Category Archives: poetry

Feeding my writing

I haven’t done a pastry post in a while. I haven’t really experimented with pastries in a while. I’ve just made the standards, really, Grandma Scott’s sugar cookies and my son’s favorite, chocolate chips.

Truth is, for me baking is meditation, baking and walks with my dog, Maynard. Unfortunately, between the first nasty cold I’ve had in years and the “polar vortex” conditions we’ve been experiencing lately, Maynard and I have been mostly unable to walk outside.

Winter is a fantastic time to bake. I can’t describe the smells in my kitchen because I lost that sense a long time ago. Still, there is something visceral about baking. Perhaps, it’s that it brings me back to all that was good about growing up. That is being in the kitchen with family and friends. The kitchen in our house was Grand Central Station. It was where I did homework, where we gathered for holidays, where we sat with friends and discussed the workings of the world over sweet breads and coffee. Sure, we had a dining room and a table in that dining room, but it was rarely ever used except as a work station for my dollhouse crafting. My mother just preferred the kitchen, preferred everyone be in the thick of wafting scents and sizzling sounds of sustenance being prepared. We preferred it too.

 

A large version of the mini cinnamon sugar pumpkin muffin.

A large version of the mini cinnamon sugar pumpkin muffin.

The kitchen was part enigma, part fascination for me. I couldn’t cook my way out of a paper bag. I burned pizza and rice. My lack of sense of smell was a definitely a handicap when it came to seasoning savory food. It just couldn’t get it the way my mom could. Still, I always loved food, loved just about anything my  mother made–and now my husband makes. In fact, she and my chef husband have ruined me for your everyday restaurants. They pale in comparison to anything that came out of our simple, non-commercial, very homey kitchen. While trying to recreate some of that, for me, has been a challenge, the one thing I could do well was bake. I was always good at baking. Perhaps my pasta sauce needs a little work, but give me flour, sugar, butter, and pure vanilla extract and watch me go.

It started in the kitchen in our old house in Canton. It started there with my mother and her helping me bake chocolate chip cookies. It started with me watching and helping her make cannoli shells. It moved from my mother helping me to my best friend and I exploring our baking prowess on our own. Specifically, I remember the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, a classic, and numerous batches of drop biscuits and a few pineapple upside down cakes. Later, in college, my roommate and let our final exam stress out by baking Christmas cookies.

Now, I have my own very small kitchen, smaller than perhaps it should be for as much as it gets used. Still, we make our galley work. Also, if  there is one place I’ve ditched books and gone electronic it would be for recipes. My apologies to cookbook writers everywhere. With my iPhone I have so many options available at my fingertips and an endless number of new things I can try. What is particularly nice is that I can take the ingredients I find in my pantry, look them up, and usually find something that fits.

Last week, I took some canned pumpkin I had left over from Thanksgiving and found a cinnamon sugar pumpkin muffin recipe. You can find the recipe at Sally’s Baking Addiction. I made regular size muffins instead of minis, so I had to cook them a bit longer. They were not overly sweet. That’s fine by me. I hate when I get a muffin and am expecting a muffin, but it turns out sweeter than cake. Anyway, they were a hit with friends and family, and they made for nice morning side to my cup of ginger pear tea.

This week, I made a basic vanilla sheet cake from scratch for my son’s friend who is leaving soon for army basic training. I’d tried the Better

Sheet cake made from scratch.

Sheet cake made from scratch.

Homes and Gardens recipe many times, but the cakes always seemed a bit dry. This time I searched for another simple option. I landed on the best recipe at TheKitchn. The cake came out more moist than I had expected. I think a little tweaking with applesauce might make it just right. I consider myself a butter cream frosting connoisseur, so I can make it in my sleep. I need to beef up the cake decorating supplies and practice a bit with the tips. Still, it has been less than 24 hours and the cake has all but disappeared. And no, Maynard has not gotten hold of any.

In the end, what it does for me, besides making my family happy, is it gives me a little space from writing, directs my creative energy in another way that literally and figuratively feeds my writing and I think it’s important to take that time and do those things or we get burned out. I wasn’t feeling burned out, but it felt good all the same to fill the well in that way. How do you fill the well?

