Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Terrible news

Few details so far, but terrible news today that fiction writer and Indiana U. creative writing faculty member Don Belton was found stabbed to death in his home.

Here's the story from an Indianapolis tv station.

I didn't know him personally, but this kind of crime is not usual here in Bloomington, and to hear that it was a fellow writer...

This following the awful news a few days ago that singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt took his own life. Just very, very sad.

I'll try to check in at more length in the next day or two as I catch up from holiday travels.

Update, early Tuesday morning: The local paper reports that a suspect has been taken into custody.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Solstice stillness

I can't figure out whether tonight or tomorrow night is the longest night of the year. It comes down to seconds; tonight the sun set at 5:25 and will rise at 8:01, and tomorrow the sun sets at 5:26 and rises at 8:02 Tuesday morning. The actual moment of Winter Solstice happens around midday tomorrow. Tonight feels like Solstice Night, though, with darkness and stillness and just a bit of snow.

And fleecy blankets, and a cat on my feet. That'll enforce a little stillness.

* * * * *

I continue to trace the roots of this stillness. I feel like I haven't got anything to say, but when has that ever stopped me? I think, perhaps, I need to go back to the details. To just being awake, and noticing deeply.

I like Twitter. It's good when you don't have much to say.

And so, I'm going to use the avenue that has felt most hospitable recently. Beginning tomorrow, I'm going to try to notice three things each day. I don't need to force those things into poems; I just need to pay attention to them. Full attention, even if only for the length of time it takes to compose a 140-character description. And I'm going to tweet about them.

We'll see how that goes and whether it wakes me up again.

I bought a new phone a couple of weeks ago, and it has an adorable little slide-out keyboard and a bright shiny touch screen and it has Twitter and Facebook and Gmail and Outlook and a camera and maps and navigation and even a lolcat application.

So if I notice things, I don't even have to be near my computer to record them, to put a few words out into the ether. I just have to grab my little phone, my little portable brain.

Three things a day. I can do that, right?

* * * * *

In other sort of writing-related news, I've signed on as one of the contributors to Blogness on the Edge of Town, which is, yes, a Bruce Springsteen-related blog. Mostly news and tidbits and suchlike. Should be fun, and a nice way to stay connected to a community that's become important to me.

Lucky for me, as soon as I took this on, Bruce did a lovely and newsworthy thing (in case you haven't heard): he posted a statement on his official website in support of marriage equality. You have to scroll down past the cute picture of him at the White House for the Kennedy Center Honors a couple weeks ago, but the statement is still there, and it still gives me the warm fuzzies to read it. He doesn't post political statements very often, so the fact that he felt this one was important enough to comment on makes me really happy.

Why should I (or anyone) care what some wealthy heterosexual rockstar thinks about this, or any, political issue? That's a fair question. And it's an age-old one, really - can someone's art be compassionate, authentic, truthful if the artist is a weasel? Not going to even try to answer that one tonight. I'll just say that it did my little heart good to see someone whose work I have respected for over thirty years demonstrate, not for the first time, that his heart is in the right place. And considering how much of my money has ended up in his pocket, I feel like I have more than an artistic stake in this, heh.

I will say that his statement has not met with 100% support in his own fan community. There are people who listen to his music who disagree pretty strongly with a lot of his politics. So I guess he took a certain risk in posting that statement, though at this point I think most people who'd stop buying his music or going to his shows because of something like that have already stopped long ago.

I'm rambling. It just made me really happy, the night that statement got posted and I stumbled across it. Fangirl that I am, I'll leave it at that.

* * * * *

Watching the news, where they're talking to stranded travelers in the airport. I hope those of you who got blizzarded on this week are digging out without too much drama, and if anyone's traveling, I hope you get where you're going okay.

Hope it all clears up before Thursday, when I am getting on a plane myself. Till then we just have a little snow, and enough cold to make me bundle up trying to stay warm (except when I suddenly have to try and cool off - you middle-aged women know what I mean there) but not so cold as to be dangerous. It's not so bad. Though I confess I wouldn't mind being snowed in for a few days, so long as I had heat and people food and cat food and the Internet and a few books to read. And maybe somebody with a younger, stronger back than mine to shovel me out eventually!

May you have a happy holiday, if you celebrate one of those Decemberish ones. Peace and joy and goodwill and light, and all that.

Yes, light. Here's to its return.

Monday, November 30, 2009


There’s a difference between where I am now, on the one hand, and productive silence (where you’re not writing but your silence is moving you towards new work) on the other. Where I am right now feels necessary and unavoidable, but not necessarily like it’s moving me towards any kind of writing.

On the other hand, who knows?

* * * * *

Shedding skin is an itchy procedure. Snakes get real cranky when they’re halfway there.

* * * * *

So after all the drama about “OMG is this the end,” it looks like Springsteen doesn’t feel like the E Street Band is anywhere near finished. Nice interview with him in Billboard this week, conducted just prior to the show I saw in Nashville. What amazes me is that the guy’s had basically the same job since he was a teenager and he still clearly loves his work. If you could bottle that kind of undying passion & enthusiasm and sell it…

Getting paid squillions of dollars for doing what you love probably doesn’t hurt the enthusiasm, of course.

* * * * *

Music just makes words seem inadequate. With just a few notes, a chord or two, you can convey a feeling as complicated as “triumphant but wistful, without regret” so clearly that everyone listening feels it too. You can convey feelings and images so complicated that there aren’t actual words for them. Add the dimension of performance, and musicians have a whole language that, as a writer, I barely have access to.

The same could be said for visual art as well, of course – there are things you can say with a certain intensity of blue, a certain slant of light – but I don’t have the vocabulary or the framework for that. Music, at least, I can hear with comprehension – even if I can’t produce it myself worth a darn.

I foresee guitar lessons in my future. I took lessons for a few years in high school, but it’s been a long time since I was anywhere near serious about playing – long enough that I think what I want to do is start from the beginning. I know it’s not the same as having an actual teacher, but I think I’m going to invest in lessons via Nils Lofgren’s online guitar school. He’s one of the most amazing guitarists I know, and with any luck the lessons will give me just enough to keep me interested and focused and give me a reason to sit down & practice every so often. I don’t think I stand a chance of ever getting good enough to get paid for playing, but I would like to regain enough chops to do a little songwriting. I used to write songs now & then and always enjoyed it, but was hampered by the inability to create music that could provide a strong enough framework to support complex lyrics, so my song lyrics were always kind of dumb and simple compared to the poems I was writing during the same time period. I’d like to revisit that effort. But to do so will require the acquisition of musical craft.

So that’s going to be my Solstice gift to myself, I think. And yes, I’m going to start at the beginning with the beginner lessons, make myself go from the ground up. Because the hard part of having been serious about playing & then letting it go for years is that my expectations are all out of whack – I pick up the guitar and my hands jus t don’t do what they’re supposed to, & I find myself trying to play things that I just don’t have the technique to do anymore. And because I’ve never stopped listening to music my ear is still good, so I can hear how much I frankly suck. If I start at the beginning and get somewhat disciplined about it, I think I can get my chops back. Might take a couple years.

And maybe, once I start playing again, the creative, articulate part of my brain will wake up and I’ll find my way back to poetry again. I sure hope so.

* * * * *

Still have an essay or two brewing, I think. Watch this space.

Friday, November 20, 2009

No, I haven't...

... fallen off the Internet. At least not quite.

Just back from a quick trip to Nashville, put about 580 miles on the ol' odometer (well, the rental car's odometer; my beater wasn't quite up to the trip) in two days and saw a terrific concert. I need to go back to Nashville when I can spend more time. Very cool city.

I've been a very, very lucky girl this year. Wednesday night was my 8th Bruce Springsteen concert of the 2009 "Working on a Dream" tour. He and the band play in Baltimore tonight, then Buffalo NY on Sunday night (no, I won't be there for either one, sadly) and then ... that's it for the foreseeable future. The E Street Band is officially on hiatus for at least a year or two. I think most of the band members have every intention of coming back together and touring again, but life takes its hard turns sometimes and there aren't any guarantees. I've certainly enjoyed every moment of the ride I've had; it's been worth every penny, every mile, every aching muscle.

April: Denver
May: St. Paul and Chicago
August: Mansfield, MA x2
September: Chicago again
October: St. Louis
November: Nashville

Add that to the 4 shows I caught on the 2008 "Magic" tour (Indianapolis, Nashville, St. Louis, Kansas City) and it's actually been a two-year journey.

I have an essay-ish thing brewing about it all. Maybe this weekend I'll get it written. Gratitude is an important part of it, so it's an appropriate Thanksgiving-week thing...

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Nearing Winter

Still not writing, and still experiencing poetry as a foreign language. I miss it, I do. I almost got it back as I was driving back from St. Louis on Monday afternoon - something about the particular combination of alertness and meditativeness that highway driving engenders has often brought me to bits of poetry. But alas, the words just flitted around the edge of my brain, laughed at me, and left.

What can you do?

