Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Reporting from America's Dairyland

The other night, when I couldn't sleep, I spent over an hour just reading old posts on this blog. I reached two conclusions: 1) I'm a pretty funny lady. There were things I had written and totally forgotten about that made me LOL.  2) I really should try to blog more - as in, once a week, minimum. So in that spirit, here's a post I started writing six months ago and abandoned -- a rumination on my new life in the upper Midwest. Now it's finished (and updated to reflect that I have now been here - gasp! - a year).

This is the state flag of Wisconsin. Seeing as I have now been a resident of Wisconsin for over a year, I thought I should take a look at the flag. According to Wikipedia, it is not highly regarded in terms of design when compared with other state flags (oh snap!). Our motto is "Forward" -- simple, direct. The state seal pictured on the flag "emphasizes mining and shipping." And yes, that's a little badger on top of the coat of arms. Cute!

It still seems incredibly bizarre that I live in Wisconsin, to both me and my non-Wisconsin friends and family. But here are five things I have figured out in the one year I have lived here:

1. "Wisconsin nice"

People here are really nice. Like, crazy nice. They always give you the benefit of the the doubt. Total strangers will offer you a ride at a bar if you're too drunk to drive (I have witnessed this, not been the drunk person, Mom). People will help you dig your car out of a snow bank. The locals take great pride in their kindness, especially in comparison to their neighbors to the west, Minnesotans, whom they claim are fake nice. I don't know a lot of Minnesotans, so I can't really comment.

2.The unofficial state condiment is Ranch.

Where I come from, Ranch is just a salad dressing. But lo, people dip everything in Ranch here! French fries, sandwiches, chips, their children (well, okay, maybe not that last one). Pretty much anything can be a vehicle for Ranch delivery. Cheese curds dipped in Ranch are especially tasty. Fried cheese dipped in Ranch: It doesn't get much more Wisconsin than that. 

3. The water here is delicious!

I have no idea why this is, but the tap water here is sooooo good. It doesn't have any weird flavors, no metal/mineral/chemical notes. It's crisp and cold (well, probably because the pipes are super cold) and tastes really pure.

4. Beware the Hodag

Wisconsin has its very own cryptid: the Hodag, a mythical (?) lizard beast that lives in Rhinelander. Here is a statue of the menacing creature:

The Hodag is now my second favorite folkloric creature, second of course to the chupacabra. Apparently the Hodag is not so much vicious as mischievous, presumed responsible for golf balls that are never recovered, interfering with local fishermen, and other mild recreational annoyances. See, even the state's monster is Wisconsin nice!

5. The summers are as lovely as the winters are brutal

When it finally began to warm up and all the inches upon inches of snow began to melt, I truly felt that I had survived something epic and terrible. This summer, in terms of weather, has been as intensely wonderful as the winter was intensely horrid. Glorious, sunny high-70s days, enough rain to keep everything verdant and some exciting thunderstorms, very mild humidity. Temps dropping low enough at night to turn off the A/C and just open the windows. Now that I know what's coming winter-wise, I understand why people try to soak up every last drop of summer. I'm in serious denial about Labor Day weekend, otherwise known as this weekend, otherwise known as the end of summer. 

As I embark on Year Two in Eau Claire, it feels both familiar and strange. Sort of like home, but also, due to some recent major life ruptures, a foreign and potentially scary place. But I still love my job, I've made some solid friends, and hey, I just joined a semi-professional choir, so I'll be singing again and meeting some new folks. I'm not in the same place I was when I rhapsodized last December, but hopefully I'll get to that state of relative contentment again soon. As my homegirl Florence says, it's always darkest before the dawn.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Another poem

I know it's unusual for me to have back-to-back posts with poems, but I am too emotionally spent to write/reflect, so I must use Dean Young's words instead. It's been a doozy of a summer -- I had major surgery and my heart broken all within a month. The healing from both events has been complicated -- allergic reactions and one incision that refuses to close up, and my heart, well, it continues to beat for the one who destroyed it. 

