More Signs from the Universe


During my October-November trip to Cologne, Germany, I rented a lavender Fiat 500 and left the city for the countryside just east of the Rhine. Called “das Bergische Land” (there used to be a fort there), its rolling hills and fields were a much-needed respite from the crush of humanity in Cologne. I drove the country roads, listening to my GPS’s painfully American pronunciation of “Wilmersdorferstrasse” and “Bensberger Marktweg.”

This is where my grandmother and her children, like countless other families, were evacuated during the war years, forced to share cramped quarters with unwilling and often hostile hosts. The family moved from place to place through this bucolic area; my grandmother’s letters detail the usually inadequate and frequently primitive accommodations of the houses she occupied. In one place, she had to haul buckets of water; in another, her furniture, clothing, and other possessions were stolen. The children were often sick, and her own health was fragile.

In her letters, she managed to make these misfortunes sound ironic and amusing, but the never-ending grind eventually wore her down. In October 1944, she wrote “Bei uns hört die Pechsträhne nicht auf“ (“with us, the losing streak never stops.“) The war continued for eight more months, and the countryside outside of Cologne was itself the site of non-stop battles. As my grandmother writes, schools were long since closed, and she could not allow her children to leave the house for any length of time.

None of this was evident during my drive. The Bergisch farms and fields were tidy, with flowers blooming at their edges; the cows and horses were well-fed and calm. People just like me, frazzled from the city, rode bikes or walked along the tree-lined lanes. I realized that I was looking for something, some sign of the past, some link to what I was searching for. Nothing appeared that day, or the next, when I spent another day wandering through the hills.

A week after I returned to the US, I found I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years by Victor Klemperer, in a used bookstore. I bought the book and took it home. My husband leafed through it, and two postage stamps, still connected, fell out of the book. The stamps were from Chiapas, Mexico. Mexico is my next place to visit; my grandparents spent several years there during the 1930s, and my mother and her twin sister were born in Mexico City. Here was my sign, delivered in a random book, in a bookstore just a few miles from my house.

I received another sign a few days later: Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle has been turned into a series on Amazon. The story speculates what the world would be like if the Allies had lost World War II. I read the book but haven’t watched the series – I’m not sure if I will. But I take it as a sign, regardless.

As I wrote in a previous post, Philip K. Dick’s The Exegesis played a major part in launching this project. I’ve used it before as a source for inspiration, opening the book to a random page, as in bibliomancy, and finding a quote. Today I found “[2:41] This is the paradox of ‘where should you most expect to find God?’ A: ‘in the most unlikely place.’”

The Mexico trip is in the works. I’ll keep you posted.







Philip K. Dick, The Exegesis, and Letters from a Dead Grandmother


One day during our most recent family vacation, my son pulled The Exegesis, by Philip K. Dick, off the shelf of a bookstore in Santa Cruz. This strange and visionary book became the unlikely diving board for my latest project, a book based on letters my maternal grandmother wrote in Germany during World War II.

The Exegesis dominated our conversations for much of our vacation. Curiosity about Dick led me to a biography of him, written by his third wife Anne. In the book, Anne mentions Philip working on his novel, The Man in the High Castle, a story that speculates what the world would be like if the Allies had lost World War II.

This took place during the first weeks of July. By coincidence, in the middle of the month, my mother sent me a package containing letters her German mother had written to a friend during World War II, from 1940-1944. My mother’s accompanying note said: “I feel there is enough material to write a book.”

In early August, I got back to the letters after teaching summer camp at Media Poetry Studio. Copies of copies, the letters, written in German, were blurry and hard to read. I puzzled over them, trying to make out a word or two amid the unfamiliar handwriting. In frustration I turned the pages until a sentence leaped out at me: “Aber das schlimmste von allem war das Alleinsein des Nachts während der Fliegerangriffe“ (“But worst of all was being alone at night during air raids”). Into my head popped the stories my mother had told me, stories of night after night in cellars and bomb shelters, of the terrifying events that took place before she was eight years old, of a childhood disrupted by war.

