For years, I got it wrong when I said
it was a badger I’d seen on Hatcher Pass road,
squat brown animal that darted for the brush
when it saw our truck–I should’ve known,
badgers don’t dart and anyway
we don’t have badgers in Alaska
(a child formed in the third grade curriculum
told me this) but it was smaller than a bear,
bigger than a spaniel and I swore up and down
the alternative was too rare, too incredible
the sharp claws, the pointed teeth,
nature honed to hunt kill run, dark hump
of it’s back ringed with a lighter nimbus
of guard hairs. A glimpse and it was gone
and in its place the word impossible
I picked up like a wet stone
that dried and dulled in my hand
and good for throwing.
Dec. 1, 2013
This is the month trees crack
midnight bangs on your roof
with an icy hoof
Winter is just arrived
and already you’re running out the lies
that con you into believing this is your life.
Only November and all you have left
is air so cold and thick, stacking in deep valleys
you will carve stairs
and climb out over the mountains
when you know you must leave.
You know you must leave.
Abandon your neighbor. He has his own faith
that calls you stranger before his hearth.
Come dusk, he feeds his horses,
smashes ice out of their water trough,
sings a worksong to his fenced pasture–sound ricochets
like a gunshot and the blue distance shatters.
The horses flicker their ears. They heard
what you heard, make no mistake.
They bend their apostatical faces down,
knock on the ground, muzzle and trample
the splintering bale to nothing. They are already
white steam from their cloud red bodies
Nov. 30, 2013
If only the moon–
give me something anything
a hint of yourself as a grail
or a swan’s egg,
even the petrified face
of someone I miss or mourn–
it would be so easy to write a poem
Moon, you’re just being a moon
which makes me nothing more than a woman staring
through dirty glass
at unnamed brightness
this morning after Thanksgiving.
Yesterday, I was so grateful.
Today, I’m cold and convinced the world
is ruled by a policy of ice and commerce
Why should writing a poem be any easier
than standing in line through the long night
for the discounted holy cup of the xbox?
Go be the moon. Keep your metaphors.
Your silver horn blaring through the trees
doesn’t work anymore. You’re out of the band
and according to this black dog under my desk
knocking her white-tipped tail against my leg,
I’m the big drum that booms the call to march.
Nov. 29, 2013
I love research. I love tangents and arcane facts that lead me far afield of my predetermined story. I love to get lost in the tall dark woods where I can spin around til I don’t know if I’m coming or going. Which way is home? I have no idea but I’ll find my way eventually… when I’m ready. My dog taught me that.
I love old letters, those paper artifacts of our connections to one another, the paper record of our life and times. Tonight, I’m reading the letters of Mother Mary Harris Jones and getting a glimpse into a life of purpose and will.
We glorify the Man of Action as a cultural trope, but we overlook The Little Old Lady of Labor’s Call to Action.
Mother Jones was a firebrand, all right. She was a prickly burr under the saddle of the tyrant. A righteous hornet with a well-aimed stinger spreading agitation.
I thought I’d share a letter she wrote in 1920 to John H. Walker, President of the Illinois State Federation of Labor. Keep in mind, she was around 83 years old when she wrote this:
… Things are pretty lively over here, we are doing business. I had a meeting at Princeton, West Va., yesterday the first labor meeting ever held there.
It was only five miles from Bluefield, the head-quarters of the Baldwin Thugs. I must have had six or seven thousand people, there were seven wagon-loads of Baldwin Thugs at the meeting, but John, I licked Hell out of the whole crowd.
I put a new life and a new spirit into the wretches, certainly it was taking my life in my hands, because I had to come back thirty-two miles, over rough lonely roads along the mountains, with only one man and he was a lawyer, and the chauffer with me, everyone was afraid they would follow me and murder me, but we bluffed them and took the wrong road.
