Monday, February 28, 2011

Lines & Shadows

Power lines at dusk, Silver Spring, MD
Dock, Shady Side, MD
Pump, Shady Side, MD

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bring on the Groupies

A few days ago, my usual daily readership of, oh, about 12 shot up to 500. Chez of Deus Ex Malcontent posted a charming testimonial on Christine Tomaszewski's photography work and personality, and linked to the interview I did with her, and wowza. People clicked. Lots of people.
Shadow thrown by
big spotlight

[awkward silence]

So now I'm feeling tongue-tied.

[more awkward silence]

[throat clearing] So, OK!  Moving along. 

My thanks goes out to Chez, whom I haven't actually met, for bestowing traffic upon Artful Mistakes and good press for his friend Christine. And my thanks goes out to Christine for her gorgeous photographs and thoughtful replies to questions for a blog that she understood would have a readership of 12, meaning, she answered just because, hey, she was interested, willing to chat, and as a favor to me.

Display, fame and audience have been on my mind since the bustle of activity. All that rush of attention and possibilities, it's flattering and thrilling!

It's also induces, for the shy crowd, some stomach-dropping nausea. 

When I heard my little grape had been put on a superhighway vine,  I was far from my computer, and a mild panic set in. There were posts I needed to pull down. All of them, for instance.

I'd adjusted to the exposure of a blog in the first place by knowing how few people followed it. It didn't matter how strange posts were if no one read them, but when all the eyes arrive: yipes!

I calmed myself with simple reality: hey, they'll read about Christine -- who gave a great interview and provided stunning photos -- and then be on their way.

A brief review of analytics backs this up. Folks scanned the article and photos and moved on. 

And so now I'm back to my comfort zone of 12 readers. Phew. 

For a public format, this is crazy think. I'm supposed to want to be famous, for heaven's sake.  It's downright un-American otherwise (let's, for example, all ponder the oddity of reality TV). 

And in some ways, I do want to be famous, but not in a Lady Gaga marketed image way. Or creepy reality TV.

Most people, I think, want to be seen and appreciated for their own unique charms, and I'm no exception. And we all may squirm (to varying degrees) under the examining eye. As Chez began in his comments on Christine, "She'll probably balk at the attention, but..."

We all know the eye can also see all that imperfection leaking out, decidedly uncomfortable.  It's easy to focus more on our mistakes than our successes. But having our successes lauded feels a little strange too.

I noticed the mere prospect of larger exposure felt a bit improper, impolite. Why should I get attention when there are much worthier people and causes on which folks could be spending their time? Women, in particular, are encouraged to deflect any attention from ourselves to someone else.

Pay no attention to that [wo]man behind the curtain.
And so (as a good interviewer and "good" woman), part of me felt more comfortable because at least I remained in the background of Christine's story.

In many ways, that approach is an accurate representation of my historical modus operandi (which may have nothing to do with gender roles; I've no idea). I've spent much of my life learning how to pry information out of other people, listening and asking questions because I am curious about life stories, reasonably compassionate, and a bit of a control freak (history can provide a guide as to what to expect). I've sneaked around hoarding information.

It's probably not a coincidence that my senior thesis in college was entitled "Women and Insanity under the Patriarchal Gaze."

But getting back to attention and art, most successful art points the lens at the artist, or at others, in such a way that the audience clicks into his or her own experience. The audience steps into another viewpoint, a pair of shoes, and sees hows they fit, feels the soft leather and torn blisters. By zeroing in on the emotional world, our humanness, a painting or photograph or story or dance or song gives us understanding on an emotional, not just intellectual level, of the experience of others. 

I continue to find that pretty damn magical. 

Starting this blog was, and continues to be, as I apparently have to endlessly restate to myself and patient readers, about tossing out some of the invisibility, opening up, taking up space, about looking around, finding community, and paying attention. It's about trying new things and exploring, and being a wee bit more accountable. It's about flops and successes and learning. It's about talking about the art and artists that I connect to, which, I realize belatedly, says as much about me as it does about them.

Creativity is necessarily intensely personal. I revel in the nuances and oddities of the artistic process, mine and others, and am obsessed with creative obsessions, mine and others, the whys and whats and hows of creating.

Looking forward, I intend to present more interviews, putting the fantastic people that I know on display and learning from their talent and enthusiasm. The art of others that I stumble into and my reactions to it will be pondered as well. And I will keep doing my own arty magpie struts through here as well, tripping under the eye of readership (be that of 12 or 500 or 6,000,000 or 1).

Bring on the groupies. I'm ready.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Billboards Seen Driving to Bread Loaf

Floyd the Dashboard Frog
playing with Almost Dorothy
Photo credit: Neil de la Flor
The Poem:

Billboards Seen Driving to Bread Loaf

We’re almost out of the South.
Triangle Waffle House specializes in

ham & eggs.
Lens cap cover on.
Thousands of Wigs! Hairpieces, Wigs!
Trailer hitched to pickup tilted off the highway.

Welcome to Johnston County. Olde South billboard, decaying.
It’s metaphor, you said, and, I want to see a civil war battlefield.
Ava Gardner Museum.

