Today, I’m honored to welcome back to the blog the brilliant Kathe Koja, author of some of my favorite works, including Under the Poppy and Christopher Wild. If you’re not yet familiar with the author, Koja is one of our greatest and most daring living writers. Her fearless ingenuity of form and style, and her creative insights into society and humanity, are unmatched since, probably, the British modernists. It’s a thrill to (re)-introduce you to Kathe Koja today as she celebrates the release of her latest, a remarkable collection titled, VELOCITIES.
The difference between short fiction and long, between a story and a novel, between a poem and a story, between an aphorism and a poem, is velocity. The shorter it is, the faster it goes.
This might seem pretty obvious, and it is. It’s the obvious difference between a walk on the breezy cliffside and a leap into thin air, the days spent in another’s company and the quick chance meeting, the long savor of a bottle of wine and the eye-opening heat of a shot of whiskey. What’s short goes fast.
So a piece of short fiction has to be indelible. This doesn’t mean it needs to go for the shocking twist, although it can, or totally over the top, although it can—just like with any writing, the only unbreakable rule is it has to be good; everything else is a suggestion. But something pared down, cooked down, to an essence, brings all of its savor at once, so everything that matters has to be present, and nothing at all that doesn’t. You don’t get a second chance when it’s short.
What speed gives us, too, is intensity. When you’re going very fast, you have to pay real attention, because so much is coming at once, and it’s too easy to miss something essential until it’s much too late. That tightrope intensity is one reason I especially love reading short fiction, and writing it.
Writing a novel is definitely different (I’m busy with my 17th right now, DARK FACTORY), and I always know whether whatever I plan to write needs to be a novel or a story: the germinating feel is different, the width of the inner landscape, the characters’ complications, and to try to make one into the other nearly never works, at least for me. And a short fiction collection has one great advantage over a novel—every story is a new chance to connect with a reader.
I titled my new collection VELOCITIES, because that’s how these stories should operate: the reader is immediately given a moment, a situation, a character, and what happens next is what needs to happen, the resolution, or mystery, or darkness is achieved; and then it’s done. What I’ve tried to do with each story is offer that savor and speed in different ways—historical stories, contemporary stories, weird stories, horror stories—and in different places—the lonely desert, an ordinary strip mall, a high fashion atelier, a long-ago morgue, the quiet back steps—and hope that each story makes its own impression, that its taste lingers, the feeling is still there after the words are gone.
Look, he said. Look at all the stars.
She liked them young, young men; princes.
My job, senhor, was the pull the drapes.
Once, I said to Davey, I saw the Devil plain.
What he carried to her he carried in a red string bag.
Each of these begins one of the stories in VELOCITIES, starts in one place and ends in quite another, each with its own trajectory, each waiting for a reader to come and take the ride.
VELOCITIES: STORIES by Kathe Koja
RELEASE DATE: 4/21/20
GENRE: Collection / Dark Fantasy / Weird Fiction / Horror
SUMMARY: From the award-winning author of The Cipher and Buddha Boy, comes Velocities, Kathe Koja’s second electrifying collection of short fiction. Thirteen stories, two never before published, all flying at the speed of strange. Dark, disturbing, heartfelt and utterly addictive.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kathe Koja writes novels and short fiction, and creates and produces immersive fiction performances, both solo and with a rotating ensemble of artists. Her work crosses and combines genres, and her books have won awards, been translated, and optioned for film and performance. She is based in Detroit and thinks globally.
GIVEAWAY: $50 Book Shopping Spree!: a Rafflecopter giveaway
It’s hot in here, and the air smells sweet, all sweet and burned, like incense. I love incense, but I can never have any; my allergies, right? Allergic to incense, to cigarette smoke, to weed smoke, to smoke in general, the smoke from the grill at Rob’s Ribs, too, so goodbye to that, and no loss either, I hate this job. The butcher’s aprons are like circus tents, like 3X, and those pointy paper hats we have to wear—“Smokin’ Specialist,” god. They look like big white dunce caps, even Rico looks stupid wearing one and Rico is hot. I’ve never seen anyone as hot as he is.
