Black History Month: Lucille Clifton

In my writing classes in college, one of the poets I often tried to imitate was Lucille Clifton. She had the wonderful ability to use as few words as possible to convey an idea beautifully and completely — by many definitions, that is exactly what poetry is, but so often length, rhyme, form, and complex wordplay clutter it up. Not in Clifton’s poetry. She wrote short lines, often adding up to just a few stanzas, using all lowercase letters and only necessary punctuation. Adjectives were used sparingly, and somehow metaphor was rarely necessary; these two loom so large in poetry in general, but after reading the few, perfect words Clifton chooses in each poem, you begin to wonder why we need them at all.

Clifton’s poems are funny, quietly poignant, intimate, inclusive. Reading poems like “blessing the boats,” you do actually feel a holy hand upon your forehead, the warmth of a sincere wish for safe passage across the unknown ocean of the future: “may you kiss/the wind then turn from it/certain that it will/love your back.” (And of course, this is the poem that is all metaphor, so okay.) Reading “here rests,” you delight in the picture of Clifton’s sister, who brought her pimp with her to read to her ailing father, getting her just reward after death: “may heaven be filled/with literate men/may they bed you/with respect.”

There’s no mistaking that Clifton grew up black in the Jim Crow era, that being a black woman informed much of what she wrote. Her eulogy for James Byrd Jr., lynched by white supremacists in 1998, echoes with the thousands of lynchings that came before and the fear of more to come: “why and why and why/should i call a white man brother?/who is the human in this place,/the thing that is dragged or the dragger?” Even “homage to my hips,” a joyous celebration of the particular curves of her body, doesn’t forget the wrongs done to bodies like hers for centuries in the United States: “these hips/are free hips./they don’t like to be held back./these hips have never been enslaved,/they go where they want to go/they do what they want to do.”

Clifton wrote about family, biblical characters, sensual encounters, the cancer she survived, the baby she had who didn’t. She often wrote about death and life and the shimmering, barely-there line between the two. She never wrote anything trite or superficial, but even her poems that grieve most openly about personal or historic tragedy are imbued with hope, a sense that there is always something in this world to celebrate — and to share with one another.




Taking and Making: January 14

Today, I took in:

James Fallows’ “Have They No Sense of Decency?” in The Atlantic

Mark Oppenheimer’s “How to Turn a Red State Purple (Democrats Not Required)” in Politico

an embarrassing number of Castle episodes while I worked on some admin tasks


I made: 

a short blog post for tomorrow

a little more work on Spanish with Duolingo

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Name in Print

Last year, I synthesized four books on the health care systems of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales into one book on the health care system of the United Kingdom, for a series put out by the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, part of the World Health Organization. I’m by no means an expert on the health care system of any country–real experts did a lot of work on the manuscript I put together, to ensure it was accurate and comprehensive. But I put together the basic body of the work, and it took a lot of time and effort, and I’m very proud of the result. This series is put together mainly to help policy-makers in different countries see how health care policies work in other countries, so they can decide what policies to incorporate into their own countries. So you’re not going to find this in Barnes & Noble, but you can check it out on the website if you want to see my name on there as a contributor. I also got a hard copy in the post last week–look!

WHO book cover

Pretty cool

Days of Gratitude

I’ve seen a lot of “Days of Gratitude” posts on Facebook this month. People post about something they’re grateful for every day up to Thanksgiving, usually with an accompanying photo. I think it’s a great idea, but I haven’t taken part, mostly because I feel like every blog post I’ve written this year has been a gratitude post.

Every day I get to write, which I’m grateful for in the way that most writers are grateful for the chance to write—it’s an aggravation, sometimes nearly impossible, but occasionally totally satisfying. Every day I write about this amazing trip I’ve been on, so every day I’m grateful anew for the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met.

I’ve spent seven months of this year on a trip around the world, gone to the weddings of some of my most beloved people, celebrated my grandmother’s 80th birthday with the whole clan, and published a piece on a major website. It really has been a terrific year, and I’m grateful for every day of it. Can’t wait to see what 2014 brings.

Thankful for the laughs from this year

Thankful for the laughs from this year

Back in the States Update

I’ve been back in the States for 8 weeks now, which sounds like a long time, but I’ve spent a lot of that time at weddings and catching up with friends, so it’s felt shorter. I’m settled in to my parents’ house, and I’ll be here ’til the end of the year. So what am I up to these days?

