Thursday, August 11, 2011

Forests, Once and Future

"Between 1850 and 1900, 85% of Vermont's land was deforested."
-- Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller NHP Park Ranger

As July turned to August, I began a new writing project – spending time in, ruminating on, and writing about our National Parks. I’m taking advantage of the travel required for my No Word for Welcome book tour to explore our national parks and our relationships to them. Like many American childhoods, mine included a string of visits to national park service sites, from Sequoia to the Lincoln Memorial. Growing up in a military family and moving every few years, the National Parks were one of the few constants for my itinerant family.

I’m spending two months as Writer in Residence at Vermont’s only national park, a hilly woodland that is only slightly larger than two urban parks close to my heart: Seattle’s Discovery Park and Boston’s Franklin Park. At the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park (NHP), I’m beginning to seek answers to a question that has been knocking around my head and heart all my life: What does it mean to come from a place? As a military kid (a Navy Junior, to be precise) the idea of having a hometown has always been enormously foreign--and enormously attractive. Related to that question are two others:

What does it mean to be native to a place?  What does it mean to care for a place?

This historic bungalow where I work  at the Marsh-
Billings-Rockefeller NHP was built as the woodland
retreat of another woman writer in 1917.  
I spent much of the last dozen years exploring those questions in southern Mexico. The result of that exploration is No Word for Welcome. As I’ve settled into life here in Woodstock, Vermont, I’ve learned (to my surprise) that this area has quite a bit in common with Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Both regions are primarily rural; both regions were deeply changed by the construction of railroads and highways in the 1800s; both regions have suffered terrible deforestation. (You can read more about nineteenth-century isthmus history in this essay I wrote for the early American history journal Common-Place.) Vermont has passed through many economic eras: timber-cutting to clear land for farming, sheep-ranching to feed the textile industry of the Industrial Revolution, then skiing to feed the tourist economy. Through it all, Vermonters have struggled to maintain their homeplace’s rural character and restore its ecological health--after saws, sheep, and ski-lifts have destroyed it. 
It is somehow both inspiring and disheartening to find the same cycles everywhere: We arrive; we wreak havoc; we realize our mistakes; we endeavor to repair. Between 1850 and 1900, eighty-five percent of Vermont’s land was deforested. Now, the once-again green hills of Vermont give me hope for the increasingly bare hills of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

(And speaking of hope, I must give deep thanks to the K2 Family Foundation in Maine and 4Culture in King County, Washington, for making my new writing adventure possible.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Words Across Borders: Translation and Interviews

 "Before you can learn the trees, you have to learn / The language of the trees."
--Howard Nemerov, from the poem "Learning the Trees"

Today, as it happens, I'm blogging on two other blogs. Catch my Q&A about doing radio interviews at Midge Raymond's The Writer's Block and my thoughts about translation in nonfiction writing at Lisa Carter's Intralingo: a culture of language and thought.

Hedgebrook • WLC • 2010

And while you're at it, make sure to check out the rest of Midge's and Lisa's blogs -- they are two of my favorites! One lovely quality that both their blogs share is refreshing honesty. For examples: check out Lisa's Monday-post-series on professional development for translators, which began on May 23 and has continued each Monday. And then read Midge's recent post on re-committing to writing, but not always meeting that goal.

I'm honored to work closely with both these writers. Lisa and I exchange mentoring (she offers me advice on literary translation and I offer her advice on creative nonfiction). Midge and I are about to launch a book tour together that will take us to Orca Books in Olympia this Friday, (July 15, at 6:30 in the evening) and then to the Port Townsend Writers' Conference for a week. In the fall, we'll visit a host of bookstores, writing centers, and colleges in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont in September, and read together at the storied Prairie Lights in Iowa City on October 18!

I'm a great believer in collaboration in writing, and very grateful for my collaborations with both these writers.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Conversation with KPFK in Los Angeles

"No Word For Welcome is written with an attention to narrative and prose that is rare among non-fiction works."

A few hours after the Los Angeles Premiere of No Word for Welcome ended on Wednesday evening, I arrived at the Studio City offices of KPFK, the Southern California Pacifica station, for an interview with morning host Hamid Khan. He and I had a most enjoyable conversation about everything from grassroots organizing strategies to shrimp farms to immigration to the history of globalization. You can listen to the twenty-minute interview here.

I am grateful that Hamid Khan paid such careful attention to my book, prepared such thoughtful questions, and had such generous comments. On the KPFK archive of the show, he writes:

"Call’s new book, No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy, is the result of a decade of research.... It is not only highly informative, but also engaging and personal. In light of current attempts by the US government to enter into NAFTA-like free trade agreements with nations around the world, the people of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec have much to teach us about the human side of globalization."

