I’m at Washington, DC’s palatial, awe-inspiring Union Station, waiting for my Amtrak to Richmond, VA. I’m lecturing and teaching tomorrow and very much looking forward to it; not only do I get to earn a living in a soul-affirming way, I get to hang out in Union Station and then take a train for a couple hours, which is neat. I feel a bit lightheaded and dizzy today, but who cares when there is actual gold leaf on the domed ceiling high above my head. If I pass out I’ll get a great visual before everything goes dark.
Next week is almost entirely on the road. QuiltCon approacheth in Austin but before and after that, I’ll be in Chicago doing a number of poetry gigs for high schools and one middle school. In February and April every year there is lots of creative writing programming in schools in the Chicagoland area. You could say I’m on the circuit; I’ve been a visiting writer-performer at these sorts of events for many years, now.
Because I get paid to do them, they are jobs. But barely, because I love them so much. The gigs typically consist of me performing poems and reading stuff I’ve written in a big auditorium; sometimes I teach a workshop or two. There’s one high school I love the best — I feel like I shouldn’t say which one but you know who you are — because the students are incredible and the teachers are fiercely invested in their jobs. When I tried to figure out how many years in a row I’ve been to this particular Writer’s Week, I got pale: I think it’s nine. Nine years has zapped past me? Oh, boy.
Each year I do school poetry/writing gigs — and this goes for all the schools — I try to do something totally different. Last year, I climbed up on a ladder and set a poem on fire. I do a Neo play where I kiss a student (on the cheek) and one year I put on big sunglasses at one point and covered a Lady Gaga song as though it were a poem, which it is. This year, because I’m feeling mortal, I’ve decided to treat the gig at my favorite school as though it were my last ever. I certainly hope it is not, but I asked myself: “If I never got to come back to this school that I love so much, what would I tell these people?”
Giving a physical gift to an audience member makes a huge impact; I learned this from my years as a Neo-Futurist. But I don’t want to give a gift to one person in the audience; I want to give a gift to every last one. So what I’ve done is copy off little cards that say what I would say to these students if I never saw them again. But giving a slip of paper is lame and since I happen to be a quilter with way, way too much fabric in my scrap bag(s), I am stitching fabric to the back of every card (see scan above.) There are, um, thousands of these to be made. I’m about halfway through the stack. After I get back from Richmond, before I go to Chicago, I’m gonna have to race to finish them.
But it’s worth it. I’ll make some tea. I’ll turn on my podcasts. I have a lot of other work to do on Tuesday, but I’ll make it. Not every student will care about these cards, and I know that. Plenty will get tossed in the garbage, which is lousy, but come on: it’s high school.
Sorry I didn’t do a spoiler alert to those students who read PaperGirl. But I promise my “show” will be good and hey, if you care to, you can make a little space in your wallet ahead of time.
Eternally true statements are hard to properly credit. Time is one big VitaMix, chopping, sluicing, pureeing all the words. The phrase, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal,” for example, has been attributed to Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot, Stravinsky, Faulkner, and many others. Does it matter who said it? Not really — unless you’re a guy named Joe Smith and you said it and never got credit. That would be kinda sad.
There’s a statement I love that I thought belonged to Mark Twain. He wrote a letter to a friend, the story goes, and said, essentially, “I apologize for the length of this letter; if I had had more time, it would’ve been shorter.” What he meant, of course, is that it takes longer to write tighter, better sentences than loosey-goosey, long, unfocused ones. It takes far more time to put all one’s thoughts onto a single handwritten page than it does to type half those thoughts in a small novel. As it turns out, it may not have been Twain at all who said that; I looked it up and the “shorter letter more time” concept might have come to us by way of our man Blaise Pascal or George Bernard Shaw. Whoever said it, however they did, they were right.
This post is proof. Here’s why.
I rode in a taxi this morning for about thirty-five minutes. The sky in D.C. is grey; it’s a blustery February day, a Monday. In my cab, I craned my neck all around to look at what we were driving past; I’m still soaking in all the places and sights and streets of this town and riding in a taxi is great for sightseeing, for bearing-finding. We drove east on Constitution, and that meant we went right by the Washington Monument, right by the Museum of Natural History, and then we passed the National Gallery, and so many more Beaux-Arts buildings standing white and pristine in the dull, sunless sky.
There was a lot of traffic, so we stopped a lot and for many minutes at a time. Right before the Washington Monument, I looked out the window and saw an extraordinary sight. There was a park on our right, many hundreds of yards from the street. The trees in the park were tall, tall, tall, and spindly — and leafless, of course. They were all skinny and went so high up; they were needles. And deep in the tree line (is that right? the tree line?) was a woman in a well-cut, fine red coat. The shade of the coat was not tomato, nor cherry, nor brick, but cardinal red, so precisely cardinal red that she looked as natural as could be in the trees there, as though she were the bird itself.
