Appreciating Mentors and Teachers – Bobby Rowell

The bewilderment of high school incites a range of afflictions, and I was negotiating more of them than I could manage when I was assigned to the English class taught by Bobby Rowell in Fontana, California in the early 1970s. Highschoolhallway

(Hallway photo from Facebook Group, FOHI Graduates)

At that time, the Klan was still active in Fontana, and even in 1980, an African American colleague of mine at the University of California, Riverside refused to come to my wedding for fear of intimidation by people of like sympathies. The Hell’s Angels were around the town in those days, and for that reason I was not allowed to go to the A & W restaurant/hamburger stand on Sierra Avenue where they tended to loiter. People said it was a tough town. VansCocktails

(Photo of Van’s Cocktail Lounge from Facebook Group, Fontana History and Culture)

It was a town full of immigrants: Slovenians, Italians, the Irish. On my mother’s side, a community of Finns. On my father’s, Germans. It was a town full of hardworking people. The steel workers liked a cold beer after work in the parking lot of the liquor store. The WWII veterans liked a shot or two of whiskey at the American Legion. My father and a few of my uncles were well-known in the local bars, and my friends and I would laugh about the bars and churches scattered around town. Steeler

Now I see that many small towns had the same blend of the sacred and the scurrilous, but somehow, we felt singular. Fontana’s reputation, though, extended beyond its borders. In Janet Fitch’s 2006 novel, Paint it Black (now made into a film), the main character drives from Los Angeles to Twenty-nine Palms, and Fontana is mentioned:

“Easy enough to die in Fontana, you could lie down on the tracks and be divided neatly, top and bottom. Or you could just pick a fight in a beer bar, expending the smallest insult, and let someone else do the job, bashing your skull against the concrete curb of the parking lot” (348).KSteelBlastFurnace(Photo of Kaiser Steel Blast Furnace from Facebook Group, Fontana History and Culture)

The hundreds of stories I heard growing up about someone getting into a fight in a bar resonate like the sounds of a guitar in my imagination. The echoes followed us through the hallways going from class to class. Finding our way, learning to conceive of new pathways for ourselves required help, and teachers were key figures as we navigated the changing culture and the possibilities. I had a history of excellent teachers, starting with Mrs. Shipp in the first grade, who made sure I had as many books to read as I wanted, moving on in middle school (then called junior high school) to the counter-culture interesting woman who didn’t shave her legs, Miss Cutler, and the entertaining sentence-diagramming Mrs. Hughes. The happy trend continued with Mr. Dison, a Texan with a wry wit, and then Mr. Rowell from Arkansas, also a man of great warmth and humor who couldn’t help but become friends with Mr. Dison. They were wonderful conversing with their elegant southern accents. I couldn’t have been more fortunate. BobbyJanyth(Photo of Janyth Dison and Bobby Rowell from FOHI Reunion 2012 )

Mr. Rowell had been recruited with the use of dazzling verbal advertisements about Fontana, California. It was near the ocean, they said, it was beautiful, it had stunning views, they said. I suppose they were almost right, despite everything to the contrary. For those of us who grew up there, and from a certain eye beholding, the beauty is in our memories and in the memories of our parents and others who helped to settle the town in the halcyon days when it was characterized by walnut groves, citrus orchards, chicken ranches, and hog farms. Mountains2

(Photo of mountains taken from Facebook Group, Fontana History and Culture)

The San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges create a sublime view to the north of town, both in their occasional snow on the heights and their autumn purple and blue shadows spilling down the slopes onto the growing little town, which started in 1913 (incorporated in 1952). Kaiser Steel, Inc., the largest steel mill on the West Coast during WWII, altered the agricultural nature of the town, even as it provided jobs for locals and the steady flux of immigrants from all over the nation. Mike Davis, who was born there and went on to become a well-known writer and scholar, calls Fontana the “Junkyard of Dreams,” in a chapter from his book City of Quartz.