* * * * *

Thanks for the kind words about my poem's appearance in Field - it's nice to share good news with people who appreciate it for what it is. Of course, the world keeps its balance, and I've had a few rejections this week too. C'est la vie. Book manuscript #1 is still out to one place, which I'm expecting to hear from just any day now; I'm holding off on sending it elsewhere at this point, until I take the time to give it a long hard look & see if it wants a big revision. (I imagine sitting it down, giving it a stern look, and asking it "do you want a big revision?" like a bad mom asking her child if he wants a spanking. Sigh.)

* * * * *

A week ago tonight I was in St. Louis for a Springsteen show. I met up with some friends before the show, and three of us went to get our wristbands together (when you have general admission tickets, you get there a bit early and get numbered wristbands; they draw a random number and the person with that number gets to go in first - so if you want to be together in the GA area you have to show up at the same time for your wristbands). We ended up doing pretty well in the lottery, about 150 back from the number that was drawn, so we ended up about 2 or 3 deep in front of the stage, pretty much right in front of Nils Lofgren's mic stand. (The picture here was taken a couple hours before the show, right after we got into the arena. We actually ended up a little closer to the stage than we are here.) I'd never been up close on that side of the stage before, so as the show progressed it was fun to have eye contact & interaction with the guys on that side, particularly Clarence Clemons & the aforementioned Nils Lofgren - who gave me quite a few great smiles throughout the show. It's no hyperbole to say that Nils is one of the greatest living rock guitarists, and it was very cool to be able to watch him play from so close. From all accounts he's also a very sweet guy, and I have to say his energy onstage is very light, almost constantly in motion but very peaceful at the same time - a lot of fun to watch.

The show itself - what do I say about it that hasn't been said? It wasn't an epic, awesome, one-for-the-ages show like the St. Louis show last year. But not every show can be that, by definition. People who weren't there say that the setlist was boring, and it's true that there weren't a lot of surprises or rarities (though the fan who brought the gorgeous sign requesting that Bruce play piano got us a wonderful, uncommon solo piano performance of "For You" which showed that Bruce's voice, even this late in a long tour, is holding up remarkably well). But everything that was played, including the Born to Run album straight through, was played with a lot of heart, a lot of presence, a lot of commitment. "Backstreets" was mesmerizing and heartbreaking, sounding more and more like all the band's history and love has been poured into it; when Bruce sang "we swore we'd live forever" I'm pretty sure Clarence Clemons was looking at the little "altar" he has set up onstage, which houses pictures of several departed friends including the late E Street organ/accordion player, Danny Federici (Clarence writes about the altar in his new book, Big Man). So that was a touching moment. And after delivering the final, intense, wordless wails at the end of "Jungleland," as the spotlight slipped off of him, Bruce bent nearly double at the microphone, breathing heavily, seemingly exhausted by the force of throwing every cell in his body into that vocal. Theatrics? Sure. But also, the physical commitment he puts into his performance is unmistakable.

(Incidentally, the Bruce-as-blur photo here was taken with my crappy little cellphone camera. I didn't bother taking many, because they hardly ever come out worth anything, but this one struck me as kinda cool.)

I find that, as an alleged writer, I am envious of musicians for the physicality of their art. I get a little taste of what that's like when I do poetry readings, which I experience as a very physical thing (it matters what boots you wear, how you stand, how you breathe when you're reading, even if you're just standing there at a podium in front of twenty people). And it's a lovely feeling, a means of settling into your own body as home. But it's not just the performance aspect that I envy, though there is that. It's the way you make music, if you're doing it right, with your whole body. You can kinda do that with poetry, but you can also forget to do it, very easily. If you hold your breath while you're writing a poem, you still get a poem (maybe not a great one, but). If you hold your breath while you're singing, you get ... silence, y'know? You don't have the option of remaining disconnected from your physical self. And I envy that.

I also envy the communal aspect of making music. Being in a band. You can collaborate in poetry, but it's not the same thing. Watching the E Street Band from so close, it's wonderful to see how they communicate. A nod of the head, a wave of a hand, can change the whole course of a song. (And when Bruce decided to do the "Detroit Medley," which starts with "Devil with a Blue Dress On," he told the guys closest to him & they ran to spread the word to the rest of the band - and I noticed Nils making little devil horns on his own head with his fingers instead of verbally telling everybody what the song was, a game of rock & roll charades. I got a kick out of that.)

In my next life, I'm gonna get over myself about 20 years earlier, so that when I'm in high school I won't be too shy to talk to other people who love music, and can start a band. Yeah. That's what.

Most of my friends at the St. Louis show were headed to Kansas City for the show the next night. Not me - I wasn't able to swing both shows, so I left STL on Monday morning. Before leaving town I took a tiny detour to Left Bank Books. I was instantly greeted at the door by a six month old tabby kitten named Olive, who followed me around the store and pounced on anything that even thought about moving and was generally crazy as a loon, which is what a six month old kitten is supposed to be. I picked up a few books as well as a magnet that says "If you don't grow up by middle age, you don't have to" (quote attributed to James Gurney). Seemed very appropriate for the moment.

When I got home I got a call from one of my friends at the Kansas City show. They'd done the lottery for the general admission folks & had everyone in line, when all of a sudden they announced the show was cancelled due to a death in Bruce's family. Needless to say everyone there was fairly stunned. This is not a band that cancels shows if they can possibly help it. Turns out it was Bruce's cousin who died, who had worked as the assistant tour manager for the band for the past ten years. He was in his mid-thirties, so one assumes the death was entirely unexpected and certainly very sad. Just goes to show you - you never know when a show will be your last. Or as the great Warren Zevon once said, not long before his own death: "Enjoy every sandwich."

I have one E Street show remaining - Nashville, in less than three weeks. After that it's going to be a long winter.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fuel in Field

One more snippet from the Department of Shameless Self-Promotion (or is that the Shameless Department of Self-Promotion?): My poem "The Fuel" appears in the brand-new issue of FIELD, hot off the press -- I got my contributor's copies today. Check out the table of contents; I'm tickled to be in some pretty darn good company!

* * * * *

Went to a very good concert the other night: Alejandro Escovedo and Los Lonely Boys. Escovedo is a terrific songwriter and impossible to pigeonhole; he's got punk, rock, alt-country, and various other influences in his sound. His set was intense and heartfelt, accompanied by a second guitarist and a terrific violinist (who grew up, as it turns out, here in Bloomington). Los Lonely Boys, doing an all-acoustic set, sounded about like I expected them to -- great harmonies, smokin' guitar work. My friend and I commented to one another that it was so obvious the band members are brothers; the way they interacted onstage, you can just imagine what it would be like to sit at the family dinner table with them (probably kicking each other under the table and flinging mashed potatoes) or to go on a road trip with them (eek).

The opening band, Hacienda, was relatively unmemorable -- four guys with two guitars, percussion, Hammond organ, and vocals. Sort of a Tex-Mex thing, I guess. I would rather have had their 30-40 minutes divided between Alejandro Escovedo and Los Lonely Boys; Escovedo's set in particular felt way too short. I really need to see him do a headlining set someday.

* * * * *

Off to St. Louis tomorrow for what promises to be yet another fantastic Springsteen/E Street Band show. Yeah, I do expect it to be fantastic; would I drive 228 miles each way if I didn't? Here's a great clip from the last Springsteen show ever at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, a few nights ago. This is their cover of "Higher & Higher" and it kind of explains why I go so far to see these guys. How can you not want to be in the same room as this much joy? Check out the huge grin on Bruce's face. This is a cheesy thing to say, I guess, but in this video it's like he is a man possessed by radiance. I've heard from more than one person who was at this show & it sounds like this song was a truly transcendent moment.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Words fail me

After almost a year and a half of pretty intense productivity, it doesn’t surprise me that I’m not writing at all lately. I don’t really believe in “writer’s block” but at the same time it seems pretty normal to have periods when the writing just doesn’t happen. That’s happened before and it will happen again, and especially given that I’m in the very last stages of completing a big project, doesn’t freak me out at all.

What does freak me out, somewhat, is the fact that I don’t seem to be able to read poetry right now. I get to a page with a poem on it and my eyes just blip right over it, almost as if it’s in a language I don’t read. It is the damnedest thing, and I don’t remember it ever happening before. Maybe for a day or a few days, but not as an ongoing thing like this.

Maybe this is my reflexive way of ensuring that I don’t go back to my new manuscript until I’ve gotten some serious distance from it and can be somewhat objective. Maybe I’m spending too much time on Facebook and Twitter and just don’t have the attention span (or the depth of focus) necessary for poetry. Maybe zombies ate my brain. I have no clue.

Has this ever happened to anyone else?

* * * * *

Also, there’s one thing that is annoying me right now about aforementioned Facebook and Twitter, and that is how the real-time nature of it gives me all kinds of reasons for envy (a feeling I do not like having). It is easy to become painfully aware of other people who have time in the middle of the day to write a poem, go for a walk, curl up with a book, send out manuscripts, take a nap – while I’m sitting in my cubicle or working with students at the reference desk. I like my job. I like it quite a bit. But man, I don’t really need to be reminded of how nice it would be to have more time for writing, and of how much better a writer I think I’d be if I had more time to give to it.