I made a decision then. What had started with an accidental encounter with The Exegesis was now a book project, one that will no doubt absorb me for the next few years. My mother was right: there is enough in her mother’s letters for a book. There are stories of ordinary heroism and extraordinary luck in my grandmother’s slightly sloppy handwriting. It’s up to me to put it together.

Were the events that started in the Santa Cruz bookstore and ended with my grandmother’s letters a coincidence? Or were they the guidance of some unseen hand? I’m not sure, but I have felt guided, as I gain more understanding of the letters, from slow gleanings to sudden insights. Another sentence that appeared, fully formed, from the faded pages: “Hast Du noch Hemdchen und Jäckchen, die Du mir für einige Monate leihen kannst?“ (“Do you still have little shirts and jackets to lend me for a few months?”)

The Exegesis lends itself well to bibliomancy, the opening of a (usually sacred) book to a random page and choosing a line for divination. Right now, I opened the book to page 321 and landed on:

[14:22] It is almost as if the individual human has acted as an amplifying instrument for an initially very faint signal.

I’ll let you know how I progress in making the signals stronger.

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SCC “Parks For Life Challenge” Poems

From my Poet Laureate pal Jennifer Swanton Brown, comes this challenge:

“Poetry and nature are true companions and have been since the beginning of time. Find a nice shady spot near a stream, or a sunny perch on a mountain top, wander deep into the forest to contemplate the stillness, or just hold hands with your beloved (team member) at your favorite park spot. Read poetry to each other, recite poetry to squirrels and birds (they are very appreciative), read a silly poem with your kids. Read quietly alone or proclaim to a crowd! Ponder the links between the natural world and the written word.”

Here’s how you can participate in Parks for Life through Santa Clara County Parks AND enjoy poetry:

To earn points for this adventure choose one of the poems or books below to honor the long-time relationship between poetry and California nature!

  • Read a poem out loud and capture it on video
  • Take a photo of your team with the poem or poetry book

For more ideas, check out the Cupertino Poet Laureate blog:

SCC “Parks For Life Challenge” Poems.

Maker Faire


On Saturday IMG_1580I attended the 10th Annual Bay Area Maker Faire with California Poets in the Schools. These two young ladies stopped by the booth and added a leaf to the “Poetree”! The Maker Faire says “We are Makers — changing the way we learn, create and see the future.”

I had a good time with working poets Cathy Barber and Jackie Hallerberg and Belmont Poet Laureate Tanu Wakefield. I ate a corn dog (if you are going to a fair, I think you have to do it right!) — and I saw lots of robots and fireballs. People laid down some verses on the sidewalk with chalk… IMG_1578 See the fireballs leaping from the pointy iron things in the background! I was so happy to spend time with fellow working poets, and speak with the people who came by the booth to talk about making poetry…

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Poets in the Parks : Vasona Dam, Vasona Pier, Hugging a Tree

Cupertino Poet Laureate

Erica Goss (Los Gatos Poet Laureate and my friend!) and I have joined the Santa Clara County Parks “Parks for Life Challenge” — read all about it at this link. Our team is “Poets in the Parks” (of course) and the photo at the top of this post is our flag! Nifty, huh?

Today Erica and I spent some time at Vasona Park in Los Gatos. What a lovely place. I don’t think I’ve been there since high school. We visited Vasona Dam (Adventure # 24 “Take a Dam Picture”), the nice fishing pier (Adventure #341 “Locate the Pier!!!”) and we hugged a gorgeous tree (Adventure #25 “Hug a Tree”).

The photos below are proof!  #Parks4LifeS15

Jen Erica Vasona dam 1 Jen and Erica at Vasona Dam #Parks4LifeS15

Jen Erica Vasona dam 2 Erica and Jen at Vasona Dam. Don’t fall in! #Parks4LifeS15 (Adventure #24) Poets in the Parks

Jen Erica Vasona pier 1 Jen and Erica at Vasona fishing pier, with Emily Dickinson…

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Art Camp for Girls Answers a Critical Need

Some of my students at ISKL listening to my presentation.

Photo by Danny Gregory.

Today I’ll talk about why we decided to make our camp just for girls.