ChickensThere in the junkyard of dreams at what was then the only high school in town, Mr. Rowell introduced us to some of the great literature of the world. We read Crime and Punishment, The Stranger, The Metamorphosis, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird and other classics. We talked about the characters, their dilemmas, their anguish. We experimented with creative writing, coming up with poems and stories. I was heartened by his inimitable low-key style, his calm demeanor. He seemed ever ready to be amused by something, and his class was never one to dread or avoid. It was in his class that I became aware of writing as a life direction. In the sometimes callous and brutal experiences of high school, Bobby’s class provided a place to think, a place to develop a larger perspective. (Photo of chickens taken from Facebook Group, Fontana History and Culture)

I call him “Bobby” now. A few of us who were in his classes in high school still gather for poetry readings, barbecues, musical events. 2011 lunch with RowellsAfter a career in the Fontana Unified School District, first as a teacher and then as a counselor, he retired and, for a time, spent half the year in California, the other half at his home in Arkansas. My husband (also a past student of Bobby’s) and I visited him there in 2008 where we had a memorable day riding on his boat. At the edge of the lake, we watched some eagles in their nest, and in the early evening we had dinner on the porch overlooking the lake. Bobby also helped me to catch my first fish, a catfish. ArkansasFish

Teachers like Bobby Rowell were vital to those of us who needed our gifts to be noticed, called out, and invigorated. We moved through the maze of social conflicts and painful realizations, not at all aware of how much we needed insightful teachers, people to steer us in an optimistic direction (I forgot to mention that Bobby was also my Driver’s Education teacher). To find a good mentor, a good teacher, is to find a prize.

 

Despite his difficulties from Parkinson’s disease, Bobby and Kenlyn attended a recent poetry reading, which included me as one of the featured poets. BobbyKenlynMeI was honored by his presence, someone who has known me since I was sixteen years old, and who first introduced me to some of the great poetry of the world.

Here’s to you, Bobby Rowell, a teacher with an eagle eye for irony and for meaning. Thank you.BobbyonBoat

Fitch, Janet. Paint it Black. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2006.

Appreciating Those Who Write – Pat Conroy

Since he only recently passed away Pat Conroy is now on the minds of a lot of people who enjoyed his books. Pancreatic cancer took his life. He died at his home in Beaufort, South Carolina on March 4, 2016, surrounded by family members. I was gratified to learn that he had reunited with his daughter, Susannah, after a long estrangement (Pat Conroy’s Last Days).

ConroyPat

An enthusiastic reader, I have often been asked who my favorite writers are, a question I cannot answer easily for so many reasons. While attending college, I tended to like all the literature for each of the eras I studied with few exceptions, making it challenging to select one concentration for the doctoral program. Finally settling on Early American literature, I still think it sounds strange to tell others that some of my preferred authors are Puritan ministers, or seventeenth-century diarists. I also find it difficult to choose favorite authors because I have no real systematic reading method and no real hierarchy for the authors I like. I keep thinking that I will develop one. (Conroy photograph taken from http://www.chicagonow.com)

Pat Conroy, though, has provided many of my transcendent reading experiences so he is often the first writer whose name occurs to me when asked for a list of favorites. His status as a celebrated author is supremely well-deserved if we rate according to skill, passion, and soul. Now that he has died, I have to abandon the hope that I will attend one of his book-signings. I have heard from others who were privileged to meet him that he was warm, gracious, and humble, plus a few reports that he could be difficult at times. I am not surprised by the mix of qualities. If anyone has pondered and thoughtfully explored the human condition, it is Conroy.

MyReadingLife

My Reading Life is a gem of a book. In it he writes that “the novels I’ve loved will live inside me forever.” He trusts “the great novelists to teach me how to live, how to feel, how to love and hate.” More poignant, now that he is gone, he trusted them:

 “. . .to show me the dangers I will encounter on the road as I stagger on my own troubled passage through a complicated life of books that try to teach me how to die.”

He credits Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone With the Wind, for him becoming a novelist, noting that his mother read the novel to the children often, saw herself in it as the figure of Scarlett O’Hara, and raised him up to be a “Southern” novelist with an emphasis on the word “Southern.” He writes, “I owe a personal debt to this novel that I find almost beyond reckoning” (23).

Sometimes criticized for writing “purple” prose, Conroy’s descriptions are nonetheless beautiful, lyrical, and appealing. If you enjoy the literature of place, Conroy is your man. Here is a description from South of Broad, the first page.

