Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"Found Poem"

I literally found this poem as I was going through my attendance roster from last year (preparing, finally to enter my Fall students, assuming no one else drops).  I'm going to take it to my writing group next Tuesday and see what folks think.  Feel free to share your thoughts and comments, too.

This is the pasture, next to the barn where the poem takes place

By Angie Mellor

Eating oysters with good country
people, drinking beer in the barn
that horse and hay
smell in the air between
our bodies heated
with blood and hot sauce
on saltines and bone
hard oyster shells tossed
in a bucket.  There is a proper
East Carolinian way to do this:
red plastic bowls and 
plastic forks, a feed bag
full of oysters spread on
a grill, wrapped in wet
towels, then seduced open
by gloved hands.  Poured
like hot snot into the bowl,
topped with horseradish and Texas Pete's tobasco.
The first one gulped without 
a chew like a dare to run 
naked around the block, each 
step a thrill, then shudder.  

There is a first time for oysters
raw, slurped from the shells,
sucked to the red marrow,
a chill sliding down and discarded
just as quickly as virginity lost,
that shell left more empty.
There is a time to admit
what you cannot do.
Even months later,
your dog will dig up
the bits of shells,
their toughest facade 
broken down by tires
into the gravel of your driveway.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Older and...Dumber?

Age and growing older have always been common themes in my writing.  Today I choose to address the commonly recognized saying,

 "With age comes wisdom."  Considering the fact that with each passing year, I inevitably have a birthday, then it should also hold true that within me lies a wealth of wisdom.  Wisdom that one would assume would lead me to make long thought out, informed decisions.  Growing older is basically synonomous with growing up, right?  So why, when the time comes to make an important, life-altering or life-long decision, do I ignore that warning, maybe-I shouldn't-be-doing-this- feeling in my gut?

Example #1.
In the Spring Semester of 2010, I take Milly, my chocolate lab, to E&B Boarding on Tuesdays and Thursdays for Doggie Daycare.  (Sounds silly, I know, but I didn't feel that Milly would do well if left home alone for 10 hours).  One day, while dropping Milly off, we see a new foster dog in the lobby.  I am smitten nearly immediately.  When I reach down to pet him, I revert to the vocabulary of a second grader.  "Aww."  "Soft."  "Pupppyyy!"  Herschel is a five-month-old Chesapeake Bay Retreiver/Chow mix with a curled up tail, and truly, the softest (most shedding-est) fur ever.

After meeting Herschel, I can't stop thinking about him and what it would be like to have a second dog.  Finally, another dog for Milly to play with (if she likes him), another dog to sit on the couch with me, another pet to drop off at my parents' for month-long stretches.

I consider the pros, breeze through the cons (harder to walk two dogs at once, twice the food, twice the Frontline, twice the vet bills, twice the poop.)  But really, how much could two dogs eat, anyway?  I decide hurriedly, in love with "soft puppy," that a second dog is a brilliant idea.  I post his petfinder picture on my facebook profile, use my status updates to ask for name suggestions, most of which I  ignore, in favor of names that no one likes.

After I tell the owners at E&B that I want to adopt Herschel, my landlords put the kibosh on my plans by telling me that I am not allowed a second dog.  I sadly relay the news to the owners of E&B, update the facebook world, and pout.  I tell myself that I will be happy as long as Herschel is adopted by nice people who will give him a good home.  This is a lie.

After a week of pouting, the foster parents of Herschel tell me that they've discussed it, and they are willing to keep Herschel at the kennel until I return to WI for the summer.  I am elated.  Ecstatic.  3 or 4 times a week, I drive to E&B, pick up Herschel and take my two dogs for a walk.  Herschel is shy, timid, and still soft.  He's scared of cars and has never been on a leash or a walk before.  No matter.

The day comes when the owners of E&B want me to fill out the paperwork and write the check for Herschel's adoption fee.  I am a little taken aback, but I think, this is what I want, right?  As I sign on the Xs and write out a check for $150.00 (all the while wondering if I even have $150 in my checking account) my stomach drops a little, and I wonder if this is a good idea.  But I push the thought aside, my brain turned to mush by his cute mug.

