Back to Basics: Notes on content strategy, reference librarianship, and my Confab talk

hainesTo say that I am thrilled to be presenting a talk at Confab Central this coming May would be a hu-freaking-mongous understatement. Confab is THE conference on content strategy, and it’s a ridiculously great experience. The first year I attended (2013), I arrived in Minneapolis as a newbie with a strong interest in content strategy and a desire to learn more; I left feeling confident in saying that I am a content strategist. It’s a conference full of presentations that make me think and teach me new things, impeccably organized by smart, friendly people who think of every detail to make sure attendees can use all their energy on learning and connecting rather than having to stress out about logistics, and it fosters a lovely community of content strategists that has been an amazing resource for me throughout the year.

So you’ll understand why, when I submitted a talk proposal and got the email that it had been accepted, I literally sat at my desk staring at the email with my hand over my mouth for a good two or three minutes. I felt like I’d just been given a ticket to Cinderella’s ball or some such. It was incredibly flattering to think I might have something smart enough to say in that setting.

Then I realized I actually had to, um, write the damn thing. (And then get up in front of people and present it, but we’re just not going to talk about that part right now. LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU)

My talk is titled “If She Knew What She Wants: Librarian mind-reading tricks for fun and profit.” (That link will take you to a short summary of the thing on Confab’s website.) It’s something I’ve been chewing on for a couple of years. A lot of content strategy work is all about communicating with our clients, stakeholders, colleagues, and so on. And a lot of that communication revolves around problem-solving, in one form or another.

The first step in working with someone to solve a problem is to make sure you both know what that problem actually IS. Right? This is also what happens in reference librarianship. A patron will come to the ref desk (or get on your “Ask a Librarian” chat, or email you, or whatever) with a question, and part of what you have to do is figure out what it is they really want to know. I mean, if they start out by saying, “I’m looking for a book” – grabbing a random book off the shelf and handing it to them isn’t the answer they want! Okay, that’s a little extreme; that’s like someone asking “Do you know what time it is?” and answering “Yes.” (I know you do that. Smartass.) In that case, you know good and well that there’s more to the question. More complicated questions work pretty much the same way. Except more complicated.

And that’s a lot like what happens in content strategy. If a potential client contacts you and says “Hey, I need some content for my new website” – you can’t just send them a dozen random PDFs and an invoice and call it good. Right? (Except again, usually, more complicated.) There are times when someone needs stuff from you, and unless you figure out how to work together with them to figure out what it is they really need and what you can do to fill that need, you’re screwed. My theory is that the reference interview techniques that librarians have developed over the past 50-75 years or so will actually be helpful to content strategists who are working with stakeholders who need their problems solved.

So I’m working on the talk. (Except when I think, hey, let’s write a blog post. Um, procrastination much?) And in the information gathering stage, I’ve gone back to read some of the basic writings about reference librarianship, in particular the reference interview. A lot of this is stuff I read back in library school, 15 years ago or so, before I had any reference experience whatsoever. I’m reading Robert Taylor on question negotiation, Dervin & Dewdney on neutral questioning, and so on – also some newer work that’s come out since I was in library school (oddly, in school I didn’t read much about how reference interview techniques might or might not apply in a chat-reference situation – since, you know, such things didn’t really exist back then!). I’m also going back to a few of the basic content strategy texts – Halvorson, Kissane, people like that – to see what they’ve said about communicating with stakeholders, and to sort of check myself to make sure what I’m talking about really DOES apply to this kind of work.

It is so, so interesting to go back to the basics of something when you’ve been actually doing that thing for a while! Some of the literature on reference work that seemed really dry and theoretical before makes SO MUCH SENSE now. Turns out, I must have really paid attention to Dervin & Dewdney in library school, because neutral questioning (which some writers have redubbed “sense-making questions”) is something I do all the freakin’ time now.

And not just when I’m at the reference desk. Woe betide the Facebook friend who posts something like “hey, can anybody recommend a good restaurant in Bloomington?” because I will inevitably come back with questions like “hey, what kind of restaurant are you looking for? what kind of meal do you want? what’s the occasion?” I mean, I need to know stuff like that! Otherwise I’m going to send them to the downtown Bakehouse (which is where I’m sitting right now to eat a veggie burger and a lemon cupcake and to write this post) without realizing that what they want is a place for a kinda-fancy, but not necessarily pretentiously-so, place for a celebratory anniversary dinner. In which case, maybe go a couple blocks away and try FARMbloomington.

