Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Garden

I wasn't going to be a sheep and do a long retrospective, but I really, really need something good to hold on to, anchor into, and over 4 years now it's always been the garden. Many good things have happened this year (poetry collection accepted, work in Orion and The Sun, radio interview, self published a garden book after narrowly missing a press), but none as evocative and moving as this small world I help along each year--just as it helps me along.

"'What is the world?' [my son asked] What the world is and who we are meant to be within it and how we are to conserve what is good and beautiful and true in the world, and in ourselves; and how we are to forgive and, if we can, redeem what is bad and ugly and false in ourselves and, because of us, in the world--this may be what we're here for." -- Mark Tredinnick

Early March
Early April--post cut down
90% of my garden gets cut down each year. It's something that can take me 2 days, or if I savor it, 2 weeks. I savored in 2011. This is all the work I did the whole year, except for mulching the paths.

Our trip to see 500,000 sandhill cranes
Sandhill Cranes one hour west
Early May
Mid May
In May I took my wife on a research trip for my next book through Oklahoma, from the NE corner to the SW. Interviewed family, visited bison and prairie preserves, saw the OKC Memorial site, walked the 1894 homestead. I discovered a place I didn't know existed, and came to some measure of peace with one I loathed most of my life. It meant a lot to share the state I was born in with my wife.

Tallgrass Prairie Preserve Oklahoma
Family Homestead, Corn OK
Black Tailed Prairie Dogs, Wichita Mtns Wildlife Refuge
Garden Tour
In June I was one of several gardens on the Wachiska Audubon Society Garden Tour. In a few hours hundreds came through, and I only wished that I had started my native plant garden consulting business before instead of after, since so many people asked if I did that.

Day Before Garden Tour
Garden Tour, Mid June
Tour Day, Muggy Muggy Muggy
Mid July--My Birthday
Monarchs on Liatris Ligulistylis--raised 200
Mantis Cat
Early September
Late October
Balanced on a cosmo petal
Golden Smokebush
I also set up an Etsy photograph shop, with a focus (pun intended) on macro shots.

I'm hoping 2012 brings a book contract for any of my mixed genre or straight memoirs, and a good teaching job--somewhere I can put down roots and have long term relationships with students, peers, landscapes. But if not, I have my quasi prairie garden here in Nebraska, whose roots are amending the clay soil just as they work their magic on me. I hope you've had some of that magic, too.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Holiday Poem O' Mine

Today one of my poems, which appeared in American Life in Poetry a few years back.
Grandpa Vogt's--1959
The food is on the table. Turkey tanned
to a cowboy boot luster, potatoes mashed
and mounded in a bowl whose lip is lined
with blue flowers linked by grey vines faded
from washing. Everyone’s heads have turned
to elongate the table’s view—a last supper twisted
toward a horizon where the Christmas tree, crowned
by a window, sets into itself half inclined.   
Each belly cries. Each pair of eyes admonished
by Aunt Photographer. Look up. You’re wined
and dined for the older folks who’ve pined
to see your faces, your lives, lightly framed
in this moment’s flash. Parents are moved,
press their children’s heads up from the table,
hide their hunger by rubbing lightly wrinkled
hands atop their laps. They’ll hold the image
as long as need be, seconds away from grace. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Future of My Writing

I've decided that, barring a last second miracle, I'm probably going to self publish my 75,000 word memoir Morning Glory next summer. It needs one more swipe of the knife to take some fat off, and then a tummy tuck. But first I'm writing my Great Plains memoir Turkey Red this spring, which should be 90,000 words.

I've had enough editors and agents tell me that MG has promise, and more--it's lyrical, moving, reflective, a good story. My experience self publishing the mini memoir Sleep, Creep, Leap hasn't been a watershed moment, but it has put my work in the hands of over 100 readers--and the responses I've had from them have been positive (I wish I'd hear a negative so I knew what to change, besides making it longer, a common suggestion).  And self publishing is not about making money--with 100 copies I've made $90 between the ebook and paperback versions, just enough to break even with production costs. I don't think I'd have sold 100 copies without making the book affordable.

I'm not sure what self publishing one of my big books like Morning Glory might mean: will it short circuit any chance to have a real press take it? Will it be a waste of time? Will it erode potential to get an academic teaching job? (Obviously, self published books don't get put on a cv or recognized because they've not passed a peer review process--as it should be.) Will it lead to something bigger, or smaller? Am I boxing myself in?

