Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

A Beautiful Day on the Capitol Lawn

Yesterday was another beautiful day at the #msbookfest! I spent the day, from 7am to 4pm on the lawn of the Mississippi capitol, talking with people who had been to the many panels of the book festival, and ran into a number of old friends, including authors Katie Pierce, Becky Hagenston, and Mike Smith and alumni Katrina Byrd, Amber King, Trey Harper, and Rei Lott. I also talked to a lot of people and handed out flyers for The Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, The Ephemera Prize, our undgraduate programs, our Low-Res MFA, Ponder Review, and Poetry South. It was a fine day. with cloud cover most of the day (though we were in the shade), a little breeze (which felt great, though it threatened to blow our flyers away — pens helped hold them down). It was great to meet Mississippi high school students and teachers, as well as writers who are considering an MFA deegree or who are looking for places to submit their work. And it was nice to hand out sample copies of our magazines. One of our most common comments was “I didn’t know The W was doing all this!” Worth the price of admission right there.

And for anyone who has thought about attending the Mississippi Book Festival or a book festival in your state, I highly recommend it. Everyone was having a good time, and only us poor exhibitors, booksellers, and the authors in Author’s Alley had to stay outside all day. All of the sessions were in the capitol building or nearby, so attendees could visit our tables and wander around outside between sessions, but could also escape the heat whenever they felt the need. And those of us outdoors had shade, a welcome breeze, and only one shower of rain to cool us down!

What’s fun in Peru?

Okay, the answer to that question is probably just about everything. Peru is a fabulous country with excellent food. I don’t think we had a bad meal — and we’re vegetarians. Peru’s cuisine is fairly meat-heavy, but there were a lot of vegetarian choices at regular restaurants and even vegan or vegetarian places in most places. (We were careful to eat in restaurants where we knew the hygiene would be good, which was most restaurants, but not much street food. And we were careful about the water we drank.) There are lots of things to do, from the musical fountain park in Lima, to museums, to natural beauty. We barely touched the surface, but we felt like we saw a lot.

Naturally, one of the high points was Machu Picchu. For me it was great to see the place I’ve often taught about when I cover Pablo Neruda’s poem. We went with a guide in the morning, and he gave us a lot of cultural background about the history of the city and of the Incas. Since we were traveling with a group of students from our university, our guide was affiliated with International Studies Abroad, who organized the trip. We were with him for a couple of days and had a great relationship. He even led some of us on a hike up to Machu Picchu from the valley in the morning, and in the afternoon, we were free to hike around on our own, so Aidan and I went to the Sun Gate and the Inca Bridge.

Nonetheless, as impressive as Machu Picchu is, it still feels a bit touristy. There were a lot of other tourists around, in other words, and it’s the main site most people going to Peru see. I wouldn’t miss it, but if you can, you should go further afield.

DSCN8955We toured the Sacred Valley on the way to and from Machu Picchu, which was also great. And we got to stay a Sunday in Cuzco, where we witnessed the local festival. There were many groups marching either in military uniforms, school uniforms, or traditional costumes. There were marching bands and traditional musicians. And the festival seemed to go on most of the morning and well into the afternoon, even in the rain. We also went to the local market and a couple of museums, and though there were tourists, we felt the locals outnumbered us by a lot, instead of the other way around.

After Cuzco, our group took a charter bus down to Puno province, where we had three nights in two home stays in local villages. There we were treated to fabulous local cooking, hikes with the president of the village to see vistas of Lake Titicaca, traditional fishing (both setting out the nets in the evening and hauling them in in the morning). And we got to experience cold nights and an incredible view of winter the night sky, and sleeping in an unheated farmhouse with enough alpaca blankets to keep us warm. Oh yes, and no hot water for most of our stay, but a cold shower was okay for Aidan and I (and some of our group did take advantage of one shower with a solar water heater).

DSCN9020

We visited floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca, and a couple of our students took part in a traditional ‘wedding’ (they played bride and groom, and I got to be father of the bride at one point).

Back in Lima, our family said goodbye to the students and stayed on for another week to explore on our own. We experienced more museums, long walks in the city, and even braving the private bus system. (It helped that Aidan is confident enough in his Spanish that he could help figure out some of the routes.) We even got to watch Peru in their first World Cup Soccer match since 1982, and we got to watch the celebrations (despite the fact that they lost that match).

