Upcoming & recent:
October 3 at 10:45 am – Presentation on the elegy at the Oregon Poetry Association Conference, University Place Hotel, 310 SW Lincoln St. Portland.
October 3 at 6:30 pm (doors at 6 pm) – Bridges: A Night of Poetry in Translation. Translations from the Russian by Marat Grinberg and I, and translations from the Anglo-Saxon by Annie Lighthart and Michael Faletra at TaborSpace Café, 5441 Se Belmont St, Portland, OR 97215.
Videos! Watch my introduction to translating Russian poetry and a bilingual reading of "Relearning Solitude" from the event at the Oregon Jewish Museum in April 2015. Also, see me tell the story“Summer of Men” at Truth Be Told at the Multnomah Arts Center in May 2015. Thanks for filming, Mike Chastain.
I've been spending lots of time with this guy's poems. I've travelled to many places – Bratislava, Tokyo, the inside of the Nike campus – but I've never stood in a place quite like this: between a dead poet, his words, and the large gap between the source language and English.
Meet Boris Slutsky. Born in 1919 in Ukraine, dead in 1986. He was a significant figure in Russian poetry in the last century, fought in WWII, and had a fascinating relationship with his own Jewishness as it often clashed with the times he lived in. By the end of this year, my collaborator, Marat Grinberg, and I will have translated 50 poems and will also have started translating selections from Slutsky's memoir. Yes, this will make up a manuscript. And yes, I am excited.
My favorite analogy to describe the strange work of literary translation is forcibly shattering a mirror and then creating something out of all the pieces. The poem in the source language is broken apart into its elements of meaning, diction, rhythm, tone, rhyme, line, and syntax. As the translator stares at all the shards, she recognizes that there is no way to make the same thing again using the English language. She accepts this fact, not without disappointment, and then begins the slow and challenging work of trying a hundred ways to create a new, beautiful mirror out of the splinters of glass.
I'd love to see you at the next public presentation of these newly-made poems on Saturday, October 3 at TaborSpace Cafe at 6:30 pm. Marat and I will be joined by Annie Lighthart and Michael Falerta, collaborative translators who will be reading poems in Anglo-Saxon and sharing their broken mirrors along with us. The event is free and un-ticketed.
Best to you in the changing season,
The Quick and dirty:
-I’m part of a VoiceCatcher reading at MilePost 5 at 7 pm on Tuesday, June 16. I'll be reading an essay about my travels to Thessaloniki, Greece. VoiceCatcher is an amazing publication to be involved with and I'm excited to hear the other readers.
-Starting Tuesday, June 16 for six weeks, I'll be offering an Open Writing Studio Class at the Multnomah Arts Center with writing to prompts. It's $15 to drop into one class or $70 for 6 weeks.
-Next reading of Russian poetry translations is October 3rd at 6:30 pm at TaborSpace cafe. (the first one went great with 44 in attendance! Thanks to all who showed up.
Friends, peers, and teachers,
Peggy Shumaker, a brilliant writer, mentor, and friend, once shared a poem by Jane Hirschfeld with me that became my rallying cry for many years. Here it is:
Ask Much, The Voice Suggested
Ask much, the voice suggested, and I startled.
Feeling my body like the trembling body of a horse
tied to its tree while the strange noise
passes over its ears.
I who in extremity had always wanted less,
even of eating, of sleeping.
Agile, the voice did not speak again, but waited.
“Want more” -
a cure for longing I had not thought of.
But that is how it is with wells.
Whatever is taken refills to the steady level.
The voice agreed, though softly, to quiet the feet of the horse:
A cup taken out, a cup reappears; a bucketful taken, a bucket.
One reason I love this poem so much is that it is mysterious. Why is her body like a trembling horse? Where is this poem taking place? Who is the horse? Who uses wells nowadays?
Honestly, I wouldn't say that I "get" most of my favorite poems. But I always took this poem to mean something about openness to multiplicities of good.
