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 dictionary.com or thesaurus.com 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.

Have a Holly, Jelly Christmas

Christmas morning of 1917 was a time of excitement for Johnny Welles and his three older siblings.  In addition to celebrating the special day, a secret was brewing behind the scenes that would add to the festive holiday season and bring joy to the entire family.  In a passage leading up to the discovery of this secret, I wrote a portion for my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, that included the special treat of apple jelly on pound cake served for Christmas breakfast.  The following recipe is the one I had in mind when writing the above-mentioned scene.

Collie’s Apple Jelly

3 lbs. tart apples (¼ underripe and ¾ ripe)

3 c water

2 T lemon juice, strained

3 c white sugar

This recipe doesn’t require an outside source of pectin because it uses tart apples which are higher in pectin.  Also, the slightly underripe apples further ensure a natural source of pectin.

Sort and wash the apples.  Remove the stems and blossom ends.  Do not pare or core the apples.  Cut them into small pieces.  Add the water, cover, and bring to a boil on high heat.  Stir occasionally to prevent scorching.  Reduce the heat and simmer the mixture for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the apple pieces are soft.  Do not over boil or you’ll destroy the pectin, flavor, and color in the fruit.

Dampen a jelly bag and suspend over a clean bowl.  Ladle the cooked apples and liquid into the jelly bag and allow the juices to drip through on their own.  Pressing out the juice will result in cloudy jelly.  If a fruit press is used, pass the juice through a jelly bag to reduce cloudiness.

Pour the apple juice into a flat-bottomed pot.  Add the lemon juice and sugar.  Stir thoroughly.  Boil the mixture over high heat to eight degrees above the boiling point of water (this temperature depends on where you live in regards to sea level) or until the jelly sheets from a spoon.  Remove the jelly from the heat and quickly skim off the foam.

Immediately pour the jelly into hot, sterile jars.  Be sure to leave ¼ inch headspace.  Wipe the rims with a clean, damp paper towel.  Fit a canning lid into a ring and place on the jars of jelly.  Take care to level and tighten them properly.  Process the jars in a water bath canner.  The time required will depend on the altitude at which you live:

0 – 1000 ft. for five minutes

1001 – 6000 ft. for 10 minutes

Above 6000 ft. for 15 minutes

Remove the processed jars using canning tongs.  Allow the jars to cool on several layers of towels.  During this time, you’ll hear the lids pop indicating successful canning.  You can remove the rings for reuse once the lids pop and the jars cool.  Any lid that does not pop has not sealed properly.  These jars should be cooled and refrigerated for immediate use.  This recipe yields about four to five half-pint jars of golden sweet deliciousness.

Now it’s time for the confession portion of this post.  Thinking like a modern woman, I had Collie making the apple jelly a few days before she served it for Christmas.  In my world, one would simply go to the store for apples or pull them from the refrigerator where they waited patiently to be eaten or made into something delicious.  Refrigerators for home use weren’t invented until 1913, and I seriously doubt the Welles family would have had one by 1917.  They could have had a cellar, but I never mentioned this in the description of the house, and to do so for the sake of one scene would feel contrived.

Apples will last for six to eight weeks with refrigeration, but left on a counter, they will ripen ten times faster because enzymes are much more active at room temperature, and they will only last for a week or two.  More likely, Collie would have made the jelly during the months when apples were in season.  So while I made a small culinary mistake in my novel, fortunately I discovered it prior to publication.  As I’ve always said, the research begins with the author.  It will be easy to edit this scene by having Collie say she held back one jar to use on Christmas morning.

It’s What Liv Ordered

In May of 1951, diner owner, Bea Turner, was asked to make a birthday cake for Toby Bruce Robishaw who was turning one.  Toby’s mother, Liv, was an extravagant woman who loved to make a show of everything she did.  Her son’s first birthday party was no exception.

The people Liv invited to Toby’s party were simple folk living in the hills of West Virginia.  They had simple tastes and probably expected a simple dessert such as Crazy Cake.  However, Liv used the occasion of her son’s birthday to show off yet again.  The cake she came up with is lovely, but it was completely lost on the birthday guests.

The following recipe is the one I had in mind for the above-mentioned scene taking place in my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles.  By tweaking portions of other recipes, I created a cake suitable for the splashy tastes of Liv Barrette Robishaw.

Now don’t get me wrong; the cake is delicious.  It’s not what one would serve at a child’s party.  Here’s a passage from my novel describing exactly what Liv requested of Bea:

Three, double-layer cakes were divided by pillars with plastic circus animals placed in the space between.  Red and blue icing crisscrossed the edges of the cake in every direction.  A handful of colorful flags exploded out of the top layer.  Every inch of the cake not already taken up with decoration had a piece of candy pressed into the icing like a gingerbread house.

