Monday, January 13, 2014

Puerto Rico Redux

Calle del Sol in Old San Juan

When I was a college student in the '50s I visited San Juan for a few weeks, and last week I was back, attending the "resident" part of a Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA—Writing program, of which I am an alum. Even sixty years can't change the narrow, cobblestone streets of Old San Juan or the Spanish colonial architecture, the 16th century citadel of El Morro or the closely packed crypts and statues of the Cementario Santa Maria Magdalena. But traffic now chokes the streets. Signs indicate ongoing projects to improve La Perla, the infamous slum, but brilliantly colored houses still conceal poverty and drug trade, all washed by ocean surf.

Cemetary Maria Magdalen
La Perla
U.S. fast food and clothing chains have invaded Old San Juan, and diamond merchants have proliferated, shop after shop catering to the flood of tourists that pour from giant cruise ships each day. To feed these travelers, San Juan's restaurants serve "Latin fusion," as the guidebooks call it, but really it's placeless, homeless food that shoves aside the native comida criolla. In Old San Juan I yearned for remembered beans and rice flavored with sofrito, a mix of ham, root vegetables and native achiote; soupy asapao; green plantains fried crisp and ripe ones stewed to a sweet caramel.

Casa del Libro
El Libro y su Encuadernacion
Artist's Book: Creacion del Mundo/Creation of the World
 Beneath the glitzy, Americanized surface, leading Puerto Ricans lead their lives with depth and dedication. We visited the Casa del Libro, founded in the '50s, a museum housing a collection of rare books published from the 15th century on and preserved from the ravages of tropical climate. This history is told in a gorgeous volume called El Libro y su Encuadernacion, The Book and its Binding. An exhibit of artists' books from many lands included a beautiful illustration from the biblical Song of Songs: "I sought him whom my soul loves. I sought him, but I found him not."
Artist's Book: "I sought him, but I found him not."

Workshops and lectures with faculty Richard McCann and Mary Ruefle, outstanding writers and teachers,  were held daily wherever we were. We were privileged to meet Hector Feliciano, world citizen and author of The Lost Museum: the Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World's Greatest Works of Art. Hector invited us to his airy, spacious house and up to his roof, telling us the story of his long search and the obsession required to unearth each vanished work of art. Equally contemporary was Yolanda Pizarro's passionate attention to the stories of Puerto Rico's enslaved black women, told in her book, Las Negras. Lecture became workshop as she urged us to consider our own names, their origins, meanings and the ways they define us. She asked us to write a short poem about the names. I wrote:

My middle name is Helen, hides
My grandma, also Helen, who conceals
In turn the girl who shamed her by 
Her girlish birth, while
Wedging her name between my first and last.

These lines turned out to encapsulate my novel, I Never Knew You Had a Girl, in which the protagonist, based on my mother, suffers the self-loathing that comes from having a mother who doesn't think much of girls.

El Yunque

Morning Sun on Bamboo

Americanization ends at the edge of El Yunque, the rainforest, where we spent the second four days. Though a U.S.National Forest, El Yunque is also a world unto itself, a place where bamboo whispers, life-giving water flows day and night, and plants win. Excellent local guides, Robin and his son Daniel, have befriended the plants and know the names and habits of each. They break off bits of edibles for us to crunch and offer pods of bromeliads for us to nurture back home. Waterfalls tumble down the steep mountains and pool in cool basins, one just below the Casa Cabuy, the Ecolodge where we stay. There cook Carmen prepares marvelous comida criolla: papaya and mango for breakfast as well as eggs and avena, oatmeal cooked with milk and sugar, served soupy. For lunch and dinner we eat beans, rice and fish or chicken, once pork, always plantain, green and crisp or ripe and mellow.

