Thursday, December 31, 2009

Looking Forward, Looking Back: Happy New Year at Winterland

Closing Winterland, 1978

(Click on images for larger view)

It’s that time of year again when everyone’s making lists. Reflecting on the past to make lists of the best and worst for the year winding down. Anticipating the future to make lists of resolutions for the year opening up. It’ll be a new year and a new decade – out with the old, in with the new, yadda yadda yadda.

I’m looking forward to the year ahead. It feels fresh, like a clean page. Ironic as it may sound, I’m looking ahead by looking at the past – fascinated by how the past looks filtered through each additional decade. I’m amazed, thankful, and still filled with wonder and hope. While I’m not making a public list, there’s a good one here by Lisa Romeo. And Patry Francis writes a thoughtful piece here.

There’s a reason I’m looking ahead by looking back, and it has to do with the novel I’m writing. I promised I’d make no public lists, but there’s a relevant one here by C. M. Mayo (via novelist Christine Baker Kline’s blog). And in working on that novel-in-progress, I get to look back at San Francisco in a different era, since it’s one of the settings for the story. I miss that city I once loved living in, and I long to travel there again. It’s the place where I truly fell in love – with the man I would marry, and with the city itself where we joined our lives together. So I’m having lots of fun revisiting it in my mind and looking at old photographs and maps for research, and you can expect more San Francisco related posts in the coming year.

Flashback to 1978:
We were broke – just out of school, having moved west with little more than the clothing that would fit into suitcases. We found jobs and managed to afford a tiny apartment in San Francisco’s Western Addition, which was sparsely outfitted with essentials borrowed from two of Kevin’s sisters who live in the Bay Area. For months we subsisted on banana squash (only 7 cents per pound), rice, and canned soup.

Those first few months were turbulent times in San Francisco’s history. In November, the Rev. Jim Jones, cult leader of The People’s Temple (which had a headquarters building located on Geary Boulevard not far from where we lived) led nearly 1000 followers at his South American settlement in Jonestown, Guyana in mass suicide by drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. Less than two weeks later, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk would be assassinated at San Francisco City Hall by former city supervisor Dan White. After so much tragedy that month, it was one of those years that people were glad to see coming to a close.

Bill Graham’s Winterland Ballroom was closing for good at the end of that year with a final concert on New Year’s Eve. It wasn’t quite the end of the 1970s decade yet, but the end of that era could be felt approaching. The Winterland had been the site of The Last Waltz, The Band’s big farewell concert on Thanksgiving 1976 which was filmed by Martin Scorsese. Back when a farewell concert was truly a final show, a single event – unlike farewell tours these days that seem to go on endlessly. Booked for the final show at the Winterland were the Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and the Blues Brothers. In a nod of thanks to the Grateful Dead’s loyal fans, the Deadheads were listed on the Marquee along with the performers.

Bill Graham outside Winterland, 1978

Our apartment was about five blocks west on Post Street from the Winterland. We were too broke to afford tickets, but on the day of the concert we took a walk to the Winterland, which was located at the corner of Post and Steiner Street. We wanted to photograph the building, which was draped with Grateful Dead banners. Deadheads were camped out in line, and it was pure serendipity that Bill Graham happened to come out to talk to the fans while we were passing by.

We got to see some of the show on New Year’s Eve anyway. Not in person, but through a broadcast on WQED, the local PBS television station which aired the eight hour show live. After the Winterland closed, the building was torn down in 1985. Bill Graham continued his career as a concert promoter until 1991 when he died in a helicopter crash.

1978 was a memorable year – one of life changes, of starting out on a journey together, of looking forward. Now, I feel that same sense of things shifting and clicking into place, of new things opening up. Maybe it’s simply because we’re about to enter a new decade, but I can hear something in the air. I can feel it. I can’t make out the tune yet, but it doesn’t feel like a last waltz. Whatever the music, I’m poised for a good dance.

The Winterland, 1978

Happy New Year!
[In This Light will return to the regular weekly schedule on Sunday, January 10th.]

Photo Credits: All photographs of Bill Graham and the Winterland are copyright © by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

City of Asylum: Sampsonia Way on Christmas Day

Sampsonia Way, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas at our house is celebrated without all the craziness. We don’t get caught up in all the shopping frenzy (we stopped trying to buy each other the perfect gift years ago) and instead celebrate in quiet ways. We put up a real tree and decorate the house (usually just the inside, although some years we put up outdoor lights). On Christmas Day, we build a fire in the fireplace and make a few phone calls to family members scattered across the country.

The past few years we’ve gone on a Christmas walk, usually along one of Pittsburgh’s urban river trails. Last year we walked along the Allegheny River near Western Penitentiary, where holiday visitors were coming and going from the parking lot behind the razor wire fences. It was a cold afternoon, and the bitter breeze along the riverfront made my eyes water as we stopped to feed bread to the ducks and geese that followed us along the trail.

On our way home, we drove through the Mexican War Streets District on the North Side to take a look at Sampsonia Way. The afternoon sunlight was gorgeous and beckoned us to photograph as we walked its short length. The Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum, is located on Sampsonia, and the local creative forces were well organized when the Google Maps Car came to town to film Pittsburgh for their Street View maps. To see the unusual happenings, take a look at the street on Google maps or visit YouTube to see the making of “Street with a View.”

Poet's House

Sampsonia Way is home to the Poet’s House, which was the residence of exiled Chinese poet Huang Xiang after City of Asylum/Pittsburgh offered him housing there in 2004. Huang Xiang, who has been living in the United States since 1997, had been imprisoned in China for 12 years for writing about human rights. He painted his “House Poem” in Chinese calligraphy on the brown clapboard exterior of the building.

Susan Hutton (in her 2006 article “Writing on the Wall” on the Poetry Foundation’s website) describes Huang Xiang’s situation:

"He was first arrested in 1959 for leaving one province without official permission and seeking employment in another. For this he was sentenced to four years in laogai, a reform camp similar to the Russian gulag. In 1965 he was arrested for engaging in counterrevolutionary activities—primarily writing, reading, and discussing issues related to human rights—and was sentenced to three years of hard labor in laogai and forbidden to read or write. By the time he was 25, he’d served more than seven years in laogai. His writings were banned in China for 40 years.