If you’re headed to Peru (or anywhere), I highly recommend getting away from the main tourist areas if you can. We loved going to the neighborhood bakery (and finding a Belgian fry stand with vegetarian burger wraps) as much as we loved any of the sites. Wandering the streets was as much fun as any of the museums we went to (though I would highly recommend the art museum and the Larco Museum in Lima). And even the day we wanted to go to an archeological site in the city but found out it was closed turned out great: we visited a large public olive grove, got lunch (and watched some World Cup), and walked around Miraflores. Sightseeing can be great, and it’s good to have an agenda, but it’s also great to let go of the plan now and then, wander through a market or just walk around the neighborhoods.

What have I been up to?

Frequent readers of this blog will know that I sometimes go awhile without posting. There are periods when I get busy and don’t have time to write (here). So what is it that’s kept me away from blogging this spring and summer? Some pretty cool stuff, actually…

  1. This spring I applied for and was promoted to chair of my department. That won’t officially take effect until August 1, but planning and preparation took a good chunk of my time once the application process was over.
  2. Along those lines, I was chair of a search committee for a tenure-track position in creative writing in our low-res MFA program (and undergrad program). That process took all spring semester, and since we were given the go-ahead to hire a second tenure-track faculty member from the same search, even extended beyond the semester.
  3. Speaking of the MFA program, this spring I was director of 3 theses, 2 of which were defended in June. (1 will continue writing this fall.) This was in addition to my usual class load and an extra short-residency class at AWP.
  4. Besides directing 3 theses, I also served on 3 more thesis committees. That meant I had students who defended their theses in June, so one thing I’ve been doing was reading those amazing book manuscripts. We’re proud of our new MFAs!
  5. Outside of work, this spring was college audition and visit time for our son, so we had extra travel days to take him to prospective schools. We’re extremely happy with his final choice, and the visits to schools he didn’t decide to attend were all part of the decision process.
  6. Besides choosing a college, of course our son also had to work hard to finish his high school career, prepare a senior recital, and play in All-State orchestra and the North Mississippi Youth Symphony. And as proud parents, we wanted to be there for it all, only I had to miss All-State because…
  7. We discovered that our foster puppy had actually not been spayed, when she went into heat. That meant figuring out how to care for her and being at home a little more for a few weeks (no kennel stays for her!), then eventually taking her in to be spayed and staying with her as she recovered. Not labor intensive, but also a little out of the ordinary. Everything went well, and we even found her a permanent home!
  8. As summer approached and once our son had graduated (and family visited for the celebration), I welcomed 15 MFA students to campus for their Full Residency, an intense 9 days of workshops, readings, seminars, and thesis defenses.
  9. Once the residency was over, I joined my wife and son in Lima, Peru, where Kim was helping to lead a study-abroad trip. I got to join them as they journeyed to Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, and we stayed behind in Lima for a week on our own. All-in-all, a magical experience.
  10. After a few days back in the US, we traveled again to Iowa to see my mother, my niece, and her family (including her 2-month-old). That was a relaxing time, filled with family, good food, celebrations (it was July 4, after all), and World Cup soccer viewing.

Now that we are back and it is summer, I’m hoping to find a little more time and a few things to write about to revive this blog. Though serving as chair will mean I’ll likely stay very busy in the fall, I hope it will also give me plenty of ideas to write about. And I’m hoping to find a few spare moments here and there to work on the blog. Let’s see how I do with that! Certainly, I can make some time this summer, and maybe come back wtih more details on a few of the things mentioned above.

Dispatch from the #MSBookfest

MS Book Festival with capitol dome
This past Saturday, I spent almost 10 hours outside on the capitol grounds in Jackson, Mississippi. Under normal circumstance, you might have to be crazy to do that in August, but this was no ordinary Saturday. It was the 3rd annual Mississippi Book Festival, and I was there in my third role.

The first year of the festival, I came down as a volunteer, and spent my morning in the Information tent, telling people where to go and how to get there: questions I quickly learned how to answer, even though I hadn’t been there myself. Fortunately, by afternoon, I was relieved from my post and went inside. I even managed to get into a few of the panels (attendance was high that first year, and you had to get in line early — attendance is still high, but there are more sessions in bigger rooms, which helps).

