(AV17660) Art is Long, Life is Short: the Writer’s Struggle to Create Something that Lasts

good evening thank you all very much for
coming tonight this is the spring 2011 College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Dean’s lecture series my name is Michael whiteford and I am the Dean of the
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and it is my very special pleasure to be
hosting this event along with many others tonight’s lecture is the tenth in
the deans lecture series which highlights faculty excellence and
achievement in teaching discovery and outreach in the College of Liberal Arts
and Sciences the most outstanding members of our faculty have been invited
to present lectures from their varied areas of scholarly experience these
lectures stimulate intellectual discussion among our faculty staff
students and the greater Iowa State community I want to thank the ISU
lectures program for their role in helping us sponsor this event as always
they do a wonderful job tonight’s lecture is Professor Debra Marquart
Deborah joins a distinguished list of La s faculty members who have been part of
this series since it was inaugurated in 2006 the researchers and scholars have
shared their knowledge on a wide range of stimulating topics that goes from
Woodie bamboo plants to the physics of the curveball West African primates to
Dead Poets old world Mediterranean antiquities to tomorrows futuristic
nanotechnology humor and Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the very basics of
molecular biology the depth and breadth of our speakers is astounding and it
mirrors the academic diversity of our College of Law Arts and Sciences we are
indeed the heart and soul of Iowa State University tonight’s lecture will be
as equally informative and is enlightening as our previous
presentations professor Debra Marquart will present and I quote art is long
life is short the writers struggled to create something that lasts and a quote
she will discuss the artist attempts to create something that collects meaning
even long after the artist is gone Debra is a professor in the Department of
English and the and part of the Masters of Fine Arts program in creative writing
and environment in tonight’s lecture she will read from her work including her
forthcoming novel a formal feeling comes professor Mark Hart is the author of
four books including from sweetness poems and and the hunger bone rock and
roll stories her work has received many awards including a National Endowment
for the Arts fellowship the shelby foote found the shelby foote non-fiction prize
and a pushcart prize her most recent book the horizontal world growing up
wild in the middle of nowhere was awarded both the LA letras award from
the LM magazine and the 2007 pen USA creative nonfiction award Debra Marquart
earned her bachelor’s degree in social work in 1984 from Morehead State
University she picked up a master of Liberal Arts at Morehead State
University in Minnesota in 1990 and she earned a Master of Arts in creative
writing at Iowa State University in 1993 ladies and gentlemen please join me in
welcoming tonight the College of Arts and Sciences spring 2011 Dean’s lecture
series speaker professor Debra Marquart well thank you so much for that
introduction Dean whiteford and I mentioned this earlier but I’m obviously
so honored to have been invited to give this lecture and especially so since
this is I suppose Dean whiteford final Dean’s lecture and
so I’ll try to make it a good one but first I want to thank him for for being
our Dean these years and seeing us through some very hard times and I just
want to thank you for that Dean whiteford I also want to thank the
associate Dean’s David Oliver and Zora Zimmerman and Arne hollom and for doing
all that hard work for us and and thank you all for being here so many familiar
faces and friends and colleagues and Laura engleson who worked really hard to
make this event as beautiful as it has been I appreciate it Laura I’m going to
read from two different things so you because you have two different
microphones here this is very elaborate I’m going to first read from an essay
it’s it’s only sort of parts of an essay because it would be too long to read and
so you’ll hear it’s written in numbered sections so you’ll hear there are some
numbers missing because there are parts that I sort of pulled out and then I’ll
end by reading a short chapter from a novel that I’m working on right now
that’s set in Greece and you’ll hear a little bit about that novel here in in
the essay and it’s called ephemera some thoughts on impermanence and I suppose I
wrote this essay last summer last spring when I was in Greece doing research for
the novel and there were many things going on in Greece at that time
including some you know there were some people there were some firebombing of
banks there were riots they were trying to storm the Parliament building it
seemed like things were falling apart my friends who teach in colleges and Athens
could not meet with their students the planes weren’t running the planes
weren’t flying the ferries weren’t going I wanted to go to Crete and I thought
well I’m not going to go to create if the Very’s aren’t going because I don’t
know if I’ll get back and so I decided to stay on the ground
and I took the bus to nafplio which is perhaps the most beautiful place on
earth I think and spent a couple weeks holed
up in nafplio which isn’t such a bad thing and wrote this essay ephemera some
thoughts on impermanence one the thing is I’m trying to finish my
novel but the water keeps coming in the basement not in the basement of the
novel but in the basement of my fiance’s house in Michigan where I spend my
summers gardening and writing it’s a strange feeling to go downstairs during
an intense summer storm as I did just to unplug the computer and to notice that
the corner of the tan carpet has darkened into a wet triangle stranger
still to watch the stain spread in the next few minutes under the writing desk
toward the floor lamp and file cabinets I don’t begrudge water it can go
wherever it wants but even at that moment watching it move through the room
it struck me as wrong water should not be here in the house outwitting the maze
of foundation wall and footings that Architects designed centuries ago for
this express purpose to keep water in to keep the inside in and the outside out
and even at that moment I knew my response was irrational as I exited the
room and closed the door behind me thinking maybe I didn’t need to tell Tom
about this this information maybe he didn’t have to know that his lovely 10
year old house with vaulted ceilings and wood floors that he’d bought nine months
earlier pouring all of his savings into had sprung a leak he was out in the
flash flood street at the time anyway waiting thigh-high through water that
had already come halfway up the front lawn he was in the street flailing away