Though he avoided prison for the next decade, he was officially forbidden to write. He continued to do so anyway, secretly; his rooms were regularly searched, and any discovered writing was confiscated. Out of necessity, he made it a habit to commit his poems to memory, sometimes reciting them privately for a small circle of friends."

Sampsonia Way has been in the press recently: first George Packer’s blog post at The New Yorker earlier this month and then last week a piece by Diana Nelson Jones in her City Walkabout blog at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Online.

Having time to write is the best gift I receive at Christmas when I’m on “winter recess” from my university job from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day. One of my favorite parts of the holidays is taking my laptop computer into the living room where I can write by the fire and enjoy the Christmas tree lights and decorations. This is a gift I’m always grateful for – time to slow down and quiet my mind, to shake off the day-to-day noise and rush of the working world, to tap into the creative zone. That and the freedom to write whatever I choose, which is something I don’t ever take for granted.

Happy Holidays!

Photo Credits:
"Sampsonia Way" photograph, copyright 2008 by Dory Adams.
"Poet's House" photogarph, copyright 2008 by Dory Adams.
"Amaryllis" photograph, copyright 2008 by Dory Adams.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

I Could Use a Box of Words

This week I’ve got nothin’. The well is empty. I have ideas and images for the final two posts of December for Christmas week and New Year’s week, but for this week I’m at a loss. Words fail me.

The photograph above is of the family Scrabble match on Christmas Day 1978. My father-in-law, who was a killer Scrabble player and insisted on at least one friendly game of cutthroat Scrabble at family gatherings, was making what was no doubt a high scoring play. My husband, who snapped this shot and recently came across the negative in his files, said: Look at my tiles, I got nothin’. I feel the same way this week, except I seem to be working with only consonants, as though I’ve been disemvoweled.

Yesterday, a good friend of many years came over for lunch, bringing good stories to share as he always does. Not written stories, but conversational stories told in the be
st tradition of storytelling. We expect that of him, and he knows it. What can I bring, he always asks, and we tell him to just bring a story. No stories, no lunch.

One story he shared was about his box of words, which the nuns at his grammar school made the students keep. I could almost see him as his little boy self carrying his shoebox full of words on index cards to and from parochial school.

I could use a box of words of my own right now.

He at
tributes his spelling ability today to that box of words. Says he can spell almost any word without having to look it up because he had to memorize that box of words. Told of how he recently impressed a coworker by rattling off the spelling of the word egregious without having to look it up.

Man, those were some heavy words those nuns made you carry around, I told him. I’d envisioned words similar to what was in my Fun with Dick and Jane first grade reader. He clarified that egregious was not in his little boy box
of words, but just happened to be the word his coworker was trying to spell. Whew. What a relief.

Despite my love of words, they sometimes fail me. I’ve taken a few runs toward this week’s post, but abandoned them because they felt forced, tedious. The words had no spark. I didn’t love those words. They weren’t accomplishing what I wanted them to do. They lacked the spark of discovery that should accompany the act of writing. And if they sparked no insight for me in writing them, they were certainly not going to light any fires for the reader.

I’ve felt this way before. Felt that I’d written myself out, that the well was dry. It was how I once felt in a workshop led by writers David Jauss and Pamela Painter, facult
y members at Vermont College where I earned my MFA. I admitted to David that I felt empty, that there were no words left, and he smiled knowingly and said: But that’s when you’re getting to the best material. Wells fill from the bottom. It’s where you can tap into the purest source.

Those may not have been his exact words spoken a decade ago, but it’s the essence of what he told me. And he was right. I had a very productive semester following that particular workshop. Now, I no longer panic when I hit dry spells and instead trust that the well is filling from the bottom. Trust that I’m about to tap into something good.

This we
ek I’ve pulled two favorite books on writing craft from my bookshelf: Words Overflown By Stars, edited by David Jauss and Alone With All That Could Happen, written by David Jauss. These essays reassure me of what I already know, remind me of what I’ve forgotten, and teach me what I wasn’t yet ready to grasp before. And best of all, they reconnect me with the very special place of the MFA program at Vermont College, which has recently become the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Words Overflown By Stars is a compilation of essays from lectures on craft by some of the faculty at Vermont College. Included are many of the fiction writers I worked with there, either in workshop or as semester mentors: Ellen Lesser, Bret Lott, Diane Lefer, Doug Glover, Christopher Noel, Francois Camoin, Sue William Silverman, and David Jauss. Others are by faculty I knew and whose lectures and readings I attended, but didn’t work with directly, such as Phyllis Barber, Victoria Redel, and Syd Lea. Also included are essays by the poetry faculty and by prose writers who were not on faculty while I was there. Take a look at the table of contents.

The title Alone With All That Could Happen is enough in itself to get me writing, just by implying that something will happen if I settle myself down and quiet my mind and let the words come. These are essays that I revisit over and over, each time gleaning something new.

Maybe I don’t need a box of words after all. I have books of words – as inspiration, and to serve as my compass.

News and Updates:

A big thank you goes out to Laura Didyk at She Writes for selecting In This Light as one of the three blogs she reviewed as Curator of the Week there. Her words were particularly meaningful during this week when I was struggling to come up with a new post. In her review of my blog, Laura writes that it “has a truly calming effect. And as a poet who is inspired by images, In This Light makes me want to get out into the world, walk around, and keep my eyes open.” It’s always rewarding to hear the posts have connected with a reader. Please be sure to check out Laura’s own blog, Outloud.

Photo Credit:
“Family Scrabble” copyright © 1978 by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission.

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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Photographs as Family Story

Sheldon Hess at grave of Alfred Park, France, 1946

The past few winters I’ve been chipping away at a project of organizing my family photographs by scanning old negatives and prints into a digital format. This grew into the bigger task of archiving them to share with other family members, and trying to document the names of people, dates, and places, so that my nieces and nephews will be able to identify them when they become of an age where it may matter to them. I’m not sure why this project took on such importance for me. Perhaps it’s because those images are rooted in story, and I didn’t want the story of these people to be lost. I wanted their story to be handed down to the generations after me. While working on the project and trying to figure out the story behind some of the images, I couldn’t help thinking about the role of reminiscent narrators in literature.

