Monday, January 28, 2013

Quotes on Writing / Living Memoir

Some of these speak so closely to me right now as I struggle through a first first first draft; I'm all lost one day and found the next, losing faith about form only to say screw it and find faith again. Then I lose the narrative thread because the fog of words conceals them -- when I cut out superfluous, rambly, preachy sentences and rely on the images and description, the fog lifts and I see the road again. Know your subject. Do research. Watch that fog turn into a plasma cutting beam 'o' precision, power, and grace. Find the story in everything -- everything. (below quotes from this piece here)

"Memoir is the only second chance you ever get at life. It is a willful turning back of the clock, a logical impossibility, and yet you do it, because your mind exists outside of time. If your memoir is really good, really honest, really from the roots of your heart, you yourself will not even know what is invention/reinvention and what is “really real” because the act of remembering imaginatively blurs those distinctions for you, forever." -- Lauren Slater

"Right now in American writing there is no genre as exciting as memoir — the writer can do anything, as long as it works. It’s like the 1920s up in this joint. So, I’d say, experiment with how you tell the story. In the best memoir it’s not the what, it’s how the writer tells the what — meaning and effect through form." -- Anthony Swofford

"Also: Do research. Bring in other eyes, other voices. Interview other people who saw what you saw, or who have some perspective on your story, and listen closely to how they tell their version of things. This deepens your account. Stories based on facts are more interesting and truthful and beautiful when placed within a prism of facts. Be a student of your subject. If you’re writing about an experience in a sober house, learn the history of rehab, the history of the specific sober house in which you lived, the chemical composition of benzodiazepine, etc. Everything has a history. Your personal story always intersects with larger subjects and may benefit by weaving them together, even if only by a fine thread. You may choose not to include research material in your story, but it should be at your fingertips." -- Avi Steinberg

"Accept the limitations and boredom of your life as the challenge of writing. Accept your profound lameness as the wages of your craft. The problem is never that your life isn’t interesting enough, it’s that you aren’t looking (or writing) hard enough. Don’t lie. Not to your readers. And not to yourself. Be a skeptic of your own recollections. Ask your family and friends how they remember things." -- Ta-Nehisi Coates

"The most important advice I could give to aspiring memoir writers is that it’s pretty much all hopeless. There is very little chance that you will get your memoir published by a mainstream publisher (or, for that matter, your novel). Also, if you do get published, the process will make you way more mental than you already are.... Just do it. No one cares if you write or not, so you have to." -- Anne Lamott

Thursday, January 24, 2013

New Poetry Book

I'd like to announce the publication of my first full-length poetry collection. Here's what some say:

Afterimage is an unsentimental but heartfelt elegy for the landscape and the people of the twentieth-century Midwest. The poems preserve the lost place, the lost time, and lost inhabitants, but Benjamin Vogt also celebrates the earth's own ability to flower and return, with human assistance and without.  These firm and carefully measured poems are a thoughtful delight, one that should not be missed.
-- Andrew Hudgins

Benjamin Vogt's rich, transporting gift is to see deeply, generously considering moments and scenes that preceded and sustain the lives we know, to dig curiously and calmly, alert for clues and remnants--to harvest more than any seed promised.
-- Naomi Shihab Ny

Using family photographs from the last century, Afterimage moves from the southern to northern Plains and the eastern Midwest, where the natural world calls out through open fields and dark woods, then through transient moments framed by gardens: a butterfly nectaring on a coneflower, planting lavender with his future wife, or autumn leaves crashing against a morning window. In a rich array of forms and evocative imagery, the poems in Afterimage reach through prairie history until grass becomes skin, and light becomes shadow.

You can buy it on Amazon or straight from the press. Then, do let me know what you think, either on Amazon, Goodreads, email, or here. Please? I'll give you a prairie. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Visiting Grandma -- From the Memoir

I nudged 60,000 words this morning. What I wrote today is below--a very fresh 2,000 words (ignore the tense shifts and other formatting errors) recounting two visits to my grandmother's nursing home in Oklahoma about a decade ago. This was hard to write, but I've vowed to post more new writing as I work on the book. I've included pictures along the way of my grandmother throughout her early life.