I am gardening for the first time in my life this year (yes, yes, I'm utterly Portland now after 8 years here) and plants have helped me understand this poem differently.
When the seeds I planted emerged as actual plants, it was thrilling and I'm sure I danced to celebrate. Then I replanted them all in the 4 X 8 garden bed; to me, they all seemed like fine candidates to thrive. When my friend Katie came over, the conversation went like this:
"Uh Judith-you know that's a lot of lettuce plants there."
"Well yeah. The guinea pigs really like lettuce."
"What I mean is the lettuce plants get big and need room with time. How close did the seed packet say to put them?"
"I don't know." [lying] "six inches?"[lying less] "One foot?" [telling the truth] "Eighteen?"
"Well, I think they're actually only like three inches apart now. Or less..."
"Won't they just cannabalize each other if they need to? Like plants do to each other in the rainforest?"
"Not really. This just means none of them get big."
Katie set me straight. She helped me let go of the smaller starts in order to make room for a bigger future harvest, even though it was painful in the moment.
What does this have to do with Jane Hirschfield? Asking for much is about asking deeply of a few things, not about asking here, there, and everywhere. Asking deeply of a few things is damn difficult, I'll tell you that - whether it's an essay, a lettuce start, or another person. But this trust is how the harvest gets really big; and when we understand that lesser stories have been composted in service to this one, the stories we write begin to matter more.
Best wishes for a healthy, joyous summer, and an intentional garden of your own,
The Quick and dirty:
-I’m teaching a workshop called Writing from Art at the Multnomah Arts Center on Saturday, January 17th, from 10-3. Space still available. (After April, I’ll be teaching a regular weekly Monday night class at MAC)
-My essay “Warning Label” is up and available to read on the Los Angeles Review blog.
-Bilingual Reading of Translations of Boris Slutsky on April 21st at the Oregon Jewish Museum, funded in part by a Regional Arts and Culture Council Project Grant (followed by two more readings this fall.)
Hello friends, peers, and teachers,
First a wish: May you be warm. May you be happy, healthful, and grateful. May you care yourself as your mother—maybe not exactly your mother, but some archetypal mother—would. May you notice the beauty where you walk, may you build extra moments—hours,days, weeks— to recognize the beauty as you go.
And go! New years resolutions aside, this year kicked into fifth gear fast with a large amount of work (I’m seeking grant writing opportunities and have been working overtime—friends, keep your eyes out & email me if you know of organizations who might want this sort of help), a move to the Montavilla neighborhood with my honey, and chugging ahead, thanks to a project grant from the Regional Arts and Cultural Council, to translate Russian poetry and host three bilingual readings with Reed Professor Marat Grinberg this year!
Getting opportunities that you want can be complicated, since great gifts like project grants compel great responsibility. This grant removes obstacles (other than my personal doubts and fears) so that I can move forward in the direction of my dreams. Even if Russian poetry always functioned for me as a hobby, rather than something I ever wanted to speak to big groups about, here’s a chance to step into the discomfort zone.
Some of my great gratitudes of 2014: my writing friends, all who are generous, clear-sighted, and accepting. Friends who read writings I send out. People who showed up at readings. People who tell me about great books. Writers in my classes who took flashlights to beautiful caverns they found inside themselves through writing. The kids who I directed in the musical “Annie, Jr.”—yes , I directed “Annie, Jr.” last summer—who showed me that your openness to trying new things will take you 3/4 of the way to glory. (Here's them singing the finale of Tomorrow like the champions they are.)There are those gratitudes that I don’t have a handle on yet: Brevity Magazine, a very fine and well-respected journal of short prose, published this craft essay with my slightly free-wheeling thoughts on free-writing and personal training. Four months after I wrote it, I’m not sure whether I agree with myself.
