Prepare For the Future by Studying the Past

I have never wanted to distance myself from a book as much as I have Anchee Min’s Becoming Madame Mao. I have never wanted a book to end as much as this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction novel documenting the transition of Yunhe to Lan Ping to Madame Mao Jiang Ching. Anchee Min’s bio on the jacket flap states that she “has a personal connection to Madame Mao.” As a young woman, Min was recruited by a talent scout for Madame Mao’s Shanghai Film Studio. I wondered how her close proximity to Madame Mao shaped the story and which parts might have been revealed confidences and which were romanticized imaginings. In either case, there is absolutely nothing about Madame Mao to admire.

The novel initially drew me in with a prologue told in points of view alternating between a third person omniscient narrator and the young woman who would become Madame Mao. The dual storytelling was a refreshing and intelligent approach to revealing the tale as the reader is given an outsider’s view to Madame Mao’s story and then drawn into her perspective complete with emotions and desires, inner details and thoughts. And that is where the good in this book ends.

The woman who became Madame Mao did indeed have a horrible beginning to her life. It marred her existence with overwhelming amounts of insecurity that would haunt her forever. She combatted her fears by throwing herself into her one passion: acting. This allowed her to constantly transform herself into who she needed to be to survive. As heroic as this sounds, Madame Mao never learned grace or forgiveness. Instead, she used China as her stage, cast herself as the leading lady, treated the people of China as mere props, and was nothing more than a lying manipulator who destroyed anyone in her way.

Revenge against people she disliked ended in imprisonment and murder. Actors and politicians who snubbed her, regardless how of long ago the supposed offense took place, found themselves on Madame Mao’s hit list. Jealousy for any woman in a stable marriage, especially if the woman’s husband was close to Mao Tse Tung, poisoned her mind and her actions. She was evil personified, and I cannot feel sorry for her.

The novel has Madame Mao claiming she conducted herself as she did for love. Her twisted version of love was to insert herself in a situation where her affection quickly faded in the face of her true desire to achieve power and rule. Another claim was that she was helpless to act any other way than how she did, and she points the finger back at Mao when she said, “I was Chairman Mao’s dog. I bit whomever he asked me to bite.” She only did this to maintain his favor in the hopes of ruling after his death, and I believe that the cowardly act of denying responsibility for her own actions makes her even more despicable.

As troubling as the history of this psychotic, vindictive woman is, what I find more disturbing is the fact that the history appears to be repeating itself in America. And it’s not even our history. The battle for control of media outlets is one such example. The novel has Madame Mao stating “I feel the power of the media. The way it washes and bleaches minds.” All other forms of media were illegal except her operas, ballets, and films which pushed Mao’s Communist agenda.

America hasn’t reached the level where a simple family feud between a child and a step-parent can end in public humiliation, imprisonment, torture, and death, but every day the news and entertainers denounce major political figures based on rumor and imagination. I fear the “get evidence and produce witnesses” order of Madame Mao’s day is not far off.

Another familiar tactic I recognize was when Madame Mao, together with her husband, upended China by gaining control of the students. Their young impressionable minds were subject to the manipulation, and the Maos made no secret of the fact that they intended to get the students on their side with rallies and speeches meant to whip them into a frenzy of action.

Of course, this begs the question of action toward what end? When looking for understanding and clarification, Marshal Tan Zhen-lin asked Mao, “What is the Cultural Revolution if its goal is to abolish order? Why torture the founding fathers of the republic? What’s the point in creating factions in the army? To tear down the country? Make me get it, Chairman.” Mao responded with a tirade about not allowing anyone to stop the Cultural Revolution, fully supporting the Red Guards, and endorsing chaos and violence as a means of achieving some arbitrary goal. The question of what’s the point, what’s the purpose was left unanswered.

The portion of the reign of terror perpetrated by Madame Mao made her an empress ruling on the ashes of China and the Chinese people. She was at the forefront of the destruction from within. Twenty million lost their lives to this madness. Her place beside the likes of Mao, Hitler, and Stalin is forever secured in history.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 26

It’s time to take a deep breath and mentally prepare myself for one of my least favorite challenges in my writing life: querying. I remember the first time I queried my novel. I labored over my letter, presenting it to members of my writing groups and submitting it for a paid critique, as if I was writing the Declaration of Independence. Every word had to be perfect. Nothing less than exceptional would do as I crafted this key to unlock the doors to the world of publishing. But never mind the doors; I must first get past the gatekeepers.

Researching agents is a full-time job unto itself. I found literary agencies that represented my genre, and then I located specific agents within the agency. After choosing an agent, I looked to see which authors they had worked with and which titles they represented, hoping to find a title comparable with my novel. Using tips I’d picked up from webinars, I hunted for any connection between myself and the agent. (Did we have similar hobbies and interests, did we grow up in the same state, do they have pets?) All this was before I even sent the letter. Crazy, isn’t it?

Just today my husband wished for me the kind of writing life where I didn’t have to worry about publishing. And what is the concern, really? Can I not create art for the sake of art? Trying to have my work published was my idea. No one forced me to do it. But then I struggle with the question of why write if I’m not going to try to publish, and I start thinking maybe I should find a job. I hate the way money always pops up in my thoughts.

The truth is, I have a supportive husband who isn’t insisting that I find work or publish to bring in a paycheck. When combined with the abundant amount of free time I have, you may wonder what my complaint actually is. Sometimes, I do, too.

There are days I wish I’d never sought publication because I remember how it felt to write freely without that pressure hanging over my head. Don’t think for one minute, though, that I don’t want to be published. Because I do. I’ve invested in my blog and I maintain social media toward the endeavor of publication. My problem is that my two desires are at war in my mind and my heart.

There are also days when I wonder if I’m creating this drama for myself, and I laugh thinking at least I’ll get a good blog post out of it. Because really, it’s better to let this stuff out than it is to hold it in. So again, deep breath.

I am aware of the emotional toll querying can take on a writer, but I’m not ready to abandon my dream. I’ll balance it by realizing how good I have it in that while I’m waiting for replies, I can write freely to my heart’s content. I’ll fill notebook after notebook with words the world will never see. Writing just for me. And once again I’ll…

…Write Happy!

The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Carlos Ruiz Zafón takes a walk on the darker supernatural side in The Angel’s Game, his second installment in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. Zafón’s Gothic tale is actually a prequel to his successful first book in the series, The Shadow of the Wind. If you haven’t read the first book, I highly recommend you do as it is still the best in the series in this writer’s opinion.

Still, The Angel’s Game is not to be missed as it returns the reader to Barcelona, Spain, this time in the 1920s, as well as the bookshop Sempere & Sons and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. It also plunges the reader back into Zafón’s flamboyant style of storytelling with lots of dark and shadowy nights shrouded in mist.

The novel is the classic “make a deal with the devil” tale where the protagonist, David Martín, accepts an offer from a mysterious publisher to write a book that will present the world with a new religion. In doing so, Martín regains his health and earns an incredible amount of money. Soon, however, Martín discovers that he is not the first person to undertake this offer, and like his most recent predecessor, he fears he is losing his mind to the endeavor.

The Angel’s Game isn’t deeply theological or highly intellectual.  At its heart, it’s just great storytelling. Anyone remotely familiar with the Bible will recognize the references to the angel of light (one of the Adversary’s favorite ways to deceive mankind), the 6.66 pages a day our protagonist must write to achieve his goal (does that one even need explaining?), and the character Andreas Corelli (the name Old Nick chose to use for this sojourn among men) saying he’d been kicked out of his father’s house after a disagreement (which stands to reason when one challenges God for supremacy).

However, there are some questions that arose for me while reading. One of the thoughts on my mind was whether Zafón had written himself and/or his own wishes into the story. Is he speaking through Martín when the protagonist comments on how writers sell their soul for the dream of publication? Is Zafón, a writer of successful pulp fiction like Martín, consumed with the same desire his character is to write something he believes to be more worthy? And when a peripheral character tells Martín he has seen the angel brooch Andreas Corelli wears on Martín’s own lapel, is Zafón intimating that the demons writers struggle with come from within?

