In front of the John Lennon Wall in Prague.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Hidden Themes

When I was in college at Northwestern University back in the days when Women's Studies was a new discipline (figure out the years on your own), I had the great fortune to hear Margaret Atwood read to a small group of about 30 women students. I will never forget the question that one of those students asked Atwood:  what are the most important themes in your work?  I have also never forgotten Atwood's reply: I don't think about my themes; I just write.  I leave figuring out my themes to graduate students.

Like Atwood (can I really compare myself to her?), I don't spend much time thinking about the recurring themes in my own work.  However, in the last few months I've had several writer friends point out some interesting observations about my poetry, themes and metaphors I had never noticed myself.  I guess that is why I've begun to think about subjects that interest me most - and not just in my writing.

Those who know me also know how much I love to travel.  In fact, it's become rather an obsession for me.  Like all of my family, I love taking photographs to record those trips.  Recently, I have become aware of my predilection for taking photographs of groups of people going about their lives totally unaware of my presence behind them. There is something I find so provocative about watching these people interacting with each other. I can only imagine what they say to each other, but I love the fact that I can record a snippet of their relationships with each other.  So I have images of school children drawing on the museum floor in Bilbao, Spain.

And a photograph of young Buddhist monks at lunch at a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand as well as a group of school girls sitting on a dock in Zanzibar.

 And then one of the most poignant images - of these women on a ferry to Istanbul. I found it very difficult to talk to the women in Turkey and this group gazing out at the sea seemed symbolic of our separation.

Just why do I enjoy capturing such images while I stay in the background?  Well, I don't know, and I'll leave that to others to figure out.  For now, I just want to keep traveling and finding more groups like these.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Writer to Writer: Interview with Esther Cohen

If you would like to read the rest of my interview with Esther, here is the link: AROHO Speaks: Writer to Writer.

Photo: Copyright Jamie Clifford/2011 AROHO Retreat
AROHO's 2011 retreat brought 90 women writers from across the United States together in a supportive community, with time to write, read, teach, learn and share. The AROHO Speaks: Writer to Writer interview project is designed to continue building connections among women writers.During the coming year, our group will interview as many 2011 retreat participants as possible about their experiences and writing projects. We hope that you will visit this page regularly, post comments, and share the link.  We look forward to hearing your stories!
Tania Pryputniewicz, Lisa Rizzo, Marlene Samuels, and Barbara YoderDuring the retreat,  I didn't get a real opportunity to get to know Esther very well.  Now, having had the privilege to interview her, I wish I had had more time to talk to her in person.  I certainly hope our paths cross again.  - Lisa Rizzo
Esther, I'd love to know more about why you call yourself The Book Doctor. Could you tell me more about that title?
I've been helping people with their books since I was young.  It was my first job too. I was a publishing assistant at Simon and Schuster and I found myself intuitively knowing how a book is made. 
What to do.  How to help.  Maybe because I've read thousands of books and it's more or less what I do - read books.   So, I've worked on countless books, all my life.  I'm working on a few now, including a wonderful advice/memoir book by an AROHO woman, Amy Siskind.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

My Poetry on The Fertile Source

Please check out my poems, "Childhood," "Daughters" and "Uneasy Grace" posted on The Fertile Source, a literary ezine devoted to fertility-related topics.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Power of Poetry

Today was not an easy one in the teaching part of my world.  Already exhausted from putting in 10-hour days for the past weeks, this morning I found out that due to changes in our school's enrollment, I will no longer be teaching a class I truly love.  After that news, I felt depressed and withdrawn, already mourning the loss of the wonderful experiences I've had with this class since the beginning of September.

One of the difficult things about teaching is trying to keep up my spirits in front of a class of students. Sometimes I can forget whatever life issue I struggle with, but there are some days when it just feels too much.  Today was one of those.  All I could think of was to get through the rest of my classes until the bell rang at the end of the day.