Liv’s outlandish request is what prompted Bea to say, “It’s what Liv ordered.”  Bea’s statement was offered as an explanation and apology to the townsfolk who understood completely.

The quantities listed below will make one layer of the cake I described above.

Hazelnut Cake

12 oz. hazelnuts

2 t baking powder

6 egg yolks

5/8 c white sugar

6 egg whites

Toast the hazelnuts in a 350° oven for 10–15 minutes or until lightly golden in color.  Cool completely.  Remove the skins from the toasted nuts by placing in a tea towel and briskly rubbing them together or place them in a colander and swirl them around to remove the skins.  Grind the hazelnuts until very fine.  Add baking powder and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 325°.  Thoroughly grease and flour a 9-inch springform pan.

In a large mixing bowl, use a hand-held electric mixer to combine the egg yolks with the sugar until pale yellow in color.  Beat in the ground hazelnuts.  This mixture will be extremely heavy and sticky.

Wash your beaters to remove any traces of fats.  In a separate bowl, beat room temperature egg whites until stiff peaks form.  Carefully whisk 1/3 of the egg whites into the yolk mixture to lighten the batter.  Fold in another 1/3 of the egg whites taking care not to delate them.  Fold in the remaining 1/3 of the egg whites until no streaks of batter remain.

Gently pour into the prepared 9-inch springform pan.  Bake in a preheated oven for 60 minutes or until the top of the cake springs back when lightly tapped.  Cool completely on wire rack.

Cinnamon Crème Filling

1 c heavy cream, chilled

1 c powdered sugar

1 ½ t ground cinnamon

1 t vanilla

Chill a metal bowl and the beaters of a hand-held mixer in the freezer for ten minutes.  Pour the heavy cream into the chilled metal bowl and beat on high speed with a hand mixer until the cream is frothy.  Slowly add the powdered sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla.  Continue beating until stiff peaks form.

Place the bowl of cinnamon crème filling in the refrigerator until needed or use immediately.

Whipped Buttercream Frosting

3 c powdered sugar

2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature

3 T heavy cream

2 t vanilla

Beat the butter, heavy cream, vanilla, and one cup of powdered sugar with a hand mixer until they are completely combined.  Add the remaining two cups of powdered sugar one cup at a time.  Blend well after each addition.  The lighter weight of this buttercream frosting is perfect for the delicate hazelnut cake.

You can use this frosting immediately or chill for later use.

Assembling the Cake

Once the cake has cooled completely, cut it in half horizontally.  Place the bottom half (cut side up) on a cake stand  and spread the Cinnamon Crème Filling generously over the top with a spatula or knife to within ¼ inch of the cake edge.  Place the top layer of cake (cut side down) over the filling, taking care to position it correctly.

Using a knife or spatula, ice the top of the cake with the Whipped Buttercream Frosting.  Do not drag the frosting too hard across the cake.  Level the top with icing and proceed to ice the sides until they are completely covered.  Wipe any icing smears from the edge of the cake stand with a clean, damp cloth.  Chill for at least an hour before serving.

Enjoy!

SIDE NOTE:  If you’ve never folded egg whites into batter, I strongly suggest you watch the video I’ve provided.  It’s a delicate process, but don’t be daunted by it.  Regardless of how you whip your egg whites, it’s the folding process the chef demonstrates that is of the utmost importance.

The Art of Folding

The Solitude of Thomas Cave by Georgina Harding

The Solitude of Thomas Cave by Georgina Harding is one of those novels that brilliantly breaks the rules of writing.  You know, all those pesky rules about writing such as use only one POV, don’t head hop, don’t bookend your novel with a prologue or epilogue, and don’t use flashbacks.  The fact that the novel was published as recently as 2007 restores my faith in the industry.  With that being said, The Solitude of Thomas Cave is one of the best examples of literary fiction I’ve ever read.  It’s right up there with Poison by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer and Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier.

The novel opens with the narrative of Thomas Goodlard, a sailing companion of Thomas Cave on the whaling ship, the Heartsease.  Young Goodlard relays the details of how Thomas Cave came to spend an entire year by himself on an Arctic island.  A rash bet between shipmates is sure to be the end of Cave, yet there is something more to his desire to stay alone in the frozen hell.

At this point, the novel slips into the POV of third person omniscient, describing Cave’s experiences.  Harding writes with clarity sharper than the frigid Arctic air, and she sucks the reader in with chilling description regarding the conditions in which Cave must survive.

