Sunday, August 2, 2015

That Sweet, Sweet Grant Cheddar, Writing News, Art Win

I don’t have much this week—it was a long and brutal work week, and all I did was go to work, come home, collapse sweltering onto the couch, and do the whole thing over again the next day. All work and no play has made this a dull typist, so this will be a short-ish post.

Someone from my writing group recently sent me a link to a grant application for fiction writers. It’s a $10,000.00 unrestricted grant, just for being a good storyteller. I haven’t looked into it with any seriousness yet, but I’m thinking about applying—not because I have any chance of winning, but because it would be an exercise in pulling myself together and formally presenting myself as a writer, which I’ve never really done. I’m finally at the point that I think of myself as a writer and can even call myself a writer out loud, but I have never, for example, put together a writer’s resume, compiled my publications credits in one document, or done any formal analysis of my own work, all of which is required for the application. I feel somehow if I go through the process of applying, by the end of it I will have a tidy package of Writer Me, all ship-shape and shiny, that I can present as proof of my legitimacy. If nothing else, it will be fun to fantasize about the possibility, however remote, of an extra ten grand to throw around.

In writing news, I’ve been moping around (insert obligatory gripe about the endless Seattle heat wave here) for the last month or so, feeling sun-shot and lazy, waiting for inspiration to strike. I think I finally hit on something yesterday; an idea for a short piece that is rapidly blossoming into a full-length story about a wealthy recluse. That’s never been done before, so right out of the gate, I have originality on my side! I haven’t gotten very far with it, but it felt good to work on something again. It looks like I may have a new publisher for “The Acme Employee Handbook”, but no information at the moment on when it may be coming out. The novel is a still awaiting final feedback, editing, and proofing, but it’s my goal to get it out the door and into the hands of an agent before the end of the year.

I mentioned a few posts back that I joined the Art Committee at work, and I made my first big official decision last week! I was tasked with finding a place to hang two rather unique framed art quilts. One is quite large and quite red. One is made of license plates. I was really nervous that I hadn’t picked the “right” spot and that no one would like the work, or worse yet, it would be met with indifference. But as it turns out, the quilts are a huge hit! I was amazed and deeply gratified to see how excited people were about them, and that they actually took the time to stop and engage with the work. It’s fascinating to me how much just those two pieces alone shifted the energy of the spaces they were placed in and generated so much delight. If I decide to make a career transition in late life, I’m going to become an interior decorator and just spend all day making people happy with drapes and pretty hanging things.

--Kristen McHenry

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Future Cat is Present Cat, Library Shame, Weird Western

Future Cat, who I blogged about last week, is now Present Cat. After a flurry of phone calls and a lot of confusing interactions with the adoption agency and the pet store that housed him, we finally managed to pay all the fees and sign all the paperworks, and we took him home on Monday night. 

I’m not going to lie; the first few days with Present Cat were rough. Of course I would zero right in on the cat with abandonment issues. He also seemed to have a touch of PTSD, coupled with severe food anxiety. He very quickly figured out that “kitchen” equals “food”, creating a situation in which every single time we even approached the kitchen, he would yowl hysterically. He gobbled up every morsel we fed him, and cried for more. We finally decided to just leave a constant supply of kibble for him in his dish, but we had to stop that because he’d just eat the entire bowl in one sitting. He got whiny if one of us wasn’t in sight at all times, and he needed constant reassurance, attention, and stimulation. But he’s already calmed down considerably. He seems to realize we’re not going to abandon him or starve him out, and he’s stopped yowling every single time we go near the kitchen. He’s figured out ways to entertain himself, mostly consisting of torturing his feather toy and taking running leaps from the top of the cat tree onto the back of the couch. Despite his anxiety and his wild kitten energy, he’s quite a curler-upper and very snuggly. We named him Sammy. We’re happy he’s with us.  

I live literally one block away from my neighborhood library, but for some reason, I just don’t go anymore. I needed a new environment to jump-start my flaccid writing muscles today, so I headed over to my local branch to sketch out a few ideas for new projects. Before I left, I decided to check out a few poetry books, and it turns out that it’s been so long since I used my library card that they deleted me from their system, and I had to apply for a new one. I’m so ashamed! Part of the personal mythology I have created around myself is that I am A Person Who Loves Libraries. And I do. I don’t know why I don’t utilize them more, especially the lovely one that is right near my apartment. I have resolved to make library visits a regular part of my life from here on out. They are so calm and quiet and book-scented. I need more library in my life! Cats and libraries and poetry. That’s who I am folks. No running away from it.

In writing news, the ideas I jotted down today were just sort of meh, but I have one that I’m going to play around with that may become a regular series on this blog. Until the novel is actually shipped off to an agent, I think I’m going to focus on writing shorter, more experiential pieces. The one I have in mind involves a mysterious time-traveling cowboy. Don’t ask me why--he just keeps haunting me, so think I need to get him onto the page. I also played around a little bit with writing a slam poem, as I’ve been inspired by a brilliant slam poet in my writing group. Alas, I don’t think slam is in my talent wheelhouse, but I’m going to keep working on it and see if I can cobble together a piece that might work for an open mic or something. We’ll see. In the meantime, I’m just blitheringly grateful for a bit of rain and the cooler temps. Ahhhh….Seattle weather is back, and I feel like a proper human again. 

