Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Three Books That Broke the Reading Drought, Part 3

In parts 1 and 2, I talked about two books that finally ended my reading blahs at the end of last year—Larry McMurtry’s wonderful travelogue Roads and Miles Franklin’s influential feminist novel My Brilliant Career. Next up is a book I didn’t want to even think about.

Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy
Alastair Gee & Dani Anguiano
(Norton, 2020)

This book sat on my shelf for about a year because I didn’t want to read it. I sort of wanted to grok its content—the story of how the town of Paradise, California, suffered a massive wildfire that basically destroyed it in November 2018. But I also just didn’t want to touch it. My own valley in southern Oregon went through a similar fire in September 2020 that destroyed more than 2,500 residences, killed three people, and left thousands homeless—an experience that, let me tell you, you never really understand until you see it and smell it and listen, horrified, to the police scanner all day and all night while it burns. And I didn’t even lose my home—the people who lost everything had an unimaginably worse experience than I did. Many of my friends and co-workers lost their homes, and I also know people who lost everything in the Paradise fire, which is just a couple of hours south of here. Fire, fear, evacuation notices—in this part of the West, we go though that every summer, and it is so awful that it always makes me question whether it’s a good idea to live here. I didn’t want to relive that night after night by reading a book about it before bedtime.

But a radio journalist friend gave me a copy of Fire in Paradise; her station had interviewed the authors, Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano, and she said they’d written a compelling story and knew what they were talking about. So I finally took a deep breath and opened it up one night—and wow, what a gripping and enlightening read it turned out to be.

Gee and Anguiano, both reporters for the Guardian, interviewed hundreds of people just after that tragic day in Paradise—residents, city council members, the mayor, firefighters, police officers, and hospital workers. And what they assembled is a multidimensional, minute-by-minute account of the fire as it started in a steep, remote spot the firefighters instantly knew would be trouble, and then as high winds drove the inferno right through the heart of the town, only to swirl around and drive it back over parts that it had missed earlier. In other words, everybody’s nightmare. 

Honestly, if you lived through that fire or one like it, you might not want to read Fire in Paradise. Many times I had to put the book down and catch my breath; it hit much too close to home, too close to everything I’m thinking as I pack up my evacuation boxes at the start of every summer and set them by the front door (because I know people who only had minutes to get out before their houses burned down). But the book also gave me a lot to think about: primarily, how the mayor and town council of Paradise had an evacuation plan in place, much like the one we have here in my town, that divided the city into zones so the emergency office could issue alerts by zone and get people out in a relatively orderly manner and prevent traffic gridlock. And then the fire, whipped by 60-mile-an-hour winds, trashed their plans by raging right through the center of town, pushing everyone out at once. And they ended up with exactly the gridlock everyone had feared, and dozens of people died. At one point in the book, the mayor says the evacuation plan they had actually saved some lives—it was much better than nothing—but there’s simply no way to evacuate a town of 25,000 people all at the same time. We talk about that all the time in my town, which is roughly the same size as Paradise, with an interstate hemming it in on one side and steep mountains on the other, and just two main exit routes—one to the north, one to the south. 

Fire in Paradise doesn’t provide answers or prescriptive advice about wildfires; in fact, the authors don’t go very far into the origins, natural and manmade, of our ever-hotter megafires here in the western U.S. (I think The Big Burn covers that, but I have yet to make it through that book.) They do spend some time delving into PG&E’s tarnished safety record, including the many aging high-voltage power line towers that, like the one that caused the Paradise fire, are overdue for replacement. And the book’s short foray into the tangled, illogical business of public utilities is so fascinating (and horrifying) that it deserves a book of its own. (Are you listening, Michael Lewis? Please write that one.) This is a book that makes me wish I could live to be 500 years old so I’d have time to study all the things I didn’t learn in my youth: forestry, geology, how water systems and electrical utilities work, and so on.