 

Here comes Pinktober, the thing about a little cancer

Here comes October, or as a lot of my BC friends call it, Pinktober. That’s not in a revving up for awareness month kind of way. That’s in more of a, oh here it comes again, I want to hide from all things pink, kind of way. Honestly, I used to be okay with it. I used think that all the pink was okay if it meant there was a constant conversation about breast cancer, but I do believe now that it has turned from awareness to a marketing tool. Some of the things I’ve seen going pink in the name of breast cancer have been truly hilarious. A week or so ago, I was at the grocery store and happened to be walking up the liquor aisle when I saw the signature pink ribbon on a bottle of alcohol. I can’t remember what kind, but it made me stop and laugh. On one level I thought, now this has gone way too far. On another level, having been through chemo (think of your worst hangover and multiply it by 100), I found it more fitting than perhaps any other product donning the pink ribbon.

On a personal level, I’ve always loved fall the most of all seasons. It was always the start of anticipating the holidays. Now, October is the start of something different. I don’t despise it. I still love fall, but now pink proliferates with the changing colors of leaves, and I begin to think about the sequence of events that changed my life forever. It all happened leading up to holidays seven years ago. I was starting my second semester of grad school, working

Yeah, that's a bathing suit, or part of one anyway.

Yeah, that’s a bathing suit, or part of one anyway.

full-time and raising two elementary school aged kids. I was invincible…and very busy. Then I found a lump on my right breast the Monday after I returned home from my second semester residency, the same day I cried in the car as I heard Leroy Sievers’ “My Cancer” commentary on NPR, the one about how he was coming up on another Thanksgiving, something he was told almost a year earlier not to expect with his terminal diagnosis. I had no clue as I was listening and driving home to my own discovery how much of an impact that commentary would have on me. A few weeks later, on Dec. 17, I got the confirmation. The doc said, “Well, you have a little cancer,” not “You have cancer” or “It’s definitely cancer,” but “You have a little cancer” as if saying it was little would make it seem smaller than the vast black hole it felt like at the time. Of course, it never felt little. It still feels big. It feels big because each year women I know only because of breast cancer, women who like me were diagnosed at a young age, are losing the battle, the most recent just this week. Each time I see another photo scroll across my news feed with a vibrant smile and the description in past tense of a life lived as our most recent loss was described “legendary” I realize how big it really is, how pink ribbons on products can’t scratch the surface of awareness, how awareness is knowing these women even through a few posts on a Facebook page, how awareness is not races, not ribbons, but hearing the real voices behind the struggle, seeing the faces, knowing that cancer is a bitch at any age, but now a boy has to rely on the memory of his senses, pictures, videos, and the clearer memories of others to keep hold of his mom. Nothing about that is little. Nothing about that easy to still process, though, as Melissa Etheridge puts it, the pain is miles behind me and the fear is a docile beast. It’s a beast nonetheless.

All of this brings me to writing, to poetry in fact. I had a breakthrough. My poetry manuscript has had a metamorphosis. It began as a chapbook with poems that lacked a clear focus. In the last several months I have worked through the “little cancer” in poems, not so much the having it part as the how to live with the persistent understanding of time, or time as a character that can no longer be hidden or tucked away. I have been writing through the “little cancer” for a while in fits and starts, but I think I see a direction in a full manuscript rather than a chapbook and I have a working title now that comes from a poem once titled “Trying on a Bathing Suit” about the first time trying on a bathing suit after surgery. Now, the poem is titled “The Persistence of a Bathing Suit.” The revision of the poem makes reference to Salvador Dali’s painting “The Persistence of Memory.” Here are the last few stanzas of the poem:

I feel the weight of

this suit now as it

sits like a weathered

shroud in my hand,

dangles like the melting

clock draped over a limb

in Dali’s painting

“The Persistence of Memory.”

What really persists

is the memory of that

flash of light, the opalescent

sparkle of blue and pink,

that lingered in that infinite

space between forgetting

and remember we all must die.

I set the suit on the seat

where it might look at its

own sad reflection for a while

until the store clerk

retrieves it at the end

of the day.

