Friday, October 30, 2015

"I can remember being happy and wondering if that meant I wasn’t deep."

John Brantingham with Archie Goodboy
The truth is, as human beings we all suffer. But suffering is not the only wellspring of creativity. It's possible to be happy and be a writer, as John Brantingham and I discuss in the latest installment of my Books That Inspire series:

You told me that you hope your book The Green of Sunset offers people a way to focus on small, seemingly unimportant things to help them through difficult times. Can you say more about why you think poetry has the capacity to heal?

So much of what hurts people is self-inflicted. The way we see the world creates our reality. Poetry and the arts in general give us a way to understand the world. The arts are a global conversation, and much of that is a discussion that helps us through the difficult times.

When I was younger, I read novels constantly, and they helped me. One year, when I was going through religious questioning, I read nothing but Brian Moore and Graham Greene, and the two of them let me know that other people had the same kinds of questions that I had, and that they were important questions. At the very least, poetry lets us know that we’re not alone.

There are times in your life when a book, movie, or painting hits you just at the moment when you need it, and in a flash you understand, and that artistic moment stays with you and drives you. Ted Kooser does that to me a lot. Tolkien did that for me when I was a kid. I was hard of hearing and lonely then, and Tolkien gave me a world beyond myself.

And I think that most of the time, it does more than that. It gives us multiple perspectives on the world’s chaos, and I always want my poetry to be healing in some way. It needs to affirm hope and courage above all other things. Art can do that too.

My wife, who is an artist, led me there and I can see the larger conversation of the arts now. It’s beautiful if you follow the right artists. The cynicism and negativity that often drags people down is easy and childish. If people hit my poetry at the right moment, I want them to see the beautiful possibility that there is for them.

Even if you don't normally read poetry, I bet you'll like this book.

In the title poem of The Green of Sunset, you write: "I hope you realize bitterness comes only from moments that stick out in our minds like pustules on a tongue. We chew on them, given them an importance they don't have to have." Do you think being bitter is a choice? Can you say more about how this idea might be important to you?
There are people out there who have been through a great deal, and it’s hard to fault them for bitterness, but yes, to some degree I do [think it's a choice], at least it is for me. I wrote this book at a very difficult time in my life. We’d wanted to adopt a child and had gotten to know the mother very well, but it didn’t go the way we wanted it to go. In part it was written for me to remind me that I need to focus on what is beautiful in life.
I’d been drinking pretty hard, often a fifth of bourbon in an evening, and had put myself into a kind of spiral. I realized that the way out for me was through the arts and by not focusing on those things that depressed me. I started volunteering and working with other people. I started writing more and reading more. I haven’t ever been to therapy, and I won’t as long as this is working for me.
We didn’t need all of the big things as long as we had all of those little things. We had daily art and long walks and the joy of seeing people doing amazing things. There is so much profound joy in the world, I knew that we shouldn’t focus on those couple of moments that had been terrible.
The second key to this was being with someone all the time who I feel I can trust and talk to. I don’t know how far the arts would go to keeping me out of my head if I weren’t with Annie. She helps me and I help her to focus on that which is larger than we are. I don’t think people need to be with a husband or wife for this, just around other people.

The depressed, suicidal writer is fetishized in much of literary history. Do you think we must suffer in order to write well? How do you think such a view of the artist affects you as a writer--and your students?

It’s difficult to write about writers and poets working on craft. It’s not dramatic, and therefore, bad writing. The alternative then is to write about those things in their lives that make them interesting on a human level. It’s much easier in a class about Hemingway to talk about his suicide or his alcohol abuse. I’m saying this as someone who teaches literature, and I have found myself focusing on those things, which is a mistake that I’ve made in my teaching career.

The truth is that Hemingway did abuse alcohol and he did kill himself, but a lot of people have done that. No one would say that good bridge engineers really should drink and be depressed or they wouldn’t be in the right headspace to construct great bridges, but there aren’t many good movies about bridge engineers. If there were, it would be hard to make them because the internal life just doesn’t translate well into movies, stories, or biographies.

So, I think “fetishized” is right. It’s obsessive and irrational. Yes, a lot of writers have been suicidal because a lot people have been suicidal. The two things do not correspond. That kind of view affected me a lot. I can remember being happy and wondering if that meant I wasn’t deep. What a ridiculous thought.

