Archive for the Reads Category

Literary Immersion Interlude: A Night with Billy Collins

Posted in Getting Lit, Reads on April 9, 2011 by Melissa Henry

It’s worth interrupting this thread to talk about the reading I attended last night…

Billy Collins is a distinguished professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York. He was also Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, and Poet Laureate of New York State from 2004 to 2006. He is the author of nine collections of poetry, and editor of Poetry 180 and 180 More.

Needless to say it was quite an event. Having misguidedly quieted the tyrannical type-A person within, I casually picked up a writer friend of mine and we meandered over to the reading. We entered the small underground garage  and slowly snaked through the gridlocked aisles. At some point we all realized our dismal collective parking fate, my friend and I, and about a dozen other wild-eyed readers.

After hiking in from downtown, we finally reached the doors of Kepler’s. You’ll hear me talk a lot about this fabulous indie bookstore because I love it so. Walking in, it was like no other reading I’ve ever seen them host. Kepler’s may be an indie, but it’s good-sized. The entire center of the bookstore had been cleared and was filled with chairs, which of course were already filled with people. People leaned on end-caps and craned their necks from the far ends of aisles. I sat, folded up on the floor leaning against a rack of lit journals, at the upper edge of the room next to my friend. We soaked in the collective energy of the room from the best seats in the house.

Billy Collins read from his new book, Horoscopes for the Dead, along with some oldies and some fresh from the printer poems. He gave us insights and tidbits about the origin of each of the pieces, and many good laughs.

During the Q&A someone asked:

You write a lot about windows, what do windows mean to you?

To which he replied:

People who write fiction, do so because they are interested in other people, interested in looking into other people’s windows. They like to see how people move around and relate to one another.

Poets are only interested in themselves, they want to look out their own window and tell you what they see.

Of course I’m paraphrasing here, but that is the gist of his thoughts on windows and how they relate to the writer. Or rather, how the writer relates the view to the reader.

Collins also, upon request, read Lanyard. That is, after quipping, “What? You think I’m a poetry jukebox?” and laughing.

It was a wonderful night spent listening to words and thoughts, and being in the company of those who also love words. Sometimes I forget this feeling, the one we have when we go to readings and lit events. We get caught up in our lives, between work and family and writing, and sometimes our time shrinks so much we feel as if we’re living our hours in the red. But nights like these make me pause, think about what is really important to me. Nights like the one we were privileged to have with Billy Collins, are important.

Opportunities like these exist everywhere, all the time, and we’re missing them because we don’t want to drive to the city after work, or engage our brains, or find parking. We only realize what we miss when we experience a night with a great author, or hear a talk that makes us question our thoughts, or sit around with good friends talking about books and events. But, I’m just taking a wild stab in the dark here.

So here’s to packing in even more lit events!

Speaking of which:

The Rumpus’ “Friendly Gathering” with Zyzzyva is on Monday, April 11th at The Make-Out Room, 3225 22nd Street, in the Mission at 7pm. Tix $10 through brownpaper.

And…if you haven’t signed up to receive overly personal emails from author and Rumpus editor, Stephen Elliott, do it. You won’t regret it. Promise.

And…one more note on Billy Collins, check out his latest NPR interview.

Literary Immersion Therapy: How I dove into the Lit scene…

Posted in Getting Lit, Reads, Writing on April 2, 2011 by Melissa Henry

If you’re a writer and you know me, you’re never going to believe this but I’m going to tell you anyway…

Before I began writing I wasn’t one to show up at a party alone or strike up a conversation with a stranger. I have always been on the shy side at introduction, and my raucous and rowdy self once you got to know me. If I was going to dive into this new community of people I knew the shy side of my personality wasn’t going to get me anywhere. This goes back to, “Am I willing to do anything for my project? Do I believe in what I’m doing?” I did and I do, and so I struck out on my own, fearless.

Fearless is important, even if you fake it. Though I never misrepresented who I was, in any way, I looked at it as an acting part. When I am “Melissa the Writer” I introduce myself to other writers, I talk to strangers, I put myself out there without hesitation. What did I have to lose by taking advantage of every opportunity to connect with writing community?

Like I said, I dove head first into the Lit scene. This is where I started…

LitQuake. If you’ve never been, go! It’s amazing. Imagine 14,000 creative minds descending on the San Francisco Bay Area, new writers rubbing elbows with the literati in bars and shops and even alleyways. In 2010, they had 46 events during the festival and 65 events in the infamous LitCrawl on closing night. The New York Times even picked up the story. This is our Sundance, our Cannes Film Festival, and it’s a blast.

My first LitQuake was in 2009. I hopped BART, MUNI, and buses, I drove into the city after work, and I did it all alone. It was actually freeing to be alone at these amazing events, I could go to anything I liked and no one knew who I was or what I had or hadn’t written. Anonymity is comfortable.

My favorite event took place in the San José library. It wasn’t glitzy, there wasn’t a bar or crowds of rowdy writers, it was a single author: Mary Roach. You may have read: Stiff, Spook, Bonk, or the recently released Packing for Mars. She’s as witty and brilliant in person as her writing makes her out to be. Scientific information doesn’t have to be dry and her books prove it.

At the end of her interview, I stood in line with the rest of the room hoping for a minute of her time. I was thinking about breaking into science writing and was looking for a little advice. What I got was several minutes, and an email. Ms. Roach didn’t mind holding up the line to talk to me and didn’t mind responding to my emails. If you can find an author as generous as Mary Roach, talk to them, pick their brains, and for goddsakes shut up and listen.

The best large-scale event, held at Hotel Monaco on Geary, was Mouthy Dames with: Kim Addonizio, Christine Comaford, Jane Ganahl, Kim Wong Keltner, Wendy Merrill, Terry McMillan, April Sinclair, and Jane Smiley.

Never in my life have I seen eight people speak at an event and have eight people knock it out of the park. The room was electric with cheers, laughter, and roaring applause.

You’ll hear more about some of these amazing people later because as I found out, one thing leads to another, and another, and another. Everyone is connected to everyone else, you just have to get out there.

I don’t know how I ever thought I could fit all of my initial literary adventures into a single post so stay tuned for Literary Immersion Therapy: Part 2.


A New Year, A New Path

Posted in Reads, Research on February 8, 2010 by Melissa Henry

It’s February, a little late for a year in review but here it goes.  You ready for a long one? A big year for this kid, it began halfway through 2009 in July.  I don’t know what sparked this change, but it’s been one hell of a great ride.  I decided it was time to give writing a go, see where it would take me.  From there everything else fell into unexpected but interesting places that then pulled me down a new path of understanding and growth.  Regardless of where this will all lead I know this to be true: no regrets.  The adventure is far more valuable than any achieved goal. Without hesitation or regard for personal pride, I dove in head first knowing I would make mistakes and embarrass myself from time to time.  What is life without losing a little face now and again?  I’d much rather try and fail, face plant in the muck, than do nothing.  Temper this with what a wise guy in a red snowlflaked sweater (said to make him look like Charlie Brown) recently said.  He commented that we shouldn’t fling ourselves to the ground for the mere purpose of obtaining the self-gratification found in picking ourselves up again.  Fall when you must, but don’t trip yourself. So here is what I spent the last half of my 2009 doing… Enrolled in a three-part creative non-fiction workshop and submitted my work without apology or qualification.  It sounds easy enough, but it takes some mental filtering to generate writing outside of your training/area of expertise without saying, “Well this piece is still really rough” or “I usually write analytical stuff but here’s a creative piece.”  If it’s crap, tell me so.  If it’s good, tell me so.  Pull no punches and I’ll give you no excuses.Made a decent go of the first draft.  I’m not there yet but I am

435 pages of their multi-colored records on top of the two years of mine

beginning to see the edges form around it.  Importantly, I got my hands on all the records I needed, two years worth in 435 pages.  Yes, all the complaining of bureaucracy is behind me and in the end?  An unexpected modicum of closure.Single-handedly rolled myself into the madness of LitQuake, without friend or guide, and had an absolute blast.  It was ten days of ping-ponging between San Francisco and the Peninsula, BARTing at all hours and finding my way between venues.  Just a tip, when getting off in the Mission at night, alone, make sure you head in the right direction…towards the lights and people.  Do not head down a street with severely neglected streetlamps just because you are determined to be right about which way the Roxie is.  Determination does not actually affect geography.  My favorite event and perhaps the most difficult to get to in the pummeling rain?  I navigated through the river formerly known as  I-880 to see Mary Roach, who got my dendrites crackling about scientific writing.Went to every reading I found even remotely interesting or related to my project.  Many thanks to Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park for memorable experiences and for stocking every book I might ever want to read.  Also, took a long drive to see another author which was well worth the experience and laughter even if I did make a moronic comment.  Yes, that is mud on my face, I wear it proudly.Went to my first poetry slam.  A poet I am not, though new experiences and entertainment I do seek.  This is where the dominos start to line up.  LitQuake screened “Drums Inside Your Chest” featuring a number of utterly enthralling contemporary poets.  This led me to Santa Cruz to see one of them, Buddy Wakefield, which will then lead to the next item.Applied for and will soon attend Vipassana, soon as in less than 72 hours.  After reading “Live for a Living,” I decided I had to see what this was all about.  Ten days of mediation observed in noble silence, sans: cell phone, computer, books, writing materials and nearly everything else you can imagine that contributes to the Total Noise we exist in.  Me shut my mouth for ten days?  If you’ve read the aforementioned book, you’ll understand that it will be quite a feat to quell the laughter in my head if they serve vegetarian tacos on one of those days.  Noble silence, indeed.Applied for a new position.  While I can’t imagine leaving the job I love so much, the lab in which there isn’t a single person I don’t respect and enjoy working with, I’m finding it necessary to think long-term.  I don’t precisely fit into this new position, but I’ve been told that given other strengths, it just might work.  We’ll see.Began taking an interest in the delicate balance of my life.  Make no mistake, there is enormous power in making small behavioral adjustments that ripple through and effect great change on your life experience.  It has brought immense joy into my life to find my own way through struggles and responsibilities without the things I once leaned upon.  This is not to say that I have achieved that perfect balance.  However, the falls I’ve taken to either side have kept me perched upon that high wire that much longer the next time I climb atop it.  Did that meandering make sense to anyone? So that’s what I’ve done, now for what I have planned… Wrap this project.  Others are floating about in my skull nagging to be worked on.  Stubbornly, I am refusing to divide my attention until this one is more developed.  I’m at that murky place where you find yourself at war with scope and themes and what belongs.  At some point you just have to keep writing knowing that the majority of it will (as it should) succumb to the slash and burn of editing.  You have to continue pushing outwards until you find yourself with a beginning and an end that makes sense with the middle.Complete Vipassana.  If I don’t complete it the first time, I’m going back until I do.  Stubbornness again? The advice I received from an “old student” was simple: STAY.  That’s what I intend to do unless, say, I have a psychotic break.  Then I might just have to try again.Submit more, post more.  I think this one is on all of our lists.Do more, give more.  I waste far too many of these opportunities, the crush of everyday life is no excuse for not doing my part.Gesticulate less (tired of all those ‘mores’) when barreling through the tollgate, over the bridge and down the freeway.  What can I say? Bay Area driving.  Thank God we don’t have bullhorns attached to our hoods. That’s about all the wide-eyed optimism I’m going to spout for now.  Mindfully and fearlessly, that’s how I plan to attack this.  Best laid plans and all of that aside, it will be what I make of it. Cheers, Melissa

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