Another theme that Zafón floated was God as both good and evil, two halves of the same coin. I found this reinforced at the end of the book when Andreas Corelli, usually dressed in black, appears in white and offers Martín a blessing and a curse neatly packaged as one gift. But Zafón will have to forgive me if I feel no sympathy for the devil when he says, “…for once you will walk in my shoes and will feel what I feel.” Nor do I trouble myself believing the devil would ever admit he’s wrong such as Corelli did.

All this led to my second thought in which I speculated that Zafón was either a disgruntled former member of a particular belief system or he had written under the impression of said belief system. Or maybe he chucked religion all together and just created an intricately woven story sure to keep the reader up all night. Whatever the case me be, The Angel’s Game is a good story. The slightly far-fetched portions are barely noticeable when the book is taken as a whole, there is a slump in pacing near the end of the book, and the ending isn’t quite as satisfying as The Shadow of the Wind, but none of these factors are enough to keep me from pressing on with the series.

The Artist’s Corner – Author Cari Dubiel Stands Out in the Crowd

About a year and a half ago, I was invited to join an informal meeting for members of Sisters in Crime at a fellow writer’s home. Although I don’t write mysteries, the meetings were, and still are, extremely beneficial as we talked craft and industry across the genres. The feedback has been wonderful, and the friendships are invaluable.

I met author Cari Dubiel at these meetings, and right from the start I could tell she was an articulate, intelligent woman. Being a librarian, book lover, and writer definitely scored Cari high marks in my book, but since that first meeting, she and I have had the opportunity to discuss the joys and woes of the writing life in some detail. Imagine how pleased I was to find a kindred spirit who shared my passions and concerns. In fact, much of what Cari said precisely mirrored what I had been thinking and feeling and I realized she would be the perfect candidate for an Artist’s Corner interview.

So, without further ado, allow me introduce you to genre-bending author Cari Dubiel.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I’m a lifelong Ohio resident, married with two young children. I’m the Adult Learning and Information Services Manager at the Twinsburg Public Library in Twinsburg, Ohio. I’ve worked there for 11 years, though not always as a manager. Prior to TPL, I worked for a few other public libraries in Northeast Ohio, for a total of 20 years in libraries. I also speak and write in the library field, and I adjunct at Kent State University.

When did you develop your love of writing?

I was a very early reader – I don’t remember it, but my mom said that I could read fluently by the time I was three. She used to take me to her work, open a magazine, and watch all her friends’ jaws drop when I was able to read any sentence she pointed to. And, of course, I loved to read. So by the time I was in third grade, I wanted to write my own stories. My first story was called “Trapped in a Video Game,” and it was complete with illustrations of Mario and the Princess.

Did your position as a librarian play into your career as a writer?

Well, I don’t do any writing at work, and I’m not allowed to use my position to promote my books. But there is a natural correlation. A woman I worked with years ago introduced me to her husband, who was an avid mystery fan. He introduced me in turn to Casey Daniels, who got me involved in Sisters in Crime. So I guess I have Bob Burke to thank for my connections so far! I also regularly host authors at the library, and I read and review their books. And of course, we have a fantastic collection of craft books that I’ve cultivated. I think it’s the best in our consortium.

Have you ever worked as a freelance writer?

In library land, I’ve written for Library Journal, Booklist, and several professional blogs. Occasionally, I also take on freelance editing jobs, but I only take those that I am really passionate about, as I don’t have a lot of extra time! I’ve had a few short stories published online and in anthologies as well.

In what genre(s) do you enjoy writing?

I love to experiment with genre. I don’t like to feel boxed into one specific type of story. My writing is mainly focused on the characters and their arcs, but I also like to have a solidly structured plot to keep the reader guessing. I like pseudoscience – taking existing scientific concepts and playing with them, saying “what if?” I also like to have a mystery aspect to everything I write. It may not always be a “whodunit” – sometimes it’s a “whydunit.” And sometimes both.

Which genres do you enjoy reading?  Who are your favorite authors?

I pretty much read everything. I’ll go through phases when I’ll be in the mood for just one thing, and then I’ll switch gears to a totally different genre or type of book. Right now I’m in a sci-fi groove, particularly funny sci-fi. My other favorites are literary fiction, psychological thrillers, traditional and cozy mysteries, and nonfiction of all kinds. I tend to pick up whatever strikes my fancy – working in a library definitely enables my reading habit – but I always look forward to new books by Ernest Cline, Peter Swanson, Jennifer Weiner, Jonathan Tropper, Kate Racculia, and Ann Patchett. I love to support my writer friends as well – I’ll read and review everything they send me, or I’ll buy their books after pub date if I can’t get a review copy.

How have your favorite authors shaped your writing?

I think each one brings me a different strength. Tropper and Weiner have strong male and female voices, respectively, with smart, flawed protagonists. Patchett writes so beautifully and subtly, and Swanson writes highly readable killer thrillers. Cline is the master of sci-fi intrigue. I can’t wait for the Ready Player One movie. Kate Racculia is a fabulous literary writer, but she also has a strong focus on plot and character that really drives her fiction.

Tell me about your novel, How to Remember.

I often have intense, realistic, bizarre dreams. I also sleepwalk, so I wonder if there’s something weird going on in my unconscious mind. I woke up from one where I had lost exactly one year’s worth of memory, and it took me a while to figure out what was going on. In the dream, my phone had been wiped, and I couldn’t find my computer, so there were no clues to what had happened. My protagonist, Dr. Miranda Underwood, starts off the novel in that situation. Through the course of the book, she has to find those clues and follow them to the answers she needs.

Miranda narrates from 2017; secondary protagonist Ben Baker narrates from 2016, helping to fill in the blanks. He encounters Miranda in her job at a company called MindTech, where she helps patients deal with past trauma by looking at their mental maps and providing them with targeted therapeutic solutions. Ben’s mother has died under mysterious circumstances, and he’s looking for answers of his own. The two narratives dovetail to show the reader what happened.

The book is available for pre-order at Inkshares: How To Remember

Are there any comparative titles?

The concepts are similar to the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but the style is completely different from that film. With its focus on suburbia, the setting is reminiscent of Holly Brown’s This is Not Over or Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. In that way, the book is strongly domestic suspense. There are strong themes of parenthood and exploration of the relationships between parents and children. However, it also has the science fiction component with a lot of nerdy appeal, which fans of Ready Player One and The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak would enjoy.

What has the editing process been like for you?

Not bad so far – I’ve had some reader input, as well as a professional critique from author Lori Rader-Day through the Hugh Holton Critique Program. That critique program spurred me to enter the Hugh Holton Award competition with the Midwest chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. I won that award in December 2017, so that was a great experience!

I’m looking forward to a professional edit, although I’m also nervous about it since I’ve never been through one before. I do edit for other people, so it will be strange to be on the other side of the screen.

Describe your journey to publication.

I’m hoping the answer to this will be a lot more complete in the future! Right now I’m campaigning for a publication deal. I need to sell at least 250 copies of my book as pre-orders for the deal to be funded. I’m lucky that this book has won an award, and it’s also been backed by two syndicates on Inkshares, which means that it’s been endorsed by many interested readers. But it’s still not a guarantee.

I have many friends who are in this business, who run the gamut from straight indie to hybrid to traditionally published, and there are so many setbacks and trials for all of them. Every person hits different roadblocks and trials along the way. Mine is no different, and it’s not done yet.

Why did you decide upon Inkshares?

I read The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein, which was a fabulous sci-fi story with great character development. As I usually do when I’ve read a book I like, I checked to see how it was published. The concept of books being published by reader interest was intriguing, and when I logged onto the platform, I was impressed by its sharp look and user appeal.

At first, I wasn’t sure if I had done the right thing, but now I regret nothing. I’ve met so many cool authors on the platform, who are smart, warm, and kind, and their books are astounding. I’m writing an article for IndiePicks magazine in March to highlight my favorites. I love “selling” books I love to library patrons.

What is crowdfunding?

Crowdfunding is a business model that relies on user interest to develop a product. Most people will be familiar with it from platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. When a user sees an item they like, they pledge money towards it to help the product become a reality. On the Inkshares platform, it’s a little different: readers pre-order copies, so they don’t have to spend more than $10 for an e-book or $20 for a physical copy. If they want their name in the back of the book, they can spend $60, and they’ll also receive 3 copies of the book.

What challenges have you faced in your writing and with publication?

