Me, Angie Rubio, and Magic in Port Townsend

This summer I’m going to the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference—again. I’ve been to others, all wonderful places, each offering its unique atmosphere and particular added attraction—a mountain to hike at Squaw Valley, readings held at wineries at Napa Valley, fierce bonding at VONA, a sense of history and celebrity at Bread Loaf, the D.H. Lawrence ranch near Taos.

But there’s a reason I keep going back to Port Townsend. Really, several reasons.

Port Townsend is practically in my backyard, if my backyard were to stretch from my little house in North Seattle across Puget Sound to the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula. Getting there is one of the best parts. There’s a ferry ride, a little bit of highway, and then stretches of country road. I always look for The Egg and I Road sign. The road passes the farm site once owned by Betty MacDonald who wrote the 1945 best-selling book The Egg And I about the calamities of running a chicken farm. My sister and I read that book over and over when we were kids, not to mention the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books. There’s something almost bewitching about encountering traces of an author whose works delighted you as a child.

The conference is held at Fort Worden atop a bluff overlooking Admiralty Inlet which is traversed by maritime traffic to and from ports in Seattle and Tacoma. The fort was an active army base from 1902 to 1953; when decommissioned, it housed delinquent juveniles. Now it’s an arts center. The dorm rooms are tiny and monastic. Fitting for an army recruit or a reforming youth. Fitting as well for a writer.

The rooms have a desk and a chair and a little bed. What more does one need to write and sleep? Well, ear plugs. Program director Jordan Hartt advises packing ear plugs as the walls are “thin as masking tape.” Otherwise, the digs really are quite sufficient. And if you’re lucky, you might get a view of the inlet, though a view of the parade grounds and the officers’ quarters isn’t bad. A view of the parking lot may be useful for keeping your eyes and brain focused on your computer screen. When you need to get outside, there are places to run, bike, or hike nearby.

The place is damn picturesque and a bit charmed—maybe even magical.

I first went to the Port Townsend conference in 2003. At the time I was three chapters in to rewriting my first novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced, which was eventually published in 2011 by Signal 8 Press. Bret Lott was my workshop leader. He was kind, funny, and smart. Our workshop group enjoyed him and each other. We were a highly companionable group, and I made some forever friends.

Six years later I was back, this time for a workshop led by the charismatic Chris Abani who generously gave his time and talent to his students. The story I brought to workshop was published soon after in Connecticut Review.

It was hard to stay away and I returned to the conference for three consecutive years. One of those years I took a non-fiction workshop with another brilliant teacher, Paisley Rekdal. The essay I worked on that summer was later published in Kartika Review and then anthologized in New California Writing.

The other two years at the conference I signed up for the residency option, an alternative to enrolling in a morning workshop. As a resident, I was provided with a room in which to write, a meal plan, and access to the faculty craft lectures and readings. Each time, I spent the week working on my second novel The Education of Angie Rubio. After many interruptions and delays over the intervening years, I have a full draft that needs layering and polishing.

This summer it’s me and Angie Rubio getting it done in Port Townsend. And maybe, if the work has absorbed any of the Port Townsend magic, it, too, will be published.

Posted in People, Places

How Katharine Whitcomb’s Sad Poems Lifted Me from the Blues

A few weeks ago I was blue. I can’t say exactly what caused my melancholy as I rode the bus to work that day amid passengers whose ears were occluded with ear buds and whose thumbs busily scrolled the smudged surfaces of their smart phones; or as I sat in my cubicle attending to my projects that promote the conservation of the earth’s resources amid the latest news reports of climate change deniers and coal-train advocates; or at the end of my workday when I made my way in a gray drizzle from my downtown office up to Capitol Hill where I stopped in at the Rancho Bravo taquería. By that time I had blinked back tears several times that day.

After I sat down with my enchiladas, and as I ate (because low spirits have seldom affected my appetite), I thought back to when I was younger, in my late thirties through my late forties, when I experienced these blue days more often and for extended periods of time. Every year when I visited my doctor, she would ask, “How are you doing?” There in the sanitized examining room, my face would crumble and tears would make a slow crawl over its scrunched topography. I knew the cause: not enough hours in the day to deal with job and family, trying to find the ground below my feet as my life both spun in a vortex and sagged to a standstill. And now it seems as if that period has evaporated.

I’m in my sixties now. Most of life is behind me. Maybe this fact is what occasionally pulls me down into the dumps. Or thinking of how quickly my children went from helpless, swaddled infants to grown women finding their way in the world. Or how much time I devote outside of my day job to writing stories that may be read by only a handful of people. But bigger things also weigh me down—the degradation of the planet, the denigration of women and the steady erosion of their reproductive rights, the proliferation of guns in our communities, racial and social inequities, and on and on. Sometimes it all hits you at once.

I was starting to text my husband about the little black hole into which I had sunk, knowing that he would do his best to coach me out of it, when I sensed someone at my shoulder. I turned to find a man whose face was bloated and reddened from addiction. He pointed to my paper plate. “If you don’t plan to eat the rest of that, I can finish it for you.” I looked at the remains of my enchiladas, bits of tortilla and spicy pork strewn with slivers of rice and specks of beans—surely an unappetizing sight to anyone but me who had already forked the best of it into my mouth.

I reached into my backpack for my wallet and fished out some ones, enough to cover a plate of tacos. He became effusive with thanks, but I waved him off rather rudely. “Go,” I said. “Buy some dinner,” I added a little more civilly.