How’s your coffee? It’s tea.
Vermont will have windy roads. With cliffs.
Enough that you could kill yourself,

but most people don’t
worry about their fear of bridges.
We switch drivers.
Drink tea.
Read poetry: Maureen’s, Dean's, Mr. Breadloaf.
A Sign reads, "Elephants."

We’re near the home of Smithfield Hams.
A poem with repetition: where are my wigs?
An overheight detector.
A Bible factory outlet.
Bentonsville Civil War battleground .
Want to go?


-- Neil de la Flor & Cyn

The Process:
The summer after our first year of graduate school, Neil and I journeyed up from Florida to Vermont so he could attend Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and I could help my mother move in Maine. Digging through old files last week, I found a random list of one-line typo-ridden notes. I dimly recall typing them one day while riding shotgun with my laptop as we headed north. The goofy tidbits brought back travel memories -- Neil is great fun on the road, just remember to feed him every three hours -- and so I emailed the mess to Neil to begin refashioning: time for a poem. We trimmed words down and rearranged and added a smidge, and voila!, a conversational vignette on travel and friendship and how very weird the South can be (wigs!). 

Neil wanted to make a sonnet, but I apparently can't count syllables or delete (hey, my degree is in fiction for a reason), so perhaps we'll try that next, chug along with something else. 

My point is not to say, Woohoo! High Art right here! More that, unlike the Important Poems you may have had to memorize so you could recite them too quickly with no feeling and sweaty palms in 8th grade English class, formal is just one approach to wordsmithing. Another is collaborating with a friend to create an oddball trip souvenir.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Photography: Christine Tomaszewski, Satirenoir

She of the Earth, Formed of Light
She of the Earth, Formed by Light
Christine Tomaszewski 
When Christine Tomaszewski, a photographer I met when we worked at the same tech firm, excused herself from a lunch table of coworkers to climb a wobbly bar stool, lean way over the bar, and shoot a photo of the glasses lining the back wall, I knew we would get along. The pursuit of art and pretty shiny things continues to infuse our conversations and so I was more than pleased when she agreed to an email interview.

Her photographs have been displayed in galleries in New York and Connecticut. To view more of her work, check out her flickr stream here.

And now: Christine on photography.

Cyn: Why photography? What was your initial draw and what continues to pull you in?

Christine Tomaszewski: It’s never been one thing. I would take pictures on vacations when I was young, but it wasn’t anything that I put time into apart from that. I taught a photography and darkroom class in summer camp one year, but I was too busy flirting with the boy teaching it with me to focus on whether or not I really liked photography. It wasn’t until I graduated from college and moved to New York City that I felt an urge to get back into it. I got my first film SLR for my birthday in 1999, less than 2 weeks before I went to London to visit a friend. That any of the pictures turned out was nothing short of a miracle, and I continued to shoot off and on around the city for about a year afterwards. I was doing a lot of writing at the time, and I still considered that to be my primary creative outlet (you’d never be able to guess from the way I ramble now), so the photography eventually dropped off, the lovely SLR languishing in a box that moved from apartment to apartment but rarely saw the light of day.

Years later, I moved to DC and its soul-numbing suburbs. I stopped writing, but didn’t have anything else to take its place. For 2 years, I struggled to find something I loved. I tried my hand at painting, thought about taking up drawing again, but nothing really inspired me. Then I met a friend of a friend through work. She had amazing self-portraits posted on flickr, which was still the wild west back then, and I spent hours going through her stream. She always had a camera with her in her purse. She was amused by bits of rusty pipe and the clouds in the sky and the way someone squinched their face when annoyed. This time, when I picked up that film SLR again, I found I couldn’t put it down. I have since acquired several other cameras, and photography has become something that isn’t just what I do on nice days or vacations, but something that defines who I am.

I suppose that still doesn’t answer the why and continued interest, but I think I touch on that enough in other questions to leave it unanswered here.

C: Who are some of your favorite photographers? What captures you in their work?

CT: I suppose everyone expects me to say Richard Avedon or David LaChapelle or the name that floats around our collective consciousness: Ansel Adams. In truth, it’s not like that at all. I’m most inspired and impressed by the work of fellow photographers who, like me, often have day jobs and lives that revolve around a thousand other things, but always make time for their passion. So at best, I can give you a small sampling of those wonderful people:

Don Blankenship: He works in land surveying in the wild mountains of North Carolina, and his photography reflects this. Old pieces of Americana, long forgotten, and sometimes still well-loved. It’s a world I’m heartened to know still exists.

Therese Brown: I’m still petrified of my Holga, and every time I look at her stream, I think of all the things I’m missing by leaving it at home. Her view of the world is soft, without edges, without harshness... and strongly reflects her Buddhist leanings and northern California landscape.

Markus Busch: He’s a genius with film. Possibly just a genius all around. Seriously, jaw-droppingly amazing landscapes.

Ann Marie Simard: The goddess of light. She makes the cold Canadian winters look like paradise. There is a constant sense that just off camera, hiding perhaps behind that stalk of bokeh’ed grass, is a sprite, laughing and causing mischief. What magic DeLint captures in his stories, she tells with photographs.