like a crazy person at the to plug storm drains with a garden rate rake as
flashes of lightning flew around him he was trying to clear the drains of the
woodchips from the neighbor’s landscaping beds which we’d seen wash
into the street riding on what appeared to be a creek that had begun to flow
between the two houses across from us when you buy a house you stake a claim
to a small spot on earth which has the illusion of permit
you trim and prune fortify and defend if the usual things try to enter ants mice
crickets thieves fixes can be found but when 3.18 inches of rain falls in 23
minutes in Kalamazoo Michigan and you are as we found out months later when
emailing the drain commissioner the last and lowest house to empty out of the
watershed plus your house has the bad taste to sit on a clay seam well then
you’re just screwed because once water has found its way into your house it
will always remember you it will always find a way in three the novel I’m
writing is set in Greece from the perspective of an outsider the idea
first came to me in 1998 after I returned from my first trip to Athens
Corfu and Andros with my then husband Peter who is Greek American and whose
grandparents emigrated to the u.s. in the 40s from different parts of Greece
upon our return after rolls of film were developed I was surprised to discover
that I taken very few pictures of people not the dozens of his friendly relatives
who appeared at the hotel each day and exponentially multiplying numbers I’d
not taken pictures of the beautiful tables of food which we ate in their
marble floor open-air dining rooms or in the of the seaside cafes around the
island that they took us to where we talked and laughed and drank wine as the
Sun extinguished itself into the Ionian nor had I photographed the narrow
cobbled streets we drove through to get to the cafe’s little shops we walked
past the white sandy beaches misty harbors with sailboats or even the
venetian fort or the tan hills in the distance instead I had shot roll after
roll of olive trees up and down the terrace landscapes each tree flashing
green then silver in the wind each one so unique and wizened so human looking I
suppose that they must have seemed when I came upon them like old friends who
must be remembered in photographs people will say this olive tree was
alive at the time of Christ or this tree witnessed the fall of the
an empire but it’s still uncertain exactly how old olive trees can live to
be on the island of Crete for example there’s evidence on the basis of tree
ring analysis of a 2000 year old olive tree with suspicion that it’s much older
several olive trees in the Middle East and Mediterranean around Greece in
Croatia Italy Palestine and Israel have been identified as two thousand years
old or older one tree in West Athens is referred to as Plato’s olive tree
because it’s believed to mark the last vestiges of a Grove where Plato’s
Academy stood 2,400 years ago olive trees were mentioned in Homer and by
Pliny the Elder but evidence of the ancient is everywhere in Greece
traveling around it’s not unusual for someone to point to an opening in the
rock outcropping and say see right there that’s where Zeus was reared or oh
that’s where his Persephone was dragged down into Hades really you want to say
God I thought that was a myth on my first trip to Greece we were rushed
around the island of Corfu by my husband’s relatives I suppose everyone
needed to be satisfied that we’d been showed the expected sights the gaudiya
Qian Palace built by Emperor Franz Josef for his wife the spare sarcophagus of
Spain’s saint spyridon in corfu town the haste with which we were dispatched
signaled to us that his relatives had done this a million times they even knew
the best place is deposed here stand here they’d prop us up in front of a
fountain or a blooming trellis of bougainvillea a marble statue
click-click good now let’s go eat then they drove us over to paleokastritsa
which is a headland on the western shore of Corfu with a monastery and a cliff
overlooking a bay that has the most aquamarine water I have ever seen and I
was looking down upon the water in stunned silence my cousin my husband’s
cousin Nick pointed to a tiny island of rock just off the coast
remember how Poseidon punished the visions when they returned Odysseus to
Ithaca he said I combed through my fuzzy memories of the
to see he changed the ship and its sailors to stone after they dropped
Odysseus off he continued well that’s it right there
he pointed down to the small island that’s the stone boat Wow really I
thought that was math five what is it about a place that inspires poems and
stories to be written about it is it distance a feeling of absence or
separation that overtakes the writer so much that the place must be recreated
this must be the reason that when I was in Greece during this winter of 2002 to
work on my novel set in Greece I spent each day feverishly writing about North
Dakota the result of which became my memoir the horizontal world even at the
time it made no sense to me as I sat in my rented studio tucked into the steep
hillside in Mali voz on the island of Lesbos with the views out the window
overlooking my desk of the terracotta roofs descending down the side of the
mountain to the blue patch of the Aegean through another window was the feathered
shape of Mount the petit menos in the far distance and all I could think and
write about was the cold flat austere beauty of North Dakota 6 the downstate
part of Michigan is shaped like a human palm sometimes if you ask Michiganders
where they’re from they’ll look around is of searching for
a map or a piece of paper and then just give up and raise their right hand as if
swearing an oath and point to the spot in their palm where their town is
located Detroit for instance is in the eastern part of the state close to the
crook of the thumb my fiancees house is in the heel of the palm in Kalamazoo in
a line straight below the little finger closer to the wrist the Upper Peninsula
of Michigan also resembles a horizontal hand hovering like a cloud over the rest
of the state kind of goes like this a few years ago some guy made millions of
dollars when he had the ingenious idea to make oven mitts
with the upstate and downstate maps of Michigan on either hand
I’m not sure what became of him the oven millionaire but I wondered if he’s since
retired to gentler climes as Robert James Waller did after he wrote The
Bridges of Madison County then quit his job as a college professor
and retired to a spacious ranch in Texas now I spend part of the year in Michigan
in a house that takes in water I’ve observed that the state is an
upside-down Peninsula surrounded by three sides by Great Lakes if not for
dependable Ohio and a few stubborn sand dune miles of Indiana Michigan would be
an island floating untethered like a lily pad in the filmy marsh upon which
the state undoubtedly rests seven lately I’ve been making the mistake of watching