It was near eleven o’clock when I got into Hinton, but after I crossed the river, I felt safe. I got into Charleston at four o’clock in the morning, had no sleep for twenty-eight hours. I had to go thirty-four miles over that rough road and back the same and then speak for one hour and a half to that tremendous audience, but John, I sowed the seed anyhow, the voice of labor should not be raised there before, it was just as bad as homestead, but anybody else would have got killed.
Give my love to them all at home…
Confession: I’ve never done a PowerPoint presentation.
I found myself in a room full of amazing artists this weekend wherein we each took turns explaining ourselves as artists. Everyone else had cool aluminum earrings that doubled as thumb drives with their awe-inspiring powerpoint presentations on them. I had a piece of paper. They had diverse and exciting images showing their work and themselves in the midst of their process. I had a piece of paper. Their images were dynamic and insightful. My paper was 8 1/2″ X 11.”
So once again, I’m chasing down the 1990s and jumping on the bandwagon late. So, for those of you who are curious about what a writer’s process and work mode looks like, I’ve put together my own presentation of images showing me at work in all the varied and exciting ways I create as a writer.
10 Portraits of the Artist as a PowerPoint Presentation
I got a package in the mail today from one of my favorite poets, Anne Caston. Wild woman of words, you can never predict what treasure Anne has carefully wrapped and taped and marked with your name and address. In the past she’s given me:
a beautiful handmade quilt top
hand dyed fabrics
her book of poems
copies of new poems
hand made soap
Before she left Alaska, she gave me a little charm of orange haired theatre woman. I hung it above my bed. A little bright spot on the wall, I think of it as an eccentric stenographer taking down my dreams in short hand.
So today, this was in my package:
The motherfucker mug looks good next to the mermaid, don’t you think?
Anne, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU!!!! I LOVE IT!!!!
And I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing at all times.
And for the rest of you reading this, if you don’t know Anne’s work, click on the link above for some of her poems. Explore the terrain of your own heart with her words. But be warned, Anne writes an unflinching truth and rarely provides safeguards in her poetry. That’s what makes her so brilliant.
Sunday Brunch at the Old Country Buffet
BY ANNE CASTON
Madison, Wisconsin, 1996
I have spent the last hour googling pictures of brown bears. I’m trying to desensitize myself. It’s not working.
Tuesday morning, I popped the garage door open to three grizzlies standing in my driveway. A sow and two grown cubs, one of them standing right in front of that big stupid wide door I had just opened onto the place where the dogs and I had some measure of safety. That expression–the hair stood up on the back of my neck–is not an expression. It’s a thing that happens. A very real thing. Afterwards, I felt as if I’d been struck by lightening. The feeling didn’t go away until later that night. And I thought, way to go body, that’s exactly how you should feel. An encounter like this should make you feel as if something mopped the floor of the forest with you. I don’t ever want to be complacent.
I have a very healthy fear of bears. I’m going to keep that.
I also have a deeply disturbing phobia of brown bears in particular that I would love to shed but don’t know, if I ever will. They’ve smashed through my nightmares since I was a kid. The dream bears have magical powers and abilities. They walk upright and know how to work doorknobs. They drive cars–when they’re not flying. They talk on phones. They stand outside the strange weird dream-office where I sometimes file papers and make me work overtime while one by one I watch them eviscerate my dream co-workers as they try to leave the building. Don’t leave, people! The bear will eat you! And then they all die because nobody ever listens to me.
I want to state now that the purpose of this post is not demonize bears. Live and let live. This is Alaska and there are big things with big teeth all over the place. Deal with it. I abhor trophy hunting and people who would just kill a bear because it’s a bear. People who do that aren’t worth the pile of shit a bear takes in the woods, real or proverbial. Bears are an important part of our ecosystem and are absolutely necessary to remind us we are vulnerable, even in our own yards. We have to see ourselves this way, or we’re not going to survive.
Real bears are scary. Symbolic, anthropomorphical, SAT-proctoring dream bears paralyze me with terror. I might be a ninny.
I tried for an hour to find photos of bears that were neutral. I failed. There is no image of a bear for me that does not show a massive intelligent predator.