But the most indelible ingredient in Fire in Paradise is the residents who fled the fire and lived to tell about it, including some who miraculously sheltered while the fire burned right over them, and many of whom lost loved ones. Their stories are literally stranger than fiction—I mean, there are moments that are simply incredible, but they actually happened, the kind of thing you can’t just talk about in a casual conversation. Some writer—Fitzgerald?—once said that novels are written about things people don’t talk about at the dinner table. This book is filled with those stories, too intense to share with just anyone. So there’s an intimacy to the book too, these people revealing these hard stories to us. You’re left with a deep empathy for what they went through—and that’s a testament to the way these two authors wove these experiences together with care and respect. I’d read anything they’ve written. This book will stay with me for a long time.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Three Books That Broke the Reading Drought, Part 2

Continuing our tale of the book lover who somehow lost her love for books, I was in a bit of despair after finishing Larry McMurty's travelogue Roads (which I gushed all over in Part 1 of this blog series). Maybe Roads was a one-time thing, I thought; maybe I'd go right back to the book blahs. So I grabbed one off my shelf more or less at random, an older copy of Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career that I'd found at a Friends of the Library sale* in Medford, Oregon.

I remembered fondly but vaguely the 1979 film starring Judy Davis, which I saw in the 1980s during my very impressionable community-college days. But I hadn’t realized the origin behind this 1901 novel (the story of which you can read in the “new introduction” to the 1980 edition). This tale of a fiery girl growing up in the farmlands of Australia was written by a 16-year-old named Stella Franklin, who took her grandfather’s name, Miles, as a male pseudonym since it was tough going for female authors at the time. The book was picked up by a publisher when Franklin was in her early 20s, it sold well immediately, and then started to create problems for Franklin and her family when readers mistook it for an autobiography, thinking she’d basically trashed her relatives in some sort of tell-all. Stung by the notoriety—and maybe also by a male literary critic who theorized that the girl in the book, and by extension, Franklin herself, must be mentally ill—Franklin withdrew My Brilliant Career from publication and basically kept it in a drawer for the rest of her life. She went on to publish many more novels and became one of Australia’s preeminent writers. My Brilliant Career was finally published again after her death in 1954, and had another resurgence of popularity. It’s now regarded as an early feminist novel, and it’s unlike anything from that era that I’ve read before.

What I love about My Brilliant Career is the voice of the protagonist, Sybylla. She makes bad decisions, hurts the people around her, and is so disagreeable that even Judy Davis, who played her in the movie, said she didn’t like the character. But man, Sybylla—well, Miles Franklin—had a thing with words. There are passages in the novel where Sybylla waxes poetic for a full paragraph about the way a creek looks, or a sunset, or a chair in a shady spot where it’s 110 degrees in the shade. (It’s often 110 in the shade where she lives.) Those extravagant passages just knocked me out; I went back and read them over and over, they’re so beautiful. And she’s funny; I also laughed a lot. And she never does what you expect her to do; even when she’s screwing up royally, it’s because she’s taken another left turn to defy expectations. 

I’m sure there are scholarly dissertations about why this was a feminist manifesto, but what I saw, again and again, was a woman who had no interest in the constraints expected of her in that culture at that time—to marry well, of course, and to be dainty and quiet and behave herself so as not scare off the men. And to wait around for a man to determine what her life will be like. In a way, it was like seeing Larry McMurtry in Roads, audaciously writing about whatever the hell he wanted to write about; My Brilliant Career is about that kind of freedom of choice to follow your own path. But Sybylla doesn’t really have any outlet for those independent impulses, and the book doesn’t resolve nicely the way the movie does; she’s a woman stuck in her times who will probably always catch hell for her rebellion. At one point you begin to see that her mother and other female relatives may have had that spark at one time too; there are layers of subjugation and frustration running through most of the women in the book. But… again, it’s also funny. Very funny. I found it a delight from beginning to end, a world I was glad to settle back into—110 degrees and all—at the end of the day. Even when things are going horribly for Sybylla, there’s charm, absurdity, and a lot of unexpected warmth. 

In part 3, I’ll talk about a recent book in a totally different genre—Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy, by Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano.

* Holy moly, people, if you're ever in Medford during one of those sales, get yourself over there. This was by far the biggest library sale I've ever seen, a huge meeting room filled with tables and boxes of books, spilling over into another room next door. Literally thousands of books, old and new, nicely divided into fiction, travel, history, classics, cookbooks. I picked up about five books (for like $10) on Saturday and liked it so much that I went back on Sunday because I'd heard some sale volunteers saying they had boxes stored away that they hadn't even opened yet. I found all sorts of new books the next day and got about five more.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Three Books That Broke the Reading Drought, Part 1

I had an odd phenomenon going on this year: I kept quitting books. I must have started 10 or 20 in a row—books that looked great, things I’d been wanting to read—and then got 30 or 40 pages into them, and put them down. I just lost interest and couldn’t get it back. A terrible case of the reading blahs. 
This happened enough that I wondered if my eyesight was going, or maybe something was wrong with my brain. Or could it be that I’d just fallen out of love with reading? Like when you go on a date with somebody who’s really great, but in the end, they do *nothing* for you down in the body? Could it be that the thrill muscle just didn’t thrill anymore? 
And then, much like dating, I found the right book and the thrill muscle made its return. And weirdly, I found the thrill three times in a row—three books that broke the reading drought and were so good that here I am, foisting little reviews of them on you, thinking maybe they’ll thrill you too. Here’s the first one; I’ll publish the other two in separate posts. 