the History Channel or as I like to call it channel countdown 2012 I liked it
better when they stuck to actual history or even things like the hydrological
marvels of Roman engineering or speculative history like the search for
Sasquatch on every continent but now the History Channel seems intent on only
reporting the end of the world based on the predictions of Nostradamus and the
Mayan calendar it’s unsettling to watch some sober plate tectonic scientists
from UC Berkeley speculate on how it might unfold accompanied by animated
graphics to demonstrate how the Earth’s crust is like an orange peel and how it
could someday perhaps someday soon and almost certainly has already done so
several times in Earth’s history just rotate and research rearrange itself
over the molten core of the earth landing Florida in Antarctica Moscow in
Idaho Beijing in the Arctic Circle for writers who take inspiration from
landscape in the natural world this could either be a very good or very bad
development my first impulse a few years ago when I heard about 2012 and the end
of the world was to say my god I have to finish my book projects
and it dawned on me wait if the world is going to end it doesn’t matter if I
finish my books because no one will be around to read them so we may as well
spend what short time we have hanging out with friends cooking making love
drinking wine as Epicureans advised us to do so many centuries ago
I’ve decided if the end of the world comes I’m going as fast as I can not to
the floating palm of Michigan or to Iowa as solid seeming as it appears I suspect
it actually sits atop a Mid Continent rift buried deep in the bedrock a
billion year old tectonic plates car that stretches from superior to Kansas
instead I’m going to my home state of North Dakota to Terra Firma where I’m
convinced nothing bad can happen besides I’ve seen my brother’s gun collection or
I’m going to Greece where people have already demonstrated they can hang on to
the cliffs and hillsides like billy goats for millennia and survived ate one
of the things I found most fascinating about travelling in Greece is the way
that each island or region you visit provides the tourists with a quick
summary a running account of the waves of oppressors who have vanquished the
very ground upon which you’re now standing one can even point to the
evidence in the local architecture vestiges of city walls the location of
the moat the construction of the stone streets the fortifications on the
hillside each in their own time the Romans Venetians Ottomans in the late
century in the last century Germans Italians took their turns trying to
vanquish the place but here’s the thing that gives me hope it’s the Greeks still
here pointing to the architectural remnants in the battlements it’s the
Greeks who are telling the story beyond the human story perhaps this is what I
love about olive trees the way they stretch into the longer view the main
point here is one of scale the comparatively long life of even an
ordinary olive tree provides a contextualizing backdrop a temporal
scale against which to measure the length of a human life
Greece’s complexities mush the closer one looks at it
geographically and culturally it intersects with the Balkan Peninsula its
islands are scattered far and wide to the Mediterranean the Ionian on the west
the Aegean on the East as such it’s a contact zone who soils geology flora
fauna and not to mention culture history literature language myth are so
intricate that any fraction of one of these subjects has absorbed scores of
scholars for entire careers I worry will I ever develop enough fluency in
this place that I know in my own small way as Greece to write a human narrative
set in it even though my main character is a stranger and not expected to know
these things I must know them and there’s another
problem cultural theft Greece is a place from
which much has been stolen I worry will I ever acquire sufficient
discipline not disciplinary knowledge to earn the right to press my imagination
into this place to calm myself I return to the thought of olive trees if you
grew up on an island in Greece let’s say lesbos in a house that bordered an olive
grove let’s not say it’s an ancient grove let’s say it’s 400 years old
conservatively and if you had picked olives each year and your parents picked
olives from that same grove and it cooked with the oil and their parents
had picked from the grove and made oil and used the oil for cooking and for
lamps and as an emollient and if you assume dar knew for certain that their
parents and their parents and their parents parents going back those 400
years conservatively had done the same then how would that shape the way you
felt about the house and the grove about the village down the side of the hill
and about the people you met on that path each day and let’s just say there
arose some dispute over the ownership of that olive grove because a place that
spawns so many generations naturally has two cast-off members to preserve
equilibrium to send some of them to the cities and to other countries and so
let’s say that one of those disgruntled cast family cast-off family members
decides to circle back and take a torch to that grove of olive trees so that the
land can be clean and be made available for lucrative sale
to germans or dutch retirees or for development as a resort for tourists if
this were to happen in a wheat field or a corn field
even on a Midwestern century farm in the US the offense would be serious but it
might be recoverable but if it happens to a 500 year old olive grove what are
the relative equivalencies of the seriousness of the crime committed
against the land and the family I don’t know these answers but they are the
questions that the writing of the novel is making me ask nine so I spend my
summers now in a house in Michigan that has two sump pumps one in the southeast
corner and one in the northwest corner in lighter moments we refer to it as the
boathouse I don’t imagine we’ll ever be able to sell it sometimes we talk to our
neighbors over the fence who have never had trouble with flood flooding and
declare invoices sounded like Mon pas kettle no siree we’re not leaving we’ll
defend this clay seam till we die to fix the water problem we had to hire a crew
to come in and jackhammer out the perimeter of the foundation so that they
could lay a drain tile system underneath after the pipes were laid and fixed in
place they cemented the foundation back over so that aside from a bit of
discoloration in the concrete you’d never know it
but it’s alarming to have crews with jackhammers in your basement for three
days and watch them carry out huge chunks of your foundation and it’s
disconcerting to go downstairs and catch a glimpse of the earth that exists under
your house something you think you should never see maybe it’s a little
like watching your own brain surgery on closed-circuit television so the drains