Media Poetry Studio is designed as a female-only camp. We want the girls in our camp to be center stage, without gender-based competition. According to The Girls Middle School in Palo Alto, “girls routinely are called upon less, receive less feedback, and display lower self-esteem than boys. (However) girls at single-sex schools are more likely to take non-traditional courses in subjects that run against gender stereotypes. With fewer gender distractions, girls learn to be more competitive and accept leadership roles.”


Other studies show that girls tend to shy away from technology in middle school, just as boys are gaining mastery: “many girls’ interest in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math wanes as they get older because of socialization and lack of exposure and access.”


I know this is true, not just from my own experience as a schoolgirl, but from the hundreds of hours I’ve spent volunteering in my children’s classrooms. Boys will often blurt out an answer, correct or not, while girls remain silent. Too often, girls simply shut down and stop participating.


In their ground-breaking book, Failing at Fairness: How Schools Cheat Our Girls (Scribner 1995) Myra and David Sadker write “Sitting in the same classrooms, reading the same textbook, listening to the same teacher, boys and girls receive very different educations. Teachers interact with males more frequently, ask them better questions, and give them more precise and helpful feedback. Girls are the majority of our nation’s schoolchildren, yet they are second-class educational citizens.” Not much has changed in twenty years.


This lack of participation extends beyond school to the workforce: women are still vastly underrepresented in technology-related fields. Recent revelations from companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook, confirm that these companies employ far more men than women – about 70% men to 30% women .


As I wrote earlier, this is a grave and discouraging problem. What in the world can a couple of poets do about it? Here’s our answer: Media Poetry Studio  where girls can learn to make their own short films from their own poetry. Working with the best computer and camera equipment we can afford, we’ll empower our students to show us how they see the world.


If you’d like help us achieve our dream for teen girls, check out our IndieGoGo campaign.

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Summer Camp for Teen Girls Combines Poetry and Film



When I read that high-tech companies in Silicon Valley employ vastly fewer women than men, I felt angry and disappointed, but not surprised. It takes a certain amount of fatalism to survive in a world where inequality is the norm.


My fatalism changed to enthusiasm as the result of a conversation I had with David Perez, the Poet Laureate of Santa Clara County. He had the brilliant idea that we make a summer camp for teen-aged girls and teach them to make films using their own poems. Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of that?


Working with Jennifer Swanton Brown, the Poet Laureate of Cupertino (yes, home of Apple Computers) we Logo_MultiColor_HighRescrafted a plan to do just that: create a place for teen girls where they can write and play with computers and cameras. We called it Media Poetry Studio. We imagined our students roaming around with notebooks and cameras, writing about and filming the world as they see it.


The world shows us girls and women through the “male gaze,” but rarely do we get to see how girls and women see themselves. Our goal is to have our students write their own poetry and make their own films, which they can share with family and friends.


Dreams are a lot of hard work, but we’re almost there. We’ve applied for funding, and I’m thrilled that Macy’s California has already given us a generous grant. We’re partnered with California Poets in the Schools and Poetry Center San Jose, two well-respected arts non-profits in the Bay Area.

We’ve just launched our IndieGoGo campaign!

You can register your daughter at Media Poetry Studio’s website. 

Thank you for helping us empower teen girls with art and technology!

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Author Interview: Lisa Francesca




Lisa Francesca is the author of The Wedding Officiant’s Guide, How to Write and Conduct a Perfect Ceremony (Chronicle Books). With Lisa’s guidance, you will learn everything you need to make a wedding unforgettable for two people in love.

Lisa delivers valuable how-to information, including advice on not being a wise guy during the ceremony (“your remarks made simply for laughs may not be appreciated”) to the fine points of the kiss, as well as plenty of anecdotes from her years of joining people in matrimony.

A thoroughly enjoyable read, The Wedding Officiant’s Guide includes interesting information about various wedding ceremony rituals, same-sex weddings, and a selection of wedding-related poetry.


Please welcome Lisa Francesca!


Q: The book is really fun, even to me, and I have no intention of marrying people. Is the process of marrying two people as enjoyable as it sounds?


