Monday, August 31, 2009

So You Think You Don't Like Poetry

Sleep is one of my favorite activities and according to The Book of Birthdays, people born on March 1 (my b-day), need a lot of sleep because we have especially active dream lives. This poem, published just last year, is by Elaine Equi, a poet I only recently discovered but already adore.

Everybody Has Dreams

Last night, the cook dreamt a giant mouth dribbling blood
or ketchup. He has trouble relating to women.

The woman in the beige pantsuit dreamt of a computer that
transports objects into the future.

The woman by the window was a little girl holding her mother's

That guy near the door followed a melody into a forest.

The busboy was driving a sports car fast.

The skinny girl was a military general in a country ruled by a giant
inflatable cat.

The waitress murdered somebody. Even now, she looks guiltily
over her shoulder as she wipes the silverware clean.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Five People You Meet in Writing Grad School

Since I'm gearing up for Year Two in my MFA program, this post seemed apropos. I actually wrote this for a
blogging contest sponsored by Writer's Digest-- I haven't heard anything from them, so I'm assuming I didn't win and can repurpose what I wrote. Admittedly, this is a little snarky and if you're in my MFA program and we're friends, don't worry, I'm sure you don't fall into any of these categories. Because if you did, we wouldn't be friends, right?

Mitch Albom may know about heaven, but let me tell you about some of the folks you’re likely to encounter in an M.F.A. writing program.

1. The Premature Memoirist

Color me old-fashioned, but I thought memoirs were generally supposed to be written at least halfway through one’s life. And yet, the popularity of creative nonfiction as a new track in writing programs around the country has resulted in tons of 24-year-olds working on their David Sedaris-style dysfunctional family memoirs.

2. Little Miss Defensive

In workshop, she rolls her eyes whenever anyone offers constructive criticism and ferociously defends every word. But if everything she writes is already perfect, isn’t graduate school a colossal waste of time and money?

3. I-Feel-Entitled-to-Discuss-the-Assigned-Reading-Even-Though-I-Haven’t-Done-It Guy

You probably encountered this guy in your undergraduate years. He makes seemingly profound, but vague comments, frequently using terms such as “deconstructionist,” “narrative distance,” and “meta-fictional.”

4. The Hunter Thompson Wannabe

He brings a flask to class, wears aviator sunglasses indoors, never shaves, and claims to do his best writing during cocaine-fueled all-nighters. He’s more bozo than gonzo, though.

5. The Pretentious L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E/Flarf Poet

His/her poems don’t make any sense, but that doesn’t make them deep. The titles of said poems are often longer than the poems themselves. Example:

Haiku Written on My Neighbor’s Toilet While Reflecting on Proust and My Mother’s Liposuction Scars

Ketchup packets burst
Like Partridge Family pancakes

Feline clitoris

Sometimes random is just….random.

*Note: You may also encounter these types at writing colonies, conferences, and book launch parties.

Monday, August 24, 2009

My job with rare books explained!

This month, I've been working part-time at my old employer's, Glenn Horowitz Bookseller. My job: cataloging (i.e. writing about) old books and letters for one client's collection. This particular client is building an extensive library of books written by and about American women; she also collects Judaica and cookbooks.

But whenever I try to explain my job to my friends, their eyes kind of glaze over and I know they don't really understand what I'm doing on a daily basis. They know it involves books and writing and research, but that's about it. I used to get the same look on my face when my former roommate Kim would describe what she did at her job at a consulting firm. To this day, I have no idea what consultants do.

So to clarify matters, I'm posting an example of what I write here. It's challenging work, usually enjoyable, and combines a strange and specific set of skills (for instance, knowing the difference between foxed and soiled endpapers, or what deckled edges look like). A good description should stand in for the object itself and explain why it's important and valuable. The description I'm posting below I'm especially fond of because it actually inspired me to write a poem (a bouts-rime, to be exact), which you can read here.

A Manuscript Account of the Burning of Louvain

[Religion] Autograph letter signed, “Sister M. Ignatius O’Kavanaugh,” to Miss Walker, Graymoor, Garrison, N.Y., April 5th, 1915.

Three 8vo. leaves, all sides covered; uneven left margin on first leaf; some small tears.

Together with:

Dosch, Arno. Louvain the Lost. The World’s Work, disbound from the October 1914 issue.

Four 8vo. printed leaves; left margin unevenly torn where it was removed from hinge; some leaves chipped at the top.

