"Christeene Fraser is a vibrant new voice on the poetry scene. Starkly confessional, yet warmly human, her writing strikes a nerve in the audience...a poet to watch."

Bruce Haring, Director, New York Book Festival

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Finding Stories in Unexpected Places

You know those random papers you have laying around your house? Tax forms, loan records, letters, paycheck stubs? That stuff is History. No, really. The everyday paper stash of our lives tells the story of our time, although it may not be all that apparent at first glance.

Recently I've begun volunteering for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) as an archival assistant. I've just finished my first project--creating a database of WWI Navy enlistee records from Port Royal, South Carolina. This is the first time I've had the opportunity to process records like these, and I came away with so much.

Some things I've learned from the WWI enlistee records:

1) Everything you own can be listed on one page: When an enlistee deserted or died, a full inventory of his possessions was made. Items generally included military-issue clothing, toiletries, and a few letters. What stayed with me is this realization that what we leave behind physically is incredibly transitory and insignificant compared to the life we've lived.

2) Military tedium can teach us a little about how to run our business: Part of the records included a weekly and monthly report of strengths and weaknesses, and a detailed account of how many soldiers were present, sick, needed, and the general quality of operations at Port Royal. There was a system of perpetual self-assessment that nearly any individual or business would do well to mimic. There is this quote by Robert Brault that sort of summarizes this, "Know thyself, or at least keep renewing the acquaintance." Any institution or individual that ever made any real progress was willing to do the difficult work of looking in the mirror. A lot.

3) Self-descriptions are telling: Technically this is not a part of the records I processed, but it's worth mentioning. NARA is the official repository for the national collection of WWI draft registration cards. The cool thing is that they have the registration cards of some very famous (and infamous) people--Al Capone, T.S. Eliot, Rudolph Valentino, and Robert Frost among others. The way registrants describe themselves is interesting. Harry Houdini, godfather of magicians, listed himself as an "actor" under occupation. That's a revealing statement isn't it? Actor? Self-descriptions can be incredibly poignant, even if they are somewhat inaccurate; particularly in retrospect. How might Hitler have described himself? A painter and idealist?

4) After everything else is gone, stories remain: I've gone through approximately 200+ enlistee cards and files, but what stays with me are the stories. The deserters. The soldiers casted-off into government hospitals for the insane. The suicide cases. The nineteen-year-old enlistee who died in a bar fight. The immigrant enlistees who came to America and earned medals for outstanding service to the U.S. Navy. Through these seemingly banal records, letters, and reports--our collective American history unfolds like a beautiful hidden flower. Lives come off the paper for me when I find someone with my birthday, hailing from my hometown, or bearing a 'Death Before Dishonor' tattoo. The time between generations seems so much smaller, and I am inspired, having found so many stories in unexpected places. I think this is the reason why genealogy becomes so encompassing for many people, because of this sense of connection despite the continuum of time.

The WWI enlistee records I mentioned will be available to researchers and genealogists soon. If you're a History enthusiast or just a curious onlooker like myself, come on down to NARA and take a look. You may find much, much more than you anticipated.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Face of Homelessness

"We must live together as brothers, or perish together as fools."

-Martin Luther King Jr.

This week the temperature in Atlanta dropped to an unprecedented low for this time of the year, clocking in at 15 degrees Fahrenheit this past Tuesday morning. Walking to work from my car, completely unprepared for the sudden shock of winter weather, I could only think: how do the homeless do it?

The truth is I already knew the answer to this question, in part, because I've been homeless. Twice in fact. I am the face of homelessness.

When I was a young child, about 2 or 3, my mother and I were homeless for awhile. I don't really remember it, but my mother has told me stories of us sleeping in her car. The lights and rattling of the city bus would frighten me, so she'd place a blanket over my head at night to help me sleep. In the morning we'd wake, and wash ourselves in a Taco Bell bathroom.

As an undergraduate student, after a series of unfortunate financial and personal circumstances, I found myself homeless again. I was an Honors student sleeping on the subway. Every penny I had, I scraped together to afford the 2.5 hour bus ride to and from college, and the occasional item from the dollar menu to feed myself. During the day I walked around New York City visiting free places like St. John's cathedral or the NYPL to stay warm. Luckily I still managed to look presentable, or even these luxuries would have been denied to me by well-meaning security guards protecting patrons or customers from the uncomfortable reminder of poverty in their midst. Now I work at one of the finest research institutions in the world. I go home everyday to a comfortable and modest house. I am well-fed and have insurance and the luxury of time to be able to write. I'm nearly finished with my Master's degree.

I say this not to brag about some arduous journey that I've come through victoriously, but rather, to say I could very well be homeless again. And so could you.

Lately I've learned that Atlanta, my own city, has the highest rate of homeless children in America. I've also recently read about the alarming increase of tent cities across America. In Florida alone there are a projected 8,000 people living in the woods near Disney World. While tourists spend nearly $100 in admission for the privilege of playing in a fantasy world, 8,000 people live in the shadows of Cinderella's castle in pop-up tents, cooking their food in coffee cans. Please understand, I am not condemning people for wanting a good time. But I do feel that there must be some sort of coming together as a society, or we will perish.

I don't know where I am going with this post emphatically, other than to say that something's got to change in this country. We need to wake up. Stop bum-rushing stores and trampling each other for gizmos from China, and start looking at each other, talking to each other again. Start helping one another with the same voracity we use to please ourselves. Not just because it's cold outside. Not just because it's nearly Christmas. But because our collective fate is determinant upon it. Because it's time to be human again. Because the true success of our lives is measured by what we do to help one another chip away at the overwhelming struggle that life guarantees.

One small step we can take is to understand the face of homelessness. It is not always the crazed beggar on the train, or the limbless veteran downtown that you give change to on occasion. It is families. Children. Someone's impoverished grandma. It could be the Honors student you sit next to in class. It could very well be you.

Check out this article by The Huffington Post about tent cities in America.

Get the latest facts about poverty in America.

Connect with a local charity you care about.

Say 'No' to the extravagant and indulgent lifestyle we've come to accept as the American Dream, and live within your means.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Dear Self: How About for Christmas You Stop Being an Egotistical Schmuck? Okay? Ok.

I think I've been going about this the wrong way. And by "this," I mean of course, writing, and life in general.

I just turned 27 a few days ago, and it's admittedly freaked me out (just a little). Naturally, the addition of each year forces us in some way to do a retrospective, a self-survey of our lives to some degree. Am I where I want to be? Am I WHO I want to be? The answer to that is 'yes' and 'no.' It's both.

I don't know that I can agree that 'art for art's sake' is enough, is a sufficient raison d'etre for writing any more. There is absolutely no lack of egotists stroking their neuroses with a pen. For the sake of hearing themselves talk out loud. For the sake of someone else's praise. For the sake of deluding themselves into believing they are enlightening the reader with something original or revolutionary or avant garde when there is nothing new under the sun. Their writing, their accomplishments serve absolutely no greater purpose than to congratulate (or exonerate) the person behind the pen.

I have been one of those people I condemn.

I don't think writers start out this way. I think true writers write because they must. Why else would you force yourself upon something that seems so unnecessary and generally snickered at in this world of quantitative urgency? Somewhere along the way, certainly as a writer's profile increases, we forget that our words have actual power to help people, to transform culture. Our skills can be used for more than self-glory, as more than a blanket to warm our past hurts and wrongs.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I want to do something more than glorify myself with that I do.

There is a quote by Swami Vivekananda that I admire:

"Do not stand on a high pedestal and take 5 cents in your hand and say, 'here, my poor man,' but be grateful that the poor man is there, so by making a gift to him you are able to help yourself.It is not the receiver that is blessed, but it is the giver."

I've spent too much time trying to bless myself through accomplishment and recognition, and felt altogether emptier as a result. I don't have a ton of money. I have enough, and for that I'm grateful. But what I do have are a few chapbooks and a certain skill set. So what I propose is this:

1) From now until the end of January, 100% of all sales from my chapbook, Desir, will benefit "Celebrating Angels, One Cupcake at a Time." Celebrating Angels is a not-for-profit organization that hosts cupcake parties for children in Atlanta-area homeless shelters. In addition to cupcakes, Celebrating Angels also donates much-needed seasonal items such as school supplies and winter coats. For every book purchased at $5.00, I will match by $2.00. Whatever I collect by February 1st will be donated, in full, to the organization. See below for purchasing info.