Larry McMurtry 
(Touchstone, 2000) 

This slim book, like an old flame, had been sitting on one of my bookshelves for years. McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is one of my all-time favorite books, and I’d read other things by him that I liked, but for some reason I’d never cracked this one open; it sounded too dour or something. One night, despairing of all the half-read books taunting me from my shelves, I pulled down this travelogue of the highways of America, and within five pages I was hooked—and the rapture lasted all the way to the end. And then I wished the book were twice as long so I could stay in that car with McMurtry for a few more days. 

The thing I kept thinking about Roads is that Larry McMurtry never would have gotten it published if he weren’t already famous. I mean, Roads is largely one man’s musing stretched over a framework of travel, as McMurtry drives the interstates north to south and east to west and back again. But the beauty is just that—the travel is the book’s premise, but the book is also not about travel. It’s about Larry McMurtry—his opinions, his memories, his passions (just listen to him go on about his love of the Plains), and his deep, long-earned research and knowledge about the American West. It’s also about people, some that he knew and some that he never met, who lived just off this or that highway. 

But the greatest thing about Roads is that it’s a book where a brilliant writer is writing about whatever the hell he wants to write about. That was what drew me most, and it’s also why I say he probably would never have had it published if he weren’t already a Pulitzer Prize winner and famous screenwriter (The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment); in today’s marketplace, I can’t imagine a publisher would take a chance on the musings of some unknown author. But these are Larry McMurtry’s musings, and he’s so good at it; it’s like he’s just talking in the car there with you. And thank goodness he was already famous, because now we have this exquisite book that is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking, and as full of surprises as your uncle who works as a rocket scientist and also likes bats and Burmese food and Soviet trivia. It is a seriously fun, eclectic book. A very beautiful book. It renewed my love of travel writing, and a few weeks later at a library sale I picked up two more travel books and two early McMurtry novels, so it also feeds a delicious addiction. Even though I’ve now read it, Roads is again back on my shelf because I know I’ll want to dip into it again for quick bites, à la carte, of its oddly meandering, wholly satisfying essays. 

Check out part 2 in this three-part series—my mini-review of My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Art Imitates Art: Poetry Postcard Fest 2022 Wrap-Up

Cards I got from other Festers. Go, Group 9!

The annual August writing marathon is done—30 days, 31 poems written on 31 hand-painted postcards and mailed off to other poets and artists around the country (and one in the UK). This was my 10th year doing the August Poetry Postcard Fest, and as always, it was… different than other years. It’s different every time; it grows and morphs around what’s happening in the rest of my life, and in the world. This year, the writing came easy. I rarely was stuck for an idea, and I didn’t feel the usual peevish rebellion about having to write on a schedule, even though it was also a really busy month at work. Every few evenings I’d write three or four poems, and then I'd take a few days off. I like that pace with short postcard poems, which tend to ripen better in batches or something. 

Serial and random

I started out the Fest bent on seriality. Weeks earlier, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about: I’d turned 60 a few months earlier, and it was weirding me out. I just could not believe I was 60. I know lots of people in their 60s who suddenly got hernias and prolapsed bladders and tumors. When I think of 60 I see washed-out gray, stooped, moving slowly. Possibly shaking a rolled-up newspaper at a kid riding a bike too fast. 60 has moved in like a houseguest I didn’t invite and will not leave. I guess I’ll have to make my peace with 60; in the meantime, I plan to kayak the hell out of it. 

        So the first few poems of the month were all about 60—puns and visual images of the number, free-associated strings of maladies and misery. But by about the fifth poem, I could feel that I wasn't making any peace with 60, and not even very much sense. I’m not sure any of those poems are keepers. So I moved on to other ideas. 