The only good thing about working here—besides Rico—is hanging out after shift, up on the rooftop while Rob and whoever swabs out the patio, and everyone jokes and flirts, and, if Rob isn’t paying too much attention, me and Rico shotgun a couple of cans of Tecate or something. Then I lean as far over the railing as I can, my hands gripping tight, the metal pressing cold through my shirt; sometimes I let my feet leave the patio, just a few inches, just balancing there on the railing, in thin air . . . Andy always flips when I do it, he’s all like Oh Jani don’t do that Jani you could really hurt yourself! You could fall!
Oh Andy, I always say; Andy’s like a mom or something. Calm down, it’s only gravity, only six floors up but still, if you fell, you’d be a plate of Rob’s Tuesday night special, all bones and red sauce; smush, gross, right? But I love doing it. You can feel the wind rush up between the buildings like invisible water, stealing your breath, filling you right up to the top. It’s so weird, and so choice . . . Like the feeling I always got from you, Baby.
It’s kind of funny that I never called you anything else, just Baby; funny that I even found you, up there in Grammy’s storage space, or crawl space, or whatever it’s called when it’s not really an attic, but it’s just big enough to stand up in. Boxes were piled up everywhere, but mostly all I’d found were old china cup-and-saucer sets, and a bunch of games with missing pieces—Stratego, and Monopoly, and Clue; I already had Clue at home; I used to totally love Clue, even though I cheated when I played, sometimes. Well, all the time. I wanted to win. There were boxes and boxes of Grampy’s old books, doctor books; one was called Surgical Procedures and Facial Deformities and believe me, you did not want to look at that. I flipped it open on one picture where this guy’s mouth was all grown sideways, and his eyes—his eye— Anyway. After that I stayed away from the boxes of books.
And then I found you, Baby, stuffed down in a big box of clothes, chiffon scarves and unraveling lace, the cut-down skirts of fancy dresses, and old shirts like Army uniforms, with steel buttons and appliqués. At the bottom of the box were all kinds of shoes, spike heels, and a couple of satin evening bags with broken clasps. At first I thought you were a kind of purse, too, or a bag, all small and yellow and leathery. But then I turned you over, and I saw that you had a face.
Many thanks to Kathe Koja for stopping by Roof Beam Reader again! If you’re already a fan of Kathe Koja’s work, I hope you’re as excited for VELOCITIES as I am. If you’re new to her work, welcome aboard! You won’t want to miss this.
Dear Diary: April 9, 2020. It’s funny what a little time and quiet can do. I lay myself down to sleep at night and experience the most random memories. I’m a relatively sleepless person. I’ve suffered from insomnia all my life and am now medicated for it, but despite the stressors of this current situation, it seems some of my regular, recurring sleep challenges have dissipated. I don’t lie awake all night thinking about work, for example. I guess I’ve accepted that I’m doing my best to roll with whatever happens this semester and my students are doing the same, so what’s to fuss about? Instead, I’m returning to oddly specific moments in my life and almost lucidly reliving them in my waking dreams.
In the summer of 2002, I entered the hospital for what was to be a mostly routine operation. I was young and healthy, they said. I’d be back to normal in no time, they said. (Really, everyone was saying this.) I wasn’t so sure about medical professionals trying to reassure me through platitudes. Maybe they did it because I was young, or maybe it’s the human way of reaching someone. Those were empty promises, though, when what I wanted was specific information about what to expect from the days and weeks after, the recovery process. I didn’t get much of that. But they did send in a priest. What were they thinking? Is anyone honestly reassured by the presence of a priest in their hospital room? Maybe it’s because I’m not a religious person, but my god did I find that uncomfortable. “You’re going to be fine, you young, healthy dude, but just in case, here’s this person to pray over your soul because, you know, we want to cover all the bases.” Yeah, thanks. I’m super confident about all of this now!
It all went wrong, anyway. Late in the evening after my operation, I began to feel an unusual, building pressure in my abdomen. Luckily, my dad was visiting at the time and I was able to convince him that something was wrong. He was able to convince the nursing staff to take a closer look, and woosh. Just like that, nurses were on the phone with surgeons and I was being wheeled back down to the operating room. In my memory, it seems all of this happened in a matter of minutes, but of course it must have been much longer than that. They were acting urgently, but it couldn’t have been that rapidly. After all, somehow the rest of my family had time enough to get to the hospital again, as did the surgeons. What time was it, when I was wheeled down that sterile white hallway again? When I passed by my mom and sister and uncle, and wait, why did they call my uncle? Is it really that bad? And why is the artwork in this hospital so dull?
Healthy. Young. And still a three-day recovery turned into twenty-seven days. That’s quite the time to spend in a hospital room. At some point, your veins become too weak to give blood, which has to be taken multiple times a day, so they stick a big main line right in your neck. The scar is still there. So are the extra scars on my stomach from the second operation which never should have been necessary. I don’t mind the scars, though. It’s these damn memories. Why do they come to me in the middle of the night, and what is it that I haven’t resolved? Maybe it’s this: I remember who visited and who didn’t and how surprised I was by the balance of those two columns. I remember waking in the ICU, freezing because the bed I was on had some kind of temperature feature that had been turned all the way down; it was to help break a fever, of course, but I was still intubated and couldn’t tell anyone that my body was about to go into shock from the cold. I banged and banged on the bed, pleaded with my eyes. They couldn’t understand me and no one even bothered to offer a pen and paper. My dad was there again. Two for two. I grabbed his wrist, put his hand on the bed. And he hailed the nursing staff again.
I remember the parents of friends who came to sit with me, brought me comic books, told me how my pals were doing. I remember my dad bringing me books, Tom Sawyer and Interview with the Vampire, my mom bringing donuts for the nurses, and my sister taking “walks” with me, but really I was barely shuffling. I remember my best friend’s mom showing up at the same time as my grandparents and what a strange and uncomfortable overlap of social circles that was to me at the time. I remember that very friend calling me from Texas, where he and his sister were on vacation at the time, and how weird it was to talk on the phone with someone I spent most nights riding around with, raising hell. And there we were chatting quietly and seriously, both of us probably thinking about the thing we couldn’t say. I remember people from high school, who I hadn’t seen in over a year, showing up at my bedside in tears and thinking, I never knew you thought of me. How good it is to know and to have you here. But of course I didn’t say any of that, nor much of anything else.
I remember being too tired and sick in the months afterward to reach out to the people who visited to say “thank you.” And that’s what’s bothering me, now. When I was young, I was able to feel gratitude but I wasn’t too capable of expressing it. I think I’ve gotten better at the expression thing in general, but how late is too late to say something? Funny, isn’t it, what we think about when we have the time and the quiet? But some things shouldn’t be kept quiet.
Recently Read: Sula by Toni Morrison. What a wild ride that was. I’ll try to get some actual thoughts together on it and post a real “review.” By my count, though, I now have 4 books to write about, plus 2 ARCs. So, hm. How does that keep happening?
Currently Reading: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë . This is my third time reading it and I might actually be enjoying it more this time than I did the last two times. I’m such a proponent for re-reading. It’s amazing how time and our experiences can influence the way we read.
Currently Listening To: “Us” by James Bay, from his second album Electric Light (2018). “Used to be kids living just for kicks / In cinema seats, learning how to kiss / Running through streets that were painted gold / We never believed we’d grow up like this.” Are you paying attention to James Bay? He’s a stunning writer and his voice has something indefinable in it that is impossible to stop listening to. I’ve got both of his albums on vinyl, because he’s that kind of artist. He’s also been performing a lot on Instagram throughout this crisis.
Teaching Updates: It’s spring break, here, and I’ve spent most of it getting caught up on grading. It will be nice to enter these final five weeks without any pending work to return to my students. I’m prepping my summer courses, too, though I have no idea right now what the term will look like. We’re online, but will people even register for summer classes this year, with all that’s going on?
Current Status: 2,318 cases and 80 deaths. Our peak is predicted to happen sometime around April 17. I read an article today where someone argues the Las Vegas strip should stay shut down for 6-12 months. Their rationale is that the 400+ million people who travel to Las Vegas annually could mean the city is ripe for future outbreaks, perhaps more so than most other places. I appreciate that our governor acted so swiftly weeks ago to shut the state down to non-essential business. I think we’re in a much better position than we would have been other and, hopefully, this means we can begin to get back to normal sooner than later; but the idea that the Strip itself should stay closed is both logically compelling and realistically horrifying. The state economy is virtually nothing without LVS. I hope the rest of the world, the states and other places not yet taking action, start to do so now so that places like ours, and Florida, and other tourism-based locales, don’t continue to suffer longer than necessary.