are under there now capturing the water that seeps around the crease of the
footings and the sump flush it back out like like one quick spit into the yard
it only took two years and about $20,000 to figure this out
still when it rains we get twitchy we stick close to home we spend way too
much time watching The Weather Channel for peace of mind last year for Father’s
Day I bought my fiancee a gas Jenna large enough to power a small city so if
the power goes out which it does in Michigan and the backup batteries fail
we can always fire up the generator which is louder than a chopped down
Harley he rolls it out in the driveway and fires it up for a few minutes each
month and then he comes back in the house and says our neighbors must hate
us I remember the day we stood in the aisle at Home Depot with all the other
Michiganders who were shopping for generators we’re preparing for the end
times we kept saying as a joke but it didn’t seem to strike anyone as funny
10 sometimes I think that the water is trying to teach me something and if I
would just have learned it and finished the novel it would have stopped coming
into the basement I know that this is irrational but I’ve been schooled by the
elements my first teacher was fire which has appeared at junctures in my life
often destructively there was the day that the grain elevator burned down in
my hometown and then there was the time when I burned down the inside of my mom
and dad’s car with a cigarette as a teenager and then there was the time the
gas stove and my first apartment blew up and singed my face enough to blow off to
burn off my eyebrows and eyelashes and then there was the night in August 1980
when my Road van lost all of its equipment in a truck fire $60,000 worth
of equipment and no insurance because who would be crazy enough to insure a
rock band in the hours following the truck fire we experienced the loss in
its entirety we sat in a crying circle with our soot covered road crew who had
all fortunately survived the accident the next morning we visited the site to
see the incinerated truck lying on its side in the ditch looking like the
burnt-out skeleton of a dragonfly we sifted through the rubble for something
recognizable but found only a few dozen circular speaker magnets that were from
our guitar amps and our PA columns and they were strewn around the scorched
periphery the magnets had dropped wherever the fire had burned them free
from their more ephemeral housings all that remained
from the fire was the motor of the truck the axle bit of the wheels and those
iron speaker magnets which were the only things made of materials strong enough
to survive fire it was astounding then to realize that all those solid things
we had used to play heavy metal microphones power amps drums cymbals
guitars most of the 24-foot truck itself had been reduced to ashes and charred
bits rendered unrecognisable by that hot gasoline fire 11 a horse can live to be
40 a camel 50 a queen bee might get five good years while a worker bee is lucky
to have one the Amazon parrot can make it to a hundred years and the Galapagos
land tortoise a hundred and ninety plus under optimal conditions an elephant has
about 40 years and an American alligator 56 what do humans get averaged out
between genders in the US we’re at seventy seven point nine which is 36th
in the world these are morbid deliberations I know
but let me ask the question why do we waste even one day of it and what is the
purpose of all this activity these books we write these utterances scribblings
this breath that flows through the vessels of our bodies shaping into words
songs chants prayers curses poems stories what does it all come to after
the fire I began writing I won’t pretend to know how I picked up a pen and a
piece of paper but somewhere in those days and weeks after the fire it Kurumi
occurred to me that while I had lost everything on the Material Plane the
idea of those things was still alive in me growing more palpable every day I had
the words for them I felt the separation from that life already and I felt the
way that language had stepped in to bridge the gulf writing it down must
have been an absent-minded choice the pen I reached for must have been the
only thing that didn’t cost money I didn’t even have a desk I
had a wooden cable spool I’d recovered from a ditch which I turned on its side
to make a table and I had a candle on that table so I lit it I stared at the
tongue of flame for a long while in the dark room as it weaved and dipped on its
wick okay I addressed the fire as if it were the quaking emissary of the
conflagration that had destroyed my life you got my attention now what were you
trying to tell me and then I sat in the darkness for hours and did what
musicians are trained to do I listened for the cue to begin singing for audible
signs of what was happening around me this is the beginning of what I know to
be my life as a writer and I mean to say here that I’ve tried all these years to
keep listening in that way to drag down into solid forms the words and phrases I
would have preferred to sing but I’m happy now to write I hope there’s still
evidence of singing in my writing even though I’ve spread out to subjects other
than music and I hope there’s evidence of fire a feeling that my sentence is
burned to be written that they were forged from strong materials and that
they’re capable of surviving the forces intent on destroying them once they make
their way into the world without me we are fragile creatures short in our time
especially when matched against the cosmologies the long temporal landscapes
the rougher geologies of the planet now at fifty four it’s humbling to me when I
think of it but I can remember a time in my 20s before the fire when I cared
about none of this I was singing in a hard rock band grating and shredding my
vocal cords each night in smoky bars and when my sister my older sister took me
aside and warned me that I wouldn’t have a voice to sing with by the time I was
thirty my response to her was honey I don’t plan to be alive when I’m 30
imagine this ephemeral life just when it starts to get really interesting
that’s when it becomes clear that someday perhaps someday soon one will
have to close ones eyes and look no more upon it
this awful beauty of the world okay so can you feel a change here there’s a
real shift happened here yeah so I I have been working on this novel for a
long time set in Greece this is a very short chapter and it’s about eight pages
so it should go pretty quickly we don’t really get very far it’s hard to read
from a novel but I could tell you that the title of the poem the title of the
novel is a formal feeling comes some of you may recognize that as a line from an
Emily Dickinson poem and the longer part of the line is after great pain a formal
feeling comes and this is a little epigraph from that poem this is the hour
of lead remembered if out lived as freezing freezing persons recollect the