Honestly, my biggest challenge has been due to my own fault. I haven’t been able to choose a direction. And that comes from my deep love of reading everything. With my writing, I want to echo and amplify other authors, and it’s impossible to put everything I love into one book.

My friend Amanda Flower gave me the best advice, which finally helped me focus. She said to write what you love, what speaks to you. The rest of it is all business. It may not be the right market for the story at the time, but eventually, if it’s a good story, its time will come.

How can interested readers assist your efforts?

Pre-order at: How to Remember! If I make that 250 mark, readers are guaranteed a copy at publication. If pre-ordering isn’t possible, share the link freely. Inkshares does occasionally publish titles that they determine to have organic popularity, and that comes from liking, sharing, and clicking on the link.

I’ve also released a short story collection for free at “Lost Memories.” I’m posting these stories as I write them, so if you follow me on Inkshares, you’ll get alerts when I add the new content.

What is your marketing plan?

I’ve already done two giveaways, and I’m planning more. I find that even if readers can’t afford to purchase the book, they’re grateful if they win, and they’re more likely to follow me and keep up on my work. With each giveaway, I’m hoping to spread the love of books and reading, and I want to get to know my potential readers.

My awesome graphic artist is developing new covers for both How to Remember and “Lost Memories.” I also have another fabulous artist who is working on line drawings of the main characters. Prints of those will be released in a giveaway as well.

I’ve done some video content, too. The book trailer is on YouTube: How to Remember

You can follow my channel for more updates.

Where can one find you one the Internet?

Inkshares: Cari Dubiel

Goodreads: Author Cari Dubiel


Facebook: Cari Dubiel Author

Twitter: @caridubiel

Instagram: @cb1281

Email Newsletter: Sign Up

Thanks for reading!

The Artist’s Corner – Talking Poetry With Poet Carrie Tangenberg, Part 2

Welcome back to The Artist’s Corner for the second portion of my interview with poet Carrie Tangenberg.  Today, we’ll continue with Carrie’s amazing insight into poetry as well as enjoy one of her original poems.

Why is poetry important?

A literary question for the ages. I can only look through my biased poet’s lens, but I think it’s valuable not just because academia tells us it is.

For me:  Poetry gave me a way to express myself early in life that did not demand absolute clarity or lots of text. I could write what I felt or wanted to feel. I could focus on rhythm and the sounds of words. It didn’t have to make sense to anyone but me, and even then, it took me a long time to be so kind to myself. I used to be quite experimental, moving from puns to invented words and concepts, creating sense out of nonsense. Poetry lets me stretch linguistic connections, explore different word combinations and uses of any given word or phrase, and discover new routes to meaning and beauty.

In general:  Poetry offers a shortcut to evoking reader emotion, making us feel deeply, recalling our humanity. Poems explore, celebrate, articulate, and enhance life, death, love, art, nature, and human connection. Poems invite different ways of seeing everyday things, different ways of thinking about life. Poetry is lyrical, musical, rhythmic, with creative phrase order, language use, lines, and “paragraphs.” Poems present puzzles and riddles to solve and enigmas to wonder at. Poetry can add a touch of class, beauty, spirit, weight, or emotion to more logical or pragmatic ceremonies, presentations, and texts.

Poetry can be challenging, not lying down easily before you just because you showed up to read it. It makes you work by being in stanzas and by making readers pay attention to details to gain meaning. It’s a useful form to renew our concentration abilities, recovering them from Tweet and sound bite, back toward longer literary forms. Among literary modes, poetry pre-dates the novel, the news article, and the textbook. It has longevity. Poetry lets readers and writers approach the depths of meaning to find a way to shine a light and share. Poetry offers greater variety of form than fiction or non-fiction does. It is a diamond of many faces. Poetry offers a niche to fit into when your work or interests don’t fit neatly anywhere else. For instance, poetry lets non-visual artists, listeners, and readers penetrate and fill the spaces between too-reasonable words and wordless music. Songs are poems, and they lend insight into and mark the passage of our culture’s generations.

Beyond that, I refer you to The American Interest online article “Why, Poetry?” by David Kirby (2007). Great stuff. Addressing poetry’s value, he asks, among other things, “Why is there a poet laureate but not a novelist laureate or playwright laureate?” It must mean something to us. Poetry is easier than it used to be, more accessible, and more diverse. New forms are invented on the Internet, and poetry culture moves forward.

As with any art or literature, not all poems work for everyone, but poetry is a unique form with so much mileage that there really is something for everyone.

What do you see as the role of humor in poetry?

As with many aspects of poetry, humor in poetry is often subtle, but there’s no rule against including the comical in a poem that doesn’t also apply to the rest of the poem or non-humorous ones as well. As long as a poem can breathe, that is if it’s of sufficient length, there can be room for humor in even the most serious. The tension between opposing emotions is something that makes art great.

Billy Collins is the perfect example of a poet who has woven humor masterfully into much of his work. See “Paradelle. Silly and/or psycho form from Billy Collins.” – from the Writer’s Digest article “List of 50 Poetic Forms for Poets.

Humor’s role in poetry varies and can be manifold. It can be an effective method of emotional contrast for emphasizing a concept or point, or for deepening a dramatic effect. It can help some readers better relate to a poem’s message. It can be pleasurable in its own right. Then, there are the forms of poetry designed for or generous to humorous content: limericks, rhyming couplets, parody, and others.

There are also poetic forms, such as the elegy, that are meant to be serious. In the end, the poet should aim to match form to content and mood. For a simple example, if a humorous shape emerges from a concrete poetic image, the reader expects funny content.

What is the relationship between your speaking voice and your written voice?

We both tend to be long winded. I’ve always been a formal speaker and an even more formal writer, using words often beyond the understanding or comfort levels of readers and listeners, who in my experience tend to be young or struggling students. But because I dabble in so many different genres, forms, and purposes with my writing, I’m still trying to find a cohesive voice for each. In some ways, just as novelists must put themselves in different frames of mind to get into different characters, a poet can use the poetic space to explore different perspectives and different voices from different characters. The narrator/speaker is not always the author in either poetry or fiction, and they should not be equated. Qualities of an author’s history or personality may echo through his or her work, but not all poetry or fiction is fully or even partially autobiographical.

I think, though, that it is a rare person who is able to speak the same way to every other person encountered in life. Because of this, even our speaking voices are not internally consistent, let alone matched up perfectly with our written voices. On one hand, you wouldn’t want to speak to a stranger the same way you speak to your child or partner. On the other, even when we try to “be ourselves,” we unconsciously hide and reveal, emphasize and downplay, different parts of ourselves depending on who we interact with, our comfort levels, intentions, vulnerabilities, experiences, habits, and modes of being—recreational versus professional atmospheres, for example. People not only can change but do, quite often from moment to moment, in how they represent themselves. It may be dishonest at times, but just as truth can be subjective, so can our identities be flexible. People rarely walk around unfiltered. There’s always a hidden and a visible self. Self-control, invaluable to civilization, means suppressing our first impulses, and that’s a kind of lie, too.

Do you belong to a writing group or community of poets with whom you share your work? Has this been beneficial?

I’m in a writing group, but it’s multi-modal and focused on fiction. Luckily, there are a few members who are also poets, which can add a layer of insight that those less familiar with poetry may not be able to offer. It’s always good to have an outside perspective to consider during revision. With the group, I learn things that apply to all my writing, including poetry.

What do you believe is the measure of success for a poet?

That’s an excellent question. The short answer, unfortunately, is the unsatisfying “It depends.” In this day of self-publishing at the drop of a hat, it’s not the ability to self-publish or be “published.” It’s not solely the ability to get the words on the page with confidence. It’s not necessarily being held in high esteem by authorities with clout, or receiving poetry awards. It’s neither self-defined nor externally defined alone. I suppose it could be a blend of self-perceived success, some degree of circulation of one’s poetry amidst the masses, and some acclaim as a result of that.

If you don’t feel successful, that doesn’t mean you aren’t, but success in poetry can rarely if ever be defined by financial reward or income sustainability. It’s a long-standing sad joke among poets that this just doesn’t happen with poetry alone. A writer has to diversify. Focus on non-fiction of various kinds, including researched biography, instruction books, a cultural niche, or journalism than to rely on poetry for lucrative ends. Once the poet accepts this reality and still commits to the work of writing verse as part of the repertoire, the aim is to continue to develop as an artist, to advance your craft beyond what it was yesterday. If you can do that, and know that you have, you are succeeding as a writer.