C: What are the commonalities in photographs you love (yours or others)?

CT: There should always be elements of emotion and depth. Just as we look for something more than just a pretty face when seeking a relationship (well, most of us anyhow), the same holds true for photography. I’ve seen thousands of technically flawless images that were about as inspiring or interesting as a page from the Financial Times... and blurred images that broke all the rules, yet stirred something so deep and powerful that I watched as comment after comment tried and failed to explain what, how & why.

C: Have to ask it: digital v. film.  Advantages, disadvantages, snob factor?

CT: Oh, there is definitely a rogue, snob factor to film, which is kind of unfortunate, since it has a life to it that digital hasn’t been able to capture. Digital is too crisp, too buttoned up. Film is the rougher, less polished cousin. The one that inexplicably still gets all the girls even though he’s well past his prime. I use both, but I admit that much of my heart still belongs to film.

only halfway
Only Halfway
Christine Tomaszewski

shhh! they're watching
Shh! They're watching!
Christine Tomaszewski

just like a star
Just Like a Star
Christine Tomaszewski
C: Does equipment matter? Why or why not? Any favorite cameras, films, software, printing papers, lenses, filters?

CT: Of course it does! Anyone who says differently is lying. ;-) Honestly though, it does matter, but not nearly as much as the person behind it though. $16k worth of professional equipment won’t save you if you don’t have some piece of inherent talent that you can develop. I’ve seen amazing photographs from point & shoot pocket cameras, $2.00 Holgas... and at best middling work from people with state of the art Hasselblads.

I appreciate my new Canon 5d Mark II... but my favorite camera is far and away the cheapie Pentax ZX-7 I bought used, the beat up 24-200 Tamron lens (that gets stuck around 70mm) and especially my compact little 50mm prime to go with it. I have a few other film and digital cameras, and my Pentax is the one I reach for time and again.

Of course, I also love using really cheap (sometimes expired) drugstore film, so maybe I’m not the best one to ask.

C: I know in your work, you play around with editing in Photoshop a fair amount.  What is your relationship with the editing process?  Do you view it as corrective, exploratory, both or otherwise?

CT: It’s a little bit of all of those. I know quite a few folks who make it a point to say they don’t do even the smallest bit of editing... and that works for them. I have some photographs that are perfect the way they are, and others that need some corrective work, and others still that end up far removed from reality. I go for emotion, which means I have no problem manipulating the image to make it suit the mood I’m trying to convey. I’ve had the conversation (and sometimes, argument) with those who would say it’s cheating, and we’ll have to agree to disagree.

you can never go home
You Can Never Go Home
Christine Tomaszewski

all I feel is your touch
All I Feel Is Your Touch
Christine Tomaszewski

he's been a bad little boy
He's Been a Bad Little Boy
Christine Tomaszewski

C: What are some obsessions in your work? I've noticed many close-ups of leaves, long angles in buildings, and self-portraits. Do you look for particular content, scenes, shapes, colors, or wander into whatever captures your imagination?

CT: In some ways, you’re better equipped to notice the obsessions than I am. I tend not to notice them because I don’t often think about it. I go out, I point my camera at things, I go home and edit... and then people point out themes. I’m often more surprised than anyone that they exist.

C: Shooting people - what are the challenges and rewards?

CT: Challenges: people move. They’re fussy. And no matter how good the lighting, how beautiful your skin... everyone needs retouching. So before you ask me to shoot you, know that I will become intimately familiar with every pore on your face. It’s like being a dentist.

Rewards: capturing a moment that speaks to their personality. That look in their eye, the twinge of smile in the corners of their lips, the way their head tilts slightly that they don’t always realize they do. Getting that relaxed state where they’re just being completely themselves often makes up for all the challenges.

coming out into the night
Coming Out Into the Night
Christine Tomaszewski

wrapped up
Wrapped Up
Christine Tomaszewski

holding with help
Holding with Help
Christine Tomaszewski

locked, loaded and ready to party
Locked, Loaded and Ready to Party
Christine Tomaszewski 
C: How do you feel photography fits into the larger world of visual arts?

CT: A while ago, I read a book by Steven Brust called The Sun, The Moon, and The Stars that was all about the creative process, and in it, the main character talks about his struggles with considering photography as a real art form. Eventually, he realizes that while as a painter, he can create his reality in any way that suits him, photographers always have to start with this reality. We can’t make it up. We have to take something that many people ostensibly see every day, and show it to them in a way that makes them stop. So does that make it harder? Not necessarily... but it’s certainly just as legitimate as painting or sculpture.

C: The rule of thirds - do you follow it religiously? Do you have photos you love that break this or other rules of photography?

CT: What was it that Mark Twain said? Something about how you have to know the rules first, then you can break them all you want. It’s kind of that way with the rule of thirds... once it becomes ingrained, you can go about breaking it for specific cases.

C: When you are in photo-mode, how does your view on the world change?  For instance, when I'm out taking snapshots, I find I pay a great more attention to my surroundings, but that I also tend to chop it up more, considering what fits in a viewfinder, so I experience the world more as detailed parts, rather than holistically.

