ACC Writers Studio Hosts Andrea Mason and Jamey Trotter held a book release reading and recording for D. J. Lee and me on May 1st. We both read from our new books and answered a number of interesting questions about creative nonfiction and the writing process.
Thank you to Veronica Patterson, Loveland’s first poet Laureate, for sharing my two poems, “To Three Ducks Flying Beneath the Dog Star” and “Waking After Eighteen Hundred Dead,” as part of April’s National Poetry Month, on her Loveland Poet Laureate facebook site.
TODAYS POET ♦
Today’s National Poetry Month poet who read in Loveland as part of the Poets in the Park series is Kathryn Winograd. The poems presented are *TO THE THREE DUCKS FLYING BENEATH THE DOG STAR* and *WAKING AFTER EIGHTEEN HUNDRED DIE.* Of the latter, Kathryn writes, “This poem I wrote after the rising of the pink moon and one of our terrible nights of so many dead.”
TO THE THREE DUCKS FLYING BENEATH THE DOG STAR
So little you know, wild-winged and unshaken beneath a dog star, half-grazing the pines, the bare winter aspen I stand in the dark wash of waiting for the tip of a yellow moon. In Ohio, girlhood, these April stars circled a pond bull-dozed by my father, a raft of cattail where the red-wings spun their nests above the scrim of caught water. Tonight, in this near dark, so close my hand could circle it, Sirius hovers above the red factory lights of Pueblo and the Sangre de Cristo blue-washed in this hour. I am cold in this wind, in this spine of the Milky way, these blue white stars named for a bear or a lyre or a woman weeping her dead into a river. I think I was still half-sleeping in a field of grass, in a haze of stars, in a far and nameless country you care nothing about, burying and unburying those I love. Such quiet, the mining trucks to the north stalled and the little generator of a shed where no one lives in winter shut down. And then, your wings, almost, against the moon. Why am I always alone, searching for something beautiful?
WAKING AFTER EIGHTEEN HUNDRED DIE
Prayer began early before the sterling jays dove, then clattered at our window, flicked the blue dark storm of their tails. Our pale trees bow down secretly and a nuthatch teeters upside down from the post of the birdfeeder I buried with stones another spring, his thin straight beak tapping at the seed I leave out all night. My breath, how lightly it floats in this chill spring like a delicate frost of air I can walk through. I take the wood axe from our tool shed to split the old wood we felled and stacked years past. Last night I stood alone in the deepening dusk, in the silence, as if I could rename each splinter of star I did not know. And then the pink moon soft as the fingertips of the dead slid over the mountain and I lit fires beneath a moon of far blossoms. How long ago it seems, springs when we could just count the catkin on the budding aspen and step so carefully through the winter grass so as not to crush the white globes of the wind flowers lifting themselves from the cold earth.
~ Published in Colorado, Write On/The Colorado Sun
PROMPT: In her poem “Waking After Eighteen Hundred Die,” the poet does not write directly about this time of the corona virus. And yet the details and images of the poem embody it. Try writing about what you observe in the world now and letting the poem’s title, which the reader will return to, be an anchor.
Kathryn’s new book of essays, *Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children,* has recently been released. Here is a trailer for her new book: https://www.youtube.com/watch…
The Colorado Sun is asking all of you, anyone with the capacity and the willingness to commit your thoughts to print, to share your observations of the many aspects of this remarkable period. We’ll publish select pieces periodically — an ongoing time capsule of sorts — as we confront the challenges ahead of us.
I am learning the solitude of black tea citrus rinds and licorice roots, rosy finch, nuthatch and house wren quibbling at the copper feeder I hung just a day ago before the late frost air drifted through. I am learning the solitude of black tea citrus rinds and licorice roots, so I dry dishes at the sink, forget the days’ count since the last pink moon. The wood stove burns and unquiet sparrows gather in the gathering snow. I am learning the solitude of black tea citrus rinds and licorice roots, rosy finch, nuthatch, and house wren quibbling at the copper feeder I hung just a day ago.
I watch the squirrels plumped with our sunflower seeds for more than a quarter century in the cherry tree and its blossoms I planted to block the neighbor’s view. Even the dogs doze through the squirrels tracking our old fence tops and the boughs of a fifty-year-old pine tree I didn’t plant that each year keeps stretching through repeated air . Three squirrels dangle this morning from the crooked cherry tree I pruned wrong too many years ago to right or maybe underfed or maybe rooted too deep in manure-burn. Sometimes I want to take the pencil stub I write the grocery list with from the kitchen drawer and crosshatch the backs of bills and returned envelopes into something I’ll never see:
cherry blossoms floating down strange rivers, pink dawns when I cannot sleep for counting the dead and birds, swallows I think, tipped by expressive lines, by a haze of moon, by white volcanoes delicate and touching.
