Tuesday, June 26, 2018

What I never told Donald Hall

Donald Hall, by his own estimation, paid more attention to death than other poets.

“It’s well known and kind of amusing,” Hall told me when I called him in August 2014 to talk about his friend Galway Kinnell. “Everybody’s poetry is alike. Love and death. Love and death.”

“I paid more attention to death than Galway,” he said.

Hall died June 23, 2018, at his family farm in Wilmot, New Hampshire.

Hall’s fascination with the theme of death, even as his own neared, is instructive.

When I — a rookie editor who still missed writing — spoke to Hall, the 85-year-old told me he still wrote every day even though poetry had stopped a few years earlier.

A publicist sent Hall’s writing from that final period to my office a few weeks ago in the form of “A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety.” I took the book home, and it now sits on my nightstand.

Hall died before I could finish his book, which has saved us both from my recurring desire to try the phone number for him that I still have in my reporting notes.

I wanted to call him after reading a few essays that I found particularly powerful but talked myself out of it when I thought of the essay “Solitude Double Solitude,” where he writes of writing routine and his “solitary pleasure.”

I also suspected that I, an unpublished poet, was not among those who Hall really wanted to hear praise of his prose. He told me in 2014 that his 60-year friendship with Kinnell was very important. The last time they saw each other five years earlier they were still sharing poems.

“Friends say that this is good," Hall said. "I remember Galway said that about this poem.”

I no longer remember what poem Hall was talking about.

What I wouldn’t tell Hall, I will tell you. Hall stared down death to the end. I loved the essay “Seven Hundred Words” in his latest book.

Suppose I am the 150-year-old maple outside my porch. […] In January the last survivors flutter down onto the snow. These black leaves are the words I write.

His exploration of death urges us to be deeply rooted in the experience of life.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

A counter-cautionary tale

I spent the third morning and early afternoon of my vacation in New York City hopping on and swapping trains to get from my friend Ben’s apartment in Brooklyn to the Upper Westside. We’d had the three floors of the museum to ourselves and then had taken a leisurely walk through Central Park. I was feeling downright lucky to be off work for an entire week and to be out in the middle of the day enjoying the few hours of sunshine that broke through late November’s smoky sky.

That feeling fled and panic set in when I reached into an empty coat pocket intending to retrieve my metro card at the Columbus Circle station. Ben sifted through the stack of cards in my wallet and I checked and rechecked the pockets of my coat and backpack. Not only was my metro card missing but so was my membership to the co-op back in Burlington, Vermont, my driver’s license and my debit card — which I kept together in a plastic sleeve.

Ben called the museum to see if anything had turned up, and I logged into my banking app to check for charges. We decided it was best for Ben to head home and me to go back to my sister’s apartment where I could call the bank and cancel my card. I wondered if I had been the victim of a pickpocket. I imagined someone maxing out the credit limit on my debit card at that glass-cube Apple Store on Fifth Avenue.

Alone on the subway, anxious to get above ground where the cell signal would be strong enough to place the call, I distracted myself by using the spotty signal to load my Facebook app. When it opened, I had a message request.

I hit accept and saw a string of conversation bubbles, a few missed calls and a picture of my card sleeve pinched between what I assumed to be the sender’s forefinger and thumb.

“Hi Emilie my name is Shawn did you lose your ID metro and bank card?”

I clicked on Shawn’s profile picture and saw a black man who appeared to be in his 30s posing behind a sound mixing console. I returned to the messages.

“If you are still in the city let me know where you want to meet. Police station, Starbucks, wherever you feel most comfortable.”

Shawn later told me over the phone that he had worried I would think I was being scammed. In fact, he said his wife asked why he was putting so much effort into contacting me.

“I said, ‘You have to. You don’t know what someone else is going through,’” he said.

Shawn went on to say that he found my cards in the seat of a northbound B train.

“I figured you’d be going crazy.”

I felt a pang of guilt that I had been relaxing in the sunshine while Shawn imagined me panicking.

