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Now you can look inside!

Holden Caulfield did it.   So did Jimmy Stewart’s character in “Rear Window.”   I do it.  I’ll bet you’ve done it, too.

            When my sophomores read Catcher in the Rye, they sometimes express disapproval when Holden Caulfield stares a long while out of his hotel window at all the strange goings-on in the windows across from him.  “Weird,” they say.  “Creepy.”

            “Really?” I ask.  “So if you glanced out of your hotel room as Holden did and spied a man trying on women’s clothing and a couple spitting water at each other, you’d be able to turn away and continue unpacking your suitcase?  You’re finer folks than I am.  I’d be riveted.”

            In Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” Jimmy Stewart plays a character stuck in a wheelchair because of a broken leg.  Bored out of his mind, he takes to spying on his neighbors in the apartment building across the courtyard.  And he gets really serious about it, too—employing binoculars and later, a telescopic camera lens.

           What motivates them both?  Holden is feeling alone and blue, once again kicked out of another prep school, afraid to go home to face his parents’ disappointment and anger.  He feels cut off from others, and yet incapable of reaching out to anyone.  Why would the bizarre eccentricities of strangers hold his interest?   Is there a kind of comfort for him in discovering others with secrets to hide, who also do not fit neatly into acceptable society?

            Stewart’s character is bored and lonely.  He is used to a fast-paced life as a photographer, always on the go.  Unable to go out into the world as he normally does, to socialize and be entertained, he looks for something to fill the emptiness.  He has no TV to watch; it is many decades before the internet.  He looks out that window for the same reason we now scroll through Facebook—to divert himself from his solitude, to remind himself that he is not entirely alone.

            I haven’t actively spied on anyone since I was a child.  And I am generally way too busy to be bored.  But I do love to take long walks at night through my suburban neighborhood, and I confess that when a house is lit up and the curtains open, it is hard not to look inside, to wonder about the lives that are being lived inside those walls.

            I think we all have a fascination with other people.  Not only with celebrities living their big-splash lives, played out for us on the web and in the headlines, but also with the quiet, ordinary folks we work beside and live next-door to.  Are they like us?  Do they love what we love?  Do they also have secrets, sorrows and fears they try to keep hidden?

            This curiosity was one of the impulses behind my new book of poems, What The Neighbors Know.  The book is now available on Amazon, and the feature “Look Inside the Book” has just been enabled, making readable the two opening poems!

          “Opened Houses” deals with many of the ideas I have described above.  And “This House” explores the speaker’s mixed feelings about a home that must soon be sold.  In the first poem, the speaker is on the outside, looking in at the lives of others.  And in the second, it is the reader who looks in on the secret world the speaker inhabits.

           Hope you will take a minute to check the poems out!  Click on What The Neighbors Know above to find the book on Amazon.



The Next Big Thing

I was intrigued when poet Cynthia Atkins approached me about being one of her tagged writers for “The Next Big Thing,” a self-interview series.  I liked the idea of being able to say something more about my book than was being conveyed on Amazon or on my publisher’s website.  I also liked the idea of writers helping each other to promote their work.

It entailed me having to quickly put together a blog so I could make this post, and that resulted in a fair amount of hand-wringing, as I am generally clueless about all things technological.  My thanks to Keith Reeves for his help in making this blog a fast, functional and attractive reality.

And my thanks to Cynthia, for tagging me.  You can read her post about her book, In The Event of Full Disclosure, at

1. What is the working title of your book?

History of the Body.  And this is the actual title.  The book came out in September.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

A good friend pointed out to me one day that many of the poems I was writing focused in some way on the idea of the body—as it is inhabited by us in childhood, as an adolescent, as we grow older, and as we experience desire, love, children of our own, illness, aging.  I was looking for a way to take poems I already had and to add to them to make a cohesive manuscript.  So I began writing new work with this larger idea in mind.

At that time, I was also struggling with the loss of a relationship with someone who meant a great deal to me, and with whom I had been close for decades.  The book also traces the experience of that loss.

3. What genre does your book fall under?


4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

The speaker of the poems appears at different ages—as a child, a teenager, a young woman, in middle age.  It wouldn’t be a role any one actress could play.

The idea of a film made from a book of poetry is both hilarious and captivating to me.  In my wildest dreams, I’d like to have Uma Thurman, with her Pulp Fiction hairstyle.  Unfortunately, though, I think Shelley Duvall might be a more apt choice.  Maybe Anjelica Huston, when she was a bit younger.

But there is also a child in these poems.  There is a young woman, as well.  There are mothers and daughters.  And the story is not a chronological one.  There are jumps back and forth in time.  Whoever was tasked with developing it for the screen would have to make some creative choices for it to work.

5. What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

(Hmm—this will have to be one long sentence, I think…)

We live inside of our bodies, and though they are only vessels, and not who we truly are, they are the only means available to us to allow us to experience the physical world, to be seen by others, to be loved—and so, the body serves us, but we are also at the mercy of the body’s needs, desires, and ultimately, its decline.

6. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

About half the poems in the book were once part of a different manuscript—one that I sent out about five years ago.  Once I began thinking of the book as centered around this idea of the body as the vehicle through which we experience our lives and come to know the world, I began adding poems.  The shaping and reshaping of the final book took a couple of years, before I was really satisfied with what I had.

7. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I have always loved writing.  Going through George Mason University’s MFA program helped me to discipline that love, and after I put together my thesis, I kept reworking it, and tinkering and changing, until finally I had the book that is now available.

I was also greatly inspired by both my father, who was a writer, and by the poets I came to know at Mason.

Although not purely autobiographical, many of the poems in the book welled up in me from powerful and life-altering events– the loss of love; my relationship with my daughters; a struggle with illness; the impending death of my mother.  These were poems that I couldn’t not write.  Whether or not a book ever came from them, I was compelled to convey these ideas into words.

8. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Well, I hope the poems themselves will do that.  They cover quite a range.

There are poems about the awakening of desire in a young girl—two that come to mind are “In Bed With Rhett Butler” and “Paperboy,” a poem that appeared in Best New Poets 2010.   There are poems about being both a mother and a daughter, about growing older…

There are poems that deal with loss, even heartbreak, and yet, the poems often have an element of humor to them.  At a recent reading, someone in the audience raised her hand and told me she really admired my sense of humor, and this pleased me a lot.  Given that the subject matter of these poems has the potential to be very heavy, even sad, I was glad to hear that this was balanced by a kind of wry observation of the world.  I reference all kinds of popular culture from my years growing up—Gladys Knight & the Pips, Gilligan’s Island, film noir, Alfred Hitchcock.  People respond to these references.  They recognize the allusions, smile and remember; it establishes a connection.

The cover art is gorgeous, too!  My daughter, Taryn Riley, painted it, specifically for my book.  This makes the book all the more precious to me.  I enjoyed the collaborating that we did on what the cover image should be– and why.   We also did a preliminary photo shoot at Dumbarton Oaks Gardens in D.C., to get the exact composition I wanted.  Gardens, trees, the natural world, are significant in many of these poems.  The American Beech that appears in the cover art is a favorite of mine, and some of the poems in the book were actually composed beneath it,

9. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

History of the Body was published by David Robert Books in September of 2012.

10. My tagged writers for next Wednesday (2/13) THE NEXT BIG THING:

Lorene Delany-Ullman:  Camouflage for the Neighborhood, Firewheel Editions, 2013–ullman

Susan Laughter Meyers: My Dear, Dear Stagger Grass, Cider Press Review, Fall, 2013

Melissa Tuckey, Tenuous Chapel,  ABZ Press, May, 2013