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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Movement Versus Action

Ernest Hemingway once told Marlene Dietrich, "Never confuse movement with action." (You can read the entire anecdote here. This quote has been taken out of its context before, so I feel somewhat justified in taking it out of context once more.)

I live in Japan where movement is everything and action is nothing. This is at great odds with the society in which I grew up, the US, in which action is everything and movement nothing, a society that worships efficiency, adores speed, reveres personal accomplishment, while despising wasted movement resulting in no tangible change.

Here in Japan, everything is about making the appropriate motion, but not about accomplishing anything with that motion. Efficiency is meaningless here, where workers strive to NOT finish tasks because they cannot leave the office till the boss goes home and they need something to do to fill in that time. Making sure you are in the right slot for your social position, not motionless but certainly actionless, in the right relation to things and people around you, is the key. And everything here can take FOREVER for a girl from a results-oriented society.

Even my mother-in-law stretches out every mundane task in an effort to show how devoted she is to her calling as housewife. For example, she constantly corrects how I hang the laundry. According to her, I need to (one by one) fold each wet item in half, and then in half again, and then clap the item three or more times between my hands, and then unfold the second fold, and then the first. Then I am ready to hang the item on the line. This seems meaningless to me, in my rush to get the chore done. I see no difference in the wrinkles in her clapped-upon clothing and my clapless pieces. But she has stretched the chore out to easily three times longer than it takes me, and is pleased with herself for her movements (and also justified in not having to do anything in the world outside of her home since all her rituals are so time-consuming). (I don't follow her exhortations, by the way, even when she is watching me and tut-tutting my slovenly ways.)

So I am thinking about my writing. Is it about movement or about action? And should it be about movement or about action?

I don't mean in my poems--clearly there is time in certain poems for movement and time for stillness in others, time for action and inaction sometimes, even in the same poem. I mean in my practice of writing--should it be about movement or action? I'm not sure this is even a meaningful question.

I suppose those for whom writing is a ritual--the everyday writers--it's about movement, while for the write-when-inspired writers, it's more about action. Which puts me squarely in the (philosophical) movement camp (but not in the actual movement camp, not as of late anyway). Hmmmm....perhaps my mother-in-law is on to something....perhaps I'm turning Japanese.

Is not the ritual what I love of the writing?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

What's Neat on the Net: Academic Version

What's Neat on the Net.

1) This week I listened to a podcast interview of Joe Milutis (hosted by Stephen McLaughlin) at In the Field: Jacket 2. I can't pretend to have followed all the philosophical references, but I still truly enjoyed the discussion of Oulipo, Milutis's new book Failure, A Writer's Life, and many other topics. Milutis also suggested that one's practice of writing should make one happier and more connected to one's world, and that gave me something to think about. There's a very amusing musical performance by Milutis as well, to kick off the show. I recommend this interview as thought-provoking, enough so that I'll soon be getting both the book mentioned above and the author's Ether: The Nothing That Connects Everything, an earlier book.

2) Last year I posted a link to the Small World of Words project, an online word association project conducted by linguists and psychologists that anyone could participate in by playing an online vocabulary game and thereby generating research data.

I recently got an email from Joshua Hartshorne, post-doc fellow at MIT, who has his own collaborative project with linguists, psychologists, and computer scientists, on the meaning of verbs. They are crowd-sourcing their data as well, so if you would like to play some of their games and add to their data set, you can at GamesWithWords: VerbCorner.  And here is an announcement of the project, in case you want to know more. But be forewarned: I went over there to have a look and spent over an hour (which I don't have as the semester ends in a week) playing verb games.

Hartshorne also has a second language acquisition project at GamesWithWords: TheVocabQuiz. This is a vocabulary game, and I lost some time messing around with it too. But it's all for a good cause: research. (Now, if I could only convince my bosses and professors of that!)


Friday, May 24, 2013

The Periodic Table in Song

My new manuscript, which I began sending around last November, is called Mendeleev's Mandala. Mendeleev is the guy who discovered (or created, depending on your POV) the periodic table of elements.