The six-page letter by Sister O’Kavanaugh graphically recounts the destruction of Louvain, Belgium at the hands of the Germans, who were occupying the city at the time. It reads in part:

Reverend Mother tells me you would like to hear from me something of what we went through in Louvain, Belgium, before the Germans made us evacuate the city…I must tell you that there was no provocation given by the citizens; they strictly followed the advice given them by the Belgium staff, when the latter held the place; up to the 18th of August, to keep very quiet & offer no resistance. They freely gave up all firearms…even those who had rusty guns, dating from the days of Waterloo…

On the evening of Tuesday the 25th of Aug. at about 7 pm we were suddenly terrified by the deafening noise of firing; it seemed as if all the guns in the country were firing within a few yards of us…Most people fled to their cellars; some who went to the street were shot dead…

The strength of their guns is so great that the bullets go through brick walls 25 inches thick as if they were going through walls made of cheese…After about half an hour they stopped firing and began burning the city. They took about 36 hours to do it. Groups of 5 or 6 soldiers went about, one officer being with each group to see that they did it. Hundreds of our poor neighbors climbed over our walls and gathered round us. When they tried to flee from their houses into the streets, they were driven back into the flames. One poor woman, a Marie de Bekker…was shot through the side because she tried a second time to escape from her house. The bullet passed thro’ her flesh past over the hip bone…

Towards 8 o’clock on Thursday morning (27th Aug) soldiers came into the house crying out, as if they were in a great hurry & in great fear, that we were to flee at once, that the city was going to be bombarded. They were kind & even respectful…We had to go to the big open square in front of the railway station…we had to wait for about ½ hour till the population of that part of the city had been gathered there. Then we had to march to Tirlemont. We numbered about 7,000…

The letter concludes with a discussion of Sister Kavanaugh’s current activities in the United States and her fundraising on behalf of those affected by the war.

“Louvain the Lost” also tells the story of the fall of Louvain, but through the eyes of an American journalist. The piece was inserted into the Oct. 1914 issue as an appendix. The editor’s note, which was published alongside Dosch’s article, explains that Dosch was commissioned by World’s Work magazine to write from the frontlines of battle. Also included is the note Dosch sent with his article, with a post-script that reads: “I have not put a thing in this story that I did not see. It might have been more vivid to give the lurid details told about Louvain, but I send enough to indicate what it must have been.”

Dosch breaks up his narrative into sections with dramatic headings such as “The Hush of an Invaded City” and “Soldiers With Drawn Pistols.” He describes the days leading up to the fire, when the citizens of Louvain waited hopefully for either French or English troops to arrive and drive out the Germans. Dosch and the other American journalists in his party were in Brussels when Louvain began to burn and he describes how the town looked when he arrived a day later: “…it was not until we came in sight of Louvain that we realized the extent of the destruction…I was prepared to find one or two of the troublesome quarters destroyed, but the first thing that caught my eye was the roofless church of St. Pierre. Across the Grand Place the Hotel de Ville still stood, but everything in between, a distance of half a mile, and everything for a mile beyond to the farthest rampart, was burnt…I wondered what had become of the little Flemish woman of the restaurant with childbirth approaching, and the many lone women whose husbands and brothers were in the Belgian army.”

World’s Work was a monthly magazine founded in 1900 by W.H. Page which covered American politics and cultural trends. The magazine published its final issue in 1932. Neither Dosch nor Sister Kavanaugh look up in biographic resources.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Spelling is overrated

Yesterday on Facebook, I was trying to say in my status update that I was feeling highly distractible. Except that when I typed "distractible," it was underlined by those little red dots that indicate a misspelled word. So then I tried "distractable." No dice. I was too lazy to investigate further and came to the conclusion that it must not be a real word.

WRONG. Apparently, both spellings are acceptable. HA! Take that, Facebook.

This leads me to the conclusion that spelling is dumb. I know my 12-year-old brother agrees with me; he once famously put up a sign on the door to his bedroom that said "Ples Knok." Which sounds kind of like a Klingon greeting. Ples knok, earthling!

I was in a spelling bee once. In 7th grade. The word that got me out: "extraterrestrial." I was pissed when the kid next to me got "raspberry."

My friend Zach Sherwin, who is an up and coming comedian (and rapper under the name MC Mr. Napkins), feels my pain. Check out his awesome rap video about the word that robbed him of spelling bee glory:

Spelling Bee

Sunday, August 16, 2009


I have been living with The Boyfriend now for 2.5 weeks. So far, so good. You learn so much about a person from living with them, so I thought I would devote a post to the new things I'm discovering.

