"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, 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.