snow first chill then stupor and then the letting go a formal feeling comes
one the wake the child ventured too close to the edge
Susan watched as a small girl planted a knee on the cushion beside her grabbed
the guard rail of the ferry and pulled her willowy body up she knelt there
besides Susan now her flat profile facing out to the blue expanse the sky
and see broken only by the layers of dark horizons of islands in the distance
the fairy dove and lurched through the swells each time producing a spray of
seawater that landed like a cold mist over those sitting on the upper deck
Susan had chosen this seat affixed against the upper decks perimeter for a
reason it allowed her a direct line of sight to the storage bin with the
international symbol for life preservers stenciled on it she could not swim or
float believed she would sink like a stone if ever she found herself in water
where her feet could not reach the bottom oh honey her thea laila
assured her once at a family gathering of her husband’s relatives if the ferry
goes over just take a deep breath and kick your legs really fast you’ll just
pop right up to the top she didn’t think so Susan had abandoned her dry
comfortable seat in the lower aft deck when the smell of cigarettes and coffee
aftershave and the oniony yeast of closed bodies overpowered her sicknesses
may signal seasickness may begin in the inner ocean of the stomach but Susan
felt it first as a fariñas on the back of her tongue something green and dark
rising she breathed in the cold air smell sea salt and algae concentrated on
pushing the sickness back down Susan looked at the small girl who wriggled
beside her Yasu she said hello the child turned to
her dark eyes blank stare thin smear around her mouth from a long ago piece
of candy susan resisted the urge to get out of Kleenex and wipe it she smiled
then at the old Yaya sitting beside the child she tried to remember the Greek
word for granddaughter but realized she had never learned it they’d entered the
cloud bank of wet wind and choppy waters shortly after leaving the port Corfu was
shaped like a miniature Italy complete with boot drifting in the Ionian
northwest of the Greek mainland the ferry navigated around the northern knob
of the island coming within a few kilometers of the dry white cliffs of
Albania the Alexandros was a small ferry large enough for 300 people a six-car
transport bay below unless the sea was glass you felt every billow once they
entered the strait enroute to the three outer islands and the pitch and roll
really began a steward of the Alexandros dressed in a navy blue striped shirt and
jeans had moved through the decks dispensing one gallon ziplock baggies he
hadn’t bothered to ask passengers if they felt sick he’d only studied their
faces noting the level of bile in their cheeks then handed a baggie to
the condemned ones when Susan and Donny had made this trip five years earlier as
newlyweds they’d arrived at Eric ooza the island of Donny’s mother’s birth
seasick and with not one word of greek between them blonde and blue-eyed susan
was quickly forgiven for her new husband’s rather by her new husband’s
relatives for not knowing the Greek words for bread water telephone bathroom
much less olive lemon Mountain seashore but Donny with his dark hair and coffee
brown eyes his Roman nose an olive skin that had caused strangers even on the
streets of Athens to stop and ask for directions
was a source of consternation to his relatives Donny how come no Greek
perhaps this is why Susan had refused the ziplock bag that morning determined
to keep her stomach this time convinced that her queasiness on the water was
further confirmation of her on Greek nostalgia even in the storm the old woman with a
small child next to Susan wore a long black wool dress and shawl black shoes
thick black stockings clearly a widow with silver hair white hair brushed
smooth and pulled back into a tight bun each time the ferry bucked the woman
clutched the sick bag in her lap Susan tried to avert her eyes but she could
see so far the woman had it about half-full two older men across the aisle
from Susan spoke rapidly in Greek and shared their mid-morning colosseo
gesturing and eating tropi de small cheese pies Susan envied their strong
stomachs they looked to be brothers same short compact bodies same hands fingers
gnarled from work faces lined and darkened by the Sun she thought they
must be arguing about politics the word she heard most often was oh he oh he no
no clusters of women with bags and children
had organized themselves in the center seating area of the deck farther away
from the spray an Orthodox priests in a floor-length cassock with a tangled
black and gray beard stood in the stairwell leading downstairs and talked
on a silver cell phone the older men across from Susan had gone silent
seeming to have finished their arguments along with their cheese pies
Susan smiled at them yes us the one closest to Susan smiled back we are
trying to decide if you are German or Dutch he said American Susan answered so
nice to hear English ah where from he asked Chicago not exactly
true any longer but it was harder to explain where Iowa was the other man
nodded and said something in Greek Susan heard him repeat the words Chicago in
accented English Chicago my brother says he stayed in Chicago for a week when he
was in the Merchant Marine beautiful City the other brother said Manny
bridges yes Susan nodded I lived in New Jersey the brother closest to Susan
continued rode the train into the city for work for 32 years he said this then
gestured around him so that I could come back here and retire Susan nodded she’d
heard this story before the Exodus during the years of war the hard work
and prosperity of Greeks living and working abroad in places like the US and
Australia always tempered by sadness separation from home in the hope of
return Donnie’s mother Mary had made the same journey from Erich ooza to Chicago
but had never wished for the return not until the very end on the other side of
the deck a group of fifteen or so Italian teenagers had stationed
themselves in the cushions along the perimeter
the girls were lovely skin wearing hoodies and jeans braided leather
wristbands delicate beaded necklaces the boys were solid boned dark-haired
long-lashed and beautiful as the girls dressed in unbuttoned polos jeans and
sandals the Italian teenagers were on their way to a youth camp summer camp in
Oh funny the second in the chain of the small islands athomie was reputed among
Greeks to be the island on which Calypso held Odysseus for those many long years
Susan had learned all this while talking with the teenager chaperones a
smart-looking italian couple while waiting for the ferry that morning in
Corfu tone now the chaperones were nowhere to be seen
perhaps smoking below and the Italian teens were topside spread along the
perimeter in couples not looking sisa seasick at all but instead kissing as