We agreed to meet near his home in Harlem a few hours later. Shawn said he had to pick up his daughter from school, and I needed time to let my sister’s dog out in Brooklyn and retrace my way to upper Manhattan.

I watched Leo sniff a clump of brown grass, and I assessed the impact of what I had left in the hands of other B train passengers (a half-dozen metro fares, a $2,000 line of credit, a morning at the DMV to replace my license and whatever that replacement would cost). All that would amount to a vacation buzzkill when I returned to Vermont. Leo arched into a squat and did his business.

As I set out for the train station again, I wondered if I was doing something ill-advised by more safety conscious people. Based on our brief conversation, I trusted Shawn, but I also remembered recent conversations with my therapist about evaluating information at the same time as maintaining an open heart. The information: I was heading alone to Harlem to meet a stranger who had access to my ID and still-active debit card. Even if everything was as simple as we had discussed on the phone — we would meet outside the 116th St. station — did he expect a monetary reward?

I thought of the time that the building super in Argentina tried to scam my sister and me after thieves ran off with our money and keys. We tipped the super for helping us get in touch with our landlady, which must have given him the idea that we had expendable cash because our electricity went out and he came down to say he needed 1,000 pesos to turn it back on.

I was interrupted by another text from Shawn letting me know that he was back on the Westside after picking up his daughter. I responded that I would call when I got to the station.

It was dark by the time I emerged from the subway. New York’s office workers were bustling home. The fruit sellers in front of the station spoke in patois as they loaded plums into a cargo van. A homeless man sitting by the station exit eyed me suspiciously. I’m here, I thought, and called Shawn.

“I’ll be there in five,” he said. “I’ll have a cap and a blue vest. My daughter will be with me.”

I scanned the groups crossing the street and avenue as the lights danced back and forth. Everyone seemed to know exactly where they were heading, even the homeless man heaved himself to his feet and shuffled away. I thought surely more than five minutes had passed and maybe I had spent the past hour on the train for nothing. Being left for a fool seemed an appropriate price to pay for my carelessness.

My self-ridicule was interrupted by the sight of an attractive man rounding the corner. He held the hand of a little girl who couldn’t have been more than five or six years old. He was taller than I had imagined but smiled and said, “Hi, I’m Shawn.”

We shook hands, and he gave me a white envelope.

“Thank you so much,” I said and knelt down to talk to his daughter.

“Your father is a good man. He saved my,” I paused to search for an age-appropriate word, “behind.”

I stood up. “Thank you again. Please text me your mailing address when you get a chance.”

“Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family,” Shawn said and turned to walk away. His daughter looked back as they rounded the corner and offered a shy wave.

I thought about the courage it takes to be kind when people regard you with suspicion. I had been in that position a few weeks earlier when I had decided combat the onset of my seasonal affective disorder by making a dozen paper lanterns and bringing them to the park in front of my house.

“How much do you want?” a passerby had asked.

“Nothing. I’m giving them away,” I had said as I stood before my candlelit lanterns adorned with paper cutouts of fish scales, lupines, trees, waves and a rooster.

“I’m good,” the man said and backed away.

I reentered the station but stopped on the landing to write: “Thank you again for going out your way to help me out, Shawn. My faith in humanity is restored (for today :)”

“Awwww glad I was the one to restore faith.”

I opened the envelope to find the sleeve with all four cards tucked into it. I took out my metro card and swiped through the turnstile.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Long time coming: Thoughts on anti-racism protests at Mizzou

I watched the full video of the Concerned Student 1950 protest that took place at the homecoming parade of my alma mater. The video makes me feel a lot of things, but one of them is a sense of admiration for their commitment to advancing discussion and policies. These students took their grievances about institutionalized racism to the top and made themselves be heard by banding together (literally linking arms).

Their grievances are serious.

This morning, USA Today reported a story about threats of violence directed at black students in the wake of the protest movement that led to the resignation of the university's president.

The repercussions of these racist acts (past and present) are also serious.