Really, how could you say no to this?

But then, came the downsides of "Herschel," renamed Buckley.  When I moved into my new house in Greenville, he caused the following damage:
1. Ate and destroyed numerous pairs of flip-flops and even a pair of toddler shoes
2. Rope toys
3. Two blankets used in their crates
4. Ripped holes in my comforter
Not included is his bad habit of biting things and body parts when he doesn't get attention, I don't get up right away, if I don't feed him within thirty seconds after waking.

Upon compiling this list, it's dawned on me that dogs tend to live quite a long time.  Anywhere between 10 and 15 years.  By then, when I'm likely to be 40, and a maybe a little wiser, Buckley will have been one of my best dumb decisions.
Milly and the ever-elusive Buck

Example #2
What?  You thought I made only one possibly regrettable choice a year?  Ha.  (This story is quite a lot shorter than my drawn-out-dog-adopting-experience.)

Just about a month ago, I acquired my seventh tattoo.  November 2009 marked my last tattoo, and I was itching for a new one.  I finally found the picture of a peacock that I wanted to be turned into a tattoo.  It was drawn by the lovely and very talented Taylor Hemple, a fellow Flannery O'Connor admirer.  Here is her drawing:
After Taylor gave me her permission, I printed and headed to Blood, Sweat, and Tears tattoo shop in Charlotte, NC.  There I talked to an artist who agreed to draw it up and tattoo me the next day.  I left the shop excited.  A few hours later, after explaining to co-workers at TIP, that I was getting a peacock on my calf and wrapping around my ankle, I began to get a little nervous.  I remembered the ridiculous pain of my foot tattoo.  The calf and ankle were not far from the foot.  It was going to hurt.

When I showed up for my appointment at noon, the artist put the stencil on my calf.  I looked at it.  It was HUGE.  But delicate, detailed, and amazing.  That stomach feeling came back again.  Whoa.  Should I really do this?

A few minutes later I was sitting in the chair, the stencil now on my leg.  The artist poured his ink colors in the tiny little cups.  Johnny Cash was pounding through the speakers: "I got 25 Minutes to Go."  In reality, I had three and a half hours to go and we hadn't even started yet.  As the buzz of the needle started, my stomach dipped and rose--sick and thrilled at once.  I could still change my mind.  But then, he'd started, before I'd even realized, and once the first line was done, I couldn't turn back ever again.

The finished product turned out great, and everyone who has seen it has said that it is beautiful.  Save for my dad who said "you couldn't miss that."  He's still awaiting the day I get "Dumbass" tattooed on my forehead.  (And given the way I'm going on the "making good decisions path," it's likely to happen sooner than he thinks).  
It was difficult to get the whole thing in one picture

After considering the last two questionable decisions I've made, it leads me to wonder, do we really get wiser with age, or do we just pretend to have more experience?  Am I making the same mistakes in different forms?  Dogs, tattoos?  I can't say that I regret either choice, but I do recognize that at some point, I had second and third thoughts about both of them.  

Is ignoring your instinct part of growing up?  Or am I ignoring my instincts in the way that I want to ignore the inevitability of getting older?  

I'm sure there'll be other things, other times I question my judgement.  There'll have to be times I question myself or make mistakes--otherwise my life would be pretty boring.  And free of pet hair.  

Monday, July 26, 2010

"Red Dirt Girl"

Before I had ever heard the song "Red Dirt Girl" by Emmylou Harris, I was a red dirt girl at Andalusia, home of Flannery O'Connor,  in Milledgeville, GA.

One place I could often be found while volunteering at Andalusia was near the green bushes, in that square, black opening under the front porch.  There I would spend Friday afternoons with a tin bucket and hammer, scraping away at the red clumps of clay, meticulously filling the bottom of my bucket with the red dirt to be bottled, labeled, and sold in the gift shop.  It used to be you could buy a bottle for fifty cents, but they are no longer listed on the gift shop webpage.  Check it out, here: Andalusia Gift Shop.