And then other Facebook friends will chime in with their recommendations, and it drives me crazy because they so often just say “Oh, go to the Uptown, because I really like it.” I want to know why they’re recommending it, what it is they like about it – otherwise, how do I know whether it’s a useful recommendation for me or not? If you tell me to go to Janko’s Little Zagreb, I might want to know you’re suggesting it because their steaks are amazing – if I’m a vegetarian, that recommendation is not worth much to me. (So yeah. If you’re asking for restaurant recommendations, you should probably mention if you’re a vegetarian. Or incredibly broke. Or celebrating your wedding anniversary. See how it works?)

On Facebook, somebody might well be asking a question like that just to amuse themselves, or to compile the canonical list of Bloomington restaurants liked by their friends. But if you’re working as a reference librarian or a content strategist, people aren’t usually just asking you questions to kill time. They’re asking because there’s a problem they are trying to solve, a task they want to accomplish, something they want to do or create or make happen. And your job is to figure out what that is before you try to give them an answer. Kind of like how, when you’re creating a website, you aren’t just putting content there for the heck of it – you need to figure out who your users are and what it is they need to be able to do, and then you can figure out what content to put there. (Why, yes, I do think there is a huge overlap between how you need to think in order to do user experience work and how you need to think in order to be a reference librarian.)

Anyway, that was all a little circuitous. But I am having a lot of fun revisiting some of the library literature, and thinking about how some of it applies very nicely to the non-librarian world, specifically content strategy. In the back of my mind I’m chewing on the possibility that both reference librarianship and content strategy offer tactics and strategies that are helpful in the much larger context of problem-solving in general. At least, when the problem-solving involves dealing with other human beings, which I think a lot of problems do. (People. Such troublemakers!)

By the way, if you wrangle web content in any way, I cannot possibly say enough good things about Confab. You should go. You really should. It’s not cheap (tip: if you enter the discount code HAINES2015 when you register, you can get a discount equivalent to the early-bird rate that you missed out on a while back), but if you can get your workplace to splurge a little, it is so so worth it. (I haven’t even mentioned the fact that they feed you really well. Breakfast, lunch, and all the snacks you could possibly stuff into your mouth between sessions – and we’re not talking stale muffins or rubber chicken either, the food is always super great!) For a much better-articulated post describing what’s so great about it, go visit Jonathan Colman’s blog post on “Why You Should Go to Confab.” And hey, if you go, you can hear me speak a little more coherently (I hope!) about the reference-content-strategy-problem-solving-hoo-ha stuff I’ve rambled on about so ramblingly today.

If I ever get the dang talk finished, that is. Time to get back to work! See you in Minneapolis?

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My Six Top Musical Moments of 2014

Musically speaking, I was a very lucky girl in 2014 – I saw some really terrific concerts, many without even having to leave my lovely smallish town. I tried, and failed, to come up with a Top Five Concerts of the Year listing – but how do you compare a teensy two-person show in a teensy dark little club in downtown Bloomington with a giant arena spectacular featuring approximately one billion E Street Band members and supporting musicians on stage? You really can’t, and yet that describes two of my favorite shows this year.

So I’m going to come up with a list of my favorite musical moments. Lots of great shows, but these were the moments that made my jaw drop, made me shriek with glee, made me hold my breath so as not to miss a note. These are in chronological order, because I can’t figure out how to rank them.

