Hello, Friends,

I’m outside Lewisburg, PA for my son’s third Patriot League swim championships. I’ll be headed back to Boston tomorrow.

I’ll be speaking with Jorge Meister samon Monday, so stay tuned for highlights of our conversation.

You can catch up on recent posts here:


When They Return

Cross Roads

Mozart in the Jungle


And I want to recommend this brief and thoughtful post about being a writer who doesn’t know how to keep writing given the conflict storming in our nation at present. From Star in Her Eye, my friend Heather Kirn Lanier’s blog; if you’re a creator, you need to read this beautiful piece.



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Hello, Friends,

I’m working on the years Jan studied at Juilliard from 1951-1955. For those of us lucky enough to have studied with Jan, we know the names of her beloved early teachers, men she often spoke of and wrote about in 1988 when she tried to express what their early mentoring meant to her.

Henry Brant was a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and professor of L&M (see more below)who experimented with spatial and taped music and stereophonic settings for his large works: he staged both vocal and instrumental ensembles in multiple areas in his concert halls. He was called a collagist who “used space as compositional element,”  calling it “the fourth dimension,” according to Allan Kozinn in 2008 at the time of Brant’s death at age 94.

Henry Brant

Jan may have been his student in the L&M course; she was a second- or third- year student in 1953 when Brant’s spatial piece Antiphony 1 was premiered at Carnegie Hall where five orchestral groups were placed throughout hall. She may have even sung for him.

Norman Lloyd not only taught L&M courses, he was behind its inception, worked with faculty to design the curriculum, and directed the program as the Director of Education at Juilliard.  He was known to sniff out talent and certainly would have snatched up Jan for his Saturday morning madrigals ensemble as soon as they met. (This is the group that became The Riverside Chamber Singers, see Cross Roads to see what Jan said of this group.) Lloyd became a dear friend to Jan. They remained close until his death at age 70 in 1980.

Norman Lloyd

Here’s what I find remarkable: In the mid-40’s, Juilliard President William Schuman, with the help of faculty, argues for and designs a new pedagogy for teaching theory and calls it Literature and Materials of Music (L&M), a four-year, two-term course to be taken by all students. Essentially, no large-scale music pedagogy based on a whole approach or contextual approach to learning music existed in the US.(The argument, of course, is a departure from the traditional European approach.) I found many articles in the Juilliard archives written by Schuman detailing his argument. This new course of study privileged the music–beginning with the composer’s vision, intent, purpose–over the rote study of “systems” (as he called it) so that the young musician would “understand the concept of performance that combines skill with a truly humanistic understanding of music.” It was a desire to guide young musicians to more than only proficiency in one language–that of their individual instrument– to an engagement with and understanding of the entire work of art. Holistic vs Technique. Process vs Product. Integration.

This is remarkable because Jan arrives at Juilliard in the fall of 1951, just a few years after this new pedagogy is incorporated. Henry Brant also arrives at Juilliard in 1947, one can assume, to teach on the L&M faculty, a group of diverse artists Schuman wanted to hand pick based on their creative approaches to music. And Norman Lloyd not only teaches in the L&M department, he chairs it as Director of Education, as well as helped to conceive it.

Timing is everything. In the right place, at the right time.

Jan arrives with her sharp intuition, her intense work ethic, boundless curiosity, undeniable talent, and lands in the classrooms and studios of these musicians and mentors. It was perfect.

And of course, there is Sergius Kagen, Jan’s beloved voice teacher who was not a trained singer, but a pianist, composer, musicologist and vocal coach beside Madame Sembrich, his beloved mentor. At her death, he was given all her students and soon promoted to Professor of Voice. (See my post on Sergius Kagen.)

Sergius Kagen

Any serious voice student trained in the United States from the mid-1940’s on would have used until soft and threadbare any of the 39 volumes of songs and arias Kagen edited for the International Music Company. For nearly two decades, he edited vocal literature ranging from opera arias to Baroque to German Lieder to 20th century French composers for the powerhouse publishing company. This work culminated in his own catalog of vocal literature published in 1949 titled Music for the Voice.