The camera sometimes captures what the eye immediately does not. There may be subtle things happening in the background which add meaning when discovered. Or, it may be something right up front, but not what the eye is first drawn toward. These little details or discoveries work in the same way that memory functions. What we see is part fact and part inference based on our personal perspective and experience. This is not unlike the first-person reminiscent narrator (sometimes known as the “unreliable narrator”) in a story.

I’d grown up looking at and loving the black-and-white photographs in the family albums, to the point where I’m not sure whether I remember the actual event in some of the images or if I’m just remembering the photograph and projecting my own meaning onto it. This fascinates me in itself since memory is such a visual mechanism. The act of writing a story, at least for me, is also a visual process – of imagining scenes and characters.

I’m still discovering new things in those family snapshots. In a picture of my grandmother and grandfather in their backyard garden, the shadowy figures of two children playing on a swing set under the apple tree can be discerned in the background. It’s very likely that I am one of those children since that swing set was put there for me as their first grandchild. I can clearly make out a girl with a black ponytail seated on the glider, and I believe she is my childhood playmate Lauree. The other figure is deeper in the shadows, not seated on the opposite side of the glider but seems instead to be hanging upside down with her knees hooked over the side cross brace, using it as a monkey bar. I would wager money that girl is me.

That’s pure speculation on my part about the background. All I know for sure is that the photograph is of my grandparents and their vegetable garden. From there I can launch into dozens of stories about grandparents, about childhood, about small towns, and about backyards divided by fences and connected by alleys. Some of those stories are true, some are fiction, and some are both. In my role as family photo archivist, I’m trying to be as accurate as possible, to stick to the facts on that project. But, in my role as a fiction writer, I use whatever makes the best story.

Working on the photo project, I realized that my own knowledge of some of the images is faulty. For instance, my Great-Uncle Alfred was killed in World War II. This I’ve always known, partly because when I’d walk to Sunday school as a young girl with my grandfather, we’d pass a memorial to local war veterans on the town green, and Grandpap would sometimes stop to show me his brother’s name on it. So, I was confused by a photograph dated 1946 of a relative wearing a soldier’s uniform placing flowers on Uncle Alfred’s grave in France, when I knew his grave was in the local cemetery where many of my maternal relatives are buried. His is the grave that I carried roses to on Decoration Day each May 30th, roses cut by my grandfather from the bush in his front yard. I asked my mom about this discrepancy, and she remembered that my great-grandfather had not been at peace with his son’s body buried so far from home, so he’d had his remains returned to the States to be buried in the family plot. A newspaper clipping saved in a family Bible confirmed that Uncle Alfred’s body had been shipped home for burial from the military cemetery at St. Juan, France and that he’d been killed in action on September 14, 1944.

When an aunt, the last of my dad’s siblings, died a few years ago, I was given her photographs. She and my uncle, who had no children, spent their lives traveling the world with careers in the military. I haven’t even begun the job of scanning and organizing their collection of snapshots and slides yet. The emotions of looking through those boxes of photos are a mix of pleasure and sadness, and the pictures provide a glimpse into the professional and private lives they lived apart from us. There are places and people in the photographs that we will never be able to identify and stories that are forever lost, but my goal is to get those images converted to digital format so that all of my cousins can have copies.

It strikes me that there’s a military thread running through these examples, and I wonder what sets those stories apart from the rest. Is it because war has been a constant across generations? Recently at a family reunion, an older relative to whom my great-grandfather’s family Bible had been handed down, shared Xeroxed copies of a letter found in it that was written by my great-grandfather’s great-uncle during the Civil War (I think this would be my great-great-great-great uncle, but this is too much like a math problem for me to have any confidence in figuring out). In that letter, he writes of his brother being killed in a battle in Virginia, tells his family that he’d buried him on the battlefield as best he could. The brothers had joined the army together and served in the same unit. The brother who’d written the letter later died in a Confederate prison, most likely Libby Prison in Richmond, and the whereabouts of his grave is not known. Since that letter was tucked into my great-grandfather’s Bible, I have to wonder if he was so haunted by that story that he had to make sure that his own son’s remains were returned home.

This photo archive is one of those projects that will never be totally completed because the story is ongoing. In fact, it keeps expanding as new items shared by other family members are added. What do I want my nieces and nephews to remember? The places we lived. The people we loved. Where we came from.

The value of family photographs is not simply that they are images of our loved ones. It’s about their story. The importance of story runs deep – even if it’s just the story of our routine days.

Photo: Sheldon Hess at Alfred Park’s grave in France, 1946, copyright © of the Park Family Archives

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Signs For The Times

Grafton, West Virginia

I have a longtime fascination with old signs and am drawn to them as photographic subjects. Odd juxtapositions also interest me – in writing, in imagery, and in life in general.

This penchant of mine may be rooted in a scene I saw daily while growing up, the view from the front porch of my childhood home. Across the two-lane highway from our house was the neighbor’s barn. The east side of the barn was covered with two painted signs. At the top was a sign with a painted cross and scripture warning: “Christ is coming soon. Are you ready?” Below it a tobacco sign urged: “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco. Treat yourself to the best.” Drivers traveling west of Route 22 often stopped to take a photograph. It took me years to understand that it wasn’t the bucolic scene, but rather the incongruity of the signs that attracted their interest.

The old farmer who owned it wasn’t getting paid for the advertising space, but instead got his barn painted by the tobacco company for free. I don’t know who sponsored the religious sign, but over the years the Mail Pouch advertisement faded while the scripture and cross were repainted again and again. The signs on that barn may have been the topic of more than one Sunday morning sermon among the local churches.

Billboards have changed over the decades, but they still try to sell the American dream to passersby. Trademarks and logos have become part of the landscape and language. Burma Shave signs and slogans may be relics of the past, but Coca-Cola thrives on youthful rejuvenation and digitized billboards.