 Who would have thought a writing residency would require rock scrambling skills? I didn't, and didn't believe it until I stripped to my bathing suit (No phone? No photos?), noticed my glasses ("I'll take them," said Mary, and stuffed multiple pairs into a plastic bag, the bag into her swimsuit), and edged bleary-eyed down a mud path to slippery rocks and water. If the current was mentioned I didn't hear it over the rumble of cascading water. Nearly across I saw the bank retreat and called for help. A stranger dragged me and two others over the wet and moss-covered rocks to the shore.                                                         
Carolyn, Richard and Jude, waterfall at Casa Cabuy
Mary at the pool below Casa Cabuy
Waterfall in the Rainforest
                                               Picture ascents where there's nothing to grasp and footholds are slippery even when dry. Imagine steep descents of eight feet on one's seat, where only the total compression of knees can resist the insistence of weight. My knees don't compress and wrist tendons resist the helpful and needed assists that I got. A world unto itself, indeed! So well known to Robin that he saw no need to warn or explain, but knew the best move for each rock on the path. Our goal? Taino pictographs, attributed to first inhabitants. "They look better at dawn," said Robin, swiping them with a wet towel. "Look now, when they're wet. Use your imagination." He suggested a dive neath a thundering waterfall and hinted that those undesired are sometimes thrown in. We still had to return the same way that we came, and Mary and I exchanged a big hug at the finish.
Luquillo Beach

A day on the beach capped our week, romping and swimming and eating at the beach's famed sixty kiosks with our fellow students, Richard, Mary, and our organizational guru, poet Pam Taylor. The camaraderie of all was just as infectious and lively as the workshops and lectures had been perceptive and challenging.

VCFA Encampment on Luquillo Beach: Sophfronia, Mary, Shanalee, Carolyn, Partridge, Lillian, Richard

Evidence: I was there


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

From Drawer to Store: the Birth of a Novel

Michigan Avenue near Chicago Writers Conference

The October issue of the funky online magazine, Defunct, has just gone live with my flash non-fiction piece, "Ghost Alive." You can read it in less time than it takes to brush your teeth, so please support this charming journal about all things out of date. Speaking of which, I've taken down my  website. A new one will be up before long at the same address,, but meanwhile I'm putting current information here on the blog. See the sidebar and below for links to publications.

After seven years of writing and revising, critique from my longstanding writing group, fifteen months with Fred Shafer's wonderful novel group, and critical reading by many generous friends, I've put my novel, I Never Knew You Had a Girl, in a drawer and started the agent search. Research seven agents. Send targeted query letters that specify their interests or books they've represented. After seven rejections, revise the query letter and send seven more. That's the strategy I learned at Chicago Writers Conference 2012 from Chuck Sambuchino. So far I've received several positive comments: "substantial pleasures," "vibrant characters," "poise and polish," "stood out from the many we receive,"two requests for the full manuscript, but no acceptances.

My First Pitchfest at Chicago Writers Conference 2013

Here's what I learned:
1. Practice and time your pitch.
2. Wait in clammy silence with your fellow pitchers, avoiding eye contact, in the cold, dark back of Brando's Speakeasy. You'll have exactly four minutes to sell your wares and four for response.
3. Greet your agent/publisher and tell your story.
4. Discover that they want not you nor your book but your subject matter, your genre (as in litfic, women's, historical), and your audience, one each.
5. Your singularity is not a value. Your similarity to other books is. Find them, marry them to each other, and hope your book is born. 
6. There's always many ways to tell a story. Skew your pitch a dozen different ways and try them out.

