Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cover for the Poetry Chapbook

They usually aren't nearly as sexy as full length books, but my 2nd chapbook, Without Such Absence, will be in color--which is like having black tulips in the garden. We all know how black tulips are. Don't we. Oh yeah.

So below is an approximation of the cover. Prepub sales aren't until August, and the book itself won't appear until late October, but you may want to start saving up now for the $14 cover price. I feel like a writer for a little while. (Now someone please publish the full length poetry collection and the memoir!)

That image would be of the chicken coop from my dad's very early boyhood homestead in Oklahoma. No chickens in there now, just rolls and rolls of barbed wire (which could be reproducing--it's likely, actually).

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spring. Winter. Sprinter. Wring. Swipringter.

Crocus, snow, junco, snow, tulips, snow, spiraea, snow, 66, 28, 49, 20, 55.... Ahh March.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Rant--Memoir #2 Research Trip to Hell, Er, Kansas

In the last year I've made exponential leaps in understanding the writing life. Well, not exponential--more like concrete affirmations, as in, bang your head against concrete affirmations. Writing is like whipping yourself, it's masochistic, it's like jumping into quicksand. Why do I do this to myself? What, exactly, is the point? The payoff? Why must I be so meticulous? Why is writerly process more like my being processed by a meat grinder?

Last Sunday I left for Wichita, KS to research my family's immigration to Kansas in 1874-1879, planning to use the Mennonite Library and Archive in Newton and visit some ancestral churches (Hoffnungsau, Alexanderwohl, Bergthal).

Halfway there, in Concordia, my back left tire blew at 70mph. Luckily, it happened right in front of the volunteer fire chief's house, and he exhuberantly put on my spare for me. Something punctured the tire. It was terrifying, and I drove on edge the rest of the week.

The only tire place that is open is a mini Walmart-esque place for farmers--they don't have the right tire size. I concede and head to the Holiday Inn to get a room, knowing I lose a day of research. The nice receptionist hooks me up with an after hours tire service. Said service guy tells me upon inspecting my lug and bolts that the fire chief did not thread the bolts correctly into the hub--actually stripped the threads--and he worked hard to get 4 of the 5 to screw in, suggesting I shouldn't even drive on 4, and that it'd take a day or two to get a 5th.

I drove to Wichita anyway. 4 hour trip is now 8. Stopped twice to make sure the bolts were tight. Monday morning I spent 2 hours at the car dealership getting 5 new lug bolts, and finding out I was lucky that the lug threads were fine, cuz that would've been $1,000 for a new lug. So far, I'm only up to $450 in tire expenses.

Wednesday morning my engine light comes on. Back to the Wichita dealership after just driving to Newton (35 minutes one way). An air hose, that helps mix the fuel or something, has cracked and could've lead to the engine, well, seizing. Soon. Luckily this fix was free, but I'd wasted an entire afternoon messing with my car, again.

As for the research itself I made NO HEADWAY at all. Dead end after dead end after dead end. All the sources I wanted to see were not helpful. Even my great great great grandmother was not buried in the cemetary she was reported to be buried in, and I was not going to spend a week searching county records and cemetaries, nor was I going to hire a forensics team to dig up the church plots. My family is lost, in great measure, so when I see someone burning down an old church or razing an old barn or farmhouse, I get mightily pissed. In America, we sure do love to erase ourselves. I think some call it progress. I call it cultural alzheimers.

I ended my trip early, retreated home.

Back in 2006 in Wichita, at a toll booth, an RV sideswiped my car cuz the driver couldn't decide which toll lane he wanted (he'd never driven an RV before, and had no insurance). Much of my car was bent, ripped off, concave. This happened a few days after my grandmother's funeral in Oklahoma, on my way back to Nebraska. I don't care for Wichita.

Point is--$^%*&@^!!. I think the best a person can do with this sort of book project is just cull together what one can from more famous people who shared the boat ride over, shared the homesteading experience, and pretend it's your family--a bunch of relative nobodies who had little money and rented farms until 1884-ish, yet transformed the plains into a completely new landscape in 10 years. Maybe I can compare my road trip to fixing a schooner wheel as a tornado or prairie fire or bison heard approaches.

It's time to move on, and maybe come back to family months later. It's time to research Mennonite missionaries in Oklahoma, the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, government policy towards them in Oklahoma territory, and the changing ecology of the most diverse state in the union. At least I'll make some headway. Right?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Gnaw, I Didn't Eat Yer Shrubs This Winter

Way more snow = way more rabbit damage, as seen below. We'll discover how adroit I am at trimming and shaping shrubs soon enough.

'Tiger Eyes' Sumac looks to be in trouble. Will new branches just ignore this and still grow out, even if the nodes or whatever are gone?

The willow will look more like a pillar than a nice round shrub once I try to even it out, at least until mid summer.

A 3 foot tall red chokeberry is now 18 inches. I'm starting over since they grow so painfully slow anyway.

A burning bush relegated to behind the a/c unit lost half its je ne sais quoi.

And how quickly one forgets the 3-4 foot snow drifts, until one looks at the gnawed off crabapple branch about, oh, 4-5 feet off the ground.

Finally, you would not believe--you can not imagine--just how much rabbit crap is everywhere. I do not look forward to kneeling in the garden this spring. Over by the willow you can't see mulch. Seriously. I forgot to take a picture, but just imagine if someone dumped gallons of M&Ms in your living room. No, the rabbit did not poop in blue or red or yellow, but I wish he had. I could pretend it were flowers. Or Wonka Land. Or a pick up game of marbles. Or [insert your witty remark here, and if you don't wit, it won't please anyone a whit].

