Friday, June 27, 2008

What the hell was that?

Made a quick trip to Miami U of Ohio yesterday for a drive by gig with Sara.

We saw this on the way home halfway between Dayton and Columbus:

At first it was tough to see what it was - but whatever it was it was moving pretty quick - 80-85 mph and darting around traffic like a waterbug.

Once we got close enouigh I snapped a pic of our Mad Max impersonator with my cell phone.

And finally we left him behind as we pulled off to get some coffee!

Rock on...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Holly Hobnobbing

This past week I served on a panel judging a writing contest at American Greetings – the greeting card company headquartered here in Cleveland. Along with me were the executive director of The Lit – Cleveland’s Literary Center and the head of the Cleveland Institute of Art’s creative writing department.

The AG campus was fairly massive with its own Starbucks centered in an indoor courtyard. An empire built on the backs, blood and sweat of Ziggy, Holly Hobbie, Strawberry Shortcake and the duplicitously fluorescent colored Care Bears. Even so, everyone I met there seemed very nice and went to great efforts to see that we felt appreciated. The rumors of forced sing-alongs and oompah loompah-like chorus line productions ending in cupcake feeding frenzies are totally false. Our payment for the three and a half hour task were hundred dollar gift certificates to a hoity-toity steakhouse – one of those places where they have a meat parade at your tableside so you can pick out your cut. There was also a visual arts component to the contest – but those judges were long gone when we finished perusing our entries.

The works we read ranged in quality but those we chose as winners were good as or better than anything I’ve seen in lit journals. To boot, the company was coming up off some real scratch – we had $2500.00 smackers to divide amongst the winners in any way we deemed fit.

Mind you though, any of this is totally subjective. Three different judges may have come up with different choices – maybe not for the overall winner – but once you get past the one or two who immediately rise above, those who just make or miss the cut are a lot more idiosyncratic. There was even some dealing going on “you think they should be in – well then how about adding this one then…”

Such is the case with all contests, literary journals, etc. So many times inclusion boils down to the cliché of who you know as much as what you know. How many academics’ publishing credits are buoyed by their works being assigned to classes taught by their cronies? I know I have benefited by my connections with people on editorial boards. Any little nudge that gets your work out of the slush pile and into a person’s hand who can make a decision instead of some bitter grad student convinced her work should be filling the pages as sole feature of whatever rag she’s interning at. Of course once you’ve got your stuff untwined from the pile of submissions raked into the corner – you still have to have something worth reading. Just remember if you're lucky enough to to bust free – there are dozens of pieces just as worthy as yours that will never escape that black hole.

A couple years back I was asked to review a body of work being considered for publication by a local university. I hated the stuff – I found it a soulless exercise in linguistic acrobats intertwined with complacent acknowledgment of one's own superiority sprinkled with winking understatement - and I said so. Now I had never been asked to do an academic review before (nor since) but I had done book reviews – so this is what I sent back to the dean of the literature department – I thought the piece I wrote was great. Well my dear readers – it turns out they weren’t interested in my opinion as much as they had implied – in fact the work under consideration was already slated for publication and they were looking for fawning praise, words numbering in the thousands – not the sardonic and flame broiled 750 word skewering I delivered.

Anyways – there’s your lesson for the day. You want to get your stuff in print – do your homework, get to know the folks in charge. Having been one of them this past week I can definitely say – they ain’t anybody extra special so don’t get too full of yourself when accepted or too down on yourself when rejected.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Bobbing for snakes.

Bob is a snake. He lives in my basement.

My son Frank has set up a terrarium down there – the house came with a giant fish tank built into the wall in the finished basement and over the years that we have lived here it has housed some different animals – mostly fish. The quintessential trait required of fish living downstairs was their ability to go long stretches of time being completely ignored and in the dark.

This past year or so Frank has become interested in reptiles. I too have kept dormant an inclination and affection for the scaly little monsters so I am aiding and abetting in this foray into herpetological housing. So we’ve got a hundred and fifty gallon aquarium with four anoles six tree frogs and Bob the snake merrily cavorting about in their climate controlled kingdom.

Bob is the only resident down there with a name; he was christened by our grandson Scotty. I asked Scotty what we should name the small green snake and he replied without hesitation and no small amount of incredulity – “Bob”. The rest of the crew is anonymous.

Bob is an escape artist. He slithers through the tiniest crack and gaps in the terrarium’s lid. He doesn’t go anywhere once he’s escaped. He just curls up into a coil and hangs out on top of the tank on the bare wood lid instead of basking in the full spectrum fluorescent light inside of his live plant filled enclosure.

