Saturday, November 27, 2010

I don't know why this short piece hit me, perhaps because I'm struggling with a poem, struggling to learn Hebrew, tried and failed to learn piano, perhaps because I've tried to draw owls, but it seems apropos to my state of mind this morning. This from Ben Casnocha's interesting blog on current affairs and intellectual life:

I believe a key reason so many people on the road to mastery call it quits is not because drawing a beautiful owl in pencil is superhumanly hard. It's because they thought it would be easy

Thursday, November 25, 2010

BookList Review for Bathsheba Transatlantic--Why it Matters (at least to me)

My book, Bathsheba Transatlantic, was reviewed in Booklist this month. Alizah Salario, the reviewer, was very generous. First, here is the review:

In language evocative and vivid, Wetzel, selected winner of the Levine Prize in Poetry by judge Garrett Hongo, transports her readers to Israel in her first collection. As the title suggests, she dwells between continents and identities. Her snapshots of time and place coalesce into complex portraits, capturing the growth and discovery that occur in spaces between. Wetzel is in conversation with the past as she navigates present-day Israel, invoking Plato, Moses, and David to decipher modern-day dilemmas. Her keen insights are defined by her wide-eyed otherness, and she holds a microscope to the minutiae of everyday life in the way only an outsider can, whether in a close-up of a polygamist gardener or mulling her love-hate relationship with Tel Aviv. Wetzel’s work reveals itself slowly, even gracefully, and she effortlessly spins the particular into the universal. Some of her poems read like exhales—the release of tension through text—and give breath to a poet pondering her identity on the page.

— Alizah Salario, Booklist

Now I have a question: What good is a review anyway?

Perhaps a better way of pondering the same question is via its flip side—how much does a bad review matter?

For those of you who think there is another answer, let me tell you that on the personal level, it matters a lot. A reviewer approaches a book, obviously, from a much different perspective than a pure reader. A pure reader may or may not enjoy a book, but rarely makes the effort to articulate why she responded in a particular way. So a writer has little insight into why his or her book connected or failed to connect with the reader. This provides enormous psychological benefits for the writer. A writer can put a reader’s enjoyment or lack thereof down to subjectivity, to mood, can blame it on the weather or, even better, blame the reader. The reader just wasn’t educated enough or worldly enough or harbored hidden gender/racial/sexual biases. "It wasn’t my fault that the reader didn’t get me or my work."

On the other hand, a book reviewer has authority. The authority comes via three channels. First, the reviewer agrees to spend enough time with a particular work so that he or she can speak informatively about content, style, form, etc. Second, the reviewer presumably approaches the work with enough background in that particular genre to respond intelligently to the aforementioned criteria. Third, the forum publishing or presenting the review sanctions the opinion of the reviewer by propagating his or her words. This typically means a forum that is fairly well known or respected in its domain. Blogs and personal websites are also (increasingly so) becoming regarded forums for book and art reviews, but the market here is so fragmented, most haven’t obtained wide enough readership to move them significantly from the pure reader response category to the reviewer.

All of that to say, that a writer has a more difficult time blaming the reader for a lackluster opinion of her work. Gasp. It might be the work and not the reader.

So reviews matter. Of course they can help or damage sales, writer reputation, especially if the review comes via one of the major venues (e.g., NYTimes Book Review, New Yorker, etc.). But chances are if a book is being reviewed in these forums, the writer already has a large and loyal following. For less well known writers, it is the literary magazines, the online resources that come first.

Which is why I felt such release when my first review from someone who doesn’t know me was positive. This of course excludes the wonderful words penned by Garrett Hongo (who doesn’t know me personally) and who chose my book for publication. I know, I know. Much of what I’m saying here doesn’t need putting down and may in fact be obvious, but it helped me articulate for myself why I experienced the relief.

Anyway, as mentioned, the review was from Booklist, which for those of you don’t know (and why would you) is a book review from The American Library Association. I’m not sure it will generate sales but I do know, that if they had had nothing positive to say, I’d have been enormously down. And today is Thanksgiving! I’m hoping for other reviews and will steel myself for any and all critiques. But for those of you reviewing books, it matters, not just for readers, for those of us attempting to write.

Back to Booklist. Booklist is a subscription service and if you purchase books, a must-have resource. But they apparently don’t mind if I cite my small review (as long as I reference who wrote it.) P.S. I have a warm place in my heart for Alizah Salario, who reviewed my book.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Opposite of Home

I have lived in Israel now for over six years. Six years. I’ve never lived in one place for six years. I’ve never lived in any other place more than two. Granted, I spent one year of the six in New York. I spent another two years moving back and forth between Vermont and Israel, studying. When my mother was ill, I spent nine months back and forth between Atlanta and Israel. We moved twice within Israel. Last year, I bought the condo in New York and have been spending 50% of my time in the US. Still, I have called Israel home for six years. Home?