  1. Josh Ritter (at the Buskirk-Chumley in Bloomington), “In the Dark” With a small acoustic group, Josh Ritter gave an absolutely luminous performace for which I was lucky enough to be front row center. For “In The Dark” the stage and house lights were turned out and Ritter & band came out to the very edge of the stage to perform barely-lit and completely unplugged – risky, but an absolute goosebumps moment, stunning, filled with hush and echo. My first time seeing Ritter, and I was pretty well knocked out – does anyone else, short of Springsteen, perform with such an air of absolute joy? 
  2. Bruce Springsteen/E Street Band (at the US Bank Arena in Cincinnati), “Lost in the Flood” One of the songs I’d never managed to hear live and had been longing for – had even brought a sign for it once or twice when I had a GA ticket. I’m grateful for the person who brought a sign for it on this night, and the song was just as ferocious and spectacular as I could have hoped. It transitioned right into “Because the Night,” a pairing perfect as any fine wine could offer. Honorable mention goes to “Dream Baby Dream” that same night, cellphones lighting up one by one in the audience till the arena was spinning with stars; honorable mention as well to Springsteen’s Nashville show, not so much for the show (which was excellent as usual, especially the darkest-encore-ever salvo of “The Wall”/”Point Blank”/”Born in the USA”) but for the spectacularly fun few days I spent with great friends there. 
  3. Amanda Shires/Jason Isbell (at Schuba’s in Chicago), “Mutineer” I was lucky enough to see this absolutely gorgeous cover of one of Warren Zevon’s greatest songs twice this year, once at an Amanda Shires show with Jason Isbell sitting in with the band and once at a Jason Isbell solo acoustic show with Amanda Shires supporting on fiddle & vocals. I give the slight nod to the Schuba’s performance, partly because it was my first time hearing it, partly because I was with friends who appreciated it as much as I did. I just want these two to sing me this song every night before I go to sleep so I can float away on a little cloud of bliss – is that too much to ask? Honorable mention: Isbell’s appropriately loud-and-sweaty show at the Bluebird in Bloomington, where he performed with his band the 400 Unit and blew the roof off that little club multiple times. As a side note, though both Isbell’s “Southeastern” and Shires’ “Down Fell the Doves” came out in 2013, I listened to them about a bajillion times in 2014 – if I had to pick two studio albums as the soundtrack of my year, these would probably be the ones. 
  4. Rosanne Cash (at Clowes Hall in Indianapolis), “Ode to Billie Joe” Again, I was lucky to see this multiple times – in South Bend, Bloomington, and Indianapolis. Rosanne Cash’s “The River and the Thread” shows, in which the first set consisted of the album played straight through followed by a set of other material, were a major highlight of my musical year. No, she hardly varied the setlist at all – but it was one of the most perfectly constructed setlists I’ve ever witnessed, so why screw around with a good thing? I’m sometimes skeptical of “album shows” but the album performed live creates a near-perfect journey, and then the second set pleased the audience with a number of Cash’s hits and old favorites. “Ode to Billie Joe” harks back to the landscape and themes of the album, and each time the audience initially responded with raucous applause as they recognized the familiar song – and each time, by the midway point of the song, the audience had gone absolutely still. Cash sings the song like it’s something she’s just witnessed and she NEEDS to tell you the story right now, and her vocal reveals the darkness and mystery at the heart of a song you’ve heard a billion times and maybe hadn’t really thought about. I give the slight performance nod to the Clowes Hall show only because that was the rowdiest audience so the transition to breath-holding silence was the most remarkable. Honorable mention to “Money Road” at all three shows, which closed out the first set with an unexpectedly ferocious – and entirely delicious – guitar rave-up. 
  5. Pearl Jam (at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis), “Imagine” This was my first time seeing Pearl Jam (I know, I know, about time!) and I was appropriately blown away by the energy and passion both onstage and in the crowd. The first encore opened with an acoustic set, kicking off with Eddie Vedder performing John Lennon’s “Imagine” for the first time at a PJ show – just Vedder on guitar and vocal with Boom Gaspar adding a bit of keyboard. My initial expectation was that it would be a bit cliché, but in that sold-out arena with thousands of voices joining Vedder’s heartfelt vocal, it became a real goosebump moment. Honorable mentions from this show: “Footsteps” which is just a fantastic song and didn’t let go of me for weeks following the concert, and the absolute no-holds-barred kick-ass rock of “Porch.” 
  6. Lera Lynn (at the Bishop in Bloomington), “Fire” Yet another cover makes my list. Lera Lynn was a favorite musical discovery this year; her album “The Avenues” has been making a lot of best-of-2014 lists for good reason. Her whole show at the Bishop was great and had that “you’re not going to be seeing this artist on a stage this tiny much longer” feel to it; I single out her cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire” mainly because it was not only a great cover (YouTube it; she does cool things with this song!) but because it was a real pivot point in the show – starting with this song the setlist went somewhat out the window and the audience interaction kicked into high gear. 

So that was 2014 – lots of other great moments too, of course. 2015 is shaping up nicely so far; I’ve got tickets for Iris DeMent, Keb’ Mo’, Glen Hansard, the Gaslight Anthem, and a U2 doubleheader in Chicago among others. As always I’ve got my eye out for announcements from my favorite artists and venues; in particular, I’m hoping Nils Lofgren will make use of some E Street downtime to play some stateside shows after his UK winter tour. (The Midwest would be lovely, but I’ll get on a plane for this one if I have to.)

