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May. 17th, 2013


Poems in the Greenhouse

Yesterday was the perfect day to smell lilacs and pass under the white blooms of dogwoods on my way to the Smith College Greenhouse. The museum area is currently devoted to a show called From Petals to Paper: Poetic Inspiration from Flowers. Poems printed on placards and arranged according to flower types were selected by Liliana Farrel and Janna Scott, class of ’13, who were inspired by Annie Boutelle’s poetry workshop. Walls featured irises, tulips, and other spring flowers. The section on daffodils offered Wordsworth wandering lonely as a cloud, along with Robert Herrick, Amy Lowell, and Alicia Ostriker giving the flowers a political context. Poets including Li-Young, Mary Oliver, and Louise Gluck show flowers as solace, taunting, sensuous, exuberant, or demure.

A small room was devoted to Smith alum, Sylvia Plath. We see a draft of Among the Narcissi filled with cross-outs and new words, with still more lines and notes from an editor at The New Yorker, then we see it published in the magazine.

David Trinidad had given us a brief introduction to both Sylvia Plath and tulips in his amusing and profound poem The Red Parade. Here we find Sylvia Plath’s Tulips on the wall and can also listen to a recording on a television. The poem tells of a red gift in a stark hospital room at a time when the narrator felt as if of nurses were claiming her clothes, the anesthetist her history, and the surgeons her body, so that I believed the line near the end: “Tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals.” I like the poem, but am glad I’m a person who can receive tulips and simply say “Thank you, what a gorgeous color!” The recording was made in 1961, two years before Plath would die by her own hand at age thirty, leaving two children.

This heart-tugging show is open until the first weekend of September.

Apr. 23rd, 2013


Writing Poetry Together


Sep. 14th, 2012


My Day with Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott

This week I went to the Concord Museum  to see some of the photographs Annie Liebovitz took for her new book, Pilgrimage, which is a record of some of her inspirations, a looking back and inward, perhaps more reflective than the portraits of rock stars or other extravagantly dressed people she’s put on the pages of Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, or Vogue. As I turned from the stairs, my attention was caught by a photograph of a dress that Marian Anderson wore in concert. The photograph is as long as a dress, a slash of red silk through terracotta, gold, bronze, and cream fabric that stretches across four pages in the big book of these photographs, with some text, such as the short story of how Marian Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial after the DAR excluded her from a concert hall.

Some photographs were taken at Louisa May Alcott’s home, across the street, including a trio of dolls on a toy sofa and gods and goddesses May Alcott drew on her bedroom walls. Places shown are often from a famous person’s childhood, death, or archives, such as stacks of trunks that belonged to Martha Graham.  Some are from midlife: we see both Elvis Presley’s childhood home, and a TV with a screen he shattered with his gun; we see the door that made Georgia O’Keefe choose her New Mexico home and tray of homemade pastels. Annie Oakley’s boots and a cardboard heart with a bullet hole are given their own alcove.

Most of the people and places represented in the show are from the United States, though I liked ones representing artist Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf. The River Ouse, the site of the writer’s suicide, was so blue, both eerily calm and menacing. Lines of waves’ shadows seemed echoed in the photograph of the top of her bare, ink-stained wooden desk. Throughout the gallery, I had a sense of how getting closer to an object can turn around a view of history, and a pilgrimage of moving forward by stepping into the past. I loved the book, and I’m happy I made it to the show, which is there until September 27, for what I believe is the only New England display of this work.

I also looked around the museum, and was particularly taken by the room devoted to Thoreau, maybe especially after looking at Annie Lebovitz’s photograph of the Chinese cane bed he slept on in the cabin at Walden Pond. Here it is, along with displays including his flute, pencils from the family factory, a pair of snowshoes, and keys from the Concord jail. Below are his waking stick, a spyglass, a bird guide, and a tap for birch trees.


Thoreau seemed to accompany through my day, for when I did some research in the Concord Library,  a copy of his journal was open to the day’s date, though in 1853.  And the nonfiction room bears his name, lots of pictures, and these owls.


Finally I was in the mood for another visit to Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women, and I turned out to be the only person on the tour. The beautiful young woman wearing loops of pearls couldn’t have more gracious, smart, and kind, offering me details, but stepping back from all the old stories to let me just look to my heart’s content, enjoying a more intimate spirit than I’ve felt when the rooms are filled, though I’ve never been on an Orchard House tour, starting with the one I took with cousins when I was about ten, that  I haven’t enjoyed. The docents clearly are learned and adore the family, but also show a sense of humor and imagination that I think Louisa would have enjoyed, not being one to take herself too seriously. It was the end of the day, and I could hear staff laughing from a back room. There’s a sense of this still being a home, and not only historic: I noticed a big plaster bust of Emerson on the floor of a closet where a few old dresses hung. When I asked, the docent told me that work was being done on the school next door, and the busts of philosophers had been stored here and there.