I saw her and thought, “She must have a dog.” Because this woman was standing there in the trees and looking up; it would have made sense for her to be waiting for her dog to finish doing its business. But I squinted and saw she had no pet. She was just standing amongst the trees, looking up at the sky, I guess, regarding it. Considering it, all by herself, on Monday morning, near the tallest structure in this entire city. Black birds flew. A car horn sounded. I watched her as long as I could, waiting to see if I could discern what she was doing, standing so still and alone in that park. The cab began to pull forward and I began to lose sight of the woman. Then, the car we got behind was playing a Bob Dylan song loud enough it was like the taxi driver had turned on the radio in our car.
What this post should be is a poem. I should go write a poem about female cardinal, the needle trees, and Bob Dylan; I should work on a poem about the white of the stones in the monuments against the pewter sky in a city I’m falling in love with. But I don’t have time. It would take a long time to write that poem properly. But I can’t do nothing. I can’t forget it. I can’t put it out of my mind. So loosey-goosey it is, PaperGirl is the clearinghouse for my experience this morning.
The English language is a monstrous mutt. It’s a hydra. It’s a slouch. It’s messy, confusing, and — if I may be so bold as to say it — it whores around. The French have put a cap on the words in their language, but English? She takes all comers.
And thank goodness. Because as gorgeous and vast as the English language is (there were something like 1,025,110 words as of January last year) sometimes only a word or phrase from another language will get you where you need to go. Here now are three of my favorite foreign words and terms, favorites because in a matter of syllables they precisely describe universal concepts that English can’t do in a long paragraph. First I’ll give you the word, then the dictionary definition, then a working interpretation. Also, those are my own phonetics because writing phonetics is my kind of fun on a Saturday night and I am not joking even a little.
sprezzatura: (Italian; say “spret-za-TOO-ra”) rehearsed spontaneity, studied carelessness.
When you spend 1.5 hours getting ready for a date just so you can look like you don’t care, you’re practicing sprezzatura.
l’esprit d’escalier: (French; say, “les-PREE de-skal-YEY”) Literally, “the spirit of the staircase”; the predicament of thinking of the perfect retort too late. Some jerk says something awful to you. You fume, you steam. Five minutes after you and the jerk part company, it hits you: Ooooh! You should’ve said [insert awesome comeback here.] Yes, Virginia, there’s a term for that exact feeling. “L’esprit d’escalier” is what happens when you think of the perfect, deliciously awesome thing to say to a jerk when he/she is gone and you’re halfway down the stairs, headed to your car. We’ve all been there.
Weltschmerz:(German; say, “VEL-schmertz”) a feeling of melancholy and world-weariness. I love how the Germans jam words together. Welt = world; schmertz = pain. When the bastards have gotten you down; when you don’t miss New York but you do miss the love you had there; when you spill tea in the kitchen and you clean it up but there’s still invisible-to-the-naked-eye honey on the floor in spots that sticks to your bare feet; when tax time approacheth and you’re a self-employed woman with a zillion 1099 forms that will surely all be lost in the mail this year because four addresses in 2014 (!!!!); when you go to a guild meeting — a wonderful, amazing, warm and inspiring guild meeting — and see no fewer than four pregnant women, and you feel pretty sure you will not be a mother in this life; when you forget to get shaving cream — this is Weltschmerz.
See what I mean about needing a paragraph? One word will do it if you pick the proper one. Or, as the stewardesses say (in English):
“Please locate the two exits nearest you, keeping in mind that the closest exit may be behind you.”
On this Monday, let us pause for poetry. Have you ever read Elisabeth Bishop’s poems? I’m only now discovering them. Have you ever seen a sandpiper hopping around on a beach? I hadn’t until I read this poem written by Bishop in 1956.
The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.
The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.
– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.
The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focused; he is preoccupied,
looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.
“Can I have a another cooky first? You tell long stories.”
“Here. Anything else?”
“Good. Okay, then, PaperGirl. Well, once upon a time, long ago, I wrote a poem.”
“What was it called?”
“I’m getting to it. It was called ‘The Paper Poem,’ and it was an extended metaphor about the nature of existence being fragile like paper, but beautiful, too, like paper is beautiful.”
“Before your time.”
“Oh. Your poem sounds cool, grandma.”
“I liked it. Other people liked it, too, and I performed it in many places all over the country.”
“Like in Bismark?”
“No, never actually in Bismark, I don’t think. Maybe. It was a long time ago. Anyway, there’s a verse where I say ‘I will be your paper girl,’ and that’s where ‘PaperGirl’ comes from.”
“What’s the verse?”
“You want to hear the whole verse?”
“Is it long?”
“No, it’s not long. It’s the second-to-last verse of the poem and it goes like this:
But if you are a paper doll, too, then I shall know you on sight,
And if you are with me, come with me tonight; I will match up our bodies
by the tears in our arms —
We will form paper barricades against matchstick harm;
I will make paper love to you for as long as I can in this shreddable world;
I will be your paper girl.
“That’s nice, grandma.”
“And you named your blog that because of that poem?”