2) I will offer my skills as a former English teacher for FREE tutorial services. I am willing to assist 2-3 middle or high school students on Saturday mornings for help in English, History, and test-prep/study skills. Email me for details: laliterati83@gmail.com

3) I will also extend an offer to help with reviewing or editing resumes or CV's. Please email me with the document attached to the address above. I am happy to do basic copy-editing and/or give suggestions for revision, GRATIS.

This is by no means a permanent solution to the dilemma of ego and art, but it is at least, a small light. A small move to remember that any talent I have, however large or small, is undeserved. It does not originate in me, or for me.

To purchase a copy of Desir, send $5.00 cash or money order to:

Christeene Fraser
Emory University
Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library
540 Asbury Circle
Atlanta, GA 30322

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

You're So Vain, I Bet You Think This Status Update is About You

Hello. My name is Christeene, and I'm a Facebook junkie.

After an entire work day of staring at a computer, I came home the other night and fired up my laptop for an extended YouTube/Facebook/piddly waste of time extravaganza. I wanted to unwind from my long day of exhaustive computer usage with...more computer usage.

[Enter toddler, stage left]

My daughter ran in the living room, circling the coffee table in her brand new plastic play heels and hot pink tutu. "Mama, can I sit with you?" she asked. Before I could respond she plunked down next to me on the couch, sucking her middle fingers while I looked at a friend's family vacation photos. She asked, "Who's that, Mama?" when it hit me: I was looking at pictures of other people's children while my own sat next to me, ignored.

I snapped the laptop shut, and proceeded to make a jerk of myself for her entertainment for the next two hours. But I have to admit, and here is the ugly truth: some small part of me hesitated momentarily, as though this were an actual choice that required thought or sacrifice.

Recently my brother told me he was writing a research paper about social networking for his Communications class. "What about it?" I asked, to which he summarized, "Basically about how social networking sites gimp us as humans." Well said, Plato, well said. Gimps, indeed. I couldn't agree more.

But what is it about social networking sites that "gimps" us as flesh and blood people, communicators?

Some people argue that social networking sites are the penultimate tools of the narcissist. Where else can you update your friends on the completely useless minutiae of your day? Where else can you carelessly broadcast every idiotic or base thought that crosses your mind? I am not exempt from this. It's just an observation. You know the old adage, "God gave us two ears and one mouth so we could listen twice as much as we speak?" Well, He also gave us ten fingers to type, and those bad boys can construct atom bombs in 140 characters or less. Just ask chief-foot-in-mouth tweeters John Mayer and Kanye.

Now we can snipe and ponder and proselytize via status update, the Reader's Digest version of conversation. Thank God there was no Facebook when I was in high school lest every embarassing moment, ill-conceived blurb, or compromising picture haunt me ad infinitum.

So why even bother with these things?

I think there's something fundamentally human about the need for connection. Even the biggest misanthrope wants connection, or at the very least a sense of being "understood" by someone outside of him/herself. Social networking sites give people just that, or, at least they give us a possibility of connection. In many cases, Facebook has allowed me to reunite with family members and old school friends I might have never have spoken to again after life took us on our separate paths. Indeed, I even know two couples (former sweethearts) who reunited over Facebook and were consequently married. But for every reunion and joyous reconnection, there are countless stories of Facebook or Myspace as the impetus for many empty and false relationships, bullying, strained friendships, and in some cases, divorce.

It's not just social networking sites, it's the whole way we communicate as a generation. Text messaging has made me all ancy about phone calls, even with people I know well. Admittedly, I will silence a call and reply with a sufficiently witty text message later if at all possible. Despite the false appearance of the instant update, we've in essence taken the spontaneity out of communication and relationships in an effort to put our best faces forward; and in many instances end up looking and behaving even more foolishly, and feeling more empty, I think, in the long run.

The problem lies when this virtual life replaces or supercedes the actual one; when writers/teenagers/businesses begin to believe the things that are said to or about them online; when our time and energy is directed toward posting family pictures depicting a happy life instead of living one out. Of course I don't think social networking is 'The Devil,' or the next great social ill. It is what you make of it. Most of us, unfortunately, make too much of it.

I propose a detox.

I think over the Thanksgiving holiday, I will NOT allow myself to access Facebook, MySpace (yes, I still have one), or Twitter. I want to take this opportunity to be totally present for my family, whatever that entails, as we sit at my mom's house and salivate over the turkey. If I want to communicate with someone else not physically present, I'll call them (holy panic attack, Batman).

Now if you'll excuse me, before I detox, I need to make sure this blog post is linked to all three of my social networking sites...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Stop Waiting, Start Living

"My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends. It gives a lovely light."

--Edna St. Vincent Millay

I don't think I've ever simultaneously neglected and nurtured myself to this extent. Let me explain. For the first time in my life, I feel like something is actually on the horizon because I'm consciously putting it there. And that requires a lot, metabolically speaking.

The future is not this amorphous thing, even though I have no idea what will happen to me in the next hour. Of course if I don't unexpectedly keel over from an aneurysm, there will be work, and the commute home, dinner made for my family, and bed time stories for Ava. But I guess what I mean is, I am conscious of the future I am creating for myself: repercussions, pains, pleasures, and all. I'm writing this after having stayed up until 3 am to finish homework, so maybe the overdose of caffeine and the lovely crisp weather is making me grandiose, but I don't think so.

I'm tired of waiting for my Hollywood ending, for life to come banging on my door as if it is obligated to me alone.

In August of 2009, I looked at my father in a casket.I held the weight of his body in a box, poured his ashes into the ocean. He was 45. And as trite and common as this may sound to many, something inside of me snapped. My father told me once that he wanted to be an architect. He wanted to build things, be both an artist and a mathematician. In no way do I believe that his life was wasted or cheapened because he did not do those things. It's just that, I know how bitter that was for him at times, knowing that he could have had something else, something more.

The last year, I have nearly broken myself apart living my life. I rarely sleep. I've gotten down to about 1 or 2 meals a day, max, because I'm writing every chance I get. There are days and even whole weeks where I feel so burdened by school obligations and life and my own self that I cannot talk to people. BUT. And here it is:

I am alive.

I will not waste my time chasing down retirement. If this means living a life that is odd or inconvenient to some, so be it. What extraordinary person ever lived a life that looked like a carbon copy of someone elses'? Some people may call me crazy for it, but I'm telling you what's crazy is living like you have time. For me it is writing, but for someone else it could be starting a family or a business. Maybe it's a mission trip you keep sweeping under the rug, or a move to another state. Or a job that you hate but are too fearful to leave. What really is our excuse when the smallest, most insignificant thing could end our lives this very hour? Perhaps the best thing we can do to combat the grave--even over and above diet and exercise--is pursuing a life worth living now. Mistakes. Scars. Memories. Relationships. Art. Even if it means making ourselves look ridiculous from time to time.

We are candles, light. Impractical and beautiful things. Candles are useless if they sit in the cupboard waiting for a power outage. Candles were meant to burn. And burn I will.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Girl's Girl

Surely you've heard of the expression, "He's a man's man." This implies that a man has certain qualities that makes him lovable by other men.

Usually this involves some sort of hard cowboy stoicism, a certain sense of humor, a notable knowledge of "man things" like sports statistics or vintage cars. He holds his liquor well, is good with the ladies, he's respected by other men, has a sense of fashionable edginess without looking like an overly-coifed metrosexual. You know, he's a dude the other dude's want to be, or at least be friends with.

So what's the woman's equivalent? What qualifies someone as a 'girl's girl' or a 'woman's woman?'

From my experience, a girl's girl is someone who:

1) Is attractive without being threatening or overly sexy. In other words, she escapes the skank factor. This is a big one. Because most women want to better themselves with friends who will propel them into the next category, without constantly worrying if their spouses secretly lust over their gal pals.

2) Her house is just so. Do I even need to explain this one? No.

3) She wants babies, lots of babies. Or at least, she publicly pines over all things motherhood in a way that rivals only her husband's rabid love of SEC football. Because this, apparently, is the fruition of womanhood. And of course one child is never enough. One child forces her to ask the question, "So when are you going to have another one?"