And there are those gratitudes that initially resembled shortcomings: in 2014, I tracked my submissions to literary journals and set an arbitrary goal of submitting 75 poems, essays, and applications for fellowships or grants. Guess how many I did? 51. At first I was sad about it, and then someone pointed out that I had done nearly one submission a week and I realized that that was pretty okay, and actually not unimpressive.
Gratitude is not a given, but an orientation. Just think about Elvis. I’m sure Elvis felt misgivings about life often, yes, for he was human (though I guess some say otherwise, or that he was abducted by aliens or something.) But look at the man putting on a show and bringing his A-Game here--
He’s in the danger zone for sure. Not every year is, nor should it be, a year of stretching personally, but I’m hoping that by stepping into the discomfort, whether by giving a speech about translation or wearing a power suit, I’ll get to learn what an A-Game looks like on me while reading poetry of historical cataclysms by Boris Slutsky.
With love and best wishes for 2015,
New and upcoming:
-Sunday, April 20th at Jade Lounge I read for Ink Noise Review, show starts at 7 pm and my cohort (Heidi Beerle, Michael Cooper, and Adam Strong) goes up around 8:30 pm.
-The Writer’s Toolbox course at Multnomah Arts Center starts this Friday, April 18th, at 10 am. Two spots still available.
-This interview with Portland poet Annie Lighthart was published this week. She’s marvelous, truly.
-On May 2nd at 7:30, I’ll be emceeing a story-telling event and benefit at the Multnomah Arts Center with storyteller extraordinaire, Rick Huddle, called Truth be Told.
Okay, the good news:My interview conducted with David Mason,the Colorado poet laureate, over email throughout the course of three months last fall--a 5000 word interview, not an easy word count to meet--is being published by the Writer’s Chronicle, a quite quite reputable journal in the literary world.
Okay, the kinda odd news: This interview will probably be published in fall 2015, because the editor said they have a large backlog of interviews.
It’s curious to have an article accepted for publication and guess about whether it still will be relevant and vital in 18 months. So much of my own life has changed so thoroughly, violently, beautifully, and always surprisingly in only a year’s time.
Fall 2015, 18 or so months from now....what will be relevant then?
Some things pass and some things last. It's surprising to me how some relationships really last and some just don't, which ideas fizzle out and which slowly burn up with the majesty of a 6th grade science fair volcano. I often wonder if when I'm 60, I'll have a better sense for what to count on to last, and a better intuition of what not to count on.
A Relationship that didn't last: Me and Dewey the Chinchilla, sometime like 1997. Dewey didn't last six months in our household, as he habitually screamed in the night and would hold onto your fingers with his teeth when he was held against his will. We brought him to the Springfield, Virginia Petco store, which he escaped from.
A desire to make sense of life's hardships and delights whether through puppets or poems, plays or essays has held up so far for me in my life. I hope improve my skills as a writer and human being in the next 18 months, but maybe not so much that I don't recognize David Mason's interviewer when I see her words in print there.
The ideal is that as writers and artists and humans, we change and grow, but still retain something of ourselves, which shows us to be different, but still retaining some recognizable features. The same turn of the lip, gesture of the wrist, or cowlick, perhaps.
May we be granted the minutes, the hours, and days to see ourselves change and grow and somehow appear the same.
Take a picture now, who do you want to see there, in the future?
-Me playing a vaudevillian at the Multnomah Arts Center Village Vaudeville
-Puppet show that I wrote and performed with Mike Chastain: Further Along I’ll Understand Why
-Article on Kaia Sand and the Watcher Files
Three things that I didn't know how to do but did this winter
One: I performed as a joke-cracking, slightly crass, but very lovable Vaudevillian in November with a colleague, Kathleen Madden. Okay, yes -- I am an actor, but I had never played any part like this where I told jokes for ten minutes with a percussionist striking a badoom-chick to cue the audience to laugh. The humor that I know is more Beckettian than Jack Benny. But with the help of a trove of vaudevillian jokes found on Google and the Multnomah Arts Center's need for someone to tell jokes on stage, it turned out fine.