            Entering the automatic sliding double glass doors of the Corn Heritage Village retirement home is like entering a grocery store that no one has been in for several years. I say this because of the large doors, and then the stale, warm smell that breaks out into the fresh air as if it were a breath held in. When you first step inside there’s a sofa table against the wall straight ahead, with a centered painting or mirror above, some dried flowers in a vase, maybe a chair or two. The hallway goes left to a wing of rooms or right to the massive nurse’s desk, sitting area, and lunch room. I am certain that I can smell coffee, eggs, spaghetti, chicken, cherry Jello, coffee again – a conglomeration of meals from not just today but the last week. The air is thick and heavy. The fluorescent lights sharp and white.
            When you make it to the grand center room flat with linoleum you know you are in death’s waiting room. Some folks sit comatose in wheel chairs, others look up from knitting with both a hopeful and resigned gaze, their eyes glassine and parched. A few are on a careful trajectory with their walkers, fluorescent felt tennis balls cut open and placed over the front two supports for easy gliding across the waxed floor. Straight ahead, in the east wing behind closed swing doors, is the alzheimers and dementia ward. Even with the doors shut you hear the screaming, the yells, the cries, the loud mumbling. The north wing is where my grandma picked her room, the first one on the right side that overlooked the parking area and front door so she could keep an eye out for visitors. 

Age 8, in the middle
            At the nursing home Dad has us all wait outside the door, a bit down the hall—he wants to surprise his mom. So he goes in first, and I hear him saying he’s brought someone with him, and I hear her exclaim, “Oh?” Dad comes out and ushers us in like a traffic cop. There’s my grandmother just inside and to the left of the door, sitting in her plush La-Z-Boy rocker, lamp on the end table giving her face a yellow glow, and her smile, in slow motion, growing wider than I’d ever seen it. My sisters and I take turns bending down to hug her as she kisses us each on the cheek. My mom hugs her, too, and we stand around the small room awkwardly until my dad fetches folding chairs out of the closet, then balances himself on the edge of the elevated hospital bed.
            The TV is on TBN or home shopping. “Well, Mom,” my Dad will begin, “How have you been?” or “Are you surprised to see your grandkids?”
            “Oh my, well yes,” she’ll say, looking at each one of us in turn with longing eyes, still refocusing from staring at the humming tv that Dad has muted with the remote control. “When did you all get here?”
            “Last night, Mom. We thought we’d surprise you.” Grandma smiles, asks if we want something to drink, which there’s no way in the world we do. My youngest sister is about 13, and leans forward in her chair already bored—living in Minnesota, she never knew grandma like her older sister and I did. She’s maybe still wearing a baseball cap, I can’t remember when she quit, but Grandma always gave her a hard time about that, asking if she wasn’t worried people would think she was a boy. I imagine she had similar conversations with my other sister.
            “I’m so surprised. I’m so happy to see you all. It’s been so long, I think.” She’ll pause look at the clock then my dad, “How long has it been?” 

Age 14
Age 17
            I’m not sure what we talked about, but I’m sure it was a potpourri of school, work, the trip, how long we’ll stay, where are we staying—she doesn’t at all seem concerned we’re staying in her house, maybe it’s a relief to know that someone is using it, giving it life again if even for a time. But that house is so empty. I want to tell her how her house feels like a museum after hours, how it seems to echo constantly with some subsonic pulse, how it’s nothing without her. I want to say how the house smells richer than I ever remember, like it’s grown finer and denser without anyone living in it, like some aged wine or cheese. It penetrates me deeply. It's hard to sleep there.
            Whatever we say, it’s often interrupted by the speakers in the hallway announcing a page for a nurse or doctor. After twenty minutes most of us are bored and weighted down by the place, a hotel and a hospital, each room with an open door like a zoo exhibit, a spider web or venus fly trap. I look out the doorway into the hall to extend my view—grandma’s room has a warmer light since she just has lamps on, in the hallway it’s a purple white. Slowly, a rocker appears in the frame from the left—the tennis balls like headlights, the shiny metal legs, the rubber handles, shuffling feet in black slippers, then half a woman hunched over with a plastic hair net over a perm she maybe just received. She’ll look in, likely drawn by the energy, the electric sense of more bodies humming like some cosmic string imperceptible to the naked eye. The woman will pause in the middle of the doorway, still looking in.
            “Mrs. Schmidt,” my Grandma might say, “This is my son and his family from Minnesota. They’ve come to visit me.” And then Mrs. Schmidt or whoever she is might say, “Oh, how nice” and linger as if she wants to stay, or move on, seemingly unsure if we are real or not. This event happens enough times that I came to know many a Mrs. Schmidt, some more energetic and able-bodied than others, some more indifferent and some that overstayed their welcome. 

Age 20, a few days after her wedding

            “Do you have any plans for today,” Grandma asks my dad.