CT: I try to be as engaged in the world as possible when I’m out photowalking. No headphones or thinking about work or daydreaming. Anything less than complete attention to my environment and I’m likely to miss something really neat. So when I’m out, I notice not just the elements that go into the photograph (light, color, texture, pattern), but all the things that make up the moment: the smell of the ocean, the music coming from the bar, the laughter of friends as they walk past, the crunch of the gravel underfoot... I may take a picture of something that doesn’t include any of those, but I’d like to think all those things make their way in anyhow.

that other light
That Other Light
Christine Tomaszewski
C: How does art and photography impact other aspects of your life?

CT: Art is insidious in the way it invades so many other aspects of life. I see a break of light through the clouds, or a crumbling house along the highway, and part of me wants to stop the car right now and capture it. The thing is, not everything needs to be captured, which I guess goes back to the question above: sometimes the experience is the thing. My memory will fade, there’s no doubt about that... but having a photograph may not change that. Principally: enjoy life, if you get too greedy about capturing it, you’ll miss out on so much more.

alive and on fire
Alive and On Fire
Christine Tomaszewski
C: [Create your own question and tell me what you want to say about photography] Why do you say you hate having your picture taken, but you have so many self-portraits?

CT: I’ve actually gotten much better about this over the years that I’ve been taking for self-portraits, and the two are very much linked. I originally started taking self-portraits for two reasons: my friend Jodi (who is the friend & coworker mentioned in question 1) took amazing self-portraits, and she inspired me to give it a whirl... and secondly, I figured I had to give it a whirl because the vast majority of pictures of me made me look like I ate too much paste as a child. Through years of turning the camera on myself, going through the sometimes hundreds of takes, and seeing what works, I’ve figured out how to help myself look less disabled in pictures.

Not only do we identify most with pictures of people, but the viewer likes to see what the photographer looks like. It’s another layer of getting to know the person behind the lens. To see that person turn the camera on themselves, it gives the audience a way of seeing how the photographer sees him or herself… and it’s sometimes completely different from the impression they give through the rest of their work. Doing only self-portraits has always struck me as somewhat narcissist or self-indulgent, but it can also make us more self-aware.

what if we do? (6/52)
What if we do?
self-portrait, Christine Tomaszewski

to send you my love
to send you my love
self-portrait, Christine Tomaszewski

daytime confessions (7/52)
Daytime Confessions
self-portrait, Christine Tomaszewski

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Stampeding elephants
On Thursday, rather than do my taxes (an easy task to avoid), I used the occasion of a double birthday party scheduled for the following day to zip to S & A Beads, the bead store in Takoma Park to collect supplies for making earrings.

Yes, pretty shiny things.  What's not to like?

Since the party was designated no-gift, if the earring project collapsed in disaster, no social faux pas would ensue, and so a low-stress excuse to get crafty. 

Neither complicated nor fancy earrings, I opted for a simple, manageable design. One friend likes elephants, so I had that in mind as I shopped.

Flowing flowers
I should have also considered two other key aspects, namely, bead hole size and bead size. I had to jury-rig the center posts of the elephant earrings with plastic earrings stops lest they slide all the way through. And the pale blue beads I got to match the flowered beads looked clunky and odd as they slid all over. Fortunately, I could dip into a stash of little beads to replace them.

The birthday girls graciously received my inexpert but affectionately-created gifts, and I thank them for their friendship, good will, and good times drinking wine.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Creative Cohorts

Skee ball in the basement of the Pour House.
No tickets or plastic prizes, but still:
skee ball!
I spent yesterday morning writing, that rare, crazy, joyful writing that flows out, all kinds of truth and beauty. Or so it seemed at the time. A brief review that evening left me less enthused. The spotty organization and hanging threads of which I was dimly aware of in my rush to gush glowed crazy neon in my evening critical eye. But never mind, I had the morning. Now let's see what I do with it, if the piece ever grows beyond my initial enthusiasm. If nothing else, it's long; some days, the weight of a manuscript provides enough proof of effort. 

In general, I am in a time of dart throwing. I'm working as many avenues for change as I can. From travel and tweaking resumes to submitting volunteer applications and cajoling friends into collaborative efforts, I am shaking my tail feathers trying to be in the world.

Collaborations: This blog provides an excellent excuse for pulling people into my creative funhouse. One of the many splendid things about art is that it can run solo or group. And one of the many splendid things about my friends is that they indulge my hobbies. Projects in investigative stages include a couple of interviews with artists, a collaborative poem, and, most hysterically, given my total lack of knowledge, co-writing a song. The creative whirling is spinning fast here, whipping up a goofy glee in its wake.   

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Artful Blog Mistakes

Given that this blog is called Artful Mistakes, my learning curve in blogging and my writing process require periodic review. The following provides some oh-so-gentle reminders to myself on how to work with or around an assortment of issues. My hope is that you can find something useful that applies to your own artistic process and avoid some of my pitfalls. 