First, the sound of the wind rippling at the windshield as I sat in my car with Kateri in a tiny Golden History Park, miles from my Phantom Canyon cabin, and sputtered into a tiny recording microphone.
And second, sitting knee to knee with Casi at a tiny children’s table in a tiny children’s playroom on the Regis campus for take-two of that recording– this time, while I fought a persistent frog in my throat.
Needless to say, Cattywampus Club had to contend with a complete first-time-to-the- process quivering idiot and her shoestring budget. I asked Casi of Cattywampus to share a few better tips and insights on the making of our video book trailer and added a bit of my own two-cents.
Casi: When multiple creatives come together to produce either photos or a video, it can become a difficult task. Each person in the group is a visionary and has fantastic ideas and concepts; however, sometimes communicating those can always be the most challenging piece.
But we could gather excerpts, the synopsis, and had a pretty good idea of the imagery that would pair well with Kathy’s words. Kathy’s poetic writing style allowed me to make the footage more of a cinematic B-roll type* since the book is a collection of essays, rather than a plot-driven novel.
(Kathy: Casi and Kateri first asked me to choose some text from the book to use in a 3 minute or less video. What would best represent the arc of the book? I chose to compress together a few paragraphs from the preface that I felt set the scene and story for the book. It did ultimately feel good reading those sections together. )
*Wikipedia definition? in film and television production, B–roll, B roll, B-reel or B reel is supplemental or alternative footage intercut with the main shot.
#2 Dealing with the Budget and Other Details
Casi: Then comes the difficult stuff; budget, schedule, and location. Kathy based much of her writing off her beautiful cabin that was hours away from Kateri and I. We opted for the Golden History Park, a frontier park that had cabins and a mountain feel, but the footage and mountains weren’t an exact fit.
We also had to be mindful that most cities and open spaces in Colorado require a permit for both photography and videography, which for filming are quite steep. Luckily the location we utilized only requires a license for productions over $15,000, which we were nowhere near.
For the restraints we had, I believe we produced imagery that fits the text reasonably well.
(Kathy: This part was difficult for me, butbecause Cattywampus Club was a startup, Casi and Kateri had given me a real deal for producing the book trailer and I was quite conscious of not wanting to abuse their time and talents. It wasn’t fair to ask Kateri and Casi to schlep their equipment two and a half hours to the cabin. I was ultimately able to give them some photographs I had taken in the area to use for the video.)
#3 The Filming Specifics
Casi: I filmed this in both 60 and 120 frames per second, which I can turn into slow motion for a more cinematic feel. Most streamed television is shot in 30 frames per second, and cinematic movies are at 24 frames per second. While footage filmed in 24 frames per second is beautiful and cinematic, you cannot correctly turn that into slow-motion footage.
I used a gimble to stabilize the camera footage so that we could have a smooth video with little to no camera shake. The smooth-moving footage also adds to the cinematic feel when tied in with the slow motion.
(Kathy: Casi and Kateri made the filming, which I was, well, more than nervous about, fun. I think Casi shouted out some surprisingly bad word right before she began taking pictures and that pretty much got me laughing from then on.The slow motion was nice, though I did ask Casi to cut out some of what felt like too many shots of me from the video—maybe back when I was a twenty-something, but at sixty? No.)
#4 Putting the Video Together
Casi: Once back in the studio, I decide whether clips are usable or not and start to determine if we need supplemental shots from stock imagery. For instance, we filmed this in the fall, and there was no chance we’d see a hummingbird, and I wasn’t going to get lucky and spot a coyote; instead, I tried to use a few clips from stock websites to pair with Kathy’s words. Kathy ended up having some photographs I could use and I had a few mountain scenic clips of my own.
(Kathy:I found it was important to me to have some actual images from up at the cabin. Plus, two friends of mine, Liz Netzel and Greg Hobbs, had given me beautiful images for the book that I wanted to use in the video.)