Today I took a look at my short-term goals from July, and I’m doing pretty well! 1) I bought catastrophic health insurance through Priority Health. It costs $72 a month, and that includes emergency room visits and not much else. Pre-existing conditions aren’t allowed (I cannot wait for the Affordable Care Act to be fully implemented so that kind BS is no longer permitted), and I pay full price for prescriptions and most doctor visits. But it’s one of the better plans I found, with a fairly low premium ($1,000), and I might not need it for very long, because… 2) I got a job! I start the day after I return from my sibling’s wedding in New York. I signed up with a local staffing agency, and they got me an interview at an auxiliary health care-type office. I’ll be doing data entry and a little proofreading, full-time, and the bosses seem very nice. It doesn’t pay a lot, but I’ve done the math and it should be enough to get me back on the road sometime next year. Also, I can walk there from my parents’ house, so I don’t need to buy a car.

I’m hoping that having taken care of #1 and #2 from the original list, I’ll be able to really dig into #3. Now that I’ve removed the stress of job hunting and hiding inside lest I injure myself and have no way to pay for recovery, I should be able to use my free time writing. The changing season will make that even easier, as the nights come faster and the days grow colder, and I stay inside and focus on writing. Fingers crossed.

Next week I’ll be in New York, helping set up for the wedding and then dancing the night away at said wedding. After that, I’ll be in an office for the first time in over a year. Wish me luck!

Now What? The Short-Term Goals After Nearly a Year Around the World

I’ve been back in the States for a week, and I’m just now starting to settle in. It’s been a whirlwind of cleaning and organizing the stuff I carried around in a backpack for the better part of a year, meeting up with friends I haven’t seen in as long, going to one of my favorite weddings ever, and dragging my family along to my most-missed eating spots in town. But now it’s the second week here, the jet lag is behind me, and it’s time to think about what’s next.

Lots of this in my future

Lots of this in my future

As I’ve mentioned before, my long-term goals involve more travel and finding the money to make that happen. I will definitely be in the States through the end of September, and possibly through Christmas, depending on what kind of employment I find. But I’d like to skip winter again this year if I can, so in the new year (if not sooner) I’ll be heading off to Africa or Latin America.

In the short term, I’m readjusting to suburban America, which takes some doing–the politics, the modes of transportation, the distances from place to place, the foods, they’re all different. I’m also living with my parents again for the first time since I graduated college 8 years ago. That takes adjustment on both sides! We’re figuring out how to make it work for everyone; they’re quite content with their lives and I don’t want to get in the way of that, and they want me to be happy but also productive. Which sounds about right.

Here are my goals for the next few months:

1) Get short-term health insurance. This is easily the biggest difference between where I’ve been and where I am now. I’ve had health insurance through my various employers ever since I graduated college, and before that I was covered under my parents’ plan. If I were in the UK, I’d show the National Health Service (NHS) proof of residency and they’d assign me a doctor (who I could change if I wanted), and that would be that, no fuss. But as we know, it’s a very big fuss in the States. It’s scary to be without insurance here, so I’m shopping around to find a short-term plan that won’t charge a huge deductible or monthly fee. If you have any leads, let me know!

2) Find employment. If I stay through the end of the year, I’d like something stable, but I also don’t want to feel bad ditching after just a few months. I’ll be signing up with temp agencies, which will hopefully provide me with admin or data entry work, or something that will put some money in my pocket. Of course, I’m always on the lookout for freelance editing work, so I’ll keep that search up, and I might try pitching some pieces of my own to online magazines and such as well. Be sure to tell your friends and neighbors they can hire me for odd jobs, housesitting, babysitting–just about anything!

3) Focus on the writing. I’ve been cranking out blog posts for y’all Monday through Friday for all of 2013, as promised, and I’m happy I challenged myself to do that. I’ll continue to make that a goal, but I’m also going to try my hand at more in-depth essays and pieces that someone other than me might want to publish.

4) Keep within a budget. It’s easy to simultaneously feel like I’m still traveling about and should experience everything at least once and the extra dollar or two isn’t that much, AND to feel like I’m back on familiar ground so all the old spending habits can come back. But I do not have the steady job I used to, and the whole point of this interlude is to save up for the next adventure. I have to keep that in mind.

Of course, there are other things I want to do, too: visit my friends in Chicago, make the playlist for my sibling’s wedding, learn new songs to sing with my dad, take walks with my mom, enjoy the beauty of a Michigan summer, read new books, and finally watch the new season of Arrested Development.

It’s going to be a good few months.  

Celebrating 500 Posts on Stowaway!

Welcome to the 500th post on Stowaway! I’ve been writing this blog for 3.5 years, and in that time it’s gone through one name change, 1508 comments, and, almost unbelievably, 500 posts.

catlins waterfall supremely happyI started Stowaway as a way to get back into writing, which is something I’d enjoyed doing in college but neglected in the years since. I also wanted to record my plans for this big RTW trip, partly as a way to encourage myself to actually go on the trip. I wanted to try my hand at travel writing, but not limit myself to that. Five hundred posts later, I’m writing on an almost daily basis, and I’m on my RTW trip, so I’d say I’m doing well on those fronts.

me and Sydney Opera HouseI’d enjoy writing Stowaway even if I were the only one reading it, but it’s even more fun knowing that other people like reading it too. I like the challenge of making my travel updates entertaining and the photos nice to look at. I have a small audience made up mostly of people I know personally, and in some ways that makes it easier to write, to guess who might like what joke or who might appreciate which detail.