What advice do you have for aspiring poets? Do you believe writing poetry can be taught or is it strictly an inherent ability?

Certain principles and several specific forms of poetry must be taught, but writing good poetry also requires innate orientation to the music, cadence, rhythm, sounds, imagery, lyricism, phrasing, or forms of poetry. It requires a thorough understanding of the effective use of language to communicate, to suggest, to imply, and it requires knowing what not to write and how not to write. It requires study, whether self-driven or received in a top-down fashion, as in college or an MFA writing program. True poetry rarely just happens, though I suppose it has occurred and remains possible in that rare individual.

I come from a verse writing education where my professor encouraged further study of certain aspects of my work beyond the scope of my courses. However, I believe a poet can emerge without formal higher education. Poetry is one of those modes of writing with so many variations in approach and form that experimentation and innovation may actually be more readily achieved in poetry than in long-form fiction, for one.

Consistency and cohesion within a poem are key. You can break the rules, but do so across the poem without restoring them at any point. For example, if it’s going to be a poem with end rhymes, you must carry that through to the end. If the first lines are not rhymed, suddenly starting to rhyme part way through is jarring to the reader. If you don’t apply techniques consistently across a piece, you’ve probably written at least two different poems or parts of poems, thinking they’re one when they’re not.

Poetry is all about patterns and the communication of the parts with each other. This is more important in a short form of writing, including short stories, than in longer forms, though novels still do better with some discernible shape—the rising action, conflict, climax, etc.—than without it. If a poem is poorly organized or incoherent or disjointed, it’s really, really noticeable. You can more easily get away with a little nonsense or minor error in a fiction manuscript.

How would you recommend someone reading poetry for the first time approach a poem?

Any poem of significant length, complexity, or difficulty should be read in phases for its layers. First, read it for the basic idea, and then read aloud to listen for its music. Poetry is designed to be read aloud. Next, read it over and over again with a different focus each time, including: (1) prosody, or the elements of versification and metrical structure, (2) meter-related rhythm, (3) form, including stanza division and line breaks, (4) rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and other sonic devices, (5) use of literary tools such as personification, metaphor, and simile, (6) point of view and speaker vs. author, (7) relationship of title to poem, etc.

Form should reinforce meaning, support and not work against it, so the more you learn about how a poem is constructed, the closer you come to understanding its message. Sometimes, form can be a large part of message. Poetry is a mode not infrequently used in a self-reflexive way, with poems about poetry, to express poetic principles in structure and words. Finally (or first!) and most important of all, try to pinpoint what you like and dislike about a poem and why. This will inform your reading choices, increasing your enjoyment in the future, and help you learn more about poetry and how to write it.

How important is accessibility of meaning? Should one have to work hard to “solve” the poem?

A poet should not make it her primary or even secondary aim to impede the reading of her poem. I don’t believe in purposely self-defeating behavior. If you’re reasonably intelligent and you’ve read a poem repeatedly, discussed it, studied it, and still can’t figure out the major strokes, it’s not worth any more of your time. It’s probably unnecessarily difficult.

However, because there are layers to any good poem that’s not a couplet or simple Haiku, most poems can be appreciated at multiple levels. Something I enjoy most about poetry and any art form is the richness that allows the audience to discover something new with each return to the work. In academia, poetry reading and study involving sustained, diligent effort markedly increase your chances of fulfilling whatever analytical requirements your instructor has assigned. In pure enjoyment especially, however, poetry is in the eye of the beholder. Like all art, it is subject to matters of personal taste. It’s a subjective enterprise and a personal study. If you’re not required to work hard to solve it, why strain?

What do most poorly-written poems have in common?

A bad poem can be bad—or have bad sections—for many reasons. It states the obvious, confuses concepts, turns personal grievance into whining, stops at surface-level emotions and ideas, employs clichéd imagery, demonstrates careless word choice, uses length as a crutch to seem important, applies techniques inconsistently, ends after the first draft, abandons form for content, or, conversely, abandons sensible content to show off a certain structure—or all of the above.

If you start with free verse, let it remain free. Start with metered verse, and it should probably conform to the meter your first lines set, though some poetic forms deliberately shift meter across the poem. Unless your specific purpose is to explore the different effects deliberate shifting between formalism and free verse has on the structure or ideas, pick one or the other and stick to it.

Examples of excessive structural worship include using rhyme in a forced way, writing a sonnet with hackneyed imagery and stale word choice, writing in meter with awkward rhythm (i.e., bad meter), breaking lines in awkward places just keep lines neat, or only ever breaking lines at sentence endings.

There are still other ways poems can be poor in quality, but I think those are the main ones.

What do most well-written poems have in common?

The bottom line is that quality poetry, and any writing, is earned. Achieving quality in most things demands study, careful craft, practice, revision, and polish—and those efforts show in the final product. Beyond the opposite of all of those traits described in the previous answer, freshness and originality, masterful vocabulary, applied nuance, and skilled balancing of all aspects set great poems apart from the herd.

Who is your favorite poet?

Too many to list, but here are the main ones: Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Judith Wright, John Keats, Walt Whitman, W. B. Yeats, William Wordsworth, Amy Clampitt, Philip Larkin, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Billy Collins, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, Wislawa Szymborska, Matthew Arnold, Wilfred Owen, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, e. e. cummings, Robert Frost, Louis MacNeice, Marianne Moore, Rita Dove, Theodore Roethke, Adrienne Rich, Derek Walcott, Hugh MacDiarmid, W. H. Auden, Christina Rossetti, Robert Burns, Seamus Heaney, Robert Pinsky, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and many 20th- and 21st-century songwriters.

Other poets I enjoy: William Matthews, Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Hirschfield, Carolyn Kizer, Mary Jo Salter, D. H. Lawrence, Henry David Thoreau, Dylan Thomas, Robert Pinsky, James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, Kenneth Koch, Patrick Kavanagh, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Donald Hall, Ted Hughes, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Blake, and Elaine Feeney.

What is your favorite poem?

That’s a bit like asking someone to pick a favorite moment in life or art. Some of those I’m most passionate about, which I highly recommend everyone reads, would be:

American trailblazers: “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman; Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” “A Route of Evanescence,” “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers,” “My Life had stood a Loaded Gun”

Best war themed: “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen (WWI) and “First Snow in Alsace” by Richard Wilbur (WWII)

A downright favorite: Amy Clampitt’s “Beethoven, Opus 111” and “The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundews” (love, love, love Clampitt!)

Quintessential Romanticism: “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth and “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats

A. E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” and Countee Cullen’s “Heritage”

Love breaking the rules: “since feeling is first” by e. e. cummings

Pure contemporary, comic enjoyment: “Forgetfulness” and “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of Three Blind Mice” by Billy Collins

Self-reflexive poem about what poetry should be: “Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish

A good feminist spin-off: “Eve to Her Daughters” by Judith Wright

20th-century metrical verse: “The Sunlight on the Garden” by Louis MacNeice and “One Art” (a villanelle) by Elizabeth Bishop. Most poems by Elizabeth Bishop.

Comparing fish: “The Fish” by Marianne Moore and “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop

Oh, the sounds: “Root Cellar” by Theodore Roethke and “Lake Isle of Innisfree” by W. B. Yeats

Avant-garde, nature, ephemeral love & line breaks: Book I of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower by William Carlos Williams and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens

A favorite Scots poem: “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns

Epic post-colonial poem: Omeros by Derek Walcott (having some French will help)

Best (only?) nonsense poem I know: “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll

Philip Larkin: “Church Going,” “For Sidney Bechet,” “An Arundel Tomb” & “Talking in Bed”

Sylvia Plath’s “Blackberrying,” “Tulips,” “Ariel,” and “Daddy”

Men of Ireland: “When You Are Old” by W. B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney’s “Punishment”

What kind of work are you most drawn to reading yourself? Do you find yourself reading work similar to your own or completely different?

With writing, I think like attracts like. I seek out what I want to emulate, and I try to emulate what I find most precise, original, musical, and beautiful.

What book are you reading right now?

