Reading Girl Out In The World

All month I’ve been hearing from family and friends of the arrival of Reading Girl, from California to the Carolinas.  And just in time for the holidays.  I’m so grateful to everyone who ordered a copy—or in some cases many copies—during the pre-sales period.  You made this book possible.  I’m also grateful to Finishing Line Press for making my manuscript into a beautiful book.


If you’ve read my previous post about the book cover, you know that I’d hoped to use the Matisse painting “Reading Girl” on which the title poem is based.  As it turns out, I think the book got the cover it needed.  A few weeks ago I took several copies to the Baltimore Museum of Art, which has the largest Matisse collection in the world.  The museum shop’s book buyer was enthusiastic and quickly agreed to purchase six copies.  When I asked her how she decided to take the book, she said the cover was the main factor.

Ironically, I don’t think Matisse’s painting would have been as suitable a book cover or as referential to Matisse.  And while I’ve gotten some nice comments on the poems, I’ve gotten more comments on the cover.  Reading Girl got the right one in spite of my plans, and I love that–a sign that this book has a life of its own.

Color Doodle


I am old enough to know my numbers because Mom points to the black and white alarm clock on the bedside table and tells me I can wake her when it says 3-1-5.  She is trying to catch a nap while I play with her tin of necklaces—strings of beads and shells that clatter against the metal when I tug at the tight lid and it finally gives way.  The numbers of the clock are white on small black plastic rectangles that flip like cards in a rolodex.  There is a small click as a number falls into oblivion.  Do I understand the concept of time, or am I just watching for 3-1-5?  I am waiting and doing something grown up.

I am lying in bed, waiting for sleep, listening to the hollow flow of the Edens Expressway. It sounds like someone breathing or like a heart beat or like Mom’s rocking chair after being tucked in–someone is there even though I can’t seem them.

I am seven, and my younger brother is five and a half, and Mom and Dad and I have a secret.  Each night when Noel falls asleep, I sneak into my parents’ room and join them on the bed.  Sometimes they are watching Masterpiece Theater.  Sometimes they are doing needlework or reading.  Sometimes Mom and I play a game.  She takes a yellow legal pad and scribbles random lines—zig-zagging-, swirling-, figure-eighting-lines—all over the paper.  Then we look for things in the random shapes.  “I see,” Mom says, holding the “see” like a whole note, “a house.”  Then she takes the pen and traces certain lines to reveal a house.  “I see,” I say, holding the “see” like a whole note, “a flower.”  Mom hands me the pen, and I trace the lines that make a flower.  Bees, dogs, rabbits, faces, socks, windows, and leaves, we find a whole world in the 8.5 x 14 space of one yellow legal pad.

I am lying on my bed, watching the red and white lights of planes blink across the sky.  I watch to see where the next blip of light will appear, what line will be revealed, and when it will be drawn beyond the frame of my window.

I am sixteen.  I want to paint like Van Gogh.  I go through my bedroom window onto the roof to work on a canvas.  A deer appears in our yard, and because deer do not come to our neighborhood by the highway, I feel doubly lucky to be on the roof where I can see its whole tawny form against the greenery like one of the found creatures on a legal pad.  It pauses and looks back as though something is pursuing it.  It leaps the viburnum bush, darts across the street and disappears into the margins of other homes.

The Tyranny of Productivity

A couple of weekends ago was the State Department’s annual book sale fundraiser where, for four bucks, I picked up The Golden Ring: Cities of Old Russia because I liked the photographs of medieval architecture and thought it might be fun to draw them.  I almost didn’t buy it, fearing I might not ever get around to drawing and that even if I did, it was a lame reason to buy a book that, if not expensive, would still take up valuable bookshelf space.  But I did buy it, and then it sat on the kitchen table for a couple of weeks.  “I should draw already,” I told myself yesterday.  “Why?” I thought.  “What’s the point?”

Does this one ever get you, this tyrannical assumption that everything we do must be productive, not in a creative sense but in a getting-things-done sense?

Yesterday in my English Conversation Class one of the students talked about time management.  Students in this class have a standing assignment to come prepared to talk about something they watched or read–TED talks are a favorite.  This student, like others before her, had chosen to watch one of the TED talks on time management, and the three women in class all shared how they don’t feel like they get anything done, how they feel like they waste their time.

One of these women has a full-time job and several other family-, house-, and school-related responsibilities.  The second is newly married to a diplomat and newly moved to the U.S., missing her job and feeling she has too much time on her hands.  The third is also new to the U.S. and has a part-time job.  Their lifestyles seem to represent the full spectrum of busyness, yet none feels good about her time, which left me feeling that we must be making some fundamental error in our approach to this topic.  Maybe we expect too much from ourselves.  Do we think we should be getting things done every moment because our technology allows it?  Or maybe we don’t stop to reflect enough.  Are we so caught up in the flow of activity and connectivity that we don’t take the time to appreciate our experiences and celebrate our achievements?  I realize these questions and ideas are hardly new, but I find myself and my students coming back to them again and again.