And then I began my 8th grade class. The new unit they are studying is poetry. On a whim, I decided I would read the poems for the day's lesson. I told my students how important it is to read a poem aloud as a performance with style and grace.  So I began to read two poems by Jacqueline Woodson from her book, Locomotion. This is a book of poems written in the voice of Lonnie, a teenage boy living with a foster family.  Lonnie learns from his teacher that he "has a poet's heart."  As I read - with as much expression and emotion as I could - my unruly, noisy bunch of 35 8th graders sat as silently as any 5-year old listening to a bed-time story.  Anyone who has seen - and heard - this wild group would find it hard to believe their rapt attention to the words.

As I read the last lines of "Almost Summer Sky," with its symbol of Rodney acting as a tree to provide shade for his young foster brother, my heart calmed.  I'm sure I'll feel sadness for my loss at another time.  However, for that moment I was able to forget myself in the beauty of words.  Once again I was renewed by poetry.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Magic of the Retreat Lingers On

To read my interview about my experiences at the AROHO Summer Retreat conducted by Marlene Samuels, log onto: AROHO Speaks: Writer to Writer

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

AROHO Speaks, Writer to Writer: Interview with Marlene Samuels

A Room of Her Own Foundation's Summer 2011 Retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico brought together a group of dynamic women. Now I am honored to be working with a team whose mission is to keep the spirit of that retreat going by conducting interviews, writer to writer. I met Marlene on the bus to Ghost Ranch and then wound up staying in the room next door to her up on the mesa. We also participated in the same small group, Late Bloomers, for women of a certain age. I was surprised that we hit it off so well, since at first glance we might not appear to be friend material. Yet, with the magic of AROHO working in our favor, we have struck up a wonderful friendship. I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce her to you here.

Thinking back to the 2011 AROHO retreat, can you tell us about an idea, exercise or conversation that had either an identifiable impact upon your writing habits or became a finished piece of writing or one in process?

There were so many incredible moments and conversations it’s really tough for me to isolate a single one but what did make a huge impact on me is the passion with which each woman approached her writing. I was moved by the observation that even the most accomplished participants still expressed some self-doubt. To me that was very refreshing!

It’s noteworthy that we all struggle with the importance of being perceived as serious writers. We each struggle to find that space and consistency for our writing but there’s no precise formula. Kate Gale’s comment – that we schedule the various responsibilities in our lives and meet our commitments yet fail to follow suit with our writing - that was especially poignant. All too often, women put others’ needs ahead of their own writing schedules as though somehow writing isn’t a legitimate use of their time.

Bhanu Kapil’s direct questioning of total strangers really influenced my own work. Her method of querying them as the means by which she could pursue her writing project encouraged me to begin a project I’d been stuck on for about two years. Until hearing Bhanu, I’d been unable to muster the nerve to approach strangers. She was a true inspiration as well!

Is there one specific moment or event at the retreat that sparked an insight or shift in how you perceive either your work or yourself as a writer?

Yes, the evening readings altered my self-perception. Reading my work helped me perceive myself more seriously and hence, as a professional writer instead of someone who’s reluctant to say, “I’m a writer,” in response to the question, “What do you do?” Before the retreat I felt like an imposter if I claimed to be a writer. Somehow, it seems that as women, we have a misperception that unless our writing appears on the New York Times bestseller list or in The New Yorker or is reviewed by Oprah, we can’t claim to be writers. It seems most of us struggle with that but - my gut feeling: it’s a much bigger issue for women.

Is there a specific woman writer who inspires/d you? If so, can you tell us something about why?

Tania Pryputniewicz was amazingly inspirational – the mere fact that she committed to attend in the face of her own doubts, that she demonstrated such a unique approach to her poetry, and that she gave such a unique and creative presentation to the entire group inspired me. She discussed the collaborative process, an approach to writing I’ve never really considered. It’s given me a new view into the creative process, almost like a child being given encouragement to draw outside of the lines.

Bridget Birdsall’s one-on-one spiritual consultation with me – something I was really suspicious of but also curious about – was great fun, not to mention that her insights were exceedingly encouraging. Her strength of character and her intuition are also reflected so honestly in her own writing. There are so many others but I’m guessing the space of this interview wouldn’t accommodate my rave reviews.