“I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged shell of some soft-tissued mollusk. My soul is peninsula-shaped and sun-hardened and river-swollen. The high tides of the city flood my consciousness each day, subject to the whims and harmonies of full moons rising out of the Atlantic. I grow calm when I see the ranks of palmetto trees pulling guard duty on the banks of Colonial Lake or hear the bells of St. Michael’s calling cadence in the cicada-filled trees along Meeting Street. Deep in my bones, I knew early that I was one of those incorrigible creatures known as Charlestonians.”SCarolina       (Photo of Charleston, S.C. from http://www.awesomeplacesonearth.com)

As he says in My Reading Life, he liked being “immersed in a made-up life lived at the highest pitch,” and that was my experience reading South of Broad and Beach Music, as well as his most famous book, The Prince of Tides.

Always interested in the habits of writers, I found his schedule in Paris to be appealing: morning writing, walk, lunch, nap, more writing (I would skip the nap, since they ruin me). He was there for four months and wrote six hundred handwritten pages (210). In general, he had an “ironclad” schedule of writing no matter where he lived, since writing books “does not permit much familiarity with chaos” (108). How I would love to escape my own tendency toward chaos and become more ironclad.

If I could get there, I would attend the exhibit at the University of South Carolina, a Pat Conroy Retrospective, which continues through the month of March. ConroyRetrospectiveTo say that he is an author that I “like” is understating my response to his books, but I wanted to avoid being sappy or overly-sentimental. I should point out that I had strong responses to his books, I LOVED his books, I was exhilarated by passages in his books, and I learned a lot about writing from his books. Rest in peace, Pat Conroy, and thank you for enhancing my appreciation for the reading experience, the writing experience, and for being a human being on earth at this time.

 

Find his blog and a list of his books on the website: Books by Pat Conroy.

 

The Bloodline Writers

In my large extended family, there are several writers. Some of them write without the hope of publishing, or even without the hope of showing their work to anyone, but all of them love the written word. I suspect that many of my family members have never even mentioned to anyone their love or practice of writing (after all, we are Finns, a stoic people, known for their resistance to demonstrative affection and strong displays of emotion). Drawn to writing since childhood, I wonder if there is a genetic connection. Perhaps writers understand one another in specific ways, just as painters do, or electrical engineers, or archaeologists. When I hear writers talk about their craft, I understand it intuitively. When I hear my relatives talk about writing, I understand it on an even deeper level. We are not as illustrious as the Brontes or the Dumases, but the artery of writing runs through us nonetheless.

As a child, I heard a lot about the passion for writing felt by Uncle Ub, who had an untimely death due to a stroke at the age of twenty-nine. UbEvidently we had met, though I was only nine months old. I have visited his grave many times, and tonight my mom gave me a browned page of one of his school assignments. It opens this way:

“Geraldine busied herself in front of the full-length mirror that covered most the entire wall of the spacious, luxurious, but somewhat frightening room. She was engrossed in pinning back a stubborn curl of her raven black hair with an artificial but arresting white carnation. Her lips as red as new drawn blood were puckered in an expression of exasperation as the curl defied her assaults.”

From all accounts, he was interested in traveling, writing, and women. Wounded during the Korean War where he had been in a MASH unit, he received a purple heart. Had he lived, I’m sure we would have been friends and that we would have had many wonderful conversations about writing. In some families, writers may seem odd and unproductive (see for example, the article in the New York Times by Roger Rosenblatt, referenced below) but in our family, the desire to write was applauded and generally appreciated.

Greg

 

For the past few months, I have been meeting with my cousin, Greg, a retired sheriff, now a developing author and poet. He read a poem in public for the first time during the open mic portion of a poetry reading on February 21. We began meeting regularly to discuss our reading of Hemingway’s works, which led to more writing of our own. Greg now has more than thirteen new poems and stories.