So my sadness increased at the thought of this man and others like him, reduced, for whatever reasons, to asking for the uneaten food on other people’s plates. I took my deflated and depressed self to Hugo House for an evening of poetry readings. All day I had debated whether or not to go, feeling like a good mope at home would have been a more suitable way to spend my time. But the line-up was a stellar one, headlined by Mark Wunderlich and including local poets and University of Washington faculty Andrew Feld and Pimone Triplett, as well as Katharine Whitcomb from over the mountains in Ellensburg where she teaches at Central Washington University.

Triplett read first, followed by Feld, both giving good, strong readings. Mark Wunderlich dazzled. But before him was Katharine. When she took the stage, she warned us that the first few poems she would read were sad poems. I thought, go ahead, make me sadder. I leaned forward, ready for the blow. But I didn’t get sadder.

Katharine did make me catch my breath, particularly with two of her poems—one about a father and daughter in a boat on a lake and a moment of deliberate separation; another about a woman isolated on a retreat, not a visitor in sight, who encounters a dead bird on her porch and is confounded about what to do with this dead companion.

It wasn’t so much the sadness of the poems—reminders of aloneness or loss of connection—that got to me. It was the beauty of Katharine’s expression of that sadness, both the words she wrote and how she physically voiced them with her delivery that was a natural, down-to-earth, truth-telling. Words. Images. Art. They’re what lifted me up and out of the blues.

Posted in Miscellaneous Musings

The Ugly Years

Recently I posted on Facebook several photos of me with others. In each photo, I’m standing with a different set of friends. All the photos were taken on the same day so that I appear in the same clothes in each one. I’m on the right, which is to say, I am actually standing to the left side of my friends and the left side of my face is in three-quarters view toward the camera.

Someone commented that I look exactly the same in each photo. That it was eerie. That I might’ve been photo-shopped into each photo. Same location, same expression. I agreed it was weird. But it was also deliberate. I’ll explain in a bit.

I’ve never been happy with the way I appear in photographs. Who is, you say. Most of us judge ourselves harshly when it comes to the camera. Even my most photogenic friends insist they are not photogenic. But there is “not photogenic” and there is really not photogenic.

In my Camelot years, between the ages of 17 and 30, or maybe they were more accurately my Brigadoon years, fleeting as they were, I was at my least uncomfortable when it came to being caught on camera. There were two reasons: 1. Braces, the blight and misery of my childhood existence, had some years earlier been snapped off with orthodontic wire cutters and 2. I got contact lenses. It was as if reptilian scales had been shed, or a scary mask removed.

Prior to those wonder years were the ugly years. Please don’t protest. You weren’t there. Or maybe you were. Even so, chances are you will remember things differently.

I have big teeth and as a child had an overabundance of them for the size of my jaw. I do have a wide mouth, but the jaw is narrow and couldn’t accommodate the teeth. As I grew, my teeth grew more crooked, my malocclusion more pronounced, my overbite more protrusive.

In the fourth grade, I got braces. About that time I was required to wear glasses all the time. I was skinny with bow legs and pointy elbows. I was not a pretty picture. A classmate pointed out that I had a crooked mouth. And because I have always striven to be agreeable, I agreed. I was, in fact, apologetic.

Always a self-conscious child, I became even more so. Except for school photos, few pictures of me exist of those years. I dreaded picture day at school. Afraid to smile, I ended up just letting my jaw go slack, which pulled my mouth agape. Really, I had little choice since my mouth wouldn’t close over my metal-clad teeth. My sixth-grade picture was one of the worst of that period. It didn’t matter that I had curled my hair to flip up at the ends or that I wore my favorite dress. In truth, my awful sense of fashion only worsened the effect.

Recently my sixth-grade photo surfaced on Facebook as such things will. I tried to laugh it off, but it brought back painful memories of who I’d been then and how I’d been treated. I was an oddity to be abided with squeamish awe. Look, someone could wrap her hand around my skinny upper arm. Look, someone else could wrap her hand around my skinny ankle. Look how my clothes hung like a sack on my bony body. Look at that crooked mouth. Those hideous glasses.

Years later, I notice that my sixth-grade face is at a three-quarter turn to favor my left side, which today is my “good side,” a thing I discovered when a few years ago I hired a professional photographer for an author photo.

As I sorted through the hundreds of proofs, I found only a handful that I liked and nearly all of them featured my left side. I had a good side! The side of me you’ll invariably see in photos, looking eerily the same—as if photo-shopped in.

Back in the sixth grade, I had no good side. Any way you looked at me, you saw braces on protruding teeth and cat-eye glasses over timid eyes.

I’m not going to post the picture here. It’s out there in Facebook world. If you really want to find it, I’m sure you will. Or someone else might post it. There’s nothing I can do about it. When it resurfaces on my screen, I’ll probably look at it for a moment, maybe laugh at the sad horror of it before I wince and turn away as something tiny and dull pings at some hidden place in my heart.

“Writing is the best revenge” says a T-shirt slogan. But it’s not out of revenge that I write. It’s out of compassion. My new novel (in progress) features a character named Angie. I admit she’s my alter ego. She’s gawky and shy and regularly suffers humiliations, taunts, cruel jokes, and severe lack of self-esteem. I’m in revision now and the thought of imbuing her with super powers has crossed my mind. But maybe that’s not necessary, because inside Angie resides the tiny sliver of belief that she matters. That she will survive the ugly years.

Posted in People

Tour the Hourglass Museum and Cloud Pharmacy

As a prose writer with very little experience with poetry, and, therefore, without the vocabulary to properly reflect on it with any degree of sophistication, I offer some unschooled, gut responses to these lovely new collections of poetry by Kelli Russell Agodon and Susan Rich. I also asked them each a question, to which they kindly responded, offering some insight into their process.