Links to Older Publications

"Liberal Catholicism" in America Magazine
"Artist of the Month" in Image Journal (with link to "Contemporary Choreography: Retaining the Sacred")
"Writing and Dancing" in Chicago Artists Resource
"Symbols: Forest of Ambiguity" in Numero Cinq
"The Hate that Chills" video of reading a story excerpted from my novel, recorded at Tuesday Funk

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Martha's Vineyard Redux, Vinalhaven, Avi Kast

Kids grow up and get jobs; babies arrive, couples form and split, but Kast family week on Martha's Vineyard brought a remnant together again this year for an action-packed week of surf swimming on South Beach and Aquinnah, kayaking on Sengekontacket Pond, paddle ball on Vineyard Sound, shopping at farmer's markets and farms, and always cooking and more cooking.
Erica, Phil & Lola at South Beach

The children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of Eric Kast now range in age from four months (Avi and Arisha) to 75 (me). They live in San Francisco, Chicago, New Jersey, Vermont and Omsk, Russia. Eight of them (including partners) made it to the Vineyard, and I visited Ari, Eun and baby Avi on the way home.    
Avi Kast

But names and places can't express my delight on arriving, after a full day flight delay, to find that Erica had moved in, organized shopping and met Anton and Lola, who had flown in from San Francisco. After that the week was a whirlwind, as Erica and Phil did the hilly "Run the Chop," a five-mile course, and lived to eat lobster rolls from Net Result,

Erica & Phil after Run the Chop
while Lola discovered the joys of chasing (and being chased by) ocean waves; Phil grilled chickens and made greens, bacon and eggs for breakfast, and conversations moved quickly from the mundane to the personal, a year of living compressed into seven days. Richard, the second oldest, physician and cancer research, commissioned Lola to find six equal-sized stones, the result the mobile in the video above. And it's not the Vineyard without a ride on the Flying Horses. Erica captured Anton, Lola and me with that nostalgic music in the video below.  Richard and Kim's daughter Emma arrived fresh from a summer in Brazil, just in time for a rough surf swim on South Beach.
Emma and Kim

videoExhausted by a wonderful week, I rode two ferries and three buses, drowsing all the way, to the lobster-fishing island of Vinalhaven off the rocky coast of Maine. There I joined old friend, Carter Frank, and new one, Priscilla Moody, for a restful week of writing, hiking in wooded preserves, and swimming in a granite quarry. Carter led us in Tai Chi on the porch, where we focused on the gorgeous view. 

View from cottage, Vinalhaven, Maine

Friday, June 21, 2013

Why Flash Mobs?

Flash mobs proliferate, and the great ones burst into daily life, lending their beauty to the hustle and bustle in the midst of which they blossom. If you haven't seen Sam Sabadell, take a look. Time seems to stop in the face of such an overload of meaning, and it moves me to tears each time I view it. The quiet beginning with the single, somber, bass player in concert dress and then the equally formal cellist, empty can in front of the two. The little girl who drops a coin in the can. Soon the string section rushes onto the square (from where?) dressed casually, like the crowd. When the brass arrive it's almost as though they were storming the plaza, and suddenly an entire chorus is singing the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in their native language, Catalan. And the audience: the kid who climbs a lamp pole to get a better view and all the children conducting with such joy.

I recently saw a gallery performance of excerpts from "Core of the Pudel: Gutting the Legend of Faust," Thom Pasculli's collaborative work of physical theatre. No flash, no mob. I stood sipping wine in a public room of Chicago's Aqua building, surrounded by big, glass windows, when suddenly violin and brass began to play. Just outside the window, a parade, and one person walking horizontally along the glass. The actors entered, singing in foreign languages, and then wrestled each other in slow motion with ferocious intensity or rushed about, hunched and muttering over the books in which Faust placed his faith. The actors were literally in our faces. Their intrusion, like the flash mob at Sabadell, suddenly charged our chit-chat and munching  with a higher level of meaning, as though we too were walking on the walls. Take a look or two.

Core of the PUDEL from Kyle Niemer on Vimeo.

Core of the PUDEL from Kyle Niemer on Vimeo.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Touches of Cuba: a Week with Art Encounter and Hedwig Dances

Habana Vieja

 Scroll to end for slideshow of photos of Cuba with music by Pablo Menendez and Mezcla.