Those bears in my yard? They weren’t cute. They weren’t fuzzy wuzzy, adorable or just out for a stroll while their porridge cooled. They weren’t even beautiful. They were dirty and wet and had bad bad looks on their faces. They were out to fuck shit up.
So what happened? I discovered my own magical powers and somehow teleported to the button that closes the garage door–seriously I don’t remember getting to it, just hitting it. The bear veered away at the sound, thank god because our garage door takes something like 36 minutes to roll down and close properly against the floor. I gotta have my husband fix that.
Honestly, I’m a little afraid to go to sleep tonight for fear of what will be lurking in the shadows. I’m also frightened every time I have to take the dogs out to pee. I can’t see in the dark, but I sure hear every leaf wiggle and grass rustle.
They say though, you can smell a bear long before you see it. (I know a few guys like that, too.) But I’m not so sure. That sounds like another Lie #49 my parents would tell me, if I got scared on a camping trip.
I used to go steelhead fishing at Deep Creek a lot with my dad and brother. I remember one trip in particular. There was no fish, but who cared? We were on a beautiful river. Sound of rushing water in our ears, the brightness of gold leaves in our eyes. We stood for hours in a long pool, casting and casting and watching the far bank. It’s one of my favorite memories. When we got ready to leave, finally turned around to gather our gear off the sand/gravel bar behind us, that’s when we saw the bear tracks. Right behind us.
Right. Behind. Us.
A bear had come out of the woods, walked right up to us, checked us out then walked away. We never smelled a thing.
The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in shockproof shit-detector.
Since May this year, I have spent some portion of every day writing something. A cracked poem, some loopy dialogue, a journal entry that says over and over and over one word scribbly pencil: Breathe.
(That’s as close as you can get to yoga without actually having to do yoga. Also, licking the wheels of a lawn mower is also the equivalent of downing a shot of wheat grass.)
It’s all writing. And it makes a difference. The act of writing something down on paper has a profound effect on how my brain engages with language for the rest of the day. I don’t care how bad the writing is, you have to write that shit in order to ever have any hope of getting one kernel of beauty in a manuscript later down the road.
Last week I was working on one of my new plays, rewriting pages into the wee hours. I had a deadline looming. I stayed up til 2am writing pages and pages of new dialogue, witty and emotionally deep with tons of story-propelling momentum and cool hurky-derky words. I thought. I woke up the next morning and read over what I’d so painstakingly scribbled the night before:
Garbage, my friends. Not even worthy of the deleted scenes reel. Utter trash.
I was grateful I hadn’t hit the send button the night before. No one needs to see that.
Hey, bad writing happens. No, that’s not right. Bad writing needs to happen. Now it’s a week later, and suddenly one line of all that nonsense I wrote is rising into the sky and can be seen for miles for what it really was trying to be, even by me, the myopic playwright. One line out of pages and pages of writing. Totally worth it!
And since I’m pulling inspirational quotes about what you need to do to be a writer, here’s my favorite from Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild:
Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig. You need to do the same. … So write… Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.
I want to start an argument
with a tiger. I want to provoke him.
I want to growl back at him,
bare my teeth when he bares his
so we both flash the long sharp knives
of our conviction. I want to cross
the line. I want to call him out
from behind his leafy cover,
square my shoulders, match his crouch
and when he lunges, I want to lunge
so we crash against each other. I want
to tear his bizarre orange hide, bite into
his velvet throat. I want to suffer
his heavy blow to my chest,
I want him to open
my skin. I want him to stand
his ground so I can rise up
on my two legs against him, so we
can lock arms in a fierce embrace. I want
to push him back, I want him to shove
me back until we are both crazed
with rage, equally. I want the dust to rise
like an emptied arena around us. I want
to stay like this for days, deadlocked
for weeks, then years, constant until we shake
from exhaustion, caked in our bloods
and salivas, holding tight
to the others’ neck, breathing deep
the angry musk of a foe. I want
to hang on, to endure beyond logic,
until we could almost give it up,
go home—No! Impossible to forget,
no recourse but to live
straining hard against each other
while our opposing hearts drum:
one beats yes, one beats no,
the muscles’ rally to fight. I want
an oath to rise from my breast,
I want him to answer me back.