  • Write More, Write Often. The more I write, the more I want to write, the more ideas I have, the more I wake up with words. The more I stress about writing, the less likely I am to do it. Go Nike and just do it.
  • Don't Delay Writing. Delaying writing after an event for more than two to three days means losing the immediacy of memory. Notes and pictures mitigate this somewhat, but only somewhat. To avoid ideas disappearing in a poof of smoke, start a draft.  
  • I Will Screw Up. Fix If Possible and then Move On. Typos, poor grammar, poor organization, limited research, faulty premises, weird ideas, ill-conceived opinions, or just damn dull -- all of that has happened; inevitably, repeats and new variations will crop up. Learn from missteps. Don't give everything up in a snit. Slog on. 
  • Writing Reveals. Deal With It. Yeah, I reveal too much in this blog. I'm definitely of the confessional and post-modern process school of writing and I'm aware that it makes some people uncomfortable. The narcissism and lack of privacy make me uncomfortable. How do I expect anyone to respond to public ruminations on grief, failure, insecurity, and ugly mobiles, and why is it all about me, me, me? It's all a little, well, unseemly and vaguely manipulative. But. This is my little world and I have to be honest about my own voice and obsessions and flaws in order to sharpen my own lens. After all, what gets even worse is when I try to be all slick, and mostly just end up being mean or condescending or dull. Yuck. Voice is in process (likely always will be), and that voice will swing wildly between polished and awkward. Accept that and keep writing. 
  • Take Risks. Peel back the skin to show the bones. Experiment with form, topics. Change it up, lest all get stale.   
  • Reporter: I'm not one. When I try to be strictly an objective reporter, I often end up boring myself and, uh, it shows. I need an angle to really dig into something, endlessly loosey-goosey subjective. That said,
  • Basic fact checking.  Do. It. Plu-leeze. I've been not-so-good on that. 
  • Nice foot, let me shoot it. Perfectly fine, mildly interesting and organized posts will take random tacks because it seems important for me to rant. Maybe some of the ranting that I'm trying to disguise as "voice" could just stay silent. The Delete key can make magic happen.     
  •  Good gillies, but I'm wordy. Revise more. In particular:
    • Cut long, meandering sentences in two.
    • Shorten paragraphs.
    • Trim unnecessary phrases.
  • Verbs! Verbs give birth to good writing. Revise around verbs.
  • Spellcheck is My Friend
  • Patience, grasshopper. Generally speaking, my best posts are those that I write, sit on for a day or two, revise, tweak, fact-check/research, ponder, and then post. The ones that I hammer out quickflash and then slap up when I'm just feeling stressed out about not posting: bleah. Do not rush to post.   
  • Just Because I Wrote It Doesn't Mean I Have to Post It.  A number of drafts will forever remain unpublished. This is good. 
  • Comments= Good.  So respond. I like getting comments (although I find it jarring: holy crap, there's someone out there!). I'm really lousy about responding to comments, however, and so I need to fix that.
  • Expect the Unexpected. A slapdash ending recently generated a comment that focused on the second half of a sentence rather than the first, reminding me that I hadn't emphasized what I'd thought, or researched a point, as I hadn't fully realized I was making that point. Comments can keep tabs on sloppy writing and thinking. Bask in that.     
  • Nuts Will Find You. The first time I blogged, years ago in Minneapolis, I ran away quickly after a nut took umbrage to "anti-American" sentiments when I quoted "Alice's Restaurant." My Catholic creep did not scare me away from writing this time (although he did cause me to lock my doors more religiously). Comments are moderated for this reason. 
  • Don't (post to) Blog Angry or Sick. In the moment, I might think I'm saying something reasonable, coherent, or interesting, but I'm likely not. Post a photo or a poem and review and revise any drafts when normalcy returns.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Billy Collins "Introduction to Poetry"

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

-- Billy Collins

Monday, February 7, 2011

AWP finale

One of several busy rooms at the
AWP bookfair. MFA programs
and small pressed abounded.
The Super Bowl snuck up on me, as I was still hanging out with writers at AWP. Conversation at the Wardman Marriott leaned more toward parataxis than playbooks. I managed to explore the bookfair on Saturday and sit in on a panel (Leaping Prose: Alternative Shapes for Approaching the Novel with Peter Grandbois, Carol Moldaw, Kazim Ali, and Carole Maso) where, ahem, I learned the work parataxis.

Having been absent from academic speak for quite some time, twas an enjoyable place to visit. Hearing master craftsmen consider the complications of their work inspires.

Reconnecting with my own literary community, friends and mentors, fired me up more than any panel. I've already written with or about Neil de la Flor here and here, so I'll just add, really, you should buy his book, Almost Dorothy.  And you shouldn't let him near plastic frogs on your dashboard.  But I also got to connect with a few other people.

On Friday, I saw A. Manette Ansay at the UM MFA happy hour at Tryst. She's published six novels, a memoir and a collection of short stories, all of which you should also buy. Limbo, Blue Water and Sister are my favorites. As far as I know, she's safe around dashboard frogs. And her daughter is adorable. 

Me & Manette
During my time in Miami, she read many, many versions of the godawful novella that was my thesis and commented with insight, warmth, wit and enormous patience. Just last month, in a grand fit of organizing papers (reshuffling), I found myself re-reading her comments. Most notably, she understood central elements of the plot well before I consciously put them together, busy as I was writing my way up and down tangential alleys.