Assuming, of course, I would actually write if I had time. Which, right now, who knows.

* * * * *

On a happier note, this weekend I am off to St. Louis for one more Springsteen/E Street Band show. This will be my next to last show of this tour, which is to say, my next to last E Street Band show for the foreseeable future. After November the band is going on hiatus for at least a year and a half, possibly/probably longer, and there's no guarantee of another tour. At the very least, it seems unlikely that, two or three years down the road, these guys will be doing the three-hour-plus, full-throttle rock shows they've been doing. Not impossible, but ... unlikely.

I’m certainly going to savor every moment of what's left, every bit of thunder.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Still shameless

The new issue of Coal Hill Review is up, including poems by Chana Bloch, Maureen Seaton & Neil de la Flor, yours truly, and others. My contribution is "Blue Afternoon: The Middle Distance" which is about being a middle-aged, bifocals-wearing person. Hey, you take your material where you can get it, eh?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Shameless self-promotion

My poem "Swallowed" (originally published in 2007) is this week's "Poem of the Week" over at the Valparaiso Poetry Review blog. This poem was always a little different for me, maybe even an odd duck, though reading back through it now I see a slight similarity to the tone of my current project, which also features fictional characters. Though that similarity may be all in my head...

* * * * *

Five Women Poets, one of the groups I'm a member of, has its annual reading on Saturday evening, October 10. If you're near the Bloomington IN area, you are most cordially invited: 7 pm at Rachael's Café on Third St. The group consists of Patricia C. Coleman, Deborah Pender Hutchison, Antonia Matthew, Helen May, Carol Paiva, Anya Peterson Royce, and myself (yes, that's seven members of Five Women Poets; we're poets, not mathematicians!) and Bonnie Maurer will be our special guest poet. Drop me a note if you need directions or further details. I have no idea what I'm reading (or, more importantly, what I'm wearing) but it should be fun.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


There are some things I don't know how to do without talking about them.

There are some things I do that I don't know how to talk about.

And there are other things I do that I know neither how to do nor how to talk about.

* * * * *

Rolling Stone: You've talked about the E Street Band being so close now, but you quit the band back in the Eighties, and Bruce later broke the group up for 10 years. How do those two decisions look to you now?

Little Steven Van Zandt: There is no doubt that those two things were mistakes. I tell everybody, if you've got a band that works, it's a miracle. It's never going to be perfect, but if it works on some level, hold on to it with both hands and don't ever let it go. Bands should never break up. I had this conversation with Bruce. One of the reasons why we got back together is I really feel a moral obligation. You ask people to fall in love with you. To need you. To want you. To buy your records and come see you. You have an emotional contract with people. To break up is to violate that contract. That relationship has now been restored, and we are feeling it more than ever.

[from the October 1, 2009 issue]

* * * * *

Something about the trajectory of morning rain, a runner all in gray on the sidewalk.

* * * * *

Things get stuck inside your head sometimes in a way that makes you sad but not sorry.

* * * * *

In the end it all comes down to love & thunder
and the things you are willing to lose:
love & thunder, love & thunder, love & thunder.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Past the autumnal equinox

I miss poetry. Sometimes you have to take separate vacations even when you love each other, though. I just hope poetry and I can reconcile in time for us to whip some stuff into shape before some upcoming deadlines.

Speaking of which, I picked up a rejection slip at my PO box on my way out of town to go to my mom's and then to Chicago, last week. It had, as they say, "ink" -- the editor had particularly liked one section of a longish poem, which is one of my favorite poems from the new/current/ongoing project. So that was nice. Maybe I'm on the right track.

* * * * *

Last night I saw Lucinda Williams perform in a smallish club here in town. The place was packed and enthusiastic. I was about four deep in front of the stage, a nice spot. I hadn't seen her before, though I've been a fan of her music ever since Sweet Old World came out years ago; in honor of the 30th anniversary of the release of her first album, she's doing a chronological setlist on this tour, playing several songs from each album starting with the first and going through her current release. It was really cool to hear how her music has evolved over the years, from the rootsy acoustic folk/blues she started with to the rock-your-face-off sound she has now. Her backing band, Buick 6, opened with a very good instrumental set which definitely set the tone for the rock-your-face-off portion of the evening.

Sometimes, what you really need is just some LOUD. And loud felt really good to me last night.

This show was just a few days after Lucinda married her manager onstage at her Minneapolis show (a ceremony which included her father, Miller Williams, reading a poem) and she seemed to be in a fantastic mood. She also seemed to enjoy the high energy of the crowd and the rock vibe of the club (maybe she just needed some loud, too). If you're fond of good songwriting and bands with a lot of electric guitar, check out this tour if it comes near you. Good stuff.

* * * * *

Dave over at Wings for Wheels has a particularly nice appreciation of Bruce Springsteen in honor of his 60th birthday (Bruce's, not Dave's); if you liked my post about the show in Chicago, his seems to come from a similar impulse. Yesterday's "Happy Brucemas" brought a plethora of articles, posts, tributes, lists, and other appreciations -- far too many to list here; if you really haven't had enough Bruce-related reading in your life lately, check out the links over at the Backstreets news page (scroll down just a bit for the birthday tributes) and the big honkin' linkfest at Blogness on the Edge of Town.

* * * * *

The trees are starting to turn -- I notice it a little more every day. Summer's definitely over. I always feel like I write more, and better, during transitional seasons. Sure hope that turns out to be the case this time around. I miss poetry.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The screen door slams...

I realize now that by waiting a couple days to post this, I risk its being lost in the flood of “happy 60th birthday to Bruce” blog posts and tweets and web pages and discussion board posts and lord only knows what all. Because, yes, Mr. Springsteen is sixty years old today. (And still jumping up on pianos and racing around onstage strapped into an electric guitar, natch.)

But this post, while it’s about Sunday night’s Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band concert in Chicago, is not really about Bruce Springsteen.

It’s about something bigger. Yeah, as big a megastar as Springsteen is (and he’s a pretty big megastar), there’s something bigger. And that’s the music.

So, the big deal about the Chicago show was that Bruce and the band were going to perform the Born to Run album in its entirety, beginning to end, at this show. (Along with a couple hours of other songs, of course.) He’d done this once before, at a benefit show in Red Bank NJ, at which he also performed Darkness on the Edge of Town straight through. There have been various rumors about why he decided to do it again: request from a VIP or a friend, filming for a DVD, a last hurrah towards the end of what could end up being the last E Street Band tour. (Nobody connected with the band has said anything about it being the last tour, but they have announced a hiatus of at least a year and a half, and after the loss of organ & accordion player Danny Federici almost a year and a half ago & given various health issues for other band members, I think they are all keenly aware that there are no guarantees.)

I didn’t manage to get a general admission ticket for this show, which is my usual preference. Sometimes you end up standing behind a couple of tall broad guys and when you’re 5 foot 1 like me you end up standing on your toes craning your neck wondering if the band is really up there somewhere, and sometimes you end up smack in front looking a guitarist in the eye and sharing a grin. I’ve had both experiences, and for the chance of the latter, I’ll put up with the former sometimes. But because I had a seat and didn’t have to worry about standing in line or holding my place, I was able to nab the opportunity to help pass out flyers before the show, promoting the forthcoming memoir by iconic sax player Clarence Clemons. (No, I haven’t read it yet, but I expect it will be pretty damn entertaining.) I didn’t get to meet Clarence or anything like that, but I got to meet his manager & her assistant, and I got a t-shirt, and I got to feel like I was helping out a little bit. And quite a few people were visibly excited at the prospect of the book, so that was cool.

After passing out a few hundred flyers, it was almost time for the show to start, so I found my seat. It was in the fifth row, not very high up off the floor but pretty far back, and I resigned myself to not feeling the connection with the band that I often feel when I’m up close (a highly addictive sensation, that).

Eventually the lights went down and the crowd made that tremendous WHOOSH like a jet airliner taking off (I love that moment so much) and under cover of darkness the band took the stage. I’d heard that they intended to kick off the show with the Born to Run sequence, so it was a bit startling when the crackling, bluesy guitar riff of “Seeds” filled the arena, Nils Lofgren whirling and dancing in the spotlight. Startling… but wonderful. Turns out that’s just an awesome song to kick off the show with. After a few moments Bruce stepped up and the crowd cheered louder, and after the first few vocal lines Max Weinberg’s drum kicks in with an almighty THUMP and we’re off and running.

The first handful of songs were reeled off at a breakneck pace, the band barely stopping for a breath or to acknowledge the thunderous applause between songs. As always the occasional crescendo of shrieks reminded me so much of a roller coaster, the biggest one of all – and we shriek at these concerts for the same reason we do on roller coasters, for the sheer speed and exhilaration and joyous risk of it all, and the wind in our ears. Finally it was time for the album, which Bruce introduced briefly by explaining that when they started recording it they’d put out two albums that had tanked and this was basically their last chance. Everything was riding on this album, for him. Everything. And you could kind of tell that he felt like a lot was riding on it again tonight.