A book club book: The Good Earth, itself written with lyrical, rhythmic prose by Pearl S. Buck. I’ve recently collected some books of poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Wislawa Szymborska, Judith Wright, and Elaine Feeney. I received A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver as a gift, but I haven’t been as impressed with her work. Also on my bookshelf are almost all of Billy Collins’ poetry, an old complete works of Emily Dickinson, poems by Rumi, and the Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th edition, along with many other books of and about poetry.

Do the Internet and social media contribute to the well-being of poetry?

I believe so, though I couldn’t say how at the moment. Or, rather, I can’t tell whether the net effect is positive or negative. But like any major cultural force, it does have impact on art. So much is more readily accessible than before this digital information age. Quoting is a pastime for many. And yet, the impulse to speak constantly to others, to comb and scroll and scan through endless talk must also diminish the preciousness of words. We increasingly employ the short form in communicating with one another—the sound bite, tweet, Facebook shout-out, Instagram posting—but that doesn’t make it poetic, any more than reading print copies of novels makes us necessarily more poetic.

Where can one find you on the Internet?

Blog: “Philosofishal

Twitter @Carrielt37

Facebook: Carrie Tangenberg

LinkedIn: Carrie Tangenberg, Writer, Tutor

Do you have any non-poetry/writing creative outlets?

My most prevalent non-writing hobby would probably have to be photography. I like to draw occasionally. I’ll paint a picture every once in a while, but not without guidance; I’ve enjoyed a couple of those wine and painting events. I love color in general, so I dabble in home decorating, gardening, coloring books, and the occasional craft project.

Please share an original poem.

“Ode to Cantwell” by Carrie Tangenberg © 6/9/01, revised 4/10/16, 11/3/17

First composed at Cantwell Cliffs, Hocking Hills State Park, south central Ohio

Ferns cry up the greenest

moss-kissed stones I’ve seen.

Fellows dress in fringe,

and cascade merriment.


Velvet mats outdo

a frond-sprawl of delight—

in one vale, fresh spinach,

another, shamrock shake (or

is that lichen?), then lime

green Jell-O, young

avocado—ever glad

in rained-soaked shade.


If trees are chefs and servants,

then falls of ale ensconce

a vast buffet, inviting

calls to Cantwell Cliffs.


No hearth yet in view,

we walk, my love and I,

grasp at crags and creases.

A share of these replaces

clasping hands—too fraught,

despite appeasing warmth.


Plump rock faces, deep-

set stoned eyes, cliff chins,

talus noses, unkempt

joyful, bearded jaws

of giant height (or depth),

bouldered, flaunt their black-

and-green tartan patterns,

like heady Guinness pints

wrapped in Beltane bands.


We lurk the upper lip

and scarce escape the teeth.


One walking stick—scepter-

shaped, a hovering torch—

guides a canty man

askance our emerald path.

Swift, glad and keen,

earthen steps from rod to

root, his wordless cant:


“I am the fateful ambler,

chief of my migration,

god of my life and strife.

I come here to be, to pass,

to climb, to stir green trails

to sight and sense, imbibe

and feast in any weather,

hearth or no, till I’m full

and satisfied. I’m noble

but free, for I leave it all

here, fulsome as before.


“Though I look not behind,

I know return is rare.”


Serrated plumage wags

at slightest breath of man.

Untrod, the mosses cling.

Ebullient, verdant things.

The Artist’s Corner – Talking Poetry With Poet Carrie Tangenberg, Part 1

I met Carrie Tangenberg several years ago in a writing group for poets and authors.  Right from the start I could tell she was an intelligent, well-read, and well-spoken woman.  The best part was that Carrie never came across as haughty or unapproachable.  On the contrary, her elegance and calm reserve combined with her intellect positioned her to make the most constructive critiques.  I have also witnessed this in the classical literature book club to which we both belong.

When I realized I needed a poet for The Artist’s Corner, Carrie immediately sprang to mind.  I only wish you could hear her answers in her own sophisticated voice.  I know you’ll enjoy reading them as they are deeply informative, openly transparent, and incredibly encouraging for anyone who has ever had a passion for art.

Tell me a little about yourself.

Creative writing has been part of my life since early childhood. In kindergarten, I wrote a story about a stick of personified butter in its trials and travails. I think that was my first story. Then, it was poetry in elementary school, which has persisted to present day.

After college, I applied my writing talent in office settings of the publishing and higher education fields. Later, I switched focus to teaching English and writing, along with other humanities subjects. Now, I blog about non-fiction, poetry, and novel writing, as well as nature, travel, and film and TV storytelling. I also tutor writing and career help online.

Other ways I stay connected to the writing world include participating in a classic literature book club, a local writing group, and our region’s National Novel Writing Month program. I took a course in memoir writing earlier this year, and I won a local poetry contest in spring 2016.

I also garden, bird-watch, practice photography, and hike in the area’s metro parks. In reading, I favor Outlander, literary fiction, adventure, contemporary realistic fiction, and sci-fi, poetry, and non-fiction works of memoir, writing about writing, and satire. My film preferences are eclectic, but many of my favorites happen to be space/alien sci-fi adventure such as Star Wars.

See the “About me” page of my blog for more philosophical and literary hints to my personality.

What prompted you to begin writing poetry?

I’ve always had a strong sense of rhythm and musicality, so after dancing jazz in first grade and lip-syncing to tunes in the living room, I started writing rhyming poems about birds in fifth grade. Most of my life’s poetry is about nature or wildlife, from the first to the most recent attempts. I also love language and playing with the sounds words make.

Who or what is your inspiration for writing poetry?

Number one, as I said, is wildlife or wilderness, often birds, trees and flowers, landscapes, waterways, and even insects, soil, and rocks, or as broad as the cosmos. I’m fascinated by predator-prey dynamics, the beauty and indifference of nature, and I love all sorts of animals. Favorites include wolves, foxes, African wild dogs, otters, all sorts of birds, chameleons, and meerkats. In an alternate life where I’m better at math and science, if I couldn’t be an ornithologist, I’d be a wildlife or canid biologist.

Other inspirations are existential or spiritual contemplation often intersecting with language and meaning—in other words, the nature of life, death, perception, reality, motivation, and how we express and understand those. Occasionally, I’m inspired by current events such as the death of Leonard Nimoy, for which I wrote my first elegy.

How does a poem begin for you, with an idea, a form, or an image?

It varies. Sometimes I’m attempting to capture an image with description. Other times, I like a phrase or concept and want to see what I can make of it. Mainly, spare impressions guide me forward, and the end result can often remain rather impressionistic. I long ago developed the habit of gravitating toward nature imagery for my similes and metaphors.

I suppose I enjoy the challenge of urging fresh ways of looking at nature, since it’s been done so much by so many poets and songwriters for so long. Nature poetry is typically the first kind that non-poetic types think of or attempt to write, usually a piece of verse about autumn leaves, celestial bodies, or weather. I often aim to upend those expectations or write the usual in an unusual way. So, the prominent starting points are ideas and language, but I might set out to fill a form such as a sonnet, blank verse, or even a limerick—for added, puzzle-solving challenge.

What conditions help you with your writing process? Where do you write? When do you write?

Optimal conditions are the ongoing puzzle I have yet to solve. If only I could figure this out, I’d be in so much greater shape artistically, if not also in terms of publishing. I write mostly at home, but I also find inspiration in local parks, other green spaces, and the occasional cafe. Sometimes I’ll start on the computer, but I keep in touch with the fact that handwriting can boost my creative flow. I write in cursive as often as in print letters, and that lends its own enjoyment of beauty to the exercise. I can write at all hours, whenever the mood or idea strikes, but I’m most productive late at night. I’m not sure when I write best, though.

What is your creative process? Do you have any routines?

Typically, I’ll draft a poem long-hand, then either mark it up or type it up for revision. Next, I’ll try to apply my revision ideas. Often it helps at this point to set the poem aside and come back after a few days or even weeks to see if I still like it enough overall to polish it in its current basic structure. If not, I’ll file it unchanged. If so, I’ll put my best foot forward in finalizing the poem.

I once chronicled my verse writing process on my blog in a series of 4 posts. I learned a lot by doing that, but I don’t know if it helped me set any particular approach in stone or make significant changes to my routine. The posts are cross-linked, and the first one is “On Process: Verse Writing, Introduction and Part I: Motivation.

What books (of poetry or the creative process) or poets have influenced your writing?