I’ve had to talk to students about alcohol and drug use. I don’t think that they should stay away from alcohol necessarily, but if they think drinking and drugging is going to make them good writers they’re absolutely in for some trouble. They’re going to stop writing pretty soon.

The relationship of the arts to depression is this: the arts can heal depression to some degree for some people. Of course, I don’t mean clinical depression. However, people absolutely do not need to be depressed to create art.


I love the rhythm of your writing, the way it showcases how the mind wanders and connects. Because you use common vernacular, I'd call your style an accessible version of stream-of-consciousness. Have you always written this way, more or less, or has this style developed over time? What has influenced your progression as a writer? (I feel Walt Whitman in your you?)

I’m someone who believes very much in form, so much so that I wrote a textbook about it, The Gift of Form. The idea behind that book was that each form gives the poet something different, and if you approach formed poetry differently than you do free verse, you will have a unique experience but still gain something from the poetry. The formal poet should stay focused on the line not thinking about the ending of poem and trusting that the form will draw out ideas rather than starting with the idea and trying to force it into the form.

Anyway, that was the idea I had with these poems. Because of the way I was feeling, scattered and unfocused and confused about what the point of my life was, I turned to prose poetry, which focuses on the poetic sentence. It can go on and on and allows a kind of outpouring of emotion.

You flatter me with Walt Whitman. Yeah, he’s a big influence. The most direct influence for this collection was Gary Young, who is my favorite prose poetry writer. I read his collections over and over while writing. Then, there are a ton of others -- Thomas Lux, Tony Barnstone, Gerry Locklin, Sharon Olds, Donna Hilbert, to name a few.

I try to have a completely different style for each collection to capture the meaning and message of the poems and my mood. I just released Dual Impressions: Poetic Conversations about Art with a friend, and I often used a sonnet form. Other times, I’d use single stressed lines to help mute the tone of the poem.

What would you tell your younger self?

I’d tell him to slow down and not work so damn much. I’d tell him to quit his job selling clothing and live without money for a while so he could focus on writing. Also, I’d tell him that all of those feelings of self-loathing are ridiculous. He’s all right.

I’d tell him to get married sooner, to find a way to do that through writing. I’d tell him to read more. I’d tell him to care for his friends more and to listen to jazz.

I’d tell him to take Annie to Europe and live there as long as he can. I’d tell him to take Annie to the mountains and live there as long as he can. I’d tell him to take that internship at that magazine that he passed up and to work at Mt. San Antonio College because he’d really love the people there.

I’d tell him to watch as many movies as he can and subscribe to museums so he can write there. Finally, I’d tell him to find a way to own as many dogs as he can. There’s no joy in this world like a dog’s joy.
What else would you like to add?

For the last two years, Annie and I have been volunteering at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, teaching poetry and art to people in week-long sessions. We arrange it so the students are volunteers and as long as they agree to donate at least one piece of art or poetry, the week and park entrance is free. Some weeks, we backpack. Other weeks, we stay in the front country and work. In any case, it’s an amazing adventure, and anyone reading this can join us. The connection to nature and art is unlike anything you’ve experienced, and we have scientists along to give us insight into what we’re seeing. Please contact me for more information on that, or friend me on Facebook.

John Brantingham is the author of books of several books of fiction and poetry--as well as hundreds of poems, stories and essays. He teaches at Mt. San Antonio College and lives in Seal Beach. He is currently working on a collection of flash fiction pieces with Grant Hier, meant to be the entire history of California from 10,000 BCE until now. He's also writing a poetry collection that explores the natural history of California focusing mostly on Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.Visit his website here, and friend him on Facebook here.

Monday, October 12, 2015

A Hundred Beds

Dave with our friends' kids on our way back to Nor Cal after a month in L.A.
I wonder how many beds we've slept in since June 1, 2013 when we left our house, our town, and our jobs to live a traveling life?

Maybe a hundred?

A friend asked me the other day if I'm tired of moving around so much.

For the most part, no. Usually when it's time to go, I get excited about our next move--while simultaneously getting a little nostalgic about leaving critters we've spent time with on housesits. (Packing and repacking can get a little tedious, but we're pretty damn efficient at it by this point.)