How would you describe your typical writing day?

I spend a lot of time in approach-avoidance activities, that time wasting stuff, as I try to get organized. When I was in graduate school we used to refer to that as “pencil sharpening”! I have a terrible time actually getting started on the writing process each day because I tend to take care of all my other responsibilities - phone calls, bills, whatever else distracts me. But if I don’t do that first thing then it’s very tough for me to stay focused.

Afternoon seems the best time for me, when I can spend two to four hours writing. I’ve noticed that just in the few weeks since I got home from the retreat, I’m much more committed to my writing time. It feels really good and that in itself is very reinforcing of my writing commitment. I’m certain it’s the result of embracing the concept that I really am a writer and it’s my legitimate real career.

Can you describe for us what you’re currently working on?

I’m actually working on three things, each in a different genre. I’m completing a short story collection that I’ve been working on for years entitled, The Mental Health Poster Child. It began as my memoir but has evolved as a sequel to my mother’s memoir, The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival. After her death I rewrote and edited when Penguin Berkley agreed to publish it. In addition, I’m co-host of a culinary website and its blog, . Both are progressing toward an “ethnographic” sort of cookbook. My third project is a sociology book based upon interviews with baby-boom generation women. That project really draws upon my training as a serious research sociologist but incorporates my more recently honed passion for writing creative nonfiction.

Is there a specific question you’d have liked us to ask and if so, could you answer it?

Actually, yes! The question I’m surprised no one asked – one I personally asked many of women during the retreat, “What influenced you to attend the retreat?”

I’ve never been to a writers’ retreat before, only to writing workshops and conferences -courses at University of Iowa Summer Festival or University of Chicago Writers’ Studio, that sort of thing. I’d followed AROHO for many years; read about the retreats, and vacillated between wanting to apply yet worrying I’d be out of my league. After reading the bios of women who attended – a huge diversity, it was obvious that I needed to attend. I decided that, unlike workshops, what I needed most was emotional and spiritual support for my goals. That’s an often neglected component to being a productive and confident writer. At some point, writers need that kind of support and connectedness with other writers more than they need instruction in the writing process.

Marlene B. Samuels:

I’m an independent research sociologist, writer, and instructor and teach research methodology and sociology. I earned a Ph.D. and M.A. from University of Chicago. My research focuses upon changing American demographics, adoption issues, and currently, decision-making during life transitions. My writing encompasses three genres: sociology, nonfiction, and food.

I co-authored The Seamstress, my mother’s Holocaust memoir, wrote an academic book about career success plus short stories, essays, and food articles. My writing has been published in Lilith Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, University of Iowa Summer Anthology, Story Circle Journal, Long Story Short and others.






Sunday, September 25, 2011

AROHO Speaks, Writer to Writer: Interview with Tania Pryputniewicz

A Room of Her Own Foundation's Summer 2011 Retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico brought together a dynamic group of women. Now I am honored to be working with a team whose mission is to keep the spirit of that retreat going by conducting interviews, writer to writer. I met Tania on the bus to Ghost Ranch and got to talk with her a lot longer than expected when the bus broke down! We then wound up staying in the same building up on the mesa. I am
happy to have the opportunity to
introduce her to you here.

Thinking back to the 2011 AROHO retreat, is there one specific moment or event you can identify that sparked an insight or shift in how you perceive either your work or yourself as a writer?

I have the urge to delineate every conversation I had at AROHO’s summer 2011 retreat whether it occurred on that first shuttle to Ghost Ranch, on the morning hike down to breakfast, or sitting on the mesa watching for shooting stars. I didn’t realize just how isolated I’d come to feel (after ten years of immersion in motherhood). I am moved by the web of life-long friends working beside me in spirit now--a posse of cohorts possessing a rich range of personalities and passions. I am no longer a “Lone Ranger.”