Addendum: Since I got some complaints about not including pics of Sammy, viola! Pics of Sammy:

--Kristen McHenry

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Whiplash of the Heart, Future Cat, Against Happiness

Future Cat?
Mr. Typist was out most of today, and I had Big Plans to Do All The Writing. I was going to buckle down, stop being so wishy-washy, and just pick a new project to delve into. Instead, I wasted a lot of time surfing the internet, then when I got tired of that, I puttered around, dusting, vacuuming, and emptying out the cat boxes. I didn’t need to empty out the cat boxes, because sadly, the last of our trio of cats died suddenly this week, leaving Mr. Typist and I sick with grief and reeling with what I coined, through my wracking sobs, “whiplash of the heart.” I’ve had neck whiplash. I can tell you without a doubt that heart whiplash is way more painful.

Somewhat unconsciously, I did all of that cleaning and dusting and vacuuming to prepare our abode to welcome a new cat. It’s been less than a week since Yoshi died, and I have already found the lack of a cat in our household to be an unacceptable condition.  I’ve never been good at delaying gratification, and I’m getting even less so as I age. The hell with some arbitrary grief waiting period: I'm applying ruthless pragmatism to this situation. I have a cat-shaped hole in my heart, and the solution to a cat-shaped hole is a cat. So I dragged Mr. Typist off this afternoon to look at a ten-month-old kitten who’s currently boarded at our local pet store. After a few token minutes of playing with His Adorableness in the Visitation Room, we put in an application. And now we wait-- and I go online and start compiling potential names for Future Cat. On the list so far is:


I hope we get him.

It’s been a hard week encased in the brittle shell of a hard few years, made all the more exhausting by the relentless cultural pressure I feel to Seek Happiness and Find Fulfillment. I stopped going to counseling because I got frustrated with supposed professionals telling me that the most important thing is my personal happiness, and that I, and I alone, am responsible for it. Helped along by reading Eric G. Wilson’s “Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholia”, I had a revelatory moment this week in which I realized that, actually, I’m not responsible for my own happiness, because I am in no way obligated to be happy. Knowing I am under no obligation to be happy released me from attachment to a lot of culturally-ingrained ideas about what my life should look like, and instead has allowed me to experience the full emotional and spiritual richness of what's actually happening. 

The pathological value we place on happiness in this society is a torturous psychological burden. We have this idea that if we are suffering, something is wrong, and that it’s our moral obligation to get to a state of non-suffering as soon as possible, rather than sitting with what is. We’re uncomfortable—even terrified—of the least expression of melancholia. Sadness is not a rich emotion to be experienced and mined for its gifts, but something to be immediately counseled out of us or drugged away. We’re not allowed to show unhappiness or admit to defeat or be anything other than perky, or worse yet, “resilient”.

It’s hard to be a lone voice in the wilderness of the happiness-obsessed. But it’s a huge relief to realize that’s it’s okay to just be who I am, where I am, and to honor the truth of that, even though it that truth isn’t necessarily sweet and syrupy.

And now for a good dose of delicious melancholia, here’s a sad piano:

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Waiting Period, Game Review: Alum, My Interior Interior Designer

Having finished the novel and possibly secured a new publisher for “The Acme Employee Handbook”, I’m officially in between writing projects, and waiting for inspiration to strike me.  I have a red journal full of ideas from writing prompts, but I don’t feel compelled to invest my creative energy into any of them. So I’m still waiting. Three nights ago I dreamt of a turtle, the next night I dreamt of an egg, and last night I dreamt that I was pregnant. I know intuitively these dreams are about my creative process; perhaps about an incubation, a waiting period. So wait I will.

In the meantime, I’m whiling away my weekend hours playing video games. The latest one is “Alum”, a Kickstarter-funded independent game from Crashable Studios, with a heavily-pixelated retro look and feel, and a fascinating story: In the city of Kosmos, everything is seemingly perfect. It’s temperate year-round, there’s no unemployment, and robo-cops maintain perfect order, so crime is non-existent. Nonetheless, an alarming number of its citizens are suffering from The Vague, a depression-like affliction that causes them to shut down emotionally, speak in monosyllables, and lay slumped in a zombie-like daze. Alum, the main character of the game, is desperately seeking a cure for The Vague, as his girlfriend Esther has been stricken with it. In his search for a cure, Alum is banished from Kosmos by its authoritarian overlord. He soon meets a mysterious wise man who gifts him with the cure called a Rushlight, provided by a god-like force known as the Altruist. Alum’s goal is to return to Kosmos to share his Rushlight with Esther in order to cure her. In his quest, he meets a band of rebels of who have been gifted with Rushlights of their own, and are trying to get back into Kosmos to share their lights with its citizens and defeat its Machiavellian leader.