Red dirt that wasn't polluted with sticks, twigs, grass, or little bits of rock were hard to find, but underneath that porch,  it was in abundance.  So on Fridays, I crawled under there, despite my fear of spiders, creepie-crawlies, lizards, and especially snakes.  And believe me, snakes have been seen there.

One afternoon, as I mined the farm for more red dirt (we had an order of 50! bottles, so I had to put in some extra digging hours), a visitor, in town for the Flannery O'Connor conference, asked me what I was doing down there on the ground.  I told him, and he asked where I was from.  He said he could tell it wasn't from around here, but it didn't matter because I was on my knees in the red dirt; "You're from the South, now."

And it wasn't until later, after I bottled up those 50 little jars of red clay, until after I moved away from Georgia, did I really know the song, "Red Dirt Girl," that name I was calling myself.  I wasn't like the two girls in that song, trying to get away from the small town southern life.  Rather, the two years I spent in Georgia was the time I proved to myself that I could leave home, that I could do something more than what I only imagined.

That experience of working the red dirt into the life lines of my hands and that song, listen here inspired a prose poem without a title.  Suggestions welcome.

* * * * ** * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * ** * * * * *

"Red Dirt Girl" plays scratchy in the airless room.  At night she feels loneliest in the red lines of the clock radio, shaping the time, the hours when no one knows her.  Red Dirt Girl isn't just Emmylou beneath the Live Oak, all babies and booze, the still innocence of freckled cheek bones.  Red Dirt Girl paints magnolia's buds like virgin legs pressed tight together--dreams a blossom of someone to be with, even as the wax leaves brown and the petals drop.

Red Dirt Girl feels loneliest at night in the red lines of time.  Tattoos sweet magnolia and scrubs girlhood freckles.  Red Dirt Girl sleeps quietest with the open window and wisteria blowing in on that wind.  The red lines of time shaping her each year.  She wears the red henna lines of dirt in her palms, each one snaking into the distant future.  Before babies and booze.  And there won't be a "mention in the news of the world," about that slow living, rabbit-shy, far-away-from-home girl.  She feels loneliest at night. In the times when no one knows her.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

First, Make Your Bed

 I've been traveling all over God's green earth the past few months, from Greenville, North Carolina, up through Indiana, to good 'ol West Salem, WI, and back down the trail again.  I've stayed with various friends, family, and lrecently, in my future house in Greenville.  Unlike a hotel, every time you stay with friends, you put yourself in a position of morning bed-making (if you're a good guest, as I am). 

For me, making the bed is done first, before changing out of pajamas and showering, before the coffee and sausage gravy and biscuits, before packing up your bag.  For me, it's also a little bit of a fear.  I'll never be able to make it up exactly right again.  Where was that body pillow?  Was the top sheet folded back or pulled all the way up to the headboard?  While clearly, not everyone has the bedmaking anxiety I do, I feel like I've folded back enough duvet covers, arranged enough decorative pillows, and smoothed enough wrinkled sheets to be somewhat of an expert. 

And upon considering my expertise one morning, (while doing none other than making a bed after spending the night at a friend's) I began to ponder where and when I had first learned or been taught how to make a bed.  There were two instances that came to my mind almost immediately.  The first was how many times I had watched my mom make her bed late at night before crawling under the fresh sheets; the folding, tucking, the layers of sheet and quilts and comforters. 

The second memory that came to me was helping my grandma make her bed mornings after sleeping over.  Though it may have only happened a handful of times, each memory of my grandma and I is all the more searing since she has developed the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease and is nearing 90.  Already, some of my favorite memories of our time spent together blowing bubbles in the living room, learning to sing "America, The Beautiful," riding Big Wheels around the block and through the alley are memories that only I remember.  The need to write about them, to make them real, becomes more necessary with each passing day. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
First, Learn to Make Your Bed

The young girl and her grandma each pick a side of the bed.  She always chooses the side nearest the windows, close to the closet with the stained glass inside.  She loves the brass headboard, it's shine, doesn't see the smudges of her fingerprints, the flakes of rust from the faux-brass finish.  She waits for grandma to bring the sheet to the bed, her pudgy fingers like clothespins, grasping the worn-soft cotton of the floral sheets.  On either side of the bed, they pull the sheet taut, then fling it upwards, front-porch air ballooning beneath it.  Sometimes, the grandma will let her scramble under the sheet as it arcs up, and let her lie until it falls down in bunches on top of her.  Then they will unpack the sheet again, pull it tight and let it parachute to the ceiling. 