Also at Tryst, I got to see friend Andrew, who is hard at work at his first year of his MFA at Ohio State in Columbus. While it is not at all my doing, I feel an unjustified stake in his career as I wrote a recommendation for him for grad school. I don't think it was even for OSU. But in any case, I have exchanged stories with him, commented on his work and receive his insights into mine, so when he hits the bestseller list, I'll be able to say I knew him back when.

A good week of writing and friendship for me, although sadly, just at the moment, I'm succumbing to the halo of germs that surrounds conferences and am now scaring the cats with my sneezes. 

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Interview with Neil de la Flor

Neil de la Flor and a pocketful of
Almost Dorothy dolls, ruby slippers
and all.

Neil de la Flor is in in town for AWP, so I had opportunity to harass him in person, catch up, giggle, complain, and pinch him.

Then I went home and e-mailed him some interview questions, which he kindly returned, so our virtual interview is below.

Official, snazzy bio stuff, lifted from his website: Neil de la Flor's first book, Almost Dorothy (Marsh Hawk Press, 2010) won the Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize. Neil co-authored, with Maureen Seaton, the forthcoming book Sinead O’Connor and Her Coat of a Thousand Bluebirds (Firewheel Editions), winner of the 2010 Sentence Book Award. He also co-authored, with Maureen Seaton and Kristine Snodgrass, Facial Geometry (NeoPepper Press), a poetry chapbook of triads.

His literary work, solo and collaborative, has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Barrow Street, Hobart Pulp, 42opus, Sentence, Pank, Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Court Green and other journals. Neil lives in Miami and teaches at Miami Dade College, Nova Southeastern University, and Barry University, and works as a freelance journalist for the Knight Arts and ArtBurst Miami.

Cynthia: When is your next book coming out?

Neil de la Flor: My next book is a collaboration with Maureen Seaton called Sinead O'Connor and her Coat of a Thousand Bluebirds. Yes, her coat is made out of a thousand bluebirds. At least the blue coat of our joint-imaginations. The book comes out soon, March or April 2011.

C: How can I get an Almost Dorothy doll? And the book?

N: The new Almost Dorothy Voodoo Doll is in the test phase. We're trying to create a doll that can take a poking and keep on ticking. You'll be able to order it from soon. The book is available at SPD books or

C: What's with the ham obsession?

N: I have no idea what you're talking about. If you're talking about my frequent references to ham, it's because ham is scarring. It's pink. That is gross. Pink ham? It seems so alive. Anyway, I think the word ham is so ugly-beautiful-bombshell cool.

C: Why are all my questions this length,
and what is the weirdest thing about your writing process?

N: Size doesn't matter. The weirdest thing, which is probably very common, is that I think of things when I'm driving. When I arrive at my destination, it evaporates. I've been noting stuff down now at stop lights and it's helped.

C: How old is Nico [his Pomeranian] and does he juggle?

N: Nico is 10, but he is hotter than hell. He juggles but only when he is naked.

C: What did you want to do when you grew up and how does that translate into being a writer? For example, I wanted to be a baton twirler as I liked the flash and circumstance, but I had trouble practicing, so that baton keeps bruising parade attendees when it flies out of control [like that question].

N: I wanted to be a businessman/woman and own my own business. I think I wanted to be this because my family has their own business and I grew up around them working all the time and it seemed like the thing I should do and wanted to do. That evolved into me wanting to be a fashion designer, so I started a fashion business. But, in the end, that's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to write and I wanted to make films and be a photographer. I went back to writing and I'm making my way back to film.

C: Describe what happened during a really great class you were teaching.

N: Wow, every class I teach moves me in some way, usually in a good way, even when I'm cursing them left and write. I often give my students a simple assignment: write about someone who changed your life. In this one particular class, I had the students share their stories, most did, but not everyone. I left the lights off except for one overhead light. The students read. The stories were sad, happy, funny, gripping--what you would expect from a class of 30 students who lead very different lives. Anyway, we come to the end, and a student reads his story. It was the muscle boy, the butch boy, the bad ass. He read a story about his mom. His dad. About her struggle with cancer. Yes, the big C, cliche. This boy starts to break down, cry, and the bad ass disappeared. Everyone cried. We became human again.

C: What should I read next?

N: Good question. I'm reading V for Vendetta. If you read it before me, let me know what it's all about, so that I won't have to read it. Save me a little time!

C: Would you send me a palm tree if I asked?

N: Only if you send me a snow cone.

C: [you make it up]

N: Do you care to restate your position on diving into sugarlips (aka love)?

N: What? That's none of your business. What I do with my love life is up to me and the people involved. I'm not a magician, but I want to be one, one with a hat and a bunny, one who has the power to make it all come true.
Almost Dorothy looking up the skirt of the pink pizza gal. 
In the midst of photographing Almost Dorothy's exploits, 
we were approached by a DC graffiti artist who showed us
pictures of his work, more evidence that art connects.   

Thursday, February 3, 2011


I got to try on an MFA hat yesterday.

My poet friend, in town for AWP, wears hats, hip little denim fedoras, and I'm so pleased to see him and be able to steal his dashing headwear.