1. Pennies on the nightstand

At the end of the day, The BF deposits any pennies received during the day on the nightstand. The number of pennies on the nightstand varies, but every morning, he puts exactly 5 pennies in his pocket. He attempts to spend them during the course of the day. This is because he dislikes pennies.

2. Marginalia

I'm a book person; when I'm in someone's apartment for the first time, I always notice what books are on his/her shelves. Having visited The BF's apartment many times before moving in for the month, I was familiar with his books. But I had never opened any of them. In this well-used edition of Hamlet (he starred in a production in college), I found this amusing stage direction written in the margins:

3. Limited kitchen options

Whenever I cook for The BF, I have to get a little creative. His kitchen lacks some items (a blender, balsamic vinegar, a serrated knife, a garlic press, a large skillet). This is what I have at my disposal:

As you will notice, he owns one knife. Just one. On the plus side, he has a dishwasher.

4. Bathroom soap

I would not have pegged him as the type to purchase or own whimsical fruit-shaped soaps. I think I am pleased by this quirky impulse buy. The BF is very practical -- kiwi soap is not a necessity, but it does brighten up the otherwise completely white bathroom.

5. Wrestlemania on VHS

No comment.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

So You Think You Don't Like Poetry

I was having trouble choosing a poem to post today, so I asked my extremely well-read friend (and fellow writer) Benjy Caplan to pick one for me. His choice is a good one -- "Security Lights, Key West" by
Richard Wilbur, who published his first book of poetry in 1947 and has won basically every major poetry award/grant/prestigious fellowship out there. He's still alive and still writing; his New and Collected Poems came out in 2004 and today's selection is one of the new poems included in that volume. Pretty amazing that he's been writing poetry for over 60 years and is still this good at it.

Security Lights, Key West

Mere minutes from Duval Street’s goings-on,
The midnight houses of this quiet block,
With their long-lidded shutters, are withdrawn
In sleep past bush and picket, bolt and lock,

Yet each fa├žade is raked by the strange glare
Of halogen, in which fantastic day
Veranda, turret, balustraded stair
Glow like the settings of some noble play.

As if the isle were Prospero’s, you seem
To glimpse great summoned spirits as you pass.
Cordelia tells her truth, and Joan her dream,
Becket prepares the sacrifice of Mass,

A dog-tired watchman in that mirador
Waits for the flare that tells of Troy’s defeat,
And other lofty ghosts are heard, before
You turn into a narrow, darker street.

There, where no glow or glare outshines the sky,
The pitch-black houses loom on either hand
Like hulks adrift in fog, as you go by.
It comes to mind that they are built on sand,

And that there may be drama here as well,
Where so much murk looks up at star on star:
Though, to be sure, you cannot always tell
Whether those lights are high or merely far.

(to hear an audio recording of the poem, click

Thanks to Benjy for his help and good taste in poetry!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Vagnino Recipes

Last night, I went to see "Julie & Julia" and while I found Julie Powell as a character to be incredibly annoying, Meryl Streep's performance definitely redeemed the $12.50 spent on the ticket. Yes, movies in NYC are that expensive.

The movie inspired me to cook and write about it -- after all, maybe if this were a food blog, I'd have Amanda Hesser coming over for dinner and a book deal just like Julie P.

So for this entry only, pretend this is a food blog. I do love to cook and would honestly rank my skills at slightly-above-average. I still need to basically follow recipes, but the food I prepare is almost always tasty. And boy, can I ever zest the crap out of a lemon.

For a brief second, I contemplated posting my father's secret recipe for the "famous" Vagnino family spaghetti and meals. But then I decided that getting disinherited would be unwise, so instead I'll post a recipe from my aunt's humorous cookbook, How to Eat Like a Republican.

How do Republicans eat? Well, think heartland, think homestyle, think somewhat Southern. Many of the recipes in the book call for Tabasco and/or bacon and/or a shit-ton of butter. It's how we folks raised in the country's middle like to eat, regardless of the effects on our own middles.

This particular recipe was actually contributed by one of my aunt's Democrat friends -- it's called Zorba the Shrimp.

Serves 8


3 tablespoons of olive oil

4 cups chopped onions
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 cup finely chopped parsley

2 tablespoons finely chopped dill

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 teaspoon sugar

5 cups canned whole tomates (liquid reserved)
2 and 1/2 cups feta cheese, crumbled
3 pounds large shrimp, peeled and deveined

Preheat the oven to 425.

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan or deep skillet. Add the onions and cook until golden. Add the garlic, parsley, and dill, the stir in the mustard and sugar. Add the tomatoes, 1 cup of the reserved tomato liquid and half of the feta. Simmer for 30 minutes, adjusting the consistency of the sauce with the remaining tomato liquid; it should not be too thick.