And those familiar, beloved opening chords of “Thunder Road” filled the arena, and before the first verse was over the entire audience was singing along… as always, it felt like home. Or like church.

The songs followed one on another, without any introductions or chatting in between. Not a lot of “hamming it up for the audience” either. Just… the music. The work. The songs unfolded just as they did when I first listened to that album, back in high school, back when we always listened to albums beginning to end. Movements of a symphony. Parts of a greater whole. Even “Born to Run” itself, the ultimate anthem, was rescued from its role as a bit of a “victory lap” song; the house lights only halfway up instead of fully lit, the song not wrapping up the main set or blazing out as an encore, even the biggest song of all became just one part of the larger work. Oh yes, we all sang along like we always do, we pumped our fists and waved our hands in the air and screamed. But it was different… somehow, this song I’d heard so many times live and hundreds, maybe thousands, of times on vinyl & magnetic tape & shiny silver disk & invisible bytes – this song that I know as well as I know the sound of my own blood rushing in my ears – somehow, this song regained a little bit of mystery. Amazing.

I won’t talk about every single song (though there’s not a weak song on the album and there wasn’t a weak moment in the performance of them Sunday night), but “Backstreets” deserves mention. Talk about a song that’s accrued layers of history and meaning. When I first heard it, it was just a romantic song about losing someone. But over the years it’s become so much more. In Indianapolis last year, Danny Federici rejoined the band for a few songs after having been gone for a few months while undergoing treatment for melanoma. He was a little weak, but clearly radiant with joy at being back on stage; as it turned out, that was his last public performance. I don’t know if he or the rest of the band suspected that would turn out to be the case, but I do know that “Backstreets” hit me so hard that night. “We swore we’d live forever,” Bruce wailed, “on the backstreets we’d take it together.” A few weeks later, the day after Danny’s funeral, the band played in Tampa. I wasn’t there, but I’ve heard the show described, and I’ve heard the bootleg; they opened with “Backstreets,” a single spotlight illuminating Danny’s vacant spot on stage, Roy Bittan’s piano suffused with loneliness, a hard emptiness where the organ was supposed to fill up the song, Bruce’s voice cracking with palpable grief. I’ve never heard the song quite the same since. Anyway, Sunday night’s performance of it in Chicago was exquisite, and somehow managed to roll together all the layers and all the years and all the different ways I’ve heard the song; Bruce added a small vocal bridge of “All the way to the end… just you and me… all the way to the end…” and some high, wordless moans the likes of which I’ve never heard. Stunning. Just stunning.

But the highlight of the album mini-set was, without question, “Meeting Across the River” into “Jungleland.” “Meeting,” rarely played in concert, featured Curt Ramm recreating the lonely, searching trumpet solo from the album and the wonderful Richard Davis on upright bass. It’s an atmospheric, jazz-inflected, melancholy song unlike any other in the Springsteen catalog, and thinking of it in the context of the history & significance of the album the desperation in Bruce’s voice on the recording became not just a great singer inhabiting a character, but a sign of how badly he wanted this album to be … exactly what it turned out to be. “We gotta stay cool tonight, Eddie, ‘cause man, we got ourselves out on that line. And if we blow this one, they ain’t gonna be looking for just me this time.” Like the guy in the song, Bruce knew this was his last chance. And the way he sang it Sunday, you’d think he still felt that way sometimes.

And then Soozie Tyrell's violin introduced “Jungleland” and I may not have breathed for the entire ten minutes or so of that song. I’ve always liked the song, and it’s always great to get it in concert, but this was probably the best I’ve ever heard it. Everyone in the band was completely focused, completely immersed in the music. Garry Tallent's bass playing, always exquisite, was especially solid. Little Steven Van Zandt's guitar solo was absolutely on fire. Everyone seemed completely and utterly present.

Let me tell you, there are some big personalities in the E Street Band: Bruce, Little Steven, Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, the Mighty Max Weinberg. But Sunday night, while they performed Born to Run, the personalities took a complete back seat to the music. I’ve never seen them so … in service to the music. And that sense peaked with “Jungleland.” During Clarence’s sax solo, always a breathtaking highlight when he nails it, Bruce climbed up on the piano – not to take the spotlight, but to raise his fist in the air with the beat of the solo, conducting the band, conducting the music. And I mean “conducting” in the sense that a lightning rod conducts. So it was appropriate for him to get up on that piano and become the highest point on the stage, channeling the fierce energy of the music from … wherever it comes from … and spreading it across the stage & out into the darkness of that packed arena.

The entire album was performed flawlessly, with devotion and focus and passion. Really, I thought it would be cool to see all the songs in order, but it turned into something a lot bigger than that. It was pretty fucking amazing.

The rest of the show was almost a letdown after that, I have to admit. It got a lot looser right away, and it was a fun show, well-played, lots of energy – but it was like the first bite of any food after the most exquisite chocolate mousse you’ve ever put your tongue to: just not quite the same level of incredibleness. Although I will say that “Badlands,” which closed out the main set, took on a life and a ferocious joy that I haven’t felt from it in years. Might have been the best “Badlands” I’ve seen since 1978, and I’ve seen a lot of “Badlands.” House lights up, crowd singing along at the top of its lungs, just an absolute celebration: “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive!”

I’ve said that with the E Street Band, I don’t always get the show I want, but I nearly always get the show I need. And that was so true on Sunday. I’m a very spoiled girl; I’ve been close enough to the stage to get eye contact with band members on several occasions, and that’s always special. But Sunday wasn’t about the band members, wasn’t about charisma and personality and stardom. It was about the music, plain and simple, and sitting (well, standing – who could stay seated at a show like this??) where I was, that far from the stage, I let go of wanting “connection” and just focused on the music – and that’s what I needed.

Love and thunder, baby… love and thunder.

On the way home, I didn’t listen to bootlegs as I’ve mostly been doing lately. I listened to studio albums: Born to Run (twice through), Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River. I found myself thinking about all the years and all the miles those albums have accompanied me through. When Darkness came out I had just started playing guitar. I was what, 16 years old. I honestly thought I might try to make it as a musician, though I knew it was the longest of long shots. Why did I veer from that course? I don’t know. Partly because I thought my greater talents lay elsewhere (though I’m not sure where, and if I do indeed have greater talents, I wonder if I’ve made sufficient use of them to justify walking away from something I loved as much as I loved being serious about playing that guitar). Partly because I was realistic. Partly because my courage flat-out failed me.

My dad, see, was a musician when I was a little kid, a bass player. He put himself through grad school by playing. We didn’t have tons of money, but there was always music in the house. When I was ten years old he got a job teaching college, and we moved away from his musical community. He pretty much stopped playing. I’ve always wondered whether the grief he must have felt about walking away from the musician’s life contributed to the health problems that eventually killed him. And it’s funny, isn’t it, that I myself turned away from the possibility of trying to live that life – though I never got as far as getting good enough to make money. I am my father’s daughter, I guess. And driving home from Chicago the other day I thought about all that, and I listened to Springsteen’s song “Independence Day” which is about a son leaving home and making some kind of peace with a painful father/son relationship:
So say goodbye it's Independence Day
Papa now I know the things you wanted that you could not say
But won't you just say goodbye it's Independence Day
I swear I never meant to take those things away

And that last line just hit me so hard. Because on some level my dad walked away from music in order to do something more stable, something with a regular paycheck, something that allowed him to feel like he was a good husband, a good father, a good provider. And in some small way I guess I’ve always felt a little guilty, a little responsible. And if the grief he must have felt over the choice he made was part of what killed him, then in some small way maybe I’m responsible for that.

But don’t we all kill our parents, somehow, on some level? Metaphorically speaking, of course. I think there’s a Shakespeare play or three about that one.

Anyway, I always justify the money I spend running around to these concerts by saying “it’s cheaper than therapy” – so there you go. Figuring out just what it is I need to learn to forgive myself for? That probably would have taken me thousands of dollars worth of therapy right there. “You’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above,” as Bruce sang in “Tunnel of Love.”

Anyway, I started writing poetry back then, when I was 15 and listening to “Born to Run” – as well as lots of other music. It was music that ignited that impulse in me. So maybe what I owe myself, and what I owe to that larger thing that is the music, is just to recommit myself to my writing. To give it all I’ve got. It may not be my last chance – hell, it’s poetry, there’s not much riding on it in the first place. But I need to give it that level of commitment.

Tonight I’ll be on that hill with everything I’ve got…
I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town.

Till then, tramps like us…

-AH September 22-23, 2009

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I wanna be where the bands are

Work has been pretty nuts lately. On Monday, the only times not blocked-out on my calendar were 8:00-9:00, 3:00-3:30, and 4:30-5:00. Today wasn't much calmer. Yikes!

Every day at lunchtime I try to escape from the stress and listen to a little music, which helps tremendously. It's pretty funny to think that for several years there I didn't even listen to music every day... it's like I forgot, for a while, how much music can feed me. If I ever forget that again, somebody smack me, ok?