So I have a thing for the periodic table (of course I do, what a list: every known thing!). Anyway, I just discovered this video from AsapScience (via Maria Popova's Explore website).

(And here's the title poem from my manuscript (scroll down) at Thrush Poetry Journal.)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

International Funeral Customs

I was very close to my grandfather, and when he died, my mother phoned me up to ask me to be a pallbearer. When I got off the phone, I told my husband about my mother's request, but he wasn't sure what I was talking about, being Japanese and having grown up in a society in which cremation was the norm. So I explained to him that I would be helping carry my grandfather's casket, and that this was a way that I could honor him and his life. I launched into a discussion on what it meant to be a pallbearer and what the duties were and so on and so forth.

"Will you be wearing a special costume?" asked my husband.

While I thought his choice of words was odd, I was used to his non-native-English-speaker slip-ups and assumed he meant a special outfit. I told him that I would wear what I normally wear to funerals, a conservative outfit.

"Well, you'll at least be wearing white, right?" he persisted. No, I said, I would be wearing something dark, although not necessarily black since people aren't so strict about black in the West these days. I then launched into a mini-lecture on how this differed from Japan, where a certain dye lot of black is the only acceptable color for funerals--not just any old black, but a very specific light-annihilating black with its own special name that you must ask for when buying a funeral suit. So I explained that in the West we no longer wore only black, but usually favored somber colors, though not always, and that I'd even seen my second cousin wear a summery floral print to her grandmother's funeral. On and on I went.

When I finished, my husband again asked, "You're not going to wear white?" He was fixated on this point.

I assured him that no, I was not wearing white.

He was still clearly perplexed, and I thought to myself, Well, our customs are really different; I guess it's going to take him awhile to get used to the idea of a Western funeral.

My husband thought things over for another minute, and then said , "Okay, I give up. Why is it called being a polar bear?"

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Happy [M]other's Day

Last year I posted some of my favorite poems about mothers,

but this year I'd like to post a poem about a mother/son relationship. I've got two sons, and my 12-year-old (older) son has suddenly become a teenager. I told him in the past few weeks to stand up straight, and when he did, it turns out he is now taller than me. He's started junior high (in April, due to Japanese school year calendars) and really come into his own. So I want to share this poem by Sharon Olds, which was featured here on Ted Kooser's American Life in Poetry blog.

My Son the Man    by Sharon Olds

Suddenly his shoulders get a lot wider,
the way Houdini would expand his body
while people were putting him in chains. It seems
no time since I would help him to put on his sleeper,
guide his calves into the gold interior,
zip him up and toss him up and
catch his weight. I cannot imagine him
no longer a child, and I know I must get ready,
get over my fear of men now my son
is going to be one. This was not
what I had in mind when he pressed up through me like a
sealed trunk through the ice of the Hudson,
snapped the padlock, unsnaked the chains,
and appeared in my arms. Now he looks at me
the way Houdini studied a box
to learn the way out, then smiled and let himself be manacled.
The otherness of mothering sons has been on mind for a few years, as has another otherness that situates itself between me and my sons, as it does between the sons of the poets Erika Meitner and Joy Katz and their mothers, as discussed this week on the Poetry Foundation's podcast Poetry Off the Shelf, and that is when the racial composition of mother and son (or child) are different.

While my sons and I talk easily about the difference between me as a woman and them as burgeoning men, talking about our races is more complicated. I ask them all the time if my whiteness is an issue for them, and they insist it is not, but I cannot ever know if this is the truth or if this is what they tell me because they love me. I tell them that it would be perfectly normal for them to be uncomfortable with my race at certain transitional times in their lives, but they insist that they are not. And I don't entirely believe them.

At the elementary school, their white mother was a constant fixture from the start, and while we had to do a little bit of educating of classmates, it all became old hat for everyone quite quickly. And our elementary school has children with family members from 72 different countries, so we are by no means unique (which is why we moved into this school district).