I am very grateful for his words, and just as grateful for the words of Bertha Rodríguez, an istmeña writer, activist, filmmaker and organizer (who is the Communications Coordinator for the fabulous Oaxaca-California group FIOB, Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales), at the Los Angeles event: "I don't know why she called her book No Word for Welcome," Bertha told the audience, "We did welcome her there!"

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Welcoming No Word for Welcome

"When the last tree has died, when the last fish has been caught, then we’ll understand that we can’t eat money."

Here in San Francisco the sun is finally out, the soy lattes mean serious business, and the independent bookstores are vibrant and welcoming. (And for a Seattle girl, each of those details is crucially important.) Tonight, one of those bookstores, The Booksmith, will host the official welcome of No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy.

My book’s official release date was June 1, but for the first couple of weeks I focused on emailing everyone I know (over eleven hundred people, I learned, by cobbling together address lists that span more than a decade) and getting a radio campaign rolling (five interviews so far), thanks to some generous friends and my brilliant publicists.
Isthmus residents tell Mexico's then-President, Vicente Fox,
"The Isthmus is not for sale" at demonstration in 2001 that drew
more than three thousand people. (WLC 2001)

Now it’s time to get started on the truly fun part: getting out and talking to people. Tonight’s book release is co-sponsored by International Development Exchange, IDEX, an organization that I’ve known and admired more than fifteen years. Before I began the work that led to No Word for Welcome, in the late 1990s, I worked for an Boston organization that might be considered IDEX’s Atlantic Coast sister: Grassroots International. I admired IDEX from afar, for the canny mix of solidarity and financial support that they offer grassroots organizations around the world. When I lived and worked on Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec (2000 to 2002), IDEX was an active part of a tri-national North American coalition that sprang up to support the isthmus organizations pushing back, as economic globalization pushed down on them.

The slogan of "The Collective"
Working Group of the
Isthmus," founded by a half-
dozen isthmus activists (and me)
in 2000. (WLC 2000)

(If you’re wondering what that’s all about, you can read the first chapter of No Word for Welcome at my publisher’s website, for an introduction. The short version of the story: as a saying usually attributed to the Cree puts it, "When the last tree has died, when the last fish has been caught, then we’ll understand that we can’t eat money.")

 I am grateful to share my official book launch tonight with two shining examples of my favorite kinds of institutions: an international grassroots organization and a local independent bookstore. Gracias, Booksmith and IDEX!

And tomorrow it’s on to Los Angeles!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Happy "National Short Story Month"!

"[Midge] Raymond's prose often lights up the poetry-circuits of the brain."

The Seattle Times had it precisely right when they described my friend Midge's short story collection, Forgetting English, this way. When the collection first won the Spokane Prize for Fiction and was published a couple of years ago, I devoured its delicate stories and gave several copies of the book  as gifts. Now, Forgetting English has been re-released (with some new stories!) by Press53 -- a publisher that is offering some fabulous fiction to the world this year.

Soon to come from Press53 is the novel Hustle, by my friend and former colleague Jason Skipper. Jason and I worked together at Pacific Lutheran University several years ago. But half a decade before that, our first publications in literary magazines appeared side-by-side in the University of New Mexico's Blue Mesa Review. Jason's short story "Buddy" and my essay "Learning to Distinguish Refrigerators and Bicycles."  Jason will celebrate Hustle at King's Books in Tacoma on Friday, June 24. I hope to be there -- and so should you!

Midge and I will celebrate our books together on several occasions, in five different states, in the coming months:
  • On Friday, July 15 at 6 pm, Midge and I will read together at Orca Books in Oympia, Washington. And the following week we will both teach at the Port Townsend Writers' Conference at Centrum.
  • On Sunday, September 11 from 3 to 5 pm, we will co-teach a writing workshop -- "Writing Global Stories with a Local Heart" -- at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont. 
  • On the evening of Thursday, September 14, we'll offer that workshop again at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. 
  •  Also this fall, we'll offer a reading or two in Massachusetts as well as in Iowa -- stay tuned for details! 
My congratulations to Midge Raymond and to Jason Skipper for their beautiful books, and to Press53 for recognized gifted writing and sharing it with the world. Celebrate May by treating yourself to a new collection of short stories, or maybe a novel!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

My Journey Through Words: Writing, Editing, Translating Them

“I have struggled to find a ‘perfect job’ that combines all of my passions, but hope was restored when I found your website and read about your adventures in the creative world.”

Chad Emery – a student of fiction writer Joe Schuster, whom I met at Vermont Studio Center a dozen years ago – wrote that to me a few weeks ago. Chad explained:

“I am a senior at Webster University, studying Media Communications and German Language and Literature. Your journey as a writer involves all aspects I hope to include in my journey, and I am hoping that you will be willing to help me learn more about the fields of writing, editing and translating, as well as educating.”