Clarence Clemons & Bruce Springsteen

photo from backstreets.com

Speaking of which, just a few more days until I run off to join the E Street Circus yet again. Just one night this time, in Chicago; and it's going to be a slightly different show than any I've seen before, as they are going to perform the entire "Born to Run" album (along with other stuff of course).

I was initially pretty bummed because I did not manage to snag a general admission (floor) ticket for this one, and my reserved seat is not (by my standards) all that great -- it's way at the far end of the arena. Oh, I'm such a spoiled girl. But then an opportunity arose which I would not have been able to take advantage of if I'd been in GA, because I would've been standing in line before the show and not available: I will be helping to pass out promotional flyers advertising E Street sax player Clarence Clemons' forthcoming book, Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales. I know it's just a couple hours of passing out flyers, but I'm pretty thrilled to be able to help out even in this small way, to be a tiny little part of things. I was already excited about the book (I heard from someone who got a galley and he said it's pretty entertaining), so it will be fun to try and share a little of my excitement with a bunch of happy concert-goers.

And hey, what could possibly be more "up my alley" than promoting a book at a Springsteen show? Jeez, throw a cat or two in there and you pretty much have my entire life covered! :)

So, uh... not much poetry lately, I'm afraid. I do have a reading coming up with one of my writing groups -- October 10 is the annual reading by Five Women Poets, at Rachael's Cafe here in Bloomington IN. Hopefully I can drag myself back into "poetry brain" between now and then...

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

These boots were made for blogging

I bought these from Zappos. They arrived on my front porch literally 18 hours after I clicked the purchase button, and they are ridiculously comfortable. I'm not a girly-girl about too many things, but I do get excited about new shoes! Seriously, I didn't know cowgirl boots were this comfortable, or I would've gotten some years ago. They are actually a little darker than they appear in this picture, but that's ok. They make 'em in black and bright red, too; I'd probably buy both of those if I were rich and stuff. (As it is, this is the most I have ever spent on a pair of shoes, and I won't be getting more anytime soon! Definitely a splurge, but I expect to be wearing 'em for years.)

I walked around in them for a good couple hours over the weekend at the Fourth Street Festival, a fabulous little arts & crafts fair here in town; and today I wore them to work to give them the all-day test. Put them on at 7:45 and didn't take them off until around 6 pm, and I kind of didn't want to take them off at all, they were that comfortable. The next and final test will be whether I can dance in them for three hours at a concert; that test takes place in Chicago on September 20.

Definitely a girly-girl when it comes to new shoes. They have to be comfortable shoes, though.

* * * * *

Delighted to see that my favorite rockstar has up and gotten himself named as one of the Kennedy Center honorees for this year! Bruce Springsteen will be recognized along with Robert DeNiro, Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck, and opera singer Grace Bumbry. Kind of odd that there's only one woman on the list, but the pairing of Springsteen and DeNiro is pretty fortuitous, I think. Should be fun to watch the telecast when it airs in late December.

* * * * *

Have found it difficult to maintain "poetry brain" lately. I need to spend some uninterrupted time this weekend reading poetry; that should help it to kick back in. I kinda wish I'd had a three-day weekend to relax and read and write, but classes were in session on Labor Day and so I worked (in fact I was on the reference desk from 6-9 that evening). That's ok because I can take the holiday time later on, but a little stretch of unscheduled time would sure do wonders for my writing right now. Oh well. I'm trying to stay on top of the submissions, too, and fire off a packet or two every week just to keep stuff out there. I don't know if you've noticed, but you don't get published much if you don't send stuff out. :)

Getting the US Open wrapped up will help too. I get so distracted when there's tennis on.

* * * * *

Speaking of splurges and distractions, how about those Beatles remasters? Between the great piece on All Things Considered and the comprehensive review on Popdose, I'm sold. Just trying to decide whether I want to try and save up to buy the whole box set (I like the neatness and the self-containedness of box sets) or whether I want to run out and buy Abbey Road (my favorite) right away and acquire the rest one at a time over the next few months. I was a little too young to really "get" the Beatles before they broke up (I was born in '61), but I was a huge huge Beatles fan in my teens and early twenties. Pretty amazing to think of all the ways in which they've been influential, both culturally and musically. And commercially, for that matter.

* * * * *

Ellen on Idol? Really? Weird.

Monday, September 07, 2009


If you are even a casual Springsteen fan, and you have access to the NFL Network, do not miss the hour-long "Working on a Dream: Super Bowl Journal" documentary they are airing about eleventy-nine times over the next few days. Some hilarious moments, like Bruce sitting in the trailer supposedly putting together the setlist for his halftime show: "Hmmm.... then I'll read the Communist Manifesto, into 'Badlands'...." And a very nice glimpse into what goes through the mind of a truly consummate performer, how he prepares himself, what it's like to be on that stage. "On stage your exhilaration is in direct proportion to the void you're dancing over" -- which reminds me, in a slant-rhyme sort of way, of an old Jeanette Winterson line (from Written on the Body): "What you risk reveals what you value."

I don't believe I have ever intentionally watched the NFL Network before, but this was great stuff.

* * * * *

A drafty drafty draft:

[gone. poof.]

Monday, August 31, 2009

In season

I have only two batches of poems currently out, and the reading period for lots of journals begins September 1st (which, though I swear the calendar has got to be pulling my leg, is tomorrow). So... you know what that means: time for this girl to get her act together and get some poems sent out. Though I probably won't take the time to do it until this coming weekend.

I always overthink the submission process -- reading over guidelines, analyzing sample poems from various journals trying to decide if they're anything like any of mine, fiddling with the index cards I still use to keep track of where my poems are and where they've been, making and remaking submission packets. So I thought I'd ask you guys how you go about it.
  • How much do you pay attention to your submission packets as a group -- as a mini-manuscript, as it were? Do you try to send out poems that play off of one another, poems that exhibit a wide stylistic range, a grab bag to give the editors different things to choose from, poems that belong together? What about if you're working on a thematic manuscript or group of poems -- do you send poems from that group out together, and if so, do you point out that fact in your cover letter?
  • Do you pay attention to the order of your poems? I always think I'm putting the strongest poem first in my packets, but looking over my submissions spreadsheet, it looks like the last poem gets picked just about as often as the first. Which probably says as much about the fact that I am not a good judge of my own poems as anything.
  • Do you like to send out a bunch of packets all at once & then sit back for a while, or do you maybe send out one or two at a time & then a little while later send out one or two more?
  • When they come back, do you send out the same group of poems all together to the next journal, or do you go back and make new selections?
  • Finally, I'm always open to recommendations for new places to submit! I like online journals and print journals, both -- I love the feeling of holding a print journal in my hands & seeing my work literally "in print" but I also love being able to send out a URL because it's so much easier to share the poems that way. There are lots of good journals in both formats and I try to keep a bit of a balance in my submissions pattern. So if you've got a journal you really like, or especially if you think of one that my work might be a good fit for, I am all (virtual) ears.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

That long held breath before beginning

The evening feels tinged with sadness in an unexpected way, as the day's clouds clear away just in time for the last of the light. I'm acutely aware of everything I didn't get done this weekend. I've been low-energy, knocked low by a cold that I probably caught either in the pit at the Springsteen show or else on the plane there or back. (In which case it was worth it...)

Classes at the university where I work start tomorrow. It's always hectic, with thousands of students pouring onto campus: long lines at restaurants, parking lots filled to bursting, Target not someplace you want to even think about setting foot in for a while. But at the same time I always love it. Thousands of people, every one of them feeling like they get to have a bit of a new beginning. It's pretty sweet in a hectic, crowded, obnoxious way.

This month marks thirty years since I first moved to Bloomington as a starry-eyed eighteen-year-old freshman. I fell in love with the place right away, sensed that I could become a lot of different people here. I took classes in which people took me seriously as a thinker, as a writer; I learned to take myself seriously as well (maybe a bit too seriously). Funny to think that I have been here so long, stayed here to ride out so many changes. Funny to think of what's stayed the same.

* * * * *

A little pile of rejections over this past week. Clearing the decks, I suppose, for a big submission push in September. At least, if I know what's good for me.

Also got proofs for my poem that's forthcoming in the fall issue of Field. Nice to be reminded of the little successes in the midst of aforementioned rejection pile.

* * * * *

A draftish thing from yesterday, which will (as per usual) disappear after a day or so:


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Night 2 & onward: Don't you lose heart

I don't have it in me to write an extensive review of the second Springsteen/E Street show in Mansfield. Not because it wasn't any good -- it was fan-freakin-tastic. Not because I don't want to boast about how close I got to the stage (one person between me & the stage, more or less in front of Steve Van Zandt, a great vantage point from which to appreciate all the little interactions that go on among the band members). But in many ways, that second show struck me in a non-verbal, purely physical place. Maybe because it was about a million degrees and a kazillion percent humidity in the pit and I sweated more that night than I think I ever have since back in the days of karate practice in a non-air-conditioned dojo. Maybe because it's hard for me to accept how much being at a show like that is home for me, and the brutal fact of it is that I don't get to have that experience more than a few times a year, and sometimes when I'm not actively nestled in the heart of E Street Nation I feel a little bit exiled.