While I was a student-reporter at Mizzou, I remember a discussion I had with a woman working at a mall in St. Louis. When I told her I was reporting a story for the Columbia Missourian (the J-School's community newspaper), she told me that she used to go there. She said one of the reasons she left was that she didn't want to deal with the racist culture. She recalled being a student during the vandalism incident that took place at the Black Culture Center in 2010. Two men were arrested in connection with littering the center's front lawn with cotton balls.

I know that my sister, Claire Stigliani, heard from her black students about the routine use of racial slurs around Mizzou's campus. I know that she was troubled by the incidents that were reported to her.

Today, I am moved by watching what these students have accomplished. I know that much more work has to be done.

I also wonder if that woman I met at the mall has seen this video and if she ever found a way to complete her college degree.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Following Bernie, falling for Iowa

I felt proud and impressed after three days reporting on Bernie Sanders’ first campaign trip to Iowa.

I’m aware that I just typed a four-letter F word in my lede. A journalist referring to how she “felt” stinks of bias — another dirty word in most J-schools and newsrooms. But this admission comes without reservation because my feelings are for the people of Iowa rather than the 73-year-old Vermont senator.

Iowa corn field somewhere between
Kensett and Cedar Falls on May 30, 2015. 
Though Sanders was the focus of my coverage, it was the Iowans, themselves, that captured my interest. My history with Iowa goes back to the fourth grade when my family moved more than 1,000 miles from Massena, New York, to Cedar Falls. It was January when I first saw Iowa’s snow-covered fields spiked with the remnants of the previous summer’s corn stalks. At school, I stuck out as an olive-skinned East Coaster among my blond, athletic classmates whose names sounded Germanic and Scandinavian.

With time, the snow melted and bright green corn stalks grew again. It took several more seasons for Iowa to become my home and for my classmates and neighbors to become my community. Somehow they did. And I realized while covering Sanders’ campaign that Iowans are still very much my kind of people.

With my grandmother, Christine, outside her home
in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on June 1, 2015.
Though I now live in Vermont, my Iowa roots remain intact through my parents and my 100-year-old grandmother, who moved there to be near her daughter, my mother. They were the whole reason I went to Iowa in the first place. Sanders’ presidential bid provided a fortuitous convergence of my past and present.

In my regular work life, I’m an editor who spends most of my days in the Burlington Free Press newsroom. I’m familiar with politics only to the extent that I read and edit political stories on an almost daily basis.

My stint on the Sanders beat was the result of a friend and fellow journalist’s encouragement of my interest in reporting and writing. The idea was to cover Sanders early in the campaign before many major news outlets began paying attention. It was also a story that I knew would have interest in Burlington, where Bernie — as he is known — is a household name.

After clearing the idea with my boss, I bought my own ticket to Iowa and began contacting Sanders’ campaign organizers along with Iowa Democrats. Two short weeks later, my mother and I waited for Sanders’ delayed plane to land in the nearly empty arrival area of the Quad City International Airport. A camera crew of two from Vice News killed time playing arcade games. They, too, said their purpose was to capitalize on access to Sanders.

When Sanders and his wife Jane finally walked through security, I welcomed them to the state and told them that they’d be seeing a lot of me over the next few days. Then we all jumped in our respective vehicles and sped to the first event at an already packed auditorium in Davenport.

As I waded through the crowd, I realized it would be impossible to find the venue contact that was supposed to provide me with a private Internet password and camera stand. I asked the first person that looked important if he knew the password. Though he didn’t, he said he would find out and disappeared. I jumped into action and began setting up my equipment to video stream Sanders’ speech.

Bernie Sanders speaks and I shoot video in
Davenport on May 28, 2015.
(Photo credit goes to mom, Marie Stigliani)
Ten minutes later, my impromptu helper returned with the password scrawled on scrap of paper and a stand to steady my camera. When I thanked him for his kindness, he replied, “I’m always happy to help a working journalist.”

I smiled. His generosity reminded me of other Iowans who had gone above and beyond so many times over the 20 years since my family settled in Cedar Falls. I thought of the acquaintances (with a truck) that spent an entire day helping my family haul heavy furniture the last time we moved houses. Of the friends and neighbors who will spend hours searching for my parents’ husky-vizsla mutt when he runs away. And of all the people who stop by the house to welcome me home when I visit my parents.