 Art galleries, dance studios, artists' homes and the private restaurants called paladars swirl in my mind a week after my return from Cuba, refusing to locate themselves on the grid of the real. From the moment we landed and climbed into an air-conditioned, Chinese bus, we were bombarded with images, information and impressions. Slowly the din of perceptions filtered my preconceptions and new understandings emerged.

Plaza de San Francisco
1. Cuba is not isolated. We are. The fabled Hotel Nacional, where we stayed, was bursting with tourists from all over the world except the U.S. The hotel's huge and generous breakfast buffet is designed to fit the early-morning habits of every culture: rice and curries; vegetables, potatoes and meat; all kinds of eggs, including some translated as "embezzled;" gorgeous fresh fruit, cereals, and a dozen different sweet breads.

2. Cuban art is not "outside." Visual art ranges from works shown in the world's major exhibitions, like the Venice Biennale, to neighborhood mosaics such as these by Juan Fuster, whose Homenaje a Gaudi (Homage to Gaudi) decorates whole blocks of Jaimanitas, a Havana suburb. The upraised hand you see on the far right of the photo below is a tribute to the five Cubans imprisoned in the U.S. since 2001 for attempting to prevent attacks on Cuba launched from Miami.

 3. Cuban dance goes way beyond the typical Cuban show. It owes its unique fluidity and energy to the state-supported training in ballet, modern and folkloric (Afro-Cuban) techniques that dancers (and other artists) receive from middle-school years through university. You'll be able to see this training in action at Hedwig Dance's upcoming concert June 20-21, 2013,  at Chicago's Atheneum. This company's Cuban dancers move with the spirit of their first home, and Cuban modern company Danzabierta just might make a guest appearance.
Pais Deseado (Desired Country) by artist Tonel at La Factoria 

 4. Cuba is not dangerous. It's safer than most U.S. cities and you can eat and drink everything served in paladars, government restaurants and hotels. While the U.S. office of Foreign Asset Control requires you to follow the itinerary for which your tour group is licensed, no one checks, and in fact you can go where you please. Taxis are cheap and plentiful.

5. Cubans have not given up religion. Though most of Cuba's Catholic churches are no longer used for services, there are temples where members of our group attended lay-led Friday services, and Santeria, the Yoruba-derived religion, is alive and well. A million people attended mass celebrated by Pope John Paul in the Plaza de la Revolucion when he visited in 1998.

Chair art at La Gaurida, a paladar

6. Socialism doesn't have to mean dreary. Our first stop, the monumental Plaza de la Revolution, is dominated by a tower memorializing José Marti, the 19th-century hero of Cuban independence from Spain. Besides the Mass mentioned above, the plaza is used for big social dances and other community events. Signs for CDF's, Centers for Defense of the Revolution, are ubiquitous (see slideshow below) and recall times when these block groups were used for ferreting out anti-revolutionary sentiments, but now people seem to speak freely. There is no free press in Cuba and many lacks: food, medicine, pencils, paper, and books, partly caused by the U.S. embargo. Posters advocating "free the five," symbolized by the upraised hand in the mosaic photo above, are common. Cubans neither own property nor pay rent, but individuals can improve their dwellings, and the artists' homes we visited were gorgeous: thirty-foot ceilings, elaborate tiled floors, art on all the walls.

Click below to see a slideshow of photos of Cuba with music by Pablo Menendez and Mezcla.
Give it plenty of time to load on your computer.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Kyoto—Kaiseki Dinner at Next

Japanese Maple Forest: Appetizers for Four
Burning branch and moon
 According to a scroll curled delicately on the table at Next Restaurant, "Kaiseki layers the literal, hidden, and subconscious representations of nature and humanity in food in order to transport the diner." On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, four of us were transported.The art of the meal was impeccable, with more exquisite cultural references than I could take in or remember.