When it lands safely on the bed, the grandma's big-knuckled hands will smooth away each wrinkle, bringing the sheets tight up under the two feather pillows.  A sharp crease cut with the side of her palm.  And each layer after that, another covering to protect against the loneliness of the widowed nights.  Each cover like a sigh big enough to fill all the years her husband had been gone.  The young girl watches each gentle swipe of  the hand, each fold and the cutting line of the comforter hanging just so, barely touching the hardwood floor.  She wonders if she will ever have a bed to make, a bed to share.  She wonders when she will learn to make the bed all on her own.

Then, Lie and Die In It

Twenty years later, the big-knuckled girl, who has been making her own, lonely bed, follows around her trainer on the eleven-to-seven shift at the nursing home for nuns.  At night she makes beds.  She makes beds empty, she makes beds occupied.  She makes up beds after they've been soiled, makes beds after they've been slept in.  She makes beds.  She learns how to make beds over again.  Sheets pulled tight, no billowing, no ballooning, sheets pulled heard to the hospital beds, hospital corners, clean, smooth sheets.  Nubby blankets hanging evenly on both sides.  Beds raised up to save her back.  She makes beds high, she makes beds on the floor.  Every night she makes beds.

Her big-knuckled hands turn over the pillow for the fever-flushed Sister.  She hopes it's a cool side.  She unmakes the bed when the fever breaks, throws the sheets on the floor to be picked up later.  She makes the bed with the Sister in it, folding, creasing, unwrinkling as gently as she can.  She makes beds while the Sister suffers cancer, groaning, crying.  She makes the beds they lie in.  She makes the beds they die in.  She learns to make beds, she learns to just make beds.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Birthday Mystery

"An unsolved mystery is a thorn in the heart."

Joyce Carol  Oates uses this line in a prompt from the book, Naming the World, found here:  http://www.amazon.com/Naming-World-Exercises-Creative-Writer/dp/0812975480/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1277836260&sr=8-1She suggests that you meditate on the unsolved mystery in your own life. 

For me, picking that mystery was easy.  The mystery was why I always felt so old even at 17.  Most everyone I know scoffs at me when I tell them this; even those younger than me tell me "You're not old," aftergiving me that sideways look of "Girl, you're crazy." 

One of the unsolved mysteries in my life is just this:  Why is age such a big deal to me?  Or, why does everyone else act like getting older isn't a big deal?

A week ago in the Creative Writing Class with my TIP students, we did a free-write on the word "Birthday," and here's where I started.

In a week, I'll be 28, and I'm not sure what to think.  On the plus side, my car insurance will probably go down, if it didn't on my last birthday.  But on the downside is everything else.  I am really getting older now.  28 seems ominously close to 30 and 30 brings up a host of other issues, among them, "Aren't you married yet?" Or, the ever popular, "So.  When are you going to settle down?" "Do you think you'll ever have kids?  Do you even have a boyfriend?" 

To be getting so close to 30 reminds me, as everyone else my age (or close to it) of all the I (we) haven't accomplished yet.  It seems that life and all its ocurrences become like a game.  A game in which my score is woefully low, and in which I always lose at least one turn. 

In Scrabble, you spell out words with the tiles you draw to earn points.  If the words on my board corresponded to my life as a still-27-year-old-for 7-more-days, my words would be unaccomplished, (probably impossible in Scrabble) lonely, and behind.

I always thought there were things I was going to do in my life and with my life before I got to be 18, 25, 30.  I never made out a list of those things I wanted to accomplish, but I figured I'd recognize them as those opportunities came my way.  But being reminded of what I don't have makes me wonder what I'm missing.