Hourglass Museum (White Pine Press) by Kelli Russell Agodon

There’s much to admire about Hourglass Museum, but here’s what I loved most: Kelli Russell Agodon is just charmingly and elegantly clever with words. Hers is not the look-at-me, jokey kind of cleverness, but the kind that emerges seemingly without effort to stun you with its grace and aptness. I read these lines over and over from the poem “Drowning Girl: A Waterlogged Ars Poetica” to savor their sound and substance.

There’s no dessert in the picnic basket/so I swallow time. My mouth full/of hands and numbers. I ask for seconds.

Agodon manages to achieve a playfulness while pulling you under to the poem’s depths. Throughout the book, she mixes melancholy with cheekiness, longing with mock (and, sometimes, real) rebellion.

The book opens with an epigraph by Anais Nin: Reality doesn’t impress me. I only believe in intoxication, in ecstasy and when ordinary life shackles me, I escape, one way or another. There are in these poems, many references to escape. There is mention of exits and entrances, doorways and windows and where they might lead: museums, an unlocked cage, a church, or in “Death of a Housewife, Oil on Linen” an entirely new existence: … what she wanted/was to tango with another or a key/to unlock the front door and waltz/herself into another life.

Agodon also considers how our veneration for our heroes can both inspire and shrink us. In “Frida Kahlo Tattoo,” she writes: I wear a temporary tattoo/of Frida Kahlo believing/I can change the world/and if not the world/then a lightbulb, the channel …

Many of the poems are inspired by paintings, and the reader can almost imagine the poems themselves framed and hanging in a museum. The book has four parts, each dealing with an aspect of work in an exhibition, rendering in words the quirky, keen depths of the poet’s vision. In her prologue poem, Agodon invites the reader to … look up and see the madness/organized in the stars.

Here’s the question (or rather, questions) I asked Kelli Russell Agodon: You have a talent for the comic and the absurd, for puns and other word play, which is such a delightful part of your work. How did that develop? When were you aware of that ability? How does it affect your way of seeing the world?

Here’s Kelli’s response:

I have always seen words a little different from others. Part of that is mild dyslexia and part of that is just how I am wired to visually see the world; I have always drawn connections between things and sometimes see patterns in both words and images that others may overlook.

The earliest I remember this happening with words was being a young girl and my mom saying it was okay for me to go to the restroom by myself in an Italian restaurant. I remember turning the corner and seeing a giant sign that read: “LA DIES!” I remember having my heart jump, what does this mean? Has something happened in California? Of course, what the sign said was “LADIES,” but it wasn’t how I read it.

As a kid, I was always drawn to word games including crossword puzzles, word searches, hours of Boggle and Scrabble with my family; it was just an enjoyable way for me to spend the day playing with letters. I tend to group letters together differently than others, someone may see “marathon” and if asked to break it down, may write “mara-thon,” I may look at the word and see “ma-rat-hon.” I have to correct myself every time I go to pronounce “extraordinary,” because I always just want to say, “extra ordinary.” I know the word, but my mind is constantly regrouping things in words, but also in images, patterns, and visually throughout the day.

I am also someone who will sit and just look at something, whether a word or landscape, for a long time allowing my mind to wander. I think my ability to daydream creates even more of this throughout my life. I am a big believer in downtime and to just be in the world and I think this quiet or daydreaming time allows your mind to wander, sort of like a spider’s web, connecting one thread to the other. For me, these connections also happen in words and letters.

Cloud Pharmacy (White Pine Press) by Susan Rich

… don’t let go, let go.

This last line in “The Tangible, Intangible,” one of Susan Rich’s poems inspired by the nineteenth-century photographer Hannah Maynard, captures for me the essence of Cloud Pharmacy, a collection that is intelligent and observant, and which deftly exposes one’s contradictory passions, needs, and even self-regard. Rich addresses several themes in her new book, one of which is grief.

In a section of the book called Dark Room, Rich reflects on the curious and haunting multiple-exposure self-portraits by Maynard, whose daughter died as a teenager. In Rich’s poems, Maynard is a figure that “stands neither in/nor out of the century but floats.” Or, in yet another multiple-exposure, “Hannahs stand here, sit there, bend over …” In another poem, “she overlaps the images and leaves/no line of separation.”

Even in the other poems, the ones on love and fire, there are these opposing perceptions of what is real and what we want to believe. In “There is No Substance That Does Not Carry One Inside of It,” an encroaching fire moves foreigners to politely request action from their Spanish hotelier, who observes the fire, “the little/ flames clearly flirtatious, clearly beyond belief.” Rich creates a sense of the surreal, which pages later she casts off with a straight-on admonition with a letter to the fire, which includes the anxiety-laden question, “Am I wrong even to write?”

In “Conundrum,” the narrator enumerates the dichotomies presented by coupledom, the choices that are available, and the questions that arise only to conclude the inconclusive—that “We are bound/we are cleaving/we are bi.”

The twining in the book of the themes of love, grief and fire, and, within individual poems, the “don’t let go, let go” contradiction create a richly thought-provoking collection of poems.

Here’s the question I asked Susan Rich: You write about grief and love, two emotions that are quite entwined. And then there is the specter of fire, its power to consume life. In the collection, the three themes play off of each other quite effectively. How readily did these three themes coalesce for you as you put together the collection?

Here’s Susan’s response:

I’m really pleased that you discovered these themes as you read through my collection. As you’ve discerned, I am a faithful fan of the braided structure for a poetry collection; in other words, a book where three themes interweave together and (hopefully) gain emotional power as the collection unfolds. In Cloud Pharmacy, these themes presented early on because they were/are themes prevalent in my life.