But perhaps his most important legacy is that small book On Studying Singing in which he clearly and intelligently shares his knowledge of, theories and personal opinions about the study and performance of the vocal arts: a study which must engage all the singer’s senses, beginning with her first instrument, the ear. Intelligence. Curiosity. Passion. And above all, love of music.

The ear. Intelligence. Curiosity. Passion. Love of music. It’s as if she’d been guided from her small-town home directly to the front doors at 120 Claremont Avenue in Morningside Heights in order to find him, all of them. Just as I found her at Eastman, lucky lucky lucky. All the lessons: Be a student of yourself.

Be aware of all the things that happen (the juice) between pitches. Your ear can never rest. You must know the sound you want and always work towards that. When you finish singing, your body should feel fine and relaxed, and your mind should be exhausted. Every piece has a right tempo for each performer.  (from handwritten lesson notes graciously offered by Jane Bryden)

Until I began researching for this book, I thought what all I’d been given by Jan began there, with her. But she had a beginning, too, and all of us, we are part of this lineage set in motion long before we got here.


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Mozart in the Jungle

So, I’ve been wanting to write about this gem of a comedy Mozart in the Jungle streaming on Amazon Prime.  I saw its previews a year or so ago, discovered it was “based on” Blair Tindall‘s memoir: Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music. I ordered the book because I’d been wondering about those early years of Jan‘s career, the 60’s into the early 70’s, before she went to Rochester, when she was building her freelance career. What was it like to be a young artist in the city at this time? A classical musician choosing not to sing opera?

Tindall’s book threw me. I read it quickly–it’s not a difficult read–and boy is it breezy, lousy with references of real living people, as bawdy and free lovin’ as my imagination could muster about New York hippie artists. I didn’t believe what I was reading, about sex, drugs, and politics in the pit. I couldn’t place Jan in this context.

Tindall was coming of age and entering the New York freelance scene in the early 70’s. I graduated high school in 1980. She says in an interview  that her life “coincided” with a burgeoning renaissance of classical music in this country, that she was playing (and partying) as “this whole phenomenon of funding and the rise of culture in the late 20th-century America started.” She started the book to defy the myth that classical music had died, was dying, here. (The book tries to thread many themes, this, her personal life story, an academic run through “high culture”, and her intent to show the real story of the pavement-walking, hard-working, thankless freelance musician.) In the end, it’s the memoir that hijacks the story; Tindall weaves tales of love affairs, parties, drug and drinking binges, competition with some scant interruptions of historical markers and an indictment of the corporations controlling the arts. The personal is what you remember. And I didn’t believe it.

And so, I was lucky to have been led to New York cellist Fred Sherry early in my research more than a year ago; he invited me to his huge Upper West Side apartment he shares with his wife. We hit it off instantly, joking and laughing easily together. We sat across from one another at his long heavy dark-wood dining room table. I asked him about Tindall’s book, and he grinned, laughing robustly, admitted that,  yes, he was in the book. And yes, it was just like that.

[I think of my husband’s admonitions after the six years he spent as a US Navy man: if I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.]

Still, I couldn’t quite accept this crazy, freewheeling image depicted merrily, loudly, without apology in the early episodes of MITJ: Season 1 and Tindall’s book.

There is one story, its origin I can’t put my fingers on at the moment as I write this post from my mechanic’s waiting area in Nottingham, NH, but someone told me a story about Jan in the 70’s and “drug use.” (Hold on, don’t worry, this is a cute and totally legal story; it may have been Fred who told this to me.) Jan was travelling internationally–maybe this was the Japan trip with Seiji Ozawa?–and someone she was travelling with asked her about taking drugs through customs, and the uneventful truth is she told this musician,  I would never do that stuff; it’s just not worth the risk.