the ferry careened through the waters even though the kissing was endless and
passionate something about the way the couples held their bodies at a distance
from each other made it seem chased their swan-like necks stretched toward
each other their faces pressed close but their torsos held apart as if engaged in
some other business like texting or doing crossword puzzles aside from their
lips nothing moved tanned forearms resting on thighs thin fingers held in
mid pose grasping a dark wrists feet planted Suzan missed her husband most at
moments like this the way he would have laughed at it without need for
explanation it was the one true Griff gift of love she thought the affinity
the little girl beside her tried to rise to her feet now unsteady grasping the
guardrail with her right hand and wobbling with the Swift ships motion
Susan turned a spreader left arm wide along the rail as if embracing the
shoulders of an invisible companion in order to check the girls progress any
moment Susan expected the grandmother to call Ella
Ella come here but the woman was staring forward now at a spot on the pitching
deck floor Susan steadied the child with her right hand she guests the girl to be
around three and not dressed warmly enough in a pink windbreaker thin
t-shirt and shorts her hair was wispy black long and pulled
into a ponytail in the wind escaped curls floated around the child’s face in
a dark cloud seen the girl below deck playing with a
group of seven or eight-year-olds twice her size she remembered the child
because her left arm was bound in a sling tiny Wounded Bird still the girl
had thrown her body with determination into the circle of bigger kids as they
moved from seat to seat pushed shouted ran up and down the corridors and the
slippery fairy steps closer up Susan could see that the sling was makeshift a
pink handkerchief wrapped around her elbow and forearm and then looped over
her neck she wished she could say something to her grandmother to the
grandmother about the girls loveliness but no matter how hard susan had worked
she could not master whole sentences in greek only words and phrases savoring
each one she learned holding it on her tongue like a gold coin like fragments
of the ancient world but hero heroes widowed widowed this was a word susan
had been forced to learn in all its variations susan reached down
instinctively and checked the location of the heavy backpack whose contents
she’d carried on her shoulders through waiting rooms and security checks from
o’hare into bathrooms taxis and planes it now rested upright on the slippery
floor beneath her seat excuse me the man across the aisle said which island are
you going to Eric kusa Susan said we to the man said I’m Tasos and this is my
brother Jurgis he gestured to the other man he said we architects Susan stared
she shouldn’t be surprised in Chicago you’d have to look hard to find someone
else with the name koteki her mother-in-law’s insisted the name was
meaningful derived from the Greek word katako the word for to holde
possess occupy master but try telling that to the store clerks secretaries and
delivery boys who only wanted to know how to spell it that was my husband’s
name Susan said Tasos hesitated so you are Susan he said yes
the two brothers looked at each other costas told you told us you were coming
the older brothers said he glad set the backpack resting at her feet and
then Susan realized that they knew it all
they knew that Donnie had gone back into the building to save his partner and
that he’d never come back out they knew there was no body
they knew that Mary had gone to bed after losing her only son with no wish
to get back up on the other side of the deck a layer of salt had begun to settle
on the passionate Italian teenagers they looked like sculptures captured in mid
kiss by some Renaissance master skilled enough to make Maura model look as fluid
as milk as supple as skin beyond them Susan thought she could make out the
faint horizon of Eric who’sa as if through a gauzy mesh the double hump of
two mountains blending into the blue grey of the sky she turned to face the
child who was turned backwards in her seat resting her chin on the guardrail
glumly looking out Pelagos susan said trying to draw the child’s attention she
pointed to the unbroken blue palasa two words for the sea and susan could
discern no difference between them but she realized then that the child was
not looking out but rather down below at the point where the ship’s bow was
carving an incision through the water Susan put her chin on the guardrail and
looked down as well together they watched it for a moment the wake the way
it spread wide around the ship’s hull in lettis ripples of white foam as the
ferry pushed through the way it resolved itself into waves of concentric lines
moving out and then dissolving again into the greater surface of the sea once
they’d passed through the vast opening that the ferry was making in the salty
waters thank you Thank You Deborah thank you so very very
much ladies and gentlemen let’s take some
questions don’t be shy how did the truck catch on fire okay oh that’s such a long
story because there was a big lawsuit that followed but to make it as short as
possible we had rented the truck from Ryder and they rented it to us without a
gas cap cover on the on the cover on the gas
you know cap and so then they said well just pick one up along the way well we
were going to like state you know little tiny county fairs and stuff so we didn’t
have the opportunity to buy a gas cap for this huge Ryder truck and in the
very fourth night of our sort of small tour our road crew ended up going in the
ditch was middle of the night there were three of them in the vehicle they caught
on sort of the shoulder of the road and they went in and they ended up taking an
approach from the side and you know as luck would have it there was an approach
there they sort of vaulted and it’s in the sky landed the axle broke the truck
fell on its side it slid and this they had put a piece of plastic and a rubber
band forgot to mention that and so that came off all the gas plugged out and
this it started on fire and it went very quickly and those three guys I rode
through they went and sat on a little hill and just sort of watched it burn
and just cried and cried and cried and so we ended up suing Ryder truck company
which was interesting you know we were this sort of ragtag rock-and-roll band
out of Fargo North Dakota our they had you know wider had like teams of lawyers
in st. Louis you know their corporate headquarters and just blanketing us with
all kinds of requests you know for different just you know legal
proceedings and our lawyer was our drummers brother
who had this little you know like two-person law firm in International
Falls Minnesota which is a hotbed of political you know if you want to be a
powerful lawyer that’s where you go you know so needless to say it was it was a