My second year, I was on the poetry panel, so I spent much of my time indoors waiting for my panel, reading, and listening to other panels. I did go outside to sign books and then to browse the bookstores and exhibitor booths.

This year, I opted to be an exhibitor myself, getting a booth for our low-residency MFA program. I also brought along brochures for our undergraduate concentration, the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, the Ephemera Prize for High School Writers, Poetry South, and Ponder Review. I even brought my books and a brochure for A Writer’s Craft.

One thing I learned was that if you arrive at 7am and stay outdoors all day, it doesn’t seem as hot as it does when you come back from a midday break indoors and experience the heat full strength. The shade helped enormously, of course, as did the occasional downdraft of cooler air from one of the pop-up thunderstorms that went over, but didn’t drop much rain (thank goodness, though I had a tarp, just in case). And naturally, it’s good to bring plenty of water and dress appropriately for the weather. I kept my water bottle filled, and I wore a new quick dry, W Owls polo.

View from our table at MS Bookfest

It was also fun to meet the other exhibitors, and to talk to all the attendees who stopped by. It was great to meet prospective students, writers, high school students who were excited about the Ephemera prize, and W alumni who wanted to reminisce about the good old days.

Thanks to Carol Ruth Silver and Michael Farris Smith for stopping by, as well as to current MFA students Sally Lyon and Katrina Byrd. It was also great to see all the young kids who were enjoying the book festival: one barely old enough to read, but very excited to be there.

I gave away nearly all my brochures, and even ran out the one for the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium. I passed out copies of Poetry South, along with bookmarks, calls for submissions, pens, stickers, and the ever popular W mints. Though I didn’t get to go inside to catch any readings (next year, I need some helpers), when I did go in for my break, I could tell the crowd seemed every bit as big as in years past, and every bit as satisfied with the event. And when I was outside at the table, I was entertained by live music, people watching,  butterflies, and a gorgeous day.

If you haven’t been to the Mississippi Book Festival, you owe it to yourself to go next year. If you’re a writer, you might get on a panel (or set up your own booth for self-published and small press authors). If you are with a literary or arts organization, then you might want to have your own exhibitor’s table. And if you’re in the general public, then you can just go and enjoy all the free readings and entertainment, and maybe even buy a book or two. There are also plenty of food trucks with po’boys, catfish, popsicles, and other summer delicacies.

It is billed as the “hottest book festival in the country,” but don’t let the fact that it’s in August hold you back — if my fellow exhibitors and I can handle staying outside all day in 90+ degrees with a heat index over 100, then you can handle trips to the outdoor tents sandwiched in between readings in the Capitol and neighboring venues.

Where Have I Been?

It’s been just over a month since my last post to this blog. Before that, I had been on a roll, posting frequently about creative writing pedagogy issues and my new textbook. So what happened?

Life — Okay, Spring Break

That’s right. Once every semester, even professors get to take a break. Often this is productive time spent grading and cleaning house. Occasionally, we actually take trips to keep up with our students! This year, I took a college trip with our 16-year-old junior in high school (hard to believe it!), Aidan. For Spring Break, we left the South and headed to snowy Ohio to visit Oberlin and Cleveland Institute of Music. We also took a morning to drive through the Cuyahoga River Valley National Park, see some beautiful, if chilly, waterfalls, and learn the correct pronunciation of the river, which sounded more like “Cayoga.” We had a great time, learned a lot about these schools and his ideas about college, and enjoyed the snow (the locals seemed to be getting pretty tired of it by now).

DSCN0893.jpg

Book — Editing the MS

Shortly after Spring Break (thank goodness), I got the manuscript of A Writer’s Craft back from the copy editor. This meant going back over it with a fine-toothed comb, double-checking every comma and word. We didn’t always agree, and I will admit that she found some of my stray commas, though I corrected some of hers. The copy editor is in India, so there were some differences between American and International British usage we had to iron out, and a few places where she simply didn’t understand what I was trying to say (I doubt the copy editor is a creative writing instructor). And there were a few places where she called me out on potentially confusing or just awkward phrasings (not too many), and where her suggestions weren’t much better but did cause me to find another way to put it. And there were a few places where I simply put my foot down and said that’s what I really meant, darn it (or something to that affect). Then there was the task of checking the bibliography formatting and other mind-numbing but essential tasks. All in all, I’m glad to have had another set of eyes on the manuscript. It will be better for it. The final page proofs come back soon, and then I can create the index, which I’ve already been working on.