It’s been a crazy year in the world, with a lot of things that just make me want to hide under my blankets and never leave my house again. Music helps. Ann Powers hit the nail on the head with her essay accompanying some best-of-the-year album picks. There are probably more important things in the world than so-and-so musician singing such-and-such song and giving me goosebumps – in fact, delete that “probably”! – but those moments kept me alive, kept me getting up in the morning, reminded me that the world is worth holding on to. And you know, that’s not such a small thing after all.

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Pearl Jam, Scottrade Center, St. Louis, 10-03-2014

Yeah, yeah, I know… dormant blog… bla bla bla. I know I’ve promised to revive it before. I think I’ve just been unfocused about why I even have the thing. Let’s try to start back up with a little concert review, shall we?

When you are a serious fan (knows all the words, has lots of bootlegs, travels for shows, compares setlists, would instantly recognize any of the band members on the street, etc.) of one band and then you go to a concert by another band in a similar genre, it’s a little like attending services in a church that’s in your same religion but a rather different denomination. It’s both familiar and a little disorienting. As a pretty serious Springsteen/E Street Band fan, I attended my first Pearl Jam show in St. Louis on October 3, and while it didn’t feel like “home” the way a Bruce show does, it was good. Really, really good.

Pearl Jam St. Louis button

Shout-out to the guy sitting next to me, also a big Bruce fan, who gave me this button at the end of the show. Super nice of you, man!

I have been, for years, a pretty casual Pearl Jam fan. I know the radio hits, of course. I’ve got a few of their albums, though I don’t know those albums backwards and forwards. In the weeks before the show I did make an effort to listen to them more, and I picked up the most recent album (Lightning Bolt) and gave that one particular attention. While I’ve been a casual fan, I guess I have to qualify that a bit, because a lot of casual fans wouldn’t drive 200 miles to catch a show. I’m still not sure what tipped the scales; I’ve heard for years that they put on an excellent show, but it wasn’t until this tour that I decided I needed to see them. The most logical shows for me to catch were either Cincinnati (about a 2.5 hour drive) or St. Louis (about a 4 hour drive). I’d been to Cinci already this year for a Bruce show, and I have a couple of friends in STL that I knew I’d like to see; the fact that when tickets went on sale I wasn’t able to nab anything better than an upper level for Cinci but found a good lower for STL was the clincher. Also, STL has several reasonably priced hotels within walking distance of the arena, so you don’t have to pay “event” rates for parking. (A note for St. Louis traveling show-goers: if you stay at the Pear Tree Inn, just down Market Street from the Scottrade Center arena, the restaurant next door has a shuttle bus that will take you there and bring you back afterwards for two bucks a person each way. It’s walkable, but so nice to have another option that doesn’t involve shelling out money for parking.)

I do love a rock & roll road trip.

I will say this. If you’re a casual, or even relatively casual, fan and you go to a show, plan on being OK with hearing songs you don’t necessarily know, or know well. Don’t plan on talking through them. Plan on listening to them and enjoying them and maybe even falling in love with them (Footsteps, I’m talking to you – what a killer song!). The St. Louis setlist gave us a nicely-balanced mix of big hits (Jeremy, Daughter, Even Flow, etc.), deeper cuts, and a couple of covers. The first set was very solid, the band super tight and the audience extremely responsive. “Even Flow,” “Not For You,” and of course “Jeremy” were highlights of this set. The second set opened with Eddie Vedder seated alone onstage, where he gave us a stunning, utterly heartfelt cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Not a huge surprise to get this, I suppose, since he’s just released this song as a charity single on iTunes – but apparently it had never been performed at a PJ show before, only at Vedder’s solo shows. This was followed by “Just Breathe,” a song I got sick of on the radio but which sounded really lovely tonight. The aforementioned “Footsteps” is, I gather from reading some of the fan boards online, infrequently performed and one some fans have been chasing for a while – it was a highlight for me too, and I’d probably only heard it a couple of times in my life before. After a fun “Last Kiss” performed directly to the audience seated behind the stage (classy move, PJ!), the set returned to the louder material – “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns” was outstanding and “Porch” was a major face-melter.