Below is the e-conversation that Chad and I shared.

Chad Emery: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer? I see that you have a BA in Biology, but an MFA in Writing and Literature. What were your original goals?

Friday Harbor Labs:
Where I studied marine biology
in 1989 and 1990.

WLC: I grew up wanting to be both a scientist and a writer. When I was seventeen, the latter seemed like a pipe dream, and the former, a rational career choice. I wrote “biology” on the “intended major” line of my college application and never reconsidered that choice. I probably should have. At the end of every semester of my college career, I received a strong urging to reconsider – in the form of a grade report that highlighted my facility in the humanities and mediocrity in the sciences. After college, I worked for three months as a marine biology field assistant. I loved the work, but realized I had no talent as a scientist. I took a job as a grassroots organizer and followed that career path for a decade. Slowly, my interest in social change organizing led me back to my childhood desire to be a writer.

CE: When and how did you learn Spanish? Have you lived abroad?

WLC: I began learning Spanish while working as a grassroots organizer in Boston. I collaborated with local Spanish-speaking groups and with organizations in Mexico and Central America. Basic Spanish was an essential job skill, so I enrolled in evening classes. Starting in 1995, I devoted my annual vacation time to a two- or three-week visit to Latin America. In late 1999 I applied for and received a two-year grant from the Institute of Current World Affairs, to live, work and write in Mexico. By the time I returned to the U.S. in 2002, I was able to work as an (unofficial) interpreter and translator and (thanks to editing help from Mexican friends) had published articles in Spanish.

CE: Please describe a typical day. Do you work eight straight hours or a couple hours at a time? How do you keep your projects organized?

WLC: I write in the mornings. When I’m teaching, I try to schedule my classes in the afternoons and evenings so I can keep to that schedule. When I’m not teaching, I devote my afternoons to editing projects, administration, marketing, and research. I create a fairly elaborate work plan each month to keep track of all my deadlines and works-in-progress.

Hedgebrook writing desk, October 2010.
I tend to work fifty to sixty hours per week, though I don’t have a particularly regular schedule. Because I’m a freelancer, at least one-fifth of my work hours are devoted to keeping myself employed and my writing projects funded. My daily writing time might be as little as 20 minutes or as much as four hours. I only write (and that includes revision) for eight hours in a day when I’m under extreme deadline pressure or at an extremely ideal writer’s colony.

 CE: How did you get your start in the nonfiction industry? 

WLC: I’m not sure I’m in the nonfiction “industry.” Only one year (2003) did I earn the majority of my income from freelance writing. I found I just didn’t have the right constitution for that job. Full-time freelancers must write quickly and be willing to write about almost anything – two attributes I lack.

That said, I do write nonfiction almost exclusively. My writing grew from my curiosity about the mechanisms of social change. I was trying to answer the question: What makes people set aside short-term, personal interests and work together for long-term, collective benefit? (I’m still trying to answer that question.)

CE: For which social change organizations did you work? Did your experiences working in these settings inspire your writing?

WLC: I was a staff organizer for the GE Boycott in the early 1990s. Then I worked for a Central America solidarity organization that campaigned against NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. After that, I was Communications Coordinator at Grassroots International for four years. My (very generous) boss at Grassroots International, Tim Wise, encouraged me to take workshops in creative writing and graphic design.

My first writing workshop was led by Louise Dunlap, author of the excellent book Undoing the Silence: Tools for Social Change Writing. Louise introduced me to the practice of freewriting – if it weren’t for that practice, I never would have begun writing creatively.

My work as an organizer has inspired all my writing. My first published pieces were about community organizing initiatives in Southern Mexico. I ended up writing a book on this subject: No Word for Welcome

CE: Is teaching a passion of yours? Did you always aspire to be a teacher or did your career guide you in that direction?

A writing workshop I taught in San Miguel
de Allende, Mexico in June 2008.
WLC: Though both of my parents were teachers, I never imagined that I would become one. I led several training programs in my years as a grassroots organizer, but I never thought of that as “teaching.” I was simply helping people discover what they already knew. I finally came to understand that’s what teaching is.

I “taught” my first creative writing class in 2006; I’m surprised by how quickly it became my primary profession. I greatly enjoy teaching – so much so that I consciously limit how much I do it. When I teach fulltime, I become so absorbed in the work and experiences of my students that I tend to push my own writing projects to the side. But if I’m not writing, what business do I have teaching it?

CE: When you started your writing career, was your talent the main selling point or, like most other industries, were connections and a résumé more important than your talent? 