During Kate Gale’s afternoon panel, “Become a Literary Citizen,” and the panel of “Non-profit Contrarians” composed of Darlene Chandler Bassett, Kate Gale, and Esther Cohen, the forthright conversations about how to share the responsibility for promoting one’s work and the work of others shifted how I perceived my role as both a writer and editor. I will now ask, as Kate suggested, “What tangible help can I offer the publisher/press that accepts my book for publication? What do I bring to the table besides my role as writer of the manuscript?” In addition, I felt excited as an editor of a small on-line magazine to consider ways of sharing resources and platforms with established non-profits as opposed to reinventing the wheel each time, an idea put forth by Darlene.

Walking back from the panel, Esther’s gentle but direct questions about the motivation behind my choice to be a poetry editor at The Fertile Source (Why are you drawn to the subject? Why do you care about how women are viewed? Was family important to you growing up?) helped me take stock and recalibrate my personal and professional intentions.

Is there a specific woman writer who inspires/d you? If so, can you tell us something about why?

Again, I am flooded with memories regarding each writer I met and feel hard pressed to choose just one. But here goes--I’m thinking of the night Bhanu Kapil read from her poetry collection, humanimal. I could sense the specter of wolf-raised girls, the energy of those children as palpable as the sun warmed stone seats of the amphitheater and the tuning forks of the cacti at our backs. Later, I couldn’t sleep, the moon emanating through the three tiny windows of my room, a luminous, kaleidoscopic energy coursing through my mind.

During Bhanu’s Mind Stretch, she exuded that same multi-dimensional attention in her approach to her writing process when she shared the questions she posed as part of her process creating the poems for The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. I’m intensely inspired by the scope of her investigation into human relations and how it translates into her finished work. Surely a woman who has the courage to ask other women, “Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother?”, and to write about the answers, will continue to leave a trail of profoundly transformative writing in her wake.

Can you describe for us what you’re currently working on?

My current writing joy remains with the making of the poetry photo poem montages (the micro-movies). Photographer Robyn and I have one last photo to add to the micro-movie for Amelia Earhart. Two image folders I’m eager to access next focus on the tangled psychic relationships ensnaring King Arthur’s extended kin. In the poem, “Corridor,” Guinevere recounts a stolen moment of time alone with her mother as they advance the length of the corridor between their bedrooms. And in the poem “Mordred’s Dream: A First Refusal,” Mordred attempts to challenge his mother’s vision for who he should be, both to himself and to Guinevere. I can’t wait to begin.

As I sit beside Robyn and we sift through her latest photo files, the story images itself before our eyes, the ordering of photos an intuitive process. I see the micro-movies as tiny mood bookmarks capable of setting the tone for longer works; I hope later they inspire longer vignettes complete with actors. The micro-movie short form satisfies my passion to enflesh the poems and fits my time constraints as a mother and editor.

At the retreat, I also made a commitment to build a base for a Collaboration Hub in order to support anyone interested in following up on my Mind Stretch presentation, “Female Power in the Face of Adversity: Collaboration as Excavation” (during which we brainstormed lists of iconic, inspiring women and exchanged lists, creating an opportunity to partner and collaborate with one another in the future). I will announce The Hub on AROHO’s facebook page once we’ve finalized construction on its inner workings and are ready to invite dialogue and share resources.

Recent poetry by Tania Pryputniewicz is forthcoming or appeared on-line at Autumn Sky, Blast Furnace, The Blood Orange Review, Connotation Press, and Linebreak. Her photo poem montages have been published by The Mom Egg (She Dressed in a Hurry for Lady Di, 2009) and Prairie Wolf Press (Nefertiti on the Astral, 2011). Poetry editor at The Fertile Source, she blogs at Feral Mom, Feral Writer. She lives in the Sonoma County redwoods with her husband, three children, kitten, Siberian Husky, and four feral cats.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Altars of the Uncertain Kind

In August I spent an amazing week at the A Room of Her Own Foundation's writing retreat at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico. At the ranch, the incredibly beautiful mountains and mesas that had inspired Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings watched over me. It was a week of writing, contemplation and meeting amazing women writers from all over the country. On my way home, I sat in the Albuquerque airport with Tania, who happened to be on the same flight back to Oakland. Tania and I had just realized that we had met years ago at another writer’s conference. This was just one of the many serendipitous – and for me unnerving - interchanges and intersections that had occurred that week.