Two: filmmaker and designer Mike Chastain and I collaborated to make a puppet show. Together we imagined the concept for a story centered on people lost in the mall on the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. It was my job to write the script. We had friends show up and make the puppets—dolls we found at the Goodwill Bins and transformed, in most cases re-gendering them and always sewing them new outfits--, painted the set, utilized fantastic voice actors, and harangued friends to hold up (heavy!) puppets while Mike filmed and made them look beautiful. I don't think there has ever been a puppet show quite like this one...worth checking out.
Three: Franz Schubert (1797-1828, an Austrian) and I collaborated, urged by the composer and choir director Mark Woodward, who asked me to take a sacred lyrics and make them a secular delight. This was a process of translation (all acts of writing are feats of translation, some are more complex than others) and shifting the verse
“...Yet dare I mourn when heaven
Has bid thy soul be free
A life of bliss has given
Forever more to thee,
Yet ever more to thee!”
To an aubade, a poem that involves lovers waking, that goes:
“...But you upon the pillow
Lay back, ask for my kiss--
Once more, and once again please
And I can not resist,
But yet I must resist.”
Why do things you don’t know how to do? Why collaborate and experience the strong tug of anxiety when you are a writer who probably enjoys being alone and having your work turn out the way that you envisioned?
Well, watching Kyle come in dressed exactly like his puppet by sheer coincidence was pretty great:
And you can’t imagine how much fun it was to eventually get the swing of telling terrible jokes like “Why did Beethoven get rid of his chickens? Because they kept saying ‘Bach, Bach, Bach’” or “Do you know what it means to come home each night to a woman who'll give you a little love, a little affection, little tenderness? It means you're in the wrong house.”
And then there was the moment I saw my name on the front page of the sheet music. I saw it and suddenly remembered how when I was five, singing along with Oklahoma, that more than any other job I wanted to be a lyricist. And now I am.
Doing things you don’t know how to do is a curvy path to find what you might have forgotten. Here's to all of us finding collaborators this coming season that can help us do more interesting work than we might have dreamt.
New and upcoming:
-Come to Three Friends Café on Monday, November 18 at 7 pm to hear me read with Cindy Stewart-Rinier and Kate Carroll deGutes.
-Read my interview with author Jay Ponteri on Oregon Arts Watch up today.
-Take my Revision class at the Multnomah Arts Center for six Fridays starting October 25th from 10-12:30.
And the longer, richer meditation:
“I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
-William Butler Yeats, “The Circus Animals Desertion”
I can see you cringe and hear you clicking away from my newsletter, saying “Why do I want to hear someone call her heart, and probably by extension, my heart, a foul rag and bone laboratory?”
Fair. You could be watching a baby polar bear learn to walk. But linger with me—a good story can burn more slowly in the mind than an adorable video, which I’ll hyperlink again at the end of this story.
My father passed away almost three years ago. I am still learning to be a young person who lives without parents. This is hard. Takes time.
Following my father's death, I started working on a story called “The Chronicle of the One and Only Traveling King Lear Family Players.” It’s about a family destroyed by death and madness, genius and depression, pettiness and narcissism. There are hand puppets and bizarre deaths, which make it more absurd and not just sad. The speaker writes from hindsight and after a few years of therapy, which means the story is both easier and harder for me to write. This has been a very very hard story for me to write. It takes time.
It is fiction. The story begins when the girls’ actress mother dies and their father decides that they are going to perform King Lear (ONLY King Lear) as a family on tour for all the foreseeable future. He is a zealot: He plays King Lear and directs while his tender grieving teen daughters play Lear’s daughters. The Cordelia/youngest daughter/worst actor narrates the story and ends up being the sole survivor of the tale. Through this trauma, she discovers that she is an artist, apart from her father’s genius.
Draw what conclusions you may about me from the plot. It is fiction (and what is fiction if not the stuff of real life?)
