Thursday, May 29, 2008

Pass the ramen noodles with pride

Along with paper and pens, cheap food like SPAM, instant mac n’ cheese and ramen noodles have long been basic staples of existence for the struggling writer. For all those scribes who can still taste the charcoal and ham goodness of their last fried SPAM sandwich, rejoice! We are in style now, thanks to a tanking economy, rising food costs and stratospheric gas prices. Sales of the canned meat are rising fast, along with the cheapest food in the pantry, ramen noodles, and that summer essential, hot dogs, especially the on-sale variety that come so cheap, you don’t even dare read the nutrition label.

I’ve noticed in the last few weeks that cans of tuna fish and the Wal-Mart house brand of macaroni and cheese have been selling fast. Next up on the kitchen top ten: beans and rice. Just wait until the soccer moms discover you can make veggie burgers out of them!

It will be a nice feeling to no longer feel guilty about the cheap food in my shopping basket. In fact, all writers can finally bask in the glory of being chic. We’re not cheap, we’re frugal! And we’re fed, without depending on government cheese.

So take the spotlight, and share a few of those recipes you’ve cooked up over the years. Tell a neighbor how to make your tasty cornbread tuna pie, or talk authoritatively about the difference between SPAM and the lower-cost option, Treet (just as tasty, and half the price!) at family get-togethers. Share the wisdom of the $3.32 Creamy Chicken Bowl (two packages of chicken-flavored ramen noodles, one can of white chicken chunks, one can of cream of mushroom or cream of chicken soup, your choice) which feeds up to four people.

They may have laughed at you at the academy, but who’s the stylish evil genius with a fully belly now? Bwah-hah-hah-ha!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

'Ed Wood' of poetry finally gets his due

It's bad enough to hear crickets at your poetry reading, but dodging food flying at your head? That's a whole new level of suffering for your art. So somewhere, hopefully, the spirit of the Scottish man declared the 'World's Worst Poet' is smiling as a small book of his poems goes up for auction. William McGonagall received scathing reviews of his work, had food thrown at him during readings, then died penniless in 1902 and was buried in an unmarked grave.

But now, McGonagall's dismal stylings are in vogue, and a re-issue of his compiled works, including his brave attempt at a play, was released two years ago. Apparently, being declared the world's worst brings its own notoriety, because a collection of 35 poems is expected to fetch 6,500 in English pounds, or just over $12,000. A pretty sweet payday for the 'Tayside Tragedian,' as he was known back in the day.

Maybe there's hope for us all. I'd rather be remembered with a campy, kitchy vibe than be forgotten completely. Heck, that's what I'm working for now.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Superheroes and supercells

It’s a saying we hear a lot in the Ozarks: “If you don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes.” That time can safely be cut in half during the spring and summer months, when tornadoes crank up like mad mosquitoes, biting down on selected towns throughout the region. For the last few weeks, we’ve had storm predictions just about every other day, so the hubby and I took our chances and headed out to the nearest Cineplex, about an hour away. We don’t go out to the movies much anymore, but ‘Iron Man’ was too much of a temptation, and who can beat $4 matinee prices?

Since the movie wasn’t being shown at our usual fave theater in northwest Arkansas, we went south to the nearest college town to see it, a decision we would appreciate later in the day. It started raining as we headed into the theater, and we could even hear the downpour in the cocooned environment of Cine-pod 14, one of many screening rooms that now form the modern movie multi-plex. I was soon distracted from the weather by a series of too-loud car commercials, goofy reminders to turn off your phone, gag your baby and otherwise keep quiet, and bad trailers for movies I wouldn’t even rent from Netflix. (Other than Indy 4, which looks promising.) By the time the opening scenes of the featured flick started up, I was so grateful that I would have loved it even if Robert Downey, Jr. just walked around encased in Reynolds Wrap, saving kittens from trees. But the movie was amazing, and it flowed so well. This was the first movie in years that I didn’t feel the urge to look down at my watch, the acting was wonderful, Downey was perfect, and the special effects were seamless.