WLC: I’ve always been short on talent and long on endurance. As my father likes to say, quoting President Jefferson, “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”

My first “break” as a writer was receiving a scholarship to work as a waiter at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 1999. I was so green that I had never heard of Bread Loaf; I applied because there was no application fee and I lived in Boston, so it was an easy drive. Had I known of Bread Loaf’s reputation, I never would have had the courage to apply. The application called for a work sample of “up to 25 pages.” I cobbled together the only 15 pages of vaguely “literary” nonfiction I’d ever written and sent it off. I had no connections and my “writing résumé” was empty.

I’d devoted all my vacation time and spare cash for three years to visiting a little known part of Mexico and writing about it. It just so happened that one of the people on the Bread Loaf selection committee knew that part of Mexico and liked what I had to say about it. It was nothing more than the intersection of hard work and dumb luck. Connections I made at Bread Loaf led to my two-year fellowship in Mexico, the writing partner with whom I shared my writing for a decade, cover blurbs for my book No Word for Welcome, etc, etc.

CE: How did you first start submitting your work to literary magazines? Did you formulate a plan or submit out of the blue? If you had a plan, what was it?

WLC: I sent my first submissions to literary magazines while I was living and working in Mexico, more than a decade ago. Most lit mags didn’t have websites then, and I didn’t have any way to buy copies, so it was definitely not a well-researched plan. I didn’t land any publications from that first round of submissions (unsurprisingly), but I received some useful feedback. I’ve had the most success submitting to magazines where I have some sort of connection – no matter how tenuous. That said, the most important thing is to make peace with rejection. I gave a talk at the 2011 AWP Conference titled “What Rejection Can Do for You,” and someone in the audience posted a summary of my comments at her blog.

CE: How did you start finding translation work? Are you a trained or certified translator?

WLC: I am not a certified translator and my sole training was a fabulous two-week summer workshop that I took in 2005. Mundo a Mundo is offered by the Universities of Oregon and Querétaro every other summer – I highly recommend it! The American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) is also an excellent resource. I am rarely paid to translate; it’s more of an avocation for me.

My Mundo a Mundo desk, 2005.

I practiced literary translation in collaboration with a friend of mine, María Victoria, who is perfectly bilingual (which I most certainly am not) and writes her fiction in Spanish. I translate her work into English and she translates mine into Spanish. We read one another’s translations and suggest improvements; it’s an ideal learning experience.

CE: How did you get your start in editing? What qualifications must one have to be a successful editor?

WLC: I started editing as a volunteer, working on the newsletter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association in Massachusetts, and as part of the Editorial Board of Dollars & Sense Magazine – one of the first publications to publish my writing. Eventually, I was hired to work on an enormous editing project that became the anthology Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide.

There are many qualities that help with editing work: patience, a decent command of English grammar, good time management, organizational skills, and diplomacy. I have found that the most important quality of all is an ability to recognize, to truly hear, each writer’s individual voice. As a freelance writer, I’ve had editors insert sentences into my articles and essays that sound nothing like me. An editor with a good ear develops a sense of each writer’s personal cadence, vocabulary, and syntax, and doesn’t suggest changes that violate that personal signature. To the extent I have any talent at all, this is it.

Thanks to Chad Emery for asking questions that forced me to think through this journey I’ve been on for the last fourteen years.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Celebrating National Poetry Month at Harborview

"Harborview Medical Center channels pain into poetry."

Next week, the Harborview Art Program will deliver a Haiku and an American Sentence to every patient in the county hospital, and invite them to write their own poems. Peggy Weiss and I planned this project during my residency last summer, and it's coming to fruition during National Poetry Month. This morning, journalist Brandi Kruse at Seattle's KIRO radio ran a story about my work at the county hospital: "Harborview Medical Center Channels Pain into Poetry." I am looking forward to reading -- and sharing with you -- a collective poetic portrait of life at Harborview.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Talking about Death at Harborview Medical Center

With Michelle at Harborview, June 2010 
photo by Clare McLean, University of Washington

"I gotta get outta here. 
Though I could be walking into a hell."

Last summer,  I spent six weeks as Writer in Residence at Harborview Medical Center, Seattle’s county hospital. (Next week, I'll be returning to Harborview for the last -- for now -- phase of my residency, but more about that later....) For dozens of hours during those six summer weeks, I sat in the hospital room of Michelle Angeline Maria Alfonso-Buske, who was admitted to Harborview on June 9, 2010, when she woke up and could neither feel, nor move, her legs. I came to know both Michelle and her husband Bob; they both became heroes of mine.