When I read at Open Books: A Poem Emporium for the book launch earlier this month, I mentioned being caught in wildfires in Spain the summer I turned 50. I’d been invited to an artist residency, Fundación Valparaíso, and in the third week was evacuated to a nearby town, from which we were evacuated again. So the sense of an encroaching fire is very real to me. At times, the flames were far too close to us. In the chaos, I was separated from the main group of artists and took to the road with friends who happened to be visiting me at the time. After several days in transit, I returned to Seattle but the smell of smoke stuck to my skin and clothes for weeks no matter how frequently I washed.

All of this is just to say that the memory of intense fire stayed with me in a very real sense as I wrote these poems. Another life changing event soon after returning from this trip was falling in love; so love and fire joined hands together quite easily. Finally, the section of the book, “Dark Room” concerns the Victorian photographer, Hannah Maynard, one of British Columbia’s first professional photographers. Maynard was a proto-surrealist (who also attended séances at the Mayor’s home) and in the early 1890’s, after the death of her daughter Lily, she created a set of multiple exposure self-portraits; her grief is palpable in these portraits.

I hope that any reader will feel these interconnections, either consciously or unconsciously.

Posted in On Writing, People

The Endurance of the Raven

This year Raven Chronicles, the literary journal based in Seattle that publishes work reflective of the cultural diversity of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, turns twenty-three. To mark this milestone, there will be a panel at the 2014 AWP Conference February 26-March 1 held this year in Seattle at the Washington State Convention Center. The panel will consist of Raven contributors Anna Balint, Matt Briggs, Carletta Carrington Wilson, and me. Kathleen Alcalá, who along with Phoebe Bosché helped found the journal, will moderate. In addition to moderating the panel on Thursday, February 27, Kathleen will be honored that evening by Con Tinta, a Chicano/Latino Writers’ Collective.

Kathleen answered a few questions about the history and mission of Raven Chronicles.

1. What was the inspiration for starting the magazine and how did you go about it?

In 1990 or so, Phoebe Bosché, Phil Red Eagle and I were each asked to guest edit different issues of the Seattle Arts Commission newsletter. I remember that Phil and I collaborated. We said, “Why do multicultural issues of a newsletter have to be something occasional and ‘special’? After all, we are multi-culti all the time. Let’s find a barn and put on a show!” So Phil introduced me to Phoebe, who had worked on Skyviews, a poetry publication.

2. Have there been any major changes in the mission or philosophy of the magazine over the years?

The initial description was “The Raven Chronicles—a magazine of multicultural art, literature, and the spoken word.” At some point, mc was dropped as being too obvious. But it took a long time for us to establish that it was for people to speak from and about their own backgrounds, as opposed to people returning from their visits overseas and writing stories from the POV of other ethnicities and cultures. We sought out people with interesting stories and interviewed them, if we had to, like Vi Hilbert, Alfredo Arreguín, and Isaac Maimon. There are stories all around us, and people just waiting to share them.

But the word “Chronicles” was important, too, as media was just starting to move online, and we thought the shape and format might adapt to that as well. As a result, Raven has had an online presence as well as its print form for many years. The next issue will incorporate sound as part of the chronicle.

3. What have you been most proud of about the magazine?

We have been the first to publish a number of writers who went on to fame and fortune, or at least the publication of full-length books. We also pay a bit, and many contributors write back to say that it is the first time they have been paid for their work. It is important to working class people to be able to show others that writing is real work, and should be compensated. Mostly, I’m proud of the range and quality of the work we have published, and the very accessible format. Many of these voices would never have been heard outside of Raven.

4. Publishing a magazine is hard work. What has kept it and you going for 23 years?

I give 99 percent of the credit to Phoebe, who has been managing editor for many years. Phil left to pursue other projects at least ten years ago. He is now involved in the Canoe Journey, an ongoing reclamation of heritage by NW Native American groups. I consider that a part of the Raven Chronicles, too, in its own way. We have a group of writers who serve as the board, and a higher profile advisory board. In a way, it functions as a collective, but Phoebe writes the grants and is diligent about proofing and copy editing.

We decided early on that we would not continue to publish if the magazine could not be a top-notch endeavor—no cheap paper or shoddy work. We have been fortunate to use art by the best of the best artists in the NW and beyond. The text and art have always been complementary, and Phoebe’s partner, Scott Martin, has contributed much skill over the years as a graphic artist and designer.

5. What changes do you see for the future for Raven Chronicles?

I think Phoebe and Scott are finally getting tired. It is an amazing amount of work. It might be time for Raven to take another form. Maybe a cupcake shop, or an advice column for lonely hearts. Seriously, we hope the next generation is ready to step in and produce the next series of chronicles. It has been a privilege to work with so many writers and artists over the years.

Posted in On Publishing, On Writing, People

Melancholy, Wonder, and Other Moments of Deep Feeling—Three Books to Immerse Yourself In

Like many of you, I have stacks of to-read books. Often, I’m reading more than one at a time. When I finish one, I might remember to add it to my Goodreads list. Once in a while, I feel organized enough to jot down a few thoughts about a book or three—such as these I recently read. I also contacted each author and asked a single question about her book or her writing in general. Each came back with a thoughtful, beautifully articulated response.

Cowboys and East Indians (Five Chapters Books, 2013), stories by Nina McConigley

This is a skillful and perceptive collection of stories. I’d previously read a couple of them when they were first published in journals, but it was a pleasure to read them again. In “Curating Your Life,” McConigley captures my own experience of being a brown American, that otherness or in-between-ness that comes with that weird dichotomy of cultural whiteness (a mostly English-speaking household, and mostly American food, TV, and music) and physical not-whiteness. When that other takes her bits and pieces of cultural ethnicity to “discover her roots” in the homeland of her parents, it’s a whole new side of otherness that is exposed.