I console myself with music. Right now I'm listening to the bootleg of that second night, when they took a request for a song called "Janey Don't You Lose Heart" -- an older song that I have only recently fallen quite in love with, and had not at all expected to hear performed. In a way it's a slighter song, not one of the big classics, not one of the epics. It isn't "Thunder Road" or "The Rising" or even "Prove It All Night." But it's a sweet song, and it was played with great affection.

That's part of what I love about how the band is performing these days -- the sheer fondness for the songs which is so clearly evident. I've seen & read a couple of interviews with Bruce where he talks about how it's like you're in a car with all the people you have been over the years, the crazy 20-year-old, the 30-year-old who just wants to crash the car into a wall, and so on, and you just hope the guy who's driving is one of the reasonable ones. (Completely paraphrasing there; he said it much better than that.) These days, it's clearly the pushing-sixty Bruce who's driving, taking great care, using all his years of experience to navigate the hairpin curves. But what I love about the guy and his art is that he has never kicked any of those other people out of the car. He is still solidly in touch with the youthful wildness that inspired "Born to Run," the rage that inspired songs like "Murder Incorporated," the sorrow of "Point Blank" or "The River," the complicated emotions of "Independence Day." When he plays those songs it's not with irony or nostalgia; it's with a real inhabiting of the original emotion that inspired the song, but also with a sense of affection and compassion for the version of himself that wrote the song. If that makes any sense at all.

And watching that, watching what happens on that stage as he re-inhabits those songs with compassion & affection but without losing the hard-earned 60-year-old self that can drive that car safely home -- I begin to understand something that I haven't quite put words to, yet. As Springsteen sings in "Tunnel of Love," "you've got to learn to live with what you can't rise above" -- and there's something in all this music about learning to live with yourself, with your own sorrows, your own regrets, and yes, your own sheer cussed goofiness.

So much more that I'd like to write about these shows, at some point -- in particular about watching the band members interact with one another, how a raised eyebrow or a tilt of the head can speak volumes among people who've been working & playing together for well over thirty years now, the sheer physicality of who they are with one another. And some of the music itself, too, of course: the second night saw Nils Lofgren taking a "Prove It All Night" solo that verged on the physically impossible (hitting a whole run of scorching harmonics with the guitar up over your head? Come on, Nils, that's just SICK!) and an absolutely spine-tingling "The River," among many other musical highlights.

But I'll leave you with two videos. There are a lot more out there, but these are a couple of my favorites. First up, "Thunder Road" from the second night. Because this is one of my very favorite songs, and because I think the guy who shot this video was about ten feet to my left -- yeah, I was THAT close to the stage.

And finally, just because this is so goofy and so fun, this is what happens when a fan submits a song request via blow-up doll. While Bruce & the E Street Band can make my knees weak and make me weep with deadly serious songs like "Point Blank," they also know how to play in every sense of the word. And you gotta love Stevie plopping that wig on top of Bruce's head while he's playing and singing and can't do a thing about it. :)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Concert review: a steamy night in Mansfield, Mass.

So uh... I went to this concert last night.

:D :D :D :D :D

I had a reserved seat last night (I'm in general admission for tonight's show). I usually prefer GA, but my seat was absolutely terrific, I chatted with some very nice people in the seats around me before the show, I could see almost everyone on stage almost the whole time, and I'm pretty sure I got at least one actual moment of eye contact with Steve Van Zandt (don't dare go so far as to speculate that he recognized me from Chicago, but he did look right at me when the lights were up and nodded happily... who knows if he was actually looking at ME but I'll take it).

Where to begin? The show kicked off with "Jackson Cage," a not-often-played song from The River that I was actually thinking about the other day & wondering if I would ever hear, and went from that right into "She's the One" which was just the most perfect segue. Other highlights were "Point Blank," a song I was totally obsessed with when The River first came out (I used to sit in my dorm room and listen to it over & over, picking up the needle at the end of the song & dropping it back at the beginning of the track), and on which Garry Tallent's bass playing was nothing short of stunning and exquisite; "Burning Love" (yep, the Elvis song); a particularly heartfelt and almost wrenching "Backstreets"; "Trapped" (a Jimmy Cliff song, which Bruce has been covering on occasion for some years now and it is always fantastic); a rip-roaring "Detroit Medley" launched by a request in the form of an actual blow-up doll wearing devil horns and a blue dress (for "Devil with a Blue Dress," part of the medley) -- Bruce and Stevie had some fun with the doll before the song, and while they were playing, Stevie took the red-haired wig from the doll and plopped it on top of Bruce's head -- too too silly, and ridiculous fun; "Born in the USA," which doesn't get played much anymore; and a raucous, barn-burnin' "Twist & Shout" to close. They played about 2 hours and 50 minutes, I think.

Not the best E Street show I've ever seen, but a damn fine one, probably in my top five. As hot and sweaty as it was (before "Rosalita" Bruce hollered, instead of his usual "is there anybody alive out there" -- "is it hot enough for ya??" several times), Bruce had that "I do not want to leave this stage!" look on his face. I've seen it a couple times before. He is always whole-heartedly committed to his performance, but some nights he is just so totally fucking ON it's unbelievable. He seemed thoroughly happy, completely present, sometimes somber and serious, sometimes silly and playful, as the song and the moment required.

Oh, and Jay Weinberg (son of Max, the usual drummer) came out & drummed for the encore, which was fun as hell. He's not the master that his father is, but then, he has about 40 years less experience! For his age he is pretty terrific, and a HELL of a lot of fun to watch, very passionate and animated and clearly loves doing it.

As does everyone on that stage, really. Just such radiant joy shining on every face up there. I know it is their job to make it look like they are having a good time -- they are professional entertainers, after all -- but you can not fake that much joy. You just, you just can't. At this point in all of our lives, we know that every show is a blessing and a gift. Everyone in the band is keenly aware of that, especially after Danny Federici's death last year. They don't take it for granted, and neither do a lot of us in the audience. There is no other band on the planet today that speaks so eloquently about survival, and appreciating what you've got, and the kind of joy you can find only when you've made it through some hard times. And that's why I fucking love those guys and that music so, so much... and that's why I fly halfway across the country just to see them again. Because what they're telling me these days is something I want to remember. It's something I'll hold on to for the rest of my life. And for that, I thank them.

And tonight, I get to do it again. I am so very lucky. So very, very lucky.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Counting the obsessions, one by one

I've been thinking about the concept of obsession and what it has to do with poetry (and lo & behold, Diane Lockward had a nice post the other day about one of her own long-term obsessions).

I go through phases with my obsessions. On the one hand, sometimes it looks like I get really really serious about things and then I lose interest in them. As a kid and early teen I was obsessed with horses, like many girls that age, and had a bunch of model horses -- all of whom had names, life stories, in some cases genealogy. I was a serious, dedicated practitioner of karate for a number of years in my late teens through mid-twenties or so; I ate, breathed, and slept the Kyokushin Way. Since 2000 or so I've been fascinated by whales, and have gone great distances (Maui!) for the primary purpose of seeing them. And currently, of course, I'm chasing Bruce Springsteen around the country just as much as my limited finances will allow.

So what of this? Am I just a flake who can't stick with anything for more than a decade or so? I don't think so. I think I mine my obsessions, and now that I've got 30 years of serious writing under my belt, I'm learning how to do so more productively. My first book ms. (the one that's currently visiting various editors' desks and trying to make big "me! pick me!" puppydog eyes) has a ton (whale joke haha) of whale poems in it, as well as poems strongly influenced by what I learned from whale-watching -- connections between humans & animals, gorgeous distances, thinking globally, etc. And of course my second ms., the one I'm so (whether justifiably or not, time will tell) in love with right now, is heavily influenced by Springsteen & my running around chasing those perfect concert moments. It's actually perfect that his tour will most likely be ending after November and the band will most likely take a hiatus for a little while at that point (not that he's said anything of the sort for certain, but cobbling together various hints & comments, that is what looks most likely); once I finish with this manuscript, I think it's possible that I won't be quite as compelled to go quite so far out of my way to see the E Streeters. There's been something I've needed from the experience of being obsessed, and I've just about got most of what I needed, I think.

But as I read through the new manuscript, I am beginning to realize something. It's not the whales or the rockstars that are my obsession, really. There's a deeper vein, things I've been writing about for thirty (gah!) years now. Light, the various qualities of light; darkness, how it can be both threat & comfort. Distances. Regret. Breath. Music in general.

But hey, what poet isn't obsessed with most of those? So, hmm.

I do write a hell of a lot about light, though. Some people remember the smell of places they've been in; I remember the quality of light. Provincetown, the unbelievable clarity. The shifting cloud-sun-cloud-sun afternoon light through the windows of my early childhood. Stagelight, how the technicians use a spotlight to carve the performers out of the darkness.


* * * * *

I really love this poem from today's Poetry Daily -- like, "suck in your breath and hold it for a minute while your heart breaks a little" love it:


Goodbye again. Say there is a little song in my head

and because of it I can't sleep or change my mind
about the future. Now the song runs all the way down

to the beach where I sit as if the sky

were my room now. No one, not even you,
can hear me singing. Not even me.