In the symbolic sense, the MFA hat feels increasingly distant, for good and bad, as I graduated and, in some ways, fled full steam away, years ago. As I re-realized recently at an intensely educated happy hour, while I am well-educated, I'm not much of an intellectual. Analytical, yes. But I have a terrible memory for quoting authors, and I haven't even read Nietzsche.  And really, when I meet people, I don't want to get at heads, but at souls.  I get all fired up about how folks feel about their projects and hats, their triumphs and struggles. I want to dissect character, not hypotheses, although I will do the latter to get at the former. 

So far, it hasn't been the most remunerative hobby. But I keep doing it, endlessly fascinated by the oddities of people's stories and hearts. I suppose I'm just nosey. The gift is knowing a fascinating group of friends. 

Thumbing through the catalog for AWP brought up nostalgia for authors I've read, literary centers at which I've taken classes (The Loft in Minneapolis is fantastic; I still miss it), workshop names that spoke to my issues with plot, memoir, whatever. I orbit on the outermost fringe of that academic community and only connect to the traditional publishing world in that I know published authors, have read their novels and poems and memoirs. 

It is oddly fitting that AWP is happening right now, at the precise time when I am consciously trying to write more, to rediscover the uses, joys and pitfalls of writing. When I started graduate school, I thought I would be signing up for that academic team, the conferences and panels and teaching and publishing.  Nope.

One of the few quotes I do know (and love) is by Joan Didion.  She said, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."  I don't know why other people write.  And certainly there isn't just one reason for anyone.  For me though, I know stories have the power to make sense of the world, give me a version of the many truths from which I can move forward. 

Neil's hat
As I busily hatch new plans and try to avoid picking at old wounds, I am keeping close tabs on the story I tell myself.

The character I am going with today: after a period of turmoil, and then of rest, our plucky heroine is ready to take on bigger challenges.  I'm heading out into the wide wide open.  Whatever that means.

I'll bring a few different hats.  It can get cold out there.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

AWP & Groundhog Day

The 2011 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference & Bookfair starts today in Washington, DC, so if you feel the literary climate of the city suddenly expand, that's why. If you need to impress a writer, throw this word into conversation: omphaloskepsis.  It means contemplation of one's navel. 

Politics and Prose is the official bookstore of the event and conveniently lists the free events on its Web site:

Today is also Groundhog Day.

Coincidence? I think not. 

For the few people who haven't seen the Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day," here is the premise: a weather man named Phil (Murray) is trapped reliving the same day, Groundhog Day, over and over again.  Over the course of a many, many years trapped in Groundhog Day, he acquires new skills and (eventually) a considerably nicer temperament, but no matter what he does on that day, he wakes up at 6am to the same song, Sonny & Cher's classic duet, "I Got You, Babe" on his clock radio.  Everyone he knows remembers nothing of the endless permutations he has had of that one day, successes or failures. 

Revising can feel a lot like Groundhog Day. You take the same scene and tweak a few words and not much changes.  In another round, you change one character's response and the scene goes off in another direction -- but who's to say that direction is any better? You're still waking up to Sonny & Cher, coming back to the scene knowing it doesn't work.  You experiment wildly, as Phil does.  You kidnap a groundhog and kill off characters.  You learn the piano and change point of view. You add characters back in, the same, only subtly different. You become exhausted by the monotony of almost-repetition. "I Got You, Babe" plays endlessly.

And then one day, finally, the scene works. February 3rd arrives! And you start revising the next scene.  Over and over and over again. 

Of course, in the midst of those days, you might have moments when you're a wee bit unhinged. 

Happy Groundhog Day!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Philadelphia #3 - Brunch and then the Barnes Foundation

On Sunday morning, we had a pretty phenomenal breakfast at The Continental, a retro brunch place near our hotel.  I was enthralled by the tiramasu waffle (mascarpone, bourbon syrup and whipped cream on a chocolate waffle). We turned down the opportunity to sit in the swinging basket chairs upstairs, but enjoyed the bustle of families and hipsters alike in aqua blue booths by the windows. 

And, as usual, I eyed a chandelier with enthusiasm - a funky, sparkly centerpiece.

Post breakfast, we hit the high road to the Barnes Foundation in Merion, PA.

Photography is not allowed inside the museum, but it is a lovely entrance, so I took a picture of that.

Inside, you'll be too busy gawking at all the art to be fussing with a camera. 

Acquired and displayed with care by Albert Barnes, works includes many Renoir, Cezanne, and Matisse paintings as well as many other Impressionist artworks and a survey of art from other approaches and eras. 

The Barnes Collection will be moved to a new building in downtown Philadelphia in 2012, so the opportunity to the see the work in the building Dr. Barnes selected will not be around for that much longer. The new location will maintain his arrangement of paintings. Displays emphasize symmetry and stylistic connections between artists.

That's the thumbnail brochure info on Barnes.  Do remember to get tickets early.  We ended up becoming members (pricier) so as to get in on the weekend we were in Philly.  Plan ahead. 