Southern Literary Festival

Yes, though I had a bad cold or possibly bronchitis, I hopped in the car and drove to Ft. Smith, Arkansas, for this annual meeting. I’m co-executive director and we’re desperately looking for a host for 2019, or I might have skipped it this time. The W won in the literary magazine category, but I couldn’t convince any of our students to take the 7-hour drive with me. The festival was great—I heard some great readings, had a chance to catch up with colleagues, and met some students from other schools—but I was still working on my edits and trying to recover from my cold, so it would have been a good year to stay home. Yet duty called.

Grading

Did I mention this traditional Spring Break activity? It didn’t happen this year, thanks to our travel, so after SLF, I had a fair amount of catching up to do. I’m now caught up to the point that all the grading I have left was turned in less than a week ago, so I’m pretty happy. Just in time to get serious about taxes…

Those are just a few of the things that kept me away from blogging, but I hope to get back to more entertaining or informative posts very soon!

AAA: Epic fail

Note: I posted the following comments on the AAA Facebook page, but the way they have it set up, those comment posts don’t get broadcast beyond their page, so all the complaints and some accounts of good service don’t have much effect in social media. So I decided to post my account of last night’s fun with AAA here.

Our faith in AAA is shaken after last night’s epic fail. Dead battery in parking garage at Huntsville airport, so I tried calling AAA. First I was on hold for 7 minutes until my cell phone cut out, then my wife was on hold with them almost as long, until my mother-in-law called and got through. The operator promised service within the hour (!?!), but the operator said she’d put a rush on it.

Half an hour later, they called to say it would be another 45 minutes, so I stayed on the line to talk to a person. On hold for another 10 minutes. The guy explained that they had called two companies, since the first declined the job (after ten minutes). Later, the second service guy called to say he couldn’t get to the 3rd level of the garage in his truck, WHICH WE HAD TOLD THE OPERATOR initially! Why they sent a truck that couldn’t get to us is beyond me. He was going to try to get someone in a vehicle that could reach us.

I finally went back into the deserted airport (it was late at night), found someone who helped me call security, and they were able to jump the car and get us on our way, no thanks to AAA!

One bright note: we were able to cancel the service call without sitting on hold. Now, will it be as easy to cancel our membership? The snafu with the service contractors might be a fluke, but the long hold times on a Saturday night are extremely disappointing. What’s the point in having roadside assistance if you’re stuck on the side of the road listening to some of the most annoying hold music and a recorded voice continually thanking me for my patience, which ran out long, long ago.

Western Vacation

Driving WestIn July, Kim, Aidan, and I packed up the car and headed West. Well, actually, we drove North to my mother’s in Osage, Iowa, first, and spent a traditional 4th of July week there with fireworks, the parade, barbecue, ice cream, and lots of local flavor. Then we turned the nose of our Mazda west for an old-fashioned car-camping vacation. It was the kind of trip my family used to take nearly every summer. Long hours on the road with plenty of stops at national parks and other scenic places. So sitting behind the wheel and going back through this country was like a trip back in time, even though our pop-up tent was a lot easier to manage than my family’s Camp-O-Tel.

Back in the day, this was a tent that you put on top of your car. When you got to your campsite, you could unfold it and sleep up there. My parents slept in the car on a mattress, and us kids were in the car topper. There was a stove we could get down for cooking, and a ladder we could climb up when it was time for bed. It was the precursor to the ubiquitous pop-up trailer, which soon eclipsed the Camp-O-Tel. Even when we were using it, we rarely saw another one.

This summer, we had a little 5-person tent (those would be very skinny folks — the three of us had little room to spare, and we’re not big!) We had our sleeping bags, an air mattress (some of us are not as young as we used to be), a camp stove, cookware, food, and three suitcases, plus hiking boots, sunscreen, jackets, camp towels, flashlights, lanterns, and assorted other equipment all piled in the back of the Mazda. It was organized chaos, especially after a few days camping, but we managed 10 nights without much problem and only one night in a hotel when it rained all night. Fortunately, this was a break we had planned, and we guessed right about the weather. The next couple of nights we also had thunderstorms, but they didn’t last too long and the rain wasn’t so bad, so the only real issue was lightning.