4) She is smiley. In fact, the probability of being a girl's-girl increases with the size of and the frequency by which you flash your pearly whites. Think Julia Roberts toothiness. She played a prostitute in "Pretty Woman" and still audiences perceived her as wholesome as granny's apple pie every time she bared those mega-watt chompers.

5) She does not have a past. Or if she has an unsavory history, it is one that makes her look enduring in a June Carter, Lifetime movie sort of way.

6) She is good with correspondences: think thank you cards, holiday cards, birthday cards, scrapbook pages, etc...

7) She has a well-stocked purse. Need a tissue/nail file/safety pin/tampon/ironing board/tire iron/vintage off-white cameo pin? This girl has it all in her Kate Spade. Eat your heart out Mary Poppins.

8) She is better than all of your friends in at least one hobby. Bonus points if she is a) a militant jogger or triathlete, b) insane coupon-clipper, c) yoga instructor, d) culinary queen, or e) a combination of two of the above.

9) She looks effortless in ridiculous trends. Somehow she manages to be the one person on earth who doesn't look like bloated roadkill while wearing jeggings and faux-fur wrap.

10) Other girls like her, and she likes other girls. The majority of her friends are other women (mostly) like her. Because girl's-girls tend to attract one another.

I've brought a good deal of suffering down on myself wanting to be a girl's-girl. I've always known that I wasn't one. My throw pillows are not perfectly fluffed, or even necessarily matching. My nail polish chips almost instantly. Sometimes I go a little overboard on cleavage or eyeliner or high heels, or all of the above at once. I loathe baby showers. I am terribly uncomfortable in groups of women. I've got a past that may land me a movie deal with HBO, not Lifetime. I'd rather fish than go on a girl's getaway. But that's okay. The strange thing is, I've recently made a few girlfriends because of church, and they are ALL girl's-girls, and they're...wonderful. I've learned at least that there is room for us all. The girl's-girls and the...well, others, like me.

NOTE Celebrity girl's-girls include: Reese Witherspoon, Gwenyth Paltrow, Julie Roberts, Kristin Chenoweth, Meg Ryan (before the Russell Crow affair), Natalie Portman, and anyone who is stylish, but not classically beautiful i.e. Sarah Jessica Parker.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

To MFA or not to MFA? That is the question...

You know, there is something to be said for people who get out there and make it without the vestige of the almighty M.F.A, aka the 'I'm a mother-f*#&in-artist-so-recognize' degree, or Master of Fine Arts.

I think there is some sort of pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps romanticism about it that appeals to us. A sense that this person was either so wildly talented and/or ambitious that they cheated the system and went blazing into anthologies everywhere without paying tuition to learn the craft. Who am I talking about? William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ernest Hemingway to name a few. But it's the same with any profession--we love a good underdog story. How many times must we read about Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball team? Or Einstein failing Math?

Why? Because these stories give hope to the average person that they too, could be a genius, a basketball prodigy, or a literary great who just hasn't been discovered yet. But some part of me thinks this kind of legend-leeching gives people false dreams. There will never be another Einstein, after all.

I love this picture that I've coupled with this blog post because in some ways I feel like this explains the curse of a writer, or at least, a creative person: "Just because you are unique doesn't mean you are useful." Ouch. Some part of me recognizes that this must be true. I am not performing life-saving surgery, or even helping someone save 10% or more on their car insurance--I'm writing. Writing about things that, in many cases, never happened.

I think getting a MFA is part of this fear, and maybe that is why I'm seriously considering it.

Don't get me wrong, MFAs open doors and create a certain caveat when you are publishing and speaking and doing all the peripheral puffery that comes with writing--particularly poetry. BUT. Why else get it if you weren't afraid of being useless? Jobless? Without insurance? Without prestige? Some people, granted, do it to become professors; but I think if they were honest, they'd tell you they'd rather be holed up in a cave (or bar) writing their magnum opus without having to grade scores of terrible student first drafts.

So maybe I'll MFA and maybe I won't. I'm leaning toward won't. But who's to say? I want to be useful and talented. I need health insurance too. Just remind me to delete this blog post before I apply to the Iowa Writer's Workshop or Vanderbilt...I can't have an Admissions staff Googler reading this and ruining my statement of purpose.

Though I did fail English one semester in high school. And wouldn't that make a lovely addition to Michael Jordan, and Einstein, and Hemingway? Har. Har. Har.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Sometimes Reading Isn't Power

I never thought I'd say this, but...I think I need to stop reading. Well, at least for awhile.

Let me preface by saying that I have great reverence for reading. Nothing makes me happier than the smell of a new book, except maybe an acceptance letter from an editor. I take pride in the fact that I have more books than I can handle; I could probably make furniture pieces out of the more substantial volumes.

The problem is this: as a writer (or still a wannabe at this point), I find that the things I'm reading are starting to choke me out. I've been reading so much that I feel quietly paranoid about what I'm doing. Sure, the right piece of literature can awaken and inspire other literature, but lately, I feel like all the things I'm reading are trying to puke up on my page.

I've read so many great poets online recently (time for unsolicited plugs): Mathias Nelson, Justin Hyde, and Amanda Aucter among others. I've also gone the traditional route and raided the library for inspiration. Recently I devoured Sandra Cisneros' Loose Woman, and Natasha Tretheway's Bellocq's Ophelia is sitting on my nightstand in the cue just behind Bukowski's What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire.

I think it's a fundamental thing to educate yourself by reading as promiscuously as possible...until it's time for you to speak. I've been a reader my entire life and now? Now I need some quiet. I need to blood-let all these other voices and talents that want to smother mine. They are screaming at me when I'm writing, especially the male poets. And they say: who wants to read about that? You are too sentimental, too clean, too Tampax to have any bite. Be a misanthrope. The academic poets tell me that I'm not pedigreed enough. The influential poets tell me to copy them. It's vicious I tell you.

So I think, just for awhile, I will be alone in my own room and see what sort of sounds I can make. I think the cruelest thing you can tell a writer is that they are a stillborn version of someone else. I don't want to be anyone else, and I think the most successful people are those who are willing to be a total failure for the sake of being themselves. And maybe I'm not a special snowflake, maybe my writing voice isn't avant-garde or powerful, but I'll never know if I can't tell the other writers to shut up and go away while I work.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Wisdom of Others

I've always been a quote junkie.

As a teenager my diary was filled with them. As an English teacher, I'd put a new quote on the board every week that correlated with my lessons. As a dork, I list a quote of the week on my outgoing voicemail. As a poet so many of the things I write begin as a response to a quote I read, or a singular line that comes to me somewhere from the ether.

Here are a few favorites that I've gathered over the years:

"The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which makes you lonely."
--Lorraine Hansberry

"The meeting of two personalities is like the meeting of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed."
--Carl Jung

"You do not have a soul. You ARE a soul. You have a body."
--C.S. Lewis

"There are years that question, and there are years that answer."
--Zora Neale Hurston

"The true genius shutters at incompleteness, and usually prefers silence to saying something which is not everything it should be."
--Edgar Allen Poe

"The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death."
--Oscar Wilde

"Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
-Leo Tolstoy

What are your favorites?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

One Shot Wednesday Poetry

House Ghost

by Christeene Fraser

“He’s right there Mommy,” she says, “Behind you!”
I turn and see framed crayon pictures of yellow flowers,
stuffed rabbits nibbling carrots sewn to their paws.
“The man is sick,” she tells me, “He’s mean!”

My daughter, the clairvoyant—should have named
her Cassandra. I tell her it’s not nice to fib to her mama,
recalling the light left on in the basement, skin pimpling
from the rush of cold pulling the cord.

Maybe this house ghost of ours rocks in the
corner chair, remembering the heat of July when
he strangled his Dolores in the sewing room, before
he swallowed a barrel, whole, like a ripe banana.

Maybe in the dark he whispers his secret in
my daughter’s ear so that she cannot sleep,
or dreams of death. Perhaps he is angry that
we have painted his walls a shocking cobalt.

Or maybe this house ghost of ours, ‘the Man’ (we’ve named him),
is truly harmless and only watches in the shower while
I lather my hair, and maybe he slides the conditioner closer
to me when I’m blinded by soap and cannot see.

