T is for Theater #AtoZChallenge

The late Mary Payne (1932–1996), founder and longtime director of Island Theatre Workshop (ITW), was utterly shameless about drafting people into theater (or theatre — you choose). I was one of them. She needed help with PR. She knew I was a writer. QED.

As I recall, it was Molière’s The Miser that was in rehearsal when she “suggested” I show up at Katharine Cornell Theatre at one of several possible times. Finding the place was easy — it’s above the Tisbury Town Hall on Spring Street — but I had to walk on by several times before I mustered the nerve to go up the stairs and through the double doors. Timorous newbie that I was, my imagination conjured a cavernous space filled with people I didn’t recognize going about their business with no interest in me.

What I found was a bustling but cozy place with light streaming through tall windows and two or three small dogs scampering here, there, and everywhere in complete violation of the rules. My most vivid memories of that production include Terry Zaroff playing Frosine in impossibly high heels and Christopher Lyons playing musical commentary on the grand piano at the front of house right. For the lead Mary had drafted Jonathan Revere, whose previous acting experience, if any, had been decades before. He proved perfect for the part and went on to play many more.

I wrote the press release and delivered it to the papers, picked up posters from Tisbury Printer and helped distribute them around the island, and was listed in the program under Publicity.

That first encounter turned out to be portentous, fortuitous, and, in a word, transformational. I went on to stage-managing, first as the assistant stage manager in a reprise production of Macbeth. With Medea I got to watch a production grow from casting through rehearsal though the last performance. That Medea, with Lee Fierro in the title role, was intense almost beyond bearing.

I was giving readings fairly frequently in those days, so I picked up plenty from watching Mary direct and actors act. Mary coached me from time to time. The most important bit of advice she gave me when performing my own work was to come to it as if someone else had written it. Don’t assume that just because you wrote it you can put it across to an audience. Rehearse, goddammit.

Betsy Corsignlia took this photo while I was rehearsing my Macbeth poem. It appeared on the back cover of my second women’s f/sf anthology, The Women Who Walk Through Fire (1990).

I started writing with performance in mind, reading everything out loud as I worked on it. One of the best things I’ve ever written was a poem-monologue, “The Assistant Stage Manager Addresses Her Broom After a Performance of Macbeth.” You can guess where that came from, and you can read it at the end of this post. I performed it often, and usually “off book,” i.e., from memory.

Having learned a bit about how a show was put together, I fell into theater reviewing for the Martha’s Vineyard Times. I’d reviewed plenty of books before I got to the Vineyard, but this was different. For one thing, with a theater production you couldn’t flip back to see if you’d missed something, and deadlines being deadlines you  usually couldn’t see the show twice.

For another, you were reviewing performances by people you’d often worked with and would almost certainly run into on the street the day the paper came out. At the time the prevailing “rule” was “Never say anything negative about anybody.” My goal was to give readers an idea of whether the production was worth the time and ticket price or not, and to maybe give cast, crew, and/or director something they could use.

My friendship with Mary Payne frayed somewhat over this. We had a rather fraught exchange on the op-ed pages of the M.V. Times and a shouting match on the staircase of the Vineyard Playhouse, which I think had to do with my then-partner’s decision to take a role in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, a play Mary hated as lesbophobic. This was a big reason that most of my theatrical activity in the 1990s took place at the Vineyard Playhouse, then under the direction of its co-founder Eileen Wilson.

Rehearsing “Paper Whites” for the 1994 Spring Short-Play Festival at the Vineyard Playhouse. I learned a passable English accent for that one.

Eventually, not surprisingly, I dabbled in acting, usually at the Playhouse, especially in the wonderful short-play festival that ran for a few years in the mid-1990s and also in staged readings for the New England new playwrights competition that the Playhouse sponsored in those days.

Also not surprisingly, I dabbled a bit in playwriting, turning out three one-acts, including one inspired by my experience as an extra in a Tisbury Amphitheater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In my A Midsummer Night’s Alternative, all the couples were gay or lesbian. If I do say so myself, it was stylish, funny, and all in iambic pentameter.

After the mid-1990s the grassroots theater scene dwindled. Island Theatre Workshop was never the same after Mary Payne died unexpectedly in October 1996, and the Vineyard Playhouse took a turn for the professional, becoming a mostly Equity theater. If it had continued to thrive, I almost certainly would have written more plays.

But what I learned doing theater is all over my fiction. To learn more about my characters, I  write monologues in their voices — a trick I learned from one director I worked with. As writer, I’m often the stage manager or director, watching my actors move about the stage, giving the occasional direction or prompt, thinking about what blocking might be more effective. And I have to say I’m pretty damn good at dialogue.

Last fall, strange but true, I was hired to write a full-length script from a concept developed by someone who died in 2015. It was a stretch in multiple ways — not only had I never written a full-length play but this play includes music (which I don’t have to write), is set in the 1850s, and involves working with an advisory board — but the second draft of the project just had its first read-through and it went well. For more about it, see “Fundraiser for 1854.

*****

The Assistant Stage Manager Addresses Her Broom
After a Performance of Macbeth

Who am I? Let me tell you what I do.
Within these walls I manage time and space,
make sure the pitcher’s on its hook before
its bearer wants it, warn the messenger
he’s on soon, check to see his torch is lit
and that the backstage lights are out. Right now
I’m cleaning up debris from this night’s show.
Is this a dagger I see before me?
It is, but split in pieces. I’m the one
who tapes it back together after hours.
Tomorrow night this plastic dagger turns
to steel, honed sharp enough to pierce a haunch
of gristly meat — or Duncan’s royal breast.
Before each show I sweep the stage. I see
green needles strewn where Birnam Wood has come
to rest the night before. I shiver, chilled,
as if I’d slept and woken centuries hence
with all my friends and family dead. And then
I sweep them all away. “Out, out, damn trees!”
I cry, “You haven’t come here yet! Begone!”

Here, separate ages stream like shimmering strands
in one great waterfall, and time dissolves.
Mere mortals we, what havoc do we wreak?
Elizabethan Shakespeare conjured up
Macbeth, medieval Scottish thane, and we
invoke them both, in nineteen eighty-six.
I watch the people enter, choose their seats,
and rustle through their programs. Normal folk,
it seems, and yet this gentle summer night
they’ve purchased tickets to a barren heath,
a draughty castle primed for treachery.
Right now the lights are up, the theatre walls
are strong, the windows fixed within their frames.
At eight o’clock the howling winds begin,
the wolves close in, the sturdy walls are gone.
These common folk, I wonder, have they bought
enough insurance? Have they changed their bills
for gold and silver coin? If challenged by
a kilted swordsman, how would they explain
their strangely tailored clothes?

No loyal lord
or rebel threatens me. Between the worlds,
or through this velvet curtain, I can move
at will. I warn the sound technician, “Ten
more minutes,” then I pass backstage to say,
“The house is filling up.” The Scottish king
is drinking ginger ale; a prince-to-be
in chino slacks is looking for his plaid.
The Thane of Glamis is pacing back and forth,
preoccupied with schemes to win the crown,
or trouble with his car. I prowl backstage,
alert for things and people out of place.
Last night I found a missing messenger
outside the theatre, smoking cigarettes.
I called him back in time: Macbeth’s bold wife
demanded news — What is your tidings?; he
was there to gasp, The king comes here tonight!

No phone lines run to Inverness, no news
at six o’clock. (Walter MacCronkite’s face
appears and says that base Macdonwald’s head
was nailed upon the wall, that Cawdor’s fled
and Glamis has been promoted; polls predict
he might go higher still.) The kingdom’s nerves
are messengers who run from king to thane
to lady. Take the Thane of Ross, who comes
to tell his cousin that her husband’s flown
to England, leaving her unguarded; then
he takes himself abroad, to where Macduff
and other rebel lords are planning war.
Macduff’s unguarded lady fares less well.
A breathless runner pleads, “Be not found here;
hence, with your little ones!” but on his heels
come murderers, death-arrows from the king.
Two sons, a daughter, and their mother die
with piercing shrieks that vibrate in my spine.

With piercing shrieks vibrating in my spine,
I contemplate a different line of work;
this sending harmless people to their deaths
is bad for my digestion, and what’s more,
it’s happening much too often. First I let
King Duncan in, and he gets killed in bed.
Could I have known so soon that Cawdor’s heart
was rotten? No. But shortly after, I
send scoundrels to the banquet hall; Macbeth
himself has called them. Not the kind of guest
that Duncan entertained! And then I tell
Macbeth’s friend Banquo and his son it’s time
to join the party. What about the thieves
I know are lurking on the gate road, dressed
to kill? But Banquo is a fighting man,
well-armed, and Fleance does escape. Not so
Macduff’s fair lady, and her kids. Could I
prevent their deaths? What if I plied the brutes
with Scotch? They might get drunk enough to lose
their maps, or drop their knives, or fall asleep.
What if I whispered in the lady’s ear,
“Don’t go outside today — and bar the doors.”

I doubt she’d pay attention. Each one goes
to meet the dagger destined for his breast.
Perhaps I’d get my point across if I
could speak in rhyme and paradox, the way
the witches do, with fair is foul, and foul
is fair. The witches manage time and space
like me; you could call me the unseen witch.
I wonder, are they working from a script?
You’ll see: the second sister sweeps the stage
as I do, clearing them the space they need
to cast their circles. We both summon kings
and apparitions out of time, although
our methods differ some. “You enter soon,”
I warn, “stage right.” Mundane, compared to how
my sisters work, with Double, double, toil
and trouble, cauldron, fire, and lengthy list
of weird ingredients — the eye of newt
and toe of frog, the blood of sow that ate
her piglets — but we get the same results.
Our audience is moved to awe, and then
proceeds along its merry way to rendez-vous
with fate, or Birnam Wood, or man not born
of woman. They get blamed for it. I don’t.

The witches disappear, and one last time
prince Malcolm calls his kin to see him crowned
at Scone. The set is struck, costumes returned
to cardboard boxes, wooden banquet bowls
and Scottish flag to rightful owners; kings
go home to mow the lawn or fix the car.
Where did the blasted heath go off to? I
am leaning on my broom again. What stays
when all the parts spin off? Just memories
of daggers, prophecies, and anguished screams?
The air still tingles here. The gates remain
but smaller, well concealed. I might reach in
and conjure back that knife, that messenger.
“There’s knocking at the gate,” the lady says,
“Give me your hand! What’s done cannot be undone.”
To bed, she says. To bed, to bed, to bed.

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S is for Single #AtoZChallenge

OK, this one’s gonna be short because I need Sunday morning to get back to Wolfie so I won’t keep the Sunday Writers in suspense about What Happens Next.

“Short?” chortles the Internal Skeptic. “We’ll see about that.”

Here goes.

In “F is for Family” I blogged about how Martha’s Vineyard woke me up to the importance of family not as something you run away from but as something that sustains its members and makes survival possible. So why are all the principals in Mud of the Place single?

My subconscious did it, I didn’t plan it that way, but when I saw what was happening, I wasn’t surprised.

I wanted to show something of how Martha’s Vineyard worked, from different perspectives. So Mud had to be an ensemble piece, and it had to take place mostly in the “public square,” as opposed to behind the closed doors of family homes. In the writing I learned enough about each character to sketch in their background, but if I’d done more than that Mud would have turned into a thousand-page doorstop. As it is, the print version is almost 400 pages long.

Another thing: Out in the public square, most of us most of the time move about as individuals — or so it seemed to me when I hadn’t been here all that long. In real life we actually carry our connections with us, but they’re in the background, soft focus, almost ghostly. If you’re wise you’ll keep those connections in mind in any public interaction.

Volunteering in island theater and at Wintertide I couldn’t help noticing how many of the most active volunteers were single and in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s — as was I. Single people without children or other family responsibilities; still too young to be the caretakers of aging parents.

That particular demographic has been decimated by the ongoing housing crisis, including the dearth of cheap winter rentals and safe places to crash in the summer. Many have left the island for gainful employment and/or to raise families. Those who haven’t work so many hours to pay the rent that little time or energy is left for volunteering.

These days the volunteer cadre seems dominated by those 60 and up. They have time because they’re retired and housing because they’re living year-round in what used to be their second home. The nonprofit and civic landscape has changed quite a bit since the 1980s and ’90s.

During his off-island years as a social worker and community organizer, Jay Segredo helped form a loose network of like-minded folk that call themselves the Free Radicals. This was a mischievous double entendre on my part, or maybe his. Free radicals are atoms with unattached electrons that fly around looking for other atoms to bond with. In health food circles, free radicals are a bad thing and anti-oxidants such as broccoli are advised to help neutralize them. This is why Jay’s homophobic sister Janice is seen eating broccoli in the hospital cafeteria.

Each of the Free Radicals has a tie bearing the group’s logo, an atom with electrons flying around its nucleus. When Jay’s malevolent boss, Dr. Jerome Turner — known to his underlings as Gerbil Turd — spots it, he remarks, “I didn’t take you for a fan of nuclear power, Mr. Segredo.” This is not the only mistake Dr. Turner makes.

When Wolfie opens some 12 years later, the returning characters are, not surprisingly, more settled than they were in Mud. I can’t explain the new arrangements without giving spoilers for the earlier novel, so I won’t. At the same time, the main players are once again single in that they act outside of institutional constraints, which I do believe is the only way they can learn what they learn and do what they have to do.

Single girl and single dog

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R is for Recovery #AtoZChallenge

Recovery is all over The Mud of the Place. Protagonist Shannon is an alcoholic with a pretty well established recovery — she’d be the first to say “recovering,” not “recovered,” and to emphasize that she’s gotten this far one day at a time.

She’s Giles K.’s sponsor in AA, while he’s her sponsor in matters artistic. Disgusted with the work she was turning out, she locked herself out of her own studio some years before; he’s painting during the day, waiting tables at night, and slowly making a name for himself in the art world. “Don’t make yourself paint,” he keeps telling her. “Let yourself paint.”

Mud grew out of my first 10 years on the Vineyard, thoroughly composted into a surprisingly rich soil. The most easily identifiable components were the news biz, recovery, and small-town gay and lesbian lives.

Recovery was part of my plan when I bolted from the big city, but how to explain in a blog post (1,000 words or less!) what I was looking for and why? I had no idea where to start. So I procrastinated. After getting out the vacuum to disappear some cobwebs on the ceiling that hadn’t bothered me for weeks, I headed over to Gmail to catch up on notifications from the blogs I follow.

My eye fell immediately on the latest from Steve Rose’s Social Health blog: “What Veterans Can Teach Us About Purpose.” Steve Rose writes well and perceptively about subjects dear to my heart, like addiction, and the relationship of individual and society. Often he focuses on the experience of veterans. I knew I was meant to read this post, right now. Once again procrastination had paid off.

It begins:

Finding purpose after leaving the military is often one of the most difficult parts of the transition. In the military, members experience a high level of communal purpose. This sense of communal purpose and belonging offered in the military is unparalleled in civilian life.

Then, a little later:

During transition, veterans become individuals again. By this, I mean the need to rebuild a sense of individual purpose; an identity outside the group. The difficulty here is that humans are not wired to simply rebuild an identity in isolation.

This threw me back to that tumultuous transition in my own life: the move from Washington, D.C., to Martha’s Vineyard. The short version is that my life was becoming unmanageable and home didn’t look like home anymore.

The D.C. women’s community and the wider feminist women in print movement was where I’d come out as a lesbian, become engaged as a feminist, and begun to find both my voice as a writer and my audience. Then the wider community proceeded to blow itself apart in what we survivors often refer to as the Lesbian Sex Wars. (The caps are optional, but the wars were epic.) I was in the “plague on both your houses” middle.

Me and my mother, 1952. Neither of us knew what was coming.

At the same time I was coming up against the defenses I’d thrown up as a teenager. I’d been determined to be as different from my unhappy alcoholic mother as I could, so I didn’t touch alcohol till I was over 21. I identified and allied myself with my perfectionist father — best to be on the winning side on the home front, eh?

That had its downside too, however. My elementary school teachers noted on my otherwise stellar report cards that I didn’t like to ask for help when I needed it. (“But I don’t need it,” I protested.) If I wasn’t sure of the right answer, I’d keep quiet until I was.

My body protected me as best it could: I  started eating compulsively. I got fat. If you were fat, no one expected anything of you. Your mind could go about its business unhindered by others’ expectations. For years I told myself that my jolly fat public persona was clearing space for the private me to write, but eventually feminism and the fat liberation movement persuaded me that I was deluding myself.

I could write an essay on how this photo changed my life. Maybe later. Note the Secede Now T-shirt. Photo by Beth Karbe. Ca. 1979, Rock Creek Park, D.C.

In the year or so before I left D.C. I wrote a 100-page memoir trying to understand (or write myself out of) the trap I was in. An AA friend who read it years later said it sounded like a Fourth Step to her: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” It was in a way, but what it did was prepare me for Step One: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

For me it wasn’t alcohol, but I was using food the way my mother used booze, despite my determination to be as unlike my mother as possible. I was powerless, my life was unmanageable, my home community was blowing itself apart around me . . .

I ran.

The whole subject of adult children of alcoholics was cresting at the time, I found a group for ACAs, and what I did over the next five or so years was more or less rebuild myself from the ground up. As Steve Rose notes, “humans are not wired to simply rebuild an identity in isolation.” I sure wasn’t. Along with my ACA groups, I had my women’s group, the newspaper, island theater (coming up under T!), and the island itself.  All of them were crucial. I never stopped being me, but I did manage to overhaul the coping strategies I’d improvised to survive adolescence and young-womanhood and to start writing again.

The family Shannon fled was far more violent and dangerous than mine, but that moment when she realizes that though she left them physically behind, she’s brought their legacy with her? Been there and eventually found a similar lifeline.

The way forward

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Q is for Questions #AtoZChallenge

With Q drawing closer, not swiftly exactly but steadily, I was drawing — not quite a blank, but I wasn’t inspired. I solicited suggestions from Facebook friends. Quirky, quixotic, query, question, quahaug (aka quahog) . . .

All worthy, but still not quite right. When I did the A to Z Challenge last year in my Write Through It blog, “Q is for Query” was a no-brainer, but the Vineyard connection was tenuous. Quirky and quixotic were more promising: they suggested character, as in “She’s a real character,” meaning she’s colorful, individualistic, maybe even a bit outrageous, but basically harmless. Quincy Hancock III, a minor player in The Mud of the Place, was known as Quirky Hancock in his well-heeled youth.

There’s a Q character in Wolfie too: the animation artist Rafael Quinteros. He plays an important role but so far he hasn’t appeared onstage.

Quahaug — well, that would be a natural if I had an affinity for shellfish, but I don’t, so they haven’t shown up in my writing. Protagonist Shannon Merrick has done her share of crewing on fishing and charter boats, shucking scallops, and other Vineyard jobs, but all of it was before Mud gets under way.

So I went through the mss. of both Mud and Wolfie, searching on space + qu, to find all words beginning with q. Hands-down the most common were quite, quick (and variations, e.g., quickly), quiet (ditto), and question (ditto). Not far behind, at least in Mud, were quote, quoted, and quotable (etc.) — not surprising, since one of the main settings is a newsroom and one of the point-of-view characters a reporter.

Others included  quarter, quantum leap, quilt, quarantine, queued, quit, quizzically, quid pro quo, qualify, quotient, Queen Mother (the epithet given Martha’s Vineyard Chronicle publisher Arabella Roth by her mostly admiring staff in Mud), queen (specifically “drama queen” and “sugar-daddy queen”), quarry, qualified, quarrel, queer, quest, query, and Quark XPress.

Finally, as you’ve no doubt surmised from the title of this post, I settled on questions.

A popular axiom has it that there are no stupid questions, or that the only stupid question is the one that isn’t asked. Up to a point, but it’s also true that the questions you ask can say as much about you as the answers you give to other people’s questions. The eyes of all but the most polite Vineyarders tend to glaze over at “What do you people do in the winter?,” and by the middle of August even polite year-rounders can be caught swapping stupid tourist questions with their friends.

My favorite is being approached by two men at Five Corners around 10 on a weekday morning and being asked “Where can you get a drink in this town?” My answer was “You can’t,” and I pointed them in the direction of Oak Bluffs. You can tell this was a while ago because now you can get a drink in Vineyard Haven, but it has to be with a meal and I’m not sure if anyone’s serving spirits at 10 a.m.

Reporters ask questions and base their stories on the answers. Leslie in Mud of the Place keeps a running list of the answers she needs, who’s likely to have them, and the questions she needs to ask to get them. She’s methodical and competent. In the past she’s demonstrated her courage by asking questions that threatened people in power. If she’s got a fault, it’s that she puts too much stock in her questions. It’s not hard to answer a question truthfully without telling the querent what she wants to know.

Courtroom lawyers are advised against asking questions they don’t already know the answers to, which may sound silly, or at least contradictory, but it’s not. It’s not bad advice for living in a community where word gets around and it’s best to know the lay of the land before you ask anything that might disturb a person’s peace or seriously piss her off.

In Wolfie Shannon can’t find out what she wants to know by asking questions. This was the challenge I set for myself: Something’s amiss in the Smith family, but there’s no way to find out directly, the grapevine is off-limits because asking questions is a great way to start rumors, and the price of being wrong is very high. In real life such situations so often end in tragedy that I was determined to stack the deck in favor of the good guys, to give them a fighting chance. I think it’s going to work out.

I often ask my characters questions, but I may not take their answers at face value. Leslie was evasive when I asked her where she lived and how she paid for it. She didn’t want to tell me she was living rent-free in the in-law apartment of her parents’ summer home, but she finally did — and the tensions in her own family started coming into focus.

So, yeah, Q is for Questions. On to R!

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P is for Poetry #AtoZChallenge

“I came to work on my novel.” It was a total cliché at the time — everyone, it seemed, came to Martha’s Vineyard to work on a novel. A few years later it was a screenplay they were working on, but screenplays never tempted me: I didn’t own a TV, wasn’t a big movie buff (my favorite movie of all time is still one I saw for the first time just before I turned 12), and had an inkling that it was much harder to get a screenplay produced than a novel published.

The sagest comment I ever heard on why people come to Martha’s Vineyard was uttered by the woman who is currently Travvy’s vet: “Some people move to the Vineyard to get themselves together, other people move here to crack up — and it’s not always clear which is which.”

A very capable writer, who’s been writing a Martha’s Vineyard Times column about matters veterinary for more than 25 years, she was also one of the very first poets I heard read during my first winter here. I’d been reading the newspapers and every posted flyer that caught my eye, looking for a lifeline, some clue to where I might find possibly kindred spirits: anything to do with writing and/or women. Thus I was led to a poetry night at an off-season series called “the Flip Side of the Ocean Club,” the Ocean Club being a seasonal restaurant housed in the Five Corners building that later, for a brief shining moment, became the year-round home of Wintertide Coffeehouse (more about that under W).

Leaving the Island cover (1989), design by Maggie MacCarty

What I wound up writing during my first years on the Vineyard, along with occasional reviews and essays for feminist publications, was poetry. It had something to do with learning that not only were there good poets on year-round Martha’s Vineyard, there were places to read it and people who would listen. But poetry and I were not strangers: I’d arrived on the Vineyard with a chapbook’s worth of pretty good poems, Leaving the Island.

When, with the help of my then girlfriend, Maggie MacCarty, who happened to be an excellent artist and graphic designer, I managed to self-publish it, the title led many to ask if I really was leaving. No, I’d explain, the poems were all written when I was still in D.C., about a mostly unrequited relationship. The title poem, however, written in the fall of 1981, begins “This crossing / I stand at Islander’s bow / windblown, entranced.” Another poem is titled “South Beach,” and there’s an untitled rather mystical one that begins “in giving myself to the ocean.”

Me (left) with poet Kathryn Howd Machan and her then husband, Ralph. After a reading at New Words Bookstore, Cambridge, late 1980s.

The poems I wrote during my first years here were also about a relationship — my developing relationship with the island — but unlike the Leaving the Island series, many of them were in traditional forms: sonnets, sestinas, and villanelles. I was blatantly under the influence of Marilyn Hacker. So much of the great lesbian and feminist writing of the 1970s and ’80s was poetry, so of course I read a lot of it, but of the poets I read most voraciously — Judy Grahn, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Joy Harjo, Marge Piercy . . . — only Hacker wrote in traditional forms.

What she made those forms do, or what these forms allowed her to do — this was a revelation.

And a challenge. What made me rise to it? Not sure, but in retrospect I can point to the myriad of benefits I got from it. My writing tends to sprawl, as if space were no object. Writing formal poetry, like working at the newspaper, taught me to compress, to make every word count. More, using fewer words often makes for a more powerful piece. And yet another thing: At this point I was getting more and more involved in theater, which has had such a huge effect on my writing that guess what T is going to be for? This is when I started reading everything aloud as I was writing it, paying more attention to sound.

My very first Vineyard publication, believe it or not, was “Sonnets on a Planning Board Meeting,” published as an op-ed in the Vineyard Gazette in early 1986. This five-sonnet sequence was about one of the West Tisbury planning board meetings that eventually led to the Deep Bottom Pond subdivision. Clever me, I reprinted it in this blog almost three years ago, so you can read it here.

In the early 1990s what I thought was a series of poems evolved into my first one-act play, “Persephone’s Mother,” which has actually been produced a few times. My lines were getting longer and longer and turning into prose. I’ve written almost no poetry since then. I don’t read much of it either: poetry is not the vital force in my life that it was in my women’s community days. Rereading what I wrote in the 1980s makes me want to try my hand at it again, though I’m not sure I have the patience.

Interestingly enough, and probably serendipitously, a guy has just come into my writers’ group who’s working on short-short fiction, “flash fiction” as it’s called. I’ve long been fascinated by the form, and tempted to try it. Maybe I will.

I’ve included other poems in this A to Z series, but it seems wise to conclude this particular post with one, a villanelle from February 1986.

The Tale-Spinner’s Design

Out of whole cloth I’m embroidering tales,
spelling runes to magic in colored thread.
Deft is my working with fingers and yarn.

I’m no one’s apprentice. The castle hails
me witch; to this craft I was born and bred.
From Mother’s cloth I embroider my tales.

My tapestries keep drafty hallways warm,
my carpets cloak the floors, my quilts each bed,
so deft am I with my fingers and yarm.

The night-born traveler slips through my veils;
I offer rest, she bids me stay instead,
sly spinster of cloth, embroidering tales.

My love swirls wild like paisley, so I warn,
it spans abysses, flames orange and red —
so deftly kindled from fingers and yarn.

She skirts the fringes, laughs aloud, and fails
to back away. It warms when we’re long dead,
our womancloth with deep embroidered tales,
so deftly fashioned from fingers and yarn.

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O is for Online #AtoZChallenge

When the retina in my right eye detached in early August 2004, I’d been off-island at most twice since 9/11. In the following months, I made numerous eye-related trips to Boston: ferry to Woods Hole, bus to South Station, subway to the main location of Ophthalmic Consultants of Boston (OCB), then back again. The changes wrought by 9/11 and the panic that followed were so startling to my unaccustomed eye that over the next few years I wrote my probably best-ever essay about the experience: “My Terrorist Eye: Risk, the Unexpected, and the War on Terror.”

Vineyard people sometimes compete for the title of who hasn’t been off-island for the longest time, and I confess: I played the game, and was pleased by the astonishment and occasional horror with which more recent arrivals greeted my announcement that I hadn’t been off-island in more than two and a half years.

Well, the truth is more complicated. My body hadn’t been off-island in all that time, but my mind surely had. Island-bound I was not. My virtual self got around.

Me (on the right) presenting the 1994 Tiptree Award to co-winner Nancy Springer at Potlatch 1995. The other co-winner was Ursula K. Le Guin, who was not able to be present.

I went online for the first time in 1994. That year I chaired the jury for the James Tiptree Jr.  Award, which recognizes fantasy and science fiction (f/sf) that explores and expands our ideas of gender. My fellow jurors were in Idaho, California, the Boston area, and Melbourne, Australia. They were all online, as were most of my friends and colleagues from the f/sf world — but very few of my Vineyard friends. Given the distances involved, communication by phone was expensive and by snailmail (which at that time was still called “the mail” or “the post,” depending on where you lived) was slow. So they ganged up on me and I signed up on GEnie, where all my f/sf friends hung out in the Science Fiction RoundTable (SFRT). Soon I had my own topic there too.