        After that there were a lot of random poems, experiments, some of which turned colors and boiled over, which is good, and some of which didn’t. Two of my favorites were about black widow spiders. I always seem to write about black widows during August, since they’re in the crooks and corners of patios and garages around here, growing big and shiny in the sweltering heat and knitting their cottony egg sacs. Of course their ferocity is legendary, but in reality they’re mostly timid and serene. I always get a lot of poetic mileage out of black widows.

A game of 20 extras

This year I again hand-painted all of my postcards. I love that ritual, and I have to get an early start on it; I was painting the cards back in May or June so I could paint three or four at a time and then take a few days off (same as the writing). This year I used mostly Strathmore watercolor postcards; after experimenting last year, I settled on Strathmore as a good compromise between durability and quality. (Plus Strathmore used to have a mill in Westfield, Mass., where I lived, and they were a big employer there.) I also used a few scraps of cotton paper, always my favorite for watercolors, but cotton feels too pliable to send naked through the mail, so I popped those into envelopes so they wouldn’t get scuffed. 

A keeper. Can’t go wrong with Prussian Blue.
        Also like last year, I painted about 20 more postcards than I needed so I could keep my favorites, in case I might want to put them up for sale in my online store (which doesn’t exist yet; one of these days). I went though last year’s 20 "good extras" and was happy to find that a few of them didn’t seem that great anymore, which I took as a sign that maybe I’m a better artist now. So I sent those off with poems on them this year, donating them to the world of postcard poems. I also cut up a couple of failed paintings and turned the pieces into postcards—a great tip from a fellow postcarder in the Fest’s Facebook group—but honestly, cutting them up didn’t make them better paintings. 

        Some of the paintings I especially liked this year were monochromes and duochromes, abstract landscapes using just a couple of watercolor techniques—wet-in-wet gradients and dry brush, with some scraping and scratching. I had a lot of fun with those and kept a bunch.

I painted this one for a specific poem.
A bit like being a kids' book illustrator.

Mirror, mirror … never mind

This year I tried something new: painting postcards specifically for the poems, and also the reverse—writing ekphrastic poems about my own paintings on the postcards*. I sort of liked painting to complement the poems; that was a free-wheeling exercise in abstraction, or in surreal representation. But I didn’t like writing ekphrastic poems about the paintings; that felt weirdly self-referential, a kind of narcissistic loop. Like, I painted this somewhat abstract landscape, and now I’m writing a poem about it. It was a sham, a trick I was pulling on the reader—a made-up poem about a made-up visual scene. It was like trying to build a house on air. There didn’t seem to be much point to it. 

        One of my favorite poems of the month was about a baby that someone at a party asked me to keep an eye on for a few minutes. We were outside, it was raining a bit, the baby was sleeping in a little covered hammock—and suddenly the world exploded into metaphors. That was way better than any made-up landscape. There’s something to be said for writing poems about real things. This was a good reminder of that.

* Coincidentally, I just did a (live! in-person!) reading here in Ashland with my friend Allan Peterson, a renowned poet and longtime visual artist and art professor. During the Q&A after our reading, he said that he has no desire to pair up his poetry and artwork—say, in a book of his poems and paintings—because then the writing and painting “will be trying to explain each other.” 

Recently Allan asked how my art was coming along, and I said I’d become so engrossed in painting small postcards that I hadn’t painted much of anything else recently. He said he once had a student who felt she’d confined herself too much by always making small paintings, and he advised her to “use bigger brushes.” 

Saturday, December 25, 2021

A Year of SketchBox

A year ago, I decided to try SketchBox, a subscription service that sends you a small box of art supplies every month. I’d been taking a series of Zoom painting classes that had just ended, and I was worried that art would drift out of my life if I didn’t have some stimulation coming in regularly to challenge me. (I’m the kind of person who never goes to the gym unless a tennis partner or class instructor is waiting for me, foot tapping with impatience.)

There are lots of these subscription companies—ArtSnacks, ScrawlrBox, and Let’s Make Art, to name a few—but I decided on SketchBox because the ads had beautiful art, the materials seemed varied and high-quality, and it wasn’t aimed at kids; there were no hobbit houses or cartoon dogs in the ads. SketchBox has two tiers—a Basic Box at $25/month + $5 shipping, and a Premium Box at $35 + $5, which has everything from the Basic Box plus a few extras. I sprang for the Premium Box because I knew I’d always wonder what extras I was missing out on if I got the Basic Box. I steeled myself for that $40/month payment; I’m not made out of money, and this seemed like kind of a loony extravagance. But I didn't have any more painting classes lined up, I was curious about SketchBox, and I knew I could cancel it at any time if it wasn’t my thing.