I read one review which posited that “Alum” is a Christian allegory, and I think that may be true. There’s a clear battle between good and evil. The Altruist speaks to Alum throughout the game, telling him that he has plans for him and providing him with direction, which so far Alum is ignoring in his obsession with curing Esther. There are demonic black creatures lurking around who are up to no good, and many of the characters have moral battles with themselves, fighting their sinful natures and suffering from deep shame about their weaknesses. But the story of “Alum” could also be interpreted as a metaphor for enlightenment—the Rushlight provides peace, wisdom, and deep compassion to its bearers. I’m still only about halfway through the game, but so far I’ve found it surprisingly deep and morally complex.

 My sister recently posted a link to the website “Apartment Therapy”, which I have I now become obsessed with. Even with the Tiny House movement being all the rage, there is still a dearth of information about living in and decorating small spaces. At one time, I wanted to be an interior designer, but I was daunted by having to learn the math involved, so I never pursued it. Having joined the Art Committee at work, my latent decorator has burst through in full force, and have discovered my hidden talent for such things. “Apartment Therapy” is feeding the decorating beast within, and I am plotting all sorts things involving re-purposed wood, antique brass candlesticks, and funky woven baskets lined with bright linens. Don’t tell Mr. Typist!

--Kristen McHenry

Monday, July 6, 2015

Saturday, July 4, 2015

I Know People, Game Review: Botanicula, and Formal Verse Series #5: Ode to the Television

I’ve been wracked with a sort of hypomanic irritability lately, probably due to the fiery breath of hellish 90+-degree weather ravaging Seattle, and as a result, I’m getting a lot of unimportant things done. Once of those things was cleaning up my Linked In profile and “friends” list, or whatever you call it on Linked In. I’m annoyed that I have to have a Linked In account at all, but it feels inevitable. I don’t want to  maintain it, I don’t want to deal with it, and the whole thing is a complete nuisance, but I’m afraid if I don’t have one, it will somehow negatively affect me. I’ve given in to some unspoken pressure, or maybe it was spoken pressure at some point; I don’t remember now.  Anyway, I recently went through and deleted a lot of “bad” contacts, and reviewed a very long list of potential contacts, which was fascinating. I do know a great number of those contacts, or at least am somehow tangentially connected to them through my profession or my writing life. It was like a journey through the last ten years of my dual careers. I sent out about ten “connection” requests as a result. I realized through this process that despite thinking of myself as a semi-hermit, I actually have a fairly large circle of acquaintances. I’m out there, meeting people and doing things! Oh, God, just writing that sentence exhausted me.

Because I can’t sleep, (heat), and The Secret World keeps crashing (heat), I recently downloaded a quirky little point-and-click game from Amanita Designs called “Botanicula”. This is the same studio out of the Czech Republic that put out “Machinarium” a few years ago, which I took a good stab at but ultimately found too maddening. However, “Botanicula” is a complete delight. I find it very meditative. The visuals are beautiful, the score is stunning, and the “puzzles” are far more intuition than logic-based, which works well for my right-brained bent. There are no instructions or “hints”—you’re just left to potter through the beautiful landscape (a mystical tree born of a fallen star) and click around until something happens. The game is extremely immersive in that the score, the sound, and the gameplay all work together to allow your mind to let go and just intuitively follow the internal (non) logic of its weird and wild landscape.

The gameplay itself involves navigating a scrappy band of critters on a mission to save their tree from corrupt forces that threaten to destroy it. This adorable team is composed of a flowering twig, a lantern, a mushroom, a feather, and what appears to be a chestnut seed.  They each have individual talents and personalities, but the group is never separated. They travel through various sections of the tree, rescuing critter-babies, saving fishermen, finding keys, and in my favorite section so far, retrieving the oddly specific number of fourteen chickens in a dementedly complex and hilarious sequence of  bribery, trades, and cunning puzzle-solving. There’s also a highly entertaining “mini-game” segment where each of the critters takes a hallucinogen and has a bizarre dream. You have to play their mini-game dream sequence until each one comes down from their trip. I’m taking a four-day weekend and I’m between writing projects, so “Botanicula” has been a marvelous brain un-winder. I highly recommend it. (The trailer below is a bit misleading—the game is very slow-paced, and enemies rarely pursue the critters with much verve.)

Continuing on with the Formal Verse Series, below is a good poem for a sticky-hot, brain-sapping July day—a silly rhyming poem I wrote a number of years ago after flat-out lying to a co-worker about my TV viewing habits. Mind you, I didn’t mean to lie—she was one of those super-smart, liberal NPR types who said she “didn’t own a TV”. Without even thinking about it, I piped up with “Oh, same with me! I never watch TV." This was after a weekend of binge-watching for about ten hours straight. To this day, I don’t know what compelled me to fib. I guess I was just trying to fit in. Anyhow, enjoy “Ode to the Television”:

Ode to the Television

Give me your background noise, your winking lights,
Your Iron Chefs and your spandexed fights;
Your Animal Planet, your wild girls,
Your Adult Swims and your rapping earls;
Your Easter colors and hushed affairs,
Your stomping models with their sullen stares.  