When I visit my family in Kyrgyzstan I always marvel at how much they (and others in their country) value down time, except they don’t call it down time.  “Down time” reflects an American sense of relaxation as a temporary respite from the inevitable march of productivity.  In Kyrgyzstan people just say  they’re relaxing, and relaxing seems more like an ideal state of being than a special allowance.  During a two-week visit, my family is happy to relax as much as possible the whole time–watching TV, doing crosswords, talking, eating, being together.  I’m usually good for about a day and a half, and then I can’t take it anymore.  I have to read, write, draw, study Russian, or even work.  I used to think that I would enjoy relaxing more if my Russian was better, but over time I’ve realized that it’s just hard for me to not be “productive.”  I like feeling productive, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that until it keeps me from enjoying family time or from writing or drawing or doing other things that seem non-essential.

I realize that wanting to be productive could just be an excuse for not writing and drawing. After all, concerns about productivity do not keep me from watching TV (although we accept “down time” as important for “recharging”).  So that leads to the question: Why do we make excuses not to draw, write, be creative?  I know this is not a new question either, but I’ve never heard a satisfying answer, perhaps because it’s such an illogical thing in the first place–to resist something that makes us happy.  And I was happy, drawing medieval Russian architecture.  Does it show?


When I see buildings like this, which took decades to build, I wonder how people in other time periods have thought about productivity and relaxation.  Did everyone talk about time management in the 1100s?

Jumping Fences

Hybrids.  Grotesques.  Chimeras.  Today I’m thinking about the drawings of Eduardo Galeano in The Book of Embraces.  Have you read this book?  I love it—its playfulness and seriousness, its range, its voices, and its visions.  It celebrates art, imagination, and the human spirit through beautiful vignettes and whimsical illustrations such as a man with an octopus for a head holding a hula hoop, a pensive donkey wearing a suit and spectacles, a fish carrying an umbrella.  These images were the catalyst of my MFA critical thesis, “Seeing in Embraces,” which was published by Assay Journal this month.  Check it out to learn more about The Book of Embraces.

I’ve used the illustrations in The Book of Embraces as prompts in creative writing classes, and it’s always gone well.  I keep it really simple, just ask everyone to choose an image and write from it.  I write too, and I always find that the image catapults me into the middle of something interesting.  I write something I had no intention of writing, follow a trail of associations I’d had no idea was there.  I love the surprise and the weightlessness of having jumped the fences of the self.

These hybrids had been such great springboards for writing that I thought I’d apply them to drawing.  I grabbed my journal and some pens, walked to Java Shack, ordered an Iced Tea, and sat down at a table to draw some hybrids of my own.  There was a dog with a flower for a head and a plastic cup with a parking-meter-straw.  But it was not going well.  My hybrids lacked the vitality and poetry of Galeano’s creations.  I imagined Galeano’s combinations came from intuition, intention, or spontaneous play.  Mine felt forced.  And my drawing style seemed ill suited to the depiction of wild hybrid creations.  In my article, I say that Galeano’s style doesn’t strive for verisimilitude.  But as I looked at my own drawings, I realized that Galeano’s illustrations project a certain authority nonetheless.  Maybe it’s the authority of his draftsmanship or of a style reminiscent of 19th century news sources, pre-photographs.  At any rate, my hybrids lay flat on the page like the drawings they were while Galeano’s creations inhabit the page.

A few days later I tried again.  A face from a magazine sprouted a stem.  The stem sprouted a leaf that required another leaf, which would require another stem.  Was I going to do this?  It looked nothing like a Galeano hybrid, sharp and self-contained.  Should I turn the page and try again?

When I was an art major at the University of Illinois, I heard a piece of advice I often think of: sometimes you should see a piece through even if it doesn’t seem promising.  So that’s what I did, and eventually I fell into the zone—an hour passed like a minute.  That’s another kind of fence jumping.  But in this case I didn’t escape myself but rather came home to myself in a hybrid done my own way, in my own style.


This makes me wonder: Do we ever really escape the self?  When we say we’ve escaped it, maybe we’ve actually enlarged it or discovered it to be something different from what we thought it was or just done something outside our usual habits.  Maybe it’s a particular sense of the self we escape, and not the self itself.



The End of Summer Owl


More decoration than decoy, the owl did not seem to take its job seriously, leaning against the fence like a summer hire in the last week of August.  The sparrows saw a slacker and hopped around under the awning, cracking seeds against the pavement, skittering about the dogs’ water bowl, beating the heat with their open-beaked bird pant.  But the end of summer owl had a message for me: eat all the raspberries, go swimming, go barefoot.  What does the end of summer owl say to you?

Child Sense and Clover

I was trying to think of something to draw or do for this blog.  A while ago I’d taken a picture of clover weeds with the idea that I’d make a small painting, but I thought I could do better.  Maybe I’d go to a café and sketch something or just think of something else.  Days passed, and inspiration had not struck.  The heat index was regularly in the 100s, and that didn’t make me want to sketch at a café or hit the streets.  A couple more days passed, and I bemoaned my lack of ideas.  But then I remembered that I did have an idea and had had an idea all along—the clover painting.  All I had to do was accept it.  So I did.

Does this kind of thing ever happen to you?  I’ve taught and practiced freewriting long enough to know the power of first thoughts, yet I still fall into psyching myself out sometimes, insisting on some theoretical better thing, instead of just saying yes to what’s at hand.

Clover.  It represents summer and childhood, IMG_3273minutes meditating the way children do—with such intense interest and rapt attention, like falling down a rabbit hole, totally absorbed.  I long for such intent looking.  That’s why I love travel.  We get our child sense back through the strangeness of things.  I picture myself, maybe six, squatting in the world of a suburban driveway, pondering a fissure in the asphalt where the prairie of a prior century showed through.  Big brother clover, expert on the way things are here, tell me what you know of storms and earthworms, sneakers and basketballs, dandelions, ants, and the lilies’ white bells, of inhabiting margins and claiming a place, of the right to exist, a calling into summer, a sprawling meekness, marvelousness, symmetry and pattern, subtlety, delicateness, of the touch of tiny fingers.


So, Donkey Ears

I got such pleasure from playing Pictionary with four ESOL students last week.  It wasn’t the pleasure of playing Taboo, which gets everyone excited, energized by competition and the pressure of a three-minute timer.  And it wasn’t the pleasure of playing Apples to Apples, which gets everyone feeling silly, trying to be clever.  It was a quieter pleasure, and it felt special, out of the ordinary, even intimate.

We played our own version without teams or time limits, each of us taking a card and drawing on the white board, trying to get anyone else to see what we saw in our minds’ eyes.

It’s a curious process.  You go to the board with a vague image of, say, a donkey.  You see a pair of nostrils, hoofs, a tail.  You start with the head, and as you draw, you find your hand making those pointed donkey ears you hadn’t pictured along with the nostrils, hoof, and tail, but which are suddenly materializing as if from the drawing itself.

I suppose it’s like how words beget other words, like how, when I worked at the Library of Congress as a writer and couldn’t think of a word, I’d call my mom and say, “Help me with a word, it’s like . . .” and as I tried to put words to the idea, I would inevitably remember the word.  So, donkey ears.  It was like my hand knew what to do before I did.  Actually, I think it’s just a super-fast process of responding to the line as it’s traced on the board with a new thought of what to do next that comes so fast we don’t catch it.  It’s such a fast thought, yet so still and calm we hardly notice it.

Sometimes when you see a great movie, you exist in its afterglow for the rest of the day, maybe the next day even.  This game of Pictionary was a bit like that.  It gently haunted me.  Why was it so special?  Was it because we weren’t competing, just enjoying the act of drawing, the fun of guessing?  Was it because we’d given up the pretense of competition, admitting to ourselves and each other that these simple things gave us pleasure, that these frivolous things were worth doing?

Maybe I’m making too much of this.  Maybe to the students we were just killing time and taking a break from the text book.  But the drawings.  I feel like if I’d just taken a few pictures of the drawings, they’d speak for themselves.  There was a stunning deer with muscley legs, a triumphant entrance to the magic kingdom, a cute piranha, a mountain landscape, a jungle, an ape, a flying monkey.

But I didn’t take pictures, though I kept thinking about it as we played.  I didn’t have a blog post in mind, was just enchanted by the drawings.  But I told myself to just pay attention and enjoy the game.  Maybe it was the right call.  Maybe taking pictures would have changed the experience, made us self-conscious, when the beauty of the drawings was their complete lack of pretension.  Direct and fresh, the drawings were not actually an attempt to communicate so much as an act of conjuring.

I’m reminded of the cave paintings in Lascaux. I remember being told in an art history class that the Paleolithic painters depicted animals to conjure them, make them present, maybe in the cave or maybe later, for dinner.  I always struggled to wrap my head around that idea.  But comparing Taboo to Pictionary, I begin to get it.  In Taboo you try to get your audience to think of a certain word.  You throw associations at them, trying to push the right button.  It’s a manipulation.  In Pictionary you turn your back on your audience and just try to do justice to thing itself—to that deer or donkey.  You try to bring it into the room.  This also reminds me of children’s drawings, which are tributes to the big blue Earth and all it contains, to cousins Sun, Sky, and Moon.  Maybe the intimacy is between the drawer and the drawn.