And now it’s a whole year later, and I’ve received a full year of SketchBox boxes. What's the verdict?Read on. 

What I love about SketchBox

• You don’t know what will be in each month's box. No clue. I didn’t think I’d like that—you’re shelling out $40 a month, and you don't know what you're getting? But they smartly send you an email when it’s shipped, and that gives you 3–5 days for the excitement to build, and then it arrives, and—I’ve got to say, it’s exactly like getting a Christmas present. Every month, I tore into that box with glee. Not knowing what to expect makes it . . . better.

The February box was tinted graphite.
• It introduced me to media I didn’t know existed. This is partly a function of my age and situation; I have skills from being an art major in my 20s, but I’ve been out of the art game for more than 30 years, and I don’t really know what materials are out there now. Back in January, my very first SketchBox had acrylic inks—what were these little bottles? I tried them, and I was smitten. The next month was tinted graphite—smitten again. Later boxes had a Daniel Smith Watercolor Stick, a pan of Stoneground watercolor, Fude brush pens, Color Sparx Watercolor Powder. Yes, yes, yes, and yes. And many of the supplies are fancy brands made in Europe or Japan.

• With every box you get a link to an online video tutorial showing you how to use everything in the box. This was great—full of tips and techniques. (Ask me all about swatching.) Some other box subscriptions offer instructions in magazine format, but I would much rather have a video. I only wish they were a little longer.

• SketchBox usually includes a pad of paper, again often from Europe or Japan. Some other subscription services don’t do this; I’m sure it reduces their costs and subscription fee, but I love trying out different papers. My one quibble is that the paper is always 4 inches wide to fit in the SketchBox shipping carton. I'd love to occasionally get a larger pad, 6x9 or 8x8.

• One of my favorite things has turned out to be the SketchBox online community—it's large and active, and those connections have led me to other opportunities. Through posting and tagging my artwork that I made with the SketchBox supplies, I've found other SketchBox artists on Instagram, who talk about online instructors they like, many of whom have free tutorials on Youtube. And because several of my new Instagram contacts are in Germany, their posts are in German, and so are the video tutorials they recommend—which gives me a chance to brush up on my German, something else I haven’t used in 30 years. 

Not so hot

Did I love every one of the 12 SketchBoxes I got this year? Honestly, no. There were a few supplies that didn’t grab me. I’ve tucked them away in hopes that I'll warm to them one day, and because SketchBox tends to mix supplies, no box was a complete fail; there was always something I liked in it. But for me, the duds were:

• Alcohol markers. These are very hot right now, and some artists do amazing things with them. I’m just not one of them, and don’t have much patience for these. They also require special paper that they won’t bleed through. And they smell weird, like slightly dangerous fruit juice. 

• Oil pastels. One summertime box was all about oil pastels, five colors in very nice European brands, along with three small canvases. But I just can’t with oil pastels. They’re messy and inexact. And they also smell funny, like old crayons.

• Metallic and pearlescent paints. These seem to be popular, but I’m not sure why. Sure, you can paint something cool with them—you can mix colors just like any watercolor—but then you turn it to the light and go, “What the f***—why so glittery?” I'm clearly the wrong audience for these.

Accept no substitutes.
• White markers and blender markers. Do these ever work? Well, the one that worked was the white Sakura Gelly Roll, which is a miracle—if you want to add white highlights to a panting*, just get that and skip the others.

Seemed silly; ended up cool

• Every once in a while, a SketchBox includes . . . a pencil. Usually a European-made one, kinda fancy. I laughed the first time I got one, rattling around loose in the box—like, who doesn’t have a jillion pencils? But I've come to really like these. Some have hard lead and are good for light sketching that won’t show under a watercolor. Others are dark and smooth and are good drawing pencils all by themselves. There’s something to be said for good pencils, and they now have a special place in my drawer. I feel a certain calm reverence when I use a pencil made in Switzerland.

Get one. Seriously.
• Pencil sharpener. I also laughed when this tumbled out of the July box—a Staedtler Mars Lumograph tub sharpener. But holy crap, people, that thing has ruined me for other sharpeners. So sharp, so precise, so German. It retails for only $4.69. Run out and get one right now. I also love the Staedtler acrylic fine liner that came in the January box. Use it all the time. I am Team Staedtler.