            “Not yet,” he begins, and maybe Mom looks over and he quickly recovers, “but I think we’ll go have lunch and then visit with Gaylon.” That really was the extent of the area’s attractions, besides taking my little sister to the park her older siblings once played in. We wouldn’t go to the homeplace, at the time not even a location I was entirely sure of or even remembered having visited long ago. I think we’d mostly eat, watch tv, pass the few days as well as we could as if holding our breath. “Can I bring you anything, Mom? Is there anything I can get from town?” We all know he’ll bring her some tacos from a restaurant or a chocolate shake from Brahm’s, whatever little thing he can that’s different and from out there. It’s the least that can be done.
            “Oh, I don’t know what I’d want.” And as I see her thinking I know her mind is still sharp; she is not old, she is only 81. She could keep up with us no problem if her heart surgery hadn’t been botched, if the nearly guaranteed bypass had worked as the doctors said it would and how it did for countless others. Instead, she sits in a downy rocker all day long, keeping still, shifting her crossed ankles one over the other than back one over the other. Her perm is flat in the back from leaning against the cushion. Her phone and water glass are within reach, the remote, some magazines, a checkbook, a pen. Out the window is the front door, a bevy of coming and going (a few people every hour). Maybe I remember a hummingbird feeder someone put outside for her, hanging from the eave, but no one ever fills it. I remember the red feeders she had out her back porch in Weatherford, the honeysuckles, the magnets and plates and bookends and photos and spoons and glasses and statues.
            Today I was 26 and I was 10—I could not wait to get out of there. I hated myself for it. I still do. I think my dad lives with a searing guilt of not visiting her more often. It was never a matter of money, or even of time—he didn’t want to go alone, he didn’t want to see his mom like that, maybe he didn’t want to be reminded of what he left and of who he was—not for bad things, but good, a life he surely romanticizes because, in part, everyone was younger and closer. When he was a boy there was still the tradition of visiting people during the week and on Sundays—you loaded up the family in the 1954 Bel Air and saw aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents. You ate well, you shared stories, you knew others and where you were and who you were by the sound of another’s voice and the presence of their body. Without that nearness you were far away from everything, maybe existence itself, a planet on the outer edge of the solar system looking in from the darkness of infinity.
            And maybe that’s how my Dad saw his Mom and himself, maybe that’s all how we saw ourselves here in the nursing home—celestial bodies so far apart and unable to effect each other’s orbit in meaningful ways anymore, except for the times when our elliptical paths got close, say, every 5-10 years; when Dad gathered us all for a trip to Oklahoma.
Age 33, with my dad in front of a Chevy Bel Air
On another trip, the last one before she passed away three years later, I had brought the bundle of pictures I’d scavenged from her daughter in laws after cleaning out her house. I’d selected a manageable dozen or so that intrigued me the most—I didn’t know who anyone was or where they were. I had a suspicion that, in a few years, maybe longer, I’d want to know, maybe write about them. It was the first time I ever showed a genuine interest in my family there, that I really wanted to learn from my grandmother.
            So I pulled up one of the black chairs that had been at the kitchen table in her house, and rested my left elbow on a cushion of her rocker as I handed her one image at a time. I don’t remember what she said. I didn’t write anything down. I should have, I’d intended to, but suddenly that didn’t seem the point. In that half hour or hour where I slid her photos and she held them in her now boney, shaking hand, it was her voice I wanted, the smell of her perfume she still wore, defiant to her condition and the colostomy bag.
            Oh how she lit up like someone pricked her with a pin. She remembered every face, every location, retelling the circumstances around the image—a boy being pulled on a sled through the street, a man hanging on a metal clothesline, an upside down truck in a field, a photo of her by a waterfall. Her breath, the perfume, the warm light of the lamp, the cushion of the chair, the loud beeping of some resident’s room calling for a nurse—it was all somehow a raw sweetness, a terrible love, an ocean of memories crashing on a deserted island’s shore.
            When she was done she’d linger then hand me the photo, fold her hands, seeming to catch her breath. Soon she’d say, “Do you have another one,” as if each were a rich candy to be savored and overcome, her stomach full but the echo of the last piece so strong she wanted another and another. So I hand her a picture, she pinching a corner on the left, me a corner on the right. We hold the small 3x5” image, both of our hearts rippling through our arms and hands out into the black and white middle where we found who we were together.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Four Things That Stirred My Blood This Week

1) Don't medicate your kids -- get them outside. It's free and has no side effects. A new study says "chronic nature exposure" (ha) can ease and heal ADHD and other disorders and imbalances. Strange how, as our society has started spending more time inside, mental and physical health issues have increased. Could it be we are part of this planet? Why do we deny that connection? Why do we work so hard to deny our nature? why do we seek or accept imbalance?