“Yes. And PaperGirl is the name of my LLC, too. And that small island I bought. And the Beaux Arts building you like so much in Paris. And my foundation in Dubai and all the vineyards in Spain. Everything in my empire, it’s all under the PaperGirl umbrella.”
“I wanna go to the zoo and see a rhinoceros.”
“Get your coat.”
[NOTE: I’ve been asked lately why the blog is called what it is, so it seemed fair to offer this again, an entry originally posted on this date.]
Define “reality.” Define “said.” Define “jump.” So hard, right?
Defining object nouns is easier. “Mozzarella” isn’t too bad; “Denmark” is doable. But the verbs and the gerunds and past participles are crazy-making. By the way, one of the five definitions of “jump” is “to push oneself off a surface and into the air by using the muscles in one’s legs and feet.” The definition of “said” as an adjective is “used in legal language or humorously to refer to someone or something already mentioned or named.”
Definitions are so hard to do (for me, anyway) that looking them up for even common words is one of my favorite activities. And now, I present to you definitions that are shaping my life these days, each edited for length. All definitions from the New Oxford American Dictionary, except where noted.
peripatetic (adj.): traveling from place to place, esp. working or based in various places for relatively short periods
breakup (n): an end to a relationship, typically a marriage
moving (adj.): relating to the process of changing one’s residence
existential (adj): of or relating to existence
crisis (n): a time when a difficult or important decision must be made
work (n): activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result; mental or physical activity as a means of earning income; employment
yo (exclam.): a slang way of saying hello, usually friendly and casual [Urban Dictionary]
hustler (n.): an aggressively enterprising person; a go-getter
My mother is writing a novel. I may have mentioned it.
She’s had her concept for years but in the past eighteen months she’s actually started writing the thing. At the start of the process she was brimming with confidence and wore her task with no sense of burden or doom. As she’s descended further into the pain and agony of writing a book that she very much wishes to be good, she’s decidedly less chirpy. My mother is the first to say that she has a lot to learn about writing; she’s joined several writing workshops, she’s read or is reading lots of books on how to write effective, engaging fiction, and she’s working every day on this project. She’s going at it the right way, now. She’s going at it like she’s going into battle.
When I’m home in Iowa or up at the lake house as I was for the past five days, I am the first to greet my mother each day. This is because she and I wake up about the same time and do the same thing every day, wherever we are: we write. She gets her coffee and her laptop and stabs away at her novel there on the couch; I get my Earl Grey and my current journal and write away in that, sitting in an easy chair (in another room.) We don’t say much at that hour — it’s usually before 6am — because neither of us has gotten up to chat. We’re up to write, good, bad, or ugly. What is true for me is true for my mom, too: that morning writing time is usually the best part of our day. No matter where I find myself in the morning — a Holiday Inn in Omaha, a brownstone in Manhattan, an airplane, etc. — I find my pen and spend time on paper.
Why do it?
Mom and I have different reasons for writing, but whatever compels people to get up before dawn to put thoughts into words is complex, so it’s hard to sort motivational distinctions. Most writers want all the things being a “good writer” confers; the order of the list of stuff might change, but the stuff stays the same. My mom wants to write a novel because she loves to read; because she wants the sense of accomplishment that being a published fiction writer would bring; she wants to show the world she’s good at something other than quilts; she loves and believes in her book concept; because writing it is hard but it is frequently fun; because it’s a challenge. She wants to be interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, too, and has a few of her replies already prepared for when the time comes.
I write for different reasons and before I say what those are, I must emphasize that Mom’s reasons are not better than mine, nor are mine better than hers. They’re just different reasons. I write because I would lose my mind if I didn’t. That’s not hyperbole; that’s the straight dope. The only way I can make sense of my life, this planet, what I see, what I experience, how I think, what I do, what you do, and what it all might possibly mean, is to write it down. If I don’t write it down, it didn’t happen. That’s figurative (read: “If it’s not written down, it didn’t matter that much”) but it’s also literal: If I don’t write it down, I fear it did not happen. There isn’t always reliable proof of the past. Were we there? Did she say that? Is he really gone? When did we go? What was I wearing? Could we have really felt that way and then felt another way? Life is but a dream: I’d better keep a record or risk waking up and forgetting it completely.
I also write because of something American philosopher John Dewey said that, when I came across it many years ago, stuck to my brain like a wad of gum on a theater seat:
“If you are deeply moved by some experience, write a letter to your grandmother. It will help you to better understand the experience and it will bring great pleasure to your grandmother.”
To make sense of the world, I have to write it down. If it brings pleasure to someone else, well, that’s some pie a la mode, right there. Most of it sucks. I’ll never be Mark Twain. I’ll never even be Erma Bombeck (who was great, in her Bombeckian way.) I’ll just be me, sorting it all out.
At Heather’s house, I’ve been reading from a Dorothy Parker anthology and a book of Emily Dickinson poems. I don’t have much time before we have to leave for the second day of the Quilty shoot (which is going well) but I made a poem in the time I had.