At the podium, Sanders told the audience that he and Jane were celebrating their 27th wedding anniversary that night. Jane sat beside the stage listening to her husband and scanning the crowd. I wondered what she was thinking.

Over the next days, I went everywhere Sanders went. He proved a surprisingly cooperative photo subject. In order to get good images, I tried to put myself directly in his path as he entered full auditoriums. On at least one occasion, he did me the favor of walking almost directly into my camera with a big grin on his face. I got my photo and he veered off before we collided.

Bernie and Jane Sanders head to a meeting with Democrats in
Muscatine, Iowa, on May 29, 2015.
I also got the chance to speak with Jane on their final morning in Iowa. Her husband, now raspy voiced, was speaking to an over-capacity gymnasium in Iowa City. I was taking a photograph of people who were barred from entering due to fire code. A crowd was standing just outside the glass doors listening to Sanders over loudspeakers. Jane came over with her iPhone to take a picture of them too. (Related article: Sanders packs gym, stairwells in Iowa City)

“We have the same idea,” she said to me.

I began to ask her about the campaign. Was it her first time in Iowa? Yes. What did she think of the people? They were warm and generous, like Vermonters. Was she tired? No, energized.

Then she looked out over the crowd and tears came to her eyes. She said that watching her husband campaign in Iowa made her feel the way she did when they first fell in love.

“It’s great to feel proud and impressed by a person you've lived with for 27 years,” she said.

I nodded with understanding. I feel the same way about Iowans.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Outtakes from an interview with Philip Levine

When I called the home of Pulitzer-winning poet and Vermont-resident Galway Kinnell in July, I expected a brief conversation with the 87-year-old. I left a message that I was writing a story about the upcoming celebration of his work.

I heard back not from Kinnell but from his wife, Bobbie. She told me that he had difficulty with words and conversation. “That’s why we’re doing the event now.” (Kinnell died Oct. 28th.)

I asked if there was some one else I might speak with to get a sense of who Kinnell was and what was important to him. I expected to speak with family members. Instead, Bobbie suggested that she could put me in touch with some of his friends, but she would have to check with them first.

I said, “Great! Let me know.”

Never could I have predicted whom she had in mind. Within a few days she provided contact information and I lined up phone interviews with three Pulitzer Prize winners — C.K. Williams, Donald Hall and Philip Levine. The latter two also served as U.S. poet laureates.

I feared making an ass of myself and spent several evenings leading up to the interviews reading the poet’s biographies online and a book Bobbie sent me of transcribed interviews with a younger Kinnell.

Levine, 86 at the time, was up first. In my research, I read that Levine was known for blunt criticism in poetry workshops. I steeled myself for a prickly interview, but that was unnecessary.

I liked Levine immediately. He was self deprecating, warm and generous with his time. We spoke for a solid half hour about Kinnell and their friendship. About playing tennis and the Vietnam War.

“We were both really anti-war,” Levine said in our July 25th interview. “Especially Vietnam. Our students and former students were being drafted to die for corporate America. That was what sort of sealed the friendship. Anti-war and protests.”

We talked about Levine and Kinnell teaching together at New York University and at Squaw Valley writing workshops in California. Levine readily acknowledged the reputation that preceded him.

“Galway was a far more gentle teacher than I,” Levine said. “I told him, ‘When you tear their poems to shreds they laugh.’ He had a solemn approach. ‘If I’m tough on their poems, I make them cry.’”

We also talked about his studies at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His Iowa connection turned up in my research, and I told him that I too had lived in there. He told me about showing up to start his studies a year late. By that time, his scholarship was gone. He ended up attending classes unofficially. He didn’t pay tuition. Just showed up. I guess that he was talented enough to get away with that.

Levine shared another story of finding success despite turning his back on convention. When he was named U.S. poet laureate in 2011, he remembered that Kinnell said he was surprised. Levine asked why?

“Because of your politics. You're on record as an anarchist,” Levine remembered Kinnell telling him.

When we finally hung up, I felt some relief but mostly gratitude. 