Studying in Ireland for a semester and traveling around the Britisih Isles didn't make my t0-do list, but when I was 19, I did it.  At 25, I'd graduated with a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and was teaching at two colleges, bartending, and being a nurses aide.  During that year, I worked harder than I ever had, and the next summer at 26, I was hired at East Carolina University, where I am under contract for the next two years. 

Even though I haven't done all I've hoped to: published some of my work, written that manuscript, been accepted in a PhD program, lost the weight, found that Mr. Right, (really, this could be quite a long list) I have accomplished a lot of great things as well. 

I'm an Aunt to a gorgeous neice.  A two-time dog adopter.  An Assistant Professor of English.  A former bartender, nurses assistant, grill cook, and cashier.  A daughter of 28 years and a sister for 21.  In all those things I still haven't done yet, there's the potential for so much more to happen.

But a little ambition never hurt anyone.  Maybe the next time my birthday rolls around (in about 360 days) I'll have something to hold myself up to.  If Joyce Carol  Oates is right (and face it, when would she be wrong?) than the mystery of birthdays will no longer be that thorn in my side. 

Instead of a seeping wound, a birthday will be a real celebration, of all that I've achieved and all that 30 will hold.  Instead of a gaping hole, I'm removing that thorn by writing more.  I'll bandage it with submissions to journals and contests.  Let it heal with the salve of the hard work of writing and teaching.  When the time comes to remove that bandaid, I'll rip it off fast and clean, so it only stings a little.  And I'll remember that scar the thorn left, that mystery, by knowing all that I already am.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Getting Started

As I complained about yesterday, getting started is one of the hardest aspects about writing, or getting back into the practice of writing, again.  While I call this a Write-Along-Blog, it's been brought to my attention that I've yet to really offer any prompts for getting started again.  

I know, friends, it's been very difficult for me to continue a steady writing schedule since graduating from GC&SU in 2007 (which, now that I've said it, sounds so long ago).  In my attempts at applying for PhD programs this year, I thought that being back in the school setting would help me become a more disciplined writer.  But now that I haven't been accepted anywhere, I've started to wonder, what kind of writer can I really be if I can't write outside of the classroom?  

So, fellow writers, join me in taking the first step toward burning that habit of writing into muscle memory.  Here's a few prompts to get you started.  Pick one and write for at least 15 minutes.  Write in your journal, a notebook, a scrap of napkin.  Post as a comment!  I'll blog my response after I've done my laundry and planned out my next week's lessons.  Happy writing!

The prompts listed below come from a great book called Naming the World, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston, found here: http://www.bretanthonyjohnston.com/books/ntw/index.html It's FULL of exercises by well-known authors, and is organized by different elements. Point of view, Character, Dialogue, etc. In addition, the author also explains how the exercise is useful in creating a story (or part of it, anyway.)

Here's a few getting started from Joyce Carol Oates:
1. "An unsolved mystery is a thorn in the heart." This is the opening line of a short prose piece you are to write, meditating upon an "unsolved mystery" in your own life. You may wish to fictionalize.
2. A miniature narrative consisting of a single, very supple sentence.

Make a list of 5-10 significant "firsts" and as many "lasts." Choose the one which you find most compelling or can remember the most about. Write 500-1000 word description using sensory detail. Set it aside for awhile, then return to it with fresh eyes and add details you've remembered. It then asks you to add in the layers--the "So what." factor.

4. Start with this line from Frank O'Hara:
"Last night the moon seemed to say something."

Friday, June 18, 2010

Starting from Scratch

Hello followers, all 6 of you, and my Momma.

I know this is only my second post, but I'm somewhat frustrated with blogging.  Already.  I follow a few blogs of friends, and they all look so professional and well done.  Currently, the coolest thing I thought I could do with this blog was put up the picture of my niece Maddie, playing in the pump water.  But it's huge!  All you savvy bloggers out there, tell me, how do you make your blogs look SO good?