Sep. 13th, 2012


En Plein Air

My friend Ellen Farley, who teaches high school art and runs The Art Studio, recently made time to enter a plein air competition at Nash Gallery in Easthampton. The rules went something like this: the scene had to be painted outside within the city borders, and paper or canvas had to be stamped at the gallery five days before the showing, so no one could work ahead. Peter and I went to the show, which had many wonderful pictures of gardens, fields, houses, and roads. I liked Ellen’s the best.


This painting didn’t win a prize, but Ellen said it didn’t matter. She told me she parked by the road, asked a farmer if she was still in Easthampton, and when he told her yes, and saw her easel, he offered to lead her on his tractor to a spot he thought even prettier. Ellen was grateful to have spent two afternoons standing among Monarch butterflies looking at fields and a mountain she’s often seen from many different points.

I’m not as zen as I’d like to be. I can’t help wishing Ellen had won if not grand prize, at least one of the gift certificates offered by local businesses. I want my writing to get published and I want my candidate to get a second term in office. But I admire the way the Impressionists held to a credo of “no juries, no awards” to favor artistic freedom, and I try hard to remember that afternoons like Ellen’s painting in the field are the prize. As I start teaching writing again, that’s what I want my students to know, too. Sitting around the table, writing in ten minute spurts, daring to read something fresh aloud: our lives are pretty good.

Aug. 27th, 2012


The Inner House: The Life of Edith Wharton

Yesterday was one of those warm but not steamy days that led Edith Wharton to spend summers in a home she called the Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts. My friend Ann, a first grade teacher, took a break from looking for caterpillars and putting up monarch displays to go with me to see a play called The Inner House.  The Wharton Salon one woman play was beautifully performed by Tod Randolph, who truly seemed to channel Wharton’s grace and strength. It was adapted by Dennis Krausnick from Wharton’s memoir, A Backward Glance, with occasional quotations from her fiction. The title comes from a short story in which the narrator compares a woman’s nature to “a great house, full of rooms… full of treasures and wonders.”

The play was performed in the shadow of a grand house and gardens that we’re told Wharton loved more than any other place: yet she lived there only about five years. It seems to be at least partly a mystery why she left. Some things we’ll never know, and perhaps some things are revealed that she wouldn’t have chosen for us to know. The play begins with silence and looking that suggests the life of a writer, then the actress recounts Edith Wharton’s youth, speaking of a girl who loved books before she could read them, holding them sometimes upside-down as talismans that let her tell stories. I don’t think her mother was ever described without the word cold before her name. We hear of marriage to a man who was sweet but troubled, and with little in common except for a love of animals. We hear of the affair Edith had in her mid-forties, and the pain riddled through both these relationships.

Edith Wharton was sensual, stoic, and tragic, no surprise to anyone who’s read The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome. or one my favorites, Summer, which shows the richness and pleasures of that season followed by the harshness of a New England winter.  The play quotes from a letter to Edith from a reader imploring that if she knows of even one contented woman, couldn’t she write about her?  It seems those weren’t her stories to tell. Rather she often concentrated on the tragedies brought about by a society she considered frivolous, in good part because of the narrow choices then offered to women.

Yesterday was the last scheduled performance of this play at the Mount, celebrating the 150th year of the novelist’s birth, but the Wharton Salon will perform elsewhere,

so please check out their website!  After the play, Ann and I walked through the magnificent gardens, then strolled around picture perfect Lenox, stopping for quiche, coffee, and meringues (I want to use the word magnificent again) at Patisserie for a taste of Paris where Wharton lived for many years. 

Aug. 2nd, 2012


Irene Latham!

One of the gifts of summer is when people travel into my small western Massachusetts orbit. I’ve felt a kindred spirit with Irene Latham after reading her blog, her beautiful novel, Leaving Gee’s Bend, and her collection of poems, The Color of Lost Rooms. I was happy she let me know that she’d be flying out of Alabama to visit the nearby Emily Dickinson homestead , while taking a literary journey with her father, who shares her passion for books.

We met at Judie’s Restaurant in Amherst, where they shared some stories from the Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain houses they’d visited in Connecticut the day before.  I also loved hearing the proud father speak of his favorite author, Irene. When I asked if he read her blog, he said, “I read everything she writes.” They told me about how when he’d travel when his five children were small, he’d bring back some small thing for Irene to write about. Most things were so common they were hard to remember, but what remains is the link to his daughter who is still inspired by things as small as the “i” she wore as a necklace with a tiny blue stone, or ordinary events that become extraordinary with deliberate attention. And that person who is waiting for whatever she writes next.