Questions of who we are and where we belong are asked by all the characters, whether brown, white, recent immigrant or old-timer, in these stories set mostly in Wyoming. There are characters such as Delia in “Reserve Champion” and Sindu in “Dot and Feather” who try to lay claim to something even if it’s not theirs to own. In “White Wedding,” the narrator learns how to dress her dying mother in a sari, learns the art of folding it when packing it away. The Wyoming landscape—the light, the prairie, the smell of sage—is a subtly compelling presence throughout the collection.

These well-made stories are packaged in a very pretty, well-made book. A treat to hold and read, and keep on your bookshelf.

Here’s the question I asked Nina:

Kevin Wilson, the author of The Family Fang, said this about you: “Like the best writers, she knows the exact moment to let wildness rush into the story and ruin us.” I completely agree with this assessment. Can you talk about how you know that moment?

Here’s Nina’s response:

“It’s funny, but for me, I often write the end of a story first. So, I think about that ‘ruining’ moment. And then I try to go back and earn it. Sometimes, it doesn’t always work, and sometimes the ending, that moment, will change, and I will see a different outcome emerge. But for the most part, I always when thinking about a story, think of the end, what I want the reader to take away, first. It’s just always a puzzle on how to get there. Almost like knowing your destination, but then trying to figure out what route to take.

I realize this might be a backward way to write, but again for me, it weirdly works. I’m always thinking when I am writing—you have to earn that ending!”

Blood Orange (Willow Books, 2013), poems by Angela Narciso Torres

Torres’s poems in this collection deal with the elusive and the ephemeral—fleeting moments of connection that are shared and repeated among generations of a family. She describes the difficulty of letting go in “Lucky,” and the necessity of letting go in “Elegy with Roller Skates.” And then there is the impossibility of hanging on in “Thursday, After Dinner at L’amie Donia: …starting/ at the beginning doesn’t help me to remember.

In “Waiting for my Father,” a girl reflects on her place in the larger world and also her place in her father’s world as she waits for him to finish his work in a hospital lab that houses among other things, specimens of a human fetus and a microscope that reveals a hidden and complex universe of life, illness, and death.

Torres’s language is clean and fluid, the better to make her images shimmer.

In the three short poems from “Postcards from Bohol,” Torres animates postcard perfect images that poke a hole in your heart with a simple, telling movement such as when “small crabs/fine-pencil disappearing tracks” or when a starfish is abandoned by the tide “we huddle around him/our cheeks flushed with twilight.”

Here’s the question I asked Angela:

Those beautiful and sad fleeting moments between then and now, before and after—those moments that will never come again—how much are they influenced by your having lived in two countries, experienced two cultures?

Here’s Angela’s response:

“I was born in Brooklyn during the years my parents were medical residents there, then was moved back to Manila shortly after, as an infant. My older siblings brought home memories of a life in Brooklyn that I only knew through photographs or from stories my family told. So there’s a whole chapter of our family life that I can only claim by what I’ve heard. We spoke English at home and learned Tagalog in school, though my parents and extended family spoke in the native tongue to teach other. In retrospect, these disconnects (both my not having experienced the years in Brooklyn before my birth, and grappling with two languages in navigating my world) could in part explain why I grew up feeling “on the fringe of things” even in my Manila home of 23 years. I was an observer, looking in from the outside.

“Over the years I’ve found this observer stance to be very useful, as a writer. Moving to America for graduate studies as a young adult and eventually to settle only served to reinforce that stance. Among other things, it afforded me the long perspective—that backward glance that paradoxically considers more closely what was left behind. Not just the landscape, but the people, relationships, entire stages of my development. Poetry became a way to capture and preserve the sensory experiences, the moments of deep feeling, the beauty and brokenness of that lost world. As one poet said, as humans, we love what is like us—what is fragile, breakable, and will be lost. Poetry allowed me to recreate my narrative history, filling in the gaps where memory failed.

“When I started writing poetry in earnest as an adult, I was also a mother of young children. Watching them move swiftly through the ages and stages sharpened further that sense of transience, and hence, the urgency to record. Poetry provided a space where I could circumscribe a shifting sense of self and world. Writing was a way to craft, understand, and circumscribe an identity that included all the worlds I inhabited (inner and outer, homeland and adopted land, past and present). It was a pathway toward that larger world in which we come to understand what it means to be human.”

Long Way Through Ruin (Blue Begonia Press, 2013), poems by Kathryn Hunt

In Hunt’s collection, the natural world is ever present—in a well-tended garden, a spider web on the porch, the wind and dry hills of Wyoming, the trees and rain of the Pacific Northwest. In the interstices of nature, which is sometimes indifferent, sometimes a solace, lie the sorrows and losses and joys of the human heart which Hunt exposes in powerfully subtle ways.

In one of my favorite poems in the book, “My Mother and I Drive the Oregon Coast, 1976,” mother and daughter exchange caretaking gestures:

I buttoned the top button
of her sweater,

she pulled down the bill
of my cap,

At first glance, these gestures seem simple enough, but as I read these lines, something bubbles up through the language that makes me see the “buttoning up” as a closing off and the “pulling down” as a covering up or inhibiting. Later in the poem, this sensation of a beautiful and painful opposition is confirmed when the words fury and love appear in the same line.

These poems of the complexity of family and the mysteries of landscape make you see and hear and taste. They make you hurt and they make you glad to be alive.

Here’s the question I asked Kathryn:

Your bio begins with this: Kathryn Hunt lives in Port Townsend, Washington on the coast of the Salish Sea. There’s something poetic in that line. How does living where you live create the psychological and emotional space for you to make your art?