Liberty Theater, New Orleans, Louisiana by Walker Evans

I only recently connected my interest in signage to Walker Evans’ photographs, noticing Evans had a fondness for photographing advertisements and that Coca-Cola signs recur in his images. Evans used signs within his photographs to show the division of classes – the American dream beyond the reach of those who could barely feed their families in the dire economic times of the Great Depression. He juxtaposed advertisements for Hollywood movies and luxury travel with the poverty and struggle of people who had no hope of escape.

I cannot think of billboards and the American dream without remembering the image of the optometrist’s billboard in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Key scenes are played out under the spectacled eyes advertising the optometry services of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. The Great Gatsby is about the American dream, about the pursuit of wealth, and about social strata. The reminiscent narrator, Nick Carraway, is an observer, an outsider, a distant cousin from the Midwest who is trying to make sense of the New York world and of the events that happened in the story he is relating.

It’s a timeless story, one of ruthless people living large on money that is inherited or made through get rich quick schemes. It has particular resonance today in light of Ponzi schemes and Bernie Madoff bilking his clients out of their life savings, or in simply watching our 401Ks tank along with the dream of retirement. No doubt the signs are always there for us. Unfortunately we can’t always see them until they are behind us and we’ve traveled far down the road.

Roanoke, Virginia

News and Updates:

Thanks to writer Cynthia Newberry Martin for the shout out on her blog Catching Days about my posts on abandoned things. Cynthia has been a regular reader and frequent commenter at In This Light, and I’m grateful for her ongoing support and enthusiasm for what I’m doing here.

Photograph credits:

“Painted Signs, Grafton, West Virginia” copyright 2008 by Dory Adams

“Movie Theater on Saint Charles Street. Liberty Theater, New Orleans, Louisiana” by Walker Evans. FSA, Library of Congress, LC-USF342-T01-001285-A.

“Mixed Signs, Roanoke, Virginia” copyright 2008 by Dory Adams

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Follow the River: On The Road to Moundsville, West Virginia

Interior, WV State Penitentiary

On the final day of our October road trip, we spent the afternoon in Moundsville, West Virginia. The first stop was the West Virginia State Penitentiary. While waiting for our tour to begin, I looked at a display of old newspaper clippings about the filming of Fools’ Parade, which was based on Davis Grubb’s novel of the same title. The 1971 movie, filmed on location in Moundsville, starred Jimmy Stewart, George Kennedy, Anne Baxter, William Windom, and Kurt Russell, and it must’ve been a very big deal to have Hollywood come to Moundsville. The articles included photographs of the movie stars in town during the filming, but what really caught my attention was a paragraph near the end of one art
icle: Before the excitement of the movie production, only three copies of Grubb’s book had been sold locally. After the filming, 3400 copies were sold in Moundsville.

Cell Block, WV State Penitentiary

The prison offers a haunted tour each year around Halloween, but we wanted to go on the regular tour. Reality was scary enough. In fact, I’m pretty convinced that if I were locked up in one of those 5’x7’ cells, as the inmates were with at least one and sometimes two cellmates, I’d be rioting at the first opportunity. If an inmate wasn’t an animal the day he was incarcerated, he most certainly was after a few hours on the inside. This penitentiary seemed far worse than Alcatraz (which I’ve also toured). Our guide told us that the cell block pictured above, temperatures could reach 120 degrees on the top tier in summer, and in winter the average temperature on the bottom tier was a damp 40 degrees. The penitentiary was finally closed in 1995, after the small cells and conditions were deemed cruel and inhuman punishment by the West Virginia Supreme Court. Evidently one woman on our tour did not agree with that decision since at nearly every stop on the tour she proclaimed “and that’s the way it should still be today.” I’m against the death penalty, but by the end of the 90-minute tour, which concludes in an area where the electric chair is on exhibit, she had nearly changed my mind. By that point I was hoping they’d let her sit in Old Sparky.

Cell Graffiti, WV State Penitentiary

Davis Grubb was not a favorite son of Moundsville, and described himself as “the sore thumb on the hand of the town” in a conversation with Norman Julian (scroll down to the second essay by Julian, via the website of Meredith Sue Willis). Our prison tour guide stressed that the inmates Davis had based characters on were highly fictionalized and that the real convicts were the hardest of criminals. He was especially critical of Fools’ Parade, where ex-convict Mattie Appleyard is set up by the town’s banker, prison guard, and sheriff (Jimmy Stewart played the role of Mattie Appleyard in the film).

After leaving the penitentiary, we went looking for Davis Grubb’s childhood home. In the foreword to the Appalachian Echoes edition of Fools’ Parade (published by the University of Tennessee Press), fiction editor Thomas E. Douglass describes Davis as traumatized by the loss of the family home after his father had remortgaged it to obtain a business loan. The family was evicted just before Christmas in 1934 after the loan was defaulted. Douglass writes of Grubb’s childhood home: “It was an idyllic life, living in the large rambling two-story frame house at 318 Seventh Street, mere blocks away from the river and the train tracks that ran along its banks, not far from the Indian burial mounds, for which the town was named. The house was also near the West Virginia State Penitentiary and the Strand Theater, other places that would become firmly fixed in his imagination . . . . He carried a photo of the house with him throughout his life . . . . On his way to school, young Davis walked past the oldest structure in town, the Adena Indian burial mounds . . . and the West Virginia State Penitentiary, one of the oldest in the nation, built in 1866 like a gray granite castle. Walking by the prison’s twenty-four-foot-high wall, four-feet thick, Grubb did not fear those inside nor the possibility of their escape, but rather felt sorry for the inmates, who were cut off from life and separated from their families. Grubb once wrote ‘[I]n the innocence and confusion of my child’s brain, the great mound and the penitentiary were bound together in ambiguous and dreadful brotherhood. One was the burial place of the unknown dead; the other of the unknown living’ [in “The Valley of the Ohio,” 56].”