I am teaching Introduction to Creative Writing this fall and the task of selecting poems for my students to read has proved daunting only in that there are SO MANY I want to share with them. Some, like this one, I don't think fledgling writers would necessarily be able to really "get" - it breaks a lot of rules (which is why it's great) and it's hard to get away with some of the things Young gets away with here unless you really know what you're doing. From a craft perspective, the takeaways might be inscrutable for beginning creative writers.

Some of this poem, I would argue, is filler, is clutter -- but very intentionally so. The effect is that the astonishing lines and images (and there are a lot of them) seem to burst out from the din he creates with the frantic rhythm of his very free verse. And those moments in the poem become all the more transcendent because of how they explode out from the white noise. They are, literally, arresting. Read it and I think you'll see what I mean. Is every idea in this poem "essential"? I don't think so -- except in how the non-essentials make the drama of the jaw-dropping lines all the more impactful. This poem has the power to stop you in your tracks. Enjoy.

Whale Watch

Sometimes you may feel alone and crushed 
by what you cannot accomplish 
but the thought of failure is a fuzz 
we cannot rid ourselves of 
anymore than the clouds can their moisture. 
Why would they want to anyway? 
It is their identity and purpose 
above the radish and radicchio fields. 
Just because a thing can never be finished 
doesn't mean it can't be done. 
The most vibrant forms are emergent forms. 
In winter, walk across the frozen lake 
and listen to it boom and you will know 
something of what i mean. 
It may be necessary to go to Mexico. 
Do not steal tombstones but if you do, 
do not return them as it is sentimental 
and the sentimental is a larval feeling 
that bloats and bloats but never pupates. 
Learn what you can of the coyote and shark. 
Do not encourage small children 
to play the trombone as the shortness 
of their arms may prove quite frustrating, 
imprinting a lifelong aversion to music 
although in rare cases a sense of unreachability 
may inspire operas of delicate auras. 
If you hook, try to slice. 
I have not the time to fully address 
Spinoza but put Spinoza on your list. 
Do not eat algae. 
When someone across the table has a grain of rice 
affixed to his nostril, instead of shouting, 
Hey, you got rice hanging off your face! 
thereby perturbing the mood 
as he speaks of his mother one day in the basement, 
brush your nose as he watches 
and hidden receptors in the brain 
will cause him to brush his own nose 
ergo freeing the stupid-looking-making rice. 
There is so much to say and shut up about. 
As regards the ever-present advice-dispensing susurration 
of the dead, ignore it; they think everyone's 
going to die. I have seen books with pink slips 
marking vital passages 
but this I do not recommend 
as it makes the book appear foolish 
like a dog in a sweater. 
Do not confuse size with scale: 
the cathedral may be very small, 
the eyelash monumental. 
Know yourself to be made mostly of water 
with a trace of aluminum, a metal 
commonly used in fuselages. 
For flying, hollow bones are best or 
no bones at all as in the honeybee. 
Do not kill yourself. 
Do not put the hammer in the crystal carafe 
except as a performance piece. 
When you are ready to marry, 
you will know but if you don't, 
don't worry. The bullfrog never marries, 
ditto the space shuttle 
yet each is able to deliver its payload: 
i.e. baby bullfrogs and satellites, respectively. 
When young, fall in and out of love like a window 
that is open and only about a foot off the ground. 
Occasionally land in lilacs 
or roses if you must 
but remember, the roses 
have been landed in many times. 
If you do not surprise yourself, 
you won't surprise anyone else. 
When the yo-yo "sleeps", give a little tug 
and it will return unless it has "slept" too long. 
Haiku should not be stored with sestinas 
just as one should never randomly mix 
the liquids and powders beneath the kitchen sink. 
Sand is both the problem and the solution for the beach. 
To impress his teacher, Pan-Shan lopped off 
his own hand, but to the western mind, 
this seems rather extreme. 
Neatly typed, on-time themes 
strongly spelled are generally enough. 
Some suggest concentrating on one thing 
for a whole life but narrowing down 
seems less alluring than opening up 
except in the case of the blue pencil 
with which to make lines on one side 
of the triangle so it appears to speed through the firmament. 
Still, someone should read everything 
Galsworthy wrote. Everyone knows 
it's a race but no one's sure of the finish line. 
You may want to fall to your knees 
and beg for forgiveness without knowing precisely 
for what. You may have a hole in your heart. 
You may solve the equation but behind it 
lurks another equation. You may never get 
what you want and feel like you're already a ghost 
and a failed ghost at that, unable to walk through walls. 
There will be a purple hat. Ice cream. 
You may almost ruin the wedding. 
You may try to hang yourself but be saved 
by a kid come home early from school 
or you may be that kid who'll always remember 
his mother that day in the basement, 
how she seemed to know he'd done something wrong 
before he even knew 
and already forgave him, 
the way she hugged him and cried. 
Nothing escapes damage for long, 
not the mountain or the sky. 
You may be unable to say why 
a certain song makes you cry until 
it joins the other songs, 
even the one that's always going on 
and is never heard, the one that sings us into being. 
On the phone, the doctor may tell you to come in. 
It may rain for three days straight. 
Already you've been forgiven, 
given permission. Each week, cryptograms 
come with the funny papers. 
You're not alone. 
You may see a whale.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