Give me those abs, as flat as a nickel,
The slayer with his rusty sickle;
Astute detectives, forensic porn,
A frumpy mother done-up, reborn;
Tell me my skin can glow like honey,
And quitting my job will lead to money.

Grant me grace in the dark when I’m in pain,
When my loneliness asserts it’s reign.
Give me your shocks, and your wives done wrong,
Your perfect ending, a cheering throng;
Your spangled dancers, your jazzy band,
Your laconic hosts and your hipster brand.

Tell me that my deepest, scariest ill
Can be vanquished with a common pill.
That I’m sexy with this latest scent,
Then I’ll sleep easy, at last content.
Tomorrow I’ll claim to hold this view.
like Judas, that I have never known you.

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Gripe Reform, Fashion Lesson, Half-Assed Movie Review, and that Time I Didn’t Jump Into Greenlake in My Underpants

I’ve noticed that I cycle through a routine litany of complaints on this blog based on the seasons. After nine years (!) of blogging here, I’ve become absurdly predictable: Sun, heat, no professional hot-weather clothes, allergies, allergies, fatigue, bad knee, cold, Christmas, weight gain, hormones, work stress, can’t find decent fill-in-the-blank consumer good, Mr. Typist leaves his stuff all over, cat, knee, allergies, cat. So I am not going to bitch yet again about the disgusting 90-degree heat. I will exercise constraint. I’m not going to rant about how I didn’t move to the Northwest so I could be subjected to L.A. weather, how the relentless sun and lack of rain is killing my soul, how I miss boots and sweaters, and how unfair it is that as a Northern European, blue-eyed red-head I am probably going to get skin cancer living in, of all places, Seattle, where it’s supposed to be gloomy and gray all year round, but wherein the last few summers have been dementedly hot and sunny for an area in which only two percent of the domiciles have air conditioning. Nope--I’m not going to gripe or moan about any of that. AND, I’m going to share a sartorial victory—around this time last year, I wrote an angry screed about the lack of professional hot-weather clothing for women. But just today, I trundled off to Fred Meyer and found a plethora of….drum roll please…breezy, light-weight, professional tops I can wear to work for the summer! I was so completely delighted I didn’t even mind that the place was jammed full of mean, crabby, sweaty people who were obviously just there to get out of the heat and scam some free air conditioning.

If I may channel Tim Gunn for a moment and lay a fashion lecture on you: The blouse pictured here is decidedly not a drippy blouse. It is a decent work blouse you can wear in the heat. It does not contain extranea. It is not garish. It is not burdened with a bejeweled neckline or frivolous bobbly things on strings. It has tasteful pattern that can be combined with neutrals, blues, or blacks, it is nicely gathered in the center. It has shape and structure, yet it flows. (I like my clothes to flow.) I bought five such blouses today. Not five of the same blouse, obviously, but five different blouses that meet that criteria. I guess that’s pretty much what I’ll be wearing for the remainder of this hideously scorching summer: All of five non-drippy blouses in varying shades of purple, neutral, and blue. Woot!

When I started this blog post, I was in the middle of watching a rental of “While We’re Young” on my tablet.  I had about a half hour left to go in the movie, and I didn’t love it. I don’t mind sad movies, but I have grown weary of hopelessly unredeemable sadness, both in my life and in my media. There is a certain type of indie movie that seems to be popular now, with people being sad and wistful. They are sad and wistful at the beginning of the movie, and then slightly more sad and wistful at the end of the movie. In between, not much happens. But I took a break from writing this post to finish watching the movie, and the ending really pissed me off. I have a personal pet peeve around redemption narratives that involve pregnancy or adopting children. It’s a lazy, cheap way to create meaning in a character’s life, and I really dislike it as a device. Of all of the things that happened to these characters--of all of the ways they could have found a creative outlet for their ennui and hopelessness, of all of the ways they could have corrected their mistakes, they just to get to erase everything with the easy cultural shorthand of having a baby. Because we all know that fixes everything. Ben Stiller didn’t have to figure out a way to make his incredibly dull, pedantic documentary shine, and his sad shell of a wife never found her own voice or a way to differentiate herself from her famous, lauded father, but hey, all of that would have been too complicated to work out narratively, so let’s just have them adopt a foreign baby, and, bam, everything is sunny and sweet and okay now. It’s an insta-fix. I don’t understand why acquiring an infant is considered a way to solve everything, both in fictional narrative and in real life. But I really resent being dragged through a painfully awkward ninety minutes of stilted Millennial hipster-vs-Gen Xer conflict, only to have everything wrapped up neatly with the baby-bow trope. I think writer/director Noah Baumbach could have done better.