Besides the fact that I was born to run, I'm okay with our lifestyle because we've spent long periods of time in some places (six months in Mexico, four in Tahoe, a month-and-a-half in Australia and India and Chicago and Port Townsend, and a month in L.A.). Also, there's the constancy of my writing and writing coaching wherever we go. And the knowledge that next year, we will be returning to Mexico for another six months.

A walk in San Rafael with Pat and Sherlock.

This month is unusual. It's involving a lot more short spurts: a weekend in San Rafael, two weeks in San Jose, a night in Sacramento to visit my 92-year-old aunt, four nights in Sonora where I will be doing several book events, a night in Yosemite, and ten days of housesitting in Alameda.

Because we are in the Bay Area, I was able to go meet Judy, the Alameda woman we are housesitting for starting next week--to get the keys and meet her cat. And here's where the magic comes in. She invited six of her friends over to meet me.

Her adorable apartment was filled with food and drink...and these women! Creative, fascinating people: a pastry chef and chef instructor, a wine expert (who is going to France to be educated in champagnes), a production editor at Pixar, a former restaurant owner, a jewelry designer, a young woman who educated us about hackathons and who recently launched a technology startup. I told her that's my husband's line of work--so she's going to come over next week to talk to him.

We caught the Blue Angels over the Golden Gate Bridge.
These women love to travel and many are interested in living in alternative ways. I wasn't the only one Judy met through a housesitting website; one woman housesat for her before and is considering a lifestyle of travel and housesitting. So we all had a lot to talk about.

Judy had asked me to share a little about my book. After I did, one woman approached me to tell me that, like me, her daughter had a brain tumor. Her daughter is 17. She wants us to meet. I'm honored...and looking forward to it.

The day felt like a magical convening of things I love: creativity, travel, soul-connection. I told Judy it feels like we knew each other in a past life.

It's true: wherever you focus your time, energy, and thoughts, things blossom. If a hundred beds led to this, bring on a hundred more.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Radical Gratitude

As a child, Andrew Bienkowski was exiled from Poland to Siberia with his family. The struggle to survive was so extreme that Andrew's grandfather stopped eating so his grandchildren wouldn't starve. How is it that someone could undergo such a horrific experience and not become angry or bitter but instead espouse a loving, giving, positive attitude?

This was the first question I asked Mary Akers in the current installment of my Books That Inspire series. Akers co-authored Bienkowski's book, One Life to Give: A Path to Finding Yourself by Helping Others.

This book is essentially a memoir of Andrew Bienkowski who, as a five-year-old, was exiled from Poland to Siberia with his family. Why is it, do you think, that Andrew didn't sour toward life?

I think a lot of it had to do with his family. Andy would tell you that, too. They worked hard to find the good in the direst of circumstances, kept a strong faith, loved one another, and never gave up. Sounds like a pretty great combination to me. I think one of the other big factors is that they talked about what they were going through—before, during, and after—and didn’t keep things bottled up from shame or anger.

His grandmother was the storyteller and she not only kept alive the memories of his grandfather and their old life in Poland, but she helped them interpret the stories of Siberia as they lived them. A person can take any incident and focus on particular details that will support it as being tragic or hopeful. The family stories he was told always tended toward hopeful.

After writing this book, Andy came up with an interesting theory that I like a lot. He sums it up in one sentence: What you choose to remember, and how you choose to interpret what you remember, determines who you are.

You co-wrote the book with Andrew. What was that experience like?

It was great. He is every bit as warm and encouraging and thoughtful in person as he comes across in the book. In the beginning, I was actually quite nervous about depicting his life story and then handing it to him and essentially saying, “So, what do you think?” Can you imagine doing that for someone you’ve only just met? I had a lot of trepidation, but he was always really positive about the results.

The one time when I didn’t get his mother’s voice right in a chapter, he came to my house and brought me a bunch of old pictures and some old letters and newspaper clippings and we just sat and talked about her. She was the one I’d had the most trouble “connecting” with initially, but after I thought about the fact that she was a mother of two young children, watching her father starve to death so her children could live, her dilemma and motivation hit me hard. I can only imagine how difficult that must have been.