I tell her not to be afraid. I tell her to sleep,
that she is safe in my care; like all parents.
Like all lies.

For One Shot Wednesday

Sunday, September 19, 2010

La Literati Travels: Ocean Isle Beach, NC

I'm an expert in beach-bummery. If they conferred degrees in sun worship and wave riding, I'd have a PhD as distinguishable as my tan lines.

I've been to beaches all over the world. I've been to iconic Waikiki; sat against leaning palms pushing up from black sand on the Big Island. I've lounged on sugar white sand stretches in Jamaica and Mexico's Mayan Riviera. I've exhausted the spring break options on the Florida Panhandle (aka the Redneck Riviera). I've been to your standard skeezy beach complete with boardwalk and burnouts; I've watched the Pacific smash up on the cold and rocky coast off of California's Hwy 1.

And yet, of all the places I've kicked my flip flops, this little eight mile stretch called Ocean Isle, one hour north of tourist strangled Myrtle Beach, is my absolute favorite.

Top Reasons why OIB is OMG, y'all:

1) It's truly a family beach: If you're looking for coeds with poor judgment and the combination of white t-shirts + water + tequila, you WON'T find it here. You are more likely to find an arcade or ice cream parlor than a bar (there is a strange abundance of homemade ice cream parlors here; think of a ratio of 1 creamery to every 50 people). However, there is a large and well-stocked ABC Store immediately on the left after crossing the bridge to the island--so don't despair if, like me, you still like to toss back a frosty beverage after the kiddies are on the snooze.

2) It's relatively unknown: Let me preface by saying, that in the high season of travel (late May through August) the island is swarming with teenagers on rented bikes and families trolling around on golf carts. But because of it's relatively difficult-to-reach-quality, it still remains a largely underexposed jewel in the Grand Strand area of tourist destinations (ASIDE: our GPS was on the verge of a nervous break down trying to negotiate the backwoods of South Carolina before we finally reached OIB, just beyond the border). If you want to experience the best of OIB travel, go during the off-peak season in September when the weather in North Carolina is gorgeous and the beaches empty.

3) It manages to remain tourist-friendly without being tourist-tacky: Sure there are the obligatory beach souvenir, putt-putt, and pizza joints, but they manage to blend into the scenery, not overwhelm it with a cartoon grotesqueness or suburban banality. They've managed to balance tourist ADHD without the strip-mall experience. There are no major national chain restaurants or stores on the actual island; the closest fast food joint is one Subway over the bridge, and a few selections in the next town 8 miles over, Shallotte. Some people may take that as a negative, but my personal philosophy is: why vacation if all you do is carry the same generic experiences into a new backdrop? Spice it up. Go local.

4) It captures the memory with its distinct look: Have you ever watched the movie The Truman Show? Something about the island's aesthetic reminds me a lot of that movie set: it feels and looks intentional, together, charming without being contrived or bland. The West and East sides of the island have distinctly different looks and feels (the West being more populated by locals and thus more "cottagey" and relaxed, and the East dominated by large multi-family beach house rentals, a resort, and upscale oceanfront stunners. Incidentally, my family and I are "East-eggers." OIB manages to marry the beauty of its dunes and Atlantic views with equally pleasing and unobtrusive edifices.

5) OIB maintains a genuine spirit of relaxation: Even though this place is so stunning, and clearly the inhabitants have SERIOUS cash, it does not have the sort of high-life pretentiousness that comes with a Palm Beach or Martha's Vineyard crowd. The standard uniform here is whatever you choose to wear, no Polo ponies or Coach bags, or Chanel sunglasses required. Take it from a Hawaiian, this place is refreshingly laid-back for the East coast, which tends to take itself WAY too seriously.

My family has vacationed here every year for the last 3, and it's a tradition that we plan on continuing. If you're looking for an alternative to exhausted beach destinations on the East coast, give OIB a try. You'll find Spanish moss, swaying sea oats, translucent crabs, pink sunsets, obliging locals--and me, sketching in the sand, digging up mussels, or diving into 5-8 foot swells like a teenager (but only in the off-season, I don't do crowds).

Monday, September 6, 2010

Impressions from a Book Fest

Recently I was asked by Emory University to be one of their featured authors signing/selling books for their "Authors Spotlight" at the Decatur Book Festival. I'm not really sure why. When I saw the caliber of writers also appearing on that featured author's list (Pulitzer Prize winning author Natasha Tretheway, National Book Award finalist Kevin Young, Emory University Vice President Gary Hauk) I felt sort of like the scraggly chicken patay passed around before the main entree.

These people are accomplished, well-known, hold copious degrees and important university titles, and I'm...well, I'm just Christeene. Christeene of 'Hey, go file this for me' notoriety.

The night before the festival, my husband and I stayed up until nearly 4am stapling and folding these beautiful little chapbooks stuffed with 32 pages of poems that I've lovingly tended to over the last month. As the books grew in number on our dining room table, and we laughed over the intimidating length of our Freudian inspired booklet stapler, I felt proud. I felt like a Writer (capital 'W').

The next day, alone, with my homemade volumes packed neatly in my book-bag I felt something very akin to the sinking dread I had on the first day of middle school. The prom scene from the cult movie Carrie replayed in my head ('They're all gonna laugh at you!') until I imagined that my hair was clumped in thick pig blood.

Luckily it turned out to be far less traumatic than all that.

Some Impressions:

1. When selling a chapbook, be sure that your 'FOR SALE' sign is large enough for little old ladies to see from at least 100 feet away. This will save you both from the ensuing embarrassment when a little old lady assumes that you're handing out pamphlets and takes one while you wave your hands and screech sheepishly, "Ma'am, those cost five dollars!"

2. Have no shame whatsoever when two friends show up unexpectedly and start snapping photos like you're Billy Collins or Stephen King descending from The New York Times bestseller's list to greet the plebeians. Embrace the free PR. Just pretend like you don't know who they are, and ask for their names as you sign their books with panache.

3. Don't be insulted when someone comes up to you and assumes you're the information person even though you are clearly sitting under a HUGE sign that says 'Author Spotlight.' Just smile and say, "Yes sir, Joseph Skibbell IS scheduled to sign at this booth later this afternoon!"

4. Have some enthusiasm when you're pimping your own wares. Apart from a tap-dance, people need to be convinced to pay ANY thing for poetry these days unless you've been thoroughly swabbed and vetted by The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly.

5. Never underestimate the little details. One woman bought my chapbook because she liked the Anais Nin quote on the back of my business cards; it spurred a whole conversation about writing, which ended in her perusing my first chapter and parting with two copies at $5 a piece (Hey, ten bucks is a big deal when a gallon of gas is nearly $3).

6. That lurky couple that talks to you for fifteen minutes and then stands awkwardly in the distance whispering and staring at you for another 20 mins after the husband has already asked 'So, what are you doing after this is over?' may be A) swingers looking for a friend, or B) just weird. Either way, exit from the back of the tent unseen.

7. Remember that every step, no matter how small or awkward, is still a step forward in your writing career. No one that ever wrote anything worth reading did so for money or recognition (even if they fantasized about both); it may be to your advantage as a living writer if you have neither. To be a real Writer, you need only a great big soul made of "empathy and intuition" (to quote a friend of mine).

I sold more books than I anticipated during my hour-that-felt-like-two-days. Surprisingly more books. I remembered that I was invited to sit at the same table as lauded authors even though no one knows my name. No one knows my name...yet.

Friday, September 3, 2010

La Literati Interviews: Mathias Nelson

Somehow interviewing Wisconsin-based poet Mathias Nelson seemed to be the most appropriate next step after I reviewed his most recent chapbook, They May Try to Kill Me for This (see post below). Despite his humility, I'm still putting my money on a bright, blazing literary future somewhere in his horizon--if not presently, then posthumously. Read on, take notes:

Q: You make no effort to conceal your literary influences in this chapbook. From the metaphorical cannibalism of Bukowski, to the iconic Sylvia Plath rescuing you, literally, from a grave in "Digging Up Sexton," it almost seems in some ways that this collection is as memorable for its imaginings of the literary elite as it is for the chronicling of your own personal experiences. Where do you see yourself within that continuum? Do you hope be aligned with these poets (or others) in some way?