Emily Dickinson was my initial influence for imagery, rhythm, and the combined sounds of words. She wrote a lot about death and loss, as well as nature, in her reclusive solitude. As a child, I had few close friends, so I could relate to some of that desolation and loneliness. Those feelings linger with me, but they’ve also evolved as I’ve adjusted how I write about nature. I have become accustomed to melancholy and used it to my artistic advantage.

Other works I find myself imitating are the nature poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Amy Clampitt, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, W.B. Yeats, and Judith Wright. I also love poets Philip Larkin and Billy Collins. Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros, which I read in college, is simply stunning. Beauty drips from this post-colonial Caribbean take on Homer’s The Odyssey.

How often do you create a new poem? What style or form do you choose for your poems?

I write half a dozen or so poems a year, sometimes working on them for long periods and coming back after a break to revise further. The rest are brief impressions jotted and then affectionately released from my attention into the archives. Most often I write in free verse using internal or near rhyme.

Are there any forms you haven’t tried but would like to?

Let’s see. I’ve written one poem in blank verse, a few sonnets, a syllabic, an elegy, a sestina, a villanelle, couplets, limericks, a handful of concrete poems, free verse, songs with refrains, and I tend to play with line and stanza breaks. If I thought more about it, I would probably find lots of forms I’d like to try. I have a poster with a reference chart of poetic forms on it at home. Some of them are very difficult, though, and it takes real dedication, regular practice, or teaching poetry to be primed for those challenges. I tend to dabble and seldom tutor poetry writing, though I have enjoyed a few sessions.

How much of yourself do you write into your poetry?

That’s a good existential question if I ever saw one. For me, the way I’ve written myself into poetry has progressed in different stages, but sometimes I return to earlier ones. I used to write a lot of confessional poetry about feelings, anxieties, depression, situational impressions, my experiences during study in France, and some poems about playing soccer or about ideas in stories I’ve read.

Nowadays, I still write occasional complaints in poetic form, but I don’t consider those serious or publishable samples. I have a strong aversion to writing, or reading, political poetry. I prefer the essay form for that purpose. I find a lot of slam poetry and poetry focused on political viewpoints to be too whiny, with off-putting ideas or, most frequently, simply incomplete and unpolished. People tend to take liberties with form, clarity, and content when motivated by outrage or ennui.

I’m always somewhere in my own poems—as the speaker and observer, as a character made of shades of myself and my way of thinking and speaking, and sometimes as the subject. I think every writer is to some degree.

Do you find yourself returning to a particular theme in your poetry?

The most prominent themes include natural elements as expressions of mood, marveling at some specimen of the animal kingdom, struggles for personal freedom and comfort in my own skin, or a combination of these. I’ve also focused a lot on nature poetry in my blog, along with book and arts reviews, emphasizing Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book and the STARZ TV series. I recently added travel writing about our wonderful trip to Scotland inspired by Outlander. My blog title is a throwback to my philosophy roots, a nod to part of a nickname for me, and a portmanteau meant to capture that blend of writing topics: “Philosofishal.

Word choice in poetry seems so important. Do you write with a dictionary or thesaurus next to you or make words choices in the editing process?

I periodically refer to or and research using the Internet. Word choice is extremely important—one of the most important aspects of poetry in particular and, I believe, any good writing. Precise meaning, the right sounds, the right shapes and lengths for optimal rhythm, and careful phrasing, punctuation, and line breaks all have to work in concert for the best effects.

Punctuation choice is highly under-appreciated as a conveyor of nuanced meaning in writing. In poetry, if it is to be used, which is not required, punctuation must be precisely and consistently applied. That was one of the most memorable lessons my verse writing professor had for me in college: “You really must study punctuation.” As an English teacher and poet, I pay close attention to grammar and mechanics standards. When you know the rules, you can more effectively bend, break or uphold them to fit a poem’s purpose and style.

What is your revision process like?

In a poetry reading event at the Akron-Summit County Public Library last year, former U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, of whom I have been a long-time fan, said his writing process is nearly effortless. This comes with experience, of course, but he also makes a point of intentionally abandoning the task early if it gets too unwieldy, cumbersome, or sticky. I haven’t learned that trick, or earned that freedom, yet.

As I mentioned earlier, if I think I have a good enough start, I’ll draft and revise until it’s finished or until it’s changed too much to salvage. This speaks to the importance of saving versions. It can be unavoidable to struggle, though, and to be disheartened by ruinous results. Revision is the fine art of learning when good enough is good enough, which is very subjective, especially for new or amateur poets or poets without good editors. Perhaps I also feel a sense of urgency to put out a product, abandoning my drafts only after a hefty, strenuous effort, long past the wisest point of letting go.

Writers need to learn to become comfortable with what we call sh**ty first drafts, to expect snags and detours, and to know when it’s time to switch focus to a new or different project. Several factors may need to come together to make a piece work well, so that means a lot can go wrong, too. First, you have to know what the different aspects of a poem are. Then, after carefully assessing each factor and addressing each as needed, you can get a more realistic sense of a poem’s or a painting’s potential.

It’s always going to be something of a process, but we’re better off if we can recognize when we’re courting futility. The key at that moment is not to view this as a failure, which can be quite hard for artists, me included. Instead, finishing may be a simple matter of using a different form for the content, pinpointing that missing language or concept, or waiting a while for it all to coalesce, but that doesn’t necessarily make finishing any quicker or easier.

Is poetry your only type of writing? If not, what other types of writing do you indulge in? What is the relationship between your poetry and other writing?

I write a lot of different things, but not as many as I should or could if I were publishing my verse regularly. I write essays and articles on my blog about creativity, book reviews, TV shows, travel, and nature. I write novels during NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo. I write political manifestos I never publish, just to get things off my chest. I recently began trying my hand at memoir and may do more of that in the future. My main focus right now, though, is the non-fiction on my blog.

Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?

My standards for what makes a good poem have definitely risen with education, my own reading, and writing experience. I’ve also found poetry in the prose of certain novels and learned to appreciate different poetic forms and outlets as I’ve aged, realizing how rare poetry really is.

Do poets experience (mental/writing) block (or fear) the way a writer of novels or short stories does? If you have, how did you handle it?

Writing is writing. Working with words or any creative material, in whatever form, brings with it challenges and rewards, as with any job. Furthermore, good writing and holding oneself to a standard of good writing means that, chances are, there will be anxiety. Pressure is useful up to a point. It’s when my own internal pressure to perform and produce becomes too much that I have the most trouble writing.

For me, it’s a periodically recurring problem. I feel as if I’m always searching for ways forward, but that’s also my nature: I’m a seeker. I’m very interested in the “how” of life and writing, so I experiment a lot, resist routine, and tend to suffer the inevitable consequences: interesting process, fewer outcomes, more worry. It’s mentally and emotionally taxing, but it can be creatively fruitful, too, because I’m already slightly outside the box in my thinking sometimes.

What do you hope to achieve with your poems? Do you ask questions in your poetry? If so, are they open ended questions or do you resolve them?

I have several different aims that can either cooperate or compete with each other in a poem for both my audience and myself. Beauty is one. Insight is another. Cleverness and novelty, yet others. Sometimes I write my journaling in verse, but I may not realize it’s just artistic journaling until later. In those cases especially, one of my aims is to convey a certain message or answer a particular question.

With nature poetry, as I mentioned earlier, a typical aim is to upset expectations, to open minds and hearts to new ways of seeing things. Along with these purposes, I’m mindful of craft and improving it. I might focus on developing a keener feel for line breaks or achieving tighter phrasing or using a different literary device than I might typically rely on.

As for solving or leaving unsolved, it depends. I think I often try my best to answer a question my poem poses, but more often than not, it’s only partially resolved or the question has changed or has been revealed to be missing the point by the end.

~~Part 2 of Carrie Tangenberg’s interview continues tomorrow at The Artist’s Corner


May I Take Your Order, Please?

I’m not a big fan of blog posts that are nothing but links, but a few people have requested this of me, and I dare not disappoint my loyal followers.  What they wanted to know was which recipes I featured from my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, went together to create the meals.  I didn’t write the posts in order, and since my novel has yet to be published, I thought I’d do them this favor.

From Chapter One, I featured fried eggs and potatoes, ham and redeye gravy, buttermilk biscuits with butter and jelly, creamed peas, fried apples, and canned peaches for the breakfast celebrating my protagonist’s birth.