comedy of errors really yes go ahead well and I’ll rephrase the question
because maybe not everyone can hear how does my sort of internship as a rock and
roll singer inform my my life as a writer I think that I was just talking
to a student about it today I apologize Fred of your hair and hearing this again
but you know when you when you learn to sing a song and especially when you sing
with a band that’s playing at you know 120 130 DBS you know you really you
really make that song kind of a part of your body you have to invest in the song
in order to get the song out and you learn the words first and you learn the
melody this is sort of part of learning a song and then there’s that point and
we even have a phrase for it we say we know it by heart you know and that’s
really when you make the song kind of part of your body and that’s when you
let go of the literal meaning of the words and in the end you sort of live on
the acoustic life of the language you sort of ride on the vowels and that’s
really when the language becomes something more than just you know this
word means this this word means this all together they mean this and that’s when
you can infuse phrases and you know sentences with more meaning and so I
think that’s one of the things I’ve brought over from from being a singer is
that idea of always approaching language as a kind of acoustic artifact always
room to remember that you know that no matter how much sense the words make
there’s a certain point where you kind of have to let go of the meaning and
then kind of live more on the on the rhythmic and the acoustic life of the
language so I think that that’s maybe the way the biggest thing that I kind of
brought over from music yes I enjoyed the two types of writing very
much they were very different and it leaves me to the question well how what
sort of feelings you have as you write the one kind of material in the informal
as they contrasted with the efforts that you insert when you’re writing a novel
how how does it feel to you internally as you work on those two very different
types of writing yeah oh thanks for that question this dr. Richard Kaplan and his
wife Ellen who are here tonight from Iowa City I really appreciate you being
here I was thinking about pearl Hoel graph and what she would make of all
this creative writing going on here at Iowa State she was a teacher here many
years ago who started creative writing curriculum I think that for me I really
again to go back to song I really started out with song lyric and so going
over to poetry was a natural kind of you know migration and for me poet writing
poetry is sort of pure joy like I just I can sit you know that chick set my highs
idea of flow you know you can sit there for hours and hours and hours and not
know time is passing this or forget about your body and and that’s the way
poetry is for me I think I have the most fun writing nonfiction because you know
you can sort of draw so many things in and you can explain more when you write
a poem you have to leave so much out and for me writing poems and essays together
is really it’s productive because all the stuff I learned while writing the
poem I can then put some of that into the essay because you can kind of
explain more in an essay so you can be more expansive and then to me you know
writing fiction is like you know it’s like digging ditches I mean it’s so hard
you know we have some really accomplished novelists here in in the
room and I’ve always written I’ve written short stories but never a novel
before so this is a new experience for me and we’ll see if I ever manage to
finish it hopefully I will but I was at a conference a few years ago it was over
at Iowa City actually and there was a discussion going on there
they were saying oh you know the the poets are like the airforce and you know
the fiction writers are like the army you know they’re there on the ground and
they’re you know and so it seems like a pretty good metaphor it to me because
writing fiction is so much work you have to make the room and you know put the
shelves in there and put books on the shelves you have to get people walking
and walking around you have to dress them and you have to get them to talk to
each other and it’s like I have to make so much stuff up you know so I suspect
this will be my last fiction endeavor it’s but the story came to me as fiction
so I guess you know that’s yes so in your essay you let us know that this is
the place where all these myths maybe were real events and so if I wonder if
you’ll be using these already made up or already happened
events in your novel yes yeah yes there there are some underlying myths that I’m
sort of I’ve been studying for a long time there’s this amazing book by
Roberto kolosso I don’t know if anyone is interested in Greek myths but I
really recommend he’s an Italian publisher kolosso and he wrote this book
called the marriage of Cadmus and harmony and what he does is he you know
starts out with Zeus and then he sort of tells a story that everybody knows and
then he goes deeper and he goes deeper and he goes deeper and he and he says
well how did it begin he keeps asking that question then he goes a little
deeper and he finds these fragments and all kinds of things that contribute and
and you know really change the story and so I’m really drawing a lot of
inspiration from many of those deeply layered myths and for example I’m sure
many people in here know this but I didn’t know it I think because well I
shouldn’t say this there might be some undergrads in here but I wasn’t a very
good student doesn’t undergrad let me just put it that way so maybe I missed a
lot of this but anyway you know we always know that you know Aphrodite was
born from Zeus’s head right I mean that’s kind of what
you learn and she’s been sort of a symbol of feminism this idea of this
woman who was sort of born from her father’s head she was born you know she
was in full military garb when she was born and which must that’s why I Zeus’s
head hurts so much because she was in there and she had to be born you know
and so reading kolosso I discovered that actually the reason that she was born in
Zeus’s out of zeus is not because he fathered her and mothered her but in
fact he swallowed her mother Matisse and Metis comes from a long line of sort of
tricksters in Odysseus is one of the of that bloodline and there are people who
are great problem solvers they can make they can find their way through any kind
of a maze or a problem the aporia and so they can make porous the unpause and so
that for me was this incredible moment when I discovered that myth and and
thought you know floating around inside of Zeus was this consumed mother who
birthed the child and then the child came out of and so that’s the way for me
the myths are making their way into the novel I’m going to have little sections
where I sort of retell things there’s a multi vocality in the novel that I