2) As much as half of global food is wasted in production, transit, or storage. So next time you're debating the merits of new cropland as it destroys native habitats, or the gmo / chemical / super weed conundrum that is food production, mention this article. Folks, food production is about profit -- "feeding the world" is an illusion. Teach a man to fish. Teach his wife and kids, too -- then Monsanto will be outta business, or will simply need to hire more lobbyists and purchase more politicians.

3) There's less and less hope for native stands of anything to be able to replenish themselves if given the opportunity. This piece discusses how invading nonnatives have and will rule the day -- partly because there's so little native plants left, and partly because by their very nature non-natives are invasive (not aggressive, but invasive, since some native plants can and should be aggressive).

4) Chris Helzer lists the effects of grazing / burning of prairie restorations over a decade, with observations along the way like this one: "Butterflies are nectaring primarily on ”weedy” wildflower species in our prairies.  Again, I’ve dealt with this in a previous post.  Essentially, regal fritillaries and most other butterfly species in our prairies are primarily nectaring on hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), thistles (Carduus nutans and various Cirsium species), and milkweeds (Asclepias species) – which are considered to be weeds by many people.  Those “weeds” appear to be awfully important to butterflies and other pollinators."

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Hot Off the Press

Over the last few days I've been trying to write an essay on the history of my family's 1894 / 1903 farmhouse in Oklahoma. I have a sprawling, disjointed, unedited 5,000 words to add to the 40,000 I've worked on the last six months. I hope to hit 80,000 or 90,000 words by February and have a complete draft to work with. Finally. Here's that newborn sample--tell me what you think if you're so inclined:

            Let’s say my great grandfather, John, is fourteen years old. But he could also be six or seven. He and his father Abraham are a half day northeast of their homestead. The sun rose a while ago. They’d gotten up well before sunrise to load the wagon with wheat, and John is now dozing, lying flat across the harvest they are carrying to El Reno to sell.
            The wagon slows and Abraham turns his head a little and says, “John, John wake up. We’re at the Canadian.” My great grandfather might say “so what” or he might say nothing, trying to stay half conscious as long as possible on the bed of warm, soft wheat seed, imagining what a beach on the ocean must feel like—how a wheat field is so much like an ocean he’d never see. “John!” Abraham would yell a bit louder, and my great grandfather would sit up on his knees, try to get his feet under him only to have one leg slide out and sink into the seed.
They’d picked this day to travel because it had been over a week since it rained, so the likelihood of the Canadian being full and swift was small. John would manage to get on to the bench seat next to his dad, removing a shoe and dumping the seed into the back. “Pay attention now,” Abraham would say, “Help me look out for pits or boulders.” They looked at each other, then both to the side and straight ahead as Abraham nudged the team from the shoreline into the cold stream, shallow but moving well to the southeast. Plenty of people drowned in the Canadian. It didn’t take much to get stuck, to tip over, to get caught in the current after picking the wrong crossing or time of week. It wasn’t deep, but it didn’t matter. Water has a way of lifting you out of this world before you knew what happened.
It took four full days to get to El Reno and return to Corn. In about 1903 or 1895 (dates are as elusive as frogs) my great grandfather and his father must’ve made the trip several times in summer, selling their wheat harvest one wagon load at a time, then returning with freshly-milled wood to build their first house on the homestead.