Michelle and I chatted for dozens upon dozens of hours together. By "chat," I mean: I sat and took notes while Michelle talked. And talked. Thirty-eight-thousand words’ worth. The work of spinning those words into essays has just begun. In the meantime, here are just 250 of her words:

Michelle Talks About Facing Death: A Collage

With Michelle and Bob Buske,
on the first day Michelle is able to leave the wing of her hospital room.
photo by Peggy Weiss

I gotta get outta here. Though I could be walking into a hell. Being dependent on other people is not--in fact, I just got a cold chill thinking about it. I really haven’t cried yet. Hey, if I’m going to palliative care, what I need is to make a will. We’re worried about them taking the house. Oh, god yes. Bob took care of his parents for two years. Then they took the house and he ended up living in his car! I am so beside myself. Bob is stressed to the max. I just told that doc from palliative care, I said I want to tighten my will up. Now. It’s for the people who take care of me when I go home; they have to have that “do not resuscitate.” Oh, man. This fucking paralyzed bullshit. I can’t even get to the bank. And my cell phone is broken. Bob has been coming every day everydayeverydayeveryday. He is the dearest man. Don’t you think? You know, I would get up at 4:30 in the morning to try and make him some coffee. He would never let me make him lunch. That was always the agreement we had. He did all the shopping and cooking and I would clean up. His blood pressure is sky high. He’s gonna have a heart attack. And if that happens, I’m going to the nursing home. … You know, I woke up and I thought this had all been a bad dream.

P.S. My time with Michelle inspired to me to look up this information on living wills and advance medical directives.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Art of Losing

"The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster."

This is not my favorite Elizabeth Bishop poem, though I know that many of my poet-friends worship "One Art." To be fair, "Wendy's Favorite Elizabeth Bishop Poem" would be a hard-won title, indeed.

In the first (and, it must be said, only) poetry workshop I ever took, more than a decade ago, the brilliant and generous Mark Doty looked at my terrible poems and said, "Study Elizabeth Bishop."

In the first writing class I ever taught, in the fall of 2006, we read and savored "The Fish" -- sans the final three lines. I asked my students to come up with their own final three lines, before we looked at the trio that Bishop had created. I was struck by how close my students' endings were to Bishop's. Half of them had Bishop tossing the fish back, as she actually did in the poem. The sign of perfect craftswomanship, I think.

"Telling True Stories" workshop at TSKW.
For the last two weeks, I've been Writer in Residence at The Studios of Key West (TSKW). Last week, I taught a two-day workshop to a half-dozen Key West writers. This week, I was just settling into a new essay, when I was foolish enough to leave the door to the lovely Mango Tree House open while I was upstairs. I returned to my writing desk to find my phone and wallet had disappeared.

Yes, the art of losing is quite easily mastered.

I was impressed that someone had managed to come inside without making any noise, and even more impressed that the person chose to leave behind my laptop. (Perhaps it was the fact that it's so old and worn that the E, R, S, F, V, and N keys are blank and the Caps Lock and Page Up keys are missing altogether? Or perhaps s/he didn't want anything that couldn't be pocketed.)

624 White Street in Key West, where Elizabeth Bishop
lived in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Hoping the person might have only really wanted the cash, I walked the neighborhood, peeking into bougainvillea and lifting garbage can lids. I did not find my phone or credit cards, but I found something more important. I realized I've been staying just three houses away from the one where Elizabeth Bishop lived during her most of her years in Key West. A front-gate plaque from the Friends of the Key West Library informed me of this fact. Bishop's former home is a classic mid-nineteenth-century Key West home, a style called an "eyebrow house," because of the way the roof overhangs the second-story windows to create shade.

Key West's Old Armory.
She bought her White Street house in 1938 and lived there with her lover for several years. Read more about Bishop's time in Key West at The Queerest Places blog and The Academy of American Poets. She did not not just live and write on this block of White Street, she observed it deeply. She painted the Old Armory that now houses TSKW. Bishop left the island in 1944 and headed south to Brazil.

I will leave these inspiring studios and this magic island tomorrow, and in a couple weeks, I, too, head to South America. (I'm going to Venezuela for a two-week visit.)

Something lost, something gained.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Finding Wild Florida

"Lie with your ear to the ground. Let birdsong trace its complexities onto your eardrum."

Susan Cerulean, nature writer, Floridian, biologist and educator, writes these instructions in the elegant (if alarmingly short) anthology she co-edited, The Wild Heart of Florida: Florida Writers on Florida’s Wildlands.

Eighteen months ago I came to live – part-time and unwillingly – in Miami. I did not expect to find much wilderness. To my surprise, I have spent more time camping in South Florida than I ever have in Seattle. Perhaps that’s because Miami is easier to leave behind. Or because I prefer sweating to shivering. Whatever the reason (and in spite of the best efforts of developers, pro-business legislators, and oil-spillers), I recognize more tree and bird species in South Florida than I do in Western Washington.