I am admittedly an innocent. In 1980, I’d barely tasted beer. The few folks I knew at Eastman who smoked knew not to ask me to join. It wasn’t my thing. But I still have a hard time with this depiction Amazon Prime has given us because Tindall wrote this book. (BTW: She took  A LOT of heat for this; was “blacklisted” she says, for the past decade. Apparently this tell-all pissed people off. She says, “I knew it was going to unfold this way, but the classical music press was very snarky about it.” Does the fact that she uses the word snarky give you a clue? And after all, if you’re going to subtitle a book Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, you’re kind of asking for it.)

I think I will write some more about this book, this show, my own experiences. Because for one, while I didn’t really admire the book for its writing or story, I have continued to watch the show: I’ve kind’a fallen in love with it, the characters, the story. It’s not memoir, anymore. And I don’t care about inaccuracies: it’s not trying to be instructive. It’s fun, beautifully acted, shot, written, and sounding. It’s all about the characters and their relationships, which is what all good TV writing is about. It’s what the book–a fiction, that is–should have been.

In the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle,” Lola Kirke plays a character inspired by Blair Tindall


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Cross Roads

So, Friends, here’s some new writing. And by new, I mean just written these past two days, unedited; in fact, too new to know what it is. But.

I had a lively chat today with Dr. Marie Rolf at Eastman, and she said, among many nuggets, this line about practice and study and it fell into what I’ve been working on. So, here’s some stuff about Jan and Juilliard and art and me.

We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.  –Goethe

My interest in making music has been to create something that does not exist that I would like to listen to. I wanted to hear music that had not yet happened, by putting together things that suggested new things which did not yet exist.  -Brian Eno

She described what she sees today when she looks at me: unburdened. Over and over again, she said, unburdened. She layers this view with her memory of me, always working so hard to keep us stable, happy, to make a good family life, make good happy memories– but the energy and being it took to do this laid on me, and now, she says, she sees lighter, unburdened.

She asked me, do you think being in this marriage has anything to do with not being your full artist self? And we talked about it all, so much of what I’ve written here. We talked about Jan and the book and I said out loud, it’s about woman, art, and love.

We used words for Jan, about Jan, like pure, authentic, unburdened, clear, and how it must be true how unusual this is for an artist to arrive as this and live this clear thread through, unfettered. How my friend Amy believes this is not the usual for an artist but that most of us struggle and suffer and lug things of great weight (my words just now) on our shoulders throughout our lives. That it is a very special thing and unique and one-in-a-million to be completely free of this.

Of course, Jan wasn’t totally free of it. The sacrifice, her family, her husband, her children.

But that this pure thing is what I want to show people.

And to perform it, [to attempt to perform it] to put it on display through the what, when, where, how, is probably not nearly enough. [As she did when learning a new score, she internalized it, ran it through herself, this vessel, and it became another thing entirely. She makes it from herself.] I have to swallow the light, internalize it, give it back wholly from myself: [what is art? How do we make it? Who makes it? Why do we come to it? It to us? Is there only one way?]

There is not only one way. What is lost when we are silenced because we are 1. Woman, 2. Poor, 3. Mothers and poor, 4. Husbands/fathers who must provide, 5. Riddled with self-doubt and crushed self-esteem? 6. Imagine-less?

The meta [which is truly primary, too] as I do this, daily stepping forward.

Music is for everyone.

If research doesn’t inform and enhance performance, what good is it? [She believed.] (MR)

And I said, I didn’t get it before, but I have it now, I said to my friend Amy, with gestures, it is a seed of light and I’ve swallowed it and it’s here (as I palm my chest) and I get it. She was pure love of and –for this thing, and I get it now. I don’t share it. I don’t match its intensity, probably, for anything, I doubt, but now I get it. I have it.

And Amy said, then, as a girl, I couldn’t understand this love of this thing music, at all, but I could register and see greatness and that’s why I wanted her. I could see and feel and witness this love and I wanted it.