The third set (officially the second encore) blew the roof off the place. “Alive” was a highlight for me, and “Baba O’Riley” was just a lot of fun. I tried hard all night to resist comparing the show to a Springsteen show, wanting to take it entirely on its own merits, but the late-in-the-show, house-lights-up, loudly-singing-audience atmosphere reminded me of, say, “Born to Run” followed by “Rosalita.” You know, the point in the show where it’s no longer even about the song itself but about the energy in the arena, the joy of collective release, and the need to throw yourself into it even though you’ve been rocking for well over two hours – both band and audience giving it everything they’ve got. A glorious feeling.

I was sorry to get neither “Black” (a song I’ve always absolutely loved, and the one that probably came closest to pulling me into PJ fandom way back when) nor “Sirens” (I guess some people think this is a bathroom-break song, but it’s probably my favorite on the new album) – but you can’t have all the songs in every show, and I have no quibbles with the setlist, which was nicely balanced and flowed very well.

The band’s energy seemed excellent; this was the second show on this US leg of the Lightning Bolt tour, and they seemed glad to be there and definitely back into the groove after three months of downtime. Next time I’m definitely aiming to sit on Mike McCready’s side of the stage – he was SO much fun to watch, and an interesting guitarist. I’d been a little concerned about Eddie Vedder, having heard that he did something to his leg in Cincinnati and was seen limping badly at the end of the show – he acknowledged the injury at one point in St. Louis, thanking the doctors who’d fixed him up. He seemed to be moving just fine, spending a lot of time looking intently into the audience and going into the crowd a bit. He also seemed to be in a great mood. At one point Vedder and McCready did this thing where they were leaning on each other’s backs and going lower and lower until they both lost control and crashed down on the stage; I looked up at the video screens then and Vedder was grinning like a fool. I LOVE it when the band members seem like they are having fun on the stage, enjoying the show, enjoying one another’s playing and one another’s company. (One of the reasons I love the E Street Band so much – every show has a lot of that.)

First Pearl Jam show – in the books! And it definitely won’t be my last. And you know, it does say something about a band when, twenty-plus years into their career, they can put on a performance strong enough to continue pulling in new fans, or at least to convert casual fans into the more serious variety. Well done, guys. Well done.

* * * * *
Slideshow: Pearl Jam at Scottrade Arena, from the Riverfront Times

Setlist, review and photos from Speakers in Code

 

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Greetings from the Polar Vortex

photo of icy treesAnd greetings to anyone who might still be following this blog! Yes, it’s true, I’ve been frozen in the polar vortex… we haven’t had it as bad here as folks just a few miles to the north, because when the storm came through on Sunday we skated right on the rain/snow line for quite a few hours. I woke Sunday morning to about two inches of snow, but then it changed over to rain… and sleet… and slush… and snow… and freezing rain… and some big fat white globs that rocketed straight down from the sky and looked for all the world like a giant horde of birds was flying over and pooping on us. Every time I looked out the window, we were getting different precipitation. I fully expected frogs to start falling from the sky at some point.image of radar display showing precipitation

Eventually it started to change back over to snow, and I went outside to clear the 2-3 inches of pure gross slush off my windshield and other parts of the car before it froze solid overnight. That was a very, very smart move on my part. This morning I saw a guy across the street trying to chip about 2-3 inches of pure gross frozen-solid slush off the windshield of a mini-van with what looked like a kitchen spatula. He was also not wearing a hat (the temperature was hovering around 5 below zero at that point), so I’m thinking he might not have been the sharpest snowflake in the tundra. But I felt a little smug as I looked out at the perfectly clear windows of my own car.

Anyway, to make a long story short (too late, right?), the temperature dropped below zero shortly after midnight Sunday night/Monday morning, and stayed there until around 11 am on Tuesday. We didn’t get the foot of snow that Indianapolis got, but our roads are covered with bumpy frozen slush, which has its own … er … joys? Campus was officially closed both Monday and Tuesday, which was fantastic, as I am relatively sane and didn’t really want to venture outside in the 30-below-zero wind chill. I have been very, very lucky in that my furnace never gave out on me, I never lost power (a lot of people did), and my pipes didn’t freeze. It was on the cool side in the house even so, but I bundled up in fleece and blankets and enjoyed the heated throw I bought on Saturday for the occasion – as did the cats. I have basically spent most of the last three days underneath various combinations of lap cats. It’s been very, very nice.