Being in Chicago is hard. I miss this place very much. New York is not taking, I’m afraid. More on that later. For now, a poem about the day I left.
June 1st, 2014
by Mary Fons
We sped down Lakeshore Drive that day —
The train giving way to a taxi drive —
Me and my luggage were whisked away,
Around a quarter to five.
Through grimy windows my eyes did see
Steel and glass buildings standing so sure;
Chicago’s a hard and imposing city,
But its heart is pure.
What have I done to my favoritest lover;
Leaving like this, my purse grabbed in haste;
Off to new visions and a new city’s cover,
What a waste.
For mercy and grace, I shall grovel and beg,
Come June, when weather is fair;
Chicago, lash at at the back of my leg
It proves you care.
While I’m in Chicago, I’m staying at my friend Heather’s house. She shares the house with her terrific husband, Sam, and I have very recently discovered they have many terrific books.
For instance, they have a full set of the Childcraft “How & Why Library.” I didn’t have Childcraft books growing up, but I’d seen them before. The volumes have names like, “How We Get Things,” “What People Do,” and “About Dogs.” They’re a kid’s first encyclopedia, basically.
I wanted to read all of these books, but “Poems and Rhymes” came first in the set, so I went with that, and the first page I opened to was the tale of Old Mother Hubbard. Have you ever read the entire Old Mother Hubbard poem? It’s not good. It’s not just that it lacks substance — it does lack substance — but it is also is confusing in frustrating ways, as opposed to being confusing in delightful ways, e.g., the work of Lewis Carroll.
Let’s take a look at this thing. The first verse everyone knows and it’s fine, albeit a bummer (if you’re the old lady’s dog):
Old Mother Hubbard Went to the cupboard To get her poor dog a bone; But when she got there, The cupboard was bare, And so the poor dog had none.
Okay, fair enough. But buckle up. Next verse:
She went to the baker’s To buy him some bread, But when she came back, The poor dog was dead.
The dog died?? Her dog died while she was running errands? Perhaps your dog died, Mother, because you chose to neglect your pantry. Just when rigor mortis begins to set in, however, the dog suddenly feels much better, not that the author helps his audience prepare for that:
She went to the fruiterer’s To buy him some fruit, But when she came back, He was playing the flute.
Ol’ Lazarus is playing the flute, eh? That is super, super creepy. And whose flute is it, anyway? The old lady can keep expensive woodwind instruments but no kibble? She should be ashamed of herself. The good news is that the word “fruiterer” is new to me and I like it.
She went to the fishmonger’s To buy him some fish, But when she came back, He was licking the dish.
We have an issue here with the conjunction. The word “but” is used to introduce something contrasting with what has already been mentioned. For instance, “She went to the fishmonger’s/to buy him some fish/but when she came back/he had made himself tacos.” There is no contrasting idea in the verse as it is up there but the author uses “but” and it’s driving me bonkers.
She went to the barber’s To buy him a wig,
She went to the barber’s To buy him a wig, But when she came back He was dancing a jig.
So … He couldn’t put the wig on. Because of the jig. Perhaps she couldn’t catch him in his jigging to affix the wig properly? See above problem with conjunction. I have a headache.
She went to the cobbler’s To buy him some shoes, But when she came back, He was reading the news.
She went to the tailor’s To buy him a coat, But when she came back, He was riding a goat.
Sloppy! These thoughts are not congruent in any way! I realize children’s poetry isn’t trying to be Yeats. But the minds of children are typically more fit than adults will appreciate or admit. Don’t you foist this goofy stuff on me, Childcraft. You’re lucky I’m staying in Heather’s guestroom and spied you on the shelf. It could be years before someone else comes along and gives you a fair shake. Okay, last verse:
The dame made a curtsy, The dog made a bow; The dame said, “Your servant,” The dog said, “Bow-wow.”
Introduction of a new character. Totally out of left-field. Maybe this work needs another draft, Childcraft.
For most of my life, I have had a relationship with poetry — the good, the bad, and most levels in between. In betwixt. Betwither? Anyway.
When we were little, my sisters and I memorized the Shel Silverstein catalogue. In junior high, I was unpopular; many days were spent alone, writing lyrics to Debbie Gibson songs. You might be thinking, “That’s not poetry!” and you are correct. But I was rhyming about love, so I’m counting it.
By high school I was writing angsty poems in study hall with titles like “ripped” and “truth”, always in lowercase everything because capitalization was “establishment.” I’d shove those poems deep into my jeans pockets with my pain. I read Nikki Giovanni and Dorothy Parker and listened to Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos, so my poetic education, such as it was, continued apace. Plus, my sister and our friends would take Honky, my grandmother’s white station wagon (I named it) into Des Moines and a few of us would read at open mic nights at Java Joe’s, the only coffeehouse in a 200-mile radius. I had guts, I’ll give myself that much. My picture was even in the Des Moines Register once for sharing poems at the local Barnes & Noble open mic; this is probably because I had a full mouth of braces and a shirt that said “Marlboro” on it. Sorry, Mom.