Now, on to writing. While I intend this blog to focus mostly on creative writing and what I've been producing this summer, I also hope to use it for some personal nonfiction as well.  I've been loving reading others' posts about their lives and their daily going-ons.  But somehow, when I'm writing, things don't seem to come out as well as I would like. 

In the last few days of teaching Creative Writing at Duke's TIP Program, (for gifted and talented middle-schoolers) I've felt more like a beginning writer than I have since my first workshop in college.  While I'm housing the information about technique, lessons, lectures about poetic form and the differences between prose, poetry, and prose poems, there's definitely something my students have that I don't.  

Certainly, it's age.  I've got at least 13 years on most them and 15 on some, and with my 28th birthday rapidly approaching, age seems to be the biggest indicator of the differences in our writing processes.  But is it really time that separates their kooky story ideas, vocabulary, ("ghetto-fabulous" and "swagger"--in all its variations, ie: "swaggasarous") their willingness to take risks, their race-car-fast imaginations, and their pure passion for writing? When we grow up, how much of those do we lose?

Maybe it's not just me.  Maybe others have experienced this as well--a loss--not of love for writing, but for the practice of it.  I'm a whip-cracker when it comes to writing in our class room.  They write for 10-15 minutes in their journals every morning on a given prompt.  They've written at least 5 poems in form, free verse poems, character sketches and scenes.  They love it.  They take their journals outside on breaks, they take them with after class and write during free time.  They write for another hour after dinner during evening study.  We have tell them to leave their work in the classroom and have fun!

I don't remember the last time I was so disciplined in my practice of writing, though it's something I've preached in class both at TIP and at ECU.  "Develop a writing schedule.  Stick to it.  It will be hard at first.  If you miss a day, the next three days will be even harder."  For me, writing every day has become like a diet.  Or rather, a "life-style change."  Every morning, if I don't have something to write on the board, look up on the internet, or get ready for class, I try to do the free-write with my students.  At the very least, I can get 15 minutes in a day, and I'm hoping every day will become easier.  And I think that's where the chasm between myself and my students deepens.  I never used to have to try so hard to write.

Starting from scratch, starting over, has been like going for a run after a year of eating potato chips and watching TV. (As if I would know what going for a run feels like).  At first, I'm full of optimism.  "Yeah, I can do this!"  Soon after, I start to flag.  "God, this is hard.  Who thought this was a good idea, anyway?"  (That comment is for running.)  If I've managed to stick with it for the 15 minutes I promised myself, I feel good.  I congratulate myself, pat myself on the back.  Probably reward myself with ice cream. 

The next day, I am in PAIN.  Muscles I didn't know I had are screaming, "WTF!" And it's that way for writing too, not just literally the pain of tendonitis in my wrists after writing by hand for 15 minutes straight, but also the places in memory that I didn't remember existed in the first place.  

Katherine Karlin in her great short story "Muscle Memory," found in New Stories from the South 2009: The Year's Best, describes it this way: "Then, lo and behold, one day I just did it.  Simplest thing in the world, like I'd been doing it all my life.  It just takes time to burn a new habit into your muscle memory is all."  It does take time.  Time and pain and bad writing before I can burn that habit into memory. 

As an effort to begin turning habit into memory, I offer an unfinished Pantoum, unofficial title of:

Peonies--A Pantoum

In the wooden hutch the ghost rests,
in the chiming of the clock
wound nightly by blue-veined hands
and woken early each morning, a shadow
in the chiming of the clock
the bells of sound pealing and empty
and woken early each morning, a shadow
held softly as pink peonies in a green-glass vase.

The bells of sound are pealing, but empty
in the dining room where we play cards.
Grandma holds them as softly as pink peonies in a green-glassed vase,
just cut from the dewed garden.

In the dining room where we play cards,
that ghost floats between us,
cut from the dewed garden
he grows in our words and sighs.
That ghost floating between us
buzzes and hums
his approval grows in our words and sighs,
then hides between coffee cups and the good silver.

He buzzes and hums 
with each chime of the clock
then hides between coffee cups and the good silver,
Each bit of his shadow wound nightly by blue-veined hands.