In Chapter Six, the first time Johnny Welles meets his Aunt Prudence, I had his stepmother, Collie, serve fried chicken, black eyed peas, fried okra, mashed potatoes, and gravy.

The menu for the meal I created for Chapter Seven, when Johnny leaves the farm with his Aunt Prudence, includes cold fried chicken (See recipe above), fresh peaches, apple pie, and lemonade.

The pork chops I served in Chapter Nine went with the buttermilk biscuits, fried eggs, and fried apples from Chapter One.  If the food item appeared twice in my novel, I only featured the recipe once.

The brisket from Chapter Twelve, when John and Claude celebrated Hanukkah with their friend, Sam Feldman, was enjoyed with latkes.

John and his girlfriend, Garland, were served roast chicken, buttermilk biscuits (See recipe above), and peach pie by Garland’s father, Hugh Griffin, in Chapter Fifteen.  Those buttermilk biscuits were obviously a favorite of mine!

But then I must have liked the latkes, too, because they reappeared in Chapter Twenty Eight when John dined with the Hannah and Reuben Wise and I featured salmon patties topped with carrot slices and horseradish, latkes (See recipe above) with applesauce and sour cream, and homemade grape juice.

The last little meal I have to mention is the brown beans and cornbread served in Chapter Twenty Nine.  I assumed most people would figure out they go together, but they’re just too delicious not to mention.

I hope this satisfies the request to group my recipes as they were featured in my novel.  I still laugh to myself when I think how I feed my characters as if entertaining good friends.  It’s probably because I grew up with parents who can cook and enjoy doing so, and a grandmother whose simple food prepared with love forms some of my best memories.

There are only a handful of chapters that do not include a single mention of food.  As for the ones that do, and aren’t included here, I hope you’ll enjoy a trip through the Edible Fiction portion of my blog discovering the recipes.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 24

Editing is like looking for your car keys on a messy dining room table.  The keys are there, but you are unable to see them among the mail and magazines, your daughter’s homework, brochures from the hardware store, the candlesticks and forgotten napkin, a cup of cold coffee, a box of tissues, your toddler’s blocks, the dog’s leash, a bag of catnip, flyers formerly tucked in the front screen door, your son’s iPod, your husband’s wallet, and on and on.

Only when you have searched every other room in the house and finally returned to the dining room table will you be able to see the keys that have always been there.  It is the same with editing.  You must allow yourself to step away so that when you return, you will be able to see immediately what portions of your writing need to be revised.

I like to edit during my writing process.  Part of the reason I do this is so that I don’t forget the really great idea that just popped into my head.  I don’t understand the point of writing said idea in a notebook and going back to fix the issue after the entire novel is written.  This works for some people, but not for me.  And that’s okay.  There is no one way to write a novel.

With that being said, I also like to step away from my work, especially the larger pieces, for about three months.  Absolutely no peeking at the story on my laptop.  I even try to not think about it unless an amazing idea surfaces, and being in touch with my work, I know the difference between when that occurs and when I’m just anxious to cheat and sneak a peek.

Turns out, what I discovered intuitively is actually a recommendation from one of my favorite writing books, Page After Page by Heather Sellers.  Mrs. Sellers refers to this process as curing, and in her case, it’s what happens when she submits a work and doesn’t look at it, edit it, consider it again until all the rejections return or she’s accepted, in which case she doesn’t need to edit.

Then she goes one step further past the editing process and offers this practice as a method for handling rejection.  When you and your writing come back together, it’s more complex, deeper, richer, funkier, more interesting, and a whole host of other things you didn’t see before because you didn’t put enough time between you and the writing.  Also during this time, you’ve grown.  Hopefully, you’ve been reading both for pleasure and to study writing.  Keep writing every day to ensure you have enough stuff that you don’t feel as if you’re wasting time not editing it.

It’s really quite simple, and yet in its simplicity, it’s brilliant.  Write to keep from editing too soon; write to ease the pain of rejection.  But whatever you do, write.

Write Happy!

The Artist’s Corner – Cooking With Priscilla Smith

I’ve mentioned before that I have a tendency to feed the characters in my stories.  In fact my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, is replete with the mention of food prompting the sharing of recipes.  So when I began The Artist’s Corner, it made sense to feature someone who enjoys the art of cooking as much as I do.  I don’t believe Priscilla has ever cooked for a fictional person, but if she did, they would enjoy her talent as much as the real people for whom she cooks.

Hello and welcome to the Artist’s Corner.  Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Well, I’ve been married for fifty-one years, and I have two children and two grandchildren.  I have enjoyed being a homemaker for the better part of my marriage.  I was heavily involved in raising my family and my children’s schooling, but I also worked in the banking and legal industry as well as a volunteer at the fire department.

How/when did your love of cooking develop?

I learned to cook under my mother’s instruction, but growing up in West Virginia didn’t expose me to a variety of foods.  My basic cooking skills didn’t develop until my high school home economics class in Ohio.  My final project was to collect recipes, and I gathered some good ones, but they were basic.

I honed my skills through my relationship with my oldest brother’s wife.  Inta is Latvian, and she introduced me to other foods and methods of preparation.  I fell in love with cooking and realized I could do this, too.

Do you consider the food you prepare art?

All of it.  From the first steps of preparation to the finished meal is the creation process resulting in edible art.  That’s why I take pictures of it and put it on Facebook!  At first I thought just the fancy stuff and my baking was art, but I realized it all is.  The quality of the food contributes to the finished product.  Homemade food is art with love infused.  In fact, something as simple as fried green tomatoes when made with good ingredients and love are impressive.

And don’t forget that the table setting is part of it.  Presentation plays an important role.  You eat first with your eyes, then your sense of smell, and finally with your mouth.  Sure, it’s the same food when you hastily prepare it and eat right out of the pans, but beautiful dishes, large platters, place mats, candlelight, napkins, silver, and crystal:  all this enhances the food.  You make it worthy of being presented in a magazine.

Do you put yourself into your cooking?

Absolutely.  How I season, what I choose to cook for a particular meal, how I approach the preparation process:  this is me infusing myself into the food.  I love to cook what I enjoy eating for other people.  It’s a small expression of my personality that I can share with others.  And you really can’t go wrong when you’re cooking something you like to eat; it’s like giving a present of yourself to someone.

My accent is on good, solid food.  Not necessarily fancy, but I’m not afraid to try something new.  Thai food has been of interest to me lately.  But if asked to prepare something that I’m not particularly fond of or have never made, I’ll still make every effort to please whoever I’m feeding.

I don’t consider myself a chef by any means, but I consider myself a cook, and a good one.  I have training in life experience with cooking.  My education comes from searching through cookbooks, vintage recipes, online, and word of mouth which usually provides the best recipes.  And I can never leave a recipe alone; I always tweak it!  Sometimes my recipes are never the same twice, but they’re always good.

What other cooking experience have you had?

On a whim, I took a cake decorating class with women from a craft club I attended years ago when my children were young.  A bunch of us went.  I fell in love with the art of cake decorating and started making my kids’ cakes, cakes for neighbors, cakes for family functions.  I realized I could channel my talent into a small business.  With a lot of practice, I worked my way up to wedding cakes and was quite successful.

Did your non-cooking work experience lead to the pursuit of cooking?

Not exactly, but cooking for my family fed my interest.  I’ve never even been a waitress, but I’ve been involved with hosting tea parties (in my home, at church, and in other people’s homes), guests breakfasts for Pastor Appreciation, luncheons honoring staff or administrators at schools, catered wedding receptions, wedding showers, baby showers, conference luncheons for two hundred people at churches, a week’s worth of meals for an equestrian group with special dietary requests, and company Christmas parties.  In each instance, I worked with my client(s) to create a full menu that would be visually pleasing and delicious, and then I prepared the food.

What or who is your inspiration for cooking?

Julia Child, Ina Garten, and Martha Stewart—they cause me to rise up to their standard of cooking.  I love watching them and reading their cookbooks.  Factor in Graham Kerr and Justin Wilson.

What do you enjoy cooking?