A: Yes, it is very enjoyable to marry two people who love each other. It is cheerful, romantic work, and a great form of community service. When I talk with a couple and get their ideas for a ceremony, I sometimes witness moments of happy intimacy between them as they foresee the future they want to create. And it’s often a bit scary to them, too: thinking through their ceremony and vows, they are mentally walking through a serious, sobering, enormous undertaking. What will it look like, to be married to this person? And what can I promise to them?


It also helps to enjoy reading and speaking expressively in public. I love how I get to stand and say important things, and yet I am not the focus of attention, merely the facilitator.


Q: What do you want readers to come away with from the book?


I want readers to know that they have the power and resources to officiate at a wedding and do a great job with it. Their best tools are a little organization and a lot of compassion and humor.


Q: What are the main challenges in writing a “how-to” book?”


Thank you for asking, I love this question! The main challenge for me was parsing out the mass of information I held in my mind so that it could easily be consumed in an orderly process. One thing I did was create mind maps of the book and of each chapter. And even though I laid out the information as best I could, I still got a lot of help (especially with subheads) from my organized friend, Jennifer. The independent editor who I hired hauled entire chapters around, and the clarification was further polished by the editors at Chronicle.


When I was an assistant book editor at Sunset Publishing in the mid 1990s, I found Sunset’s archive of household and cooking books and became obsessed with them. The voices in them were calm, cheery, and empowering. A little sleuthing in the dusty library turned up a terrific book: How to Write for Homemakers, by Lou Richardson and Genevieve Callahan (1949), two of those Sunset writers. I knew I would need their information someday, and I did use it as soon as I started my book. “Visualize, analyze, organize, dramatize,” repeated the authors, and I hear them even today.


Q: Do you have a daily creative routine? What does it look like?


My life is a little too complex and unpredictable for a daily routine, but a typical week will contain the following: reading books, walking, daydreaming, writing, wool-gathering, complaining, cooking, administering my social media (I call it “checking the fences”), more writing, thanking someone, asking for things, reading on the couch, reading in bed, reading in the bathroom, making task lists, reviewing stuff, and folding laundry.


That said, my two daily tools are writing something, anything, at least a journal entry, and meditating for a little bit. I’m working on half an hour. The writer and writing coach Eric Maisel says, “A wild person with a calm mind can make anything.” Isn’t that inspiring?


Q: How did you get connected with Chronicle Books? Did you have an agent?


I met a friend and wedding colleague in the Caffe Trieste and ran my book idea by her because of her wedding expertise. She said, “That’s a cool idea, why don’t you run it by my editor at Chronicle Books?” It took me days to compose the “casual yet complete” e-mail with my book idea for her editor.

officiant close-up

The editor liked the idea and wanted a more complete proposal—thank goodness that I had bought Putting Your Passion Into Print maybe three months earlier without a clue as to how much I’d need it. I followed the book’s proposal writing instructions to the letter, and eventually Chronicle came back with an offer. Thus began my education on negotiating an offer and contract, working with a publisher, drafting a book, hiring an independent editor, handling permissions, finishing a book, working more with the publisher, and creating and executing a publicity plan. Steep learning curves!

Q: What genres do you read – poetry, fiction, nonfiction..?

I rarely read fiction, and when I do I want symmetry and harmony and entertainment over dark, sad-but-true stuff. I got enough of that in my twenties and while I attended an MFA program in Creative Writing.


I have seasonal book purges and rarely regret them, though I did have to go out and re-buy the beautiful UC Press edition of Moby Dick. My current library holds about a hundred books on spirituality, yoga, Buddhism, Christianity; another hundred books on California history and art, maybe fifty books of poetry, a shelf of children’s classics, and ten novels I keep meaning to read.


Q: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring writers?


Writing is a sacred act—animals don’t yet have the hang of it (I think it’s that lack of opposable thumbs), so it is an essential part of being human. If you write and you share your writing with others, you are both the messenger and the message itself. Your persistence gives other people permission to do their art, too. So persist. Aim high, write hard. I am a fan of the ass-in-the-chair school of writing, though some fallow seasons are also acceptable. But don’t give up: write, ever write.

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Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life



Why Recycle?

It’s a good thing my grandmother decided not to make lamps from the spent brass shell casings she found near her cabin in the Mojave Desert, a few miles from the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. She had quite a collection built up before a friend told her that some of them might still be live, causing a potentially deadly explosion.