• All of the brushes. Come on, if you’ve painted for any time at all, you probably have about a thousand brushes. But SketchBoxes often include one lone brush, an unusual shape or size that I probably wouldn’t normally buy—a chisel blender, a dagger, or a filbert—because they’re sort of luxurious and unnecessary. The kind of thing you might get—wait—as a Christmas present! I love them all now. 

Dreaming on

To conclude, I loved this year with SketchBox. And I don’t feel like I’ve quite had my fill of it, so I’ll continue my subscription for a while. I figure they’ll probably start repeating themselves at some point, but I like to think about what surprise might be in the next box. And there are a few things I wish they’d include, done up SketchBox-style, a fancy European or Japanese version of:

• Kneaded eraser

• Sand eraser

• More mouth-watering watercolors from Stoneground

• Samples of European watercolors I’ve been wanting to try: Gallo, Roman Szmal, Nevskaya Palitra, Sennelier, Maimeri

• Fountain pen

• Nib pen

And sticking with SketchBox will keep me from trying those non-art subscription services that now keep popping up in my Facebook feed like weeds—international snacks, cosmetics, coffee, spices, whisky. (Wait—the whisky one. Hmm . . .)

Made with the November box—Gansai Tambi
watercolors and Color Sparx Watercolor Powder.

* Many watercolorists shun this—adding white with a marker or gouache. Personally, I’ll only do it if the painting isn’t working and I’ve screwed it up somehow; then I’ll have at it with whatever markers are at hand just to see what happens. I’ve actually ended up with some good paintings this way.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Inktober: Shut Up and Draw

Does an embarrassing clutter of markers
make you draw more? In a way, yes.
If you’ve ever read this blog, you know that I love me a writing marathon. Every year, I do NaPoWriMo and the August Poetry Postcard Fest, two 30-day writing marathons that I rely on to generate new poems. The rest of my writing year tends to be haphazard, and I work full time, and I’ve never been a write-every-day kind of person. But I’ve found that I can keep up a daily practice of just about anything for 30 days, after which I collapse in a boneless heap of laziness.

So I was thrilled to find that in the world of art—which I’ve recently rejoined after a long and bitter absence (future blog post)—there are also marathons. And this past month I decided to try one: Inktober*, a 30-day sprint where thousands of people from all over the world draw or paint a piece of ink artwork every day and post it on Instagram (#inktober2021). Back in my youth, drawing in ink was my thing, so I was eager to give this a try. I wondered: Could I keep up with a drawing a day? Would it energize me, or make me hate art all over again? And what, in today’s avalanche of art supplies, qualifies as “ink”?

I gathered everything in the house that had ink in it—fistfuls of pens, markers, India ink, even a Cross fountain pen that I bought in a closeout sale three years ago and hadn’t had the guts to take out of its package, it was so unapproachably pretty. I also snuck in some bottles of liquid watercolor, which felt like cheating but oh well. I chucked it all onto an end table in the living room and piled even more on it over the course of the month, my own Inktober hazmat site.

So, how’d it go? Pretty good. I drew almost every day. Okay, I skipped about 10 days, but I tried not to sweat that; not sweating things turned out to be one of the themes of my marathon. I ended up with about 20 new pieces of art, including a few that I’m proud of. 

During the month of drawing, I had a lot of thoughts—some ups and downs, many times when I almost bailed, and a lot of late-night pondering over the connections between visual art and poetry, different animals on the artistic family tree that still share some genes. So, observations:

“Inking” is actually drawing.

I had to laugh at this. Around day 5, I realized that I’d started the marathon with some lofty notion that “inking” would mean just grabbing a fancy pen or some brush markers and whipping up some instant art, a happy little miracle every evening. But I found out I’m too much of a mechanic for that; I preferred doing a pencil sketch first and then inking over it. The few spontaneous doodles that I did were my least favorite pieces of the month—they seemed inert, uninspired. But the drawing thing became an unexpected visit with an old love—I adored drawing in my teens and 20s; then, after some art trauma, I lost my confidence in drawing and didn’t do it for decades. But after this past month of drawing pears and apples and trees and cows and horses and houses and mountains, I now feel like I actually can draw again, like I want to. The muscle memory of it is still there, still in my hands; in fact, with my older brain, I seem to be better at it, better at seeing shape and value. I am, in particular, better at pushing the darkness (a metaphor on a platter). And luckily, the joy is still there too.

To keep drawing, I had to fight my own fragility.