A: I just hope, with a distinct tone, to cut my own place on bookshelves, and the more I write the more I see the possibility of it happening. The nice thing is that it's happening all on its own. I hear of other writers struggling to find their voice, but that doesn't sound right to me. Why would you struggle? Let yourself come out. That's your voice. If you're struggling because you haven't found out who you are as a person, then go find that out before you write. As for me, I know too much about myself. And I'm terrified.

Q: There is a strong undercurrent of, and sometimes a collision between, the tender observer and the brutal participant; this dichotomy of tone elicits incredibly strong emotional responses in your readers and provides much of the joie de vivre behind your confessional poems. Can you relate any personal instances when these two distinct urges melded together?

A: Well, I often desire to be tender. I think I'm most tender with nature, to the point that it plagues me. I avoid stepping on ants. I feel bad when trees are cut down. Nothing is misplaced to me; it's just there. But with humans I can be rather harsh, and since you asked, I'll tell you I shoved a man through a window once for smacking the ass of my brother's wife. The man broke through the glass, could have fallen and died, and for what? A little ass smack! I don't even believe in marriage. I guess I was thinking about my brother. So in that sense I was harsh throwing that man, but also tender with my brother in mind because he gets very upset and hurt about people messing with his wife. And that man was embarrassed. It was even his window, right in the middle of a party. That makes me feel bad. See how tender I can be? His face looked like a squeezed scrotum, really red and in need of a shave.

Q: In a previous interview you discussed your view that empathy and intuition are the two most critical elements for successful writers. Explain that to me more fully:

Empathy is the most important thing in life, and of course if you want to write it's important there too. Feeling your character, and why they do what they do. Without empathy, what do you have? A jackass. Is that all you 're going to write about?

Intuition: you gotta know when to stop and go. It's like sex, you use empathy to feel your mate (reader) out, then you use intuition to know when to penetrate and finish and get the hell out of there. Unfortunately I haven't had sex for quite some time. Misplaced empathy.

Q: This is like asking a parent which child is their favorite, but, for the sake of being honest: what poem(s) in particular from this chapbook are the most significant to you?

I like the first poem, "A Bumble Bee Sting...", because it confronts religion with a little humor, and I was lying in bed when I heard the words come out of my fan.

Q: Are there any guiding principles for you when you write (stylistically, morally, etc)? If so, what are they, or how do you know when a poem is finished, optimal, "Mathias-approved," etc...?

A: I don't like to complicate things. I don't sit down and think about rules when writing. When I was younger I wasted a whole lot of time contemplating that bullshit. There aren't any rules, just make it clear, though sometimes it's okay if different readers derive different meanings from it, I just try to use a language that they'll understand.

I'm finished with a poem when it makes me want to puke. Not that I'm constantly picking it apart and changing it (though sometimes that is the case), but that I'm rereading it to the point of sickness because I simply like what I write.

Friday, August 20, 2010

La Literati Reviews: They May Try to Kill Me for This, by Mathias Nelson

I first discovered Wisconsin poet Mathias Nelson through the 2010 July/August issue of RATTLE. Before I could finish the last stanza of his poem "Dip My Pacifier in Whiskey," I was already flipping to the back of the magazine in search of his author profile. It should have come with a PSA.

Be warned kids. His poems are like crack.

Nelson's debut chapbook combines the effulgence of raging youth with the steadied craft of a mature, contemplative writer. His sense of voice, of self, is as constant as his subjects are variable. At once tender and terrifying, beautiful and brutal, nothing is spared from his acerbic observations. Consider these lines from his poem "Fish Food":

"I was pompous. Saw myself as special--
a suicide over an ice-fisherman's hole,
a stiff body floating beneath that ice
and clawing at it while growling bubbles
as the soles of big clown shoes
glided above
to where children made snowangels."

OR this passage describing the slow deterioration of a nursing home patient, in "Enamel Eyes":

"The faces of her family
don't know. Maybe she
doesn't completely know.
Maybe her mind is
like the photographs, gray
taken fifty years ago
blowing kisses.

The dentures won't go in
today. I begin to sweat,
to shake.

'Ah,' I say, 'Ah'
and begin to weep.

My tears fall
into her mouth."

In my opinion, it is in instances like these where Nelson shows his potential to be more than just a post-Bukowskian shock jock or mere peddler of images, but rather, a great observer of the human condition.

Certainly, many readers will find amusement, laughter, bewilderment, anger--lots of anger--in several of his poems and be satisfied traversing everything from the cannibalism and near-necrophilia of literary icons to fishing with his nephews. But it is his ability to weave past and present, American history and personal history, and transfigure them into something larger that haunts the psyche, leaving you hungry for much, much more.

Synopsis: this book makes me excited about contemporary poetry. Get your money together and head to the post office, now. Consider it an investment. I have no doubt whatsoever that somewhere in the future we will include Nelson in the lineage of great counter-culture poets before him.

Author Information:
They May Try to Kill Me For This, by Mathias Nelson. Self-published. 36 pages. $5.00. Contact and ordering information at:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

In Memorium

For my father, Lance Bradley Alcosiba. December 25, 1963-August 20, 2009.
Together always, at Bay Farm Island Bridge


It’s been a year since you left, and I heard
the earth crack open, swallowing you whole;
and though I knew, though I’d been given a schedule

of your departure, an express at noon—
I never knew how hard it would be to witness
the cars pull away, and me behind the caboose
to catch it, jump onboard before it was gone.
The steam beneath the wheels left me breathless, unable,
collapsing on the tracks.

But sometimes I lean my ears to the rails,
and I can feel the hum of an engine
chugging far away, speeding along the coast:
the dining car warm with brewing coffee and
shuffling newspapers or steadied crosswords
on the laps of bi-focaled women, and children stare
from windows, coloring vermillion
sunsets over smashing waves—
and I am happy.

for One Shot Wednesday

Monday, August 16, 2010

Rejections of Famous Authors

The other day I received an envelope in the mail with my own handwriting on the front.

I don't know why that fact didn't register, but I somehow glazed over this glitch in my thinking and went on to open the letter furiously, delighted that I should receive something in the mail other than a bill, and there it was: "We thank you for your interest in publishing with Autumn House Press, but..."

BUT. But. But. That evil little conjunction gets ya every time.

This is the third consecutive rejection slip I've gotten since I started to earnestly send my poetry out for publication. My favorite rejection slip came from The Paris Review a few years ago. I was so stoked to have anything mailed to me on PR stationary that I kept it. I wasn't mad at all that they'd rejected my meager little poems.

Admittedly, I had a minor pity party for myself after that last one though, because I'd gotten so idiotically excited hoping it was a letter, some good news, a how'ya'doin, and instead it was a 'thanks-but-no-thanks-loser.' The familiar cloud of self-doubt began to form over me until I was convinced that I was just some horrible little egotist who would die obscure, unknown, my writing the jumbled mess that I'd always feared it was. But then I remembered William Faulker, Nobel Laureate, who received a horrible rejection of his book Sanctuary: "Good God, I can't publish this!"

It made me wonder, who else got rejected? A short list of manuscripts/writers who were rejected SEVERAL times:

1) Animal Farm, George Orwell
2) On the Road, Jack Kerouac
3) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling
4) Twilight, Stephenie Meyer
5) Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
6) Lord of the Flies, William Golding
7) Dr. Seuss
8) Emily Dickinson, who was told "[your poems] are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are quite defect of poetical qualities."
9) Torrents of Spring, Ernest Hemingway
10) The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells
11) Catch 22, Joseph Heller

Publishing, may be a good-ol-boys club, but it is also a numbers game. I intend to keep playing, go for broke, because I don't have time for anything else.

I still believe in this glorious dream that is writing. Even if the rejections pile in, and they will. Even if my friends and coworkers and lookers-on think I am a nut-job without the luxury of a new car or a disciplined retirement savings.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Hell is a Cave. Hope is a Cave: Finding Inspiration in Unexpected Places

I'd never been in a cave before Sunday.

At the urging of a dear friend anxious to show us where he grew up, a group of six of us sojourned to Cave Spring and Rome, GA for a day of caving, lake swimming, and cemetery touring. I anticipated anecdotes about Joey's childhood while reapplying sunscreen, laughter over diarrhea-inducing Southern cooking, and daydreaming as our van lurched over stretches of bucolic hillside that made me want to leave Atlanta for some place simpler.