3 cats on top of electric blanket

note the box in the background, which has not been opened & contains a brand new space heater bought for the occasion. If my furnace had given out during the polar business, I was PREPARED.

 

High Hopes album artSome people bake cookies when they have a snow day… I apparently write album reviews. If you’re interested in knowing what I think of the new Springsteen album, you can read my review over at Blogness on the Edge of Town. It won’t surprise anyone that I mostly like the album; when I write about music I’m actually less interested in the kind of review that pins the album with a certain number of stars or whatever, and more interested in just delving into it and asking “what’s going on here? what does the artist’s intention for this music seem to be, and does he succeed?” Especially with someone like Springsteen, who’s earned my respect and trust as an artist over the years, I make the assumption that he knows what he’s doing; I am more interested in examining the trajectory of the album and poking at it to find out what makes it tick. I’m not articulating this very well, I think. And I’m not really a music reviewer; to the extent that I have a strategy for doing that sort of thing, it comes more from what I’ve learned about workshopping poetry than from anything else. Anyway, I have a lot of thoughts about the album that didn’t make it into what I wrote, so stay tuned for more, perhaps.

Stay warm and safe out there, everyone – if you go out, wear your hat and mittens and for goodness’ sake clear the snow off of ALL your car windows before you drive! (I shoulda been a mom, huh?)

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No Surrender: On writing retreats

Boardwalk leading down into the woods towards the falls

Clifty Falls State Park

A few years ago, I spent several summer days (a little less than a full week) at Clifty Falls State Park, working to finish a book-length poetry manuscript. This writing retreat was generously funded by an Individual Artist Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission.

On the one hand, the retreat was a success. I got into a routine: breakfast, coffee, check in online, then dive into the manuscript for a few hours. When my head got too full of words, I’d go outside and tromp around in the woods for a bit. (On one jaunt I was tremendously startled by a wild turkey who happened to pop out of the shrubbery just as I walked past. Those things are HUGE! I think s/he was just as startled as I was…) And I came away with what felt like a finished manuscript.

Desk with papers all over it and coffee cup

Work in progress, Clifty Inn

On the other hand, the retreat was a failure, because that manuscript racked up a pretty good pile of rejection notes when I started submitting it to publishers. Sigh.

On the other other hand, it was a success, because once I’d put together that manuscript and felt “finished” with it, I was able to move on from those poems and began writing some that were very different from the ones I’d been writing for quite a while.

Since I don’t have that many hands, we’ll call that retreat … a partial success. I’m certainly glad I did it, and I learned a lot about putting together a manuscript that week too. I spent some of my time listening to three Springsteen albums I have always thought were masterpieces of sequencing, albums that have a definite storytelling/emotional arc – Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Tunnel of Love – and tried to figure out which of my poems made the most sense as my manuscript’s “Thunder Road.” Most importantly, I learned to settle down, center, and dive into the work in a way that felt really good.

When I read poems from my manuscript-allegedly-in-progress, “Chasing Angels,” last weekend – and as I prepared for that reading – I realized I hadn’t looked at that manuscript, or even thought about it much, in at least a year. I’d thought I might be ready to abandon it. But the poems felt alive to me again as I dug through them picking out which ones to read. It kind of surprised me. And I think I’m ready to pay attention to “Chasing Angels” again.

So… I’m planning another retreat. This one’s going to be more intense in some ways; I’m going in February, and I’m getting a cabin with (omg) NO INTERNET. (At Clifty Falls, I stayed in the inn, in a lovely room with a jacuzzi and internet.) I’ll be able to hike over to the lodge in the park with my iPad in tow and check email or whatever, and I might have a weak-ass 3G signal from the cabin – in Brown County I occasionally find a spot where I get 3G, but it’s not that widespread – so for the most part, getting connected will require a 10-15 minute tromp. Which isn’t that bad (not exactly roughing it, I realize) but for someone like me who pokes at whichever device is closest every five minutes or so, and checks Twitter and email on her phone last thing before falling asleep at night and first thing after waking up in the morning – it’s going to be a challenge. Poetry Unplugged. (Also known as: “If you want internet you’re gonna have to put on pants.”)

For some people, four days of near-solitude would be the challenge. And I know I’ll have moments when it’s too quiet and I can hear myself think too well. Mostly, I’ll miss the cats! I don’t have aloof, low-maintenance cats; all three of mine are usually right near me at any given moment, and usually if I’m sitting down at least one (sometimes two, occasionally three) will be on my lap. As I type this, in fact, I’ve got one sprawled across my legs, just on the other side of the laptop I’m typing on, purring up a storm. But I am used to solitude, and pretty comfortable with it. And if I really need to see another human being, I can go over to the lodge – I could even eat a meal or two in the restaurant there.