Joy on Fox Glacier, New ZealandBut I’m still refining my style; as every writer has ever said, I want to write the kind of thing I like to read. For travel writing, I like a chatty but not chummy tone, thoughtful reflections on the implications of why and how we travel, and a few wry asides. I don’t know that I’ve ever spelled it out before, but there it is: that’s what I’m going for with Stowaway, but whatever actually turns up on the blog every Monday through Friday, I hope it resonates with you.


I don’t know what Stowaway will become once I return to the States. I might try harder to write pieces that can be published on other sites. I might put the blog to the side for awhile and focus on getting a job. I might take another year just to get the posts caught up to where I am in real time (yeesh).

bankok wat phoStowaway has already changed somewhat since I started it, as recurring features came and went, and I made the inevitable switch from planning the trip to doing it. It will naturally change again, and even after 3.5 years and 500 posts, I’m still excited to see how it does. I hope you’ll stay with me as I continue to explore the world with my faithful travel companion–Stowaway.


Where to next?

Aesthetically Speaking: C.S.E. Cooney

Today’s Aesthetically Speaking interviewee is a published author and writer of many things, from novels to poems, plays to blog posts. I especially appreciate the honesty of how tough it is to find good readers of your writing, who you can trust and whose advice you can take. Thanks for sharing, C.S.E.!

What is your name and city of residence?
C.S.E. Cooney, almost-formerly-of-Chicago. Soon to be “Somewhere, Rhode Island.” I’m moving in a few weeks, east. 

What medium do you work in?
Words! Stories, novels, poetry, plays, reviews, blogs, whatever!

Jack o the Hills book cover CSE Cooney

Jack o' the Hills

How often do you work on your art–is it a full-time endeavor or something you work on in your spare time?
It’s like a second job that wants to be my first job. Nights and weekends sort of thing. These days, writing is not so much an escape from the day-job, as it is that the day-job (and everything else) serves the writing. 

How does art fit into your life, in general? Is it something you think about and talk about every day, or every week, or only in certain situations, etc.?
It’s the sort of thing that creeps into almost every conversation. The sort of thing where you’re babbling at someone about whatever book you’re reading, story you’re writing, writing convention you’ve just gone to, this new writer you’re corresponding with, this play of yours that you’ve just seen produced, and thinking, “Is this all I ever talk about? Am I more boring than any bore that ever lived? Talk about something else. Talk about that Wampug you just saw on YouTube…” 


But there’s this: whatever else I talk about — movies, science, that creep on the train, the etymology of the word “yawn” — there’s a voice in the back of my head that says, “Remember this. Use it in a story.”

When you start on a piece, what kind of end result do you have in mind? Does it get performed or published, put in a permanent form or is it more temporary?
I write short stories with the idea of submitting them as soon as possible. They have to accumulate a number of both drafts and rejection slips before they’re either trunked for good or finally accepted somewhere. 

Sometimes an idea starts out a poem, morphs into a play, and then it turns out it’d make a better story. I rarely know this starting out. Some ideas require many structures before its ultimate shape is refined.

Plays I either write for fun, or competitions, or festivals. I usually write them only if someone out there’s interested in something from me specifically. But there have been a few cases of me waking up in the morning and saying, “I’m gonna write a play today.” No one wants them necessarily, but at least I had fun pulling them out of the ether for their own sakes and no one else’s.

Poetry is usually a visceral reaction I have to something. Either that, or I stumbled onto a moment I want frozen in all its glorious hyperbole. Those times I’m feeling something strongly I may never feel again, something effervescent in its novelty, I’ll try and capture to examine more closely later. And also to show it off… My wild menagerie of past experiences.

With novels, I don’t know — I’ve not had one published yet. With the one I’m working on now, a fantasy called Shadowstalkers, the end in sight is, “Finish the danged thing, go on a Great Agent Quest, and then from there we’ll see.” I’m fewer than 100 pages away from writing The End on this present draft.

What goals do you set in relation to your art, both short- and long-term? Is it something you hope to make money doing, or is it something you want to keep uncommercialized? Does the term “sell-out” hold meaning for you or do you see the art/commerce relationship as a necessary one?
I certainly want to make money with my writing. The times I already have are kind of addictive. The trick is getting the production and quality up to a level where my earnings from the writing are at least as consistent at whatever day-job I’m working in order to eat and pay rent while writing. I may never get there. It’s a goal, anyway.