Before my time with Greg, I had been meeting regularly with my cousin, Lori Beth, who has long had a desire to write fiction. We did free-writing exercises sometimes, which evolved into longer, more polished works, and we had some laughs over coffee as we read our work to each other. Lori has since gone into teaching, though I’m sure her writing efforts will continue. An accomplished student of anthropology, Lori brings a deep understanding of diverse cultures to her fiction. LoriBeth

My cousin, Jim, is a comedy writer and performer. I have seen his performances at the Flapper’s Comedy Club both in Claremont and Burbank a few times. When I saw the photo of his desk on Facebook, I couldn’t help but think how fun it would be to sit down and write jokes every day. His father, my Uncle Jim, was a supreme wit, as is his brother, my cousin Richard. I feel grateful that Jim is taking his talent to both the page and the stage.

SpudSpudstypewriter

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Aunt Emily, a spinster who passed away in 2013 at the age of eighty-five, was someone who wrote often, though she never mentioned it to anyone, as far as I know. I have been slowly going through some of her journals and recognizing her talent and love of writing.AuntEm

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Her sister, my Aunt Mavis, wrote a book about her faith. It was published by a vanity press, and I have a few copies in my study.

I know that my predisposition to writing comes from my mother who seems to embody all the strains of writing I have mentioned in relationship to other relatives. She has written memoirs, poetry, non-fiction, comedy, and novels. Thanks to her, I have an unrelenting appreciation for writing, family history, and humor. We might be Finns, but we do love to laugh.MomAceyI was an only child until I was almost twenty years old. Finally, I got a sibling when my mom and stepdad had my brother, Joel. Now an R & D Imagineer for Disney, he has always been creative. I will never forget the night we came home late one night after I picked him up from one of his college functions. JoelvineyardWe drove down the main street of what had been the small town in which we grew up. The streets were slick with rain, and it was after midnight. He began to recite poetry in the grand tradition of the Beats (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti). He did it spontaneously and quickly. Mesmerized, I experienced the poem as it was being uttered. It was beautiful. Another Finn with the soul of a poet.

What is the role of the writer in your family? Are you the only writer? One of many?

Rosenblatt, Roger, “The Writer in the Family,” New York Times, May 11, 2012.

 

Bright, Lucid, and Clear

When I was at the Los Angeles Public Library earlier this year, I photographed the step fountains on the way up to the entrance coming in from Flower Street, and was drawn in by their names:  Bright, Lucid, and Clear. Designed by Bertram Goodhue, the building’s architect, they are meant to support the library’s theme, “The Light of Learning.” http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/history-printed-word-step-step. For me, they represent states of being that I find sublime and elusive, that I am perpetually seeking and only occasionally finding.Bright

For a couple of weeks, I have felt the opposite: dim, vague, and clouded. I was sick, my husband was sick, and we were sorting stacks of receipts for taxes. Some projects and deadlines were only haphazardly accomplished and met. I thought about what Elizabeth Berg says about deadlines and writing in her book, Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True:  “I believe it’s critically important to try for a certain church and state-like separation” (131). Nonetheless, I was glad to meet at least one deadline. We had a series of events scheduled, but only made it to about half of them, the house got cluttered, and the mail piled up. I had the ongoing feeling I was spinning my wheels in the mud.

On the upside, friends from Virginia have been visiting, and I spent time with them along with other close friends, which was entirely enlivening, and I felt bright and present. The poetry reading on February 21 (last week’s post) was a high point. Somehow, preparing the poems and reading them was galvanizing and uplifting. On that day, I was lucid for at least an hour. LucidCold remedies and medications have prevented me from feeling clear, but I did have a few moments of recognizing what I need to do for the continuing path I am following. Perhaps the clearest moment was one of appreciating the beauty of a beach sunset.ClearBeachsunset

Copies of the most recent issue of Westview arrived, a literary journal published by Southwestern Oklahoma State University, featuring three of my poems. They included visuals with all of them, which was a pleasant surprise to me. One of the poems was an elegy for my father who passed away in 2009. I am gratified that it found a home. I also managed to get some new poems written and hope to send them out this week. Continue, stay on the path, seek illumination, I tell myself.

Westview1

What conditions assist you with your tasks and projects? Or what beliefs and approaches? Here’s wishing all of you the experience of feeling bright, lucid, and clear!