In general I take rejection well--after a few hours--and send out work again right away. Yet too many of my submissions to literary journals are nice ones, encouraging ones, even offers to edit and resubmit, but I don't know how to get over the hump. I had one essay at a very nice journal that "caused quite a conversation among the editorial board" and had a similar response from another. I have an essay about hummingbirds that, 50% of the time, gets a hand written compliment and then a "sorry." Yes, this is par for the course. But I hate golf. If you're gonna keep the horse moving forward you have to change out the dangling moldy carrot for a fresh one. And stop using so many allusions. (Also, please don't read any of this as a pity party or a narcissistic need for encouragement. I'm not trying to whine either--I just see this space as a forum to document my process and life as a writer, which is I suppose pretty much like most others.)

Tell me what you think--would you read Morning Glory?

When a son reflects on a childhood of gardening with his mother, he finds clues to a family lineage built around silences, distance, and forgetfulness. Eventually, his mother begins to openly reveal a past that confronts the author’s own dark nature. In the history of gardens there are great tragedies and triumphs, and in the garden we continue to discover our truest selves.

The day before the author’s wedding, his grandmother is in a serious accident a mile from the church. This event sets in motion a quest to discover the origins of mysterious letters sent from strangers, hints by aunts about their father, debilitating migraines, and the “Anderson” family persona—the ability to swiftly and sternly cut off an offending family member for years at a time for a seemingly trivial matter.
MORNING GLORY: A STORY OF FAMILY AND CULTURE IN THE GARDEN explores the wary and subdued relationship between mother and son, a relationship which typifies our species’ own with nature. As a son grows up learning about gardening with his mother, he eventually earns the right to ask questions about who she is, and who he is in her shadow. Revealing her own childhood of poverty, abuse, and religious fundamentalism, two people begin to understand themselves and their lineage of solitude and depression in a new light—particularly for the son in a difficult and new marriage. As this son looks at diverse cultural attempts to connect place with self, a powerful metaphor develops between gardening and emotional balance, and how ending our violence toward ourselves and each other is synonymous with ending our violence toward the planet. Ultimately, the only way to understand ourselves is to understand the garden, and vice versa.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


I was watching a PBS show I taped months ago about the fight for wilderness, about the feds designating vanishing landscapes as wilderness and so protecting them. In the west, the "frontier," it's a special issue where ranchers and ATV hounds love their private access and call it freedom, but it can be destructive to wildlife. Yet environmental groups who sit down with ranchers often find that they are not at odds, but want the same thing just in different ways. What is here is almost gone.

I think about the people that have come before, and that I live on a farmer's field, perhaps a pioneer's, on land once traveled by the Pawnee and Cheyenne and Sioux. On bison range. On prairie chicken booming land. On thick stands of bluestem as far as one could see. These voices barely echo anymore. These are the apparitions we willingly slaughtered.

And then it occurs to me--bison and bluestem are not the ghosts, but we today are the ghosts, searching for our place in the world, our meaning, still as hungry to conquer our fears and feed our desires in the landscapes around us. We are the mirages, the apparitions longing for something we lost or never had, wandering the earth, condemned to find our souls in places that can no longer hold them. This is America on the Great Plains.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

James Wright Partay

Well, it's his birthday, though he passed away in 1980. His poetry has been one of my core influences as a writer and a person. And though this poem is often considered one of his greatest--and it is one of my favorites--I don't think it's one of his best as a poem. However, it is one of his best on the level of blowing your mind and making you see yourself through everything else so you can see yourself deeper and truer--and this is what a deep imagist poet, and what a good writer, is all about.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in the green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Labeling Memory

I posted the below on my Facebook wall, but I think I want it here, too, so I can more easily refer back to it as I write the memoir.
"When we cleaned out my grandmother's house many years ago, she had labeled all sorts of stuff--belt buckles, souvenir spoons, vases, nicknacks--letting us know who gave them to her and / or when and / or where. But reading a book today that she owned, she scribbled in a margin where she was baptized, on the Washita River, where Cheyenne chief Big Jake camped after allotment in 1892. This is also the same river, further upstream, where Black Kettle's body was found after Custer massacred that Cheyenne peace chief's village in 1868. My grandmother was washed clean of her sins in a river filled with them."
I know what the first chapter will be, and I want to write it this very second, but I'm holding off until I gain more perspective from the last of my research. I know once I start writing, I won't stop. It's like a can of Pringles, or so the ads tell me.

