I wish I could say, “I wanted to write a story about…” But I seldom think that way. I usually find myself writing something and maybe eventually along the way thinking something like: “Hm, I seem to be writing a story about…” And then after a while, maybe I start to wonder if anyone might be interested in reading this story about… And then, if I think some poor bastard somewhere might be hard enough up to be interested in reading this story about something, I start thinking maybe I should finish this story about something.
Along the way I realized “Convergence” seemed somewhat different from many of my stories. A lot of my stories have more of a comic edge to them, and this one seems quiet, flatter in tone. I realized I was thinking about the people who have lost their spouses, maybe because of an illness like cancer. I thought that if that happened to me, I would probably go quiet, cut myself off. The protagonist in this story puts all his concern into raising his middle-school son, but cuts himself off from everything he enjoys because things are no fun without his wife. He used to be an amateur boxer, but it’s no fun since he can’t come home and have his wife treat his wounds and kindly scold him for being an idiot. When he suspects his son is being bullied in middle school, he wants to protect him by working on his boxing, which reminds him of lessons his own father tried to teach him, probably futilely.
Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex that women have not created art as great as men’s because of their overwhelming desire to please. The truly original writer is “always scandalous,” and women’s desire to please keeps them from daring to “irritate, explore, explode.”
I have no idea whether or not women have created art as great as men. But I do admit that my first thought when conceiving “Girl Falling” was decidedly un-scandalous: Am I allowed?
Am I allowed to write about a family tragedy shrouded in shame and silence for five decades? Am I allowed to incorporate what I tripped on when Googling my own name one afternoon: the legal decision on our tragedy, Rubis v. Gray Rocks Inn, by the Supreme Court of Canada, posted on the website?
“Washing Palms” came to me the way most poems do, from things I hear people say and from memory. In this case, the words I remembered were my father’s. Like many of my family members, my father’s language is so direct and harsh, not poetic, yet still at the same time, these caustic characteristics actually make his language very poetic. The vulgarity of measuring distance in dick lengths and the back-handed slap of “Wish in one hand, then shit in the other, and see which one fills up quickest” has always intrigued me. My father in general has always intrigued me.
For a while, I hated him because he left me and because he went to prison, but that feeling was the angst of a young man. These days I love my father—I probably never stopped loving him—and am more interested in psychoanalyzing him; with that, I suppose I am also psychoanalyzing myself. I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me that I act just like him.
Honestly, my biggest fear about “Washing Palms” is that people will read the poem and think that I dislike my father. I don’t. Like most people, much of what I am and have become is because of him. Although he has hurt me in innumerable ways, he taught me lessons about life’s underbelly that helped me make sense of the world and survive in it.
I wrote most of my story “One Day, One Week, An Hour,” on my iPhone. In our house with our four kids, I would hear things being said or see things being done that, I realized, needed to be documented.
“What do monkey’s hands look like?” one of the kids asked from the dining room, and I had to stop whatever I was doing, thinking for a moment, Why would anyone ask that question? What sort of homework or project could the kids be working on? And come to think of it, what exactly DO monkey’s hands look like?
That’s the sort of thing that needs to be recorded. So I took out my phone and sent myself an email. I began to do this regularly. Small moments of wonder, silliness, sometimes unintended significance. I documented each one in a short email.
I am mostly—most conventionally—a newspaper columnist and film critic. I have done this sort of work for just over 30 years now; before that I played ball and guitar in punk rock bands and worked strange jobs that sound more romantic in hindsight than they in fact were. I am a product of a land grant university who disappointed his mother by walking away from law school after two years.
After explaining there should be just enough tension between our thumbs to hold a piece of paper, the monk paused to ask if we would like to repeat any steps before we practiced zazen posture. Nervous student that I am, I wanted to review everything. What if I stepped into the zendo with my right foot? Worse yet, what if while sitting zazen I had to sneeze or an itch surfaced? I’d traveled to Tassajara, a Zen Buddhist Center, to say a personal goodbye to our California life before we moved to Iowa. Therefore, I was determined to gather every instance of sunshine, ocean scent, and left-coast vibe I could.
The move to Iowa meant more time for me to write. Our past eight years were filled with a full-time job, graduate school, various part-time jobs, the pregnancies, births, and early years of our daughter and son, all while navigating Los Angeles traffic. When I wrote a poem it looked like this: 10pm, cup of tea, stack of essays to be graded, sandpaper eyes, an infant waking up, work emails, dirty dishes, oh yeah, poem-thingy. These were slim years.