As if the music rose from the mouth of the ocean.

No mouth. Like rain before it reaches us.
Like wind twirling dresses on the clothesline.

Who has no one has the history of the ocean.

Lord, give me two more days. So that
the last moments may be with someone.

--Jason Shinder

Monday, August 17, 2009

Countdown to the circus

I'm back online, thankfully - and working to catch up on everything.

* * * * *

Friday morning at butt o'clock I get on a plane for Boston. Saturday night and Sunday night I will be in the good company of my beloved E Street Band and a few thousand of their friends. It's the farthest I have traveled just for a concert (or two), and maybe it's not entirely rational to be doing this. But it feels right, these little pilgrimages to join the circus for a night or two. (I'm headed for Chicago in September, St. Louis in October, and Nashville in November -- and maybe, just maybe, Cleveland as well.)

And as this tour moves towards its inevitable end, so does work on my new manuscript. Tonight I had a flash of insight that I think will help me tie everything together a little bit more: a little clearer understanding of what I'm really writing about, behind all the spotlights and guitars and the trappings of character & plot, and why I'm really writing it. I feel like I'm on the verge of articulating something that will be the key, something that will bring this thing to closure.

I've been working on this puppy since the spring of last year, and part of me doesn't want it to be finished. It's been one of my favorite writing experiences ever. I console myself with the thought that I'll probably have to spend another year revising the thing before it's ready for prime time. :)

* * * * *

Cross your fingers, if you would, that Hurricane Bill takes a hard right turn and gives the East Coast a miss. There are a few powerful figures I would love to meet this coming weekend, but Bill ain't one of 'em.

* * * * *

By the way, if anyone has any great ideas for possible reading opportunities in Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville, or Cleveland, drop me an email and I'll give you the dates that I will be in those cities. I'd happily extend my Bruce-related visit by a day for the chance to do a reading. I should have more copies of my chapbook available by then (if you're waiting on one now, I hope to have 'em and get 'em sent out before I hit the road this week) and although I doubt I could sell enough to finance an extra night of hotel room, I'd love the opportunity to read and get a few copies out there.

* * * * *

None baby but the brave, no one baby but the brave...

Friday, August 07, 2009

Land of disconnection

My DSL at home has seemingly crapped out entirely, and now I can't even get a usable dialup connection. Given my work schedule which is packed with meetings and reference desk shifts, it looks like Wednesday morning is the first time a technician can come out and take a look at things. I'll try to do some more troubleshooting between now and then -- goodness knows I should be able to figure it out if it is anything at all on my end; I'm a good troubleshooter usually, and it's something I do routinely as part of my job so I have that particular brand of "methodical" down.

So, because I am an addict, I'm actually spending money to sit at [horrible corporate coffee place] and drink a [actually-not-half-bad corporate smoothie] and use their wi-fi. (The smoothie is the part that costs money.) I'll get through what I can before the annoyance of being in a room with other human beings, listening to music I did not select (Einstein here seems to have forgotten her earbuds), gets to me and I go running back to my cave -- er, my own house. I am so far behind on email, Facebook comments, etc. it's not even funny.

* * * * *

So, Book Manuscript #2 has gone out to two of its first readers. The first one got back to me with very helpful comments the other day, and the second one gave me a call today to check in after a first read-through. So far, I'm getting pretty positive reactions, which makes me breathe a big sigh of relief. I'm getting some good suggestions too, and feeling pretty good about the next phase of this work. I envision a couple more small revision passes through the ms. and maybe one major-ish shuffle; I'd still like to get it down to a little shorter length than its current page count, but I feel like I'm on the right track.

I am a total process junkie. (As befits the stereotype of us feminists, actually. Heh.) I'm fascinated by my own writing, revision, & manuscripting processes. I'm fascinated by yours. I'm fascinated by anyone's creative process, really, if they write or talk about it with any kind of insight. (Yet another reason why I like Bruce Springsteen; in some of his interviews he's revealed a tendency towards a bit of process-junkie-ness himself, and he seems to be quite thoughtful about his own creative process -- maybe not something you'd expect from a rockstar, but there you go.)

Being aware of my own process sometimes helps me write things I wouldn't otherwise have known to catch. It's like I can see the poem coming from a greater distance, and because I catch it early instead of waiting until it's clobbering me upside the head, I'm able to be looser with it, catch language that is somehow closer to the untranslatable whatever that poetry is. It's more unmediated, somehow. Both more and less controlled. (If that makes any sense at all. Maybe what I mean is ... more aware, and less controlled.) And that affords me possibilities I would not otherwise have.

That's for individual poems. This business of a manuscript? A book? That's still new to me, even though this is the second one I've put together. (Third one, if you count the totally sucky one I put together and sent to like one or two places sometime around 1992.) The process this time around feels completely different than it did with the Firstborn, but I don't know how much of that is because I learned a few things the first time around & how much is because this project is a completely different beast from that first one. But I can't help thinking that what I've learned about the process of writing probably applies, on some level, to any writing -- whether a poem, or a book, or whatever.

I'm fascinated by process. There are few things I enjoy more than sitting down with a writer (or a musician, or any kind of creative artist really) and sharing notes. Everything from "so do you listen to music while you work?" to "how do you know when something is finished?" to "how do you let yourself be influenced without crossing the line into being derivative?" Not that those conversations generally get that interview-question-ish, but it's the sort of ground I love to cover.

I'm planning (tentatively) a trip to Cleveland this fall, in part to spend some time at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. They have a big-ass Springsteen exhibit up right now, and it includes a lot of his notebooks. Yes, notebooks, as in the notebooks in which he worked on the first drafts of some of his songs. Since I doubt I'll ever get a chance to buy the guy a corporate smoothie (actually mister wealthy rockstar should really buy, now shouldn't he?) and pick his brain about his writing process, I'm hoping to gain some insight from peering at his scribblings, his doodles and deletia.

I'm sure that for some people, examining your own creative process is about as interesting as examining your own boogers. Some people are more intuitive and instinctive than I am, I think. I do overanalyze sometimes. But that's kind of like telling really bad jokes: it's OK, so long as you know you're doing it.

* * * * *

Bla, bla, bla.

* * * * *

Tomorrow I need to spend some time coming up with a thirty-minute set for my reading at the Writers' Center in Indy on Sunday. 7:00 pm, northside of Indianapolis - stop by if you're in the area! Drop me an email if you want driving directions. There will be an open mic following my set. I promise to stick around for the open mic - I hate it when featured readers bail on the open mic, though I understand why people do (open mics can be so... how to put this kindly... excruciating, sometimes). I'll be reading poems from Breach, but I'll be reading new work from both book manuscripts, too. I'm looking forward to it. Should be fun.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Sunday draft

Jumping on while I have connectivity for a minute. This is a drafty draft from earlier this afternoon -- it will go "poof" in a day or so.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Flaky DSL and Evening with the Muse

Still wrestling with a DSL connection that intermittently flakes out without warning. Bear with me, please, as I try to catch up as best I can. I love computers, but I hate them, you know?

* * * * *
Meanwhile, a reading announcement: I'll be the featured reader at the Writers' Center of Indiana (in Indianapolis) in their "Evening with the Muse" series, coming up on Sunday, August 9 at 7 pm. The reading is free, and will be followed by an open mic and light refreshments. If you're in the neighborhood, please do stop by!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Technical difficulties

We interrupt your regularly scheduled Land Mammal for this bulletin: My DSL is misbehaving and I can't make it work. I'm doing my bestest to drag the laptop out to Starbucks/Soma/Panera/the library and use wi-fi every so often, but for the next few days I'm afraid responses to email, facebook, blog comments, etc. will be slow at best.

I hope to be back up to speed soon -- got a technician scheduled to come out on Tuesday.

I hate computers. Phbt.

Monday, July 20, 2009

I live by the river

Just because I've been watching this over & over this evening and sharing it everywhere else, I'll share it with y'all too. Here is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band about 3 weeks ago, with their opening number at the Hard Rock Calling festival in London. Yes, they're covering the Clash, and doing an extremely creditable job of it too. If this doesn't put a big grin on your face, you have no rock & roll in your soul. LOVE. THIS. Love this so much.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

On self-confidence and suckage

So I spent a good chunk of time this weekend poking and prodding at my new manuscript. Just about every time I read through it I pull out a poem or two; slowly but surely it's coming down to fighting weight. On the last pass through it this afternoon I pulled out 3 pages and put in one new one. I made slight revisions to a whole bunch of poems, and finally rewrote a last line that had been driving me crazy (thank you, Carl Phillips, for teaching me how to see into the architecture of a poem & hear the underlying rhyme and meter even when there isn't any).

And then I emailed the first two (of three) people who've agreed to read the thing, and asked them if they're ready for it. Which is a big step, in a way. These poems are all pretty new, by inclusion-in-manuscript standards; the very oldest of them date back to April of last year. I usually sit on poems for several months at the very least before sending them out anywhere, and most of my two- to three-year-old poems still feel brand spanking new to me. So although I've done a lot of intensive work on this manuscript & on the poems in it, I don't feel like I have that much perspective on it yet. In other words... I can't guarantee with 100% certainty that the thing doesn't basically suck.