The “Persistence of a Bathing Suit” is now the working title of the collection. It will be dedicated to all the Young Survival Coalition women, the ones in our memories and the ones who don’t need a proliferation of pink to understand awareness, because they live awareness every single day. Continue reading

For Cristina without an H

For my entire life I have been two people. A real Cristina and an imagined Christina. I am Cristina, named after a client my mother had when she worked as a hairstylist that many years ago. TI am Cristina couldn’t eat at the table without a wet dishcloth because I would go into an instant hissy fit if food got on her face or hands and there was nothing to wash it off with. I am Cristina, an introvert who prefers the quiet of her home over public places, but can pass as an extrovert, though it will wear me out immensely at the end of the day. I am Cristina, who can’t hit a basket to save my life (or a net with a puck or…the list goes on). That being said, I did nearly start a one-girl stand-off in a pet store when the clerk told me that a dog that they were giving away free would be killed if it didn’t get a home soon. I am the real Cristina, who studied sports medicine because it was easy, but ached to be an artist, which I knew was going to be the most difficult, gut-wrenching path to follow. I am the real Cristina, who had cancer at 38 and knows now I won’t live forever, but doesn’t really know what to do with that information. TI am Cristina who cries at the littlest things, always has, Cristina who loves her children fiercely and thinks they are worth a million times more than the gross domestic product, Cristina who is generally a hot unorganized mess and readily admits it after arguing that she is trying her best and Cristina who wants to read and write more than she actually does those things and wants literary success but kicks and screams for the paltry little windows of time she has to make that happen.

For Cristina without an "H"

For Cristina without an “H”

For nearly all of my life people have been trying to change my name, trying to give my alter-ego its due. No matter how I often I say I am Cristina without an “H,” the “H” finds its way in. At times it has been nothing short of a migraine-inducing inconvenience. There have been legal documents that have had to be rewritten, applications that have had to be re-entered. Once I didn’t get paid for work because the bank couldn’t be sure that I was the person named on the check because there was an “H” typed in the name, though my last name Trapani-Scott is so unique that in the global community of the World Wide Web there isn’t one single other person with my exact name, H-less or otherwise. In recent years, I have even caught myself by surprise as I slip that H in there as I type my name. Sometimes, I do wonder what it might be like to be Christina with an “H.” Would she be all those things I never could be? Would she be charming and witty? Would she have always known what she wanted and be well on her way to solving issues of world peace while showing off her mad dribbling skills? Would she always know what to say to her children, know how to comfort them and protect them from sadness? Would she know how to bake the perfect cookies (Oh, I already know how to do that when the oven works correctly)? Would she have jumped that fast track to literary success and have that quiet little bungalow writing space set far off in a quiet corner of the yard where she is not bothered until she emerges? Would she, would she, would she?

Ah, but I am not Christina with an “H.” I will never be Christina with an “H.” I am Cristina without an “H.” I am not really two people and really I have Andrei Codrescu to thank for reminding me of that. He gave a reading here near my home. I, of course, had to go. I am a huge fan of his NPR commentaries. His voice, with that thick Romanian accent, draws me in and his words keep me in a space that makes long commutes dissipate into a space where I feel like I am being read to personally. Hearing that voice again with out the distraction of keeping my eyes on the road was that much better. After his reading, I purchased a book for which he signed. I told him to sign it to Cristina without an “H” (habit, of course). He had read a poem that evening that mentioned a Swedish princess named Christina. “Not with an “H” like Princess Christina?” he asked. I said, no. Then he signed the book. I didn’t look at it until I was in the car and on the road back home. In the darkness of the moving car I shined a flashlight that revealed the following inscription, “For Cristina without an ‘H.’” Yes, Andrei, here’s to Cristina without an “H.”

Thoughts for a quiet Sunday

One of my wet felting projects.

One of my wet felting projects.

I don’t often get quiet time. I have teenagers. I have a husband. This morning, I have a bit of quiet. I figured I’d write a blog. I have gotten away from writing–and blogging. I have worked in fits and starts all summer, but I did not accomplish nearly anything I had hoped. I am learning to forgive myself that much. I wanted my novel done done. I don’t want to think about it anymore, but I am still at the beginning of this latest revision and it is agonizing.

This is the real life of a writer, I guess. I am agonizing over revision. Then I get frustrated and move to something else. Poetry. I’ve written some new poetry. I am working on a collection now. Rethinking my collection anyway. I have my creative writing students to thank for that. I had put poetry down for a while. Maybe, I should just put writing down for a while. It is such a struggle lately. Maybe, it’s supposed to be that way. Maybe, I need a vacation.

I had a vacation. I strained my back on vacation and couldn’t really do much but lay in bed or hang out on the floor in front of the television. It took me almost three weeks to recover from that.

Really, I need another creative outlet that doesn’t involve writing. I found it. I am wet felting things now. Mostly, I was looking for an inexpensive way to make round art to decorate my career corner. I got most of the other quadrants of my home to where I feel like they need to be according to Feng Shui. At least the corners I have access to. I do feel a sense of calm when I am in those places. My kids’ rooms are a bit difficult to access, but that’s okay. My career corner has made me feel uneasy. It doesn’t look pleasing or inviting and round art is hard to come by unless you want to fork over a lot of money. I decided to wet felt some things. I was interested in doing it for a while. Now, I’m hooked. Maybe that is the outlet I need, something other than writing, but something creative all the same.