The Grave Creek burial mound is directly across the street from the penitentiary. As I mentioned in an earlier post, both can be seen from the nearby elementary school. Our itinerary following the penitentiary tour included a stop at the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex. And, to end the day on a light note, we visited the Marx Toy Museum, where we indulged memories of our own childhood imaginations while looking at displays that included some of our own favorite toys, as well as a few we dreamed of but are still waiting to receive.

News and Updates:
Lee Maynard’s newest book The Pale Light of Sunset has just been published by the West Virginia University Press. Read a review by Cat Pleska at Meredith Sue Willis’ blog and listen to a podcast interview with Lee at WV Writers, Inc.

Photo Credits
Top photo: WV State Penitentiary Interior, copyright 2009 by Dory Adams
Middle photo: Cell Block, copyright 2009 by Dory Adams
Bottom photo: Cell Graffiti, copyright 2009 by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Lens and Pen as Mirrors: Guest Post by Misko Kranjec

(Click on images for larger view)

[I’m honored to host a guest post this week by Slovenian photojournalist Misko Kranjec. I met Misko in the spring of 2007 when he traveled to the United States to give a presentation at the Center for Railroad Photography and Art’s annual conference. He spent several weeks touring the U.S. on that visit, including a few days photographing in Pittsburgh prior to traveling to the Chicago area for the conference. Misko is an award-winning photographer and the son of writer Misko Kranjec. ~ Dory]

Lens and Pen as Mirrors

When Dory invited
me to write a short reflection of how my father, a prominent Slovenian writer, and his writing influenced my photography, I thought it would be a piece of cake – a few sentences, blah, blah blah, and voila – done. This was not because I would undervalue Dory's blog and her endeavor in any way; I was just overestimating my capacity to analyze myself, and in English on top of that.

Actually, I never gave much thought about my own photographic aims – the concepts and inner meanings, or the mission of my work. I was just an observer of the world with the camera, recording what attracted my eyes and triggered my feelings. I didn't make a fuss of my efforts. For me, photography was always fun, and throughout the 30 years of my photojournalistic career, I always tried to keep it this way.

My father was a prominent writer in his time, kind of a Slovenian Faulkner, writing about Prekmurje – that northeastern region squeezed between Austria, Hungary, and the Mura River – and of the people living there. At the time of his birth in 1908, this region still belonged to the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but after the First World War it was associated to the new born Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Totally rural and without any industry worth mention, this region was extremely poor. Half of it was either swamp or covered with thick forest, most of it belonging to the Hungarian Count Zichy family who had a castle in Beltinci and owned the biggest part of the arable land. What was left was far from being capable of sustaining the peasants living there, so the men either temporarily left their families to work as seasonal hired help in other parts of Yugoslavia or abroad, or whole families immigrated, mostly to the United States, Canada, or to the countries in South America.

After the WWII and with the birth of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, the last of the Zichy Counts, the Countess Maria Zichy, fled to Austria. The land and the castle were confiscated and turned into a state farm. The swamps were mostly dried and turned into fields or grazing land and divided among the farmers. Significant progress came to this region and several factories were built, yet the region still remained predominantly rural, underdeveloped, and poor. What money came in was mostly from those working temporarily in Austria, Germany, and

However poor they were, the people living in Prekmurje were extremely friendly and open, willing to invite even a stranger into their modest homes and share with him the last loaf of bread and the last bottle of home-grown wine. Those were the people and the land my father wrote about, and when I started with my photography back in the early 1970s, the scene there was pretty much the same as it had been decades earlier. While many new houses had been built, and cars and tractors started to emerge in ever greater numbers, there were still numerous clay-plastered wooden cottages with thatched roofs, carts and plows were still draw by cows, and the farmers, especially the women, still dressed as they did a century ago.

All this gave me a great opportunity to record on film at least a bit of
what my father wrote about in his novels. True, the scene was changing rapidly and it took some careful framing to avoid the signs of modern times in order to record it as it had appeared in the past. Perhaps I could even be accused of deliberately twisting the truth, but in this case it was not the truth or the present I was aiming for, but rather the past – the world of my father which gave him so much inspiration and so many stories and human destinies to write about.

Disappointed with my first attempts to write about this for Dory’s blog, I decided to steal from my father by translating from the beginning of his book Y
outh in the Swamp, one of his last novels which is actually a biography of his childhood. So I started to translate this part of his book, and became too excited with my doing it to stop. Some of my father's work has been translated in several languages, but none in English. In front of me was my father’s book about his youth in this poor land, and on the very first inner page, before the title, written in his handwriting was inscribed: To my son Misko, as the mirror to the long gone days. January 15th, 1963. I was sixteen at that time, and little did I know that one day I’d be holding a mirror of my own – the camera.

As a kid, I was often in Prekmurje. During the summer holidays my father would take me with him whenever he would go there to write in the house that he, my mother, and his brother had built before World War II, which replaced the thatched-roof cottage where he was born. Back then, I didn't even like Prekmurje very much. We would stay there for tw
o or three weeks, and these were very long and boring weeks for me. I was a city boy, and at home I had friends that I would play with the whole day long, every day in summer. But in Prekmurje, I had no other friend but the son of the school master. All the others were peasant kids, who spoke a dialect I could hardly understand. While my father was writing, I was left to my own devices which meant mainly reading books, playing with my toys, and feeling lonely and bored. In fact, I hated Prekmurje then.

Years later, during my leave from army service,
I happened to visit Prekmurje for a day, and there I met a lovely girl who would inspire about a hundred love letters, and later she became my wife. With that moment, my eyes viewed this land in a totally different light. We visited relatives there at several times a month, and her home became the base for my photographic explorations. Even though it was in the early 1970s, modern times had not yet really touched this remote land. The old people, the old cottages, and the old way of living – everything in fact that my father had written about in his books – was still very much present. I was just taking my first serious, formative steps into photography then, and my father's world suddenly became a great subject for my camera. It also became very, very close to my heart.

I may have thought I hated this land as a kid, but actually I was soaking its spirit into my blood. The love for it and for its people had been hidden within me, but as I photographed, those feelings and affection surfaced. The people of my father's books were suddenly there, in blood and flesh, standing in front of me, speaking to me, inviting me into their homes, offering me their wine and food. Just as the people had come to life, so had the words my father put onto the page – all with new meaning.