“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Things come back. Sometimes you want them to, sometimes you wish they wouldn’t, but things come back.
I have a terrible habit of playing with Big Concepts (Duende, Negative Capability, Schroedinger’s Box: I am talking to you!) without even the decency of hip ironic distance. This poem is definitely an indulgence of that impulse. Nietzche’s famous quotation from The Gay Science seems to combine the virtuous virtuosity of Marcus Aurelius (to whom the concept is linked) with the matter of fact resoluteness and tranquil solidity of Buddhist and Vedic literature and the ecstatic individuation of the Romantics. Love your fate. Be a Yes-Sayer! Yes to that! I want that. Who doesn’t? I’ve said it one million times: the Department of You Never Know What’s Coming At You Next does not take one single shift off, not one cigarette break. It. Never. Stops. What possible chance does anyone have of peace or happiness or – survival – if we wear ourselves out flailing our fists at the seven zillion things a day that we cannot control? Go for the big-thinking world, the expansive world, the opportunity in constraint world. Because, baby, that’s the world. I think Bjork said it pretty well: “The less you give me, the more space I’ve got.”
She was murdered. Kidnapped for ransom. Mutilated. Tortured.
It was 1927. She was twelve years old.
I was taking a persona poem workshop with Reginald Shepherd when I read about Marion Parker, and something about her situation triggered a response in me. The girl, daughter of a wealthy banker, was dismembered, disemboweled, and probably still alive when the maiming had begun. She had her throat slit in a bathtub. Then, in order to collect the ransom, her killer attempted to make her appear alive by wiring open her eyelids and stuffing her torso with rags.
She was cast from the back seat of the car after the exchange of money, and her limbs were later found wrapped in newspaper, some distance from the scene.
This story struck me as sickening, sad, of course. But the event had also taken place so far in the past that it seemed removed from its horrific immediacy in some way, and this suggested that it could be activated as a metaphor.
I don’t really consider myself a naysayer or, in the common parlance of today, a hater, but when it comes to the recent media obsession with how writers write, I tend to fall on the cynical side of the fence. The question that most often occurs to me when I come across a magazine article, blog post, or even web video about how a particular writer approaches her craft is, “Who cares?” I’d much rather read the writer’s poems or stories or novels than another self-indulgent piece about just how many hours she spends in her chair or what particular view or music or caffeinated beverage she requires in order to meet the muse halfway.
My mother is the heart of “Not a Self-Portrait.” I wrote it at Trinity College, Dublin, for Carlow University, a dual-residency MFA program in Pittsburgh and Ireland. The poem was in response to “Not the Furniture Game” by Simon Armitage, whom I thank with gratitude. My Carlow mentor in Ireland, the poet Mark Roper, prompted the use of Armitage’s form, a list poem of successive metaphors. The tenor of the metaphor, described by Mark as the “thing standing still,” is my mother. I thought of her as I wrote and hoped to convey feminine archetypes of physical strength and emotional capacity.
Growing up in Minnesota, I’ve always known winter is the season of thinking and writing and looking inwards. The days are short and the nights are long and cold and quiet except for the sound of snowplows scraping past on the road. When I was a kid, I would bundle up and trudge through the snowdrifts to the dark of my backyard every day after school. If the snow was deep enough, and it often was, I would stand as stiff as a board and fall straight back, letting the snow catch me, a trust fall with no one. On my back, I would watch snow drift down past the bare branches of the big oak tree that grew behind my house, trying not to blink as snow landed on my face and lashes. I’d stay there until dinnertime, marveling that summer existed at all.
When I wrote the poem “Funk, Sex, & Chocolate Milk,” it was winter in Chicago, a season of frozen extremities and introspection, of looking out my windows and into someone else’s. A time for pining and imagining. It was my last semester of school and my world was being upturned by the uncertainty of the future. I couldn’t say where I would be or what I would be doing in six months, and I think I could have latched onto anything during that time. It happened to be meditation, and the boy who played trombone and lived down the street began inviting me to meditate with him in his attic every afternoon. To get to the makeshift shrine he’d made, you had to climb up a rickety ladder that pulled down from the ceiling and led to a crawl space crowded with broken lamps, then into a small room with steep, sloped ceilings and a tiny broken window that let in a brutal draft but little sunlight. I spent hours there with him in silence, counting my breaths, hoping he was listening to my breathing as closely as I was listening to his.