I’m not exactly going to be cut off from civilization – the cabin has electricity, heat, plumbing, a TV. There’s a wood stove (failed drafts probably make excellent kindling!) and a deck overlooking a wooded ravine. I have no idea what the weather will be like – it could be 50 degrees or it could be below zero – but if it’s at all reasonable, I will tromp around in the woods to clear my mind every now and then.

I might take a guitar, in case I am inspired to write any of the manuscript’s protagonist’s songs. (Here’s hoping I don’t have any nearby neighbors.) I will certainly take binoculars, as it’s not at all unlikely that I’ll see some wildlife – deer, raccoons, eagles, maybe even another turkey to scare the crap out of me. Mostly, though, the plan will be – once again – to emerge from the retreat with a “finished” manuscript in hand, ready to start sending out. It’s a little different this time, as I cobbled together a version of a manuscript some time ago. But that version is waaaaaay too long, and I’ve written a few more poems for it since then. My hope is that after being away from it for a while, I’ll be able to take a harder look and excise the weaker poems.

Anyway, it’s a few months away, but I am looking forward to it. I think it will challenge me, probably in ways that are as unexpected as a big-ass wild turkey jumping out from the underbrush. I’m not in a position to take a month-long residency at a fabulous place like Yaddo or McDowell, even if I thought I could get accepted there. I probably couldn’t even swing two weeks, given the realities of vacation time limitations and cat sitter bills. So I’m taking four days, and by golly I am going to make the most of it.

Onward!

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Setlist: First Sundays, 11/3/2013

autumn leaves
Despite an absolutely gorgeous autumn Sunday afternoon in Bloomington and the inevitable discombobulation that comes with the clocks having “fallen back” the night before, we had a nice little audience at Boxcar Books today for the First Sundays reading. I read a selection of poems from “Chasing Angels,” my manuscript-in-progress about a fictional rock musician; it was my first attempt to construct an entire setlist solely consisting of “Chasing Angels” poems and I was fairly happy with the narrative arc and the way the poems hung together.

I’d left the manuscript untouched for quite a while – a couple of years I guess – feeling frustrated and tired of it, and was pleasantly surprised when I dove back into it last night to find that I was interested in it again. Sometimes you have to let writing sit and marinate by itself for a while before working on it does anyone any good, you know? Now I’m thinking of getting it back out and fiddling with it some more; it’s way too long to send it out as it stands now, but hopefully with new perspective I’ll be able to ruthlessly yank out the poems that aren’t as strong. By spring 2014 I’d like to start sending it around. Don’t tell, y’all. It’ll be our little secret.

I’m also, because I enjoyed reading the poems so much today, having wacky ideas of constructing some kind of a semi-theatrical staged reading of a big chunk of the manuscript. I know, that’s crazy talk. It wouldn’t be that big a production – I certainly wouldn’t try to memorize it all, I’d have the pages in front of me – but with musical interludes here and there and some slides behind me and maybe some interesting lighting. I don’t know. I’m not necessarily the most dynamic of performers and I don’t know if I’d want to watch me on a stage for 45-60 minutes solid, even with multimedia and music and awesome boots on my feet and whatever… well… watch this space next year and see if anything develops!

Anyway, here’s what I read today (a 15 minute set):

  1. The Roar the Day After
  2. Sweet the Morning After
  3. The Smoke
  4. Curfew
  5. That Conversation
  6. First Earthquake

Many thanks to Nancy Long, the Bloomington Writers’ Guild, and Boxcar Books for hosting this monthly series!

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Upcoming: First Sunday Reading & Open Mic

Bloomington, Indiana folks (and those nearby) – I’ll be reading poems this coming Sunday afternoon (3-5 pm) at Boxcar Books, a nice independent bookstore in downtown Bloomington. Expect some poems from “Chasing Angels,” the manuscript I’ve been working on forever about a fictional rock musician – and maybe some other stuff as well.

Doris Lynch, one of the other featured readers, is one of my favorite Bloomington poets. And if you write (poetry, fiction, whatever), feel free to bring a little something and sign up for the open mic!

Flyer for First Sundays reading

 

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