Here’s Kathryn’s response:

“Douglas firs, these great expanses of water, the cold wind, my garden: They call me from my usual preoccupations and worries to return to this world, with all of its melancholy and wonder, and to meet whatever is offered, whatever is right there. That can happen anywhere, of course—on a city street, putting a child to bed, on a mountain trail—but living near the sea, for me, and having my hands in the soil, and living amid a hundred shades of green, has somehow nourished me and my work, though I’d be hard-pressed to say just how. Perhaps this place may allow me to enter the world in some way that satisfies a deep yearning for intimacy and enables me to hold and consider questions about the existence of the sacred in this appalling and gorgeous world of ours, if only because I often fall asleep to the fevered calls of coyotes and wake with the gray haze of the coast tangled in my dreams.”

Now that these books have moved off my to-read list, they are officially on my highly-recommend list. Lose (and find) yourself in language and story in these authors’ exploration of self and the world.

Posted in On Writing, People

Thanks to Places and People in 2013

It was a fun year for me. I saw old friends and met new ones. I learned new things. I got older and, if not wiser, maybe more reflective. Here are my thanks to some of the people and places that made the year memorable.

San Francisco – April

Thanks to Heyday Books for including my essay, first published in Kartika Review in 2012, in New California Writing, Kartika Review 2013. It gave me a reason to visit San Francisco to participate in the book launch reading at the California Historical Society. I had the pleasure of spending some time with writer and activist Elaine Elinson before the reading. After the reading, I had Thai food with the marvelous Marianne Villanueva. She’s funny and smart, and conversations with her will make your head spin, so adroit is her mind. I also got to see my friend, the innovative writer Anne Germanacos, whose second book Tribute comes out next spring. We walked the Presidio and then ate at a Turkish restaurant. Yes, delicious food—Turkish, Thai, and organic and locally grown California cuisine at The Plant—was one of the highlights of my trip. Here’s a post about that trip.

Indianola, Washington – May

Thanks to the book group in Indianola who read my novel and invited me to speak at their meeting on a beautiful May afternoon—a gorgeous day for a ferry ride and a drive on roads bounded by woods. I enjoyed these smart, lovely readers ranging in age from 66 to 92, each with her own wonderful story to tell. I wrote about my trip to Indianola here.

Whidbey Island – May, June, and August

I visited beautiful Whidbey Island several times this year thanks to Hedgebrook-related events. In late May, I attended Vortext, the annual weekend salon for women writers, and wrote about those three days of inspiration, camaraderie, and creativity here.

In June I read at Anchor Books with Hedgebook sister Allison Green who writes killer essays, including those on her blog.

Thanks to a Hedgebrook alumna residency in August, I added a couple of new chapters to the draft of my new novel. And a week later at the Hedgebrook reunion, I reveled in the company of Hedgebrook alumnae from over the past twenty-five years, including newfound friend Thelma de Castro, founder of San Diego Playwrights. I wrote about the Hedgebrook reunion and all of its radical wonder here.

Phinney Neighborhood Center – June

It was a gorgeous summer in Seattle, and I turned sixty at the beginning of it on June 21. I had a party with entertainment by marvelous magician (and writer) Maritess Zurbano and passionate singer/activist Jacqui Larrainzar. We danced, we hula hooped, we laughed. Thanks to all who celebrated with me.

Taos – July

Thanks to the Taos Summer Writers Conference for a great week of workshops, readings and excursions. In the mornings after yoga or a run, I boarded a conference shuttle to see the local sights such as Taos Pueblo, the D. H. Lawrence Ranch, and the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. Afternoons were spent in a workshop led by the wonderful Robert Boswell. For a week that nicely balances the serious pursuit of writing and an appreciation of the local history and landscape, go to this conference. Here’s more about that trip.

San Diego – October

Thanks to Jennifer Derilo and Henry Aronson who invited me to read and be part of a panel at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, CA and also to read and teach a workshop at the San Diego FilAmFest. It was such a pleasure and honor to read with Lysley Tenorio (whose book Monstress I loved), the exquisite M. Evelina Galang, and two very cool writers from Sacramento, Jen Palmares Meadows and Bridget Crenshaw Mabunga. And thanks to my family in National City for always taking care of me so well when I’m in town. Here’s a post about that trip.

Port Townsend – November

Thanks to Bill Mawhinney for inviting me and Jennifer D. Munro to read at the Northwind Art Gallery in beautiful Port Townsend in November. We had the best room with the best view at the Waterstreet Hotel. We had dinner with the charming Erica Bauermeister. We browsed and bought at the three bookstores in town and were especially delighted with The Writer’s Workshoppe and owner Anna Quinn. Go there!

And, finally, thanks to my husband, James Cameron, for being so supportive year-round and devoting such an incredible amount of time to our family and especially our daughters day in and day out so that I can devote my time to writing. He deserves a great vacation!

Best wishes to all for a wonderful new year.

Posted in Events, People, Places

The story arc gone awry: Entertainment Tonight’s feature on eating disorders

Our daughter Natalie is in recovery from an eating disorder. It’s a disorder that comes with a stigma and provokes a prurient curiosity, especially in terms of its most stereotypical physical manifestation—the aberrantly thin body, which, by the way, is not a symptom of all eating disorders.

After wrestling for years with this pernicious beast, which has its complex origins in biology, emotional factors, and social influences, Natalie has arrived at a place of self-knowledge, self-respect, and self-love that enables her to envision a future for herself. She is determined never again to live that joyless existence when she was sometimes numb to emotion, sometimes crushed by titanic feelings. She is ready to share her story in the hope of helping some of the one in five women who struggle with this illness.