There is no recycling in our eighty-unit Miami apartment building – though it’s called “Nirvana” (really!) – but less than an hour’s drive west of our home is a fifteen-mile bike-loop through the Everglades. Our metal coffee mugs are often rejected at cafes (public health hazard, they say), but eighty miles southwest lies the wonder of the Middle Keys.
On Long Key, you can pitch a tent just five feet from the calm emerald lips of the Atlantic Ocean. I did that this weekend and hardly left my campsite for two days. I sat at the picnic table and watched sanderlings flip small piles of dried seagrass in search of a meal. I scribbled in my notebook until Ursa Major rose like a question mark in the sky, asking Orion and the Pleiades what to make of happenings on the blue planet below. (A punctuation mark to the question that fills all my notebooks.) Orion pretended not to hear while Atlas’s daughters just shrugged. They’d never much cared for pointless questions.

I let birdsong and birdtracks trace their complexities onto my eardrum, as I asked myself another question that would only make the those seven sisters shrug: What will become of South Florida? 

For now, the sanderlings splay seagrass with their blunt beaks, until two black-headed laughing gulls swoop from blue sky toward green waves. Fifty (or seventy? one hundred?) sanderlings rise from the mudflat as a single being, flying away from the shoreline and then back and then away again, seeming to disappear like smoke. (And I pack up my tent and notebook and head to Key West.)

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Harborview Haiku and American Sentence

Life's garden shelters…
soil, sun, weed, root, rock. Bright shoot
cut, will grow taller.

As in our bodies: a break might mend more strongly than a bone unscarred.

Peggy Weiss and me, July 2010
Peggy Weiss, the Art Manager (aka Miracle Worker & Duchess of Art-Healing) at Harborview Medical Center, orchestrated my six-week immersion in the grit and wonder and pain of King County's public hospital and regional trauma center last summer.

Later this month, a Haiku and American Sentence I wrote one afternoon, thinking of Harborview's View Park, will be distributed via meal trays to all the hospital's patients. I am inviting them, along with their friends and family members, as well as Harborview staff and volunteers, to create their own poetry. I look forward to sharing it with you.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Light of Translation

“You can’t think of it as a transfer from one language to another, because we would be left with something horrible in Spanish. You must think of them as parallel poems, a poem created in our language and another poem in Spanish. Both versions uphold their respective literary traditions.”

And so poet / educator / activist / translator Irma Pineda explains the difference between the Zapotec and Spanish “versions” of her poems.
Poet Irma Pineda, photo courtesy of the poet.

Born and raised in the city of Juchitán, where she still lives, Irma Pineda has been writing poems since childhood. She now has five published collections of poems, one of which had a print run of more than ninety thousand copies.

Juchitán is the only city in Mexico in which an indigenous language dominates – not just on the streets and in homes, but in the mayor’s office. Like eighty-five percent of Juchitán’s residents, Irma’s first language is Zapotec – a language whose literary history reaches back two thousand years. The Zapotecs were probably the first society to invent writing in the Americas -- long before the Maya.

February 21 marked the UN's International Native / Mother Language Day. Linguists estimate that half of the languages currently spoken in the world will have fallen silent by 2100. It's a fact that fills me with panic, grief, and a urgent desire to spread Zapotec poetry far and wide.

Irma Pineda creates her poems in Zapotec, then recreates “parallel poems" in Spanish.And then, I create a “parallel poem” in English. Learning that Irma considers the Spanish and Zapotec versions of her poems to be parallels, not translations, freed me as a translator. I’d made hesitant attempts at translating the work of Zapotec poets in years past, but stopped because I don’t know Zapotec and couldn’t read the original poem. Pineda’s process allows me to think of the Spanish version as a new original that stands on its own.

My office in Oaxaca, December 2010.
I spent the month of December 2010 in Oaxaca, completing first-draft translations of forty of Irma’s poems. After I completed the translations, I spent four days with Irma in her home, reviewing my drafts.

Here is one of Irma’s poems in all three languages. “Light / Biaani’ / La Luz” appeared in the Sarasota, Florida literary journal
New CollAge
in 2010.


Light allows the vocation of looking at walls,
discerning colors that fill faces.
Light floods bodies,
draws silhouettes,
phantom shadows
that taunt the nighttime solitude
of one fragile figure
held on the wall of fear.


Ne biaani’ zanda gu’yu xi cá cué’ yoo,
zanda gannu’ xhi dié’ lú binni.
Biaani’ riguiñená ni nexhe guidxi layú,
rutie’láadi binni,
rutie’ bandá’ dxaba’
cuxidxi ti nuu xtubi lu gueela’
ti miati da
sucá cué’ yoo cadxibi.