Speed up. College. I made theater for four years, but isn’t theater just one big open mic? Also, my boyfriend Dan moved to New York City and got deep into the poetry slam scene. I saw him perform at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and thought, “I could do that.”
After college, I moved to Chicago and tried to keep being an actress but the bottom had dropped out. I didn’t actually like pretending to be someone else; I wanted to write and perform my own stuff. As it happens, Chicago is the birthplace of the poetry slam and the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge was the premier place for it, the place where it all started. For the next several years, I was there every Sunday night, listening, gagging, applauding, performing, laughing, crying, and above all, learning as much as I could about poetry. I also learned about gin and tonic.
Now that I’ve outlined this history, you’ll have context for what I consider to be the most significant moments in my poetical life thus far. And now, The Most Significant Moments In My Poetical Life Thus Far:
1. Getting a perfect score at the Mill (10-10-10)
2. Seeing my first poem published in a literary magazine that no one reads
3. Discovering Philip Larkin
4. The birth of the word “vape”
Let’s look at this most recent development. Poets — and I’m talking mostly to the slammers out there, but this works for everyone — do you realize what has happened? Do you understand what you’ve been given? The word “vape” has entered the lexicon! Earth’s metering, rhyme-scheming citizens will never be the same! Not only do poets have a new word to rhyme, we have a word that happens to rhyme with some of the most often used words in poetry: escape, agape, rape (and possibly crepe.) Just think of the possibilities:
Black hair like velvet Her face: a heart shape Her voice, my song: “You wanna vape?”
We stood in the rain Emotions escaping Under the awning Quietly vaping
This is big. Huge. Seismic. I’m just wondering if I’m the last to figure this out. It (almost) makes me want to go to a poetry slam and see what people are doing with the brand new word. It also makes me want to visit that hilariously named vape shop across from my sister and Jack’s condo in Chicago. It’s actually called “Let’s All Vape.” That’s the name of the store. I’d like to start any store and name it like that. “Let’s All Have Tacos” or “Let’s All Buy Shoes” or “Let’s All Get An MRI” — these are all viable shop names. Don’t wait for me, by any means — this is my gift to you. I fully support anyone who wants to name their shop “Let’s All [Insert Thing Here].” I will be your first customer, that’s how much I love that idea.**
New words, a basketful of retail possibilities — all of this, and I still have no desire to vape. Tough customer, I guess.
**I can’t stop: Let’s All Have Our Engines Examined, Let’s All At Least Have a Look at The Buffet, Let’s All Copy Something, Let’s All Get Gas, Let’s All Buy Things We Don’t Need, Let’s All Get Uncomfortable (sex shop), Let’s All Get a Headache (bath and body shop)
Q: What do autumn and a New York City fashion model have in common?
A: They real chilly.
Today feels like fall has arrived and also like my first day in one place in about a month; this is probably because fall has arrived and it is my first day in one place in about a month. My September saw Georgia, Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida; if you count the layovers, throw in Michigan and Tennessee, too.
My friend Bari said something the other day that made me laugh out loud. She said, “Your life seems kind of glamorous, Mar, jetting off here and there.” But glamour has something to do with someone carrying your luggage, I think, and cooking (or at least fetching) your food. As it happens, I am very much in charge of my own suitcase(es) and am the only person making myself almond meal cookies and broiled fish. But perception is everything and I love the idea that while I’m hauling my quilt-laden suitcase around the country, someone out there thinks I’m special enough to have “people” to do it for me.
Of course, the month contained disaster, too. “The Atlanta Incident,” as we might call it, didn’t just bring me low physically; it shook my confidence down, too. I don’t much like looking into the future and seeing it obscured by shadowy shapes of emergency rooms in faraway towns; I don’t like seeing blood in places it ought not to be (and I’ll let you figure that one out on your own.) Should I have cancelled September and come home? Should I have cancelled even my New York Adventure and gone home home, to Chicago, in the name of equilibrium? As my condo is presently rented, that would be difficult. No, stopping everything would be far more disruptive than just continuing; besides, my Midwestern work ethic is as stubborn as the cows so it’s no use to tell me to call in sick unless I’m half dead. Which is always possible.
I’m off to the Seattle area next week to lecture with Mom, then it’s back to Florida again. Yuri is peeved that I’m leaving again so soon, but I keep telling him that these trips are planned at least a year in advance, in most cases, and that there’s very little I can do. When I come back, I will commence the tests that my Chicago doctor recommended I have and Yuri will hold my hand through those. The only thing good about hospital tests is that I have to actually be in town for them.
Today it rained and the ground was soaked; In autumn, chill and sky are yoked And fall complaints of average kind: Ailing body, troubled mind.
The day has ended too late to write the second half of my cri de coeur on hospital buddies. I’d be up till midnight with it and that would be foolish of me. Big day today, bigger one tomorrow, filming the 2500 series of Love of Quilting.
And so, a brief interlude. A brief interlude on the zarf.