Which is why when asked to participate in an interview on the subject of eating disorders by Entertainment Tonight, she agreed. She was one of two former residents of a live-in treatment facility invited to share her story. Just a few things to keep in mind about story: It has an arc. Its purpose is to show the movement of character from stage to stage, to show change. Transformation.
The interviewer spent a couple of hours with Natalie and her friend, Madigan, who, because they are in the recovery stage, wanted to focus on that part of their story, which can be helpful, revelatory and inspiring. The illness stage is not any of those things, except in a bizarre and toxic way, offering a tutorial in disordered eating behaviors to those teetering at the eating disorder abyss or already lost in that darkness. During the hours spent with the interviewer, Natalie declined to talk about behaviors she practiced while ill.

When the show asked for “before” photos of them, that is, photos with their illness on display, Natalie declined this request as well. Instead she sent a photo of her graduation from the treatment facility, showing her happy and triumphant. She also sent a photo of herself as a participant in the NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) walk to raise awareness and funds. Later, one of the show’s staff remarked on how well-adjusted and healthy Natalie and Madigan seemed. They seemed that way because they are. Apparently, recovery is not the part of the story that sells. ET went back to the treatment center to find another client to interview.

What eventually aired was a three-part series. In the first, stock images of skeletal women fill the screen to deliver the requisite shock. There’s more manufactured spectacle as ET host Rocsi Diaz describes the treatment center in the Malibu hills as a place of “luxury,” making it seem like a resort or spa. It’s spacious and comfortable, but not luxurious. A good, effective treatment center is hard to find. Regardless of the location of the facility, it’s expensive to treat eating disorders. It’s health-insurance hell. Ask my husband who has spent countless hours on the phone and online with insurance companies, health providers, and even attorneys. The tragedy is that insurance often cuts out before a client is ready to be discharged, sending her into a spiral of relapse, eventual readmission to a treatment facility, and another premature discharge when the insurance coverage is severed yet again.

Diaz interviews a sixteen-year-old client of the facility who describes her disordered behaviors, unwittingly providing eating-disordered viewers with new behaviors to emulate. In the second part of the series, Diaz reveals her own eating-disordered past, and for several minutes she and the sixteen-year-old compare notes on the behaviors they practiced—more fodder for those viewers struggling with their own eating disorders.

Finally, in the third part of the series, the several hours of video shot about recovery are reduced to mere seconds on screen. Of all the conversation recorded during the interview session, the show chose to highlight Natalie’s comment about her transition from anorexia to bulimia. So much for story arc. While the illness is certainly part of the narrative, overcoming the illness is what makes the story. Arriving on the other side of illness is what gives the story completion and the listener or viewer of the story a sense of satisfaction.

But what can you expect from a show that breathlessly heralds the Victoria’s Secret runway show, that delights in catching starlets without make-up, that assesses with a cold lens how long it takes for a celebrity to shed her post-pregnancy weight.

Even if this attempt at raising awareness of eating disorders didn’t go as Natalie had hoped, at least she has no regrets about how she conducted herself in the interview. She has learned a few things about the power of the editing room though.

For a long time, Natalie’s illness was a family secret. It was important that she have the time, space and privacy to work on recovery. With the ET segment, she has completely outed herself. I think there must be a certain liberation in that—claiming her self. Her life.

She’s tough and intelligent. She’s learned that life is full of obstacles, but that they can be overcome. She’s learned that that’s what makes the story, that the ending is transformative, and it can be beautiful.

Posted in People

Unsung Hero

Recently, I combined a visit to National City where I grew up and where my mother and older sister still live with an appearance at the FilAm Fest in San Diego to teach a workshop and participate in a reading. My workshop was titled “Homegrown Heroes—Writing Fiction from the Family Album.” It was created to reflect the festival theme of Unsung Heroes—community and family members who make a difference in our lives often without recognition. Like my father.

In the workshop, we talked about how writers often base their fictional characters on real people, how in order to give our characters realistic and believable ways of behaving in our stories, we need to observe real people. In my own novel, the main character is a Filipino man who left his homeland by enlisting in the United States Navy after World War II and earning American citizenship. Like my father.

It’s been twenty years since my father died. Had he lived, he would’ve been in his eighties. His October 14 birthday makes him a Libra, the typical characteristics of which include diplomatic and urbane, romantic and charming, easygoing and sociable, and idealistic and peaceable. The darker traits include indecisive and changeable, gullible and easily influenced, and flirtatious and self-indulgent.

Really, I knew my father hardly at all. Still, I’m pretty sure that he fit few of the above traits, though easygoing and peaceable are more or less apt. He was a quiet, more often than not reasonable man who avoided or tried to diffuse conflict.

I saw him as shy, often awkward in social situations, and rather closed off emotionally. He expressed his opinions in a dogmatic fashion and while he seemed pretty entrenched in his own opinions, he didn’t flare into anger over political discussions. What he couldn’t express readily was affection. Sometimes it would be a pat on the head or the shoulder that was too forceful and felt punishing rather than tender and friendly the way it was more likely meant. A hug was a rough clasping between his sinewy arms.

What I observed and what I think I knew about my father, of course, is different from what others around him observed and knew about him. I moved 1,200 miles away when I was in my twenties. I visited once a year, if that. I used to write letters home. They were long and carefully crafted. I learned later that Dad really liked the letters, found them lively and humorous.

My father never knew I wanted to be a writer. That’s because I myself didn’t really know until I was thirty-nine. I took my first writing class nine months before he died. I don’t remember telling him about my writing classes or my desire to be a writer. I began writing what would eventually become When the de la Cruz Family Danced while waiting for a flight out of Seattle to attend his funeral.