I got so much more than a sunburn, crappy lunch, and a Walden-pond moment. I was inspired by this little town in the middle of nowhere with it's little piece of Jurassic charm and Rome's historic hillside cemetery. They followed me home.

I didn't like the cave at first: it's incredibly cool and dank, the stalactites kept dripping on my bare shoulders and back (making me squeak in surprise), and I half-expected a Velociraptor to jump out of the darkness and snatch me by the throat it was so primordial looking because of the red light bulbs they had chosen to light certain angles. My friends decided to go down and explore a hole off of the path, and I stayed back deciding it was better left to those who had not been stupid enough to cave in a strapless sundress and flip flops.

Then I was left completely alone, in this ancient and smothering space--exhaling its cold minerally breath, curling into hellish plumes illuminated by the red bulbs, and the dark corners that stalked me, and the wet rock underfoot, and I started to feel a little woosey and freaked out and thought to myself hell is a big cave flooded with lava where all of us will go to burn and smack our bodies against stalagmites pushing up from the ground while bats nest in our hair, and then I saw carved into rock: Erin loves Michael.

Graffiti snapped me back into reality: someone's act of vandalism, an expression of love captured at one moment, hope ground into rock for posterity.

And I thought about people who lived in caves a million years ago and how fearful and urgent living was for them, and how a cave represented shelter and safety from the outside world. I thought about how even they made time to draw pictures of animals or daily life with blood or charcoal because there was this need for expression and beauty that was somehow essential and totally unnecessary, and therefore ultimately human.

I realized I was not alone any longer when I heard the peals of children echoing deep inside the cavern. And then my friends re-emerged from the ominous hole covered in mud and laughing about someone's butt being too close to their face in the dark, and I was happy. I sketched Cave Spring on the way home, and drafted poems about our graveyard walk in Rome.

And as we explored the rocks and took photos of molded tombstones, the time between generations and people seemed to meld together. Hope is a cave, too.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

When Does the Final Draft Actually Appear?

"True genius shudders at incompleteness"--Edgar Allan Poe

Writers: ever written something that you thought was absolutely GENIUS until you saw it again the next day and then hated yourself and were subsequently humiliated by your poor lapse of judgment?

I call that having a one-night-stand with your first draft. It's just ugly.

But what if it's not your first draft, but more like, an entire book? I had a mini-meltdown the other day before emailing my first book, Little Earthquakes, off to a friend to read. I reread almost 70 pages and nearly decided to torch it, blot it out of my memory like a victim of incest. There were only a few redeeming lines in what seemed like endless pages of amateur, uneducated, undisciplined, prose-posing-as-poetry pieces of narcissistic garbage. I emailed them to her but went home that day feeling sad and depleted like a middle-aged actress who has realized that she will not be getting calls to play the ingenue any longer.

I shared this feeling with my spouse and he just shook his head: "But, you won a prize for that book. A PUH-RIZE!" He articulated loud and slow, as though I didn't understand what the word 'prize' meant.

Writers are notorious for this, or really, creative people are notorious for this. The work is never done. The finished product is always as scary as first draft.

I remember reading an article once where Nicole Kidman said it was painful for her to watch herself acting: she was constantly critiquing herself, judging her every move. I thought to myself, this dumb broad, I'd LOVE to be sitting in a theater somewhere in a couture gown watching myself act in some movie where I was paid millions of dollars to play pretend and kiss some hot actor, give-me-a-break! Now I have a lot more sympathy for the botoxed Aussie.I understand her pain completely.

Being creative publicly means willingly placing some part of your body on the chopping block for others to decide whether or not that appendage is worth saving. It's pulling up your sweater for others to see the breast cancer scars and mawed tissue and deciding if it is profound statement of truth or just grotesque. But its a beautiful thing, this truth, this grotesqueness. Writing and creation and carnage and love and first-draft or Pulitzer Prize book, it's all the same. It all has its place and function. So what if people can my writing?

It helps me to remember that I am learning, that I am still new to it all.

I would never judge my daughter for not running after barely learning to walk. I'd tell her to take it slow: steady her gait, plant her heels, try the stairs, master the stroll, running's bad for the joints.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Why We Love What We Love

Writing love poems is harder than you'd think.

Let me clarify that: writing honest love poems that do NOT make me gag is harder than you'd think. I abhor sap. I dislike love poems that don't sting just a little. Anyone who writes those kind of love poems has failed to capture the astounding range of love. Their 'violets are blue' sentimentality does the reader a disservice.

I'm in the process of writing my second book of poetry, Desir, a volume of love poems based on the four loves as understood by the ancient Greeks, and later redefined for modernity by C.S. Lewis: storge (affection), philia (friendship), eros (erotic love), and agape (unconditional, God-like love).

I find that writing about love is some of the most challenging writing I've done because of the amorphous nature of that emotion--the erotic melding into the platonic, or the platonic yielding to the erotic. Soaring, iridescent love as impressionism of the senses, fruition of memory, desire, and psychosis.

Why do we love the things and people that we love?

In writing about love, this question is almost more important, or certainly more interesting, than the expression of love itself. The apertures of erotic love, for instance--the yearning, the kiss, the embrace, the explosive desire--are universal. But why him or her? There is nothing more individual or singular than the trajectory to the beloved. How is it that two people with so much in common could find absolutely nothing to love in the other? How is it that two people with nothing in common can bind their lives together without much consideration?

I don't care about expressing how love makes an individual act, per se; I'm interested in reading and writing about how love melds the mind. I'm interested in exploring why we love the things and people we love in the first place. Is our choice of partner merely an expression of out "desire-mapping" through past experiences, media images, familial models, or is it more?

I don't know if I can believe in something as delicious as fate. I don't know that I can get behind something as idealistic as soul mates; and that really says something about me, doesn't it?

What I can believe in is this, at least: when we say 'I love you' or 'I love ___,' it says more about the person saying it than the object(s) of affection themselves. We are what we love. This can be both a wondrous and terrible revelation.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Read Me Or Die: Book Titles That Smack Your Mama

There's something to be said for finding a good book simply by walking around a bookstore.

In the library world we call it "serendipitous browsing."

Finding a good book in a sea of books is a lot like dating. This fretful process can be recreated using new technologies (Kindle is not too unlike match.com in my mind), but there is something magical when it happens in person. Needless to say, I spend hours in bookstores. I met my husband in a bookstore. But as much as I fetishize books, even I admit that after a while the shelves just blur into one mass of gaudy volumes squeezed together like crayons in a box.

It takes something truly special to stand out in the crowd. Here are some books I wanted to purchase based on the titles alone:

1) The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter

This title immediately jumps down the throat. Either you think 'this is going to be the most infuriating anti-caucasian book in the world,' or you snicker and say, 'well I can tell you how that goes in ten words or less.' Either way, the book gets picked up.

2) I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, by Nujood Ali with Delphine Minoui

Do I even need to say anything about this book? The title says it all. No semi-colon explanation needed.

3) Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Tips to Creativity, by Hugh Macleod

Plays on the neuroses of the creative person by reaffirming we are all God's special snowflakes (and we are). The huge endorsement by viral blogger Seth Godin doesn't hurt either.

4) The Ninja Handbook: This Book Looks Forward to Killing You Soon, by Douglas Sarine

Humor is always welcome. I wouldn't go near a book about ninjas if the title didn't make me laugh (just a little). I most likely won't buy it, but I WILL pass it along to at least 4 other dork ninja-enthusiasts who might.

5) Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk

Sometimes simple is best. Sometimes one word says more than an entire sentence.

6) My Name is Memory, by Ann Brashares

This just sounds pretty. It appeals to my sense of aesthetics and sounds almost poetic. Imagine my shock when I discover that it was written by the same author who penned The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Oh well.

7) Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, by Amanda Grange

It's Jane Austen revisited with blood-sucking vamps. Who doesn't think that's cool? At least for the first 50 pages. This sounds like literary Splenda--appealing to my dignified sense of English major nerdiness AND my adolescent desire for carnage. WIN!

8) A Field Guide for Burying Your Parents, by Liza Palmer

I know nothing about this book, other than I buried my father last August, and that alone prompted me to at least consider it. Pulling something terrible and universal into the title is a guaranteed way to make people stop and look at the very least.