Fall is quickly approaching. I start teaching new classes this week. The summer was busier than I expected and not with fun stuff. I do appreciate the times when things seemed quiet and summer-like. I am grateful for a lot of things that I did do, even if I didn’t get the writing done that I wanted to.

The summer things I did enjoy and continue to enjoy include:

1. Going to the Farmer’s Market every Tuesday to pick up our CSA share. Our fridge has been stocked full of the best fresh local produce all summer. We have eaten some really healthy fare. We should have done this a long time ago. It also made us carve a little time out with our good friends who we split a share with.

2. I got to spend more time at home with my kids for the first time ever! I worked, but teaching college is odd hours so I spent more time at home.

3. I started running with my dog, though my back issue sidelined me for a bit. I am back at it and happy to be so. My next goal is to run a road race.

4. I spent a day at the Detroit Institute of Art with my daughter and dear friends of ours. I grew up going there with my mother, so it was a blast to take my daughter there. Also, all this talk of appraising the art to possibly sell it to help Detroit get out of debt made me want to see the world class exhibits all the more. I am hoping, hoping, hoping with every cell of my being that Detroit realizes the value in keeping that treasure and sees that while Detroit has a lot to deal with it still needs these treasures intact if it wants to rebuild and become vibrant. If there is nothing cultural to come to in Detroit, no one will come. (Sorry, for the soapbox. I love my DIA).

5. I taught my first college level creative writing class and loved it!!! I found out how important it is to revisit the basics of creative writing from time to time.

6. I baked a lot and continue to bake. We hoped to make a killing at this one music festival this summer, but it turned out to be a bust. We were left with a lot of staples. I mean a loooooot of staples. I have giant bags of flour and sugar, like 25 pounds giant for the flour and a huge box of sugar that will last forever. So, I make my own bread now and I have been making zucchini bread, lots of zucchini bread. I even convinced my daughter to try it and she loves it.

Well, here we go. The last week of summer is upon us. I measure it by when the kids are in school. They start after Labor Day. I get a break from one college, but the other starts this week, so I never really got much of a summer break. Still, I only taught one day a week over the summer, so I can hardly say I worked the entire summer. Anyway, the fall will be tricky getting kids to different schools far away, but we’ll figure it out and before I know it Christmas will be here.

Well, I’d better get back to revision. See you much sooner than before, I hope.

Food and poems intersect in a barn on a hill

francine j. harris

My two worlds have intersected in an old wooden barn with one big window covered in opaque paper allowing light to fall on a stage where poets read and musicians played alongside chickens. The barn belongs to Tilian Farm Development Center, a place that gives new farmers a head start on the road to owning their own farms. A couple of the farmers are friends we have gotten to know through writing and through our food cart venture, which has put us right in the heart of the local food movement in Ann Arbor.

I couldn’t help but feel like I was more where I wanted to be than I ever have been. My friend Deedra and her husband, Bill, own Honest Eats Farm, one of the Tilian Farms. She took me on a tour and picked a sugar snap pea off the vine for me to eat. There is nothing more sweet, nothing more satisfying that so simple burst of goodness. Growing up, I was so far away from that. The nearest I got was our annual berry picking adventures.

The event was A Bard Sings Out II, a benefit for the Tilian program. Featured among the group of poets were some of my local favorites,

Winter Sessions

Francine j. harris, Aaron McCollough and Keith Taylor, who headlined. I won’t do it justice trying to describe what it’s like to hear poets read in a barn like that. I only know that something felt so right about hearing the words move through that setting, those succulent sweet words mixed and nurtured, watered and weeded, much like the sustenance growing in the field beyond the barn.

Our friend, Nick Wilkinson, who owns A2 Pizza Pi, the cart that sits right next to ours at Mark’s Carts, took some of that sustenance and cooked wood-fired pizzas for everyone who attended. Nick makes the most delicious artisanal pizza and he has always used ingredients from another of Tilian’s farms, Green Things Farm, owned by Nate and Jill Lada.