You know the sleeve that goes on your go-cup of coffee? The paper sleeve? It has a name. It’s called a “zarf.” Amazing.
When people started drinking coffee and tea (which is to say “when people started”) they put little holder-sleeve thingies on their handle-free cups to keep their paws from getting burned on the vessels of hot liquid. Tea- and coffee-drinking humans have kept this item in heavy rotation ever since, though modern day zarfs are made of cardboard, not porcelain or wood or ivory.
I learned this because my mother and stepfather play Scrabble so much. Also, crossword puzzles.
I just hate that word because I cannot pronounce it. Years! Years I try, years I end up with something that sounds like a dog trying to speak English or a mush-mouthed come-on word from a very drunk man, as in, “Baby, you’re jusht.. Wow, indegfahekgaaaaaahh — buy me a drink.” To make matters worser, I usually try not one but several of the homemade variations below, as I’ll say “indefatigable” once, get mad that I know how to use the word in a sentence but can never successfully pronounce it, then try again with another version, fail again, and then just say, “You know, like, uh, unwavering.” My attempts have included:
I’m about to indefuggetaboutit. Anyone else have issues with this one? Tricks to remember how to say it?
I ask because one can change these things. For the longest time, I could never quite remember what the word cipher meant. I would kinda recall that it meant…mysterious? Murky? I knew that wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t lock it into my brain, which is a shame because it’s such a great word. Then one day I realized that I know and use the word decipher all the time! To decipher means to figure out something unclear, especially something you read or study, like writing. But of course! A cipher is a secret way of writing. To decipher it would be to figure it out. Voila! The vocabulary needle gets moved.
But the other one. The one up there. Still no good.
Though I’ve had to take a wee break, I am still working toward my Master’s degree. My advisors have informed me that Columbia is the place to continue the MLA I began at the University of Chicago; if I can get in, stay put for long enough to do the work and not get sick for any length of time, why, I might just be able to get that ol’ girl done. I have a ways to go but I also will probably not die anytime soon. I’m saying there’s time.
I’m not wasting precious reading hours while I get my ducks lined up, though; there’s thesis research to be done and I’m doing it. I know what I want my thesis to be about after taking several workshops about putting together a thesis: I want write about diarists. Being one, and being a fan of them and (by and large) the diaries they write, I suspect I’ll be endlessly fascinated. As I think more and more about tackling a thesis in my life and as I read more and more, the actual intent and focus of the thesis will be revealed and who knows? Maybe I’ll actually discover or contribute something to a body of study that is pretty robust already. For now, I’m just reading diaries and biographies of diarists and books about the diary’s role in Western literature and that’s my school right now.
And in my para-research (doesn’t that sound fancy) I have discovered a wonderful poet that I hadn’t known about before: William Soutar. English majors may groan and shake their heads that this person was unknown to me, but cut me some slack: I studied theater in undergrad. Can you quote a line from Major Barbara? Ah-ha! Didn’t think so. (Note to self: Look up pithy line from Major Barbara.)
William Soutar was a Scottish poet and writer who had a rather tragic life. Born in 1898, he contracted a virus when he was in his twenties and this went untreated. By the time he was thirty-two, he was bedridden, quite ill, and essentially paralyzed. He spent fourteen years in bed and died when he was just forty-five.
But he was an incredible poet and writer and refused to let his ill-health take his brain or his passion as his body lay so feeble. He read and read and wrote and wrote and had all kinds of things published. It was said that his bedroom was one of the centers of the 20th Century Scottish Literary Renaissance, due to all his work and all the heavyweight writers that came to hang out with him.
He wrote wonderful poems for children (“the bairnrhymes”) but is maybe best known over here in America for his Diaries of a Dying Man. The diaries he kept for so many years are all in a book that you can buy (because the world is amazing) and just this very morning I wept reading a certain entry. It is such beautiful writing. Soutar was human and he has his moments of despair and frustration and angst, but by and large, he’s just crazy lion-hearted and awesome and so freaking smart that you ache for his situation while you marvel at his talent. Yes, I am slightly in love with William Soutar (no, Yuri does not feel terribly threatened.)
Here, to whet your appetite, two passages from Diaries of a Dying Man, by William Soutar. The first one is the one that made me cry a little this morning over my tea. The second is a favorite so far.
“I wonder if fit mortals realise that infirmity makes the most ordinary actions wonderful. A person, like myself, set aside from the thoroughfare of life can often look on life’s manifestation with a detachment denied the protagonist in the market-place. Common acts become isolated from particular times and places and grow, by recollection, into moments of beauty loved in themselves without desire or regret. Thus everyday phrases can bring to such a watcher a rounded image of loveliness mysteriously coloured by the consciousness that he himself can no longer enact them; phrases such as ‘he lifted a stone’, ‘he stood by the sea’, ‘he walked into the wood’.”
“For some weeks past I have found myself, from time to time, putting out an imaginary hand as if to touch the earth in a comprehensive gesture of love — but I do not deceive myself by these vague stirrings of affection : it is so easy to love a ‘thing’ : one must learn to love people first.”
