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Katherine Zlabek
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Last week, there was a certain book I needed to read. In order to read it, I had to take a trip to a store embedded in a mixed retail/outdoor fun/restaurant area. You know the sort—face painting, hermit crabs, a fountain. As I approached the store, I saw two children in see-through balls floating on a shallow pool of water. Another child was still on land, crouched, with one hand up. He was in a ball that was being pumped full of air from a very loud machine. The hand was up, I assume, to keep the air from hitting his face. The parents seemed if not happy, relieved. The children looked scared, but since I have heard the phrase “scary fun” used before, I know it’s also possible that they were having fun. Plastics are what make this possible. * I moved into a new apartment this fall, and the only place to put the writing desk was right there, as soon as you walked in the door. A poet-friend visited and said, “That’s a strange choice.” I also have a front porch for the first time in years, and feel very self-conscious whenever working. The desire is to pull the desk into the most secluded part of the apartment and to keep the lights off. But then the desk would be in the way, and why bother moving the desk now when I might move myself someplace else, say, New York or Kentucky or Shullsburg? There is at least one throbbing desire shared by writers, and that is to be left alone while writing. For no one to know that that is what we’re doing at the time we’re doing it. There is a good pile of books featuring professors and writers who lock themselves away from their families in some attic, or the school office, or a hotel room. There is a larger pile written by people who have done the same. Small space, few windows. Emily Dickinson. A Room of One’s Own. To be alone. To have loneliness. May the ball you float in along the shallow pool not be see-through. * “But what about Hemingway?” a friend asks me, the friend with whom I guiltily shared those pig ears in my Monday post. Hemingway (allegedly, and perhaps this is apocryphal) hired someone suffering from “an odd disease resembling leprosy” to meet visitors at his gate. This person was supposed to tell the visitors that he was Mr. Hemingway and that he was crazy about them. Hemingway wrote to Fitzgerald, “I haven’t been drinking, haven’t been in a bar, haven’t been at the Dingo, Dome nor Select. Haven’t seen anybody. Not going to see anybody. Trying unusual experiment of a writer writing. That also will probably turn out to be vanity.” In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, he said a few more things we might all know or feel: “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness... Continue reading
Posted Aug 1, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Back before my time on the family farm, we had too many farm cats. As you may or may not know, farm cats are cats that wander by their own free will to a family farm. They catch mice and birds, and occasionally the farmer will give the pack of them a scoop of feed in an old aluminum pan that’s nestled into some barn straw. The cats come and go, and that’s why it’s best not to give them too personal of a name. Something like “Calico,” or “Old Blue Eyes,” will do. Now, at the time our farm had too many cats, another farm, the farm of a friend across town, had no cats. Every farm needs a few good cats. And so my family lured a pack of cats into our cattle trailer with that aluminum pan of feed, slid the door locked, and took off across town. When they got to the friend’s farm and slid the door open, there was—one kitty and a pan. The other cats had been either too intelligent or too doomed to make the trip. * I start with this story for two reasons. The first reason is that this is not unlike a happening in a Tom Drury novel—rural, inexplicable, possibly morbid, but not without its humor. The second reason is that the phrase “too intelligent or too doomed” could be applied to the women of the Smart Woman Adrift novel—a term Katie Roiphe coined for the genre in this 2013 Slate article. (It also would not be strange for some misguided man in these Smart Woman Adrift novels to call women, “kitties.”) Now, for some reason, these have been the only novels I can read as of late—Smart Woman Adrift novels and Tom Drury. It might have to do with the pacing of mind for which I apologized on Monday. These novels are like friends that find mind’s pace and jog alongside, making the tedious, the disappointing, the “of course it would be that way,” fantastically arresting. But they seem, in that first glance, unlikely companions. Drury’s novels are primarily set in the “driftless area.” The driftless area (also the title of Drury’s second novel) is that area of the Midwest that the glaciers kindly left unflattened. It’s primarily farmland and river and cliffs and mines. Small towns scattered about like jack and ball. Tight-knit families and chicken feeds and versatile trailers. It’s the area where all those cats vanished without so much as a note. It’s not an area without its wanderers and mystery, but I’ll get back to this shortly. The Smart Woman Adrift novels tend to be set in cities along either American coast. There is a lonely, urban atmosphere about them. That, or the women take to the road to think, to speed, to show themselves and others that they can. Safety never comes first. Risky decisions are tacked on to precarious situations. Roiphe describes the novels as follows: [T]here is a radical fragmentedness, a... Continue reading
Posted Jul 31, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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My nephew, when he was two- or three-years old, bit into the wall—a nice bite of the corner paint and plaster—because something had not gone as he’d planned. He was so frustrated that all he could think to do was to bite the wall. My mother was a self-described happy-go-lucky teenager. She stayed up late smoking and dancing. Ran across yards at dawn to get the best catch of fish in the neighborhood. The boys loved her, and her boyfriend wanted to marry her. But, instead, she joined the convent at seventeen, and stayed there for around eight years. My father was supposed to go to graduate school in Missouri, and packed his apartment into a car. He drove down and found he couldn’t register for classes. He stayed the weekend. He paced for hours outside the registrar’s office, and then took off, back north and asked for his job back. And then he met my mother while she was dressed as a cowgirl. That’s how life works. It is a family trait, one I’ve inherited in heaps, to make strange decisions. Or to act without thinking—or, rather, thinking correctly—as I can assure you there is typically a lot of brooding. Other times, there just seems to be no clear cause, a dot that’s off the chart. I met a writer friend for coffee recently, and he said he’d read this book, Pan: From Lieutenant Thomas Glahn’s Papers, written by the Norwegian Knut Hamsun in 1894. My friend told me I would like it, particularly this part where the main character is so frustrated by his love interest, that he takes her shoe off and throws it into the water. (They are on a boat, I presume; the book is next on my reading list.) And while I have yet to read it, I have to admit that I do love this moment. In fact, I often find myself reading and writing for exactly this kind of moment—the one that is surprising and doesn’t always make sense. Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction (a read that I think would improve a person if a person returned to it often enough) contains an essay titled, “Rhyming Action.” This essay begins with many pages in which Baxter contrasts, delightfully, the work habits, attitudes, and personalities of poets-in-general and fictionators-in-general. He calls poets “the nobility of the writing world.” He comments on their often surprising and always beautiful lives. Of prose writers, he says: Their souls are usually heavy and managerial. Prose writers of fiction are by nature a sullen bunch. The strain of inventing one plausible event after another in a coherent narrative chain tends to show in their faces…. Prose writers have to spend hours and hours in chairs, facing paper, adding one brick to another brick, piling on the great heap of their endless observations, going through the addled inventory of all the items they’ve laboriously paid attention to, and it makes them surly—all this dawn-until-dusk sitting... Continue reading
Posted Jul 30, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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I was driving, some years ago, to Michigan. Both of my parents were in the car. Or perhaps it was a truck, or a van. I say this because we were riding tall on the road. I was in some twisted phase of moving, from Michigan to Ohio. The exact circumstances are now shady, apart from the fact that I was already feeling nostalgic, and that, due to the demands of the body, there was no avoiding the truck stop a few miles ahead. And then a car passed us. The driver wore an old cowboy hat, and since we were riding tall, I could see she also had on cowboy boots. I knew who this was. It was Professor K. * In undergrad, Professor K had introduced me to Dickinson and to Ginsberg, to Mr. Eliot and the ragged pair of claws he should have been. I read Lolita for the first time with her. There Professor K was, passing by us in her glory and her cowboy boots. Because of my nostalgia, she also stood for the many professors I met at that time in my life and—yes, I will say it, as nothing short of it happened—the worlds they opened to me. I was a wide-eyed kid from the farm, and how beautiful and important it all was to me then and was while I drove and still is now. The learning was like music and, though I should have, I hardly knew what it meant outside of itself. Undergrad was the last time in life when I didn’t teach college students in one way or another. At that time, I didn’t know all of the tricks I’ve since been taught and of which I’m now hyper-aware: the card up the sleeve, the thermos under the hat, the wooden nickel tucked into the boot. These professors did not seem to need tricks. They were intelligent and clever and passionate and that combination will trump a trick any day. I digress. I romanticize. But it was a wond’rous thing to walk into campus with a cup of coffee while the sun was just rising, first to the library to wake the brain, and then to class at eight, which would have been, if I remember correctly, looking at all of the world’s best art thrown up onto a wall in a room that was always kept twenty degrees too warm. I’m sure that by now someone has gone ahead and fixed the thermostat. * As Professor K passed us, I remembered the interview she had done with the undergrad newspaper. I knew the details then, but now they are all too fuzzy to dare repeat. Suffice to say, she did not have her doctorate handed to her, and the process of obtaining it included, at some point or another, children, a station wagon, and a tent. While she worked, the music was NPR, classical, but when she traveled, she always traveled with Willie. * So Professor K and... Continue reading
Posted Jul 29, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Throughout my posts this week, you will see travel as a recurring theme. Forgive me. I’ve been on the road a lot this last year, on the job market, and with a “we’ll see,” rootless attitude. It’s been difficult to get the pacing of highway travel out of my head. I was driving through the Midwest recently. That heavy feeling was upon me. You know the one. When it seems you’ve left the good stuff behind, and that you’re driving in the wrong direction. The radio wasn’t kicking out any winners. I was about to shut it off, but then James Taylor came along with his song, “Fire & Rain,” and saved the day, as he sometimes does. James and I mused as we cruised through Indiana. We talked about the past. Of course, we reached no conclusions, but we enjoyed the musing. * While having dinner with a close friend who lives some ways away, I told him that I doubted we would ever see each other again. I often say this to friends during dinner. And lunch, and coffee. It has become a thing. But at the time I say it, I believe it. Very little about any of my companions’ situations or my own seems stable enough to assume otherwise. My friend, on the other hand, had no doubt that we would see one another again. On top of this conversation, we had ordered pig ears, and we were feeling very guilty about it. Goodbyes often hold these two desires nestled into one another: The first is the need to move on with life, and the second is that pull to see the person again. Of course, much literature, and many marriages and friendships and revolutions, revolve around these two desires. To stick with the somewhat impersonal, you have Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, and Brideshead Revisited. Then there are some of the more recent films on the subject—Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, My Blueberry Nights, and even Francis Ha. Typically, one of the characters will see these desires as working against one another: a bright future v. being with the other central character. This is one of the reasons why we read and watch so intensely, to see what this character will throw away in order to move on or move past. Like packing a suitcase, these characters can only fit so much. Then they leave the bed, the room, the apartment, a mess of love letters and shoes and vitamins that didn’t make the cut. Of course, there is always the one possibility where both of these desires are satisfied. That is when the two characters move on together toward a new thing, go forth on a new path or paths. And of course this possibility is ignored by, or invisible to the character doing the leaving. The story wouldn’t be interesting if they did. But someone always sees it, whether it’s another character or the reader/viewer or your mother or your lover. And... Continue reading
Posted Jul 28, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Jul 26, 2014