I made a daily commitment to writing despite an already crowded schedule. There came a time, though, when beset by the obligations of family and job, I felt pressure to suspend my writing until sometime in the future when life was less complicated—when the kids were grown or I was retired from my job, both of which seemed eons away. I stopped writing for a while, but that only superficially eased our jumbled family life. I was restless and more than a bit resentful. My father appeared to me in a dream and told me to keep writing. The dream was no doubt triggered by my own needs and desire. And yet, I believe my father spoke to me.

Were he alive today, he would’ve liked that I had the opportunity at FilAm Fest to read with Lysley Tenorio, whose stories in collection Monstress were described as “impeccably constructed” and “refreshingly off-kilter” by the New York Times Book Review. He would’ve liked that I read with the accomplished M. Evelina Galang whose fourth book Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery is described by Edwidge Danticat as “a beautifully told, and at times, heartbreaking coming of age and coming to America story.”

He would’ve liked that I read with young up-and-coming writers Jen Palmares Meadows and Bridget Crenshaw Mabunga. And of course, there’s Jennifer Derilo, the charming dynamo who when not teaching her classes at Southwestern College, reading and selecting non-fiction submissions to Kartika Review, or organizing literary events, she is working on a memoir which juxtaposes her treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma with her grandfather’s survival of the Bataan Death March.

He would’ve liked all of it. Maybe we would’ve talked about his past, his boyhood in the Philippines, his early years in America, his dreams for himself. I lack a lot of knowledge about my father. I do know that he made a difference in my life.

On the last night of my stay at my mother’s house, I dreamed about my father. I was turning a key, unlocking something, freeing my father from some sort of confinement. When he hugged me, there was no stiffness or awkwardness, just tenderness the way he’d always intended.

Posted in People

The Radical Wonder of Hedgebrook

This year Hedgebrook, the writing retreat for women on Whidbey Island, celebrates 25 years of nurturing women writers. It’s the year of the alumnae, with former residents returning for one or two-week stays to reconnect with the place, the staff, and each other. And they come to write. Because that’s what happens at Hedgebrook. The farmhouse library is filled with the published works of Hedgebrook writers with room on the shelves for the books yet to come.

Last month, I attended two days of the three-day reunion weekend, which brought alums from across the country together for talks, workshops, informal gatherings and, of course, the delicious Hedgebrook food. The conversation unfurled and flourished, much like the plants in the Hedgebrook garden, the source of a good portion of those freshly prepared and beautifully presented Hedgebrook meals. By the way, many of those favorite meals can be yours by ordering the Hedgebrook Cookbook (She Writes Press, September 2013).

Women Founding Things

Part of the magic of Hedgebrook is the story of its founding by Nancy Nordhoff. When asked how the idea for Hedgebrook arose, Nancy said the land suggested it. While walking the land she had recently purchased, it told her to build a place to nurture women and their voices. That place consists of six gracefully crafted cottages mindfully situated amid forest, meadow and ponds. Nancy has often been asked how she knew what a writer wanted in a cottage. Her reply: “You just needed to be a woman to know.” She said there was a selfish aspect to creating Hedgebrook. By nurturing others, she says, she has nurtured herself.

Kamy Wicoff, founder of She Writes, started a salon with mentor Diane Middlebrook to give women a place to share and promote their writing. She Writes is the online version of that salon and is based on the values of generosity, abundance and opportunities to give.

Alumnae Relations Director, Liz Engleman was inspired by Hedgebrook to found the Tofte Lake Center at Norm’s Fish Camp, a creative retreat center for artists in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. Her number one piece of advice is “go in blindly, otherwise you won’t do it.” She also advises women to embrace their successes.

Their stories encouraged alums to share projects they founded as a result of their Hedgebrook residency. Among them are writers conferences, reading series, poetry presses, and a playwrights group. Nancy Nordhoff called these accomplishments the Hedgebrook ripple effect. Women who have experienced the gift of Hedgebrook carry the spirit of nurturing women’s voices into their communities.

Being Radical

Executive Director Amy Wheeler uses the term radical hospitality to describe what Hedgebrook offers to women writers. Nurturing is a radical and healing act. Where there is nurturing there must be receptivity, she says. Women have to learn to receive the gift of Hedgebrook where residents are not expected to carry their plates to the sink after dinner. All that is asked of them is that they be the best writers they can be and that they honor the cottage that houses them and the land it sits on.

Brooke Warner of She Writes Press talked about the worthiness crisis that many women experience. She urged us to walk on the radical edge, that is to say, even when the conditions (right time, right place, right financial situation, right frame of mind, etc.) we have set for success are not met, we must nevertheless enter that space and still believe that we can succeed.

Listening to the Land

The Hedgebrook staff—the directors and managers, the gardener, the chef, the housekeeper—spoke of their ties to the place. They each have a connection to the writers, whether it’s coordinating the logistics of their arrival and departure, orienting them to their surroundings, tending the garden and the grounds, preparing the delectable meals, or cleaning the cottages in preparation for each new resident. All of the work they do facilitates the writer’s integration with the land. At Hedgebrook, we all end up listening to the land.

Curating Our Own Museums

Hannah Tinti gave a lively and enthralling presentation on “cabinets of wonder,” little containers of objects—a rock, a ribbon, a leaf—that we randomly collect and put in a box. She says we are unconsciously drawn to the keys that will unlock our own stories. We need to be open to coming across those keys. We can do this by grounding ourselves in the natural world. Put stuff in your container, she told us. “We are the curators of our own museums.”

Shaping the conversation during the reunion weekend were the themes of nurture, empower, and advocate. One leads to the next which leads to the next, so that, infused with the radical wonder of Hedgebrook, we are all advocates of women’s voices out in the world.

Posted in Events, On Writing, People