In observance of Independence Day, I will share a poem written by Benjamin Franklin. Of all the founding fathers, I know the least about him. I did know he wrote poems, though, and so I found and read a few of them today.
Epitaph In Bookish Style
by Benjamin Franklin
The Body of Benjamin Franklin (Printer) (Like the cover of an old book Its contents torn out And stript of its lettering and gilding) Lies here, food for worms. But the work shall not be lost For it will (as he believed) appear once more In a new and more elegant edition Revised and corrected by The Author.
Happy Birthday, America. Please, please do not blow your — or anyone else’s — face off with a firecracker.
As some readers know, I have an ongoing, personal project that is a collection of poems about fruit. It’s not that I have a thing for fruit exactly, but I most certainly have a big thing (ew) for light verse. Fruits are fruitful for this, it turns out. Nothing makes me happier than to break away from all the tasks at hand and work on a new fruit poem. Does it help me meet deadlines at work? No, but life is more than deadlines.
Each fruit is gets a unique poetic style; e.g., the pomegranate poem follows precisely the meter of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky because the syllables match exactly; the cantaloupe poem is written for a chorus; the as-yet-unfinished pineapple poem is a Victorian odyssey in A-A-B-C-C-B rhyme-scheme, etc. I hope to publish them all one day — if you know anyone who’s in the business of publishing entertaining poetry about fruit, do let me know. Taken together, they do have a certain charm, I think, and there are drawings I’ve done with them, too.
If you click on the “Poetry” tag here on the blog page, you’ll find the other poems in the collection that I’ve posted on PaperGirl. For now, let’s direct our attention to the newest of the bunch (hey-o!) and enjoy “The Divine Miss L.B., Solo Banana.” I chose a limerick for the banana poem because bananas are funny objects, a bit lewd, too — just like most limerick. I didn’t set out to write something bawdy, but what I ended up with is totally not what I expected. Isn’t writing poetry wonderful??
NOTE: It is crucial to the poem that you recite it aloud — yes, right now — in a syrupy, thick Southern accent. I’m entirely serious. It doesn’t work otherwise. Channel your best Blanche du Bois.
The Divine Miss L.B., Solo Banana
by Mary Fons (c) 2014
Said Divine Miss Lady Banana,
(Born and raised in deepest Savannah) —
“Hon, I’m all real,
With born snack a-peel —
Ah can’t help if you love me, now can’ah?”
Suitors came far and wide just to meet ‘huh,
They was John, there was James, there was Peet’uh;
But none of them fit,
So Banana split,
Waved “Bye!” an’ lit out like a cheetah.
“Solo life, it suits me just fine,”
Said Mademoiselle la B. Devine —
“Why be beholden?
My life is golden,”
And she turned to face the sunshine.
A brief move-out update, then a “real” post to get caught up.
In writing a note to my new tenants, levity came in on goofy little angel wings and I found peace about leaving Chicago and my condo behind (for now.)
The note I needed to write was a brief-but-thorough list of “what to know’s” about my apartment, e.g., the maintenance guys will fix that spot in the hallway ceiling this week, the laundry cards are here, help yourself to the contents of the liquor cabinet, etc. One of the last items was my request that they squeegee the shower in the master bathroom.
Squeegee. Squeegee?? That is possibly the best word there is.
From the note:
2. Please squeegee the master shower. Is this finicky? Maybe. But I just put that shower in and I know from my squeegee-loving mother than if you give the glass the once over with the squeegee after you’re done showering, you won’t have those awful, cloudy water stains on your shower glass. Please squeegee. (Also, if you’re feeling burnt out on your studies — or feeling sad about leaving the city you love, ahem — I recommend writing the word “squeegee” several times as I have just done.)
My tenants probably think I’m in insane. But, just like that, writing squeegee that many times, sitting at the gate at Midway, waiting for my flight to LGA, I felt better. Like, totally better.
I also had to get over myself and my melancholy because I had a back brush and a teakettle in my carryon. They wouldn’t fit in the suitcase.
There was a tugging in my heart today and a longing I couldn’t place.
Oh, it was probably just nostalgia brought on by spring weather. The sweet, chilled spring air came in and I pulled out last year’s jacket. What was in the pocket but a pack of now-soggy gum and a book of matches from a fancy night out last spring. When these sorts of things happen, I need to read poetry.
After slogging through an afternoon’s worth of paper on my desk, I went to one of my favorite poetry anthologies to find something expansive. I was hoping I might find a poem on moving or relocation: I arrived in Chicago this morning at dawn and I have one week to wrap up all the ends here before trundling off to Manhattan for the summer. (Or longer. Probably longer.) When you crush up your arm, you need surgery. When you realize you’re about to say goodbye to the view from your bedroom, you need poetry.
I did not find a poem about relocation. What I did find was really good, though, especially if any part of what you do for a living involves sewing. And I know you’re out there.