After we popped out of our movie pod, we noticed that the sun was shining and the rain had moved on. I was relaxed and stress-free after the movie, so we kicked around town a little, perusing bookstores, office supply stores, and other fetish outlets known to writers. As we left the last one, though, the sky had turned dark again. The radio announcers were throwing around fun phrases like ‘tornado warning’ and ‘supercell,’ the usual confidence-building forecasts of spring. We decided to take the southern route home, since the really bad stuff was happening north of us, and away we went. As we sped homeward, the sky became increasingly moody, and the radio announcers were discussing funnel clouds spotted on the ground, just a few miles from our usual fave theater. There, storm sirens were piercing the air, and a school roof was being peeled away. We were just in a bad thunderstorm, hoping to get home before everything hit. As we listened to the ongoing news stream, I kept my eyes locked on a singular patch of blue sky in the storm clouds, a patch that seemed to ride with us. For some silly reason, it made me feel better.

Due to road construction, we ended up too far south, out of the storms, and realized they had time to pass over. For the next twenty minutes or so, we laughed at ourselves, getting lost on roads we knew from childhood, singing along with the radio, and dispelling our own weather-related stress. When we were approximately ten miles from home, another tornado warning was issued, this time for our area. Cop cars zipped past us, looking for funnel clouds. We realized, too late, that we were bolting headlong into a huge green wall of tornado weather. It was raining so hard, I don’t know how my hubby could see the road, but he drove brilliantly. I did notice that he kept looking off to the left, but I was already nervous and watching for flying cows. Finally, we discovered the other side of the storm and drove home. During that last mile, he told me why he had been glancing to the side. He spotted a funnel cloud coming down from the sky, keeping pace with us for a while, but there was no place we could have stopped to get off the road.

I told him he was right to not share that info with me at the time, as it would have been difficult for him to drive with me perched on his head like a cartoon cat.

We arrived home, safe and sound, but I don’t plan on leaving this little valley for a week.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Poetry as Freelance Inspiration

Deadlines and commitments….what to leave in, what to leave out…

Bob Seger, Against the Wind

I’m wrapping up National Poetry Month with some tips on how poetry can not only relieve stress, but also inspire one of the hardest-working writerly types: the freelancer. A freelance writer’s day is filled with deadlines, marketing, queries, article ideas, research, and perhaps a little writing squeezed in between. A lot of freelancers I know make their living by service pieces, articles or web content that has a specific goal. While we can write a standard piece in a lively way or admire a well-turned phrase, there isn’t a wide amount of wiggle room in most of what we do. Since I started in poetry and grew into freelance writing, I’ve developed a few tricks to keep the creative side fresh and improve my overall work.

  1. Headline haiku. I’ve been working for hours, I’m on a tight deadline, and my frazzled brain has completely lost the main thread of a project. I want to step away from my computer for a few minutes, but I don’t want to lose my train of thought. So I go outside, or sit by the window and watch the birds swoop down and snatch up kibble from the dog dish; while I’m away from the work, my mind takes all the info that’s trying to shoulder through a thin door, and lines it up, haiku-style.

Historic, urban

Iowa fills nation’s plate;

American charm.

As I’ve just proved, the haiku doesn’t have to be good, it just helps organize the thoughts. For my own use, charts, lists and bullet points aren’t nearly as effective as this poetic tack.

2. Take a project further. Several years ago, I was hired by a local non-profit to visit the local rest home and interview a few people about their lives. It was an amazing day, filled with stories of loss, love and wisdom. After I wrote up the individual profiles, I still couldn’t get a few of those open, friendly folks and their stories out of my mind, so I wrote a poem about each of them. The one that still sticks with me was about a man who couldn’t remember his own son’s name or where he was, but recounted his experiences in depth about homesteading in Alaska, including one eventful day when bears smelled breakfast cooking and broke the cabin door down while he and his wife hid upstairs. He remembered that he had won an award once for his work in teaching drama, and began pulling out all these newspaper clips from his life. The poems I wrote from that day were worth more to me than the check I received, and I started interviewing other elderly neighbors and relatives, distilling their stories to one life—or even one moment—caught in a single poem.

3. Outdoor spot poetry. If you’re looking for the perfect activity on an autumn artist date, try this: pack a few colored markers in your pocket and head out to a local park. As you relax and feel your creativity twanging back into shape, take out a marker and scribble a quick poem on a leaf or a bit of tree bark, then let the wind whisk it away. (Yes, you should use water-based markers, but I’m not the pen police.) The feeling of watching your words lifting up with the breeze and becoming part of nature is liberating. Plus, you’ll occasionally get someone shuffling through autumn leaves and discovering your poem. I always hope it’s a pleasant surprise, but either way, it’s still a great method to boost your energy levels and relieve that deadline stress.