Here is a picture of the drafts from 2013. I’ve done 8 radical rewrites since the first draft. It used to be 9 pages, now it’s 26. It used to have quotes from King Lear itself that broke up the narrative and made the story more meta, now it’s a letter. 6 or 7 other family members have entered different drafts of the piece, and now it is the story of a nuclear family.
I’ve had to extensively study King Lear, hand puppets, murder laws in California, elephants, Chicago streets, Catholic conversion ceremonies, Australian culture, and the course of death by anorexia. Most of these research projects only show up in a line or two of the prose.
I read a new draft to my boyfriend last week—he’s heard me talk about the story for the past three months—and his feedback was, “I see how that’s a good story. But why don’t you just tell it as if you were the character? You were an actress; you know how to do that, right?”
I was so pissed at him for being right.
Because “right” doesn’t mean that there is an easy answer. Right means that the research that the story needs comes from my own heart. That I need to embody the character and be her mouth. Not just write about her or around her.
“I must lay down where all ladders start.”
This is a picture of my mother and father early on in their marriage—1975?-- before they had children.
How do I translate the complex feelings that I have for of these gone (and yet not) parents to the voice of a slightly insane grieving puppeteer?
I dunno. But that’s the question I need to solve in ten days when I finish the next draft of this story, because I am determined to send a completed new version to three short story contests by Halloween. Also because I’m tired of not succeeding at this story because I’m scared to tell it. The only reasons I might be too scared to tell it would be a) that I don’t have the tools, or b) that it’s my own story. I should think I’ve developed enough tools by now.
“The Circus Animals Desertion” poem by Yeats that I used to open this email begins thus:
“What can I do but enumerate old themes...”
So I here I come with Draft 9 (or 10 or 13—I stopped counting in 2011) enumerating the old themes that I know best, back to the rag and bone shop, back to the start. Hopefully by going back I’ll work my way somewhere towards an ending. Thanks for reading and happy good, purposeful work to you,
At the risk of sending an annoying email, I'm choosing to risk and to say it right out: I believe we are all heroes in our self made narrative.
No, I’m not ego-obsessed but do recognize the power of crafting my own narrative in time (others can craft my narrative when I leave the room or pass on.) I also believe in hero-stewardship, where we care for the earth, animals, and people who need it. Just because one is awesome, s/he doesn't get permission to be an asshole.
This summer, I learned some aspects of the hero’s journey in my flesh and spirit. Ingratiate me, readers, as I briefly explain Joseph Campbell’s model.
Hero is in a comfortable home. Hero has to or chooses to leave comfortable home. Hero enters an unknown world and even though s/he wants to, can’t return to before since s/he has crossed a threshold. Hero has many trials and tasks and has will tested. Hero meets the dark side and resists it. Hero succeeds in task (throwing ring into Mordor, defeating Darth Vader, killing Voldemort) and recieves some boon (wisdom, a title, a soul mate, freedom.) Hero returns home and is the Master of Two Worlds.
I ran a marathon this summer.
My hair started falling out, I lost a toenail, I wept at the crossroads of Forest Park after getting really lost on the tenth mile, and I felt fury at how expensive marathon-me was to feed.
The difficulty of the dream is what makes a hero. All the forces of nature conspiring to make her turn back--even though once begun, the hero never can fully return.
This summer also included two powerful teaching experiences: “Writing Through Loss” at the Arts Center and a weeklong class through Creative Arts Community in the Gorge called “Writing Across the Threshold,” where we discussed, guess what, the Hero’s Journey and how a writer might enact this journey through language.
My students all exceeded expectations, opened themselves up to big & nutty ideas, and even watched Star Wars with me. During my time teaching there, I was allowed a thirty-minute presentation. I spoke about my beliefs on shame--how if I feel shame about a certain part of my life, it is probably shared by someone else in the room, and if I can get over that shame and speak, perhaps the shame will dissipate for the others, too.