Casi: Sequencing the footage is the next most challenging step. I wanted to pair the imagery as best as possible with the story, but I also wanted to add a bit of drama since we were going to be over a minute long. It took me about six edits to get the sequence and suspense down before I had a draft that I thought we could run with.
(Kathy: At this point in the process, I probably drove Casi a bit crazy: I sent back lists of questions and suggestions twice after reviewing the trailer with some of my writer friends. Casi and I had a bit of back and forth over the sequences until we all were satisfied. Because I was getting worried about Casi’s time in developing the video, I ended up asking Kateri not to do a few things she had planned for marketing the book. Casi and the video needed that time and money.)
Casi: The first bit of music was meant to add to the suspense when Leonard asks, “would you want to die here?” The next bit of music and footage was supposed to come around full circle, matching Kathy’s story of rebirth. I supplemented wind, stream, and other sounds to tie back into the cinematic footage to make the viewer feel like they were there in the setting. Adding an extra layer of well-paired noises can help tie the footage altogether.
(Kathy: I found the music and sound effects very pretty and was happy that Casi had added that dimension to the video.)
Overall? I would do it again. It was interesting to watch both Casi and Kateri in action and collaborate with them. They inspired me to maybe even try doing something on my own, after a lot of practice. It’s possible. My friend the essayist Steve Harvey, creator of The Humble Essayist, has experimented with Animoto for creating video book trailers. You can see the video commentary he did for my book on The Humble Essayist.
I don’t know what it means to publish a book in the time of a coronavirus. What seemed large just a few weeks ago seems small now in a world of chaos and isolation and the loneliness of people afraid to breathe the same air. But today, on the official release date for Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, I get to say that my book has finally arrived. Yes, the events and fuss planned around this book have been canceled or postponed, but Slow Arrow is, here, in this world.
The quote from Nietzsche that first sent me on this journey of the book feels as true now as it did then:
The slow arrow of beauty. . . which infiltrates slowly, which we carry along with us almost unnoticed, and meet up with again in dreams.
So many thanks to Ruth Thompson, editor of Saddle Press, and Don Mitchell, Saddle Road’s book designer, for taking on Slow Arrow and making it a beautiful book. Thanks to friends Steve Harvey, Laura Julier, Tom Larson, Bob Root, and the late and wonderful Michael Steinberg for their kind words on Slow Arrow. Thanks to the many literary journals that published pieces from this book. Thanks to the Cattywampus Club for its work on my website, kathrynwinograd.com, its author photos, its video book trailer, and marketing help. And to Chris Moore, who just posted the virtual, hands-free podcast we recorded this weekend for the Situation and the Story. And to Inverted Syntax, which just posted the first part of a two part interview on Slow Arrow
Saddle Road Press lists the links where you can purchase Slow Arrow through Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, Powell’s Books, and Indie Bound. If you decide to buy Slow Arrow and you like it, please go back to these links and share what you feel. And watch this video book trailer by Cattywampus.
Starting the Journey to a Book
How did Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children happen? A few years ago, I found a folder in my “cloud” named “On Beauty” under a larger folder named “Beacon.” Six years ago, when my then eighty-five-year-old mother announced that she would be moving to Colorado to live out her last years with me, I had just decided to follow what our former poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, had said about exploring history through its “gaps” and set out to discover what it meant to be a steward of a little high mountain meadow at 9600 feet Leonard and I had bought and built a cabin on, and the land surrounding it that I knew so little about.
For a year, I wrote a monthly column for Beacon, a since defunct experiment in online journalism, using the land around our cabin near Victor and Cripple Creek as a microcosm for the larger world, both its beauties and the evidence of the environmental issues we face today. It was an exciting year writing those columns. I often took my mother with me through this deceptively remote and arid landscape at the back of Pikes Peak to explore the gold mines, and the wreckage of drought-induced wildfires, and the sudden aspen decline and the fossil quarries where once the first butterfly fossil ever found was unearthed by a homesteader named Charlotte Hill. Each month, I was clueless on how the next column would come together and then I would find my way to an unexpected story, an unexpected fact, an image I couldn’t forget.
And then the journey of writing for the book began.