Positive Thoughts: The other day, I saw a Great Blue Heron resting on someone’s rooftop. A Great Blue Heron in the desert. We’ve got snow, still, on the mountaintops, and it’s raining today. There’s greenery growing in the low hills south of the valley. The earth is breathing again.
Dear Diary: April 3, 2020. I imagined writing a post today about the difficulties of spending one’s birthday in forced isolation due to a global pandemic. I mean, that would certainly fit the theme, right? But the more I thought about it, the less I find that I have anything to complain about. Would I like to be able to go out tonight with my husband for a sushi dinner and a specialty cocktail? Sure. Is it terribly awful that I can’t? Not really.
After all, I woke up early this morning with the sunrise, which spreads in brilliant orange and purple hues across our eastern sky and breaks across the mountain silhouettes. I walked into that sunrise on my own two capable feet, listening to some of my favorite tunes and thinking about the people I love all over the world who are still well, still healthy, or who have come and gone but left their impression on me. About my parents, my grandparents, my sister and sister-in law, all my amazing nephews and my brilliant niece who is, courageously, up on her own in Oregon working on her college degree. And that makes me think of my students, current and former, and the incredible things they’re doing or that they have ahead of them. My family and friends in Illinois and California, and around the world. What’s to opine, when your birthday is filled in the only way that really matters? Knowing there are people out there who have changed your life and, perhaps, who might think a little about you today, too.
I find that it’s these shadows and whispers of time, the imperceptible and incalculable moments of being, and not those measured in days, years, or ages that ultimately change us and change the world. It wasn’t President Kennedy’s inaugural pledge that “we will see a man on the moon” that shaped a people, nor was it the proceeding months, miles, or dollars spent on achieving that extraordinary task. Instead, it was the one definable instant when Neil Armstrong’s snowy boot set foot on that cold, strange and rocky surface, and the seconds that it took for him to speak, “one small step for man.” Suddenly, the days and decades–the tasks and failures prior–were of no consequence. In a fleeting but timeless moment, we became a new race of people, not simply human or American, but titans and dreamers. We were Atlas, holding up the sky collectively, together, and looking down on ourselves from the heavens.
I think we need to keep finding ways to challenge ourselves, inspire ourselves, and love ourselves and one another, that need not be measured but simply owned. Appreciated. Remembered. If self-isolation is teaching me anything, it is that a whole lot of our experience, including what we call our priorities, has been shaped by influences that are less necessary than they are assumed. I have a new appreciation for the passing of time and for the tricks we play on ourselves about what matters and what doesn’t, about what is important and what is not. What if we learned to really measure our successes and our happiness in tiny moments, rather than grand accomplishments? Could we then begin to cherish the one true, and exhaustible, resource that is most precious to us? Each other.
Currently Reading: I’m about to finish Toni Morrison’s Sula and have continued with The Age of Atheists (which is brilliant, by the way. I’m looking forward to sharing more with you all about this one, but I’m only about half-way into the 500+ page tome, so, hold your horses!) I also have two ARCs to read.
Currently Writing: I’m revising my YA novel manuscript and working on some poetry. I had a weird (really weird) idea for a kind of eco-dystopian science fiction novel, too, which came to me in a dream. Don’t they always?
Currently Listening To: “Trouble Me” from 10,000 Maniacs’ 1989 album, Blind Man’s Zoo. “Trouble me, disturb me with all your cares and you worries. / Trouble me on the days when you feel spent. / Why let your shoulders bend underneath this burden when my back is sturdy and strong? / Trouble me.” I have a special relationship with this band and this album, and this song. I don’t want to go into it too much, but let’s say that if my YA novel ever makes it to publication and isn’t revised beyond recognition, then those who read it will learn a bit more about all this. Have I whet your appetite? Will you pre-order my not-even-scheduled-for-publication novel?
Teaching Updates: Grading for five online classes is no joke. In that, it’s not funny. What I mean is, boy, I hate grading! That’s not entirely fair, actually. I’m fortunate to be a writing and literature professor who loves both of those things. I especially love seeing students develop their own ideas, their own consciousnesses, and to learn how to find their own voices. This is the point in the semester where that starts to happen. It is wonderful and inspiring; it keeps me going even when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work there is to do.
Current Status: Nevada’s Governor updated our “essential businesses” emergency proclamation to a full stay-at-home order, effective until at least April 30. It hasn’t changed much in terms of what we are doing, but there is a bit more severity in terms of business oversight and potential penalties for ignoring social distancing guidelines. Stores like Wal-mart and Costco, for example, can no longer sell non-essential items; they can remain open if they are selling food/pharmacy items only.
Positive Thoughts: I am here. You, reading this, you are here. We are probably far apart in physical distance, but we are together here. And ain’t that something?
Dear Diary: March 30, 2020. I’ve seen “covid diaries” popping-up on social media, mostly friends’ feeds, and gee, what a thrill to be a trendsetter! I have to say, I’m glad to see a lot of people using the time and technology we have to continue to keep in touch with one another. It’s not the kind of personal connection that many prefer, but it’s better than nothing. I’ve also been enjoying watching the many heart-warming and funny stories people are sharing, whether its emergency services crew cheering up medical staff or photos and videos of friends visiting one another for birthdays or special occasions, but maintaining social distance guidelines. Sure, it’s weird to see your friends holding up “happy birthday!” signs from your front curb rather than from within your living room, but I think the important thing is that we’re still thinking about one another and finding ways to be there for each other, all while caring for people’s health and safety.
Recently Read: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. This could be classified as historical fiction or a biographical novel; I guess it depends on who you ask and how close one considers it to truth. Some people don’t make any distinction between historical fiction and biographical novels, but I do. To me, historical fiction is about a general time/place/event but is mostly fictional in terms of characters and situations, a la Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief; a biographical novel, on the other hand, is a researched piece of fiction that relies heavily on historical fact of persons, times, and places, with some things, like dialogue, mostly invented. Irving Stone’s Lust for Life and Christopher Bram’s Gods & Monsters (AKA Father of Frankenstein) would fit this bill. And so does Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies. The author has researched the lives of the The Mirabal sisters, Patria, Minerva, Maria, and Dede, who lived in the Dominican Republican during the time of Trujillo. Most of the sisters eventually joined–or led, depending on who you ask–resistance cells. Inspired by events like Castro’s rebellion in Cuba, they worked against Trujillo’s dictatorial regime quietly and through back-channels, though some of them had pursued and received college degrees.
The novel itself is told from the perspective of each of the sisters in alternating chapters, divided by time period. It moves back and forth through time, often returning to the lone surviving sister’s perspective from after the events of the revolution. Some of the strong points for this one include excellent characterization; each of the sister’s voices comes through distinctly, which is important in a multiple-POV narrative. The history and the fiction are also wonderfully interwoven into the larger narrative voice, making it all unfold smoothly; there are no lengthy treatises or segues into historical exposition; instead, the history is worked into the course of these biographical fictive events. Finally, Alvarez brings the time, place, and people to life through use of local idioms and customs, distinctive senses of humor and cultural artifacts. I would have liked to have gotten a lot more detail about what the sisters actually did in terms of leading or being part of the rebellion; most of what the reader learns is about the sisters’ everyday lives, with the revolution a relatively vague affair, to be honest. Still, books like this are absolutely necessary, particularly to western readers who tend not to get much history beyond the major western events, through an Americanized lens. Learning about the other important changes happening in the world at this time is so important, and interesting.
Currently Reading: I’m reading Toni Morrison’s Sula. Yesterday, I completed Part One of the two part novel. It’s still amazing to me how quickly and easily I sink into Morrison’s narratives, particularly because their themes are always so heavy. There’s something about her style, though, that allows her to wallop me with truth while keeping me wholly invested, turning the pages faster and faster to learn more about these beautiful, terrible characters and their complicated lives. I’m also still working on Leonard Cohen’s collection of poetry and drawings, Book of Longing. I’ll probably finish both of these in the next couple of days and then it is on to another re-read of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (how many times is this? ten?) and a re-read of Jane Eyre (third time?).
Currently Writing: I received my first draft response from one of my three beta readers late last week. Her feedback was just what I needed to hear, really, so it has motivated me to return to my novel WIP and get cracking on revisions! I was particularly curious about two things–elements of the story that were important to me–and this reader happened to mention both of those elements, with praise. I can’t put into words how encouraging that is, or how great it felt to hear it when I hadn’t even prompted for it. So, thank you, beta reader (you know who you are), for your feedback. I can’t wait to get to work on this. I have three revisions planned, one for each beta response, and then I hope to start submitting to publishers in June. I’ve also been revisiting and revising some of my poems, and writing some new ones. I have submitted a few to a few online journals that I read and enjoy, too; so, work is picking up in this regard.