This is one way that Inktober was different than a poetry-writing marathon—it turns out I have all sorts of confidence in my poetry, but almost none in my visual art. I’ve been doing poetry for a long, long time, and I’ve written so much and had so many poems published and rejected that I can write a crappy poem one night and completely forget it about by the next day; I know there will always be another poem. But the same wasn’t true of drawing; if I did a drawing one night that I didn’t like, I felt melodramatically wounded—absolute despair, like it was all over and I should just give up. This happened several times early in Inktober; I’d draw and post something that I wasn’t happy with, and it would haunt me into the next day: Well, there it is—I’m a crappy artist, and now the whole world knows. Luckily, by the next evening I’d usually get the bug to try something different—thank you, pile of art supplies on the end table—and that night’s drawing sometimes turned out OK. And the pendulum would swing the other way—Hey, this came out cool, so maybe I’m good at some things. Or even I like that color. By the end of the month I was very aware of those swings and was consciously trying to even them out. I realized that the fragility was a result of the Great Art Trauma in my 20s—a time when I decided I was a bad artist and feared showing that to the world—and the marathon became a way of working through some of that. And some of the drawings I didn’t initially like grew on me over time; they weren’t what I set out to do, but once I let go of that, they didn’t seem so bad.

The brain wants to get all up in art’s business.

I would start drawing, and my brain was clicking away. I could feel it, trying to control my hand. Careful. Don’t be derivative. That’s too Miro; people will notice. Don’t try that again—you’ve drawn so many bad horses! And then, without my noticing, that language center would shut off. Things got very quiet, and for a while I was all body—my hand scratching at the wet ink, flicking grass or branches onto the paper, my face contorted, my voice whispering to itself—rounder, darker, right here. I would sit back and see the balance of the scene, see what it still needed. It felt just like I was playing deep into a tennis match—all motion, intent, instinct, the body doing what it knows how to do. It was also just like being in the middle of writing a poem—the editor had fled and the subconscious was now driving; that’s always the interesting part. Oh, the brain came back later to criticize what I’d drawn, and sometimes it hurt me. This is a place where art and poetry differ: A poem can always be changed, but ink is pretty much forever and leaves an ugly stain when you try to fix it.

Drawing/painting takes longer than writing poems.

I got tired during Inktober. Really tired. Every night—even if I set out to draw/paint something simple, like a pear—I ended up spending at least an hour on the piece, and often longer. And afterward I’d be so wired that I wouldn’t be able to sleep. And it was a busy month at work, so I was already tired in the evenings. Toward the end of the month I felt sleepy every day by late afternoon. My system for writing every night during poetry marathons works better; somehow I can predict how much time it will take and compensate for it so I don't get exhausted. So that needs some thought. And, riffing off that …

I’m sort of lucky I survived.

By that I mean, all that staying up late and drawing when I was half awake probably wasn’t conducive to great art.** And by all rights, bad art should have finished off my fragile ass (see above). However, Inktober made me try out markers and pens and notebooks and pencils, and it forced me to go through my own reference photos (which I take all the time on drives around town) and raid them for things to draw. It was a month of experiments, and I found a few things that I unexpectedly seemed to be good at (and a few that I just liked doing). And in a way, doing that every night produced the same results you get—if you’re lucky—after receiving umpteen rejections of your poems for umpteen years. You stop caring so much about each rejection, because you know you’ll write again and will send stuff out again. Same thing with this art marathon; the next night, there was another pen, another fistful of markers, and another picture in my head. And I tried again. And that was maybe the best thing about Inktober—all those days to try.

* Another thing I found out this past month is that the art world, like the poetry world, has its scandals and infighting. Apparently the guy who owns the trademark to Inktober was accused of plagiarizing another artist's educational writing, and it caused a split in the art world; some artists now refuse to participate in Inktober and have spawned all sorts of rival marathons. So that gives me something else to check out next year.

** This is a debate that poets often have about NaPoWriMo: the argument that if you have to crank out a little ditty every day, how good are the ditties going to be? I understand that viewpoint—and I used to share it—but I found that NaPoWriMo serves a purpose for me, if only to shake up my usual writing practice and to force myself to write when I don’t feel like it, which results in interesting themes and forms. I always figure if I can get four or five decent poems out of the 30 that I write during NaPoWriMo, that’s a fine return on my investment. And I end up with stumps of weird stuff that sometimes serve as sparks for other poems later.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Poetry Postcard Fest 2021: Both Sides Now

All the postcards I received this year,
plus a bonus Buckley.
The poems are written, the cards are mailed: The 2021 Poetry Postcard Fest is a wrap.
        This year, the annual August writing marathon attracted more than 500 participants from 13 different countries. My group (go, Group 8!) had 33 people in it, and I ended up writing 33 poems—32 to the other people in the group, and an extra card to someone else.

Side 1: The poems
Those 33 poems meant that I wrote a little more than one poem per day, but this year I didn’t even try to write one every day; I almost always wrote them in clumps of three or four and then took a few days off between writing sessions. I’ve done this in the past, too; it makes the “poem-a-day” thing less of a chore for me. And as I’ve said in past PoPo recaps, writing several poems in one sitting sometimes makes them more interesting; often I'll riff on the subject of one poem and expand it into others. This time I had a series of poems about eavesdropping, since I seemed to be overhearing a lot of conversations and was fascinated by the relationship between the loud talker and the unwilling listener, and the incompleteness of the information you overhear—Is that person always like that? Did that person bring this problem on himself? How reliable is the narrator of this story? I also had a few poems about painting (more on that below), and lots of small scenes from around my town of Ashland, Oregon, which was plagued by hazardous wildfire smoke all through August.
        Looking back through the poems, I can see a few that seem like keepers, like something I might end up getting published if some editor likes them. A few fizzled. My favorite one is about my bathrobe, which had nothing to do with eavesdropping or smoke and just sort of flew in on its own, as the best poems sometimes do. 
        Thinking about which poems I might send out to journals made me go back just now through poems from past PoPo Fests (this was my 9th year), and I see that fewer of them have been published than I thought*. None at all from last year. And in fact I rarely send those postcard poems out to journals at all. I suspect that some part of my mercenary brain thinks that short poems—and especially short abstract poems—are less “publishable” out there in the mean world. In April, during NaPoWriMo, I put a lot of pressure on myself to write longer, more “serious” poems, whatever that means. April is sort of a poetry crucible, when I think hard about a lot of things and try to write deeply into them. In contrast, the August Postcard Fest is more of a lark; I have fun with these shorter poems, and I feel pretty much zero pressure. Hence I think I tend to take them less seriously. Or perhaps they really are “slight.” I need to think about that more.

Side 2: The postcards
This year, I took a totally new approach with the actual postcards: I hand-painted all of them. In past years I’ve used giveaway postcards from restaurants, touristy ones I picked up at the drugstore, and ones I got printed at Vistaprint with my own photos on them. But I’ve been doing a lot of watercolor painting this past year, and I was intrigued by the idea of painting each one individually. In retrospect, that sounds kind of nuts—paint 33 individual paintings?—but I was already thinking of it back in April or May, so I started painting them then. I tried out lots of different paper—postcards made for watercolor by Daniel Smith, Hahnemühle, Schmincke, and Strathmore, and also 4x6-ish pieces of heavy watercolor paper by all sorts of companies. Pretty much anything I ran across the past few months that seemed like it would hold up in the mail. I ended up putting a few in envelopes, especially if the paper was 100% cotton; it seemed too soft not to get torn in the canceling machines. 
        I painted them in batches of 4 or 5; I’d do a bunch of skies in slightly different colors and styles, and then some kind of land or trees or whatever. I tried really hard not to overthink them. I did a few others with markers. And it was an absolute blast—serious fun, and again, with no pressure at all. I was surprised at what a useful process it was to paint so many little 4x6 paintings; I kept a bunch of them because I want to do larger versions of them, and I was constantly experimenting and coming up with techniques and color combinations that I didn’t expect to find. Just totally screwing around with paint. It wasn’t hard, it was joyful, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I ended up painting about 50 postcards total because I kept painting ones that I liked enough that I didn’t want to send them away.

Bonus track: The community
Once again, the PoPo Fest’s Facebook group was really fun to keep up with all through August. People take such different approaches to the postcards; some do collages, one person used grocery cartons (she sent me one made from a Kleenex box). Some found vintage postcards; one woman in Alabama sent me an old postcard featuring a building in my town in Oregon, which amazed me. And many, many others didn’t really care about the postcards; for them, it was all about the poems. I’ve done it lots of ways over the years, and they’re all good; the PoPo Fest is flexible enough to accommodate pretty much any way you want to do it.

* Here are a couple of PoPo poems that did get published:

Speaking of smoke,
this one was in Crab Creek Review, 2019.

In Right Hand Pointing, 2021.

Past PoPo Fest Recaps: