Wednesday, April 27, 2016

NaPoWriMo 2016: Public, but not too public

It’s almost the end of April, and for those of us who have been writing a poem a day for National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo), that means one thing: We’re almost done. And holy crap, are we glad about that.

Bigger is better
This is my sixth or seventh year doing NaPoWriMo, and the past couple of years I’ve set the bar higher by doing the writing marathon with a large group of people on a public internet forum. Writing with a lot of people watching makes me work harder to fish for the right idea and then craft and revise the poem. Not every day’s output is beautiful, but I end up with fewer lazy poems when peer pressure is squashing me a little.
            For last year’s NaPoWriMo I did the Writer’s Digest April Poem-a-Day Challenge. That certainly provided the “large public forum” I was after: A huge community of writers—hundreds—do that challenge every year, and they comment freely and encouragingly on each other’s poems. I enjoyed that a lot, and this year I’m using many of the good daily prompts that WD poetry editor Robert Brewer provides for that group (see “To promptly go” below), but instead of posting my poems there, I’m posting them to a couple of secret Facebook NaPoWriMo groups—one with about 100 members, and another local one with about a dozen, both with some very fine writers. The “secret group” format eliminates the fudgy business of whether a poem that’s posted on a public site/blog is considered published and therefore ineligible for submission to literary journals. And the smaller, more intimate groups make it easier to get to know my fellow marathoners. It’s a good balance of public vs. not-too-public.
            As usual, I’ve had some ups and down with the poem-a-day thing. This year I got off to a painfully cold start; the first few poems felt forced and awkward and probably will never amount to anything usable. Then I hit a good stride; for a few days the poems came out easily, and I was excited to sit down at the end of the day and write them. Hey, I thought, I’ve got the hang of this thing. Then, of course, I stalled out again—more exhausted late nights, trying to make steel out of straw or some other completely inept metaphor. I skipped a couple of days when I was just too tired. (Doing NaPoWriMo during the busiest season at work and the NBA playoffs is, for me, a perfect storm.) Then a few days later I rallied and came up with some more poems I liked. Now, almost at the end, I’ve got maybe 6 poems that I like a lot, and another 5 or 6 that could be OK with heavy revision. That’s not bad for a month’s output. And, as always, some of the poems I like—including a couple of angry ones—are things I never would have written if I hadn’t had to sit my ass down and hit that midnight deadline.

Paper or plastic
This public NaPoWriMo business, strangely enough, has changed one of the most fundamental elements of my poetry writing: I now write a lot more on a keyboard than by hand. I used to be a pen-and-paper purist; I had a whole theory about why hand writing was better than keyboard writing, something about that fraction-of-a-second delay between the thought and the hand writing it down, which served as a first edit and made me choosier about the word or phrase. But during NaPoWriMo, I’m often writing late at night and want to post the poem as soon as it’s (more or less) done. So I just let my fingers fly on the keyboard and cut and paste straight from there. I can type much faster than I can write by hand, and as a result I sometimes end up with breathless, headlong poems without line breaks or punctuation. Sometimes I go back in and add those boundaries afterward; sometimes I don’t. Other times I write purposely in set stanzas or line lengths. The upshot is that I now write in several different styles, some more fragmented and jumbled than others. Whether that’s all for the better or worse, I’m not sure yet. But it’s change and evolution, and that feels good. And during NaPoWriMo there’s another advantage to the keyboard thing: I can just copy the poem from my Word or Pages doc and paste it onto wherever I’m posting it without having to transcribe it out of the notebook. That makes for less work late at night, and my 54-year-old body gives that a big, arthritic thumbs-up.
            But the greatest benefit of NaPoWriMo is still simply the poems. By month’s end I’ll have more than 25 of them, some that excite me and some that don’t yet. Some that never will. But those that do, and those that might, will help fill the well of poems I’ll be working on and sending out and assembling into quirky chapbooks and sequences and I-don’t-know-what-yet for the next year. They’ll be the sketches or the paintings or the…crikey, some metaphor. I’m too tired to think of one. Must … save … metaphor … for next poem.

To promptly go
Doing the Writer’s Digest PAD Challenge last year taught me something I didn’t know: I like writing to prompts. Not always, not every day (my mind likes to go off leash, and my inner wild dog is already riled up about having to write a poem every day), but every day this month I looked at several prompts and picked one to think about for a few hours. And sometimes I used it to write a poem that night. These were my favorite sources for prompts this month:

The original NaPoWriMo siteBack in 2003, poet Maureen Thorson saw what the people over at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) were doing, and she decided to start a similar month-long writing marathon for poetry—and NaPoWriMo was born. Every day in April she posts a prompt, ranging from forms (lune, tritina, fan letter) to subject matter (food, fear, technical terms).

Chris Jarmick’s Poetry Is Everything blogChris’s prompts—some his own, some by guest prompters—have been extremely varied and provocative. Today’s prompt, for example, is to steal words from the NOAA’s National Weather Service Glossary and use them in a poem.

The Found Poetry Review. Each day in April, FPR has featured a prompt by a guest writer. These are fairly complex prompts; April 28th involves taking a piece of source text, eliminating any words that don’t start with A, B, C, D, E, F, or G, and then using an online program to make a piece of music out of what’s left. I loved the imaginativeness of all of these prompts, but I didn’t try a one of them because they were too complicated. I am a lazy promptee; if I even have to click to another page or look something up, I’m out. But I may go back and try some of these when I’m not hustling to cram in a poem every day.

Robert Lee Brewer’s Poetic Asides. This is the Writer’s Digest PAD Challenge site I mentioned before. I like Robert’s prompts because they’re often just a word or phrase, which makes them very open-ended: “love or anti-love,” “important,” “set the poem in a food establishment,” “experienced/inexperienced.” These simple prompts were a strategic move on Robert’s part, since, like I said, hundreds of people post poems on that site every day based on the prompt. So if the prompts were too specific, the poems would all sound alike. (Here’s an example of the kind of too-specific prompt I don't like, totally made up: “Take the strongest emotion you felt today and imagine how you would dress it if it were a child.” I would not want to read 400 poems about that. But if you’ve got 400 people writing about “office,” you’ll get a pretty good variety because there are so many different directions you can take.)

Jennifer Givhan. Jenn, a talented poet and editor at Tinderbox, wrote a prompt each day for the “larger” Facebook group I wrote with, which she founded. I won’t put any of them here because I hope she’ll put them together in a book soon. Look for it. They were awesome.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

On Being Wrong

Geocentric solar system from Harmonia Macrocosmica
(1660) by Andreas Cellarius.
Question: Name one thing you’re sure of, and how you know it.

Answer: I’m sure that if I say I’m sure of something, sooner or later someone will disprove it and I’ll look like an idiot.
        I find this comforting. Think of all the things people have believed over the centuries—that demons made you sick, alchemy could make you rich, people could own other people, stars were holes poked through the sky, Jews caused bubonic plague. Every one was proven wrong, sometimes catastrophically wrong. What beliefs that we hold today will be proven laughably wrong in a few hundred years? Even now, some old tropes are eroding: women shouldn’t be combat troops or play baseball; chained-up animals make great entertainment; to settle new land, you just move the existing people off it and kill all the large predators. Who knows what’s next? No more God, capitalism, 40-hour workweek? Will we find that air is actually a food that can be flavored, cut up, and cooked if you have the right kind of oven? That we already have the capability to teleport or cure cancer, but we just don’t know it? That there’s no such thing as death, and our dead friends and relatives have just gone someplace we haven’t stumbled across yet?
        Make no mistake about it: The discoveries will be soul-shaking. When you think of air travel and television and what I do all day at my job—type on a keyboard—and women presidents and the four-minute mile, all of these were, until recently, inconceivable to a vast number of people for a very long time.
        One dictionary definition of hope is “grounds for believing that something good may happen.” And things do. Big things. Sometimes being wrong is one step in that direction.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Ashland U-Haul: An Ode

The U-Haul office at the south end of Ashland has finally shut down. I’m surprised at how sad that makes me.

I only rented a truck there once, and to be honest, the place was perplexing and a little scary. For starters, I couldn’t tell how to get into it. Did you go through the auto-repair shop to the right? Its bays were stuffed with dismantled cars, and there didn’t seem to be a safe way to get in there. So maybe the entrance was that unmarked, dirty glass door on the left that led to some sort of bygone showroom, its plate-glass windows so silvered with grime that you could barely see through them. And what was going on with that asymmetrical overhang out front, the giant, uptilted, Jetsons-type wing that signified a gas station from the Eisenhower era, or maybe a car dealership? In its youth, it must have been so futuristic.