Writing through the Collage
The essay, “Slow Arrow,” one of the title essays for the book, and the real start of the book, began as a collage — threads and snatches of prose I placed together on the blank page in hopes of puzzling together some momentary meaning. Then the essay unearthed itself from my husband’s Nietzsche books in the study, from the giant puffs of mushrooms I poked with a stick, and the unseen neighbors at that time in the little gulch below us staking out their territory, and from my born-again sister asking me the question that became seminal to the piece, “Why do you write of death?” But those threads only began to work when I remembered the bits of poetry lost in my journals and began to weave these lines of poetry through the essay. Then I discovered the form that allowed me not only reflection and experience, but to stumble into one of my favorite “leaps” in my prose or poetry at the end of the essay: “Our breath,” I write my sister, “flies from us like small sparrows.”
Slow Arrow proved to me, as creative nonfiction always does, the inseparability of poetry and prose.
Creating the Braids
The writing of Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, the book, was long and sometimes hard and sometimes beautiful. After I finished writing the Beacon columns, I knew I had left placeholders in them for deeper, more personal journeys. As I lead my mother in and out of this landscape, I found myself drawn into not just the history and science of these places but to their metaphorical connections to the emotional landscape and history of my family. The places I had visited, the facts I had learned, the beautiful images I had witnessed still felt resonant to me and filled with the possibility. So I set out to find the threads I needed to braid these “columns” into creative nonfiction essays.
Sometimes the journeys in my book begin with what a tree cutter claims to be a pronghorn caught in the shaky pixels of his girlfriend’s iPhone and lead me to the Path of the Pronghorns in Wyoming and to my Russian immigrant mother-in-law crossing the tundra when she was a young girl caught in the pogrom, and then to the “streamers”—butterflies and birds caught in the solar farm light of 300,000 mirrors that turn these travelers into puffs of smoke. Or I visit a fossil quarry where a ten-year old Ryan teaches me to skin shale with a butter knife to find the carbon imprints of a whole tapestry of vegetation, insect, and animal life that lived when ashes and lava flowed from an Eocene volcano into a flowering lake long lost. And then I remember my father, lost to Alzheimer’s, his face pressed against the glass of the state psych unit. Exploring the gaps of a place turned into the braiding together of these environmental issues I kept finding and what I felt were the sacred and profane intersections of family and personal history. The writing of Slow Arrow turned into a journey I never expected, of getting to know my mother and to cherish her in this time of her life in ways I could never have imagined.
Finished reading James Agee’s “A Death in the Family.” Been thinking a lot about the “poetry of prose” in creative nonfiction these days. Not just the lyrical beauty of prose, though it’s hard not to get stuck in a brilliant passage like this, “fiction” as it may be, from Agee as he describes the evening noises of a neighborhood settling down toward sleep, the fathers after dinner hosing down the summer yards:
Meantime from low in the dark, just outside the swaying horizons of the hoses, conveying always grass in the damp of dew and its strong green-black smear of smell, the regular yet spaced noises of the crickets, each a sweet cold silver noise three-noted, like the slipping each time of three matched links of a small chain.
Look at that little piece of figurative language, those links of a silver chain slipping. Just look and listen. In a piece I did for Essay Daily on the lyric impulse, about a student who wouldn’t look at her own bricks strewed throughout her essay on building a house, I quoted from the philologist Max Mueller, who said, “man, as he develops his conceptions of immaterial things, must perforce express them in terms of material things because his language lags behind his needs.” What I understood then was that figurative language becomes the vehicle for greater precision of expression; exactitude grows through metaphor, not necessarily through narrative.
I still believe it. Leonard sent me to a stunning essay published in the New York Times, I’m Going to Die. I May as Well Be Cheerful About It,by Mary Pipher. My mom is almost 91 and she wants to die, which she tells me every time I see her, so I think a lot about death now.
At the end Pipher’s essay, Pipher suddenly turns to the image of snow, what becomes the profound metaphor of her piece: “All of my life I have loved snow.” She then describes a beautiful memory of her and her family safely ensconced in their home while a Nebraska blizzard raged outside. That memory becomes a spiritual experience, snow outward and inward until death becomes a whiteout. There is the great precision, the greater exactitude of metaphor:
Snow falls inside and outside of me. It settles my brain andcalms my body.
I hope death feels like watching the snow grow thicker and thicker. Doctors call dying of a morphine overdose being “snowed.” I would not mind that at all. I would like to disappear in a whiteout.
As I tried to tell that student of mine so long ago who wouldn’t pick up the gift of the bricks she had given herself for even a moment, sometimes we have to hold the thing our heart sends us, though unbidden, though not always understood, and let it just be for a little while, filled with mystery and some other kind of better truth.