La luz

La luz permite el oficio de mirar paredes,
adivinar colores que llenan rostros.
La luz inunda las formas,
dibuja siluetas,
sombras fantasmales
que se burlan de la soledad nocturna
de una figura frágil
sostenida en la pared del miedo.

This is the first poem that appears in Irma Pineda’s first collection of poetry, Ndaani’ Gueela’ (En el Vientre de La Noche), published by Casa de la Cultura de Juchitán, Mexico, in 2005. The poems in this collection were written by the poet with the support of a grant for indigenous writers from the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (Mexico’s National Endowment for the Arts). They appear here with the persmission of the author.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Notes on a Poetics of Indexing

"Anglo-Americans: all look alike, 29"

That is one of the first lines in the index for No Word for Welcome. I recently reviewed that index, a project by turns frustrating, illuminating, and entertaining. I approached the task with dread, avoiding it for as long as possible. Not because I fear order or laborious detail – even my spice rack is alphabetized – but because it required reading my book Yet Again.

As almost any author can tell you, when your book is close to publication, reading the phone book in a viper-filled pit seems more attractive than reading one’s own manuscript one more time.

To my surprise and relief, it wasn’t all that bad. Yes, it was strange to see a portion of my brain, and a dozen years of work and experience, plotted out as a list of five hundred and fifty topics. But as I worked my way from Acapulco and American season to Ernesto Zedillo and Zoque, I enjoyed laughing at myself, and delighting in the poetry of simple entries like the one above. The lack of ornament and embellishment of "Anglo-Americans: all look alike" gives it more power than the long passage to which it refers.

Some entries offered word-problems, puzzles to solve: How to translate El Día de la Raza?

The indexer had chosen "Day of the Race," a homely term that seemed too easy to misinterpret. I asked several friends for suggestions. "Mestizo People’s Day," one suggested. Well, I can assure you the istmeños in the Oaxacan town where I lived were not celebrating mestizaje. One of those istmeño townies, a human rights lawyer who is now the Executive Director of Long Island’s amazing Workplace Project, thought the holiday first needed a name-change in Spanish, to "Día de la Resistencia." (I agree, but that’s, unfortunately, beside the point.) A friend who teaches Latin American literature suggested "don’t translate it, explain it." (Great idea, but not possible in an index.) Another friend chimed in: "Roots Day?" (Conjuring Alex Haley?)

The index offers an explanation that’s pertinent here: istmeños (people of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec), xxiii

The explanations that the indexer offered for some terms created their own poetry:

"bienvenid@s" (de-gendered greeting), 170
chahuixtle (corn disease, something bad), 8, 9, 53, 274
cual mitcats ("missionary's child," one who fawns on foreigners), 190
protagonismo (unwarranted self-promotion), xv

An index’s flat, uninflected presentation, its egalitarianism, struck me as both humorous and elegant. Joke and metaphor, deep theme and small quirk, are all laid out with equal emphasis.

time: God's and Zedillo's, 68; as a spiral, xxiii, 152

A brief explanation of how istmeños refer to "regular time" and "Daylight Savings Time" (imposed throughout Mexico by former president Ernesto Zedillo, but ignored in the countryside) is on a level playing field with my realization that the istmeños’ sense of how time passes matches my own lifelong experience: it’s not a line, it’s a spiral.

My favorite entry:

immigration, 74-75; and Central Americans, 63; for employment, 30-31, 118-19, 184; from outer space, 154

As for Día de la Raza, I ended up choosing Kathleen Alcalá’s suggestion: "Day of the People." An incomplete translation, to be sure, but if a reader wants the full story, she’ll have to read the whole book.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Scraps from a Grief Quilt

For the last four years, I’ve been writing about hospice, grief, all things funereal. It began when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2006. Until 2009, I wrote only short fragments; the subject was too painful for sustained attention, yet too overwhelming to ignore. Now, I’m basting those small patches into something larger. Here’s one from the scrap bag:

Doing the Math

Mom’s oncologist must have been one of those students who mastered biology without ever mastering math. (I know; I was, too.) She considers this equation sound:

(four to six months life expectancy) + (gemcitabine-tarceva chemo-drip)

= (four days each week bedridden) + (two months’ longer lifespan).

Mom taught middle-school math; knows better.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Last of Her Village

“My horoscope advises: notice connections to your childhood
. Women and men the age my parents were
when they died are everywhere.
One has my mother’s hands. She weaves insights
like soft cloth, holding it to my shoulders when I chill.”

This is the ending of a magical, fearless poem called “Festival of Lights Revisited” by Yael Flusberg. (In March 2010, Yael dazzled my students at New College of Florida when I invited her to be a Guest Poet there. I took this photograph during her New College reading.)