I have less than 1,000 pages left to annotate, having completed my reading this week, then I can begin organizing about 100 sources, quotes, and info into topics:

Great Plains flora and fauna
History of Mennonites
History of the Cheyenne
Family stories and anecdotes
Oklahoma history, cultural and geologic
Grandmother's diary
General quotes / possible epigraphs

You get the idea. This way as I'm writing I can just pull up a word document and quickly dip into whatever source material I need, paste it in, and move on. Nothing is more killer to the writing process than having to stop for any length of time. I even find the space bar and return key very very very annoying and disruptive. You should see the number of folders on my desktop, the amount of books and papers in my office. Being organized, or trying to be, is the only way to approach a messy and large project. And a paper trail may come in handy later on if someone (a publisher? maybe?) wants a fact checked, or some authority calls into question something. I wonder how often that happens to others.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

To Structure a Memoir

I'm thinking that, as I write the next book, I'll try to do updates along the way about the process. Not many, since I'll be busy teaching again, but enough to shed some light on the insanity, maybe calm my nerves and focus my brain (this next book is very much a thinking book). After writing two other prose works in the last three years--22,000 and 75,000 words--I feel much more confident going in to what will be a 90,000-100,000 word project. Having a poetry collection forthcoming helps the writerly ego, too.

I've been thinking a lot about structure, and a lot about a common criticism agents and presses have of my work, namely that it's too quiet. I'm not entirely sure what it means, but I presume it's a combination of the following:

1) It doesn't move fast enough
2) Not enough suspense or action or story
3) Not enough zombie sex

I'm a poet who loves language, metaphor, and symbol--these are not loud things like characterization or plot or zombie sex. I've written several poetry collections and have a multi genre garden memoir I self published (this still makes me feel sick, so trained I am as an academic, but I had to try something different). Anyway, I was talking about being quiet, and structure--it's important I have a decent idea of structure once I begin writing in January; I'm not the kind of person who does well editing back in structure, it'll just be a nightmare, like building a house from the outside in. Still, structure, like content, is about discovery along the way and things will change, they must change in order to be the drug writing is.

I have several core narratives to the book, Turkey Red:

1) My discovery of my late grandmother and her family, stories I ignored as a child and am searching out now, and a depression-filled relationship with Oklahoma that this book hopes to cure or lessen.
2) The story of Mennonites, from the Netherlands in the 1500s to Prussia in the 1700s to Russia in the 1800s to America in the 1870s. Who they are. Their forced wanderlust and persecution. Their yeoman tendencies.
3) The story of the Southern Cheyenne in Oklahoma, their history as a people from Minnesota and the Dakotas to Colorado and Oklahoma Territory, along with the overall stories of Native Americans in the Territory. Their forced migration and cultural dissolution.
4) Great Plains flora and fauna, with a specific look at grasses, black-tailed prairie dogs, Bison, and horned lizards. The extinct ecosystem. The culture of agriculture and manifest destiny.

Obviously, I could interweave each of the four components--with each having their own stories to tell--letting off of one just as a story came to a head, coming back to it twenty pages later, and thus creating suspense. But that feels.... annoying. And if I talk about all four at once it's too much at one time.

I have a diary of my grandmother's from 1950-1953, where she wrote a few lines each day. I'm hoping this will provide a scaffolding and that I can use her brief words as someone about my age (back in the 1950s), perhaps as metaphor or symbol for my life now in my mid 30s.

During research I was worried each of the four areas were too different, or too alike--it depended on the day. Now I see that they are the right balance of the two, enough to give me symbolic legroom and running space to ramble about myself, my family, my Oklahoma, which should tie everything together as I go along. And this book will have more stories than my last big memoir, Morning Glory. But does that make it a collection or a memoir? I think readers are growing toward the former, especially as e-readers develop, which is also why I have a tendency to play with mixed genre works, and sub genres of nonfiction all at one time.