Currently Listening To: Harry Styles’ Fine Line. I’m going to be honest, here. I’ve enjoyed listening to Harry Styles for years, ever since his audition days and the formation of One Direction. Most of One Direction’s music was lighthearted pop, though, which is fun but not particularly moving; that being said, I had spotted his voice and artistry pretty early and have been rooting him on. The only contemporary artist I see who has interested me the same way, as singer-artist-songwriter, is Troye Sivan (which, by the way, if you’re not watching his Instagram right now, you should be. He’s doing some interesting things.) Styles’ first solo album, self-titled, was proof enough that he’s got incredible talent and is likely to have a long and interesting career. Despite my being a fan, though, I’ve only just gotten around to listening to all of Styles’ second album, Fine Line, and my goodness. Stevie Nicks wrote in a letter to her own fans recently that this is his Rumours, which is both high and deserved praise. I happen to agree with her; this album is a masterpiece and Styles is moving beyond impressive into genius, as singer, songwriter, and musician. “Falling” might be the best song he has written yet, even better than “Sign of the Times,” which is also brilliant. We have tickets to see Harry with the incomparable Jenny Lewis later this year, and I’m hoping, hoping, hoping that the pandemic and all its implications don’t result in the concert being canceled or postponed. I haven’t looked forward to a show this much in years. I’m also a little obsessed (and proud! so proud!) of his insistence on being himself, of breaking or ignoring gender expectations. Will he perform in fishnet stockings, the way he appeared recently in Beauty Papers? We should only be so lucky!
Teaching Updates: We are officially online for the rest of the semester, not just the two or three weeks that were originally planned. No surprise. Things are getting tricky; so many students are having complications due to the massive, quick, and uproarious changes brought on by stay-at-home orders: job loss, loss of access, increased work responsibilities for nurses/healthcare workers, mobilization of military students, etc. These compound the typical challenges that students face over the course of the semester and particularly around midterm. I’m finding it difficult to find more and more ways to adapt and to be fluid and fair. I’ve decided to be rather soft with deadlines, but there are some things that students request that I don’t think are actually helpful or fair; still, it’s hard to say “no” right now. I’m also balancing their needs with mine; having five online courses to facilitate is extremely difficult. All the work typically done in a classroom setting, like discussions, is now done online, too, which means it’s not just an hour in the classroom where we get to have the discussion and I can assess it quickly; instead, it’s five classes of going into discussion boards, reading everyone’s comments and responses, and responding to them when/where needed. That takes literally hours and hours to do. So, this is stressful and this is a challenge, but I’ll continue to do the best I can. I’m certainly open to hearing what other professors are doing, though, so please share if you’ve got good ideas.
Current Status: As of today, the Nevada Department of Health reports 753 cases of COVID-19 and 15 deaths. That’s a 20% increase from a week ago. Judging by the traffic on the roads and at the parks, it does seem like people are social distancing slightly, but I would really prefer a total stay-at-home order for the entire nation right now, for 2-4 weeks. At some point, we must get serious and close it all down so that people have enough time to recover from the virus while stopping the spread. Personally, I too have some health updates. My doctors seem confident that they’ve figured out what’s going on with me. The first part of the equation seems to be severe allergies, for which I’m being medicated. Nothing to be done about that, I guess. The other, more serious problem appears to be a genetic blood disorder. I’m being tested again in 3-months to see what current treatment is doing (helpful or not) and to see if they can specifically confirm their diagnosis; the doctor is pretty certain, but there are always anomalies. In any case, the bad news is this is something I’ll always have but the good news is that it is treatable. I am one of those “immuno-compromised” individuals, though, so if it helps to have someone in mind when thinking about whether you should be following social distancing rules right now, well, feel free to think of me. I’d like to stay alive for a while longer, if you please.
Positive Thoughts: I’m corresponding via snail mail with one of my nephews, who is five (six? Oh no!), and that has been a real joy. His first letter asked, “when can you come over again?” and “what are you reading?” Does that kid know me, or what!? I’ve been sending out postcards to friends and family in order to stay in touch a bit more “personally” while all of this is going on. A friend had shared concerns about the safety of postal workers and mail delivery right now, so I did some research online and went to my local US post office to ask about it, and was reassured that postal delivery is still mostly safe, particularly if one is being cautious. Postal workers who are concerned are wearing gloves and have received other safety guidelines; the virus can live on surfaces for some time, but not for particularly long, it seems (certainly not the days it takes to transport mail). I’ve also been extra careful, though, and have been sanitizing the cards with Lysol spray prior to putting them in the mailbox. Maybe that’s overdoing it, but better to be safe, right? I’m also mostly sending the post cards to people who expressed interest in receiving them, so I have permission first. That said, if you would like one, please feel free to get in touch! (I would need your address, obviously.) They’re literary-themed and I have a lot!
“There is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
Dear Diary: March 23, 2020. Today is the fifth day of Nevada’s 30-day stay-at-home order. I’m not going to lie, it’s a little bit funny (amusing) to see all my extrovert friends’ responses to this new reality. I’m used to not hearing much from them because they’re always busy doing things “out there” in the real world. But now, I see their social media feeds suddenly booming with activity and I receive text messages about all the littlest things they’re doing or that happen to them. I hope they’re okay! I’m an introvert but not exactly a homebody. I like to be out and about, too, just mostly alone. I especially like to go out for walks and to head to my local coffee shop down the street to write/work in the mornings. The coffee shop is closed, of course, so that’s been impossible. It’s hard to motivate myself to keep the same schedule at home. I’ve been waking up much later and not getting as much of my own, personal work done as usual; that’s not great. I am, however, making a conscious effort to act as if I’m going about business as usual, meaning showering, getting dressed, etc. I’m not one of those “teach online courses in my pajamas” kinds of people. If you can do it, great for you, but psychologically, I need to “get in the mode.”
A thought I’ve been having lately: I think we, the entire planet, should shut down like this for two weeks, twice per year, every year. Do you live in or around a stay-at-home region? Have you looked at the sky? Here, the views are absolutely stunning. The air is so clean. I know a lot of people are sick and dying and that’s no reason to cheer. But what if we could find a way to come together, all of humanity, to respect our planet in this way regularly and on purpose? I hope we don’t forget what the world looks like and feels like right now, when all of this is over. But of course we will.
Recently Read: Good Poems for Hard Times selected and introduced by Garrison Keillor. Perhaps my favorite part of this anthology is its dedication: “To the English teachers of America, doing good work every day, with admiration and affection from an old student.” How lovely. It’s nice to be recognized sometimes, even though Keillor’s reputation is currently questionable. That aside, the anthology is a nice one. It is separated into 10 sections by theme, some of which work better than others. To be honest, I expected the themes to hold together a bit better than they did. I was also hoping for some notes or annotations on the poems or, at the very least, as introductions to each part of the anthology. It’s really just a bunch of collected poems, though. That’s fine, I guess, except it wouldn’t be too difficult to just pop on Poets.org or The Poetry Foundation and browse. In other words, I don’t think there’s much connection between the poems, the themes, and the promised title, Good Poems for Hard Times. I just wanted a little more. That said, there are some brilliant poems in here, including classics that were fun to revisit as well as poems I’d never heard of. Some of my favorites in here are “Happiness” by Raymond Carver; “Working in the Rain” by Robert Morgan; “Sonnet CVI: When in the Chronicle of Wasted Time” by William Shakespeare; “A Spiral Notebook” by Ted Kooser; “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin; “Last Days” by Donald Hall; and “Death Mask” by Edward Field.
Currently Reading: Yesterday, I finished reading In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. Or did I finish it two days ago? In any case, I finished it and plan to watch the movie today or tomorrow. I’m looking forward to seeing how they adapted the book to the big screen because the narration is peculiar. I won’t say much more than that since I hope to write out a complete review at some point. I’m also about half-way done with The Princess Bride by William Goldman, which as been a lot of fun so far. The second half of Part 5 was a riot. I’m still reading Cohen’s poetry collection and today I’ll also begin reading Toni Morrison’s Sula. It’s impossible not to look forward to reading Morrison, isn’t it? I need to get back to my non-fiction reading, too, though. I have dozens of magazines stacked up, not to mention my copy of The Age of Atheists, which I had been making great progress with for a while but which has been neglected for too long.