I’m finding that learning about essay writing is never ending. Probably that’s why I like it. This week, I finished The Best American Essays of the Century (Joyce Carol Oates ed) and found Gerald Early’s essay, “Life with Daughters: Watching the Miss America Pageant.” Just another humbling and soaring moment in the learning curve for me, specifically on how to breach the cozy family wall of the personal essay into the wide cultural, political, and racial world we all stem from.
If you don’t know Gerald Early as a writer and cultural critic, you should. Not only is he the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in the African and African American Studies Department at Washington University, exceptional scholar and essayist who has been a commentary for NPR and the executive editor of The Common Reader, but he has worked multiple times with Ken Burns on Burns’ documentary.
So, what’s to learn from Gerald Early’s essay?
Start with its deceptively simple title, which in no way prepares you for the complexity of Early’s moves between the seemingly pedestrian scenes of family life, like watching the Miss America Pageant, playing with dolls, and deciding on hair styles, and his searing polemics around the pageant as a vehicle of popular culture that represent for Early “a totemic occupation with and representation of a particularly stilted form of patriarchal white supremacy.”
(This essay, of course, is a lot more complicated and a lot more beautiful than what I can share here. Read it through JSTOR if you have access or through Kindle for free.)
At the risk of oversimplification, here are four techniques of craft I recognized for myself in moving the essay from the strictly personal to, as Miller and Paulo call it in their Tell It Slant, “Writing the Larger World”:
Let family ritual and family members frame and serve as “touchstones” throughout the essay. Early’s essay begins with the family’s tradition of watching the Miss America Pageant and continuously circles back to that tradition. The Miss America Pageant serves as the frame of the essay, helping to keep the general reader centered in a wide-ranging and complex essay and emotionally connected to Early and his family. The “simple” family scenes— his wife straightening her hair, his daughters playing with black and white dolls, the family making jokes as they watch the pageant—are the touchstones that launch Early into staggering cultural, political, and historical analysis.
Use Family history as an envoy into Cultural history. Family history in Early’s essay, such as an old photograph of his sister holding a white doll, doesn’t exist only to serve itself. It sets up the broader and deeper history of American culture. The white doll his sister holds serves as symbol for the “fetishization of young white feminine beauty, and the complexity of black girlhood.” His beautifully described walk as a boy through the streets of Philadelphia past a “large black beauty shop on Broad and South Streets” becomes an image for the “epistemology of race pride for black American women so paradoxically symbolized by their straightened hair.” (I told you this was a cool essay.)
Write yourself as the complex, multi-dimensional narrator you are: Early is loving father and husband. Early is astute critic and academician. Early is an African American son/grandson/great grandson connected by family lineage and personal experience to the atrocities and subterfuges of a white culture. Early is the father of a new generation of daughters (in 1990) unbothered by the overt and subterranean racism that Early finds in even their black Ken and Barbie dolls. Early enjoys watching these beauty pageants with his wife and daughters even as he feels “shame-facedness” and “embarrassment” at this “spectacle of classlessness and tastelessness.” Early confesses that he still needs Miss Missouri, Debbye Turner, to be the third black woman, at the time, to win a pageant even as he damns the pageant’s complicity in the feeling that “race pride for the African American, finally, is something that can only be understand as existing on the edge of tragedy and history.” In short, Early is a man of the family and a man of the world.
Do the Research, dummy. Of course. And bring in the experts from that research.
We are composites of the past, the present, and the future. The family of our house and the family of our planet. Perhaps knowing and understanding what that means matters most in the breaking down of any wall.
At a recent residency for the Regis University’s Mile High MFA program, I presented a craft seminar on the process of creating a braided essay, a beautiful form of the essay that weaves different “threads” together. I used as a case study one writer’s revision process that focused on framing and metaphor-patterning and turned a rough compilation of “this happened and then that” into a beautiful meditation on personal and universal “black holes.” River Teeth: A Journal of Narrative Nonfiction picked up this essay within a couple of weeks of the writer (okay, he’s my husband) submitting it.
After presenting my craft seminar, I had enough students and fellow faculty come up to me after the presentation saying how much they had learned about revision, framing, and metaphor in the braided essay that I asked Essay Daily if I could publish a write-up of the seminar with them. They said, yes! And here it is:
Leonard Winograd’s essay,” The Physics of Sorrow,” appears in River Teeth Journal: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, Issue 21. For readers with access to Project Muse, you can read it here. Or, even better, subscribe to River Teethhere.