Levine died of pancreatic cancer on Valentine’s Day, according to a Detroit newspaper. I learned of his death on Monday night, nearly a month late. It was mentioned during a writer’s group I attended. Everyone else seemed to already know. My eyes must have grown big because there was a moment of silence.

“I just talked to him for a story,” I said.

He was so alive. Pieces of our conversation have returned to me in flashes.

Today, I sifted through my work files to pull up the notes I had taken during our interview (which I’ve quoted throughout). I wanted to remember it all. And to share the wisdom that Levine spoke. Toward the end of our conversation I asked Levine about aging. He said:

“Some people can do it gracefully and some people can’t…I’m aware that I’m not very good looking anymore. The best looking women are not going to sit next to me. It doesn’t bother me at all.

“I’m happy in my life, and I’ve had a good life. I’ve had more success than I ever would have dreamed of.”

And here are a few final words that I think the world should read:

“When you’re writing, you’re just trying to get the words to be happy together.”

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Pasta for Thanksgiving

I didn't celebrate Thanksgiving as a young child in Austria and didn't know exactly what the holiday meant until my family moved back to the U.S. when I was 9.

In those early years, Thanksgiving was an afterthought. As my mother dished out the whopping 3 pounds of pasta she cooked for her brood of six, she mentioned "Oh, today's Thanksgiving."

What's that? we asked with full mouths. 

"An American holiday."

And we dug again into the mountains of pasta blanketed with deep-red tomato sauce.

I ate helping after helping until the top button of my skirt needed to be undone. Until I had to take a nap before I could comfortably move again. This was also not unusual in a household that served one main meal each day, a light breakfast and dinner and hardly ever snacks.
I couldn't find us eating pasta,
but here's a holiday pic from that time.

Pasta was the food that fueled afternoon play. Pasta was what kept us waiting as lunchtime approached and belly's grumbled. 

"A watched pot never boils."

I knew that my mother was right. But not watching in wait while your stomach screams is an impossible ask. 

By the time the pasta reached al dente (and when I was the tester, I sometimes lied that it was there already) the mob of six circled the kitchen, sometimes fighting with each other. We couldn't help it.

When my mother placed the bowl on the table, there was no more will to wait. We held our forks upright ready to revolt. 

"Marisa, you say the prayer," my mother said to the oldest. Marisa was the one who organized our play. She took care of us. She sometimes ruled on who was right and wrong. We would give her one breath. One sentence.

"Thank you for our family, our food and our friends."

"Amen," we all said and then pillaged the pasta.

I am better acquainted with idea satisfaction than Thanksgiving. The gratitude comes afterward. I am satisfied; the meal was good. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Comfort food

I want comfort. I boil three potatoes in their skins, mash one with the back of a fork, drizzle it with good olive oil, and sprinkle with sea salt. I crawl back into bed.

I'm home sick for the second time in two weeks, and I'm homesick for a distant memory:

Nono (Italian for grandpa) feeds my Jack-o-lantern-mouthed brother from a steaming bowl.  He blows on each spoonful of potato before offering the bite. Anthony gums it down and opens for more. Sometimes Nono tests. Twice, after I beg, he feeds me too.

It's been eight years since Nono died and many more since he weaned Anthony. But the flakey potato tastes exactly like I remember. A lot has happened to to me in between those bites. There have been many times when I wanted comfort. Many times when I've retreated to bed with something that will fill me up or numb me out.

I've gone to bed with a glass of wine at the end of a long work day. Against the recommendation of most any dentist, I never bother to brush my teeth before falling asleep. I also hid a giant bar of cooking chocolate in my underwear drawer while I was studying in Spain. I would peel back the foil at night and gnaw on it. Once a wayward chip melted into my sheet. I tried cleaning it up with tissues and toothpaste, but my host had a keen eye. When I got home from school, the spotless sheet was drying on the line between apartment buildings.

It feels good to be cared for — to be spoon fed or have someone else do the laundry. Others have taught me the pleasure of clean sheets. But the lesson is now mine.

I go to the kitchen and mash another potato.