Continuing with the formal verse series and the theme of regret and failure, below is a poem about another fail: The day Ididn’t jump into freezing-cold water in Greenlake for the Poet’s Polar Bear Plunge. Even though I wrote an overly-dramatic poem about my lack of spontaneity, I know deep within my heart I that I made the right decision in that specific circumstance. That water was cold, swampy, and infected with god-knows-what, and every single person who jumped in got sick the next day. Risk-aversion has it’s perks!


Time once, my heart would court and take
The black burn of the freezing lake,
And love the fight, hard and bold,
Against the alchemy of cold.
But now my veins are lax and weak;
My soul is flaccid; my mind is bleak. 
Courage fled me long time past,
And my mettle was long surpassed
By remittance of fearful debts.
For all one gives to life, one gets:

I watched the others risk the pain,
And ached to feel that free again;
To toss off fear and grab the heart
Of this frigid, giddy art!
To dunk my dullish, talking head
In living waters and dare tread;
My body's furnace roaring heat
To fuel my hubristic feat.
I could have chanced this dare--and more,
But I'm afraid I've lost the war

Against the gods of angst and qualms:
I've traded in my nerve for alms,
And spent the coin on safety nets
And hedged or reneged all my bets.
The world is divided so
Between those who live life in flow;
Who embrace the water's passion--
And those who prudishly ration
Their fulfillment for protection,
But take no joy in its collection.

--Kristen McHenry

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Formal Verse Series #3, I Read Poetry on a Poetry Bus, It’s Starting Already

Today, I was at Anderson Park in Redmond for Poets in the Park. I was double-booked to read for both Rose Alley Press and the new anthology “Raising Lily Ledbetter” from Lost Horse Press, which published one of my poems from “The Acme Employee Handbook”. When it comes to public displays of myself, I’m a bit of a Nervous Nellie under the best of circumstances, but all of the unknowns involved in reading at this event conspired to make me an anxious wreck: The event was outdoors, and I’ve never read poetry outdoors in the daytime before. I didn’t know the layout of the park, I didn’t know where I would be reading, what the acoustics would be like, and how many people would be there. And I didn’t think my selections were suitably summery, but I do not have any summery poems, as I am decidedly not a summer person. (I have few poems that speak bitterly of Spring, but that’s about it.) It turns out that the first reading for Rose Alley Press was on a literal poetry bus, one of the Metro buses that displays poetry from their awesome “Poetry on Buses” Program. So all of us poets were reading poetry--on a poetry bus! Which is pretty poetic when you think about it.

The only problem was that the space was cramped, as buses are, and I was all tied up in nervous knots because of how intimate it was, and I had so much adrenaline coursing through my body I was shaking, which made me self-conscious that everyone was thinking I wasn’t cool because I was shaking, and I don’t feel like I turned in a great performance. But Mr. Typist assured me I was “fantastic”, which is what spouses are for. I felt a little better about the Lily Ledbetter reading, which was on a proper stage, but then I found out later that I mispronounced a word in one of my poems. Pshaw, whatever. Then, as we were driving home, Mr. Typist informed me that my black tights were “a bit sheer” and that while “it’s nothing to be embarrassed about” I should be aware of that. I wore a blouse and a long, light sweater that I thought adequately covered my assets, but apparently maybe not. I didn’t delve too deeply into his comment, but I’m going to assume that at least one point, I inadvertently flashed some cheek. So that’s it. It’s starting already. I’m the spaced-out, eccentric poet-lady doddering around at public readings mispronouncing words, completely unaware of the inappropriateness of her clothing.

But the good thing is, there was another female poet who read on the bus, too--who had something like seven Master’s Degrees--and I loved her poetry! I talked to her briefly in the bathroom, but I had to get ready for the other reading so I didn’t have time to get her contact information. But when I got home, I had a Facebook invite from her, so yay!

Overall, the event was very inspiring, and has me thinking about a possible new poetry project.

Continuing with the Formal Verse series, below is an early formal verse poem of mine called “Miss America”, which I now feel a little bit ambivalent about. It’s not that I don’t like it anymore or don’t think that it’s a good poem (it won third place in a contest once if that means anything), I just feel like it veers uncomfortably close to being a cheap shot at a group of people who are just trying to make their way in the world the best they can, and if that involves grubbing for diamond tiaras and touting world peace, who's really the worse for it? It’s satire, but I do have a slightly more nuanced perspective on the whole thing now. And full disclosure—I was absolutely captivated by the Miss America competition as a little girl. I think it was mostly because of the red roses. If the winner hadn’t gotten that fat bouquet of beautiful, deep red roses, I don’t think I would have had quite the same interest. At my wedding, I had a huge, “let me walk around it”-sized bouquet of velvety red roses, and I loved them with all of my heart. Anyway, I hereby present you with “Miss America”:

Miss America

Crown me, beautiful me: America in an evening gown.
Awed to be chosen, ready for service in the army of cheer,
The icon of our personification, our collective noun.
Even my teeth are graceful, and my humble tears shimmer as clear
As diamante on my cheekbones, as I drift like sunlight down
The holy strewn walkway, floating in the winner’s blessed sphere.
In a flashbulb storm, I’m dazzling yet yielding as a willow:
I’m your pristine sweet queen, clutching twelve red roses like a pillow.