[Longish digression on blogging]
In terms of blogging, I'm finding it difficult to find a comfortable tone on some of my various field trips.  I'm not interesting in simply regurgitating what a tour guide says (although I do); you should go to check places out yourself and see what strikes you.  Me retyping the same information you can find on their Web site or wikipedia seems a waste of everyone's time; no one is (or should be) coming to Artful Mistakes for my fine research skills.

Given my general approach to life, I can't imagine I'm ever going to say a museum or event or whatever wasn't worth going to.  Getting out in the world and looking around, paying attention, is never bad idea.  Experience = good. So no thumbs down is happening on art events. Formal reviews are not me. I will like some things more than others, but my preferences won't be yours. And while logistical advice is handy, it ain't interesting.

So that leads me back to how I experience things as an artist pursuing...whatever it is that I'm pursuing. My problem with that is that its inherently narcissistic, me, me, me.  And while I'm fascinating to me, I'm aware that doesn't hold true for the whole wide world. 

What I would like to do is broaden out to talk more about artistic process, the variations in consumption and creation that artists become passionate about.  But then, with artists I know, I don't want to invade people's privacy (one of the reasons I seldom use friends' names on this blog, unless I have very specific permission). Not everything should be a blog entry. And artists I don't know aren't necessarily volunteering up their philosophy of arting. Perhaps I should consider official interviews with friends and non-friends alike?  An option.      

If anyone reading this has any great insights on these issues, please let me know. Otherwise, I'll continue to muddle along, finding balance on occasion.  Obviously, my process in this blog is very much not behind any curtain, and evolving the more I explore and write. 

[End of digression - Back to the Barnes]

From here on, I'm going to talk about my reaction to the Barnes collection on a more personal level.

I didn't do the audio tour at the Barnes, which I have mixed feelings about.  On the one hand, I'm cheap, and it was the frugal move. Also, I like to come to art fresh, to see what I see before I hear what the "experts" see.  On the other hand, this could also be construed as wallowing in ignorance, so I wonder on that. I did enjoy eavesdropping on wandering tour groups -- but also enjoyed being able to step away from them. 
Happily, I had a small moment of validation that I could at least sometimes see what the experts see, as I noticed a Renoir painting (the largest collection of Renoirs is at the Barnes - 181, according to wikipedia) that seemed both inherently Renoir, but also different.  The shape and detail of the women's figure were his, but the blurring of the edges so that the figure seems to melt into landscape, an aspect that is such a quintessential Renoir element, was not there.  It turns out, Renoir had a decade of time, the Ingres period, where he fell away from some of his Impressionist ways.  He went to see Renaissance masters in Italy, came back and did something different; he rediscovered edges.  I overheard a tour guide talking about it after I'd spent some time in front of the painting wondering. 

A very obvious element, true, but at least I saw it.  Because the Barnes has so many Renoirs, Cezannes, Matisses, highly recognizable artists, it is a place where you can walk up to a painting and go, ah, yes, look, that has to be such-and-such.  For someone like me, who hasn't ever taken an art history class, there is a little thrill in that.  I often can't articulate why a brush stroke or color palette or choice of subject is used by an artist in a certain way.  But on a holistic level, I can see the result of an artist's style enough to recognize his work.  That's satisfying.

Taste is a tricky place. I prefer Modigliani's long-necked women over Courbet's almost-porn Realist nudes. Unlike Dr. Barnes, who clearly adored his work, I don't connect to much of Renoir's work despite recognizing both its beauty and his talent. For me, his work seems a little too pink, his subjects too romanticized, misty-eyed views of people and places. Glowing nudes. Innocent children. Lovely ideals, but feeling (for me) sanitized. I orient more toward Cezanne, the bolder lines, the contrast of color, the freeing sense of messiness. It feels more honest. Generally, I prefer perception not idealized, but altered, as in Cubism, Surrealism, or at least, the little I know about them.

Perhaps I've seen some of De Chirico's work before, but I noticed it more at the Barnes because his subject matter is distinctly not Impressionist.  He has robotic figures and architectural detail, surrealist leanings, so not surprising I'd enjoy it.   

Often, I look at paintings and think, could I create that?  A Renoir nude?  Not a chance in hell.  I don't draw well and do not understand oil paints yet (possibly ever) and lack that level of detail and expertise.  But some vague approximation of some Cezanne apples? Maybe not completely impossible if I was trying to directly copy it, the individual brushstrokes being more clear, the abstraction overt, and apples being quite a bit easier than a face. Once I tried to copy Van Gogh painting of flowers, and while mine looked little like the original, neither is it ugly. Flowers are more forgiving. 

As noted, my knowledge of visual art is scattered and almost entirely experiential, not academic or organized (perhaps part of my affection for it). 

As I page here and there reading snippets of artist's biographies, I am reminded of what should have been obvious: these revered artists were, day to day, people struggling along, kind, or moody, or awkward, or whatever, muddling through as best they could.

Claude Monet probably never envisioned that his water lilies would end up on mouse pads and coffee mugs, hailed and recognized around the world.  The life of the art, as it goes beyond the life of the artist, that too is bizarre.

But I've rambled enough.  In summary: go to the Barnes.  And perhaps start with a large tasty waffle for brunch. 

I'll end with a wonderful Picasso quote: "Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth."