I’ve been working on a series of flash-memoir lately. I have about 16 finished; I want to eventually have 30, because I am thirty, and it seems important to commemorate my thirty-ness with some kind of achievement before I’m 31 and therefore, like a million years old.
If you are one of my friends who has known me for, like, a million years, you’re probably familiar with my tendency to completely freak out because I never feel like I’m doing enough. Sometimes I don’t even know what those things are I should be doing, but I still torture myself for not doing them. I’ve been journaling a lot about my life in OlyWA. Why? I don’t know. I think writing flash memoir has me sifting through my life, looking for the glittery and gritty things that would make good stories, and in the meantime it’s making lots of other details I’d forgotten about rise to the surface. Regardless of their suitability for stories, I want to keep them somewhere because they’re mine. It’s weird to have lived long enough to have a past.
My life in OlyWA, post-graduation, is a great example of my power to make myself completely crazy. I had a city of good, creative friends, cool places to live, vegetarian cafes with great windows to write in. I had a decent-paying job with freaking health insurance and no real responsibilities. I had the time and money to sit in Otto’s, munching on garlicky tofu-spread bagels and endless coffees while scribbling in my composition books and occasionally staring at that underwater-whatever mural-thing and daydreaming about becoming an underground celebrity. I even got some fairly polite rejection letters. My favorites were the ones where the editors actually took the time to scribble their own names at the bottom.
Life was perfect. But I was completely miserable because I thought I should have a career; that nebulous concept that still makes me nervously look around for some Grown Ups to explain it to me. A lot of people seem to have Post-Graduation Panic and I was no different. I just wanted to write, but I felt strongly that this impulse was somehow WRONG. IRRESPONSIBLE! LIVING IN A DREAM WORLD! THAT’S NOT WHAT GROWN-UPS DO! IS THAT CARLO ROSSI YOU’RE DRINKING? OUT OF A TEACUP? YOU’RE A LOSER!!! ETC ETC!!!!!
It deeply wounded me that I didn’t click in high heels into an office of some sort (I never worked that part out) with lots of florescent lighting where I would put down my briefcase and begin doing something professional very competently and professionally. I mean, I never even got the chance. I would have liked to at least interviewed for some position so I could later say, “well, yes, it didn’t work out, but at least I haven’t sold out.”
So that’s the story of how once upon a time I lived in a place with everything I truly wanted and a few groovy records besides and was completely miserable.
Later, when I moved to Portland, I did get one of those office-type things, as an unpaid intern at a vanity press, where everyone was rude and dowdy, the lighting was beyond bad, and everything smelled like instant chicken soup. My main job there was writing snazzy descriptions of books that were truly, unbelievably awful, and ripping the covers off of boxes upon boxes of books so they couldn’t be resold. They didn’t recycle them either, so into the dumpster they went. This seemed very heavy with a symbolism I chose not to think about. When a position opened up they hired someone with a PhD from Berkeley for nine bucks an hour and told me they no longer needed me. The beginning and the end of my “career.”
When I was 22 my worst fear was turning thirty and still working in coffee shops, because, man, you know, like, I’m really an artist. That’s why I drink cheap beers and my furniture came from dumpsters. Don’t worry about it, it’s cool. Yeah.
But it turned out not to be so bad. I actually turned thirty at work. In a coffee shop. But it’s a wine bar as well, mind you. A wine bar where I get to take home the leftovers for free. And these days, only my lamp and my shelf came from a dumpster.
It doesn’t bother me so much anymore because I’ve known so many “successful” writers, musicians, photographers, designers, and small-press publishers who work as building supers, bartenders, waitresses, and clerks of all descriptions that it seems to be the natural order of things. The only truly hard part is, as it always has been, feeling legit.
Granted this is hard to do in America. I’ve been interfacing with the general public for twelve- no wait- fourteen years now, and that’s quite enough to know what the general public thinks of the people who draw leaves and feathers and other foofy shit on their lattes. As a general rule, the only people who have any automatic regard for you are ex-pats; especially once they find out you’re a poet. Then they fight over who gets to give you foot massages and light your cigarettes on your breaks.
But most people are not ex-pats.
I often amuse my co-workers with monologues that go something like this: “Oh, thanks for the 50 cents in ‘the college fund!’ That’s just great because I never went to college! In fact, I barely finished high school! That’s why I work in coffee shops, because I’m stu-pid. Responsibility? What’s that? It sure sounds hard! I don’t have any concept of reality because I’m too busy dyeing my hair interesting shades and collecting records! In fact, I’m on drugs right now!”
I wrote a little flash piece about living with my friend Heidi on Giles Street in those OlyWA days; about how we would eat soy ice cream and make magnet-collages in the light of My So-Called Life on the TV I’d lugged home from the free store. The show was on VHS and the TV could play it but not rewind it, so we had to dole out the episodes very, very carefully. In the piece I wrote, I made this symbolic of something (I’m not sure what myself, it just seemed important somehow, not being able to rewind).
Suddenly I was seized with an intense desire to own My So-Called Life. I told my coworker about this during a completely crazy day at work where the townsfolk had a parade where people drape themselves in Christmas lights, so you can imagine the amount of hot chocolates that needed to be made. When I got home, stained and grumpy, I found a package from my friend Brian back from those OlyWA days. I ripped it open and screamed: My So-Called Life was in my hands. On DVD. Rewinding was irrelevant; now I could go back.
Hence the psychological importance of these memoirs.
Writing these stories is like intensive therapy. Each one can only be half a page long. They have to allude to a greater situation without it being too important to know the background. These are the rules I have decided. They also have to be able to stand on their own. This means a lot of stripping away, editing, polishing. Letting go the need to explain and letting the story tell it’s own truth. When each piece is done, I look at it in wonder: god, this was actually my life? How in the hell did I get through it? Then I get depressed and need to find a cigarette and talk to nice people on the phone until I calm down. It truly is more of a going-back than a rewinding. I’ve buried a lot, ignored the rest. Even lost track of some beautiful things. It’s painful to re-live that much. But then, after it’s done, it belongs to itself, not to me anymore. Through art, if I dare call it that, I can go free.
As I wrote in my bio:
“Amber Ridenour (a.k.a. Starlite Motel) had a giant crisis of faith after becoming disillusioned with open mikes, grad schools, literary cocktail parties, lit mags, poets, Portland, rain, babies, working in coffeeshops, and human beings in general.
After about 3 messy maudlin years of whining and drinking way too much cheap wine, she snapped out of it and threw the best efforts of those years into this book.
Art means you get to do whatever you want.”
… And it’s true. In the parlance of my childhood, I done did it. I DONE DID IT. And if you’ve ever been to the bottom of the “who-cares-anyway-and-what-does-it-all-MEAN” trash heap and come out swinging, you know how important it is to make declamatory statements like that. Even in questionable English.
What DOES it all mean? If I knew that, hell, maybe I would have some important Life Answers for you instead of what I have to offer: poems and fairly crappy artwork. I STILL don’t know what the point of ANYTHING is and I probably never will.
But the point is that I did it anyway. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it art? I don’t care anymore. I spent 3 successive nights painting every individual cover. I am not a painter. I haven’t picked up the paintbrush since I was in Hi Skool augmenting my Trent Rezner collages, and it’s not like I was talented then, either.
THE POINT IS THAT I DID IT ANYWAY.
I have a full-time job, a husband, a baby. That time came out of my sleep. For 3 days I was completely stupid from staying up late printing, stapling, painting, editing, consuming huge amounts of red wine, ibuprofen, coffee, more coffee, and listening to Sun Ra, Erik Satie, and Aretha Franklin singing “Sweet Bitter Love.” I walked to the bus on the 3rd morning not knowing if I would barf or fall down in the street from pouring energy drinks on top of exhaustion to keep it all going. (I’m still not sure what happened, but my co-workers have handled me very gently since then, so it must have been scary.)
But damn, did I feel alive. Stained with ink and coated in paint, babbling at my poor customers who were merely trying to order a latte, not making sense even to myself, for the first time in years, I felt big. HUGE. ALIVE. Like being a 6-year-old watching 4th of July fireworks with a bowl of ice cream in my hands and the chlorine drying on my skin from swimming in the pool. I guess some would call that zen. For me, it’s going back in time to my Grandma’s house and forcing Mom to watch me dive crappily into the pool 19,000 successive times and STILL getting ice cream and fireworks after. To each their own.
Somewhere along the line I had forgotten that the work is doing the work. It’s about taking a dare that you made up for yourself.
It’s not a puzzle to be solved, regardless of what Hi Skool Language Arts teachers who hate their lives tell you in your Junior Year.
It’s not something you take home because it matches your coffee table, or because it makes you feel mellow and unchallenged like listening to Jack Johnson and watching reality TV after a hard long day.
And it’s not about what the “lit world” is doing, or what an editor might say, either.
It’s just about doing it because you don’t have a choice. Because once you leave childhood behind, if there is anything in this world that makes you feel as sweet and daring and alive and fearsome and REAL as whatever your version of diving into the pool and ice cream and fireworks is, you better not let go. Even if nobody cares anymore what your dives are like; or worse, spends waaaay too much time writing evil comments about you on Yelp or being creepy and bitchy on Facebook. Set these folk on fire in your mind, shove them off a cliff, then serve them decaf when they order regular and s m i l e.
Art means you get to do whatever you want.
Lit mags are evil. Looking back on the tequila-infused glowy-ness of the San Fran trip where Chris and I decided to have not only a press, but a lit-mag ( pronounced like “oooh-la-la!“), I can’t help feeling like we walked into some kinda trap. Somebody should’ve at least had a baaaad feeling about it.
It’s like this: if you were one of the weird kids in Hi-Skool like I was, you probably also occasionally got the bone-headed idea that you and your weirdo-kid friends could attend some social function like Prom and be outrageous and freaky, causing some Breakfast Club-esque moment to happen that would turn Prom into something awesome and revolutionary instead of the poofy dress suckfest that it is. Yeah/Good intentions….
I should have remembered all of those precious growin’up moments where you realize you just can’t change the system. We had vision, dammit. We had a whole scene of open mic poets behind us clamoring about how no publisher would give them a chance because they didn’t have enough lit cred (though sadly they were for the most part waaaay more talented than my fellow graduate students…). We had a healthy hatred of the game that Charles Olsen called out in his opus The Maximus Poems (in the freaking-what?-1950s?) which is played like this: you start up a lit mag. You immediately solicit work from editors of other literary magazines that you would like to be published in. Now they are obligated to publish you, and you and your magazine are now seen as prestigious. Now your job is now to continue to slam doors in the faces of emerging writers so as to maintain the hierarchy.
Gross, gross, gross.
I’ve probably ranted about this before, but it bears repeating that one of my adjunct professors at Evergreen was a smarmy dude of some fame who called himself Leonard Schwartz. Leonard (italicized because he was important) told us grubby pothead undergrads that if we wanted to get published, the best way was to attend snooty cocktail parties and schmooze with editor types.
(try to picture my eyebrows becoming one with my scalp at this point.)
At one time it inspired me to prove that nasty “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” thing wrong. I wanted to be the change I wished to see in the world, as my class motto encouraged. It seemed like a lot of other folks needed a chance to get good, risky writing out there, even if they didn’t have enough poems for a book. It seemed like I wasn’t the only one pissed at a system that worked more like a gated community than a champion of the arts. It seemed like the little guys could prevail and me n all my friends would become under-underground cult heroes over the next few decades. YEAH, BABY…..
….. One thing I never counted on was apathy from the people I most wanted to represent. On a local radio show we had been on to pimp the last review (and to piss off the censors who told us we could say “fuck” as long as it was within the context of a work of art, so I promptly read Meagan Brothers’ excellent “poetry poem” in which the eff word appears about a zillion times), the host, himself a local poet, said something reproachful in that “ha ha, maybe I’m mad or maybe I’m just pulling your leg” tone about how we hadn’t published anything by him.
And of course I had to remind him that he never sent us anything.
Not that we didn’t do our share of arm-twisting and soliciting. But when even those methods didn’t produce work from people, I didn’t know what else to do.
At the same time, Night Bomb Review got on some idiot list of publishers, and our inbox was freaking bombarded with the complete works of every english-speaking jerk on the planet. I have often said I don’t think I could teach because seeing that much crappy poetry on a daily basis would destroy the very thing that I loved. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I have been to the bottom of the poetry pit. And I can tell you, it’s worse than you think.
Your average person who submits stuff to lit mags is a douche. 90% of the blind submissions we received were awful. That’s not me being elitist, either. I mean, stuff like this that is burned into my brain: “while driving today/ i saw a cow with 2 heads/one of the heads was coming out of it’s rear./I’ve seen many cows/ but this is the one that will stay on my mind.”
And then there was also the lively horror last year when a local editor Facebooked me asking for a poem, and I gave him a crappy one because he never said what he wanted it for and I figured it was expendable anyway. Imagine how I felt when I found out that this was my debut in a locally-important Review. Imagine also how I felt when I realized that every single other person in that issue was an editor of a local lit mag, a curator of a local reading, or just a widely published author who had moved to PDX. I showed up at The Press Club feeling like I’d been mysteriously honored for a poem that was not very good. Once I picked up my copy and saw the other authors, I understood. I finally was at that snotty cocktail party Leonard insisted I should go to, that I fought so hard to dispute. And I wished for nothing more than to be the weirdo kid again.
So Night Bomb Review is dead. Long live the Review. And big love-sauce to everyone with the guts and talent who contributed like you did. If you need us, we’ll be getting back to making books and chapbooks like we shoulda stuck to in the first place. And all y’all should still send us your stuff already.
(i thought about sending this poem to a “feminist lit mag” on the basis that no one else would publish it, but now i think most “feminist” rags would find something offensive in here… no one really likes to talk about the “crabs in a barrel” syndrome that governs a lot of female interactions, but to my mind, rooting that out of our own psyches is the final battle)
Your writing: the gaps filtering the words. Your cigarettes: unquenchable hot barbs to be implicit later.
1) an exercise of freedom
2) a chance to pick your poison in a world of controlled dosages
3) bad habits sucked like comfort
4) all of the above
The answer will depend on if it kills you in the end or not, and that you think about it then
Natural detectives are us women. Diagnostically, we want to know the dosage. The root cause vs. the compulsion. Nature vs. Nurture. The old claptrap. Growing up as Not A Man, how many tendencies can you ascribe to Maleness? As Alice wrote, “Isn’t it a penis that starts a war?” As I write, Why is it a penis that we play ‘divide-and-conquer’ for, slicing up the world in meaty diagnostic bits? As if we learned more from the entrails of dissected animals than from the way a thing can function while still fulla life
Preceptions (not a typo) of Maleness: The Enemy. A hammer used to bash things into form. The claw that breaks them up. A separateness in Looking and Pointing. A chasm between Thought and Deed. A separateness that, once wielded in the fist of implication, turns females into gladiators in a half-bit ring
I hate being on this side of the fence. I want to walk down sidewalks with my fingers touching gladiola and forsythia without saying to myself, “this one is sluttier” or “this one is spikier and more intelligent politically than I” even if a chainlink separates us all
Oh yes I know the Feminists claimed Man Is Enemy to keep the flowers flowers without judgment. But if we fail to cultivate our gardens, who do we judge? If we hate other women for their interest in our men, even if it’s past-tense, aren’t we the biggest implied threat to our own blossoms?
Weed killer. Bug spray. How can we say that they are products of The Patriarchy, when who’s been tending the cucumber and the corn as long as there’s been backyard gardens in America?
The Self as Raid
The plant deciding that the weeds are
The Jerry Springer Show. Show me two men who flashed their junk and bashed each other in the teeth over a woman. We talk about proprietary right men think they have over vaginas? Turn on the TV.
The most severe and most successful kings (however you define them) perfected the ‘divide-and-conquer’ game. In an age where the best a man can do is name himself “Prince,” why do we still battle with each other when a tax break or a better life is not the goal? Why do we scream at each other? This is what it sounds like when doves cry.
What good are diagnostics if the subjects delight in their inscrutability and all your peers are battling your thesis on the basis that it’s yours?
Feminists burned their bras in the streets. But what guy wasn’t turned on by a bra-less chick? And was there sympathy for working girls who woulda gotten fired from their secretarial jobs if they’d stopped shaving and slathering on makeup? Did marching in the streets amount to more than educated women with good dentists refusing to make dinners for their spouses? I need to know, right now, if 1970-era feminists did more than taking the support away from single working ladies with large unfashionable tits whose sole sin was Conformity in order to put dinner on their only tables
“If I don’t take food outta your mouth, you’re gonna take it outta mine first.”
A burned bra falling like a used-up firework in the mind.
Who decided men were sustenance, not luxuries?
1) a material object, service, etc. conducive to sumptuous living, usually a delicacy, elegance, or refinement of living rather than a necessity.
2) A means of ministering to such indulgences or enjoyments
3) a pleasure out of the ordinary allowed to oneself
4) a foolish or worthless form of self-indulgement.
(example: the luxury of self-pity)
missing so often the simplicity of kitchening in my old studio apartment with its 3 forks 4 spoons and 2 obligatory butter knives (not part of the original scavenged goodwill set) and the exactly 5-of-each chipped grandma dishes (from back when mexico was where polite rich folks went for flatware knicknacks kicksn’thrills) whose numbers dwindled as my grudging warp-speed washes sent them smithereening to the concrete floor.
things just were but also like i wanted them. i liked the light from the long alley to my jimmy stewart windows. in fall i slouched home through the rain with $4-worth of thriftstore prizes in a plastic sack like the ones they’re banning now. what i found: cowboy boots, red leather. a mulitta coffeedripper that just needed boiled water, no electric plug. a boon when of my two 1920’s kitchen sockets, one would never work. The other had the teensy fridge plugged into it. i lived in fear of what would happen to my condiments and beer when that one fritzed.
the rain rained flatly down the alley. i put on sun ra and did the dishes. my grandmother in arizona still goes down to mexico for valium and trinkets. i’m three years older, not a damn bit wise. all my dishes are in boxes. red leather boots in need of brand-new soles.
i love what i love. i miss the most the having nearly nothing so I fell in love with everything, a tourist starving in a foreign capital who writes home of the lights, if only
you could see these lights
I wanted to take a minute and comment on my last poem. This one is kind of a departure for me, brought on by a dream that was inspired by the best thing I’ve read in a long time, Bohemian Paris; Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, and the Birth Of Modern Art. I’ve been feeling so frustrated/overly saturated by poetics and poetry that I even considered that the only TRUE poetry might be the statement of refusing to write any at all. But even that’s been done before, as real thing AND as a parody (see the cafe scene in Cocteau’s “Orpheus”), and both far before “my time.”
I guess, after a few years of being stupid-productive, even if I didn’t finish grad school, I feel like the thrill is gone. I mean, it’s great to have a good handful of practical tricks so you can edit a poem without tearing your hair out over the course of several hours, wondering why it won’t come out JUST RIGHT. But too much critical and mechanical theory destroys the *magic.*
A pragmatic approach is great for mechanics, since cars don’t run on magic. But I think poems do, or else they should, at least 1/2 way. So, in my husband’s words, I’ve been trying to “unbrain” and just get back to scribbling things down as they come/letting them be what they are. See if any of those sparkling weirdo surprises that makes poems *magical* can creep out without fear of getting dissected to death. Get back to enjoying poetry without taking it apart to see how it works/how it could be PERFECT.
That was actually the biggest criticism of my last chapbok offered by one of the celebrity/guest teachers at Naropa. She was probably the only poet there that I actually thought was way cool, as opposed to people who were supposed to be great but were grating in real life (Anne Waldman, I am talking about you especially) or simply touched in the head (Cecilia Vicuna).
But back to me…
so the upshot is that this poet that I respected/looked up to suggested that my poems were “too perfect,” which wasn’t necessarily a good thing. She said she had a hard time identifying with the poems because it was hard to “find a way in.” Apparently my writing had become a perfectly-defended ice-palace; it might glitter coldly from postcards, but you would want to go somewhere friendlier on vacation.
This evolved, at least in part, as a defense against being a lady (snort) writer reading her poems at open mikes. No matter how many girls across the world have secret poem-journals that they scribble into furtively, poetry and the performance of it seems to remain a boy’s game. And just like every woman-in-a-man’s-world scenario you’ve ever heard of, the few women who have come into their own before you are more than willing to step on your head to make sure you don’t even THINK about usurping their position at the top of the ladder. (Ridiculous, but true: the cruelest and most dismissive ladies I ever knew were tenured professors to my college freshman, or senior editors to my unpaid-part time intern status).
So, as a natural consequence to putting yourself out there and dealing with rude crowds, editors with barrels of rejection letters, and the judgments of your peers who are all waiting to see how well you can play this Boy’s Game, you become pretty bulletproof. And so do your poems.
I can’t tell you how many hours went into editing my poems to make sure they didn’t reek even faintly of sentimentality because it would be like blood in the water to a tank of hungry sharks to say “heart” “love” or “flower” and thus brand myself as just another girl reading from her secret poem-journal.
I still probably spend twice as much time editing/splicing things together a la Lynn Heigenian or Tristan Tzara w/ his hat trick than I do actually writing a poem. So yeah, defensible. What’s wrong with that? Then I thought about all the music-theory kids I knew who got together and made super smarty-smart songs that were so technically amazing, so perfect, so infallible and unsentimental that no one could really care.
The moral is: perfection=boring. This is true of art as well as people.
In the spirit of avoiding boredom, I’m gonna try to get back to writing like I did before I became hyper-aware of impressing my inner scalpel-happy editor. Maybe get into automatic writing, like the Surrealists but hopefully without all the brawls. We have the reading at Tony’s Tavern for that kind of thing.