Currently Writing: I submitted three poems recently and have a number out there that I wait to hear back about. I also just stumbled across another book about writing memoir, which a friend is currently reading or has on deck. I’m not sure, actually. It was posted to someone’s Instagram feed, I looked it up, it seemed good, I ordered it. Ha! I’m continuing to work on new poetry and to revise a dozen or so poems that I have written. I’ll get back to working on revisions to my novel soon, especially if I can manage to adjust my internal clock again and get to work here at home in the mornings. I miss my coffee shop!
Currently Listening To: Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell (2015). “Well you do enough talk / My little hawk, why do you cry? / Tell me what did you learn from the Tillamook burn? / Or the Fourth of July? / We’re all gonna die.” Okay, so I have a dark sense of humor. Deal with it. This is probably Stevens’s best album, which is saying something because all of his work is incredible. There’s something deeply personal and touching about this one, though; where many of his albums have connections to times and places, this one is intentionally (auto)biographical. It’s a painful story. It’s a little crazy to think it was released a decade after Illinoise, which is the album that put him on the map. I can’t think of many artists who bookend a decade with their best works. (Aside: Did you know Dolly Parton has had a Top 20 hit in 6-consecutive decades!? She’s the only musician to do so. Now that we are in 2020, if she gets another one, she can make that 7-consecutive decades. Come on, Dolly!)
Teaching Updates: As I mentioned above, I think I’m doing a pretty good job of keeping up with my students despite now having five online courses. I am eager to try a lot of these new tools and programs that I’m discovering courtesy of the pandemic collaborations that are going on among teachers right now. Zoom looks particularly interesting to me, mostly for its background options, though. I saw a professor who was giving his lecture with the Hogwarts castle as his background and must admit to getting a bit jealous! I have no camera on my home computer, though, so I’ve mostly been recording lectures with Camtasia. It’s working well, I think. I’m not sure now is the time for me to really play around with all the new stuff anyway. I might turn it into a summer project or, someday, a sabbatical project for online pedagogy.
Current Status: As of Sunday 3/22, the Nevada Department of Health reports 191 cases of COVID-19. That’s double the amount that had been reported as of three days ago (which means it doubled in 48-hours.) If that’s the trend, then we are looking at something truly horrifying, but I think most of us realize that by now. Look what’s happening in Italy, Spain, and New York. On the horizon seem to be New Orleans and Florida, due to the recent large public gatherings (Mardi Gras and Spring Break) in both places. Here in Nevada, traffic has slowed, skies have cleared, and stores still struggle to stock the essentials. We have gone out every day for exactly one week, looking for toilet paper only to be denied. Our local grocer changed its hours last week from closing at midnight to closing at 10pm. Last night, they began closing at 8pm. They need the extra hours to stock the shelves because they’ve been getting so wiped out. Will this stabilize soon?
Positive Thoughts: I like to think about the earth breathing freely right now, for the first time in how long? I’ve seen all sorts of commentary about how humans are the real virus, etc. I can understand that point of view; we’ve certainly done a number on this beautiful place we all call home. It’s really a wonder to look around now and to be able to see for miles and miles. The mountain vistas are in crisp, clear focus. I can see detail where, just a couple weeks ago, there were only amorphous hazes. Despite some selfish dolts that remain flippant about our current situation, I’m also heartened to see and hear about so many people out there who are helping others. A pre-Med student at the University of Nevada, Reno, for example, started a volunteer service to provide grocery shopping and delivery for the elderly who can’t (or shouldn’t) leave their homes right now. The songs of Italy, the companies that are doing everything they can to keep their employees paid, the artists who have taken their work online and begun streaming for free; the teachers and technicians offering mini-lessons in everything from guitar to painting to cooking. And of course, the essential workers, who we’re all seeing at last. The nurses and doctors, teachers and grocers, transporters and farmers. I send up a great cheer to them all. Let’s continue supporting them. Be kind to them, and to each other.
“We are all here to help each other to get through this thing, whatever it is.” -Kurt Vonnegut, quoting his son Mark.
For the ink-hearted
an exposition of micro and punk poetry
Dedicated to Emerging Writers
quotes, excerpts and reviews
You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. Octavia E. Butler
My life as a black, disabled teenager
A bookish blog (mostly) about women writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
A great WordPress.com site