I said, it is not a book about one artist, it is a book about two.


So. Jan goes to Juilliard to become. She can’t read music. She hasn’t seen or heard but one full opera. She carries with her respect, awe, a winning disposition and work ethic, and love.

People can’t believe she is Louanne Ruetz’s sister. So kind, prim and proper. Pollyanna. Good to the bone. They don’t know what to make of her. But they loved her. Her peers, her teachers. She was essentially a teenager dropped down in the big city, but her talent was undeniable. She quickly became a favored student. A model student. From the beginning, it was obvious the voice was outstanding.

She is terrified. Self-admittedly.  Fear—of the city, of Juilliard, the singers, of all she didn’t know—fed her determination.

She believed she was hot stuff, and everything would fall into place.

She would work harder than she ever had.

There would be guides, mentors, host:

If you encounter a great teacher once in your lifetime, you are one of the blessed. I can count many, many, among them:

           Henry Brant [crazy crazy man] whose classes made me deal with improvisation, orchestration.

           Norman Lloyd [they would be friends a very long time] who was a very big part of her early Juilliard years.


Year One:

Private voice lessons with Bernard Taylor, a small circle of worshippers holding him up. Jan most likely went straight to him because of Miss Boyer. In the mid-50’s, he is rimless, wire glasses; slanted eyes; puffy lids; combed back white hair parted in the middle. Jutted jaw. [Strong?] Arms crossed at his chest in this photo. Severe. Serious. [He is also on his way out, an episode that will test Janice, but a necessity (fate, luck, chance?), for it will lead her to Kagen.]

Choral Sight Singing, perhaps with Norman Lloyd, who will have snatched her up soon after meeting her for his madrigals group. Six singers—Lynn Clarke, Bud Burrows, Barbara Crouch, Alan Baker, Ray DeVo, and Jan together on Saturday mornings for four years who would morph into the Riverside Chamber Singers.

I learned the intricacies of madrigal writing, the incredible beauty of Dufay, Lassus, Monteverdi, Gesualdo, and great modern, too, like Hindemith and Poulenc. This group repeatedly talked about such things as tuning, use of vibrato, and attack, dynamics, etc. Now these are all things you would certainly expect any musician to be dealing with as a matter of course, but the sad truth is that much of vocal teaching doesn’t address them at all. The repertoire is exclusively classics and romantic (occasionally a little Baroque). The emphasis is on sound, its beauty and quantity. The skills of craftsman and artist are separated. 

The Norman Lloyd Singers

Jan, front left, in the mid-50’s with members of the Lloyd Chamber Singers. Norman Lloyd was one of Jan’s first important teachers at Juilliard. Arthur Burrows is the fellow on the right.


We sat in a circle on couches, chairs, the floor, notebooks in hand, pens moving. Wine glasses at our feet. 45 minutes, sometimes much more. Writing. Ten women writing. Together. Two Friday nights each month for years. I was invited to be here. And this is where I learned to be a writer. Fast, hard writing under the clock, and then, reading aloud, unedited, un-critiqued, just voice and language and intent and passion and what this does to our sound, breath, body. Because witnesses see it. How it moves you. How it falls upon your ears as it hits theirs. And you learn what to keep, what to do again, how to write tomorrow. In community. Because of community.

We talked of form and voice and point of view and writers we loved who were doing it. We talked of evidence and fact and invention and what comes wild when you’re not looking. We wrote a book about it, three of us from this group, and sold it fast to a good publisher. People care about how to make art happen.



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When They Return

Just now, I drove up Route 1A along the southern coast of Maine to my sister’s house at Moody Beach. Because it’s the middle of winter, my view isn’t blocked by tourists traveling bumper to bumper as they glance at the mansions perched on the craggy, wild hills to the left and right.

I drive and think of Sam.

He’s almost 21, and he was a boy here.