How you love my fragility; I’m as cherished as blown glass
With my innocuous intelligence, my benevolent flaws,
My love of all the needy children, and my plucky southern sass.
I love you back, America. I’m you. I’m gorgeous, with a cause.
You acclaim my scholarly ambitions and my pert, pretty ass.
I’m offering my unmarred soul to your expectant, open jaws.
I’m riding the glazed slip-stream bliss-wave of your self-adoration.
I’m the promised maiden-mother of our loneliest nation.

Pay no attention that sullen girl hunched in the front row.
My unknown sister, this defeated American, a renter
Who can only dream in gray and white, and who never had my glow.
All my lessons on womanly charm don’t seem to reach her center.
I’ve warned her; she is what happens when a woman lets herself go.
She’s got nothing to show for her life except the love I’ve lent her.
But she goes on unshaven, wearing used clothes and reading old books
And strange of all, she’s lost her fear of losing her declining looks.

She watched her mortgage, her mental health, her second marriage, all fail.
She’s not us, America. She just quit; just dropped out of the fray.
Now she sings jazz songs on the street corners and throws away the mail.
All out of options, she acts like she’s onto something anyway
As she scribbles poems in the bars at night and sells her verse for ale.
She says she feels so damn free since she’s lost her American way.
But don’t doubt yourself, America. My flag will always billow.
I’m your pristine sweet queen, clutching twelve red roses like a pillow.

Kristen McHenry

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sun Assault, Creative Incubation, Formal Verse Series #2

June in Seattle usually mopes around in a cloud of sullen, chilly rain, but this June sashayed in bursting with sunny good cheer and warm temps. And I, for one, feel completely assaulted by it. Anyone who has read my blog for any length of time has probably surmised by now that I’m sun-averse, and I resent having an entire extra month of it to deal with. I have to put sunscreen on before I leave for work, and before I leave work for home, because even a 20-minute walk to or from downtown leaves my skin lobster-red. I detest the slimy feel of sunscreen, but if I don’t use it, I end up with a perma-burn. My sinuses are chronically infected because of allergic irritation due to the lack of rain, and I have the added burden of having to keep track of sunglasses. Bleh. I want the drizzle and overcast skies back.  

Right now, I’m in a period of creative incubation. The novel is effectively complete, and I don’t have any new poems or short stories on the horizon. I have plenty of ideas, but nothing that I feel compelled to plunge into just yet. I feel intuitively that I need a creative rest break right now. It doesn’t feel like a block—I haven’t been blocked in some time—I just feel like I need time to let the soil regenerate and allow space for something new to form. It’s like being on creative vacation, or perhaps hiatus is a better word. In the meantime, I have a few things pending: I’ll be reading next Saturday at Anderson Park for the Poets inthe Park celebration. I’ll be doing two spots, one for David Horowitz of Rose Alley Press, and for Lost Horse Press’s “Raising Lilly Ledbetter” Anthology, which published one of my poems from “The Acme Employee Handbook”.  And speaking of “Acme”, I have re-submitted it to several publishers, and got one bite so far…I’m being very careful this time, so we’ll see how it goes.

Continuing with the formal verse series, below is a sestina that was included in my first chapbook, “The Goatfish Alphabet”:

A Sestina for St. Clare of Assisi

At twelve, I confirm my devotion.
Priests announce they have confirmed
my devotion. I am free to unbuckle
and walk about the aisle. Saint Francis
was devoted to Clare and Clare to poverty,
to St. Francis and to God.

My sash says St. Clare in yellow felt. God
is pleased with my dress and my devotion.
All us Yeses line up nice, in Godly poverty.
The 9:00 a.m. flight from my heart was confirmed
and scheduled for departure. St. Francis
cherished Clare; Clare cherished God; God unbuckled

Clare's heart and let her walk about the earth, unbuckled.
Poor Clare, devoted to prayer, to poverty, to God.
Hair, clothes, beauty, father,  mother, house: St. Francis
let you give it all up in devotion.
Clare said the royal Yes; Clare confirmed
her vow of Godliness and poverty.

Dear Clare, I am shrunken with God-poverty.
I come to you undone; unbuckled.
I regret that I have been unable to confirm
my devotion to St. Francis, to poverty,  to God.
Poor Clare: such heart to spare! Devoted;
praying and singing the prayers of St. Francis.