So You Think You Don't Like Poetry: Happy Birthday, Nabokov edition

Today is Vladimir Nabokov's birthday and it's also National Poetry Month, so I'm celebrating both by posting a poem of my own (!) that was recently published in Measure.

Nabokov and his wife Vera shared a love of lepidoptery (collecting butterflies) - and he drew butterflies alongside his inscriptions in first editions gifted to her. 

Their relationship is legendary -- in a recent article in the Atlantic entitled "The Legend of Vera Nabokov," Koa Beck considers how Vera's support and devotion to her husband's career impacted his success. They are the original power couple; think Claire and Francis Underwood, replacing politics with literature and minus the murder and creepy threesomes.

Vladimir died in 1977; Vera, not until 1991. I wrote this poem in grad school as I tried to imagine what she did with all the butterflies after his death. 

Vera vs. the Butterflies
The eastern side of every minute of mine is already colored by the light of our impending meeting.
All the rest is dark, boring, you-less. – Vladimir Nabokov to his wife Vera, 1937

She had already lost him
and now his winged darlings
were hers to keep or kill.

She shared his fascination
with fragility and flight,
but walking in the woods

alone, armed with the net
he had given her, noting
each abandoned chrysalis,

unusual flecks of blue
on a Parnassius apollo,
she knew they had to go.

A book suggested pinching
thorax between thumb
and middle finger to snap

the exoskeleton for a quick
death, but she couldn’t bear
their blood on her hands.

Suffocation in a kill jar –
too inhumane. She decided
finally to freeze them, let the air

do her dirty work. Watching
their wings pulse to stillness,
she imagined his delight

at the sudden flutter
of company, diaphanous
prologue to their reunion.

V & V

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Tale of Two Voice Teachers

At one point in my life, singing meant everything to me.

Nowadays, it plays a peripheral role. I sing in the shower and in the car and semi-regularly at karaoke bars in whatever city I happen to be living in. I have joined some non-professional choirs over the years. Nothing too serious.

But once, it was my world -- it was the first thing I remember being good at. Before I knew I could write, before I knew I was reasonably intelligent, I knew I could sing. I knew it even before my first music teacher, the lovely Diane Ladendecker, told me I had a nice voice. It's the first skill I recall feeling like I just had-- as in, no one taught it to me. I somehow magically just could sing Happy Birthday correctly. I could hear a song and sing it -- and it did seem like a miraculous gift.