As we talked about all the things that you tell someone you barely know but find you really like, we reminisced about some of our experiences at the retreat such as the intense group discussions, meditation sessions and walking the labyrinth. Women had talked over and over about spirituality and religion and the soul – all concepts that make me very uncomfortable. I told Tania all the reasons why I am not a spiritual person, that in fact I even hate the word “spiritual.” But then I had to admit that my carry-on bag was heavier than it should be because it was full of rocks and pebbles that I had collected on my walks around Ghost Ranch. That I had compulsively taken photographs of the same mountains over and over at different times of the day to record every moment of my journey.

Those rocks and photographs were destined to join the shells and pieces of coral, pine cones and sage bundles, the icons and Virgin Mary’s, the tin milagros and Buddha’s that I had strewn about my house. From every place I go – and I am an obsessive traveler – I take a little piece of something to remind me of how I felt in that place or the person who gave it to me. I had to confess that I loved creating altars of all sorts – but that I was not spiritual in any way.

I also admitted that I had never wanted to write a blog because I didn’t think there were any of my thoughts that I needed to inflict upon the world, but Tania thought I should take photos of my altars and blog about them. Unsettled but intrigued, I couldn’t forget that conversation. I had to admit that something had happened at that retreat among those mountains that I didn't understand but couldn't ignore. So, because all that week I had been guided by the “spirit” of Georgia O’Keefe and the inspiration of those creative women, I did what Tania said I should do.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The tale of a teacher and his donkeys

Photo from:

 Yesterday I watched the POV production "Biblioburro," a film about Luis Soriano, a teacher in Columbia who has dedicated his weekends to bringing books to children in remote rural areas. I encourage you to check it out on the PBS website - it's showing until September 18, 2011. Link:POV - Biblioburro

Seeing this man ride his donkey great distances, fording rivers while carrying his library sign and tables put a new spin on the idea of dedicated teacher.  Everyday I try to figure out just how much more of myself I can give to my education.  Everyday I complain that the photocopies don't work, that there is another faculty meeting, that I have to grade too many papers. After watching this movie, all my complaints pale in comparison. Maybe next time I feel put upon and unappreciated I'll think about Luis and his donkeys. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Teacher/Poet or Poet/Teacher?

Today a funny thing happened in my middle school classroom. The teacher stopped "teaching" and became a writer being interviewed by her students.  We were watching a video about an author of one of the stories in their textbook.  When it was over, someone asked me what my writing routine was.  I've told my students that I write poetry and have always written poems with them for classwork. But I've never really just talked to them about who I am as a writer, what I do and why I do it. 

This day was different - I put aside the set curriculum for 20 minutes and just let them ask questions -- and they had some really good ones.  One boy asked if I thought it was better to start writing when you were still young or was it okay to wait until you were older.   That is something near and dear to my heart because I never really wrote when I was a child even though I "wanted" to be a writer.  I told them that I always loved reading books which had as the main character a girl who wrote -  Little Women and the Betsy/Tacey books in particular - and that although I dreamed I'd be like them I didn't do anything about it until I was an adult.  I had to admit that I thought it would have been better for me if I had started sooner, if I had taken myself more seriously, if I had worked harder. I asked them to think about whether they wanted to create art in some way - to write, paint or play an instrument. If they did, I wanted to encourage them create a space for it in their lives when they are young, to feel the joy of creation now.

Who was more affected by this whole conversation - the students or myself?  As with all middle school teaching, it may be years before I know if any student took this to heart enough to start on their own writing career.  That's the wonder and the ache of teaching adolescents - I have to have faith that I am touching their lives even though they may never tell me.  However, I do know that their genuine interest in me as a writer, their desire to understand me just a little bit more touched my heart in a way I won't forget.