I want to fight a tiger to the death.
This is part 17 of the CBS Chain Story.
My part is continued from howanxious.
Evening descended. Light spread like a grey shroud over the land. No sound of birds. No buzz and rattle of insects. The grey grass bent to the ground in its genuflection to decay. The dying sun glinted off the glossed black boots of the man who decided it was time to step out into the open.
He stood for a long time watching. Shadows moved in the trees. If he turned his head to look, there was nothing there. Far off he could hear a rhythmic pounding. Dull and steady like an insistent heart. He would go to it.
They sky’s grey eye glared down on him.
“Watch me if you want, you’ll be blind soon enough,” he said under his breath. No sense in provoking the sky, especially since once the sun went down, this world would come alive with ears and he would be at a disadvantage. The squirrels were here. They could find their way in the dark. He could blow their heads off, but he had to see them to do it. Out the corner of his eye he caught the furtive motion of a curved back, a long tail, a pointed talon. But when he looked he saw nothing.
He started walking, every sense sharpened to a knife’s edge.
The cold weighed on him. He came to the crest of hill and in what light was left, he looked down onto an open vale. A man was there, walking away to the horizon. He watched the man’s broad back, his long hair hanging like black weeds. He knew that man. He hated that man.
“Aragorn, you draggle headed weasel. Go to the Goddess, for all I care,” he hissed between his grey teeth.
The pounding was louder now. A steady banging, and something else. A woman’s voice? Yelling? Desparate?
Inside her coffin, McAdams watched Aragorn leave. She beat on the coffin, unwillingly to give up and resign herself to her fate. She held on to her anger to keep the panic from taking over. Even after she couldn’t see him anymore, she kept pounding. The sound of her fists against the glass was comforting. She would keep it up as long as she could. She would beat back death for as long as she could. Her shoulders ached. Her fists were blunt objects of pain.
“Never imagined this is how I’d go,” she said aloud to herself. “Buried alive. Who’s buried alive in a glass coffin? I’m not bloody Snow White. I’ll be damned, if I’m going to wait here for a prince to save me.”
She beat at the glass. At least the squirrels can’t get to me, she comforted herself with that knowledge at least.
Eventually, her arms gave out, even if her anger hadn’t. She slumped against the wall of her coffin. How had she ended up here? Where was Gosling? What was that lump against her hip?
“It’s killing me,” she said as she ran her hand along her hip and felt the bulge in her pocket. She still had her gun. Whoever had brought her here hadn’t thought to check her pockets. Why would anyone disarm her when they thought she was dead?
“Aragorn, I’m going to send you to the Goddess, but first, I’m going to shave your head.”
She held the gun out, closed her eyes and pulled the trigger.
The world shattered around her. A great explosion of glass and shard and glint and flash in the last light of that pathetic sun. The cold rushed over her. The air was heavy and smelled of what? Squirrel?
She brushed the shards away and sat up. He went that way, she thought. “That’s where I’m going, then.”
A man’s voice answered her from behind. “You won’t catch him tonight.”
She wheeled and leveled her gun at a man dressed in black. “Mister, I will blow a hole in you so big the moon could rise out of your chest.”
He smiled at her.
“I remember you,” she said.
“I remember you, too,” he answered. “You’re a hard one to find.”
“I was dead.”
“Glad you’re over that. You have the ring still?”
He walked past her, even while she held the gun in the air. His shoulder brushed against hers.
“Where are you going?”
“Follow me,” he said.
He didn’t answer. Just kept walking toward the trees. He was hard to see now in the dusk. This place reeks of squirrel, she thought. She holstered her gun and hurried after him.
“Hey, wait up,” she said. “Where are we going?”