Sitting outside with the pizza cooking and the music of the string band Winter Sessions filtering from the barn, it felt like a dream, a good dream where all my senses are heightened. I can smell the smokiness of all that good food cooking. I can ingest the images fed to me by great poets who care about things like sustainability and land and the small organic farmer in the farm to table mix. If my pictures look fuzzy, it’s because I don’t have the latest and greatest gadget. I have the anti-gadget. Or, it could be because dreams have that kind of fuzzy glow to them, that kind of “yes, it happened but you can’t really prove it” feeling. Well, as it turns it did happen. I hope to spend a little more time out there, perhaps helping my friend Deedra. Word has it she needs helps pulling weeds. I like pulling weeds.

In gratitude

I most likely will not win NaNoWriMo, but I’ve won already. I’ve won in that I have a running start on a new novel, one that has been in my head a year or two, one that I will keep working through in hopes of finishing it a lot sooner than 10 years. That brings me to gratitude. While there is so much rejection in being a writer, there are things that keep us going. I like, especially this week, to focus from time to time on the little steps forward that I am grateful for.

The following is a list of the things I am currently grateful for in this writing life:

1. The many new and old friends I have that inspire me and my writing with their own. This is a solitary pursuit for sure, but there is a community built so steadfastly around it.

2. The seed of a little novel “Sometimes the Smallest Things” was planted ten years ago with immediate encouragement by author Betsy Cox at Bear River Writer’s Conference. I scrapped for bits of time between raising children and working full time in order to massage every word and every scene. That took every bit of ten years. I finally have a full and what for now is a complete manuscript, complete enough to be sending it out into the world. It is getting some notice, so we will see what 2012 brings, but for now I am happy to have completed it.

3. I have been fortunate to dive into my passions this year. I am teaching, now, which I have longed to do since finishing my MFA. Because I am teaching, I get more time with my writing and my family.

4. This year, I have had some writing success. A couple of my poems appeared in publications. The first was Driftwood 10. The second, which I recently received my contributor’s copy, was a cool little book called Bigger Than They Appear: An Anthology of Very Short Poems.

5. I stay connected with my old writing job by still being able to write  feature articles for the magazine Homefront, my favorite part of the job. I also get to write a poem specific to the center photo spread of each issue.

6. I am able to merge my love of food with my love of words in my online post as the Ann Arbor Cooking Examiner.

7. I am always grateful for my family and the support they give me in pursuit of this crazy ass dream.

Words as food

I eat words, not in the sense that we all know, not the “eat your words” sense. No, words to me are like the very sustenance I get from sitting at a table filled with the warm delights of a hearty meal. Recently, I had forgotten how wonderful words tasted. I had forgotten how nourishing they were.

I suppose, like anything, too much of a good thing can make you sick. I had too much. I went from writing for work to writing for work and school to writing to make a few bucks. In essence, all I did was write, and I wasn’t writing what nourished me as much as writing what needed to be written. I’d made myself sick in a sense. I was tired. Dark circles appeared under my eyes. Then there was the crossroads. At some point not so long ago, I wondered if I’d ever again write anything new or anything that might get me excited. I had moments when I thought I’d gotten inspiration, but then I stopped. I couldn’t get a single new spark to flash in my creative core. There was no energy to keep a spark going anyway. I thought being in a critique group was the answer. I thought going to fancy literary events would be the answer. None of it worked like it used to. I’d definitely hit a low point in my writing, a low point I never imagined I would ever hit.

Recently, though, I heard parts of the speech Steve Jobs gave to Stanford University graduates. This is not a reflection of anything I think about Apple or Jobs himself. No, I just heard his words at a time when I needed them. In his speech, he talked about being at a low point in his career and life. He talked about how he went back to the beginning, returned to where everything had started, to where everything was exciting and new again, to where he felt hungry again. As I heard that, I knew I knew what I needed to do. I needed the hunger again. I needed it from the beginning, from before the MFA, from before the 12 years of newspaper writing, from before the handful of awards and publications. I needed to savor the flavors of words again.

That wasn’t going to happen in a critique group or in a career focused solely on mass producing copy. No, what I found was that I had to go back to a group much like the one where it all began, a group that inspired me to keep my hand moving across the page, that nurtured those first sparks of inspiration and saw them for what they are–food and nourishment meant to keep the light of inspiration burning.

I found just such a group, finally. They are  a talented and exciting bunch, but most of all they are a hungry bunch. They are as hungry as I am to taste those words, to try them in various flavors. I remember now how words taste–savory and sweet in all the best ways possible. Mostly, I remember why I started writing words. I realize now that I’d starve without them.