Part of Cave’s solitude involves reflection on his relationship with the beautiful daughter of a shoemaker.  It’s a ghost story, really, and one that haunts Cave’s self-imposed exile to the point that he cannot separate dreams from reality.  He does, however, manage to keep his personal history out of the log he keeps for the Captain of the Heartsease, and we are treated to passages from said diary.  By having her protagonist hide some of the truth of his isolation, Harding supplies her readers with interesting details of Cave’s life that his fellow characters never know, and the reader is drawn deeper into his nightmare.

The history surrounding whaling practices is harsh, often brutal, to read.  It’s not a profession with which I am in agreement; Harding doesn’t back down from the gory truth.  It also isn’t long before one realizes Cave is eating whatever is necessary to survive.  As rough as conditions on a whaling ship might be, by the end of the novel they seem like the lap of luxury compared to Cave’s meager existence.

Harding surprises by not ending the book with what I assumed would be the natural conclusion.  At first I feared she would ramble on, simply trying to fulfill a word count.  But it is in this final section that she reveals a subtle yet powerful message.  She also reverts back to Thomas Goodlard’s POV and finishes the book with the truth that solitude isn’t just something we experience:  it is something we can carry inside because of our experiences.

A Little More Persuasion

So, having recently read Jane Austen’s Persuasion, naturally I had to watch the movies to see which one did the best job of capturing all that the novel is.  I’ll give the readers following my blog a few moments to finish laughing.  But seriously, if I had to choose one as my favorite, it would be the 1995 adaptation starring Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root.

With that being said, I must also admit that reading the book first will be extremely helpful because there is a large cast of characters and detailed storylines to keep track of.  Without the benefit of a reading, the movie might seem patchy, as if much is left unexplained.

I believe the reason no movie will ever completely depict Persuasion, or any book for that matter, but in particular Persuasion, is because much of the prose describes what the characters are thinking and feeling.  We have an in-depth view of Anne’s heart that can only be conveyed on screen by her expressions.  The same is true of Captain Wentworth.  However, when the characters do speak, there are no wasted words.

The thrill of romantic tension Jane Austen infused in her novel comes out well in the 1995 Persuasion.  Again I found myself wanting the movie to hurry up and relieve Anne’s and Wentworth’s agony, but just as quickly wishing to prolong the scenes so I could relish them over and over.  At the conclusion of the novel, I felt as if I was leaving dear friends behind, and the movie engendered the same emotions as well as put faces on said friends.

And then there is the kiss in the 1995 Persuasion when Anne and Wentworth finally overcome their insecurities and presumptions regarding each other.  Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root do it the best as we’re given the view from just over Wentworth’s shoulder as he’s leaning down to make contact with Anne’s lips, and she closes her eyes right before they touch.  Let the squealing and sighing commence because it is, in my humble opinion, the best onscreen kiss ever.

As for Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root, they do a wonderful job portraying Wentworth and Anne.  He is classically handsome with high cheekbones and a regal bearing.  Never is Hinds’s Wentworth the pretty, spoiled rich boy next door.  Amanda Root’s Anne embodies Jane Austen’s own sentiment of being “almost too good for me.”  She is perfect as the plain but pretty woman past her bloom who later revives the blush upon her cheeks the closer she comes to her one true love.

The 2007 adaption of Persuasion starring Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones is not bad, but it’s not great.  I would never dissuade you from watching to make up your own mind.  My biggest complaints are that some characters’ lines end up in the mouths of other characters and too many scenes are consolidated which lessens the impact of what takes place.  There is also a titch too much creative licensing going on and four times the director employs the technique of having Anne (Sally Hawkins) look directly at the camera as if making eye contact with the viewer thus conveying the depth of her feelings at the moment.  Once would have been sufficient to make us feel Anne’s pain.

Wentworth in this version is handsome but not dashing, and Anne’s hair looks as if it needs a good washing.  As for the kiss at the end, Anne has been running to catch up to Wentworth, and she pants too long and too hard.  Then the scene drags on forever, I have to assume because of the director’s instructions or perhaps to give Sally Hawkins time to catch her breath, and the moment is spoiled.  It is actually more embarrassing than romantic.

One saving grace is Anthony Head as Sir Walter, Anne’s father.  It’s almost frightening how well Head portrays the depth of shallowness and vanity to which Sir Walter has sunk, caring little or nothing for those around him who he deems worthless including his own dear daughter, Anne.  Kudos to Head for making me hate this character because I have to admit, sometimes I love a character I can hate.

There are a couple TV mini-series based on Persuasion from the ‘60s and 70’s and a modern adaptation all of which I’m sure I’ll miss.  Until a glowing review for one of them comes from a friend or follower, I’ll stay with the novel and the 1995 movie.

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