However, at the junior high, which my son has only been attending for six weeks, we have yet to see another Caucasian parent (what I mean to say is that there are reportedly other Asian parents who blend in with the crowd, but as far as parents who stand out as racially different, so far there's me....). At the entrance ceremony, you can bet every eye was on me as parents reunited with their kids afterwards; everybody was dying to know which boy had the white mother. I asked my son if it bothered him and he said no. But when I ask if, despite having to take beginner's English with his entire class, he has mentioned the fact that he's already fluent in English, he says no. When a brand new friend of his (from another grade, as yet unaware of the Caucasian mother) told him that he had published a book, my son did not mention that he has a mother who has published two books in English. He doesn't mention his family in America. Is this about race? Is this about 12-year-old boys not talking about their mothers and family members to peers in general? I can't know. I don't know if I will ever know.

On the other hand, last year I colored my red hair back to its natural brown, thinking to make life easier on me (timewise) and on them (culturally), but my sons vetoed the move and wanted it back red. Because my overall coloring and its ostentatious difference from the norm doesn't matter to them? Or because they've only known me with red hair and blue eyes and are comfortable with it? Or because they don't really care and were trying to tell me what they thought I wanted to hear?

When my twelve-year-old son was in the first grade, his teacher asked me to identify which of the 35 fish pictures hanging on the wall was my son's. I scanned them as quickly as I could, but as they were all modelled on the same storybook fish, I was having a hard time finding any that stood out as my son's. "It's that one," the teacher beamed at me,"the only one with blue eyes. Your son said he made the eyes blue because his mother has blue eyes." And both she and I wept as we contemplated the wall of black-eyed fish and solitary blue-eyed one.

I am definitely these days feeling the otherness of motherhood. Of mothering sons. Of mothering (almost) teenagers. Of mother biracial bicultural children in an environment which favors the race and culture I am not part of.

Here's a poem from my book The Insomniac's Weather Report. This poem is about the otherness of mothering sons; I wrote it some years ago when it was the biggest other in my mind. But these days my [m]otherness seems even more vast.

What You Dampen If You Use Water as a Boomerang

Between mother and son
the body as fact comes
sooner than between
mother and daughter.

I had not counted on this:
the polygon of bearing
sons, I did not know you
would hold it against me,

the body, for its lack
of edges, its fluidity.
I did not know you
could not move beyond a thing

without calling it [m]other. The sea
is not a boomerang, returning
unchanged--who boldly inked this
edge of continent on map? As if

blue roofs of ocean
shift and slap in maneuvers--
familiar and chaotic--the body
and its households recognize.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Happy Fibonacci Day

As tweeted by Neil deGrasse Tyson:

[May 8, 2013] Happy Fibonacci day: 0 - 1 - 1 - 2 - 3 - [ 5 - 8 - 13 ] - 21 - 34 - 55 - 89 - 144 … Next one is Aug 13, 2021

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Your Haiku in Space!

NASA is looking for haiku to include on a disk to be carried into space by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft. While only three poems will go to Mars, all entrants will be listed on the disk. Winning poems will be determined by popular vote. July 1st is the deadline. GO!

(Thanks to Sky News HD for the story.)

Here's the submissions info, and an article from NPR on the topic (the title says "NASA Seeks Poets". How often is that going to happen? GO GO GO!)

The Journal's So Nice....

The journal's so nice it rejected me twice. In a row (by which I mean two weeks in a row). For the same submission.

This happens occasionally, but it's always a little unsettling. Thanks, but I felt rejected enough the first time....

Monday, May 6, 2013

Flash Fiction Contest for Women

Calyx Press is running a flash fiction contest for women, deadline May 31, and there's no fee. As they themselves say, "What have you got to lose?"