Looking through the viewfinder, I felt them in my mind and they spoke to me and guided my eye while I was framing, and even then I did not yet realize that I was holding a mirror to those long gone days too. Yes, they were still there, as though frozen in time, not really the past yet – but it was fast thawing and running out.

Today, I am happy I had the chance to record the last remains of this world. In less than a decade the scene changed completely - the lovely old cottages were replaced with the modern houses, big John Deeres replaced the cows, and the old people died, one by one. In the mid-1980s there was almost nothing left of the old Prekmurje to photograph, and what remained was mostly weed-grown ruins.

I don't know whether it was an omen, destiny, or just coincidence that my father died in that same time. Unfortunately with his death also started the process of the oblivion of his work, more or less triggered by events which followed the secession of Slovenia from Yugoslavia in 1991. This was a time when the regime here changed to the right, to the conservative side, which considers my father as a "red" writer, writing foremost about the poor and deprived but good-at-heart people, the peasants from his Prekmurje, and because he openly favored socialism. Not a single book of his has been reprinted since his death, and I can openly say he was deliberately pushed into this state of oblivion.

Well, actually not quite, as last year was the 100th anniversary of his birth and suddenly he was remembered again – for a brief moment. The Association of Slovenian Writers organized a literary evening, held in one small auditorium of the big cultural center in Ljubljana, where writers and poets from Prekmurje read their works in honor of my father. Five days before this event, one of them remembered that I had photographed Prekmurje extensively and thought it would be good to show my photos during the reading.

They asked if I would prepare a photo show. At first I refused, as this would mean scanning and retouching many photographs from negatives that I hadn’t held in my hands for at least 25 years. I calculated I would need between 300 and 400 images for a two hour event, to be shown on a screen during the reading. However, after more thought, I changed my mind. First, because of my father; I said to myself, I owe him this. And second, because of me; it had been a while since I’d had an exhibition of my photographs, and I told myself, it is always good to show people you are still around, important to defy oblivion.

[To see more of Misko's Prekmurje photographs, visit his online gallery.]

Photo Credits: All photographs copyright Misko Kranjec, used by permission.

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A Slight Delay in the Scheduled Guest Post

The publication of this week’s guest post will be delayed until Monday. Please check back tomorrow evening for a guest post by Slovenian photojournalist Misko Kranjec.

In the meantime, this gives me a chance to add a post about the recent Best Books of 2009 top ten list from Publisher’s Weekly. You’ve no doubt heard the outcry that not a single woman writer was named on the list. Kamy Wicoff, Founder and CEO of She Writes (of which I am a member), posted a wonderful editorial emphasizing her outrage at PW’s justification for coming up with a list that was not only exclusively male, but also 90% Caucasian.

There have been a flurry of posts at She Writes in response to Wicoff’s call to action, including one by writer Cathy Day about branding and book jackets as part of the literary gatekeeping.

In regard to the Publisher’s Weekly list, I can only shake my head in amazement that Jayne Anne Phillips’ Lark & Termite was not included. Phillips is the featured author in the winter 2009 issue of Appalachian Heritage, where you can read an
excellent profile of her by another West Virginia writer, Meredith Sue Willis.

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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Follow the River: First Stop Cincinnati -- Union Terminal, Roebling Suspension Bridge

Roebling Suspension Bridge, Cincinnati, Ohio

Last month we took a road trip along the Ohio River – with no specific itinerary planned and no schedule to keep other than to follow the river, enjoy the fall scenery, and to stop when something caught our interest. We drove west to Cincinnati and then zigzagged our way back and forth across the Ohio River following it along secondary roads back to Pittsburgh, with a few short side trips along tributaries such as West Virginia’s Kanawha River. This was my first visit to Cincinnati, and two structures in particular there amazed me for their beauty and endurance: the Roebling Suspension Bridge and Cincinnati Union Terminal (now repurposed as “Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal”).

We arrived near the end of the day, just in time to photograph the Cincinnati skyline and the Roebling Suspension Bridge in the evening sunlight from a vantage point across the river in Covington, Kentucky. The following morning we strolled across the bridge, which is well used by pedestrians. Completed in 1867, it was built by John Roebling who later designed the Brooklyn Bridge. Pittsburgh native David McCullough has written extensively about Roebling in his 1972 book The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge and more recently in a Newsweek article arguing against new construction which would impede the view of the Brooklyn bridge.

I was struck by the sense of history which seemed to hover in the air around the late 19th century buildings on the Covington side of the river. While walking in the MainStrasse section, we passed the historical marker commemorating a famous slave escape just prior to the Civil War where slaves, including Margaret Garner who murdered her children rather than have them be recaptured and returned to slavery, fled the Covington area and crossed the frozen Ohio River to Cincinnati and the underground railroad. This real life event was the inspiration for Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved.

Cincinnati Union Terminal

I was greatly impressed with Cincinnati Union Terminal, an Art Deco structure far more magnificent and dramatic seen firsthand than photographs convey. The 10-story art deco façade is fronted by a long driveway entrance and plaza with cascading fountain, with the fountain details repeating the shell shape of the terminal’s massive rotunda. The building now houses a complex combining the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, The Cincinnati Historical Society and Library, a children’s museum, and an Omnimax theater – as well as an area which still functions as an Amtrak station for passenger service between Chicago and Washington, D.C. (passenger service had been halted completely in 1972, but was reinstated in 1991). The rotunda dome reaches a height of 180 feet above the open concourse, and the original interior details remain intact: signage, ticket windows, information kiosk, and two Winold Reiss mosaic murals.

The preservation and repurposing of Union Terminal is admirable. The city of Cincinnati purchased the terminal in 1975, and then along with the state of Ohio launched a successful restoration project in the mid-1980s with backing by voters, corporations, and foundations. Seeing the restoration first hand was inspiring, particularly in light of the potential the Buffalo Central Terminal holds if it could find similar support and backing. I’m becoming more and more convinced that one of our great disgraces as a comparatively young country is that we destroy our architectural history – not just our big city structures, but also those in smaller towns where suburban sprawl, chain stores and restaurants, strip malls, and Walmart Superstores have invaded to make them look exactly alike.