Add the shrimp, cook for one minute more, then pour the mixture into a heavy casserole. Sprinke with the rest of the feta and bake, uncovered, for 10-15 minutes, until the shrimp are just done (bright pink, no gray left) and the feta melts.

Serve immediately over orzo or rice and great crunchy bread. Bon appetit!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Let the rejection commence!

Yesterday marked a minor milestone in my creative writing career: I sent out my first submissions to literary journals and magazines. Which means in about three months, I should be receiving my first wave of rejections.

I'm not afraid of rejection -- it's part of the artistic process. Since joining the editorial staff of Redivider, Emerson's graduate literary journal, I have gained some insight into the process of getting published. And I'm not gonna lie; it's a little bit of a crapshoot. I mean, my job is to screen the slush, i.e. the unsolicited submissions. So I know that someone just like me is reading my stuff and making a judgment call which may or may not have to do with the quality of the work. I try to be objective, but at the end of the day, it's just my opinion. One person's opinion. And what do I know? I'm just a wannabe published poet myself.

The most amusing part of the process of submitting is researching which publications would be a good fit for my style/voice. Some of the guidelines are pretty narrow--consider, for instance, what kind of poetry a journal called The Bathyspheric Review is seeking:

The Bathyspheric Review is an electronic journal carrying fine poetry devoted to oceanic themes and imagery. Founded on a deep desire to celebrate the world's oceans, waves and beaches through poetry, we do not restrict our content to naturalism, but only request that it explores the imagery of the shore, the tidal zone, the impact zone, the surface, the mid-water, the deep.

Sadly, none of my poems really grapple with the tidal zone. I do have a couple of poems that deal with the ocean, but on more of a metaphorical level. I don't know if that counts.

Most lit mag guidelines can be summarized thus: Send us stuff that doesn't suck and hasn't been published already.

Sounds simple, right? We'll see.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Gene Kelly might not be human

Whenever I watch old movies, it strikes me how much more talented you had to be back in the day to make it in Hollywood. Yesterday, walking through the East Village in the pouring rain, my boyfriend and I stumbled upon a movie theater playing, appropriately, "Singin' in the Rain," starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor. My boyfriend made the mistake of admitting that he'd never seen it. So of course, I dragged him in.

I love "Singin' in the Rain"-- it's funny, clever, and the dancing is spectacular. The three leads are all triple threats. Nowadays, you can be a "star" just by looking pretty. I mean, is there a Shia Labeouf equivalent in the golden age of filmmaking? Is what Gene Kelly does on camera at all related to what Jennifer Love Hewitt does?

I'm posting a video with a clip not from "Singin' in the Rain," but from a lesser-known Gene Kelly flick, "It's Always Fair Weather." In it, Gene Kelly tap dances. ON ROLLER SKATES.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Point/Counterpoint: Am I a New Yorker?

Point: I am a New Yorker

Supporting evidence:

1. I have lived in five different apartments in New York, in three different boroughs. I even spent a summer living in an NYU dorm in Kip's Bay, an area many native New Yorkers have never even heard of.

2. When riding in a cab, I turn off Taxi-TV.

3. I have been mugged (in 2003, on 15th St. between 8th and 9th Aves.)

4. I have never eaten at Bubba Gump Shrimp, the Hawaiian Tropic Restaurant, Planet Hollywood or the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square.

5. I was an aspiring actress/singer for several years and have performed at the Mercury Lounge, La Mama's, and St. Ann's Warehouse.

6. I have no idea what gasoline costs nowadays.

7. I have never seen Mary Poppins or The Little Mermaid on Broadway; I have, however, seen The Toxic Avenger off-Broadway.

8. I am obsessed with bagels, especially the ones at Absolute Bagels.

9. I have traveled to Coney Island to see the Nathan's Hotdog Eating Championship.

10. I love New York.

Counterpoint: I am not a New Yorker

Supporting evidence:

1. I currently live in Boston.

2. I like it when strangers smile or say "hi" on the street.

3. I refuse to wait more than 10 minutes for a table at brunch.

4. I have never eaten a slice of Ray's Pizza.

5. I don't know anyone with a house in the Hamptons.

6. I require a dishwasher and a garbage disposal.

7. Other than Long, I've never been to any of the islands (Ellis, Roosevelt, Governor's, Staten).

8. I've never been to a bar/bat mitzvah.

9. I root for the Red Sox.

10. I hate New York.