Now, I don't think it probably sucks. I am certain that it's imperfect; I'm open to the possibility that it may be deeply flawed. The thing I know for certain is: it's too new for me to have perspective on it. I'm a little in love with the thing, and like any shiny new love, I'm probably blind to both its true virtue and its true failings.

So what I posted on Facebook was, "Yikes! What if it completely sucks?" Which is really shorthand for all of the above. And of course, a couple of friends immediately rushed in to assure me that it couldn't suck, etc. And my reaction to this reassurance was interesting to me. (Why, yes, I'm a Gemini; I react to something with one part of my brain even as I'm observing my own reaction with another. What, doesn't everybody do that?) Because what I thought was, hey, it might suck -- and if it does, so what? I'll just write something else. And I like thinking that way. I like it a lot.

See, early on in my writing life, I had to fight the "OMG what if I write something and it sucks?" paralysis, just like everyone does. And like most people do, I fought it by consciously bolstering my own confidence. I told myself that no, what I was writing didn't suck, that I had the right to write what I was writing, that my voice deserved to be heard. And that was pretty difficult at first. That took me some years, actually, but I finally got there, finally got around to believing that maybe I do have some degree of talent as a writer, that maybe some of my poems are not too shabby. Getting published helped. Getting positive feedback from peers and from teachers helped. Mostly, just doing a whole lot of reading and a whole lot of writing helped.

But now, you know what? Sometimes I write a draft and it's a dead end, it isn't going anywhere, it basically ... sucks. That shouldn't shock anybody. There isn't a poet alive, and probably no dead ones either, who can claim that every word that falls out of them is priceless or whatever. There may be some who believe that of themselves, but they're wrong. *grin* And if I write something and it sucks? So what. I've developed enough confidence over the years to believe that I can leave the sucky draft behind and write something else. Hell, even Roger Federer makes unforced errors in every match, and he just shrugs them off and moves on to the next point. If he let every error get to him, he'd probably just fall apart and never win another match.

Natalie Goldberg (I think -- or was it Anne Lamott?) has written about embracing your own willingness to write "shitty first drafts," and William Stafford wrote about "lowering your standards" as the key to writing prolifically. And you know what? They're right. Not only that, but if you fail, sometimes it's because you are taking risks that ultimately move your work forward. That doesn't mean the failed drafts are any good; they probably suck. Suckage doesn't mean they aren't useful to your process. Write them without censoring yourself; realize they suck; learn from them; move on. That's one way to get better at this writing stuff. It's probably not the only way, but it's the way that works for me.

It seems to me there are two ways to defeat the internal censor -- you know, the one that stops you from writing. One is to hear that little voice that says "this sucks" and to out-shout it with a confident and hearty "Does not! Does not! Does not!" The other is to hear the "this sucks" voice and to quietly say back, "So?" and keep on writing. I think maybe it takes some time and experience to develop this second method, to find the confidence to allow the "this sucks" voice its truth and yet at the same time to disempower it. Maybe this is advanced poetry jiu-jitsu, or something. Or maybe it's just advanced denial. Whatever; it works for me, right now.

And maybe this manuscript does suck. It probably doesn't, but if it does, so what? I'll either fix it, or write another. I've learned a lot from writing it. I've worked hard, and I've had fun. And no matter what, there will be more poems where these came from. To me, that's what it means to be self-confident as a writer: to be okay with failing now and then, knowing that there's more. Because there's always more.

And once you know that, the possibilities are endless.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Low high; hi!

It's been cool and cloudy today and, honestly, really lovely. I don't think the temperature even hit 70 degrees all day. In Indianapolis, the record "low high temperature" was set over 100 years ago at 75, and they probably broke that record today. I know climate change is probably to blame for this, but I confess I've been enjoying it immensely.

I've returned safe & sound from the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago (attendance, including registrants and exhibitors, totaled 28,941 - this conference could eat AWP for lunch and still be hungry!). While an unfortunate amount of my time was eaten up on the shuttle buses between my hotel and McCormick Place, I attended some interesting sessions, met a few people, saw some cool stuff in the exhibits, and picked up some great freebies - notably the free frothy coffee drinks from ProQuest (I hit that line three or four times) and a free copy of Rachel Zucker's forthcoming book, Museum of Accidents (out from Wave in, I think, October). I got to hear Zucker read, which was great fun, and chatted with her for a minute at her book-signing; I also got to hear Jane Hirshfield (but didn't go to her book-signing because it conflicted with Rachel Zucker's reading - I already have Hirshfield's newest book anyway) and Sherman Alexie (didn't go to his signing either, as the line was about 980300198 people long - librarians love them some Sherman Alexie! - but did snag a copy of the bound excerpt from his forthcoming book that they were handing out). Other very popular book-signers included Judy Blume (who I gawked at for a minute) and Neil Gaiman.

Besides that, and besides getting together with Sara for a bite and some drinks & good conversation on Friday evening (yay!), the conference pretty much took me entirely out of poetry-brain for a full week. I'd taken my new manuscript with me, knowing I'd have the option of at least one or two quiet evenings in my hotel room and thinking I'd take advantage of the marauding-cat-free space to spread out pages all over the floor & juggle them a bit, but I found I didn't even have the -- what, ability? willingness? mental sharpness? -- to read poems, much less write them or fiddle with them.

It was a relatively interesting conference, & gave me some good food for thought especially regarding some of the technology trends that are going to affect how libraries serve their users (I really, really want to play with Google Wave now), & helped me get a little clearer understanding of how what I do on a day-to-day basis fits into the larger world of library work. So, that's good. All in all, I have to say AWP is way more fun. But ALA was worth my time. And I had an incredible view from my hotel room; I stayed at the Holiday Inn Mart Plaza, up on the 19th floor of the Merchandise Mart, & to the west I had a clear view all the way to the broad sweep of the horizon, directly below/before me was the Chicago River, and to the east & north I could see much of the Chicago skyline, including the John Hancock bldg., with glimpses of Lake Michigan in between skyscrapers. Evenings were spectacular, watching the big fat orange sun sinking below the horizon & watching all the lights slowly twinkling on. The daytime view was gray and kinda bleak (I'm not a fan of cities; give me a view with grass & trees any day) but at night it was spectacular & dazzling; I kept my curtains open all night just to look out at it all.

Next up - two Springsteen shows in Mansfield, MA in August, and a Rosanne Cash show (for which I have front row seats!) in September at Notre Dame. And I'm plotting: we just got 25 new Springsteen tourdates, so I'm trying to figure out how many (& which ones) I can afford to go to. St. Louis is almost for sure, and I'm considering Chicago & Cleveland as well. Sorely tempted by Nashville, which was a fantastic show & venue last year, but the date is horribly inconvenient for me; also by Kansas City, which is the night after St. Louis so it would be a lovely "double shot" but the drive back is long. And I only have so much money - not that much, especially now that we've received the official word that the university isn't giving out any raises this year (not cost-of-living, not merit, not anything - no, it's not a surprise; yes, I'm glad that I have a job at all, and one I generally like, to boot - but it does look like I'm going to be driving the '91 Corolla for at least another year).

Sure, I'm crazy for chasing a rock band around the country like this when I don't exactly have the kind of disposable income to justify such a thing. But every show I go to, I come away feeling energized, rejuvenated, glad to be alive. I come away feeling at least ten, maybe twenty years younger. I come away with all kinds of energy for my own creative work. I come away in love with rock & roll again and with the world. And that's worth every penny & every mile.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Checking in quick

Hope everyone in the U.S. had a good Fourth of July holiday. It rained here allllllll day on the Fourth. I think I started growing moss.

Just wanted to post a quick check-in as I won't be around much for the next week or so. I'll be headed to Chicago for the big American Library Assn. annual conference, a humongous event which takes over the McCormick Place convention center as well as several of the big downtown hotels. While I'll be doing library-ish stuff most of the time, I do hope to steal away for an hour or so each day to catch some of the readings that will be going on. Not the plethora (I've always thought "plethora" sounded like some kind of a prehistoric fish...) of readings you get at AWP, but still, there are some good ones including Jane Hirshfield, Rachel Zucker, Janice Harrington, and Sherman Alexie.

I've touched bases with at least a couple of Chicagoans, but if you're going to be at ALA or in the area, drop me a note! My conference schedule is looking relatively nuts, which is par for the course, but I'm hoping to escape the ALA-mania for at least one evening. I don't think it will be quite as much of a social whirl as AWP, but hopefully it will be fun.

Speaking of AWP, I didn't get the grant that I applied for, so chances are I won't be going to Denver next year. Oh well. I'm still looking around for funding possibilities, so maybe something will turn up -- but as great a time as I had in Chicago, I can't do another one on my own nickel. Maybe in 2011 (D.C.) though more likely not until 2012 (Chicago again) -- heck, by then I may have finally finished reading all the books I picked up this year, huh? :)