Here are the details (partial details copied from their website; visit them for full details):

CALYX Press is accepting short-short fiction (or poetry!) submissions for the 2013 Online Competition. This year’s theme is "A new creation story." We accept fiction, poetry, or reeeeeaaalllly short, one-act plays in 250 words or less.
  • Our mission is to nurture women’s creativity by publishing fine art and literature by women, both online and in print, so we are looking for women-identified writers only. And please, submitters must be 18+.
  • There is no entry fee, so really, what do you have to lose?
  • The submissions must be new and unpublished.
  • Multiple entries are accepted.
  • Submissions will be accepted until May 31, 2013 at midnight.
  • The top 5 contestants will be published on our blog.
(Thanks to Ann T-S, who made me aware of this opportunity.)

Friday, May 3, 2013

Overlooking the Obvious: Jettisoning the Genesis

I've been working on a poem for a couple of weeks. It began with a podcast quote I've been thinking about. So I wrote that as the first line, italicized it and noted that it was a direct quote in my poem notes.

Then I wrote eight lines in an oddly syntaxed form that I thought reflected the essence of the quote, with a twist. I was very pleased with the juxtaposition. This all happened in about two sittings (which is super fast for me with regards to drafting a poem--I almost never draft an entire poem in a single sitting).

Then I needed to write the ending. First, I thought I'd return to the conversational style and syntax of the first quoted line, and repeat some of the key words in a different order with an inflected meaning. I spent about a week working fruitlessly on that. Next I decided that instead of repeating the words from the first line for the ending I would use different imagery to say the things, wildly imaginative imagery. For nearly a week I wrote such alternate endings, and while I got some interesting lines, none of them fit. Then I decided to state outright what I thought the poem was about instead of letting the reader intuit it (or not). This is always a bad idea, and this time was no exception.

So I gave up. Maybe this is one of those poems that never gets finished, I thought to myself.

Then, in a liminal sleep, I realized that I could write the ending in the same broken sytnax as the main body of the poem. It came to me immediately how to do that. It was suddenly obvious to me that it was the thing to do.

Then what about the opening line? Wouldn't it seem like something stuck onto the poem now, without a bookending similar line? It would. But I could make it an epigraph to the poem instead of the first line, or I could just cite it as inspiration in my notes. The whole poem had evolved so far from the quote that I could have just dropped it entirely, but I have this weird need to examine by influences and impulses when they are identifiable. So I went with citing the inspiration in the notes.

So obvious! But I had gotten too wedded to what I'd already done to see the obvious. This reminds me of a time an editor returned a poem to me with the comment that it seemed to him that it began around the fourth line. Which it did--the beginning lines were the genesis of the poem that didn't need to remain once it had gotten going. I chopped those, and then added four more lines later to the poem (since it was in form and I wanted to preserve the form) and in adding the four later lines I added an interesting dimension to the poem. I sent it back to the same editor and he published it.

Reminder to self: Don't overlook the obvious. And don't forget to jettison the genesis of the poem if/once it has been outgrown.

(And this isn't a new idea to me either. Long ago I read Frank O'Hara's "Why I Am Not a Painter" (linked here at and knew this, and yet have to learn it anew every time.)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Submit: Ancient Asia

The journal Cha: An Aisan Literary Journal has a call out for submissions concerning ancient Asia.

For details, click on their website link, or read the following, copied from their website blog:

"now accepting submissions for “The Ancient Asia Issue,” an edition of the journal devoted exclusively to work from and about Asia before the mid-nineteenth century.

From the beginning of the twentieth century, ancient Asia has contributed to the rebirth and re-imaginations of modern literatures, not only in English (from Ezra Pound to Gary Snyder) but in other western languages as well (Victor Segalen, Octavio Paz, Bertolt Brecht…). “The Ancient Asia Issue” of Cha seeks to revivify this tradition, featuring translations and original works of poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and visual art from and about Ancient Asia, to be published in September 2013. If you have something interesting, opinionated, or fresh to say about the Asian past, we would like to hear from you. Please note that we can only accept submissions in English.
If you would like to have work considered for "The Ancient Asia Issue", please submit by email to by 20th June, 2013. Please include "The Ancient Asia Issue" in the subject line of the email. Submissions to the issue should conform to our guidelines."