“Song of the Shirt” is a poem by poet, writer, and humorist Thomas Hood, written in the 1820s in England. It’s about the suffering of the factory drudge, told from her perspective. It’s pretty bleak; it also pretty damn relevant. The refrain, “Work–work–work,” is as imbedded in our discourse as ever. I read it and cackled like a crazy person; she’s got that right. The poem was especially interesting/fitting because she speaks of spring.
I hope you enjoy the poem, as much as it can be enjoyed. In its admonishing way, it’s a little like being forced to take a dose of nasty medicine. But I said I needed help from a poem and that is exactly what I got.
Song of the Shirt by Thomas Hood
With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags, Plying her needle and thread— Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the “Song of the Shirt.”
“Work! work! work!
While the cock is crowing aloof!
Till the stars shine through the roof!
It’s O! to be a slave
Along with the barbarous Turk,
Where woman has never a soul to save,
If this is Christian work!
Till the brain begins to swim;
Till the eyes are heavy and dim!
Seam, and gusset, and band,
Band, and gusset, and seam,
Till over the buttons I fall asleep,
And sew them on in a dream!
“O, men, with sisters dear!
O, men, with mothers and wives!
It is not linen you’re wearing out,
But human creatures’ lives!
In poverty, hunger and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.
“But why do I talk of death?
That phantom of grisly bone,
I hardly fear his terrible shape,
It seems so like my own—
It seems so like my own,
Because of the fasts I keep;
Oh, God! that bread should be so dear.
And flesh and blood so cheap!
My labour never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
A crust of bread—and rags.
That shattered roof—this naked floor—
A table—a broken chair—
And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
For sometimes falling there!
From weary chime to chime,
As prisoners work for crime!
Band, and gusset, and seam,
Seam, and gusset, and band,
Till the heart is sick, and the brain benumbed,
As well as the weary hand.
In the dull December light,
When the weather is warm and bright—
While underneath the eaves
The brooding swallows cling
As if to show me their sunny backs
And twit me with the spring.
“O! but to breathe the breath
Of the cowslip and primrose sweet—
With the sky above my head,
And the grass beneath my feet;
For only one short hour
To feel as I used to feel,
Before I knew the woes of want
And the walk that costs a meal!
“O! but for one short hour!
A respite however brief!
No blessed leisure for Love or hope,
But only time for grief!
A little weeping would ease my heart,
But in their briny bed
My tears must stop, for every drop
Hinders needle and thread!”
With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread—
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch,—
Would that its tone could reach the Rich!—
She sang this “Song of the Shirt!”
A few months ago, up at the lake house, an inside joke was born — and it’s one for the ages, too. I wasn’t there the moment “PAM the pan” came into existence, but by now the whole thing has a mind of its own and it doesn’t matter; family jokes are good like that.
Here’s what happened.
My sister’s fiancee, Jack, was making dinner. Jack is gifted in the kitchen and had made something delicious in a pan that unfortunately was giving him a little trouble. Stuff was sticking. My stepdad, Mark, not trying to be funny or ironic in any way, asked,
“Did you PAM the pan?”
PAM is a non-stick cooking spray, as most of us recognize. I am feeling very annoyed that I have to capitalize it like that, but it turns out “PAM” is an acronym: Product of Arthur Meyerhoff. Isn’t that something? Some dude figured out that you could spray canola oil on a pan and keep stuff from sticking to it and he actually named it after himself. Astonishing. Anyway, that’s what PAM stands for and none of that has to do with the story, though it is relevant that a) PAM is an inherently funny, plosive sound and b) non-stick cooking spray isn’t really Jack’s style in the first place.
So Mark’s question, “Did you PAM the pan?” was just too aurally/verbally fantastic to let go. Everyone in the room tried it out, and all were gleeful with the results — but they were not satisfied, no. I’m pretty sure my mom was responsible for the initial escalation because my mother is hilarious. Note: if you’re in a place where you can actually read these lines aloud, you should.
“Are you gonna make ham? Better PAM that pan.”
Then, my sister: “Damn! That ham pan need PAM!”
Then, Mark, chuckling: “Ask Sam. He’s got PAM. He’s got PAM for every pan.”
Mom again: “Look at that man, Sam. He can sure PAM a pan — why yes, he can!”
Then Jack: “Please stop.”
Jack is frequently the straight man to Fons women hijinks. He loves it, though — enough to marry my sister, which is solid evidence. All this PAM talk went on and on and finally made its way to me when Mom told me the story. My sister Nan in New York learned about it, too, and since then, we’ve had entire family email threads playing this game. Some of my favorites have included:
“Gram never PAM’ed the pan, no ma’am. Ham or lamb, she used a no-PAM pan.”
“Hotdamn, Stan, you better scram if you ain’t gon’ PAM that pan. Makin’ flan calls for a PAM’ed pan, man!”
The best things in life aren’t always free. I mean, I love a great handbag and those ain’t free, let me tell you. But there isn’t an admission charge to my family’s weird sense of humor and this stuff is priceless. You maybe had to be there, and that’s okay. But if you were there, you’d be laughing.