But again, I worry about being too quiet. There's nothing flashy I discovered in my research. No one in my family was in an infamous outlaw gang. No one made a land run. No one killed an "injun" or worked on the railroad or hunted bison or married a Cheyenne or anything "neat." They lived simply. And this is the Great Plains--simpleness, hardness, flexibility, community, unwavering determination and hope. Tornadoes, fires, floods, and locusts. That's not loud. That's why people look out their plane's window and go "huh, squares, I sure could go for some saltines."

I'll write whatever I write. And it may be a colossal waste of time, nothing but a line on a resume or a footnote to some genealogist 100 years from now. It's something to do. It's something I have to do. It's my field to plow, my bison to shoot, my embrace I can no longer give to people, animals, and places I'll never really know until I grow up and look hard into my own shadow, our country's shadow. I don't see how this is quiet.

(And to tack something on--it snowed 3" on Saturday, see below, and this morning it's -3 outside.)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Snowblowers v. Lawnmowers, Case 263, District Court of TDM

With our first few inches of snow comes the end of the brief month were the neighborhood was silent. Gone was the constant drone of a lawnmower, and far off seemed the pulsing vibrations of the snow blower. Since both are pollution hogs, both in regard to the atmosphere / spilled gas and noise levels, let us weigh which is truly the more evil machine in the court of The Deep Middle.

Defendant 1 -- The Snow Blower

-- Its sound is not as smooth or even. It ricochets as the mechanism spins. When the machine hits a dry patch it hums loudly, and when it runs into a drift it gurgles and goes baritone, sometimes being turned off then yanked back on once the chamber is cleared of frozen rain.

-- For some insane reason, owners of snow blowers have no time limit to their practices. Not only will machines be seen idling alone on drives and sidewalks as if they were making a slow run for it, but the machines are employed at any hour: 5am, midnight, it doesn't matter. Theoretically, one must assume, this is because clearing the drive and walk is essential to the business of the house, for example, the visiting UPS men or mother in laws, or rear-wheel drive cars, or unattended toddlers. Clearing snow is an urgent business, one best performed even before the snow has ended so that it can be done a second time hours later.

-- The placement of blown snow seems not to matter the least to the operator. If the snow is shot onto a neighbor's clear drive, across their garage door (open or closed), or into the freshly plowed street, it seems not to matter at all. In some instances, the violent thrust of snow will pass a young tree's path and branches will be snapped off without a notice at all. It seems that an "eye for an eye" law would best negate any of these practices.

Defendant 2 -- The Lawmower

-- There is a summer vigil with these machines, as if a secret neighborhood pact is in place like the guarding of the unknown soldier's tomb. As soon as the 8am mower is safely stored away until three days later when it comes out again, the next mower comes out, and so on until about 9 or 10pm given proper daylight conditions. Let it be said that a neighborhood can never be perfect unless a lawnmower is on its stern, Jeffersonian grid walk across the landscape, all along the watchtower, perhaps with the person operating the machine plugged into an ipod ironically listening to Bob Dylan.

-- Most prefer to mow their lawns during the dinner hour. Is this because they've been cast out of the kitchen by a domineering spouse, or because they despise the power of their neighbors grilling freely and almost heroically on the oasis-like patio next door?

-- Though lawnmowers provide a relatively constant acoustic level of insanity, the ocassional stick, rock, or frog will create an explosive discharge of metal upon metal, and an oft lowering of blade speed to address the problem. Wet lawn also causes a frequent interruption of sound level, and a much longer mowing time. Often, a father will be heard barking commands to an indoctrinated youth: "Damn it, go slower," or "Damn it, you mowed your mother's roses," or "Damn it, you missed the left side of the house why don't you just go back inside and let me finish it since you clearly aren't capable of helping out around here even after we paid for your mission trip to Mexico."

While we can see that both machines are cruel, we must rule wholeheartedly and fairly against the lawnmower, for only it seems to be the true terrestrial leviathan when it comes to destroying an environment. On levels of acoustical nuisance, wildlife endangerment, parental torture device, and noxious fumes which can create cancer and impotence, it seem the more frequently used lawnmower is truly the scourge of our modern world. We, the jury and judge of this blog, encourage the use of rocket launchers, C4, and any and all other violent means necessary to dislodge the rule of both lawnmower and snow blower from our society. Amen.