John was born in May of 1889, perhaps near Inman or Marion, Kansas, while his parents were most likely renting farms in the area, switching from place to place, trying to find the lowest rates and save enough money for a farm of their own. John’s mother, Elizabeth, had three sons from a previous marriage to Peter Kliewer, who died of fever in 1881 a few weeks before their three month old daughter. John’s parents married on 12/12/1883 and in 1894 they left for Oklahoma, to a place near the Washita River—likely an inexpensive indian plot now ready for sale after allotment had run its course. But this is only a guess. It may be that no one wanted a quarter section of land two miles from the river, even though Gyp Creek ran on the southeastern edge of the property. Then again, the creek’s water was likely too muddy, too gypy, to be potable, so no one might want the land. But this is also only a guess. Maybe Abraham had come down during the Cheyenne / Arapaho land run and made a claim, living on the land alone for some time to claim resident status, then returning home to Kansas to make more money and gather his family. Maybe.
In 1894 Elizabeth and John had 7 kids--3 were Kliewer, 4 were Janzen--and they’d already lost a four month old daughter in June of 1888. They lived in a one room dugout for nearly ten years (or one year), in one winter sheltering a calf inside with them. Likely, they sheltered more than a calf during those years—maybe chickens, hogs, sheep. The dugout was one of many pillbox homesteads dotting quarter sections in western Oklahoma, strong out like lily pads across a pond. Most were built half into the ground, with walls and a roof made of unzipped prairie sod blocks. The ceiling would have a canvas tarp strung up to catch dripping rainfall, and the beds would be shaken out each night for dust, mice, and snakes. Maybe John’s family could afford a glass window or two to let in some light. Maybe they used glass jars.
One person built the frame house on the northern edge of the homestead, but no one remembers who or how long it took to build. Surely Elizabeth rejoiced when they tore down the soddy and smoothed out the land to farm--they’d started to make their way in the new country a quarter century after arriving, even though they didn’t yet speak the language very well.
In 1920  Abraham and Elizabeth moved to California to be near her son Jake Kliewer. They stayed for four years, and the farmhouse stood empty for a few months, a few years, or all four years. John had been living across the Washita near Bear Creek on an Indian lease. He met Katherina / Katherine / Katie Peters—probably at Bergthal church—who had immigrated with her parents and grandparents DeFehr from Russia when she was nine, landing in Galveston, Texas instead of New York which was under a quarantine. She left a crippled sister in Russia, Lena, who decades later would write that communism would someday come to Oklahoma, too, and this frightened the family time and again.
John and Katie married 9/15/1912, living in his small bachelor pad and having four kids before they bought his parent’s homestead in the early 1920s. My grandmother, Mildred, was the first child born in this house, and in a way, I think that always gave her a stronger sense of kinship and honor, a sort of custodian of the history tied up in that place. And yet I have very little understanding of the dozens of lives that are entwined in the now gone wooden boards, brick fireplaces, stock tanks, and well. Like anyone living nearly a hundred years after my grandmother’s birth, I have a few pieces of an image only—and what’s empty in between can be made up or circumvented in favor of what’s left. I could completely make up stories. I could pretend my way through a life I can’t possibly imagine with any ounce of credibility. Or I can try to find my way through what I do have—connect the dots, hop from one stone to another across a moving river that erodes and carries away the farm field sediment. I think my grandmother fought against such erosion in her own way, and somehow, taught me to fight against it in mine.

Geography is one part physicality and one part experience, with a dash of distorted memory. I’m living without the last two, and only one part of the first; I’m not exactly sure where the farmhouse was. I know that the house was near the barn—pictures tell me this. I know where the second barn is—its leaning fa├žade tells me this. I assume that when a tornado took the original barn in 1940 they built the new one in the same exact place. Looking at a satellite image, and remembering a water line I stumbled on, I am confident all of the structures were on the north central portion of the quarter section. I can see from above the drainage of the land, and in one image from one website taken at a different season or year, I think I can see the faint square outline of a structure like some faded Nazca line. The house was burned in the 1990s when cattle fell in the cellar and died, then filled in and farmed over. I think the house was just northeast of the barn and windmill. One of my greatest hopes is to hire archeological students from the local college and go digging—but maybe renting a metal detector would be enough. Not knowing for certain where the house was makes my entire story, my ancestor’s lives, even more floaty and mercurial.
But I do have my grandmother’s words, written down in a memory book she kept later in life. I wonder who she assumed would read it, if anyone would. Who was she writing for—anyone specific? Was it just some faint hope, was it an exercise in nostalgia, was it an attempt to leave something tangible from a sprawling life so deeply lived in one place? Then I have her sisters’ words—three who are still alive. Listen.

The big bedroom on the second floor looked south over the windmill, watering tank, and barn. The upstairs was never finished on the inside, and the hollow walls went all the way down to the ground, which meant snakes like flatheads and copperheads crawled their way to the top floor.  On the east side of the house was the kitchen, which had a covered walkway leading to the summer kitchen—a small, one-room out building to do the cooking so the house would not get as hot in summer. On the west end were the bedrooms on the first and second floors—perhaps as few as four, maybe as many as 6 or 7. In the living room was a sofa, some chairs, and a piano that Grandma wished she could play, but could never afford the lessons. I imagine her sitting on a nearby chair, wistfully eyeing the fine piece of furniture—a symbol of upward mobility. Perhaps when she was in town with her father, John, they heard a tune on the radio, and when they got home he’d sit at the piano and play the song by ear without missing a beat. How grandma must have enjoyed that, jealous of his talent that could be performed as easily on a harmonica or guitar. When he was younger John played in a band at barn dances. During a rain when they were all stuck inside, they’d sit by an opened south window looking out over the fields, smelling the clean air, and John would cradle the guitar across his lap. Maybe he leaned back and spread his legs like musicians do, or maybe he leaned over his instrument like peeking over a fence, whispering words to his kids. Maybe they sang some hymns or german folk tunes. Surely they sat there for a while, happy for the rest and the coolness, the percussion of the rain with the acoustic twang of the guitar strings echoing off the plaster walls.