Archive for December, 2009

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New Year’s Resolutions (a little end-of-the-year navel-gazing)

December 31, 2009

Earlier this decade — on December 29, 2000, in fact — the News and Observer in Raleigh featured me in a short article on New Year’s resolutions, surveying several people’s attempts (and sometimes failures) to set fresh goals for themselves each January 1. (I would link, but the article is inaccessible without a fee.) I’d only recently begun setting New Year’s resolutions myself, spurred on by my good friend Mary Ruffin Hanbury who sets an ambitious list of plans each new year, and the article discussed a couple of easy ones I’d made and stuck to the previous year. The first was to learn more about jazz, which I did, thanks particularly to Gary Giddins‘ great book Visions of Jazz and to John Bouille, then a dj and program director at WSHA, Shaw University’s terrific radio station — and that’s a resolution I continued to pursue, buoyed on further by the Ken Burns documentary series a couple of years later. Also, having never hosted a party at my own house, I resolved to get some folks over, and I ultimately mounted four big events, including a Western-themed shin-dig (I still have my cowboy boots!) and a hat party, with people showing up in baseball caps, sombreros, tiaras, antennae, and more.

But the big resolution at stake was for the coming year: My 2001 resolution was devote more time to writing fiction — something I’d long wanted to do but never quite put the effort toward, not as diligently as I would’ve liked at least. To that end, I would be taking a graduate-level fiction class with John Kessel at N.C. State University and trying to produce at least a couple of stories. I ended up writing three that semester, and one of them (astoundingly) was ultimately chosen as a finalist for the first-ever Kurt Vonnegut prize at the North American Review, where it was published in the summer of 2004. Since that semester, I’ve been fortunate to see my short fiction published more regularly (a dozen more stories), and I’ve not only finished both an M.A. at State and an MFA at George Mason University but become a professor of creative writing myself at Mason. And I’ve been grateful as well to see more nonfiction published, writing pretty regularly now not only for Metro Magazine (under whose aegis I publish this blog) but also for The Washington Post Book World, Mystery Scene, North Carolina Literary Review and others.

In short, while I still have far to go, still wish I was further along than I am, that resolution from earlier this decade was still a good one.

My wife, Tara Laskowski, and I together have set several resolutions in recent years; for 2009, for example, we decided (ambitiously, it seemed) to make two new recipes each week of the year — each of us choosing one — and then rating them, saving the best ones. Except for weeks when we were simply away, including our honeymoon in June (!!!), we stuck to the plan, and this last week of the year have even exceeded it, with FIVE new recipes: a celery root and wild rice soup, a lentil pasta sauce, a slow-cooker barbecue chicken, a new roasted asparagus recipe (with a balsamic glaze), and then a banana and chocolate fudge ice cream. That last one is chilling in the fridge as I write this, waiting to be dumped into the Kitchenaid ice cream maker. (We didn’t do as well keeping up with the blog we started about this, but you can still find some of our recipes here.)

Earlier this week, we talked about other resolutions for 2010. Because we’ve found that we enjoy hiking (a surprise for both of us!), we’re going to be doing more of it in 2010; there’s already a hiking guide for the D.C. area on the way from Amazon. We also plan to travel more, with trips already planned for Kentucky, Colorado, South Carolina, and California in addition to not one but TWO college reunion road trips: Tara’s 10th at Susquehanna, my 20th at Yale. And Tara suggested that we ditch some top-40 stations and try to broaden and deepen our music a little further by asking some well-informed friends for artists/bands that we must know; my good friend Kyle Semmel has already suggested a couple, including Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham), whom I’ve been listening to while I write this.

And as for those writing goals, I continue to give that resolution a booster shot each year: Various writing schedules have appeared (and usually disappeared); I began this blog and (until the last month) have been pretty diligent about juggling short news, reviews, and interviews; and “Finish the novel” appeared a couple of years in a row before I finally got a full draft of “First Loves, Second Thoughts” completed this past summer. After she won the Kathy Fish Fellowship at SmokeLong Quarterly last January, Tara set a goal of devoting herself to flash fiction for 12 months and has seen one of her best writing (and publishing) years yet; see her final story of the year, “When the Cicadas Come,” at SmokeLong here. And now both of us have set parallel writing goals for 2010 — which I won’t jinx by discussing in any detail. I plan to work on New Year’s Day toward that goal, and I was spurred on even further by Ann Patchett’s recent article on resolutions and writing in the Washington Post.

Fingers crossed that this resolution, on the cusp of a new decade, sticks as well as that one earlier from nearly 10 years back!

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New Food, New Music

December 9, 2009

Two of the most distinguished magazines on the South — The Oxford American and Southern Cultures — are offering up special issues devoted respectively to music and food. While these are generally must-have magazines (and great subscriptions for holiday giving, I should add!), these particular issues are also don’t-miss, which I guess you can consider a step up from must-have the way I’m working all this here.

The Oxford American‘s annual music issue has always been a special treat for me — and over the years the music has lent a lot of “texture” to my iPod. This year, the magazine augments its continuing exploration of Southern music in all its many forms and genres with a focus on a particular state’s musical offerings, in this case Arkansas, where the publication is currently based. As a result, the issues features two free CDs, one offering that annual eclectic mix of music and a second focussing on music produced in Arkansas or by Arkansans. Among the artists featured this year are Barbara Lynn, Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson, Paul Burch, Billy Lee Riley, and Sister Ernestine Washington. A sampling of features from the issue is available here, and don’t miss this fun q&a with the contributors here as well.

Among the highlights of the new issue of Southern Cultures are John Egerton (perhaps my favorite food writer) on custard pie; the Lee Brothers (they’re everywhere!) on buttermilk; and N.C. favorites Jean Anderson (on sweet potato pie), Bill Smith (on halved-crap soup), and Mama Dip (on “Fooling Her Papa with a Dessert.” If you have a question about what makes Southern food Southern… well, there’s an article on that too. The issue also includes a free DVD, Put It On The Skillet, which claims to feature “the best short food films collected anywhere.” Among them: an overview of the Southern Foodways Alliance‘s documentary film initiative, “Capital Q” about the Skylight Inn in Ayden, N.C., and “A Red Hot Dog Digest: A Travelogue along the Lee Highway” about those dyed-red hot dog and a series of restaurants in Southwestern Virginia. (I get hungry just thinking about that last one.)

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Kathryn Stripling Byer at “How A Poem Happens”

December 3, 2009

The wonderful website “How A Poem Happens” talks with N.C. Poet Laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer this week about her poem “Precious Little.” The poem is prefaced by a quote from Eudora Welty’s Losing Battles, and the interview opens with Byer discussing Welty’s influence on her own writing:

This poem began after a writers conference in Asheville, NC to which I took a small group of women students. Eudora Welty had just died, and we spent a portion of the morning session talking about her work, so her influence was much on my mind as the rest of the day unfolded. Welty’s lyrical short stories helped to shape my sense of how language can create a world that pulses at the center of the lyric moment. “The Wide Net,” in particular, really woke me up to the kind of writing I wanted to attempt; by then, I knew I wanted to write poetry, not fiction, but I also knew I wanted my poetry to sound as much like Welty’s wide net as possible.

The rest of the interview is equally insightful. Check it out here.

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