Named for the warm "bosom stones" Buddhist monks used under their robes to make them feel full, Kaiseki has come to mean a series of small courses served prior to strong, bitter tea. The dining experience is now elaborate and complex but still culminates in rice, soup and pickles, followed by tea. For the first time at Next, Erica and I were joined by friends, Harriet and Lou. The evening began with lighting of a branch, symbolizing autumn,  hung from a sculpted moon.
Our first course was a sweet and smoky cornhusk tea, uniting Japanese tradition with midwestern produce. A sort of tofu made of chestnut and miso carried the aroma of burning hay into the next course.
Japanese Maple Forest (above) was a spectacular assortmant of small appetizers, a sort of autumn, Asian counterpart to the "Winter Woods" course on Next's Childhood menu. Among the delicious morsels were shrimp heads, bodies and legs, each prepared separately, fish roe on fried soy milk skins, and fried, shaved parsnip. Two sashimi courses followed, accompanied by a shiso dipping puree and red sea grapes. A "lidded" course came next: a rich broth, "maple dashi," once again smoky and garnished with tiny shimeji mishrooms.
Grilled Barracuda
Substantial chunks of grilled, skewered barracuda provided more substantial food, served with a delicate wasabi leaf dip and an egg-yolk-soy sauce.

Matsutake Chawanmushi, Pine Needle
The delicate, savory custard called chawanmushi came next, while pine needles on a hot stone in the center of the table added aroma. The tiniest tempura imaginable were made of fried chrysanthemum, shiso leaf and eggplant, perfectly crisp. Sakes of increasing complexity accompanied each course, with a specially brewed Haptera Ale from Chicago's Half Acre for the barracuda. The last savory course was the soup, rice and pickles that once were added to the kaiseki stones as prelude to matcha tea. For the second time in the meal, I felt that I was eating sustaining food, in addition to absorbing art and culture. But the art was still there, in the form of gorgeously arranged vegetables in the pot over which a broth was poured. Sticky rice and shochu "kakushigura," a barley whiskey, accompanied.

Preparation for Soup, Rice, Pickles

"First Snowfall"

"First Snowfall" was sweet, with an edible maple leaf, a fuyu persimmon half stuffed with persimmon mousse, a fried soy milk skin, soy ice cream and a deeply caramelized carrot. The long-anticipated tea and a gelatinous "warabi mochi", eaten in blobs speared with a stick, finished the meal.

Though autumn had ended, the moon made a farewell appearance at the end, and I felt the season had never been so closely observed or deeply celebrated. But I confess I ate a piece of squash pie when I got home.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Turkey Trot Redux—Asian-Tinged Thanksgiving

Erica after the Turkey Trot
Erica making stuffing
Erica ran it again this year and finished ecstatic, free of the shin splits that had plagued her. Gloria Zager and I awaited her at the finish line, where cold wind whipped our hair.

 Back home we continued a two-day cook-a-thon, in which each traditional Thanksgiving dish was flavored in some Asian way: star anise in the stock; green beans dry-fried with ginger, garlic and salted, fermented black bean; kale salad with fish sauce in the dressing; ginger in the cranberry sauce. Erica had discovered the colorful kale salad, which combined fine-sliced, marinated leaves with crisp baked ones. She also aced a sesame-bacon brittle that garnished miso-flavored sweet potatoes.
Cranberry sauce, bacon-sesame brittle, kale salad
Kale salad close-up
  Caveny Farm provided a Bourbon Red, free-range, heritage turkey, and dry brining assured a tasty, moist bird. I tried once again for perfectly crisp Brussels sprouts, but all agreed I'd have to start again next year to raise that Sisyphean rock. Tired of watching the Kabocha Squash pie disappear every year at the holiday party before the cooks have had a taste, we made it for this smaller group. The recipe is by Pichet Ong, and it's the best of kind.
Kabocha Squash Pie

Joan Kast, having just quit a horrible job, sat poised on the brink of
Joan Kast
 an open-ended future, looking happy and relaxed as you can see.