Berg, Elizabeth. Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True.  New York: HarperCollins, 1999.

Poetry in the Moment

Yesterday’s poetry reading, The Reading #4, hosted by Michael Thomas Cooper and held at the Muffin Top Bakery in Redlands, California, was well-attended. In fact, there were not enough chairs for the guests, so several people stood up for the entire reading, as customers wandered in and out and the employees tried to keep up with the orders. I was invited to be one of the featured poets, and it was a privilege to participate with Maritza Ocampo and Maurisa Thompson, plus an interesting line up of open mic readers, many reading for the first time in public. w:MichaelCindy

Cindy Rinne, well-known Inland Empire poet and visual artist, also signed and sold me a copy of her chapbook, spider with wings, and I anticipate a nice evening reading it. SpiderWings

I love doing poetry readings, hearing others read their work, and being part of a community that also enjoys the same things. Nonetheless, the experience of hearing a poem is much different from reading it. The visual aspects of the poem are lost, the line breaks, the stanza lengths, and any punctuation that might create visual pauses or stops. When we encounter “poetry in the moment,” or poetry being read by someone out loud, we instead pick up on the imagery, the sounds of the words, and the intonation and pacing of the reader. I read a new poem, one that is intended to be fast-paced until the poem’s resolution in the last few lines, and though I knew how it should sound, how I wanted it to sound, I didn’t end up reading it that way. Instead, due to feeling out of breath a few times, I did not convey the pacing I had in mind. CarlaPR2

Poetry-in-the-moment is a unique experience of poetry. We are sitting with others who may or may not be poets, who may not like poetry, or have any experience with listening to poetry, or with those who are well-acquainted with hearing live readings. The mood of the general audience tends to affect the reception of the poem. Enthusiasm begets more enthusiasm, and likewise, boredom. Thankfully, yesterday’s group, a blend of seasoned poets and novices, first-time readers and onlookers, seemed eager to grasp what each reader shared, and appreciative of each reader, no matter how wide the range of topics. (Photo by Larry Eby)

I would love to hear what you think of poetry readings, both attending them and giving them.

A Time to Gather Stones Together

I am gathering the notes, files, and pages of projects I have started, forsaken, and misplaced. After teaching for more than twenty-five years, many of my boxes and file cabinets contain syllabi, assignment handouts, and old student essays. Now that my focus has moved from teaching to writing, I am unearthing the beginnings of creative works that are scattered throughout the study: files of poems, portions of stories, scenes for multiple screenplays, pages with a line or two, or a paragraph, descriptions of places and people, boxes of mementos. In the garage, photos await my examination, an emotional journey I both desire and dread, but one that will produce more ideas, more writing.

Stonesonwall2

I have multiple undertakings. I suppose I am experimenting with shifting the stones, making different configurations. Some days I work only on poetry, and other days a screenplay. I suspect that I may, in the next few months, immerse myself in a longer project, find a boulder in the desert and camp next to it for a long time. The options are many, and for that I am thankful, overjoyed, elated. You writers will understand, and many of you are there already, making steady progress on a novel, a play, or a collection of poems.

A thematic lamentation my friends often hear from me is the trouble I have organizing my papers. I collect books, articles, travel brochures, magazines, newsletters, chapbooks, pamphlets, mail. It piles up. The stacks grow. I sort, almost daily, feeling like Sisyphus.

My thoughts roam. I visualize a scene. Someone knocks at the door. It is the personal assistant I have wanted. She has a magical filing system and is able to organize all my papers, books, and writing paraphernalia in just a few minutes. Now I can find things.

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On my own, I am nonetheless finding a way. Some days it is one thing only. A single stone, a steady focus, a piece of flash fiction, one poem. At the same time, I am learning Tai Chi from a friend, and he tells me that each time I practice, it is like writing a page. If I practice every day, I will have a substantial book at the end of the year.

I love river stones, and well, really, all kinds of stones, partly because they convey simplicity. I give myself simple messages:  exercise, write, organize. It doesn’t sound so all-fired difficult.

Files

I may never have the pristine study that I imagine, but I can gather, arrange, and rearrange the materials until I gain focus and clarity. Stone by stone, I can create something.