I say the book is "essentially" a memoir, but it's eclectic and not easy to categorize. It also has components of an inspirational self-help book--and I see on the back, the publisher deems it "personal growth" and "psychology." You call it your "changeling child." Why did you and Andrew decide to approach the book in this way--and what were the benefits and challenges?

Well, we both always knew we wanted the book to be accessible and readable as a story, but also contain good, solid advice, in the same way that a parable teaches a lesson in the guise of a story. It’s also similar to how Andy worked with patients during his years as a practicing psychotherapist. Never underestimate the power of a good story to hold important details in the mind. Just ask any teacher, politician, or preacher.

Also, I would say that Andy and I are very similar in one way: We have wide-ranging interests, and friends all over the spectrum (race, gender, socioeconomics, etc.), so as people we don’t really fit into any definable category. We’ve both been a lot of different things in our lives, lived a lot of different places, and that all combines to make life and storytelling so much more interesting.

So, yes, this book has many aspects—it’s inspirational, it’s a memoir, it’s a little known part of World War Two history, it’s got a self-help angle, and it’s about human psychology. That’s what makes it interesting to read, but also what has been a real bear for us in getting it out into the world. Editors and publishers and librarians? They really like to know where a book “fits.” They need to know how to shelve it, market it, and sell it. And it’s difficult to do that when the book has so many different aspects. What is it? What do we call it? Where do we stock it? These are all important questions that affect which consumers ever even see the book. That has hurt us in some ways, because it is so much more than a psychology book or a self-help book.

Mary and Andy

Were you changed as a result of working on this project? If so, in what ways?

Yes. For starters, I didn’t know anything about the Polish Holocaust—it was never taught to me in school. I had no clue that more than a million Poles had been deported to Siberia left to starve, freeze to death, or die of illness. So there’s that—a whole perspective shift, there. But really, what affected us both, at about the same time post-publication, was the idea that we had written a book telling people how important it is to be grateful for bad things, to be mindful, to be good listeners, to be kind—and that simple fact shone a light on both our lives. Were we living what we had written? Were we qualified to give advice to others when we both still had work to do to become our best selves? It was very humbling.

I love the idea of "radical gratitude." Andrew believes it has the power to help "dissatisfied and restless people" learn to live better lives. What, to you, is radical gratitude--and do you practice it?

Radical Gratitude at its core is about being grateful for bad things that happen to you because those experiences make you stronger, more resilient, wiser, and more empathetic to the struggles of others. I absolutely do practice it. I live by it. I didn’t have the words for it before meeting Andy, but it’s always been at the core of who I am—looking for that silver lining, taking the lesson and absorbing it, recalibrating, making improvements and moving forward. I refuse to believe that there can’t be something good to come out of every heartbreak, loss, or physical suffering. I don’t think I could go on without that belief to sustain me through difficult times. So that aspect of Andy’s book spoke to me from day one. We were both very much simpatico in that regard.

Andrew says that worrying intensifies tension, anxiety, stress, and negativity. He recommends that instead of worrying, we "visualize good things happening in the future." Do you do this? Do you have tips for anyone who might like to orient themselves toward a positive vision of the future?

Well, I try very hard to do this. This one doesn’t come as naturally to me. I fret. I agonize. I wallow. Even as I know it is a ridiculous waste of time and mental energy. The best thing I can say is that I am trying. Living in the moment helps. Unless you’re bleeding, vomiting, or on fire, there really isn’t much to worry about in the present moment. And similar to that idea of slanting the story one way or another, if we’re going to expend the energy thinking about the future or the past, why not expend it envisioning or remembering a positive outcome? I have a long way to go, but I will say this: I get a little bit better at it every day.

In regards to the subtitle of this book, what do you think are the one or two key ways we can find ourselves by helping others?

I would say by listening and being kind. Both of those actions help us to be our best selves while also helping others in the process.

Mary Akers is also the author of two books of short fiction. Raised in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, she currently lives in western New York.  Andrew Bienkowski is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force who served in the Korean War. He has worked as a psychologist for 40 years. He lives near Buffalo, New York. Mary and Andrew are working on a new book about aging and wisdom and not taking oneself too seriously.