I, too, have sung prayers to St. Francis
and staked my claim on a kind of poverty,
my cheekbones sunken with my devotion
to elaborate self-denial--enough in fact to unbuckle
body, brain; but it never got me all the way to God.
Priests regret to inform me they were unable to confirm

My devotion, though I stood at Confirmation,
gazing through my tears at the sculpture of St. Francis
who was devoted to Clare, to poverty, to God.
God unbuckled Clare, and Clare undid her hair and married poverty.
I wish for God to do the same for me: to unbuckle
my heart and gasp at light of my devotion.

But God has been unable to confirm
my devotion, though I kneel before St. Francis,
in savage poverty, my soul unbuckled.

 --Kristen McHenry

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Formal Verse Series #1: The Skin Stealer: A Story Told in Letters

A few years ago, I went clinically insane for a brief period of time and decided it would be a great idea to write a formal, rhyming, epic poem about the Selkie myth. I had almost forgotten about that poem until last week, when I met with my writing group and we spent a good chunk of time discussing the joys of writing formal poetry; of how limitations force creativity. When I first started writing poetry, I wrote only formal verse, and I miss it. I might try my hand at formal-verse poetry again now that the novel is almost ready to go. But just for fun, I think I’ll post some of my early formal verse on this blog in a series. Here is the first, and by the far the longest of that series, entitled “The Skin-Stealer: A Story Told in Letters”. Enjoy! Or run away screaming. Either way, you can read more about the Selkie myth here if you want some context for the poem. 

This poem was originally published by Moon-Drenched Fables.

The Skin-Stealer: A Story Told in Letters

Dearest Ian,

She calls herself Leahla, her name like a wave;
Eyes: a dream to drown in, and her shape--
the Venusuian form that I crave.
I kissed her, brother Ian, on her gentle nape,
And she fell over me like water.
She has held me in her dark cocoon.
She's the ocean's soulful daughter,
my cooling storm, my bright monsoon.
We'll be wed at September's bright crisp end,
Our blood and bones at last to blend.

Dear Finn,

But at twenty-one you're yet so young!
Don't be fooled by the newest ripe lush sweet,
For your heart could be so easily stung
While your passion is fired to a crimson heat.
You have many women yet to love (and lose).
This woman has charmed you, and you've been led.
So, indeed let this Lealah be your muse,
But not the one that you love and wed!
A man must dance with many a girl
To find the most worthwhile pearl.

Dear Ian,

She appeared to me in the mystic night,
A specter on the darkened beach.
She knew my name and spoke it right,
Then clasped herself to me with her plump reach.
She said that she had waited these many years
Wandering desolate, alone and lost
Drenching the earth with her wretched tears--
And now she'd found me, our fates to cross!
“I am yours, I am yours!” she cried to me,
“I'll serve with only your love as fee.”

Dear Finn,

Such a seduction is a cunning stroke
I see she's gripped you with her yielding ways
Mother says you've wed since we last spoke
Brother, I wish you happiest days!
You've become a man in your own right now.
I am proud of you, my dear, grown Finn.
Be strong and true and keep your vow
To love this woman as your heart's own twin.
If she serves you well she's a worthy one.

Dear Ian,

Yes, brother Ian, she's a gentle bird;
A dreamy girl—soft and genial.
Never a says petulant word;
Refuses no task as beneath her or menial.
She lives her days to serve my meals and tea,
And keeps our home with pious grace.
But she spends long stretches staring out to sea.
At times there's such wistfulness on her face
That I wonder of whom she is dreaming--
Another she loves? It leaves my heart teeming!

One night she vanished with no word or kiss.
I searched for hours to find her alone,
Swimming naked in rapturous bliss
On a stretch of sea that like green glass shone.
Her hair was with broken seaweed salted.
I wrapped my coat around her curvy sway.
She took my hand, but froze and halted,
Loathe to let me lead her away.
Ian, at times I fear I cannot please her.
The good home I provide does not appease her.  

At night while I'm up late and reading,
In the darkness hear her faint keening,
And the sound of her prayers, like soft pleading.
I hear only her tone, not the meaning.
Ian, I fear that that she mourns a past love--
Though she swears to me her fierce devotion.
I must get control of this stealthy dove,
For her eyes tell of a darker emotion--
And a worthy man takes his wife in hand,
Her heart and loyalty to demand. 

 Dearest Brother,

Finn, there's no man whoever demanded
The love of a woman, who received her full heart.
Authentic love's not a thing commanded,
But a rich, mysterious course to chart.
When two are faithful and industrious
Time, trust and experience prime the heart.
In time love comes, bright and  illustrious,
To weave tight your souls, as a work of art.
But jealousy is a poisonous fire
That burns the object of its desire.

Dearest Ian,

I am sickened with the dregs of rum.
My behavior leaves me crushed with shame!
All night I imbibed, my pain to numb--
And I struck sweet Leahla with clumsy aim.
My dearest Leahla, my suffering one!
Her pain so quiet, yet such a thief.
And now I have left her soul undone.
I'm a monster trapped in helpless grief
I love and hate her with equal measure;
This mad wench; my hearts' curse and treasure.