Yael is a yoga teacher, a healer, and a writer. You can hear her talk about braiding these three roles together in a radio essay that aired on WAMU, American University Radio:
Therapy And Yoga At Walter Reed

On the first day of autumn, last September, "Festival of Lights Revisited" arrived in my mailbox, as part of Yael's first poetry chapbook. I have read all the chapbook's poems before. Some of them, a half-dozen times. I sat down that fall equinox and read them again. (A poem is never to be read just once, nor twice.)  As I prepare to spend a week with Yael in her home in Washington DC, some of her poetic lines are scrolling through my mind.  

The Last of My Village is a collection about moving through a year, moving through a life, letting what is not needed fall away, and learning not to need what has fallen away.

The Last of My Village won Poetica Magazine’s 2010 Chapbook Prize. Read it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Out in the Silence

“We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re going to show a film in your library.” Those are the words of a movement in the making.

All over America, local LGBTQI-rights organizations are going into their local libraries, explaining that they have a documentary film about LGBTQI rights in rural America, and saying they would like to hold a showing. All over America, the film Out in the Silence is ending the silence. On Tuesday, February 2, this film will open the 2011 DC Human Rights Watch film festival. And as I am packing my bags for a week in DC, I will be there!

A bit of backstory:
Around the time I started writing No Word for Welcome (that is to say, one long decade ago), a friend of mine began, as he put it, “playing around with a video camera.” Joe Wilson is now (along with his husband, Dean Hamer) the producer-writer-director of Out in the Silence, an enormously important and inspiring documentary film. Joe and Dean have done far more than build a good film, they have honed a powerful tool for social change. And that film is helping to build a movement.

"Libraries are a great bastion of participatory democracy," Joe says. For books. For film. For all of us.

Read more at the film’s website and watch the trailer for the film:

Saturday, January 8, 2011

"Of course." Three Moments at Harborview Medical Center

For six weeks last summer, I was Writer in Residence at Harborview Medical Center, Seattle's county hospital and regional trauma center. (I still figuring out how to write about that experience -- among the more powerful of my professional life.) One of the phrases I heard often there, in response to patient requests, was "of course." This short essay, about one day in the life of palliative care physician, was published in STAT, the Harborview staff newsletter, in June 2010.
Dr. Margaret Isaac sits across the table from a father. His son, a high-school senior, was expected to recover from the hideous car accident. But the fat globules released by the marrow from so many broken bones reached his brain. Many weeks have passed without improvement. Margaret and the father discuss the details and logistics of ending life support systems; he says he needs one more evening to discuss it with the teen’s mother. Of course, of course. A pause wells up in the room. Then he says, “There’s just one other thing.” Of course, Margaret says. “Is this the right thing to do?” Margaret leans forward; her voice is warm, reaching for confidence. “Well, it’s a right thing to do.” The father wipes his eyes with a maroon bandana and thanks her. 

Margaret visits two brothers. One, sleeping in his bed, has been at Harborview for fifty days. The other, sitting in a chair by the window, lives on the East Coast. This is his third and final visit; he’ll stay for the rest of his brother’s life. He asks – business-like, slightly wary – about Margaret’s training and background. She answers, then says, “Tell me about your brother.”  What would she like to know?  “What did he like to do?” Each morning he laced up his boots, anticipating a day spent outside. He worked as a farrier, which afforded him only what he truly needed: a trailer to live in, a pasture and stable (that he built himself) for his horses, a workshop for constructing mechanical things. Not long before his brain hemorrhage, his favorite horse had died. His brother found a piece of paper in his wallet that had several names and phone numbers written on it – his among them. He called all the numbers; one person came to visit. Margaret and the brother stand by the man’s bed. He opens his eyes and coughs. His brother passes his hand over the man’s face, but his eyes do not move. Both men return to their waiting.

The son of a stroke victim tries to imagine how his father would experience the world, if he were to regain consciousness: It is a field of light. There are no boundaries. He waves his hand back and forth, fingers reaching. Nothing to determine the edges of things. Margaret nods as the son talks his way toward the end of his father’s life. Four hours later, his mother and sister and brother-in-law have all come to the ICU room, said their goodbyes, and gone home, while bruises of exhaustion have bloomed under the son’s eyes. He has two final requests. Fifteen minutes alone with his father to say goodbye. Of course. That the older man’s body be donated to science. Margaret is stunned and grateful; she has never before received this request. The son and the doctor thank each other again and again.

It is not enough to care for the whole person, or even the whole family. The edges of palliative care extend beyond the physical. Where are the boundaries? Families come through Harborview’s doors, stand at bedsides, ask the staff and one another: What does it mean to be alive? What does another person experience? What sort of life would another person want to live?   

The answers lie just out of reach. Of course.