didn’t wasn’t evident and what I read tonight but that kind of comes in at
different points it begins to narrate these revised myths thanks for that
question yes I was struck by your comment of not
being able of not being able to write about Greece when you were looking at it
but writing about North Dakota yeah and I wanted you to say a little bit about
how you reconstruct in memory what you were experiencing what is the difference
between seeing it and living it and then reconstructing it you know it later well
with not with the nonfiction work with my my family’s story the horizontal
world I was lucky because I have four siblings and then you know my mother and
father and sort of a large extended family so a lot of times you know when I
would go home it seemed like all we would ever talk about is the things that
I ended up writing about in my member and so that’s kind of cheating in a way
I suppose because you have people around you constantly kind of telling you these
stories and so then it’s the job of the writer I think to take them and begin to
arrange them to sift away that which is maybe unnecessary or extraneous and try
to figure out what to heighten maybe you know in the same way that you know when
you go into a recording studio you have you know guitar and drums and bass and
you sort of sit there and you you manage the sound levels to create a kind of a
soundscape where everything can be heard and that’s what I think writers do they
you know they they select these these details that are floated to them I have
a system where I keep a notebook and as simple as it sounds so low-tech I can’t
believe it but I just jot things down in keyword phrases in the back of my
notebook when they come to me usually you know driving or doing something that
I I can’t be distracted enough to write it down but I try to jot down a keyword
phrase so I’ll remember so like for example in my memoir I discovered that
there was an underground river under my hometown and when I first discovered
that you know that ended up being an important and substantial part of my
memoir thousands of words but it just existed for a long time in my notebook
in a little keyword phrase underground river just sort of a little seed or germ
waiting so that I wouldn’t lose track of it in the case of the novel I mean a lot
of the things that I described in that little short chapter you know really did
happen while I was traveling in Greece there really were these Italian
teenagers who were you know on the ferry just kissing and kissing and kissing and
and I’d noticed that before when I travel in Europe have you seen it in
Paris too you know they’ll be sort of kissing passionately but their bodies I
didn’t I just didn’t describe I couldn’t get it right but I will get it
eventually but they they hold their bodies away and they just kiss and kiss
and then they just go up Charlie you know and they sort of separate and go
their separate ways off to class or whatever and I wanted to capture that
and the image of the woman Susan carrying the heavy bag which you
probably know what’s in that bag but anyway that’s something that actually
happened to me and Airport I I was getting on a plane and
Grand Rapids and this woman kissed this man goodbye and they were sort of crying
and of course I assumed oh there you know lovers parting and she went on the
plane and we flew to Detroit we got off the plane in Detroit I saw her again in
the bathroom and you know how it is you say hello
like you don’t know this person but you’ll hi you were on the plane hello
and she had this heavy bag on the counter the sink and she just looked at
me I mean she just looked at me and she said my husband’s ashes you know and I
just said oh I’m so sorry I mean how do you respond so and then what do you do
with something like that seems like it kind of gets filed away somewhere and
then it comes it comes back out you know when you need it hopefully it comes back over here and then we’ll come here and
then we can I’m sure people have you know somewhere to go so two things one
real quick about the lady with her husband’s ashes sometimes when I hear
that or that a loveland deceased the only comment he can come up with this
essentially that they now know what we only hope and pray is true that there
truly is everlasting life yeah you know I was I was puzzling that out a lot I
suppose my real subject these days is aging and and this you know this
question about how much time do we have how do we spend our time what do we make
will it last will it go on you know especially
because I don’t have children so I suppose people take some comfort and
having children and having that sort of installment in the future that legacy
right I had at home I have two computer files and I don’t remember which ancient
the Greek poet it was as either Homer Plato I’ll say Plato a professor at
another university has discovered that in Plato’s writings he has mixed in with
his words emotions and things to where it could be
a musical tonation and he has decided that if he had a
musical score let’s say of extreme happiness will be a no data top an
extreme sadness at the bottom and as you read through his writings if you meet a
note – for every emotion he played a song using words in there and as a
reminder that when you talked about riding on the vowels and the rhythmic
and acoustics of words so I have this two files and I guess if you haven’t
heard of that I’ll send it to you yeah cuz it’s like music in words yeah that’s
very interesting thank you thank you go ahead and then I’ll just go ahead and
rephrase and then that that will be our last question I’m sorry to keep you all
so long yeah I do sing and my my ex-husband Pete Madison is you know he
even after he wasn’t my husband any longer he was my guitar player and now
he’s fallen in love and he’s and he’s moved to another city so I’ve been
working at learning how to play guitar on my own which is I’m really a bad
guitar player so it’ll be a long process but it’s a I’m really working now on
developing kind of musical independence so I can do music and kind of travel on
my own and and sing and I’m doing songwriting all the time yeah yeah well
like water for chocolate I don’t know if you ever I think it was Laura Esquivel
who did that with her novel where she had a CD and it had classical music
tracks and she said chapter two listen to this track chapter three but I
actually listened to music when I’m writing I have a lot of world music that
I’ve collected when traveling instrumental mostly and I listened to a
lot when I’m writing and I noticed that if I’m if I’m working on a piece of
writing and I’m listening to a certain CD if I go away from that piece of
writing for months but if I remember the music and I put the music back on I’m
right back there and so there’s something really important about the way
that music works on the brain different than language well thank you all so much

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