My grandmother was an inveterate recycler. She saw the potential in what others might consider useless objects. A closet door became a headboard, and a record cabinet turned into a vanity. She regularly reupholstered her living-room furniture, taking sofas and armchairs apart and leaving them in pieces for weeks. Some of her odder creations included pictures made from human hair and doll eyelashes snipped from the dog’s fur.

As writers, what can we repurpose? Is there an article hidden in an old class assignment, a poem inside a personal essay, or a travel piece trying to escape from a book review? Does a potentially explosive topic lurk somewhere in the words and sentences you’ve deleted?

This is a little different from spinning an idea for its possibilities. As we all know, any idea we have for writing has numerous prospects. My October trip to Berlin yielded blog posts, an article for my column The Third Form, poems, and a personal essay, but that’s not exactly what I mean by repurposing. In this context, it’s more like making a quilt from old clothes – cutting the useful parts out and discarding the worn out bits. (Yes, my grandmother was also a quilter.)

For me, recycling tends to happen from poem to poem, with lines moving in and out of drafts, or into completely new work. The poem titled “telegenic” is an example of this: during an evening spent writing poems on demand at a poetry booth in San Jose last summer, I wrote a poem for a man named Mark. After he read the poem, Mark, an Iraq War veteran, sat down next to me and shed a few tears. The poem, based on a few sentences he’d given me, talked about coming home after war. I did not make a copy of the poem, but that night I went home and wrote a line in my journal: “Today, I wrote a poem for a man named Mark. He sat in the street and wept.” Those two sentences became part of a new poem, but I wasn’t satisfied with it; it seemed too sentimenwhy-recycletal and self-congratulatory.

The poem languished for a few weeks until I overheard the word “telegenic” used to describe photographs of the 2014 conflict between Gaza and Israel. My brain clicked and I dug out the rejected poem. I decided to make it a prose poem, and use “telegenic” as the title. The resulting poem was published at New Verse News .

It’s interesting that “telegenic” uses the two lines from my journal, almost exactly as I wrote them down, and none of the other lines from the rejected poem.

I’d like to thank my aunt, Geneva Goss, for reminding me of my grandmother’s repurposing projects, and giving me the idea for this week’s post.

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Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life



I own more books than I know what to do with. I trip over them, kicking them across the floor; I find them in the dust under the furniture (“so that’s where Lord of the Flies went!”)

I had a Kindle for a while, thinking it would help reduce my piles of books, but I hated reading on its rigid little screen. I ended up buying a hard copy of every e-book I’d already bought, and then I tossed the stupid thing to the back of my closet, where it chirps every so often, Furby-like, begging to be charged up.

E-readers, in an incomprehensible effort to “improve” reading through technology, deliver “content.” But books aren’t merely content. A book is a physical object. It wears a jacket and has a spine. As books age, their pages brown and crumble. They’re even edible, at least to the booklouse.

The improved technologies of printing and shipping created a reading public: the newly literate, working classes of 19th-century Europe and America. It’s ironic that we now have a technology that aims to do away with the printed book altogether, creating a whole different class of readers who experience words on a screen instead of a page.

There are advantages to e-readers. Now we can hide embarrassing titles inside a bland little machine. No one need know that you, dear reader, are lost in the tale of a deviant named Grey. No need to hide that spicy bodice-ripper between the pages of Anna Karenina. However, if you actually are reading Anna Karenina on an e-reader, no one will glance over and ask you if you think the scene where Vronsky’s horse dies is a metaphor for what happens to Anna (that’s pretty unlikely in any event, but with the printed book, at least there’s a chance).

In the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of Poets & Writers, New York Times book critic Dwight Garner states, “I write all over my books, I really mark the shit out of them…so give me the dead-tree edition.” For a person who receives, and I quote, “twenty-five to thirty books a day,” that’s a commitment to the printed-on-paper word. My book-a-week habit pales in comparison.

I will let my stacks grow. I will try to find room for them wherever I can. I’ll give away the ones I can part with, and keep the rest. I will try to keep them against the walls of my house and not in the middle of high-traffic areas. The Kindle stays in the closet.


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