News and Updates

There are two upcoming local readings of note for Pittsburghers:

Stewart O’Nan will read at Joseph Beth Booksellers (East Carson Street, SouthSide Works) on November 12th at 7:00 PM. O’Nan’s newest novel is Songs for the Missing.

Chuck Kinder, Karl Hendricks, and Brendan Kerr will read at 8 PM on November 18th at The New Yinzer season finale at New Formations (4919 Penn Avenue).

Photo credits:
Roebling Suspension Bridge, Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal © 2009 by Dory Adams

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Picture that Inspired 80,000 Words: Christina Baker Kline's BIRD IN HAND

[It’s my pleasure to host a guest post this week by novelist Christina Baker Kline]

The newspaper clipping is in tatters. Folded, yellowed, curling at the edges and mended in places with clear tape, it was tacked to the bulletin board in my office for eight years – except for the times I brought it with me to writers’ colonies or on family vacations (under the delusion that I might actually get work done on a beach).

More than a decade ago, leafing through The New York Times, I came across this image as I was beginning to work on a new novel. I assume that it was part of an advertisement, but I cut it out carefully around the edges, so I don’t know for sure. I don’t even know when it appeared in the paper, though from what I’ve deduced from articles on the back side it seems to have been some time in the spring of 1998. (An ad for a wine store says “Prices effective through April 30, 1998. © 1998.”)

The image floored me. I had begun writing about a young couple, Ben and Claire, both expatriates living in England, who befriend another American named Charlie … who falls in love with Claire. Who may or may not be falling in love with him. This picture in the newspaper, it seemed to me, perfectly encapsulated the complexity of my characters’ situation.

For many reasons, the story this photo tells is intriguing. A couple on a park bench sits close together, facing away from the viewer. The man has his arm around the woman’s back, his hand resting protectively on her shoulder. The woman’s arm is around his shoulder, as well … except that it isn’t. It extends along and behind the bench, and her open palm rests on the hand of a man on the other side, who kisses it tenderly. (A two-sided park bench? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in real life.)

All the markers of romantic Paris – the French restaurant awning, the folded newspaper (Le Monde), the European car in the background and baroquely detailed (if blurry) streetlight in the foreground, a smattering of fat pigeons, even the man’s black turtleneck and the woman’s plaid skirt and sensible heels – contribute to the illicit thrill of this image.

Does the man on the other side of the bench have any idea that his girlfriend/wife is being unfaithful? Did she and the man kissing her hand plan to meet at this place, or was it happenstance? For that matter, do they know each other, or is this a spontaneous moment of anonymous passion? Did the photographer happen on this scene, or was he, perhaps, hired by the man with his back to us on the bench?

The image is shocking in its seeming casualness, in the brazen, in-broad-daylight transgression taking place before our eyes. I was fascinated by the contradictions: the woman so clearly part of a couple, yet making herself available to the man behind her, her demure pose contrasting with her open, searching palm. The man’s body language, too, is contradictory; he sits casually reading the paper, one leg crossed over the other, but his eyes are closed in passion as he kisses the woman’s palm.

Instinctively I knew that this image would help me access the core motivations of my characters, who act in comparably indiscreet and scandalous ways. Claire loves her husband, but she feels something entirely different for Charlie – a passion she’s never felt. Charlie respects Ben, but is blinded by his love for Claire. And when Claire’s best friend from childhood, Alison, comes to visit and ends up engaged to Charlie, things spin even further out of control.

This novel, now in bookstores, is called Bird in Hand. When I sent the final manuscript to my publisher about six months ago I took the tattered newspaper clipping down and put it in a cardboard box, along with my handwritten first draft of the novel. Now my bulletin board is covered with postcards from the New York tenement museum depicting the interior of an immigrant Irish family's cramped apartment, a black and white photograph of a young couple at Coney Island in the 1920s, a map of the village of Kinvara, Ireland, and other inspiration for my new novel-in-progress.

a Baker Kline is the author of four novels, including, most recently, Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be. She is Writer-in-Residence at Fordham University and lives outside of New York City. Her website is and her blog, A Writing Year: Conversations about the Creative Process, is

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Writing and Telling Stories: October in Wild & Wonderful West Virginia

Writers of fiction live multiple lives when they are working on a story – the reality of their own daily lives and the fictional lives of their characters. That dance in and out of fictional and real worlds can be a difficult balancing act, particularly if the writer is working on a novel. I seem to require large blocks of time to immerse myself into the world of the characters in the novel I’m writing, but it’s been difficult for me to find stretches of sustained time. I get up very early in the morning to write before going to my job, but I’ve found it easier to work on shorter pieces in these smaller bursts of writing time. My current goal is to figure out how to use these morning hours to finish my novel. I know it can be done; I just need to figure out how to manage it.

During fall vacations with my husband, which we’ve turned into creative retreats, I’ve made significant writing progress on my novel. A favorite October vacation spot is Babcock State Park in Clifftop, West Virginia, where there are thirteen secluded log cabins along Glade Creek. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, the cabins have electricity, fully equipped kitchens, and bathrooms – but no heat except for the huge fireplaces. In a different area of the park there are modern cabins with heaters and air-conditioning, but they are spaced closer together and we prefer the privacy and setting of the older cabins near the stream.

It takes planning and smart packing for those trips. The cabins are spaced apart from each other along the ravine on both sides of the creek, surrounded by woods and separated by walls of wild rhododendron among huge boulders. Paths and wooden stairs lead down to each cabin from parking areas at the top of the hill, so carrying in a week’s food and gear can be quite a task – particularly if that includes camera equipment, laptop computers, books and notebooks.

Our favorite cabin used to be cabin #13, until the steep steps down to it became a deterrent for my aging knees and Kevin tired of lugging all that stuff (okay, it was mostly my stuff) down to the cabin by himself. That, and the fact that a murder had occurred in that particular cabin. I was appalled to learn that someone had committed such a violent act in what had once been a special spot for us – in such a serene and beautiful place. From that time forward a different cabin became our favorite, for its high ceiling and sleeping loft, not to mention it had only half the number of wooden steps down to it, nor had it been a crime scene.

Babcock was a good and productive spot for us creatively. Kevin would spend his days out photographing and I would spend my days at the cabin immersed in my writing. He’d leave before dawn and come back after dusk, when we’d have dinner in front of the fire and discuss the progress on our projects. The photograph of me at the top of this post is one Kevin took (unbeknownst to me at the time) through the cabin window as he was leaving in the darkness early one morning -- I was sifting through research and settling down to write, still wearing my nightgown and drinking my breakfast coffee.

During one October visit it was particularly rainy, which didn’t bother me because I was cozy in front of the fire all day, fueled by hot coffee, typing away and exploring the fictional world of my main character who is having an emotional breakdown following the Loma Prieta quake – she has fled San Francisco for the New River Gorge area of West Virginia which was her childhood home. The rain was a bigger problem, however, for Kevin, who nonetheless trudged off in the pre-dawn hours every morning, hopeful that the weather and light would change for the better.

There’s a stepping off that happens in the writing process, a letting go that requires me to feel I’m in a safe place, particularly with this novel, given the fragile state of the main character who is in crisis as her world is literally crumbling around her those last weeks of October 1989 following the Loma Prieta quake. I need to be on solid territory when I enter her world. It’s not the kind of book I could write while sitting in a public space such as a coffee shop. But in the cabin, I could enter her world safely for an entire day without interruption and then transition back to the real world when the dimming daylight signaled it was time to wrap things up until the next morning. Then I’d turn on the radio and listen to NPR to ground myself with the day’s news while I cleaned up my writing space in the main room of the cabin, clearing the big wooden table I’d used as my writing desk so we could set it for dinner. Kevin would return and we’d cook our meal, open a bottle of wine, and talk about our day. It was invigorating to share our progress, to spur each other on in our creative pursuits.

Toward the end of that week, on yet another rainy day, Kevin came back to the cabin a little earlier than I’d expected. I was still writing and hadn’t transitioned out of that fictional world yet. He was acting very nervous as he set down his camera bag. I sensed that something was wrong and wondered if he’d been in an accident. He put the red tote bag he used for extra film and camera accessories on the table. Then he told me about the flying saucer he’d seen crash into the New River at Sandstone Falls. I didn’t know what to say as I tried to figure out whether he was joking or had gone off the deep end. He seemed serious. While thoughts raced through my head (such as, There probably isn’t a ranger at the headquarters building since it’s after 5:00 – how am I going to get help to take him to a hospital?), he said, “You’re looking at me like you don’t believe me.”

Now, you need to know that Kevin is the steadiest and most resilient person I’ve ever known. He can also make me laugh like no one else and always knows how to lighten things up with his humor. But, he seemed dead serious about seeing a UFO. As I tried to assess the situation, I asked him to tell me more. So he did. He proceeded to tell me a tale filled with every bad sci-fi movie cliché there is, about how he was sitting in his truck at Sandstone Falls waiting out a rainstorm and hoping to get a shot of the falls when he saw the UFO crash. Somehow those clichés served to make the story even more frightening for me. It was pretty much the same story all those nut cases tell that used to make the headlines, and he was beginning to remind me a little bit of Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. More thoughts raced through my head. (Really? It’s true that there really are UFOs?)

Then he told me about the alien. (OK buddy boy, this just isn’t fair to come in here before I’ve transitioned out of writing mode and tell me about witnessing some UFO crash. Now there’s an alien to deal with, too?) The alien had ejected from the crashing spacecraft, and while he was dying of injuries on the bank of the New River in the rain, he’d begged Kevin to save him by cutting out his brain so that his fellow aliens could retrieve it and rescue him. If they could take back his brain, they could restore him to life.

“Ummm, so what did you do?” I asked. He told me he’d cut out the brain, and that he’d promised to leave it on the porch of our cabin so that the dead alien’s friends could come get it that night. (Should I try to escape from the cabin and call the ranger from that phone booth in the parking lot up at the park headquarters? Unless . . . really? You mean there really are little green men from other galaxies? That’s not just made up? It’s for real?)

I was still trying to regain my equilibrium . . . but Kevin was making that difficult. My fight-or-flight adrenaline rush was not helping matters. I’d had a double dose of that adrenaline response, first to deal with a husband who’d lost his grip on the real world, and a second one to grapple with the aspect of aliens visiting our cabin around midnight to retrieve the brain of their dead little green friend.

Finally, I asked him where the brain was, and he told me he had it right there with him in his red tote bag, which he unzipped and reached into with hands shaking almost as much as my adrenaline-filled body. Then he pulled out a big green Osage orange. If I hadn’t been so relieved there may have been another Babcock cabin homicide. Those hunks of firewood make handy murder weapons to use in bludgeoning a spouse to death.

With the big Osage orange reveal, I was fully back in the real world. Mad, but wholly in reality. I had to forgive him – he’d been having such a lousy photography week. I’m sure he expected me to be amused and never dreamed I’d actually be frightened, even if we were in a remote cabin so close to Halloween. And I might have been entertained by his tale, had I not still been in the alternative universe of my own writing life. Until then, he had no idea what it was taking for me to truly enter into the dark world of my novel filled with earthquakes and disappearances and lost girls on the run.

We opened some wine. I made him pose for a picture holding his alien Osage orange brain. We turned on the radio and listened to NPR while we cooked dinner. We warmed ourselves by the fire after dinner and finished the wine. And that night before we went to bed, Kevin put the alien brain out on the porch, where it remained for the last few days of our vacation. And on each of those remaining mornings, I was just a tiny bit afraid that when I opened the cabin door I would discover it was missing.

Photo Credits:

Top Photo: Dory writing at dawn in cabin, copyright by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission

Bottom Photo: Kevin with Osage orange alien brain, copyright by Dory Adams