Tonight I found her in the attic, frantic,
Her eyes glossed not with anger, but pleading
I was shocked at her hysteric antic!
She paced and scratched her arms to bleeding,
Insisting that I have---stolen her skin!
I fear she is mad beyond all mending.
What on earth does she speak of, my wise kin?
I know not of a skin, of no such rending!
I have taken from her nothing, but given all
And now in grief, it seems we both shall fall.

Telegram: Finn have you ever taken a skin from the beach. Stop. You must tell me at once. Stop. Very important. Stop. Ian

Damnit, Ian!
Why do you ask me such things? Please, I implore!
My head aches again and I'm on the brink
With Leahla's wailing on the ocean's shore.
Long ago at the cabin at Gavin's Drink, 
At  twilight, I snuck from my child's bed
Out to the seashore to watch the night stars
And seek Cassiopeia's shining head.
I found a fur blanket on the sandy bars,
And wrapped myself up and slept under the sky.
What of a fur borrowed, now years gone by?

Dear Finn,

Do you recall the stories Grandma told?
Those “tales of fancy,” as you so dismissed?
She told of the Selkies from the seas of old
The Seal-women who rise from the early mist
Then shed their skins to take human form
And lounge on the beaches, nude and free. 
If a man steals the skin of one so born
She must become his wife, and cannot flee.
Never to return to her home again,
Unless she should find her hidden skin.

Finn, she's been yours since that childhood day!
But until now, you've not been age of to wed
She'd been left to wander, wait and pray
that she'd find you—both her fate and dread--
So she could serve as wife, yet plot her flight.
Her mourning is not for some lover past,
but for the lost sea;  her refugee's plight.
To live without home is a dreary fast.
She's beholden to you until her skin is found.
You've taken her soul and kept it bound!

Brother Ian,

I am a scientist, not some damn fool!
I will never abide such nonsense tales.
Grandmother was mad, and you are cruel
to spout such rot! My mind simply fails
To comprehend your rambling missive.
I need you rational and clear of head--
Not  superstitious and derisive!
I am trapped in hell with a woman bred
For endless sadness, pain, and grieving,
But no love for me, no rapt receiving 

Of my tender care and adoration.  
At just twenty-one, my face is aging.
Ruddy with drink and dark creation.
You must help us stop the war we're staging.
Please come at once, so your peaceful ways
might soothe our ire and contain my drinking.
And you'll be a distraction in Leahla's days--
She'll have a new guest to serve and clean for;
A task to keep her from the tempting shore.

Dear Ian,

Grand to hear of your imminent calling!
I've told Leahla to take a fine shopping spree,
And prepare a bounty of goodness sprawling.
And Ian, I have begged her to forgive me
And she held me tight and whispered thus: 
“Dear, I cry for you, in my helpless love.”
You see? Already you're a charm for us!
Perhaps like long-hidden sun through the gray above,
Your mere presence will warm our troubled home,
And curb Leah's lustful urge to roam.

My Dear One,

Finn, you cared for me as a cherished guest.
Thank you for kindness while I was there.
I hope your lovely Leahla will take some rest,
For so attentive she was to my every care
That I worried for her own well-being.
Indeed, she is a rare gem to cherish;
Care well for her or your bond will perish!
I hope to hear by post in a fortnight's time
That your marriage is in it's loving prime.

Dear Ian,

Return at once! For I'm sick with grieving,
Leahla has been gone--five days duration!
I can find her nowhere, and since your leaving,
Your absence dampened our first elation-- 
The poison resentment returned unpurged,
She mourned again, so I grew enraged,
And my unwitting fists rose fast and surged
To strike her again! I fear she has fled
Dear Ian—forever! And I am dead.

Dear One,

Finn, you must accept the hand you were dealt.
But you will not forgive me this, I think:
I returned to Leahla her stolen pelt
I sought in the cottage at Gavin's Drink,
Packed in a crate, long forgotten by you.
Finn, from when I very first read your letters  
I fell in love with Leahla, and that love grew.
Yet I held my passion in iron fetters
Out of respect for you, dear brother Finn
But a love so ardent will always win.

It seems she chose to return to the sea,
Rather than burn her pelt and stay your wife.
But had you listened to her painful plea
For the freedom to return to her former life, 
She would have felt that you esteemed her so
That she'd have come to love you true.
But in your rage, you made her grief your foe,
And when at last she got her pelt, she flew
To the seaside, where into the sea she dove
Beneath the waves, to her seal-home's cove

Dearest Brother Ian,

When you read this, I shall be drowned.
I will follow Leahla into the sea's cold black 
I'm sorry, my dear brother, but I have found
Not a moments' solace with Leahla's lack.
In hell or heaven, it will be the same
This sickening loss of my priceless wife
And it's my fault alone; my deepest shame
I cannot thrive without her--my life!
Nor will I forgive your betrayal, brother.
I will die hating you in the sea's thick smother.

 --Kristen McHenry