9) The Wild Things, by Dave Eggers

Again, like the Mr. Darcy book listed above, it appeals to the consumers pre-packaged experience with some other well-known and beloved work/author. In this case it is the children's book Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. And bonus points for this book because the volume was covered in mock animal hair (no joke).

10) A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

Good 'ol Dave, he is absolutely brilliant. Bringing back the art of the cover design, kitschy titles, and sharp sardonic writing to boot. The crazy thing is, the title is as hysterically arrogant as it is true. I want to take a seminar by this man. I want to send him fan letters and unfinished manuscripts and make him my mentor. But I'll settle for pre-ordering his next work on Amazon.

But cover design may even be more important than title, particularly for new and unestablished writers.

I cannot tell you how many of my former students (first-wave Twilight lovers) told me that they had picked up the Stephenie Meyer books simply because the covers were so gorgeous, and looked different than everything else in that section. If you venture into the teen/YA section now, there has been an explosion of books adopting the black/red graphics that the Meyer books made en vogue.

Of course publishers and booksellers know this; but how much more then must new authors fight for books that both look AND read like New York Times bestsellers? It's nothing new. Dating is full of pigeons and peacocks, and the bookstore is no different.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Perfectionism Is Nuts, or, Brachioplasty Anyone?!

I realized last night that I may, in fact, be a crazy woman.

Why? Because last night I was trying to rationalize to my girlfriends that I had a "low self-esteem moment" because I made two B's last semester, and because I have this troublesome pocket of fat under my armpit that I've nicknamed "the Bat-wing."

There I was in my bathing suit with three of my best girls slack-jawed as they watched me jiggle my arms and rant about marathon sessions of research-paper-writing at four a.m. while questioning the spiritual implications of plastic surgery.

More evidence of craziness: I've already read half of my required reading for the upcoming semester which hasn't started, AND I just got the book in the mail yesterday. Oh yeah, it's already been highlighted, and my notes TYPED (mind you) and bulleted in a Microsoft Word document.

Don't mistake me, this is NOT bragging.

I know sooo many women like this, like me. Maybe it's grades, or staying thin, or being the expert at work, or having the most accomplished child, or dressing like a celebrity, or having a house with floors so clean you could do stem-cell research on them. Women in particular have this crippling bent toward perfectionism. I've always thought that this kind of Rainman-like preoccupation was admirable, until lately.

I'm not sure when it dawned on me. Maybe it was after I felt the all-too-familiar-encompassing-diarrhea-nervousness that comes before I start a new semester, or maybe it was when I realized that my lovely friends WERE not commiserating with my Kanye West wailing over TWO unholy B's.

Perfectionism is not only unhealthy for your colon, it is also really ungodly.

As a Christian woman, pushing myself to these ridiculous extremes shows that I don't trust the Creator with my fate; I don't trust God with the creation he's made. It shows that I am incredibly shallow in chasing after GPA's that don't account for much when I've barely seen my toddler or my spouse. It shows that I expend way too much energy on the temporal and not the eternal. Never, to my recollection, have I ever burned my candle at both ends for another person like I have for myself.

When Jesus said "love thy neighbor as thyself," it was not only a command, but in some ways, an indictment. He knew how self-centered we are, and stuffed it in our faces: "Hey go-getter who's up at four a.m. writing about collection development for your pompous degree, remember to funnel some of that energy into the homeless guy you try to ignore on the entrance ramp to I-75."

All my admirable go-getter-ness is simply self-serving.

Perfectionism is another way of saying self-centered. I am more than my GPA. I am more than my title at work (or lack thereof). I am more than a weight. A credit score. A bank statement. I am more than what my child does or does not do in life. I am more than this bizarre outcropping of fat that hangs from my right armpit and bobbles over my bra when I run.

[Insert Oprah audience claps and cue "I am Woman"]

Friday, July 16, 2010

Sin and Honesty in the Christian Church

Confession: I am a big, fat, dirty sinner. No, really. NO. Seriously.

I get that I wear cardigans and am going to school to be a Librarian. You're probably thinking: anyone who wears khaki and ballet flats and plans a career pushing books can't be that wild, right? Wrong.

The truth is that I sin on the daily. On the hourly. Moreover, I have one or two choice sins that perpetually get in my face. They're more annoying than SEC fans in September. Though you'd never know because they aren't visible like drug abuse or alcoholism.

Confession no. 2: I love God, and I don't want to be this way.

I know that this conversation about sin seems really stupid, antiquated, and/or probably just "too precious" for my friends/relatives/associates who are not Christians.

They are rolling their eyes right now, saying, "For the love of, here she goes again throwing herself under the bus because she said the 'F' word once or something equally as innocuous." But it's not just about having a filthy mouth. It's about having your eyes opened to something true, and not being able to go back. It's passing through the wardrobe and into Narnia. It's Neo after the blue pill. It's Columbus catching his first glance of Hispanola.

Sin is death. I've heard this my entire life, and it meant nothing. We hear about gravity as children, and scoff when our parents talk about jumping from bridges to follow others, but when a plane begins to nose-dive and shake uncontrollably mid-flight we finally understand that our bodies and collective wisdom have no bearing on the force hurling us to the ground.

It was only after I understood that sin is not only real, but here for a very real purpose that I was even able to care about my actions. This thing called conscience, was the Holy Spirit pulling at my heart quietly. Those who are not Christians feel it intuitively, but call it moral order.

Confession no. 3: I believe the Christian church (at least in America) is failing miserably to discuss this issue of sin.

It seems like our goal is to get people cleaned up, dunked in the baptism tank, and send them along their merry way. We talk about sin as an abstract concept, a cancer that affects us all. We get them to accept that they have the cancer, and that Jesus is the cure for it. But we never talk about what type of cancer it is; how it moves, grows, how it changes, how we can prevent it. Not really. That conversation is too graphic, not family-friendly, too raw, glorifying of secular behaviors. I think this is a cop-out.

If we as Christians want to change the world, we can't be afraid to talk about it. Honestly. Brutally. We can't be afraid to cut into the cadaver and look at the tumor, spreading. We can't be afraid to put it under a microscope and share our findings with others. We can't be ashamed to show the ugly surgical scars on our own bodies.

Confession no. 4: I'm really tired of oatmeal evangelism. Give me truth.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Wanderlust List: Or, Christeene's "Anywhere but Here" Top 5

Confession: I've got wanderlust. Bad.

My mother's ex-husband worked for Delta back when I was in high school/college, and that meant lots of free (or nearly-free) travel to exotic locales like Dayton, OH and Fort Walton Beach, FL. But there were more exciting travels too--like a business class seat to Paris (where they stuff you silly with food to pass the time), a first class ticket (with champagne, yeah mon!) to Jamaica, pan-Pacific flights to Hawaii in the large air-misted bowels of a 777, and copious quick-turn-arounds to NYC for shopping and various museum sprints.

Oh, the good ole days.

These days a weekend in Macon sounds like an enticing prospect given my (now) lack of airline connections and a checking account so thin it's giving Calista Flockhart a run for her rib bones as of late.

These days I'm content to watch the Travel Channel, and search "Last Minute Vacation Packages" on Travelocity--my own version of porn on these Georgia afternoons where there is nothing to do but dream of escaping the hot-wet-fart-trapped-in-a-bag-heat/humidity combo that makes me wish I was anywhere but here.

Which leads me to share my Top 5 "Anywhere but Here" list of places that I'd love to travel to right now:

5) Chesapeake, VA: I think "classic American" when I think of Chesapeake. I think of summer and really good seafood and yacht clubs and Fourth of July fireworks over the bay and douchey blond dudes who wear loafers and coral golfing shorts with little polo ponies on them. I think of its closeness to Virginia Beach and historic Williamsburg only an hour north. Sign me up for everything BUT the douchey blonds, please!

4) Seattle, WA: Nothin' says lovin' ala Christeene quite like coffee, grunge, fish markets, and a close proximity to the woodsy town of Forks where the Twilight saga is based (geeky fan girls, UNITE!). Ahem... Oh yeah, there is also the infamously brooding weather, which frankly sounds appealing to me after being sun-bleached for 9 months out of the year.

3) Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada: Expansive mountain vistas. Prehistoric cedars. Cerulean waters full of biting fish and whale watching. Luxury lodges accessible only by water airplane. Fresh salmon avec chanterelles for le dinner. Sounds like the furthest thing from this Georgia red clay and "moonlight through the pines" business. Sounds like heaven.

2) San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Most people think of coeds slamming tequila on the beach when they think of Mexico. But San Miguel de Allende has so much more to offer than white sand and cheap Senor Frog's t-shirts. Think cobbled streets, Colonial architecture, Mexican artisans selling one-of-a-kind wares, and year-round temperate weather. I want to stay here, in the "La Biblioteca" (the library) suite: http://www.casaschuck.com/newSite/mainEng.html

1) Santorini, Greece: Blame it on my love for Grecian epic poetry, or the fact that my favorite color is cobalt blue (which is the modus vivendi for all rooftops on this little island). Blame it on the fact that my half-brother's Greek grandma gave me an addiction to Spanakopita and Baklava and all things sprinkled in goat cheese. Santorini not only makes takes the #1 spot for my "Anywhere but Here" list, it's hovering somewhere near the top of my "Must See Before I Die" list as well.

What's on your "Anywhere but Here" list?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Doppelganger, Or, Can You Ever Go to the Same Place Twice?

Recently on my trip to New York City, I found myself visiting the same places I'd loved while I lived there. Without any conscious thought at all, my feet took me where I spent countless hours as a penniless undergrad: Bryant Park, the Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library, the Central Park great lawn, St.Patrick's on 5th, Barnes and Noble on 66th, the same, the same...

And yet. Not the same.


-Bryant Park loveliness.
-Magically delicious street gyros.
-7 train that shakes you like a deranged nanny caught on tape.
-Eau de subway (it has its own unique funk, like home).
-Crazies yelling obscenities below my window at 2am.


-Neighborhoods: Columbus Circle now = mini-mall.
-Stores: Bronx Target(I-wudda-given-a-leg-for-one-back-in-tha-day).
-Laws: Honking illegal in Manhattan? It's the city symphony.
-Inhabitants: 125th Street is so...white? Not bad, just different.
-Weather: It was hot, balmy even. It always seemed freezing to me in New York before. Maybe I'm just fatter. Yeah, most definitely fatter.

I tripped around the city looking for something familiar or beloved in the changing landscape; and I was a little overwhelmed by it, the passage of time. The apartment where Edgar Allen Poe lived is now a NYU dorm room. The bookstore where William Faulkner made his fateful meeting with Elizabeth Anderson is now a department store. A bariatrics clinic looms awkwardly in proximity to Edith Wharton's house in leafy Gramercy Park.

Everything is a version of something else.

Why do we return to places, sometimes even people, expecting the same thing twice? We want things, loves, experiences to be held in suspension, bottled at their peak. I suppose this is what getting older means. It means that neighborhoods will look different, even only a few years later. It means that people and love, not only can, but WILL change.

It means that you can never really go back to the same place twice.

But if you are very lucky, this new thing--this hybrid child of past and present--will be more than just a doppelganger following you in the dark recesses of memory. This new thing will be even more lovely than the park bench you remembered, speckled in light.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

I won? Wait, I won! On the 2010 New York Book Festival

Last Wednesday was no ordinary day for me. I woke up and packed my trunk to the brim with popcorn and pottery and rubber ducks (a one-woman flea market), and made my way to work where I was on a committee planning a "county fair" honoring the good folks of the Emory University library.

If the rubber ducks and riku glazed coffee cups weren't bizarre enough, the news I received that afternoon certainly was:

I won the poetry prize for the 2010 New York Book Festival for my first chapbook, Little Earthquakes.

Maybe 'bizarre' is the wrong word, it was more like complete-and-utter-shock-my-throat-is-doing-the-lumpy-cry-of-a-beauty-queen-getting-her-tiara-after-6-months-of-nacho-deprivation. I had to read my name on the website two or three times to be sure that I wasn't hallucinating or developing cataracts from the inevitable diabetic coma washing over me from the cotton candy I'd downed earlier.

A note on the chapbook: it was completed in 2.5 months of solitary confinement with caffeine pressure-wash at my favorite table in the Pitts Theology library. It was completed with tears and prayer and irreverence and gratitude. It was completed with a I've-got-nothing-to-lose kind of laissez-faire. It was completed without expectation.

Life is like that, isn't it? When we truly drop all expectation, the most exciting things happen. I've prayed for months (years really) for God to open a door or slam it in my face when it comes to writing. I am not delusional. I know this prize is not a guarantee of anything; I am still unknown and unpublished and unrefined. I am still a nobody. But that's okay with me. Even more important to me than winning, is this: God's undeserved love, a prayer unambiguously answered, holding true gratitude in my hands. I don't care how cheeseball or backward that makes me sound. I don't care how my career flies or flops if I can carry that gratitude, this moment in my heart forever.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Precision of Language, Please

In the book, The Giver, a utopian society is architectured around community, efficiency, and politeness. Children are chastised for saying "I'm starving!" when what they meant to say is, "I'm hungry." Because of this push for precision, absolutes and extremes of feeling have fallen away from their vernacular almost entirely; so much so that the main character, Jonas, is admonished by his parents for asking "Do you love me?" They look at him, shocked by his foolishness, and bark, "Precision of language, please!" In their world, love is a word without meaning; they are as incapable of feeling love as they are in using the word itself. It is outdated, foreign in their mouths and in their hearts.

Is fiction so different than reality?

The word love has lost its meaning. Not from limitation or underusage--quite the opposite. 'Love' is in our mouths so much that it might as well be the same word for 'dinner' or 'sleep' or 'sock.' We use the same word to describe our feelings for pizza as we do our spouse. I love you. What does that phrase even mean anymore? It means I have an above average response to you. It means I enjoy the way you make me feel. It means I adore the way they have seasoned the crust on this Sicilian style pie.

I say we place a moratorium on the word 'love' for awhile.

The ancient Greeks had a complex, more comprehensive way of expressing love in their language. They understood 4 types of love: storge (affection), eros (erotic; being 'in love'), philia (friendship), and agape (unconditional, God-like love). Certainly these words lack the fluid quality of our English counterpart; 'storge' doesn't roll off the tongue like 'love' does. But if we adopted them into our vernacular, they could possibly enable us to evaluate our feelings with a little more consideration rather than sweeping them under that giant and complicated welcome mat we call love.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Power of Unexpected Praise, or, Memoirs of a Nobody

Last Friday sucked. I was pretty sure that my coworkers hated me, or at least, pretty sure that they only tolerated me after two unremarkable comments sent my self-esteem into a tailspin. I was pretty sure that I had only just realized after 26 years that I was both red-headed and a step-child; that I was, perhaps, the stupidest ex-English-teacher-turned-assistant on the planet.

I have a hard time making new friends, but it's not out of my lack of desire for them. I desperately want to connect with people, but often feel deflated because my lack of comfort in social situations makes me look like I'm on the receiving end of an enema. I got in my car feeling like a rejected middle-schooler ready for a mini pity party when my friend Emily called me. Or, at least, I thought it was Emily.

My caller ID lied to me, it was actually Emily's mother--a charming lady that I'd never met. But I knew her well because of Emily, and the upturned corner of her smiling mouth whenever she uttered the phrase "my mother." I knew what kind of woman she was by the respect and the stunning more-strawberry-than-blond hair mirrored by my dear friend.

Earlier that day I emailed Emily a copy of my poems for her to share with her mother, as she requested. I did not expect that twelve hours later, I would be sitting in a Target parking lot weeping as a women I'd never met told me how wonderful my writing was for her. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for her, for Emily's mother (who I still haven't met in person).

I often feel helmed in by series of losing titles, losing statistics: I am a credit score, a weight, a bank statement, one unknown writer in a sea of drowning writers. Emily's mother asked me if I'd ever considered writing "my story" and I almost laughed, "I'm a nobody, no one wants to read about that." "We're all nobodys," she said.

Her unexpected praise and her wisdom have stayed with me all week. We're all nobodys. Somehow it's a comforting thought to me. It makes the pen and the workplace seem less intimidating. I will begin to pen the memoir of a nobody, and perhaps nobody will read it; and that's okay with me.