I hate the term “sell-out.” What does that even mean? Producing something you hate for loads of cash? If that’s what a “sell-out” does, then I couldn’t do it. Just judging from past day jobs: if I’m in a position I consider toxic, I quit — for my own health’s sake, which I value. I want to wake up and like myself. It’d be great to wake up, like myself, and make money too. I don’t mind compromise or flexibility. I often don’t even know my own boundaries until I come smack up against them. I try to keep an open mind until confronted with an ethical crisis, and make my decision then.

Also, just because I create something, recognize that it’s well-constructed, and even publish it — that doesn’t mean it’s good art.  I have failed at making the kind of art I want to make — failed spectacularly. Sometimes it’s not possible to recognize that something is a splattering huge mess when you’re right in the middle of it, looking out. Someone might come along and point out this huge, raw flaw you’d never intended, never in a million years, and you wish you could take it all back and put it down somewhere in the dark, but it’s out in the world now. You suck it up. Learn something about yourself and the world you live in. What it makes you. What you make of it.You just learn from it, try not to do it again, and hopefully do something better with the next project.

Every story I write seems to require something utterly different from me than the last.  I have to learn a whole new skill set with each thing I write. It’s completely fascinating, but I hardly ever feel like I know what I’m doing. I’m trying to become more conscious of my process, without stymying the process. That gets tricky. But it’s never boring.

The Big Bah-Ha by C.S.E. Cooney book cover

The Big Bah-Ha

What role does collaboration with others play in your art, if any?
Well, you can’t have theatre without collaboration. That’s a given. So, with a play — collaboration’s built in. Actors might give a script a read, directors will piece it apart, everybody’s input informs the next draft. The script often morphs during the rehearsal process. So far, that’s been my experience. My experience is pretty limited. 

But stories, at least in the initial stages, are more personal. For myself, I have a handful of friends, who are all writers or editors at varying levels of their career — from award-winning, published novelists to people like me who’ve only just traded their apprenticeship for journeyman’s rank — and I often send them early drafts of things for their critique.

There’s much trial and error involved in this. Trust must be built up over time. Few people come through the crucible of this process, but those who do I value highly. I have to be careful to whom I send a story, because a certain kind of criticism too early, or given tactlessly, can ruin my enthusiasm for months. Some friends I can take a pummeling from and bounce up grinning. Some friends, even at their gentlest, slay my desire to create. It’s not their fault, or mine. It’s simply a matter of personalities.

After a draft is done, of course, and a story is submitted, it takes a small army of slush readers, associate editors, editors, designers, and artists to put together a magazine. Without them, I’m just a writer with a few thousand words in a Microsoft Document.

How conscious are you of your artistic influences? Who are your artistic influences?
Pretty conscious, I’d say. Stephen Sondheim, Caryl Churchill, Shakespeare, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Dunnett, Gene Wolfe (probably him above all, as he’s been my mentor since I was 18 years old), Robin McKinley, Patricia McKillip, Victor Hugo, Flaubert, the Brontës, Jane Austen, Lois McMaster Bujold, Neil Gaiman, Stephanie Shaw, Alexandre Dumas, Lloyd Alexander, Tolkien and Lewis, Diana Wynne Jones, Georgette Heyer, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Elizabeth Peters, Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia E. Butler, Shirley Jackson, James Enge, Pablo Neruda, Peter S. Beagle, Stephen King… Can you tell I’m mainly a Fantasy writer? 

Since this is a travel blog, how does travel relate to or affect your art? (Themes in what you produce, road trips to perform your music, thoughts on what happens to your painting when you ship it across the country to a customer, etc.)
Much of the traveling I’ve done in the last nine years has been to writing conventions. That’s where you meet folks in your field. That’s where you meet your influences, hear them read out loud and answer interview questions and shake their hands. It’s where they become human. And suddenly you think, “If they can do it, I can do it.” 

Road trips — especially with other writer friends — to these sorts of things are where character, plot and story are all born.

There’s something about movement, the freedom of the road, really late nights in highway darkness, that get all the good weird stuff of the soul stirred up. There’s also a great deal of history moving outside your window. The good, the bad, the pretty and the ugly all buried in that landscape with the bones. Horizons you’ve never seen. Roads you’ve never traveled. Music on your friend’s iPod you’d never listen to on your own. Really vulgar jokes. Weird roadside pranks. All of it full of story.

There’s a reason there’s a whole genre of novels called “picaresque.”

And finally, a right-brain question: If your art was a map, what would it be a map of?
You know those ragged, half-scorched parts of ancient maps that say “Here Be Monsters”? Everything beyond that. 

If you’d like, share your website/Facebook page and any upcoming gigs/plans you’d like readers to know about.
I keep a blog at On my profile page is everything I’ve done writing-wise and where to find it. 

If you want to buy my book “Jack o’ the Hills,” being two stories in one of a very twisted fairy tale, check out Papaveria Press.