We went first to the Badlands (where we had our only bad experience with an RV that ran its generator all night, grrr), then on to Rushmore and Custer State Park. From the Black Hills, we headed on to Yellowstone, stopping first just outside the park at Buffalo Bill State Park — a nice park but for the mosquito swarms that hit for about an hour at dusk and for the irrigation sprinklers that went off in the night (not at our camp spot, fortunately).  We stayed in Yellowstone 4 night, which was a huge relief after setting up camp and packing it all up the next day for several days running. That also allowed us to be in the park and get to the sites we wanted to see each day much more quickly. Because it is bear country, we had to pack all of our food in our car when we weren’t actually cooking. We took advantage of this fact to have dinner out a couple of times, extending the amount of time we had in the park. We saw most of the main geysers and hot springs, saw lots of wildlife including so many bison we were nearly tired of them by the time we left, and hiked several trails. We didn’t do much back country hiking, though we went far enough from the boardwalks that we did carry bear spray to be on the safe side. Four nights were enough that we felt we really saw the park, but we also realized we could spend a week there (or much more) and still just touch the surface, especially if you got off the beaten track more. Some of our highlights besides the main attractions were Lamar Valley at sunset (in a thunderstorm part of the time, but it was still beautiful), swimming in Burning River, and hiking to the suspension bridge across Hellroaring Creek.

From Yellowstone, we headed south to Grand Teton National Park. This was the first park where we didn’t (couldn’t) make a reservation for the campground, and we were glad when we got there. Road construction meant a 30-minute delay, so we stopped at Colter Bay campgrounds and explored that area first. Here we were able to rent a canoe and spend a couple of hours on Lake Jackson. Aidan and I even swam in the lake. We also took a hike and saw some trumpeter swans nesting on one of the nearby ponds. The next morning, our plan was to get up early and beat the construction crew — didn’t quite make it even though we left the campground before 7:00, but the wait at the one-lane road wasn’t bad, and we still made it to a picnic area in time to cook a dozen eggs for breakfast. Usually we wouldn’t eat this much, but after over a week of camping, we were starting to feel the effect of camp rations and lots of hiking — a couple of us glad for the reduced padding, but ready for a more filling meal. We explored the south end of Tetons, vowing to go back and spend some more time, then headed on to Salt Lake City. We didn’t stop there, but did get our only hotel in the camping part of our trip in Provo. This was where the thunderstorms were the worst, so we were glad we hadn’t found a good park (though there is a state park we could have tried if the weather had cooperated).

Next stop was Arches and Canyonlands for a very impressive, but very different kind of landscape. We went from 40 degrees at night in Yellowstone to dry and hot in Utah, but fortunately we hit it right and the highs were only in the 90’s. We took the parks’ advice and drank plenty of water. Hiked to Delicate Arch and several other short hikes around other arches. In the night we had storms and a mule deer who didn’t like us for camping under his or her mulberry trees. The next day we toured Canyonlands and headed to Mesa Verde, where we camped, hiked, and took a tour of one of the cliff dwellings in the morning. We would have loved to stay longer, but needed to hit the road for the drive through New Mexico to Albuquerque to see Rudy and the rest of the Lucero clan for a brief visit. It was great to eat Michael’s New Mexican cooking — he’s becoming quite the chef — and visit with Liz, Kyle, and Andy. Wish we could have stayed longer there, too, but home was calling.

Family marked the bookends of our trip. We just had a two-day trek back to Mississippi, and for that we hooked up with friends Andy, Elizabeth, and Ely, swapping passengers and riding across Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas together, catching up along the way. It just so happened that both families were returning from our Western vacations on the same days, and our paths crossed in Albuquerque. We spent the night in a hotel in Oklahoma city (they weren’t camping, and hoteling it allowed us to get a little further each day) and separated in Memphis at the visitor’s center rest area.

After two weeks on the road, we returned refreshed, though ready to be out of the car. We had seen a ton of scenery along the way and had some great experiences. We’ll definitely be planning another old-fashioned road trip, including camping, another time soon!