Garfield Minus Garfield sums up today's post:

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Extinction--Oklahoma, Flora, Fauna, & Culture

Last night I went to hear a friend / colleague / previous PhD committee member (has it almost been a year since I graduated?) read from his new book, Pieces of the Plains. John Janovy is a biologist, so his perspective on life is much different than mine--microscopic (studies parasites and such) and lots of method. Lots of being in the trenches. He was also born (as was I) and educated in Oklahoma, which is the subject of my next book. But more on that later. 

Janovy was asked about the current extinctions we are beginning to witness of species, and if he saw a curtailing of that being possible. No, he said flat out, no, no way--not with how humans kill each other, not with how we kill for oil and in the name of god. Then he told the college students there that when they reach his age, in about 50 years, they'd be living in a far different world of hunger, lack of water, homelessness, global government chaos--all as oil runs out. I got that from watching a recent episode of World Without Oil on National Geographic (title?). It was frightening and only the tip of the berg.

Back to extinctions. I am still young, I still have some hope, but it's dwindling fast. Janovy said he is in the top 1% of humans who ever lived that have witnessed such natural diversity on earth, and that such diversity will very shortly come to an end, so enjoy it while you can. Species will weaken as the gene pool shrinks.

We've had other significant, 90th percentile global extinctions, but this 6th one as many folks call it--even if overcome--would take millions of years to repair, to evolve back to what we see now on the planet. It took millions of years before, it will again, if it happens.

I wonder if I should spend every waking chance I have to sit on my deck listening to the cardinals, blue jays, finches, sparrows, mourning doves and others before they vanish. 1% of bird species go functionally extinct each year. I wonder if I should sell my house and buy those 100 acres now and live in a tent so I can enjoy and interact more fully with nature while it is still here. I wonder if our natural descriptions today will seem as foreign to someone in a few decades as the pioneer descriptions I read of buffalo and elk wandering through wheat fields.

I wonder if this all has to be so dark. Humans are like my students and procrastinate until the last minute, until they have no choice but to do the work. I wonder if that's genetic, or if it's the same old song and dance of capitalism, of self-preservation, of blah blah blah.

I wonder if my next book will matter, if I should even write it. Last night Janovy quoted Oklahoma historian Angie Debo, whose 1930-ish work slapped the country's collective face as to Indian policy in Oklahoma territory and its early statehood years. Keep in mind, in 1930, many folks who instigated those policies were still very much alive. I quote her:

"Oklahoma is more than just another state. It is a lens in which the long rays of time are focused into the brightest of light. In its magnifying clarity, dim facets of the American character stand more clearly revealed. For in Oklahoma all the experiences that went into the making of the nation have been speeded up. Here all the American traits have been intensified. The one who can interpret Oklahoma can grasp the meaning of America in the modern world."

As I look at the history of my Mennonite family coming over from Germany and Russia in the 1870s, I am caught in an impossible vice: their faith, hope, and work ethic was unique, was incredible, was and is so praise worthy I can't put it into words. And yet, either as government pawns and / or willing paticipants through missionary work in Oklahoma territory, they helped to so efficiently destroy the ecology of native flora and fauna and dozens of Native American cultures within a few decades--if not within one decade.

This very fine line scares the heck out of me, and I have to have faith that as I continue to research books and family stories, it will play itself out in the right way--without guilt, blame, or condemnation, but with honest and direct light, and somehow with the same hope and faith my ancestors had facing a world of incredible uncertainty. Phase 2 begins next week.

P.S. -- It's snowing hard outside. That doesn't help things.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Geese, The 50, The Iris, The Waiting

This morning I opened the sliding door to scare away two squirrels at the bird feeders. I was angry. I'd put out a nutty squirrel log to disctract them, but they aren't distracted yet. Didn't matter. Nothing else in the world matters when, after 40" of snow (average is 20") and three months of a very cold winter, a person opens a door at 10am and, and.... Spring. My god it's spring. Standing in shorts and a t-shirt in bright sun and a light wind, it's spring. I wanted to shout it. I wanted to call back to the massive hords of geese honking back and forth to one another like a game of marco polo. I want in. I am in.

50 degrees never felt so real. It was a full immersion, a blessing, a baptism that slides right through your skin, muscle, veins, and blood. By the thuja, iris reticulata pokes up out of the ground like fresh bamboo shoots. In the garden the snow is melting fast now, water pools in the bottoms unable to penetrate the frozen clay soil. The grasses, the sedges, the asters--these are all now emerging from the snow flattened like bed hair. The only winter interest the garden has this year was a continuous one foot of wet, heavy snow ripping off large branches of itea and viburnum that will take years to regrow.

Maybe it's spring. Maybe it's not. I've been tricked before, I've let myself fall in love with moments and thoughts too often not to be a little realistic, a little jaded. Morning. It sounds too much like mourning. And yet I've also discovered that the opposite of a thing is often that thing--that what is, isn't, and so more truthfully is. Mourning is morning, the beginning of a recovery.

Spring. A coil tightly wound, compressed flat to the earth, all that stored and hidden energy, all that promise and hope, all that electric, faster-than-light, in-the-blink-of-an-eye potential and change just waiting. A trap. A rabbit hole. A rock at the top of a hill.

Hundreds of geese this morning ride the wind northwest. Iris reticulata spikes the air. Fifty degrees echoes back to December first and the fall garden. My bare legs on the back steps are like roots, tree leaves, taking in the morning again as if seasons never existed and I am the first one to know this world.