When I mentioned envying their relationship, Irene asked who encouraged me to write, giving me a chance to talk about my Grand-mère who didn’t offer exercises, the way her father did, or ask to see poems, but Grand-mère’s pleasure in art and allegiance to beauty gave me a kind of hope I didn’t get from my more practical parents. I was reminded of the different places we find the people who whisper Keep going. Even if a person never used those words, even if they’re not now among the living.

Irene and I talked about the different challenges of writing and marketing poetry and novels, and our frustration about publishing prejudices against works about real people who aren’t deemed famous enough. We talked some about what we’re writing and reading now. Her father seemed happy to listen. For more details of what they saw over a jam-packed few days, visit her blog.

 I like what she has to say about how Mark Twain put Huck Finn in the pigeon holes of his desk, the photograph of Edith Wharton’s bedroom and Henry David Thoreau’s gravesite, and also how she includes who couldn’t bother to say good morning in the literary tours, which restaurant to avoid, and the weirdness that is the Massachusetts Turnpike. I only wish we could have visited longer, but I am looking forword to my next summer visitor – a weekend with my daughter!

Jul. 16th, 2012


Joy, Engagement, and the Art of the Book

I had the pleasure of hearing picture book author and illustrator Pat Cummings speak at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art on Saturday. In her series of books, Talking with Artists, she asks creators for pictures of  drawings or sculptures they did as children, as well as the work that brought them fame, so that children can see one starts at one place and ends up at another. Pat structured her talk this way, too, talking about her first attempts at making art, and a ballerina and glitter obsession. Family is a big theme in her work, and her talk included not only stories from childhood, but recent conversations with her husband and mother. She collaborated on Talking with Adventurers with her sister, who’s a scientist, and was also the model for the mother in one of her early books, Just Us Women by Jeannette Caines. Books such as Jimmy Lee Did It  and Clean Your Room, Harvey Moon were inspired by her little brother. Or maybe that rascally brother is just part of her: here’s me with Pat, unable to resist rabbit ears, after her talk.

She said that she likes the freedom that picture book creators have to change styles, and she enjoys working in mixed media on books such as C.L.O.U.D.S., which is about an angel who designs the sky, and Carousel, about a girl’s fantasy. Humor was a big part of her talk, though she took a serious tone when stating her belief that all kids should see themselves in books, that no one should feel excluded. And the theme of connecting with other artists was strong. She thanked Tom Feelings for helping her get started on her first picture book, and she’s made sure she helps others in turn. Her talk often turned to other artists for children’s books she admires, such as Brian Selznick and Lane Smith. She said,  “Every artist inspires me,”  explaining not in the sense that she sees their art and can do something like it, but “the kind of inspiration when at three in the morning you can’t get the nose right, and you think. ‘what would and Leo and Diane Dillon do?’ They’d keep going.”


Her dedication to community is evident in her teaching at Pratt, Parsons School of Design, and a Children’s Book Boot Camp she runs in summer. And she left the riveted audience with inspiring words. “A lot of people tell themselves no. If you have a story to tell or art you want to do, do it. There’s a lot of joy just in creating.” 

Jul. 5th, 2012


Howard Pyle at the Norman Rockwell Museum

A few days ago, Peter and I spent a happy afternoon seeing Howard Pyle: American Master Rediscovered  at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. Howard Pyle has inspired many who paint people in action, and often peril, by his work based on myths, King Arthur legends, folk tales, the Bible, and other narratives, many done for Scribner’s and other popular magazines. Norman Rockwell was among the many illustrators who admired him. It’s too small to see in this image of Rockwell’s tall painting Family Tree, but that treasure chest at the bottom bears the initials “H.P.” in his honor.

We’re told that Pyle compiled a large collection of antique furniture and clothing he had his models wear, but at the time, reliable references for pirates weren’t great, so he blended what he knew and imagination, which shaped our ideas of what a pirate looks like. He depicted lots of pirates, mermaids, sea adventures and creatures, and his waves have great blues and greens, and enough depth and movement to make me feel slightly seasick. Peter took this picture of me admiring one, then a close-up of a crab from his oil painting, The Mermaid.

Howard Pyle show at Rockwell Museum 07-01-12 20

Howard Pyle show at Rockwell Museum 07-01-12 08 crab detail
Pyle was influenced by the precise lines, sharp edges, a rich detail, and romanticism of pre-Raphaelite artists, such as William Holman Hunt, and now and then the show puts such inspirations beside his work. The instructive cards at the side also tell us that the 1867 World Fair in Paris brought Japanese ukiy-e or woodblock prints to the attention of artists, who were influenced by the two dimensional look, sharp cropping, and flat color.