I am always dreaming of new places to live. I don’t mean JUST daydreaming about more square footage, a more extensive view, a different neighborhood, though like many people I often find myself imagining how it would be to live in a different house, a different city. I mean literally dreaming, at night, about the next place. Sometimes the dreams wake me up they are so dramatic and thrilling. They are often the ones I remember in the morning or when I wake up in the middle of the night. Of course this doesn’t mean they are my only dreams, but they are often the most vivid and I suppose the last ones I have before waking. Last night, there was a long rambling house on a hillside. From the window and through the trees, I could see the ocean throwing itself against a rocky shore. I knew, in the dream, I’d lived in the building before, in a smaller apartment, with a man I used to love. This time though I was looking at it for myself, only myself. The building was old and rooms had been added over time. Rooms opened to larger rooms, to balconies, to terraces. Some rooms had regular shapes, rectangular. Other rooms were round or had oddly shaped corners. There were places to hide. I knew there would always be a surprise in this house.

Like most dream houses, I never move into this house, even in the dream.

But I recognize the impulse that Kay Ryan describes in the short poem below to be free of encumbrances, to never settle, to test what it is that is most necessary. I don’t think I’m alone.

That Will to Divest

Action creates
a taste
for itself.
Meaning: once
you've swept
the shelves
of spoons
and plates
you kept
for guests,
it gets harder
not to also
simplify the larder,
not to dismiss
rooms, not to
divest yourself
of all the chairs
but one, not
to test what
singleness can bear,
once you've begun.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Six Days Left in Vermont

Outside my studio window, one of the painters is working. I too sat on one of the benches beside the river and tried to write. But the sound of the water, the warmth of the sun were too large of distractions.

It is a gorgeous day—spring-like and almost warm enough to walk without a sweater. I’ve been told that November in this part of Vermont is typically grey and cold. It’s hard to believe given the 5-day expanses of blue skies we’ve experienced. I suppose the more seasonal weather will return. Ten days ago, it snowed! But those memories seem far away, those recognitions even more distant.

I’m going for a hike!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Three Weeks in Vermont

Three weeks at Vermont Studio Center. I have loved being here. I have written. I have spent many hours in my studio staring at the river outside my window. I have hiked a bit. I have not slept enough.

I have dreamed.

Why do I keep writing about my dreams? My dreams are of use to nobody else.

Why do poets keep writing about their dreams? Their dreams are of use to nobody else.

Why do singers keep singing about their dreams? Their dreams are of use to nobody else.

Why do painters keep painting their dreams? Their dreams are of use to nobody else.

Freud said the universe of people possessed by one set of illusions or fantasies will be different than the universe of those possessed by another. He also said that every dream is either a wish or a counterwish.


It helps me sleep to know that other people dream. That their dreams are as strange, as grotesque, as burlesque, as mine.

It’s the same reason we can’t stop looking in each other's windows.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Genuineness of Artifacts in Vermont

I am a poet of place. The place I reside--the room, the color of the walls, the shape of the window, the smears of bug and human oil on the window pane, and what's outside the window--inflitrate my writing. How can it be otherwise unless you write with a blindfold?

The outside world can work its ways into the writing in insidious magical ways. I am working on a manuscript in which Israel figures prominently. Israel is the place I call home. I'm not sure all the poems I've begun here will survive but I've managed to begin many. What has been most surprising? The increased presence of water. There is a river outside my window and I find myself gazing at its watery progress many minutes of many hours. In some cases, the river becomes part of Israel, the Mediterranean, the Jordan River. In other cases, poems have emerged which seem completely disconnected from Israel.

I suppose none of this is revelatory but I wanted to put it down, so that I remember it. Here's a poem I wrote today in which Vermont, the river, one of the artists who I met here, and even an otter appear:

When I woke the world was the thin layer
between the chocolate cake and iced white
frosting. It was about to snow for the first time

that season and the earth was bunched up
into the cold. I knew it was going to be a good day
because I’d had a nightmare

about mushroom clouds and that the small otter
which I’m told lives in the river outside my door
had been found drowned. It’s true that the morning

after a bad dream, the structure of trees seems
more genuine. I know the first flakes don’t mean anything
but what I give to them. I know that even though

my mind conjures up a nuclear winter, still
the crocus will come, and that my knowing it
means nothing to you. I have a friend

who etches images of lost stone artifacts,
cornices, plaster friezes, columns and pilasters
into graphite pounded into a roughened white canvas.

They are ghosts, he says, of buildings vanished.
Though when they’re not quite right,
I’ve seen him take a hammer.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Vag Club

I'm still deep in the wilds of northern Vermont. If not wilds, definitely deep. The sun finally broke out this afternoon after what have seemed endless days of grey. I was a big chagrined to discover how tightly wound my psyche is with the weather.

Two nights ago, we did an informal reading here at the Studio Center. About 20 participated--either reading or just sitting back and listening. There was a lot of wine and chips consumed so the mood was pretty good. We read pieces of varying lengths. There were essays about torrid affairs with college professors, encounters between strippers and returning war veterans, stories of alzheimers and dying, and lots of poetry. I read two of mine, both of which I wrote here at VSC.

I've actually been extremely productive here--perhaps 20 poems so far, several much longer than I normally write. Not surprisingly quite a few are inhabited by a river and one by an otter. Outside my studio window are both.

Back to the reading. All of the readers were women. There are men here, but for some reason they are more reclusive. One of the gang called us a 'vag club.' Perhaps all the estrogen scared them away. Anyway, it was lovely and reminded me why I love my women friends.