a writer gets after traveling through this town or looking at that mountain translate itself into words on a page? How do the sights and sounds of a place get successfully rendered in a story or poem, and what is the difference between a place that serves as a mere setting in a work and a place that almost comes to function as an emotion in the reader? Originality is another issue--there are lots of places in the world, but there have been far more people to write about them. In the case of "well-written" places (i.e., places that frequently get written about or chosen as a setting--say Paris or Chicago or the Mississippi River), how does one author navigate between the details of a place differently or more deftly than another? What role does an author's identity or sense of self or era play in how a place is portrayed or described? For example, Booma has a Daily Spot entry on Langston Hughes's poem about the Mississippi "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." How did Hughes, a black American writer of the 20th century, portray the Mississippi differently than Mark Twain, a white American writer of the 19th century who had a lifelong obsession with the river? And if these two men had been mapmakers rather than writers, how would their maps of the Mississippi compare? Whose map would I prefer to follow, if I had to choose one?

What I like about the idea of using maps as a resource for studying literature or for creativity is all the questions and possibilities. The concept of place may not be every writer's door leading into a poem or novel or essay, but it's one door that can lead a writer (and a reader) down multiple paths. (The poet Richard Hugo wrote, much more complexly and knowledgeably than I, about how the idea of a place can be used as a trigger for the imagination in his classic essay "The Triggering Town.") Moreover, in this age of talking GPS devices, text-speak, and 140-character limit thoughts, when there's been a lot of talk and fear about the decline of books and readership and the isolation and confusion that the Internet and technology can foster, any project that uses web technology to promote genuine interaction with literature and maps and encourage curiosity about the real, physical world and the creative poet types who've populated it is to be commended. Booma is a great project. I'm glad to have found out about it and proud to play a little part in it. Check it out at the website and Facebook page

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Crow Poem

Here is a newish poem of mine. I'll be posting three new poems in the next few days/weeks that got rejected by a few editors. This is the first. More notes after the poem.

Crow Crossing Sand

Crow is black and
black belongs here
on the beige beaches of the Midwest.

Crow comes back
sharper than ever like
the caws that hold his feathers together.

Crow struts like a stranger
who knows he’s salvation
who’s brought to town the cure for destruction.

Crow is a remedy
baked cold by the night
kicking sand in the eyes of narrow daylight.

Crow is a cave
shrunk and set free
he fits in a pail and sits on your knee.

Crow crosses beaches and
follows the clouds
he steals the sun and shreds it into shade.

This is meant to be just a simple sing-song kind of thing. I wrote it earlier this year while at the dunes in Michigan with my sisters. Crows are very common in my part of the country (Illinois, the Midwest)--or at least they used to be. The West Nile virus severely decimated the crow population in my area beginning around 2000. Growing up, I used to see crows all over our yard, all over the neighborhood. They were regarded as something of a pest, as very smart but rather aggressive birds. Then West Nile came along and they disappeared. In the last couple years the crow has been slowly returning to the area. But their relative absence is still notable. I used to see them every day. Now it might be once a week or even longer, in the spring and summer. I'll notice a couple hanging around a parking lot or a single one walking across a beach. Some of the other birds common to this area are robins, blue jays, cardinals, finches, sparrows, hawks, ducks, and geese--and after what happened to crows, I've learned not to take the presence of any other common birds for granted. Robins might seem a dime a dozen now, but something might come along at any time and wipe them out. And then suddenly you miss them. That's what the crows have taught me.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Clown On The Camino

Back to sharing some travel pics for a few posts. This is a photo taken in 2011 by a friend I met on the Camino de Santiago of another friend I met on the Camino. The picture was taken by a Canadian woman named Marie-Belle, who was traveling with 3 other Canadian ladies. The picture is of a young Italian man walking the Camino, named Andreas. Andreas was from Milan, where he was working as a clown and juggler for sick children. This was his second time walking the Camino in Spain, but this would be the first time he made it all the way to Santiago de Compostela. Here he is a bit earlier on in the Camino, carrying his backpack and a set of juggling pins that he brought along with him. He would carry the pins as far as Los Arcos, where he gave then away to some children. 

Andreas on the Camino de Santiago

I met Marie-Belle, the photographer of this pic, my first day on the Camino, while still in France, at the albergue in Orisson. I walked on and off with her and her friends as far as Estella, a village famous for a public fountain that pumps both water and wine. Andreas I ran into off and on as early as the village of Lorca, but actually met at a Franciscan albergue where we both stayed in Tosantos. We kept crossing paths for the rest of the journey, and in a mountain town called Rabanal el Camino he shouted out birthday greetings to me from up the road. He made it to Santiago around the same time as I did, at the end of October 2011.

I like this pic because it shows the individuality of the average pilgrim. It shows a pilgrim walking the Camino with his walking stick and a full pack on his back and a sleeping bag--with his own personal touch and calling card so to speak, the juggling pins. The Camino is a journey for people from all walks of life, people with all sorts of similar and different backgrounds. You hear the same stories over and over on the Camino, and you hear one-of-a-kind stories that you'll never hear the likes of again. You'll meet the same souls on the Camino, and you'll meet one-of-a-kind souls--you'll meet both in the very same pilgrim.

The Camino de Santiago was one of the happiest experiences of my life so far. I was blessed to meet great people like Marie-Belle and her friends, whom I've kept in touch with since, and Andreas, whom I've never seen since but who was one of the most memorable of my many fellow peregrinos.