Howard Pyle show at Rockwell Museum 07-01-12 25

Pyle taught first at Philadelphia’s Drexel Institute of Art, before founding his own school in Delaware. He urged his students, including N. C. Wyeth and Jessie Willcox Smith (and the other “Red Rose Girls,” who he nicknamed) “to live in the picture” and “Imagine things vividly and make them as real as they are.” The exhibit runs through October 28, aka foliage season in the Berkshires.

Jun. 29th, 2012


The Snowy Day and The Art of Ezra Jack Keats

Last night, Peter and I attended the opening of a show highlighting the work of Ezra Jack Keats at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Claudia Nahson, who curated the show which was first shown at the Jewish Museum in New York, spoke about Ezra Jack Keats’s (1916-1983) history. We learned that he had a rough time growing up as small, artistic, and poor in the Brooklyn he’d later picture in his books. He often felt invisible, and started drawing early, thinking that the only way people would see him was if he made art. His mother showed off the pictures he drew on the kitchen table. His father bought him cheap paints and paper, but, as a struggling immigrant from Poland, worried whether his son could make a living. Hoping he’d consider another career, he told him that the paints he gave him had been traded for soup at the diner where he worked, by artists who were desperate to eat.

Ezra worked as an assistant for WPA muralists, then drew backgrounds for Captain Marvel. “Background man” was a job Claudia Nahson posited as a metaphor for his aesthetics, as he continued through his career to pay attention to things like trashcans and graffiti, finding beauty where few saw it, and bringing it to the forefront. He served in the army in WWII, then studied in Paris on the G.I. bill, which was about when he changed his last name from Katz to Keats, probably because of anti-Semitism. He spent much of the 1950's illustrating book jackets. Eventually he was asked to illustrate a children's book, Jubilant for Sure by E. H. Lansing, which led to more work.  He noticed that minorities weren't often represented, and changing that was part of the motivation for writing and illustrating his own books.

 The Snowy Day, which won a Caldecott Award in 1963, was the first book he both illustrated and solely wrote. His protagonist, Peter, was inspired by photographs he’d clipped from Life magazine twenty years before, put on his wall, put away, then tacked back up.

Claudia Nahson called The Snowy Day the first time an African American was represented in a full color picture book. The technique of collage was new for Keats, and he made Peter older through a series of seven books, ending with Goggles in 1969, which was cited as the most autobiographical of his books, and was based on his memories of being bullied.

Ezra Jack Keats would go on to create many more books. He became interested in the simplicity and paring down in Asian visual art and haiku. At the show at the Carle, we see silhouettes of birds and plants on hand-marbled paper he did for In a Spring Garden, edited by Richard Lewis. He always strived to use very few words. We were told about him going to a writer’s conference where people talked about how many words they wrote in a year. He said, "Three hundred. And I'm happy."

The wonderful show includes work from the span of his career, as well as a generous sampling of diaries, letters, sketches, storyboards, and a paint box. A display chronicles some depictions of African Americans in picture books. The show will be open through October 14. To get more sense of what’s there, click on the above link to the Jewish Museum, where the show originated, and you’ll find a video overview. 

Jun. 26th, 2012


Ninety Pages Down, and Feeling Grateful for the Workout

It wasn’t so very long ago that I wrote a blog post called One Hundred Pages  about my grouchiness when my writing group thought I might try to cut down part of my manuscript by about a third. It seemed impossible, but it turns out it wasn’t. It seemed like it would be tortuous. From this point about two months later, I’d say it mostly hurt at first, like the proverbial bandaid, but my husband says, no, I’ve been grumbling throughout. I hope not every day. There definitely is an ouch element to stripping away what you painstakingly constructed. But as I hacked out holes, I found new things to insert. Putting one scene against another brought out new elements in both.  There’s definitely more muscle to the piece, less sag. I’m thankful to my writing group for raising the bar, even if I know I’ll grumble again. I’ve still got the second part of this manuscript to bring them

But for most of the summer, I’ll be working on that in solitude, hoping to keep that manuscript on its healthy diet (thanks for the metaphor, Ellen!) and working out every day: no excess conversations! No lumpy descriptions! I’m glad I did the trimming (can we use the word trim? I’m trying to stay away from hacking away) and glad to embark on new material, cheered on by facebook friends – Thank you!  I’ll be doing the best I can to get everything right as it felt during a walk with my friend Jess around The New England Peace Pagoda  today. The world is so beautiful. Sometimes we don’t need to add much.





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