This must be a metaphor for something don’t you think? No matter how comfortable a cage is one still seeks to escape? Of course this is anthromorphizing our buddy Bob, bestowing some sort of thought process beyond electric firings of a primordial brain stem sputtering like the weak sparks emitted from a butane spent Bic lighter.

Or maybe the fact that Bob just stays on top of that cage – not venturing any further once he gets out - maybe that is the real metaphor. Either way – I’ve sealed up those cracks and Bob hasn’t pulled his Houdini stunt in a couple days.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

We’ll See…


Michelle Obama took a bunch of flack for saying that she finally had a chance to feel proud of the United States awhile back. Well last night while I was watching Barack kick off the general election after clinching the Democratic Party nomination I think I may have been sharing his wife's sentiment.

Now I am not naïve enough to believe that one person can change everything immediately – but it was so refreshing to listen to an articulate and intelligent speech free from the ad hominem mean spirited character assassination that has passed as political discourse for the last decade.

When did we get so nasty? It will definitely be interesting to see if Obama can continue to take the high road in this campaign. I think this is where Hillary went wrong (besides voting to authorize Bush's Iraqi fiasco.) When her campaign miscalculated its strategy they fell back on the tried and true ways of attack defame and belittle. Surprisingly this backfired - just barely. This is where my hope comes from.

50.1% of Democratic voters (I totally made up this statistic – but I'd bet it's not only in the ballpark it's sitting like a rosin sack on the pitcher's mound) said they were sick of the divisive and spiteful temperament of the last administration. This gives one a smidgeon of a reason to be hopeful. Will it be enough to carry the general election, will this approach hold up against the Rovian attack apparatus that is gearing up like some steam punk demolition machine, or has this ideal already been irreparably damaged by the primary contests? We'll see.

I hope things don't degenerate too quickly even though the talking heads are already stirring the pot this morning shouting over top of each other.

I hope this candidacy gives the kids I work with at Charles Lake Elementary something to aspire to other than a career in pro basketball or gangsta rap.

I hope civility is taken down from the curio cabinet of the passé.

We'll see. We'll see.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Haiku - Gesundheit

After wowwing the delegation from Kirgizstan I spent the next three days teaching haiku and public speaking skills to the sixth graders at at Bay Village Middle School with my partner in rhyme Sara Holbrook. We hiked around the environs near the school, across soccer fields, peering onto groundskeeper’s sheds trudging through woods (I swear that’s not poison ivy) and plotting against the other groups being led by Sara.

We were just a part of an outdoor experience week that the sixth grade class was participating in as part of their year ending program. They also had classes in orienteering, hiking, ecology, recycling, etc. We ended our part of the conglomeration with a Head to Head Haiku Single Elimination Sudden Death Match. The contest was devised by a friend of ours from Chicago – that bastion of poetry competition – Dan Ferri. It's based on a sumo wrestling format and taken seriously over the top by the person MC’ing the event, which of course was me. Sara manned the gong. This was the first time I have tried this event with middle schoolers and I have to admit – it went great and will now be a permanent part of my repertoire.

I am finding more and more that exercises and activities I use in creative writing classes really have no age boundaries. If it works with a third grader it works with an MFA creative writing candidate - in fact the two groups actually share the same peer pressure spawned neurosis.

The basic principles of good writing transcend age, ego and book assignments based on academic affiliated back scratching. The main difference I see is once we get past middle school we wring all the fun out of creative writing trying to turn it into some secret reserved for the more serious.

Meanwhile, all our most successful writers and poets (i.e. those that make a living off of writing outside of the hallowed halls of terminally degreed tenure tracks – you know, those whose books actually SELL) brandish a bit of whimsy and humor with their craft. Of course – if the work is in the least bit accessible or worse yet, popular in any fashion it is derided by the aforementioned cannibalistic and cabalistic cliques.

This is one reason I have gravitated to working with younger folks even though doing so may at times lower the status my work may hold with that other bunch. This reminds me of a favorite quote by young adult author friend of mine, Jane Yolen – she of hundreds of books lining library shelves. When asked by folks does she ever think she’ll graduate to writing for adults she answers the query deadpan with a question – “Would you ever ask a pediatrician if they plan on graduation and treating adults?”

Okay, I’ve meandered a bit here. Bottom line… The kids had a blast – they were excited – they were clapping – they were cheering each other on – all over their own writing which they were presenting on stage. I wonder who will be their first educator to tell them to quit making so much noise?