But I had a truck to rent, so I pushed through the heavy glass door that squealed on its hinges. I could see a counter at the far end of the showroom, but to get there I had to sidle past teetering piles of cardboard boxes, some assembled, some flat, and a few battered filing cabinets, and a wheelchair, and an old dining room table with two clear plastic cups standing on it, half-full of green liquid. I couldn’t help eyeing the ceiling that was spectacularly disintegrating overhead, long strips of vinyl hanging down, exposing dark recesses of wood beams and bent nails, lighting fixtures askew and dangling. It looked like some apocalyptic way station in The Stand or The Road Warrior, a place where the hero might find a life-saving, ancient jar of peanut butter.

At the counter stood Ron, a businesslike, elderly man whose hands shook a bit. But he still could walk, slowly, out to the parking lot to retrieve a truck for me. I watched him through the hazy windows as he climbed stiffly into the cab of a 17-footer and drove it a few yards to the front of the lot, checked the gas gauge and odometer, then climbed out just as slowly, clipboard in hand. When he came back in, I followed him through a door next to the counter and into his office, a cramped little room with a ceiling so high that it receded up into shadows. A second door on the other side of the room opened out onto the repair shop crowded with oily equipment, four or five mechanics busy in there with their hands in the engines and undersides of cars.

I sat in a plastic chair as Ron punched my info into his computer on a scratched, once-beautiful oak desk with nice dovetail construction on the drawers, most of which weren’t quite pushed in all the way. On the top of the desk was a large dark patch where Ron’s hands and those, no doubt, of countless mechanics had touched it over the years. All the way up to the ceiling, the walls were lined with shelf after shelf of parts manuals and auto-repair guides, mostly Chiltons, some of them looking as old as the shop itself. On the wall was a new calendar featuring splashy photos of racecars. On one dusty shelf, a bright turquoise Hot Wheels, a Vette or something, pulsed its little beacon of color.

It was almost too much to take in. I sat there, reeling with sensory overload, happy to my core that such a place existed, so alive and well used and smelling like my dad’s garage. He did all our family’s auto repairs; I never needed a mechanic until I was well into my 30s and Dad got too forgetful to trust himself with an arc welder or the critical steps of a brake job. He spent his life hanging out in places like this, buying parts and chatting with men whose names were embroidered on their blue shirts, at home with all those Chilton manuals and echoes of a distant conversation about a leaking clutch. When Ron handed me the keys to the truck, I walked out of there giddy, like I’d just stepped out of a time machine.

And now the place stands there empty, a new and hasty hurricane fence keeping out the curious. Whoever buys it will surely knock it down; maybe we’ll get a square new paint store or another gas station, this one shining yellow and red and selling Slim Jims and Cokes to tourists. Perhaps Ron still drives by, shaking his head at the complete irretrievability of the past. Or perhaps he’s joined my dad where all the old mechanics go, talking about bleeding lines and valve timing and metric versus English while here on Earth we go on inventing and repairing and building what, at the time, we think will be the future.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Drunk Martini Trials, Test #1:
The Esquire “Perfect Martini”

I remember exactly where I was when this all began: in a Thai restaurant in Palo Alto a few years back, having dinner with friends. Feeling adventurous, I ordered a drink from a little cocktail menu on the table, a house special called the “Bombay Sapphire Martini.” I’d only had maybe two martinis in my life, and I’d never heard of Bombay Sapphire gin. The drink came, I took a sip, and pow—that was it. Best. Drink. Ever.

For the next few years, martinis were my cocktail of choice. (How could they not be, after that perfect drink?) But, funny thing—I never found that perfect martini again. I found good ones, okay ones, dreadful ones that reeked of rubbing alcohol, but never that original martini’s piquant balance of tart and sweet, cold and tingly. Finally I decided the only way to get back to that perfect martini was to try making it at home—I’d try out different gins and vermouths, fiddle with the proportions, and stick with it until I figured out the right recipe.

One Friday night this past summer, I conducted the first Martini Trial. To avoid too much floundering around, I Googled “perfect martini” and found the recipe below on Esquire magazine’s site. And to make it more interesting, I decided to write down my impressions as I drank the martini. This is how I discovered one hazard of writing real-time drink reviews: You get…well…drunk, and you have to write at the same time. So if you don’t like reading drunk posts, avert your eyes. For the rest of you, join me while I take one for the team and try to make—and drink—the perfect martini.

Esquire Martini

                  4 ounces gin (I used Bombay Sapphire*)
                  1 ounce dry vermouth (I used Noilly Prat extra dry)
            cocktail glass
            cracked ice

Per EsquireFill a metal shaker with cracked ice. Pour in the vermouth, stir briefly, and strain out (this may be discarded). Add 4 ounces gin—you want it around 94-proof. Stir briskly for about 10 seconds, strain into chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with an olive.”

I used 4 shot glasses of gin (I have a small shot glass), and 1 shot glass of vermouth. Sadly, I had no olives. (How could I forget to buy olives?) I chilled a martini glass** in the freezer for 15 minutes beforehand. I can’t really say I used “cracked ice”; that would have involved a hammer, a Ziploc bag, and way too much noise for my cat. I opted for “fresh ice cubes,” which are rare enough in this house.

Real-time review
Right off the bat, from the first sip, I can say that this is too much. The drink is too big. And I do not find it “perfect.” It just tastes like a big, fancy glass o’gin. Straining out and discarding the vermouth seemed an awful waste.

More sips. Yes, it is a very big drink. And it tastes so…alcoholic. I’m immediately thinking a) I should not drink the whole thing, and b) this will kick my ass no matter how much I drink. It’s tasty, chilly, and very pretty. (Is it really silver, or is my imagination embellishing what essentially looks like a glass of water***?) But it needs something to temper the strong alcohol taste. This reminds me of a terrible martini I had at a holiday party in a restaurant a while back. It was so strong and crappy-tasting that after I finished it, I ordered a second martini, with better gin, to wash the terrible taste out of my mouth. Mistake. After the two martinis, I was too drunk to drive home and a co-worker had to sit with me and drink coffee for two hours****. Yeah, I was that lady at the Christmas party.

I already want to add a dash of vermouth to see if that’s what it’s missing. Can’t believe they tell you to pour the vermouth down the drain. I just cannot let go of that. 

OK, I just added 1/2 oz of vermouth (to my 1/3-consumed martini), and it’s much better. That’s what it needed—a hint of sweet, the warmth of grapes. It cuts the harshness of the gin and makes the drink complex. Actually, this may be a little too much vermouth now.

Next time, try 3 oz gin and 1/2 oz vermouth. Screw the “discard vermouth” part. Keep it. Mi amore.

Yes, yes, yes—kicking my ass. But a few more sips into it, it’s still not that good. Now it’s too sweet or something. Proportions? Brands? Oh boy, but it’s kicking my ass. Too much, too fast. Like a drug you take too much of, and then—too late! How do people drink these on a regular basis? Even my handwriting is drunk.

Hahahahaha…I had a terrible day at work. Actually thought of quitting. Hence the “alcoholic test trials.” Stairway to oblivion. Or elevator.

Oh my goodness. My whole face feels numb. I can’t even say “inebriated.” That’s a good test for inebriation. Oh my GOD, I’m so drunk. This martini is evil. Cut all the measurements in half.

Still laughing.

* One of the reasons I decided to try these martini trials was because I had a lot of Bombay Sapphire gin on hand. Earlier this year I took a day trip to Mount Shasta and decided to treat myself to a visit to All Star Liquors, a locally famous liquor warehouse just over the state line in California, where booze is significantly cheaper than in Oregon. I was walking to the cash register with a quart of Bombay Sapphire when a store salesman said I should really buy the bigger size, a much better deal at only $10 more. “But,” I protested, “I’ll never drink than much gin in my life!” “You could have a party,” he said, “with gin and tonics for everybody.” I must be impressionable; I could actually picture myself throwing that party. Only $10 more—what the hey, party on. The bottle I ended up with, 1.75 liters, is so big that whenever I hoist it out of the kitchen cabinet, I’m afraid I’ll drop it on my foot and break a toe.

** I’m embarrassed to say that I got my martini glasses at the dollar store. I had mixed feelings about that; while other shoppers were trawling the store for laundry detergent and school supplies, I was looking at cocktail glasses. They were much better martini glasses than I’d seen anywhere else, but I felt like I must have looked like either a really pathetic drunk or a wealthy housewife out slumming it between manicures and poodle-grooming appointments. 

*** Full disclosure: I didn’t think of taking pictures when I did this first trial, so the photo at the top is in fact a chilled martini glass filled with water.

**** Which was very nice of him. If he ever embarrasses himself in public, I will be the first to help him out.