It would be a lot quicker to say what I don’t enjoy.  My favorite things to cook are my childhood comfort foods which are brown beans and cornbread, meatloaf and mashed potatoes.  Simple desserts like Crazy Cake and fudge.  Really, it’s hard to say any one thing since I like to make big meals and serve people.  I love to make pasta, beef roasts, chicken in many forms, roasted vegetables.  I love baking pies, breads, cookies, and cakes in that order.

Do you still cook for others as a business?

No, now it’s all for pure pleasure.  Well, actually, I’d take small jobs for close friends or family.  I’ve done everything I want to do business-wise with cooking.  I could turn all my handwritten recipes into a cookbook.  I could see a market for it based on people’s positive reaction to The Pioneer Woman and Paula Deen.  People like well-prepared, basic food that tastes good and isn’t difficult.  Food you already have in your cupboards.

Have you ever competed in a cooking contest or bake off?  If so, how did you do?

I baked for competition once.  When I was a young mother, I made candy apple pie for a local grocery store’s competition.  I took second place and received a ribbon!  I love watching the competitions on television and thinking, I could beat Bobby Flay, but cooking shouldn’t be under pressure or about throwing food around.  I’m not going to cook octopus, but if Bobby and I competed at potato soup or chili, I know I could take him down in a heartbeat.

How have you shared your cooking skills?

Lately, I’ve been teaching a young girl how to cook because she’s homeschooled.  Her mother asked me if I’d teach her to bake cupcakes and cookies because she’d tasted my stuff.  We slowly progressed into pies (double crust and with meringue), and she’s made palmiers, pudding, and angel food cake.  Next she’s going to make cheesecake.  We keep progressing with more and more difficult techniques.

What’s your opinion on the removal of Home Economics from school, specifically cooking?

It’s sad because young people don’t know how to cook.  They come home from work and buy something frozen or already prepared.  And I’m not talking about just girls.  Boys need to know how to cook, too.  My one grandson is prime example that boys can learn how to cook.  It doesn’t have to be fancy, but they need to learn how to feed themselves.  Breakfast and dinner are essentials because that’s usually when they’re home.  Lunch is often eaten out, so they need to learn how to choose wisely.

How is what you cook for yourself different from what you cook for other people?

If I’m making a grilled cheese for myself, I’m going to grab a couple slices of bread from the fridge, use American cheese, and the fanciest thing I’d include would be a slice of tomato.  But if I’m making grilled cheese for someone else, I’m going to use seven-grain or homemade sourdough bread, gruyere, fontina, or a combination of exceptional melting cheeses, spread one side with Dijon mustard, and put a slice of roasted red pepper on that baby.  Still grilled cheese, but see the difference!

No doubt you’d work presentation into this simple fare?

Absolutely!  And it’s not just dressing up ill-prepared or tasteless food.  Make no mistake; it all starts with delicious food, quality ingredients.  Even how you refer to it is important.  Simple things like cutting the crust off toast or sprinkling chopped green onions over an omelet and serving it on pretty dishes can go a long way to turning the eggs and toast you always have for breakfast into something special.

What’s your favorite meal to cook?

Passover.  I love cooking for Passover.  When I’m cooking the Passover meal, the whole experience becomes holy.  Of course the Seder is beautiful; it’s for Adonai.  It can be quite long, so people are getting hungry.  You’d better serve them your best, and I do.  What I hope they know is that I’ve given my best to them because of my love for Adonai.

What’s your dream meal?

To have lunch with Martha Stewart, but I prepare the food.  There’d be a salad involved, probably a soup and sandwich combination.  The time of year, whether spring or fall, would influence the menu.  And I’d make homemade pie, probably lemon meringue because my crust is excellent.

What’s your biggest complaint with cooking?

The cost of good ingredients can be prohibitive.  One meal could be outrageous.  I’ll buy organic when it’s feasible.  My concern isn’t just for myself, it’s for everyone.  We live in a country that wastes too much food.  The GMOs bother me, too.  Whole foods and organics should be available at reasonable prices to everyone.

So do you have a recipe to share with us?

You know I do!

Homemade Potato Dumpling Soup

6 – 8 Redskin or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced

3 – 4 ribs of celery, sliced

Medium sweet onion, chopped

4 eggs, beaten

1 ½ c flour

½ t salt

Stick of butter

4 – 6 cups chicken broth, homemade or canned (enough to cover, depends on the size of your potatoes)

Salt and pepper to taste

1 quart half-n-half

Place the potatoes, celery, and onions in a large pot and cover with the broth.  Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, and cover while you’re making the dumplings.

Combined the eggs, flour, and salt in a mixing bowl and stir thoroughly to make a thick batter for dumplings.  Take a large spoonful of dumpling mixture and cut off pieces with a butter knife, dropping them into the hot soup.  Add a stick of butter.  Cover and let the dumplings cook for 5 – 8 minutes.

Turn the heat off and add the half-and-half until there is plenty of liquid around the ingredients and the soup looks creamy.  Taste to see if you need more salt, then season further with salt and pepper.

My family likes to top the soup with small chunks of Havarti, let it soften ever so slightly, and then eat it!

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers

Have you ever read a book so good that you wanted to rush through it because you couldn’t wait to see how it ended only to stop the last three to five pages before the end because you suspected that it was about to finish on a heartbreaking, bittersweet note?  I have a feeling The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers is going to haunt me for some time, but that’s all right because while I’ve read many good books lately, it’s been a while since I had one that stayed with me as this book did.

I suppose the reason this book affected me is that I couldn’t help looking at it from the romantic’s perspective.  The story is quite surreal, not fantasy and not science fiction, but written in such a way that I could completely suspend belief about what took place to the point that the story totally engrossed me.  Not to mention that Thomas Mullen is a natural born storyteller.

Mr. Mullen seamlessly weaves history from the Great Depression and the 1920s and ‘30s into his novel.  He also intersperses the stories with mention of famous gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the Barker Gang.  One can’t help getting caught up in daring bank robberies, wild police chases, the brokenness of the Hoovervilles, and the tenacity of the G-Men.

But then Mr. Mullen blurs the lines ever so slightly when these gangsters, along with his own fictional Firefly Brothers, earn legions of fans across the country for sticking it to the banks that foreclosed on property of poor, struggling farmers.  True, their craft was an art, but they were also murderers living high on the hog whose charity extended to them first and their families second.  Past that, most of what they did was pure myth.

So how does one separate fact from fiction, truth from lies, and good from evil when the intimidating fingers of governmental control was more than implied in this somewhat prophetic tale?  Factor in the development of what became the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, and it was like I read headlines from today regarding the American government and the NSA.  Perhaps we really are doomed to repeat history when we forget it.

And if you think I’m exaggerating the prophetic nature of the story, consider the following passage:

Part of the Bureau’s job, the Director had always explained, was to dictate reality—to investigate reality, fully understand it, and then, under the aegis of Mr. Hoover’s vigilant public persona, explain that reality to a public cowed by the depression and frightened by stories of gangsters and increasing lawlessness.  It was the Bureau’s job to reassure people that these shockingly hard times were merely speed bumps along the shared path to prosperity, and not a sign that the nation was spiraling into anarchy and madness.

I believe today we call that fake news.  What struck me about this passage was that even if J. Edgar Hoover never said these exact words or acted this way, even in 2010 when the novel was published, Mr. Mullen had understanding of where America was headed.  No doubt based on where we had already been.

At first I thought the novel promoted a lack of hope and something to believe in, but with further reading, I realized it toggled between this and hoping against hope to believe in the impossible as a means of survival.  Such amazing insight into the human condition and an unexpected source of inspiration from a novel is rare.  Another pleasant surprise was the concept of forgiveness, for others and for self, subtly entwined into the tale.

Long before I finished reading, I realized I was experiencing what I could only call a Literary Stockholm Syndrome in which I wanted the bad guys to succeed in their struggle against failure (whether real or perceived), to reconnect with their true loves, and escape.  I mentally pleaded with them to find their women and just disappear.  Nothing they were doing would actually work in the end, it was no longer about seeking justice, and they would most likely end up dead.

I’ve mentioned before how I wished an author would have finished a novel on a clearer, more positive note or would consider writing a sequel to undo the heartbreak and let me know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a happy ending took place (Is It Ever Too Late?).  I mulled these thoughts over again at the end of The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers.  Until Thomas Mullen tells me otherwise, I’ll wish for the impossible and believe in a favorable outcome.

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