1. As part of the University of Alaska at Anchorage Low-Residency MFA Program, all us faculty gave public readings almost every night of the program. Everyone in the program attended these readings--usually, all the faculty and all the students, which I think was something like 60 people total though I'm not sure...--as well as a bunch of people from the community.
On my night, I was scheduled to read with Craig Childs, another new faculty member and this amazing, wild, wonderful adventurer type who's written at least a dozen books and lord knows how many articles and does things like get dropped onto ice caps and salt deserts to explore the terrain while scribbling furiously the whole time in these little notebooks he carries and, if they're not available, on whatever's handy, including his own skin. For me, writing usually means isolation and not writing means being out in the world and having adventures, and so I think my usual pattern is to constantly swing back and forth between the two, but for Craig every moment seems to be about adventure and about writing, at the same time. He seems quite inexhaustible, and in fact observing him staying out late with students every night and attending all activities during each day probably made me more tired and I secretly blame him for the 50000 naps I took during the residency...
Anyway, knowing we were reading together, we talked about it beforehand, and he was even suggesting that we might coordinate our reading, going back and forth.... I told him I would be reading from Mermaid, and ended up giving him the first two chapters to look at, since he had an endless supply of writing to choose to read from... I think he was surprised to end up liking the chapters so much, and finding that he could relate to them, even. And he ended up deciding we should read separately but that he would go first and lead into mine, and he decided to just improvise, showing all these wonderful slides and talking beautifully and passionately about water.... always being drawn to water, wherever he is, in all different kinds of climates and worlds. He talked for almost an hour, and it was totally mesmerizing, and then I got up and read a chapter from Mermaid which was all about this creature from the sea longing for the earth. (Mermaid is based on the Hans Christian Andersen story, right, and I read a chapter that follows the plot from it fairly directly, when the mermaid takes the potion from the sea witch and gets her tongue cut out in exchange, then goes to the prince's kingdom and drinks the potion so that her tail turns to legs...). It was a really cool combination, I thought. The writing being so fantastically different--and our personalities, Craig shouting and practically beating on his chest, me reading quietly from my book--and yet all these common themes emerging, about water and earth, being drawn to the end of the world...
It was a very cool, unique experience. Here is a podcast of it.
By the way, Craig's latest book, Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession, just came out, and here's the NY TImes review.
Many of the other readings, by the way, were spectacular. I became quite close to the poet Anne Caston while I was there, and her reading absolutely knocked me out and had me in tears practically the whole time (she is devastating, amazing, and she reads in this soft, sweet, hushed voice, and the most heartwrenching things come out of her mouth... I felt like I was listening to someone out of Greek myth...). She read with Rich Chiappone, who is unbelievably funny--what a combination, those two!--and then Sherry Simpson ended that night with a reading from her new book about bears, which was really lovely and sad and eye-opening. Anne and Rich's readings are here, and Sherry's is here. And of course there was Jo-Ann Mapson, who is this incredibly charming, wonderful storyteller (her 10th novel, Solomon's Oak, is about to come out) and wonderful lady, and I will love her forever for plucking me up and bringing me to Alaska in the first place. I became close to a lot of people in Alaska, but Jo-Ann and Anne really made the experience warm and lovely for me. The three of us went out to lunch on the first day of the program and again on the last, and I miss them! Anyway, Jo-Ann read with Judith Barrington and program director David Stevenson, both of whom are wonderful but if I keep saying that word I am quite sure something bad will happen to me; the link is here.
Here is a photo of me with Anne (sitting) and Jo-Ann (behind us):
Aren't they lovely??
There were many other great readings and they are all on podcast on that same site (include Kim Addonizio's, which I mentioned before).... I have not listened to any to any since I was there, and have not listened to my own because I would surely faint away and die. But you should listen, this minute!
I am not even mentioning all the students I came to love, including my four lovely mentees, all women writing really cool and really different novels that I will be working with them on all year from afar....
2. I must ALSO mention the anthology of fairytale stories which I am roodly NOT IN but which Kim Addonizio is in and the amazing Timothy Schaffert is in (amongst may others), My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, which comes out next month. Timothy, whom I met a couple times in Omaha, the first time during his literary festival there, which was so much fun, emailed me to ask if I would join him and Terese Svoboda in a conversation about mermaids for the Prairie Schooner blog. (That will happen in a month or so I think). He said that his story in the anthology is called "The Mermaid in the Tree" and is also a based on "The Little Mermaid" and I demanded that he send it to me right then and it is totally, totally stunning and weird and gorgeous and macabre and AWESOME.
Listen to the first few paragraphs (which he said I could post, lest you think I am being uncourteous)!:
Desiree the child bride, and her sister Miranda, had gone grave-robbing for a wedding gown. In the north end of the cemetery, among the palatial mausoleums with their broken windows of stained glass where the ivy crept in, was the resting place of a young woman who’d been murdered at the altar while reciting her marital vows. The decaying tombstone, among the cemetery’s most envied, was a limestone bride in despair, shoulders as slumped as a mule’s, a bouquet of lilies strewn at her feet. Though her murder, by her groom’s jealous mother, had been long in the past, everyone knew that her father had had her buried in her gown of lace and silk.
“Can you believe we’re the only ones to have ever thought of this?” Miranda said, her knuckles bloodied from shoveling dirt, as she undid the delicate whalebone buttons lining the back of the skeleton’s dress.
Desiree, however, was less inclined to be enthused, and she climbed from the hole, distracted, to light a cigarette on the flame of the lantern. She uncorked a jug, gulped down a few fingers of whiskey, and squinted at the horizon of plains burnt black by old prairie fires, the setting sun leaving behind a thin ribbon of violet. His heart isn’t mine, she thought.
Admit that is one of the best openings ever.
3. SPEAKING OF "The Little Mermaid," and inspired by a conversation I had with Timothy, I have been reading a couple of biographies of Hans Christian Andersen, who is so gorgeous and so weird and dark--and that's just in his stories! in real life he was so over the top, so always falling on love with everyone and never being loved back--and have scheduled a trip for myself to Denmark in late September. I'll be staying in Copenhagen for two nights but taking a day trip to Odense, Fyn Island, where HCA grew up and where he wrote his mermaid story....
AND WHERE HIS GHOST CONTINUES TO HAUNT THE LANDSCAPE.