Easy enough preamble for, but then I read “Warning Label”--an essay to be published in the Los Angeles Review next spring (!!)--which is about grief, acne, jilted love, self-hatred, self-forgiveness, and leprosy. I was quaking. I could hardly look anyone in the eye after. While I was reading, my inner dialogue flew: “You shouldn’t say these things aloud, Judith, don’t say these things, they aren’t polite and you’ll be rejected.”
It felt like getting lost in the woods and weeping. But I knew that lostness (Joseph Campbell calls it the road of trials) and I knew that it was only temporary. So I kept reading aloud.
And two weeks ago I traded a feeling of relative control for a backpacking pack and travelled to Seattle, Whidbey Island, and the Hoh Rainforest to meet a gentleman I met recently. No hiding, just presence. I rode my first ferry and felt so very small among all the beauty.
As the ferry landed and I was met by my friend in a new place, without my books or laptop or familiar context, I realized a new kind of courage was required.
"Scary, scary, scary," I thought as I walked off the boat onto the island. Everything that is bound in love takes courage. And if we're really, really living, everything is bound up in love. So we walk off the ramp and meet the adventure that awaits us.
The hardest part of the hero's journey is the return (think Frodo, think Odysseus). I'm slowly gathering myself for fall season, upcoming classes, creative projects, administrative work, and preparation for the High Holy Days, the time where my community and I attempt to get really small before the divine, which includes all my friends, all of you, and anyone I work with or meet at whole foods in order to come back into balance and remember what it is to be human and to be a hero, to be both/and.
Wishing you the best in your journeys,
In Portland we can almost see the springtime but some of us who have developed allergies are fully able to smell it (until we can't smell it).
It's fair to say that I've been moving forward with my life as a writer in bold strides as well as fair to say I've done this while feeling a not insignificant amount of fear & doubt as I move towards the life that I really want. The "Good Life" seems to be much more anxiety ridden than I had ever imagined, because living it, I realize that I have a whole lot more to lose.
As the heavy thoughts process, I take a moment to look at pictures of kittens with mustaches. This calms me down immensely.
Last week, I had an interview that I did with Liz Prato--local short story writer, essayist, and novelist--get published on the Oregon Arts Watch site. After doing it, I was thrilled, and after it want up on the website, terror, abject terror. What if she doesn't like it? Will she reject me? Will the community reject me? If someone did an interview with me where I was humble and vulnerable and open, would I like it?
Assumption #1: Writers write to feel human, but they are able to control and mediate that experience with the revision process. Assumption #2: Good interviews show any person being human. They trust the interviewer/writer to mediate that experience well. Conclusion: Publishing and editing author interviews is bound cause some tension. A friend said yesterday, That's why famous people have publicists, Judith.
I think she liked it alright. Who knows? She reposted it on Facebook at least. All I can do is just get real. Feel afraid and then look at animals when I'm too upset. Keep doing author interviews every month, and to keep learning how to ask better questions.
To lean forward and ask, What are you afraid of? On listening and hearing, answer, Yes, me too.
Till next time...
Here's a bonus sonnet by A.E. Stallings from the Poetry Foundation website to contemplate fear by.
Fear of Happiness
BY A. E. STALLINGS
Looking back, it’s something I’ve always had:
As a kid, it was a glass-floored elevator
I crouched at the bottom of, my eyes squinched tight,
Or staircase whose gaps I was afraid I’d slip through,
Though someone always said I’d be all right--
Just don’t look down or See, it’s not so bad
(The nothing rising underfoot). Then later
The high-dive at the pool, the tree-house perch,
Ferris wheels, balconies, cliffs, a penthouse view,
The merest thought of airplanes. You can call
It a fear of heights, a horror of the deep;
But it isn’t the unfathomable fall
That makes me giddy, makes my stomach lurch,
It’s that the ledge itself invents the leap.