As a child, I sang not just in the school choir, but in community choirs as well. Choirs that had real paying gigs. And then I started doing theater -- specifically musical theater and opera. So once I hit high school, it seemed logical to start taking voice lessons. And of course, I wanted to take them from the best teacher in town, the teacher with the best reputation: Sheila Dugan. Her name was spoken in hushed tones among child performers and their parents. She was expensive. She didn't agree to work with just anyone. She had to agree that you were worth teaching to take you on as a student. But as far as I was concerned, there was no one else from whom I could possibly study voice. So if she was willing to work with me, my parents said they were willing to pay for it.

I owe a lot to Sheila Dugan. She taught me that singing is all about breathing. For the first three months, we did no singing-- only breathing exercises. My tone was too airy and I had no breath support. She taught me how to focus my tone and sustain -- she taught me how to control my instrument. She was tough on me but I appreciated it. She helped me turn raw talent into real skill.

Sheila Dugan is still, I believe, revered among St. Louis singers. Many of her students have gone on to illustrious careers on Broadway. She's the real deal. She's also, however, the person who almost managed to make me hate singing and give up on it entirely. I left my final lesson in tears, convinced I had no talent whatsoever.

I started working with Sheila my sophomore year of high school, but the trouble started my senior year, when I wanted to enter a vocal competition sponsored by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The competition was open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 35 not enrolled in a vocal performance program, so clearly winning would be a long shot. My high school choir teacher encouraged me to enter not because she thought I could win, but because she thought it would be good experience. To compete, you had to prepare two songs in non-English languages, so she also said it would be a great excuse for me to expand my repertoire.

At my next lesson with Sheila, I told her I wanted to start preparing material for this competition. And Sheila was aghast and appalled. She told me that I had no chance and I would be wasting everyone's time. She said, "My students enter these competitions and win them. If you want to enter, I will not allow you to list me as your vocal instructor. I have a reputation to uphold." She also told me that I was her weakest student, that she could line up all her students in a row and every one of them could outsing me. She actually said those words, exactly. My memory of this afternoon is crystal clear.

It was my last lesson. I was shattered. To this day, I don't understand why she had to be so, well, mean. I stopped taking lessons. I didn't enter the competition. I never saw Sheila Dugan again.

Next fall, I went to college at Yale and joined an a cappella group. Did a bunch of shows in my four years, some musicals, some not. After graduating, I moved to NYC and started auditioning. And inevitably, the idea of resuming voice lessons (once I had a steady job and could afford them) occurred to me. But I was scared -- I'd had such a negative experience. I really felt like Sheila Dugan had broken something inside me. I wasn't sure I could make myself vulnerable enough to work with another voice teacher one-on-one.

Somehow, through circumstances I can't recall, I was put in touch with Nomi Tichman. Hesitantly, I went to my first lesson. We hit it off like gangbusters. She was just as good a teacher as Sheila, but unlike Shelia, she actually seemed to like and respect me as a person, to have my best interests at heart. When I wanted to audition for a part I was unlikely to land, she encouraged me. She didn't lie to me, but she supported me. And in the arts, as a young artist especially, that's invaluable. Her apartment on the Upper West Side was a safe space for me to experiment with my artistry. I studied with Nomi for several years while I was in New York and even when I barely had enough money to pay my rent, I never stopped budgeting money for voice lessons. It was good for my spirit. I remembered what it felt like to enjoy singing again.

I have referred Nomi to a number of my friends because it's fucking hard to be an actor/musician in New York and having someone in your creative corner is so, so important. She's a wonderful teacher. When I first started working with her, I had a lot of notions about what I could and couldn't do. I thought primarily in terms of limitations and boundaries. I can't sing this type of role, I can't belt above this note, etc. She helped me think past all that. And I will always be grateful for her for that.

(You might wonder what prompted this apropos-of-nothing post about singing and studying voice -- well, last night I went to see a local production of Jesus Christ Superstar. And reading the bios of the actors in the program, I saw that the actor playing Jesus was from St. Louis and had studied with Sheila Dugan. A flood of memories came back -- not just about Sheila but about my own evolution as a singer -which coincided with my evolution into adulthood.)

For anyone on an artistic or creative path, there will always be an infinite number of Sheilas. You have to learn how to tune them out and find the Nomis.