I would love to hear how some of you organize your work.

My other dream, beyond the magical personal assistant, is one described in a passage from Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life:

“I have often ‘written’ with the mechanical aid of a twenty-foot conference table. You lay your pages along the table’s edge and pace out the work. You walk along the rows; you weed bits, move bits, and dig out bits, bent over the rows with full hands like a gardener. After a couple of hours, you have taken an exceedingly dull nine-mile hike. You go home and soak your feet” (46).

Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.

 

Redemptive Rejections

I got a nice one the other day:

TampaRvw

I was in a great mood all week. “Nice writing.” A compliment from an editor, though not as exciting as an acceptance, is still wonderful. When I do submit to the Tampa Review again (probably in a few months), I will write a note to the editor and perhaps even include a copy of this note as a reminder that I was invited to submit material again. These notices with personal comments are what I think of as redemptive rejections.

Some journal editors send rejection notices that soften the news. I received one a couple of weeks ago that said, “we know that reading rejection letters is never an enjoyable experience, having been the recipients of them ourselves.” Most of them are print-outs that contain no personal signature or note, like this next one (an old one) from The Threepenny Review, and this practice seems efficient as a business practice. I am fine with those ones too as they get the point across quickly. Waiting is over, and I can then send the item to another journal.3PennyRvw

Sophy Burnham, in For Writers Only, states that “A writer lives with rejection.” She refreshingly points out that besides the rejection notices,  writers often live with self-rejection and routinely face “doubt and loneliness and fear” (155). I suspect that if the self-rejection can be managed, the outside rejections lose some of their kick. This topic could make an entire post, but briefly: How can self-rejection be managed? Lots of ways. One way is to write plenty of things. Another way is to send out plenty of things. That way, rejections will become routine, and you won’t take them so hard. I have been sending out more material and am therefore getting a large number of rejections. A few acceptances. When I open the envelope and read the notice, I don’t feel a dramatic response or even a sense of personal defeat. I might feel disappointed, especially if I had high hopes for a certain journal to accept a poem I thought they might like, but the feeling is like a morning mist that fades with the emerging sun.

Here is another redemptive rejection I received from one of my favorite journals:

MoReview

The editor “enjoyed it,” which is a high compliment from The Missouri Review. Encouraging. Uplifting. The comment redeemed the rejection for me, and I was thankful each time I thought about it. Many editors take the time to write a brief note, and that also opens the door to creating a stronger professional relationship with them. They can even get to know you a little bit, as Carolyn See says in her delightful book, Making a Literary Life. She writes, “Rejection is a process, not an event” (91). She had a long correspondence with an editor who kept sending her rejections, though eventually he gave her an assignment which then won an award. She suggests sending a thank you note to each editor who sends you a rejection notice. You can thank them for causing you to rethink the piece, or even just for taking the time to read your work. This practice, which she calls writing “charming notes,” can create new relationships.

We have all heard stories about writers who received a number of rejections for now famous works, and over the years, when I hear these stories, I don’t feel encouraged or inspired. I understand the point: the author did not give up and eventually the persistence paid off. Instead, I feel the way that some women might feel who have unsuccessfully tried to conceive a child, and they hear anecdotes about women who experienced the same thing until one day, lo and behold, the long wait is over . . . for the other women. What does make me feel encouraged and inspired are the redemptive rejections.

What are some of your experiences with rejection notices? How do you fight off self-rejection or doubt, loneliness, and fear? What are some of the best rejections you have received?

Of course, we don’t need any encouragement about getting acceptances, and when I got this email, I was of course delighted:

“Thank you for sending us ‘A Clear Horizon.’ We love it and would like to publish it in the next issue of A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

I think of Carolyn See again and what she says about getting something published. When you do, not too many people will care aside from your family, friends, and “maybe your editor.” What they will be looking for, though, is “whether or not you’re going to turn into an asshole” (104). I did send her a “charming note” thanking her for the great advice as well as for the fun and laughs I had reading the book, and she sent me back a lovely thank you for the thank you.

Burnham, Sophy. For Writers Only. New York: Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, 1994. Print.

See, Carolyn. Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers. New York: Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, 2002. Print.