By 1997 my online connection and technical equipment enabled me to access the growing World Wide Web. Using the search engine of the day (AltaVista? Northern Lights? Can’t remember), I discovered and quickly joined Copyediting-L, “an email discussion list for editors and other defenders of the English language who want to talk about anything related to editing: sticky style issues; philosophy of editing; newspaper, technical, and other specialized editing; reference books; client relations; Internet resources; electronic editing and software; freelance issues; and so on.”

Copyediting-L offers a selection of swag, including this, my current mousepad. I’m also the proud owner of three different beer steins and one T-shirt.

I can’t overestimate how essential Copyediting-L — it’s familiarly known as CE-L and its subscribers refer to ourselves as “the CELery” — has been to me over the years, as a source of  free continuing education, professional development, a way of passing on some of what I’ve learned as editor and writer, friends, clients, and the most godawful punfests you’ll ever take part in. CE-L is still going strong, though I’m now much more active in the editing-related groups on Facebook, headed by Editors Association of Earth (EOE).

None of this was or is or ever will be available on Martha’s Vineyard. In addition to editing, the online world has allowed me to indulge, develop, and/or expand my passions for feminism, f/sf, Morgan horses, Malamute dogs, and grassroots politics.

Even before the online world greatly expanded my possibilities, I realized at some level that I would never be wholly of the island. It might have been during my first forays into Bunch of Grapes bookstore: the women’s section comprised mostly pop psychology books from New York publishers, women’s history was nowhere to be found, there were zero titles from the independent press, and the science fiction section looked like it had been stocked by monkeys. So from the get-go I did nearly all my book buying by mail order or during my trips to science fiction conventions, which invariably involved visits to the nearest feminist or other indy bookstore.

I’m not well traveled at all, but I’ve been a border crosser most of my life, both/and, neither/nor, body in one place, head somewhere else. In 1997 I was the special guest at WisCon 21, the feminist science fiction convention held annually in Madison, Wisconsin. Special guests are expected to give a speech, and mine was called “Notes of a Border Crosser.” My focus then was on living in the borderland between the mutually suspicious feminist print world and fantasy/science fiction world, but it applies to other things too, like living and not-living on Martha’s Vineyard.

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N is for Newspapers #AtoZChallenge

I started reading a daily newspaper — the news section, not just the funnies — relatively early in life, when I was around 10. As a preteen and then teenage Arabist I clipped stories about the Middle East, taped or glued them to bond paper, and filed them in a two-drawer file cabinet. Most were from the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Sunday New York Times, which were the papers my father subscribed to or brought home from work.

In high school a couple of friends and I put out an occasional newspaper that, as I recall it, was short on news but long on tongue-in-cheek commentary.

Through college I wrote regularly for the papers, The Hoya at Georgetown University, the Daily Pennsylvanian’34th Street features section and then the alternative Penn Voice at the University of Pennsylvania.

My forte was always reviews and commentary. I don’t recall ever doing any reporting, apart from the story  I wrote for a one-off class newspaper in fifth grade. For that one I interviewed a neighbor about her family’s plans to build a swimming pool. Note to anyone who unearths this journalistic effort of ca. 1961: The swimming pool was never built. This may have put me off reporting from the get-go.

Having graduated from college with a liberal arts degree, a demonstrated talent for writing, and no other marketable skills, I sent out cover letters and résumés to numerous small newspapers in New England and upstate New York. This elicited a couple of interviews, one tryout, and no offers.

The handwriting on the wall said I’d better learn how to type, so I signed up for Katy Gibbs’s eight-week secretarial course for unemployable female liberal arts graduates. (In those days, unemployable male liberal arts graduates generally went to grad school or law school or were mysteriously routed into management training programs.)

That really is me, in my editorial cubicle in the publications office of American Red Cross national headquarters. ca. 1980. Note the IBM Executive typewriter with extra-long carriage in the foreground.

No regrets about finally learning to type, not least because within fewer than three years my secretarial skills had led straight to my first editorial job, in the publications office of American Red Cross national headquarters. (I moved back to D.C. in May of 1977.)

While learning to type, take shorthand, and write business letters, I worked part-time as the proofreader for the Massachusetts Lawyers News (title approximate, memory hazy), which was published by the same company that published the local paper, the Weston Town Crier. The production process was a hybrid of old and new photocomposition techniques. Producing a galley required several time-consuming steps, so I became adept at fixing typos with Scotch tape and an X-acto knife.

Truth to tell, I had little interest in or aptitude for reporting. I wanted to engage with the world around me, including the people in it, and write about my own take on it all. But life kept pushing me in a newspaperly direction.

I moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1985 with enough savings to live frugally for about a year. Before they ran out completely I started doing odd jobs, including, of course, typing. Thanks to a classified ad I was running in the Martha’s Vineyard Times, I was recruited by Eileen Maley, then the Times features editor, to fill in for the editorial typesetter, who was going on sick leave. After a couple more temp gigs they hired me as part-time proofreader.  As a stringer,  I started writing theater reviews and the occasional feature and op-ed. When Eileen retired in 1991, I succeeded her.  (This story is recounted in more detail in “E is for Editing.”)

How did this influence my writing and me as a writer? I can’t count the ways. Start with deadlines. Deadlines had to be met. At some point you had to stop writing, tweaking, and rewriting because the story had to go to press. In those days before newspapers moved online, space was as inflexible as deadlines. Stories had to be cut to fit the space available, and the space available might change at the last minute if an ad came in or a lead story went long. I learned to cut inches off stories, not just a sentence or two.

I can’t say it cured me of my perfectionism, but it gave me plenty of ammo to use against it.

I also learned to love seeing my work in print only a few days after I’d written it, and to realize that hey, it was actually pretty good. This affinity for (nearly) immediate gratification was, not surprisingly, a drawback when I got down to the long haul of writing my first novel. And when Mud was greeted with (nearly) complete lack of interest by the island’s bookstores and newspapers, I was devastated. It was years before I started writing seriously again. One big factor was the rise of blogs, social media, and ways of reaching an audience that didn’t depend on island bookstores and newspapers.

Of course my newspaper experience is all over The Mud of the Place. I get warm fuzzies rereading the many newspaper scenes, remembering how much I loved working for the Times in those days. But I can’t help noticing that it’s not the reporter, supremely competent though she is, who gets the whole story.

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M is for Mud #AtoZChallenge

Mud season generally comes round in early spring, when thawing earth and April showers turn fields, dirt roads, and back yards into quagmires. (Hmm. Maybe Q is for Quagmire? I won’t know till I get there.)

Big rut at Misty Meadows, after three months of runoff

Except this year, when the long, hard freeze that ended 2017 and began 2018 gave way to a serious January thaw. Along the edge of the field at Misty Meadows, where Trav and I walk almost daily, the mud was so deep and gooey it almost trapped a tractor. The several-inch crevasse the big wheel left is still there, and will be until a vehicle of similar heft comes to grade it.

The four nor’easters of March saturated the ground even further, especially the first one. That one also felled plenty of huge trees, often not by knocking them down but by pulling them up by the roots: the thawing ground couldn’t hold them.

Mud season isn’t just a time of year. It’s a state of mind. It’s not quite winter and not quite spring, it’s dreary dreary dreary and it goes on forever.

People gush about how beautiful Martha’s Vineyard is, how lucky you are to live there.

Mud is not beautiful.

You slip in the mud.

You get stuck in the mud.

Mud spatters you all over when you’re trying to look cool.

So in May 1994, when I spotted a short piece in The New Yorker publicizing an upcoming reading by poet-writer-activist Grace Paley, I fell in love.

Paley was asked if she would write about the situation in South Africa. She might have a character comment on it, she said, but “if your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

The previous year, President Bill Clinton and his family had taken the first of several summer vacations on Martha’s Vineyard. The national press corps had spent their many, many idle moments searching the Vineyard for “local color.” They got it so consistently wrong that in May 1994 I was still fuming.

Grace Paley nailed the reason why — and at the same time, in a most Paleyesque way, issued a challenge: Where were my feet? If not me, who? Paley’s words became my touchstone: Even if your feet are in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.

Into the umpteenth draft of The Mud of the Place, I realized that there wasn’t all that much literal mud in the story, so I had to put more in. This wasn’t all that hard. In chapter 2, reporter Leslie Benaron is on her way to cover a house fire:

Reporter’s notebook clutched in one hand, rollerball pen trapped in its spiral binding, Leslie picked her way up the muddy track. It wasn’t enough that mud season was still upon them the third week of April; runoff from the hoses was gouging deeper and deeper tracks on either side of the slippery median mound. And was Leslie wearing her duck shoes? She was not. Leslie had just come from a dinner date, a precious opportunity to wear her fine black Italian leather boots, the ones that shaped her ankle and lower calf in graceful curves that approached—she hoped—elegance. The ones whose soles were so thin that the cold clamminess of the mud chilled the bottoms of her stocking feet. If she was really lucky, the soles would stay attached to the uppers till she got home.

There’s no literal mud in Wolfie, because it takes place in the fall, when the ground is well on its way to freezing. Of figurative mud, well, of course, there’s plenty. But I’m still trying to live up to Grace Paley’s warning: “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you better watch where your mouth is.”

Frozen mud

Yaktrax (mine) and pawprints (Travvy’s) in mud

Tire tracks in mud

 

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L is for Lesbian #AtoZChallenge

WARNING: The first several paragraphs of this post rely heavily on “Gay on MV,” a personal history that I posted here in June 2015. This post, in keeping with my theme for the A to Z Challenge, focuses more on me as a writer.

On Changeover Weekend in 1985 I moved to Martha’s Vineyard from the lesbian-feminist community of Washington, D.C., where I’d been active for eight years. People kept asking if I’d ever been married and whether I had kids. I’d never been asked these questions before.

Having been active and visible in a lesbian community for eight years, four of them working in a feminist bookstore, I rarely had to come out. My surroundings did it for me. I quickly discovered that it was hard to say “No, I’m a lesbian,” and it got harder the more obvious it became that this made a lot of people nervous.

The word “lesbian” was never said out loud, even by lesbians. Especially by lesbians: why would anyone say “lesbian” out loud unless they were one? Instead we said “the L-word,” long before there was a TV show of that name. Or used the ASL sign for L.

Naturally I gravitated to people who didn’t seem uneasy, and it seemed they were gravitating to me. This took a while, and required a re-orientation of my perceptions and assumptions. In D.C. I’d been lulled into the belief that “lesbian” and “feminist” were practically synonymous.

Ha ha ha. Wrong. Very few of the lesbians I met had heard of Adrienne Rich or Judy Grahn or Audre Lorde or Cris Williamson or Pat Parker. The ones who had were all straight feminists. They were the ones I wound up hanging with. Most of them were divorced, or the men in their lives stayed at a safe distance. When we hung out together, we were all single women with no men in sight.

The lesbian thing did, however, matter. I was recognized and recruited PDQ into island theater by the late Mary Payne (1932–1996). Island theater was like theater in most other places: a veritable hotbed of misfits and nonconformists, gay, lesbian, straight, both/and, and neither/nor. My people. Whew.

Having little personal experience of “the closet,” I was fascinated by closet dynamics. What I said out loud was very much influenced by the vibes I was getting from those around me. If someone seemed uncomfortable, they didn’t have to say so; instinctively I tailored my words to put them at ease.

My fascination was not shared by the editors of the lesbian-feminist publications I had written for. When I pitched a personal essay dealing with the challenges of coming out in a small town, the general response was that coming out was old news. (Now you see where the primary plot thread of Mud of the Place came from!)

In the winter of 1985/86, I was already beginning to realize that I was in between, belonging neither in the place I’d left nor in the one I’d arrived at. Out of that came this poem:

The Home Planet Vanishes

You left slowly, watching the world grow small
in the viewport. Children, poets, gathered there
wondering, as seasoned travelers never did.

It’s different now. Ships jump and planets fall
away. Remember the otherwhen and where
you left slowly, watching the world grow small?

In that once-upon-a-time you were a kid,
your parents up front, too involved to stare
in wonder. The seasoned travelers never did.

Then, safe return was not assured. Leaving called
for adult calm. They talked of work, fought nightmare,
left you, slowly, watching the world grow small.

Too young to know of danger, they thought. Doors slid
shut behind them. You weren’t. You knew, yet you stared
wondering, as seasoned travelers never did.

You dreamed. By minutes, by years, one by one, all
of us off-planet stopped recalling home, where
we’d left, slowly watching the world grow small.

An instant came when none remembered. The ball
vanished. No thoughts would call it back. No where
to leave slowly, watching the world grow small,
wondering, as seasoned travelers never did.

 

*****

One of ILGA’s two T-shirts: “No man is an Island Lesbian (and Gay Association of Martha’s Vineyard),” which for a very long time I only wore off-island.

In the early to mid 1990s, once Martha’s Vineyard finally discovered HIV/AIDS, hostility to “homosexuals” went public. I and quite a few others got braver. A full 26 of us, roughly half men and half women, came together to form the Island Lesbian and Gay Association. We got ourselves listed in the phone book; I was the female contact person.

It was around that time that the first inkling of Mud of the Place took root, in the form of a story called “Deer Out of Season,” which with some alterations became the backstory for Mud. Even as an outsider with nothing to lose, I had experienced and given in to the unspoken pressure not to rock the boat, not to unsettle anyone unnecessarily — and to set the bar for “necessary” very, very high. What then of someone who had everything to lose? A guy with a close-knit, conservative family, whose relatives and neighbors might have been among those declaring at public meetings and in letters to the editor that AIDS was God’s scourge of the homosexuals?

That’s where Jay Segredo came from. He manages to lead a double life — activist social worker off-island who doesn’t make a secret of being gay; local boy who made good whenever he comes home — until his father’s terminal illness brings him back to the island to live.

No spoilers here, but I will say that protagonist Shannon, the friend that Jay sometimes wishes would go away, plays a key role. I’m a Shannon wannabe. She’s braver and far more integrated into island life than I ever was or will be. But I’m the one who tells the story.

 

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K is for Keys #AtoZChallenge

When I moved here in 1985, maybe the most startling difference between Martha’s Vineyard and the city I’d just left was that on the Vineyard hardly anybody locked anything. If you peered into the cars parked on Main Street or Circuit Avenue, you’d find the keys still in the ignition. That fall I wrote this poem about it. (I was a big fan of the poet Marilyn Hacker and was writing a lot in forms, primarily sonnets, sestinas, and villanelles.)

The Key Sestina

for Cris

My city apartment needed four keys,
the mailbox a fifth. Two for each of two
jobs, and a tenth for my bicycle chain.
A fine rattle they made, a heavy weight
in my pocket. There was one key whose lock
I’d forgotten. I would not throw it out.

My island friend spends the whole day out,
leaves her door open, needs only the keys
to her car. My new apartment won’t lock
from the inside; I still sleep well. Here too
my ten-speed bike leans against the wall, wait-
ing for me, sheltered from rain, but not chained.

It’s strange at first, leaving padlock and chain
behind, stopping by my friend’s when she’s out
to use her phone. I miss the clanking weight
in my pack, the rattling of all those keys.
Each of them meant commitment, access to
home, store, office, women’s center, all locked

against the untrusted. I knew that locks
won’t stop everybody. The severed chain
remains; the bike is gone. In less than two
months my house was robbed three times. We were out
at work, we’d locked the doors, we had our keys;
the burglar had none but he didn’t wait

for us. Perhaps it’s only custom’s weight
that makes a barrier of a door that’s locked.
When my mother drank, I’d hide her car keys,
not knowing she had a duplicate chain.
Once in a muted rage I put them out
in plain sight. Did I want her dead? or to

end my responsibility? These two
options nag twenty years later, their weight
unsettled. I visit, after years out
of New England, her house, whose door is locked
always. My mother from her extra chain
detaches and gives me a front door key.

Says the keeper’s jangling chain, “Just wait,
I can split the world in two: danger
locked out, comfort kept in — or vice versa.”

* * * * *

Signs like these are far, far more common than they used to be.

Over the years things have changed somewhat on the Vineyard. In the early or mid 1990s a locksmith placed ads in the paper warning against the risk of break-ins. The crime statistics given for the island were pretty pathetic, but I got the point: you sell locks by scaring people into locking up.

Around that time I was walking up Circuit Ave. one afternoon and saw a car with its headlights on. This was long before many vehicles had headlights that shut off automatically when the engine wasn’t running, so I like many others was in the habit of reaching in the driver’s-side window — opening the door if necessary — and turning them off. This time an alarm went off when I grasped the door handle. A passerby and I exchanged bemused glances, then I went on my way, hoping that the driver would come back to a dead battery.

I still don’t lock, though in summer I take my car keys out of the ignition when I’m parked in town and stick them in the door pocket. At some point police were giving people citations for leaving their keys in their cars, but I haven’t heard of that happening recently and it’s never happened to me.

A lot more people lock than used to, but many don’t. In Wolfie, the novel in progress, Shannon doesn’t lock and neither do her neighbors. This astonishes Jackie, Shannon’s city sister, when she comes to visit. Not only does Shannon not lock; when they arrive at some friends’ house for supper, Shannon raps on the door and then goes on in.

The front door of the Smith residence, on the other hand, is locked even when there’s someone home. This confirms for Shannon what she already suspected: that all is not well in that household.

It’s been decades since I missed the clanking weight of a keychain in my pocket. Not locking — not having to lock — is one of the things I like best about this place.

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