We parked across the street from the half-moon arc of Cape Neddick beach and waded out past the breakers, sinking into the soft silt of this protected shoal.

We spent an afternoon at York Wild Kingdom, walking the wooden paths and over bridges, spying small animals, eating cotton candy, riding the very old, very scary (to me) roller coaster at the edge of the park.

When he is older, just he and I brave the temperatures, even in mid-summer, and jump into crashing waves, float on our backs, and ride them in for hours at a time.

I pass these places and think of him, and how today, right now, I can see him clearly–almost hear him behind me in the car seat–his toddler body, the chubby, short fingers, his green Columbia jacket with purple trim. The way his head tilted, countenance thoughtful and faraway, to see out the window. I have him.  Again.

I tell you this because it’s a recent reunion. Not a month ago, my dad and I sat in his cabin and watched over a few days all the home videos he and my mom filmed of my growing boy: baby Sam, toddler Sam, four- and five-year old Sam. My parents and their camera gave my boy back to me.

Because it’s just always been true that as I parented this boy, lived with him for more than 18 years before he went off to college, I couldn’t just conjure up images from the past. I was in what I was in, whatever day, month, year it was. Standing aside a young man now taller than I, I can’t see the boy, too.

Until those movies. Now, at any second, I can recall his face, body, fingers, hair, that raspy voice everyone commented on as he was growing up (a symptom of his ongoing allergies to just about everything.)

Today, as I drove, I saw that boy running on the beach as I passed the very spot. I have him, viscerally.

And this is exactly what has happened as I’ve discovered more and more photographs, recordings, including tapes of voice lessons–even videos–of Jan.

When I started this work in January 2015, I felt detached from her. Cerebral. It was all information in my head. Of course I remember her! and I could not remember her. Her speaking voice, her lips, as they pursed when she was quite serious about something, the small tilt of her head when she heard it. The smile. That Laugh. OH My God, that laugh.

Her speaking to me, evenly, excitedly, lovingly. Firmly.

At some point, as I watched and listened to these artifacts, she returned to me. Viscerally. I’ve got her now. I’m connected–in real time–to memory.

Phil Stone Photography

Perkins Cove, Maine

Phil Stone Photography

Photography by my brother-in-law Phil Stone of Wells, Maine. Check his work at






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I’ve been on the road. Many roads. Internal, metaphorical, physical. These are hard times. These are churning times. We all experience hardships, challenges, yes, but right now, it feels bigger, more intense, somehow the worst. Maybe because of the full-out cries for action, the organizing, the flurry of information clogging our internet hi-way (for which, I am grateful). I’m finishing Richard Grant’s book Dispatches from Pluto. I’ve recently watched Oscar nominated Loving, Hidden Figures, OJ: Made in America. I’ve read and re-read and asked my father to read David Bradley’s Eulogy for Nigger, an award winning, re-and well-published essay. I drove to the tip of the South and toured the only plantation museum in the US telling the story through the experiences of the enslaved.

I wake daily and feel overwhelmed. Incapable of doing anything useful or worthy of this national cause to heal wounds, history, her-story, and move our country to collaboration and intelligence and humanity. Sometimes, I am paralyzed.

So, I get up, make my coffee, read a few pages, and then I write. Any one of us art-makers knows that to make our work is a Revolutionary act. A necessary act. The right act for us to engage in because this is how we came into the world and this is the work we do and it is the just right work for us. I recall a conversation I had with my mom, years before she died, right after the devastating earthquake in China. We were sitting on my couch–she and my dad visiting New Hampshire–and I was lamenting this stupid feeling of worthlessness I’d by this time felt again and again–September 11–because I was “just a teacher, just a writer, and not doing anything.” And she said, “You are doing exactly what you were put on this earth to do and that is just right. You are doing the work you are here to do.” I think of this and am grateful for her and her words.

But I am not doing nothing. To read these texts, see these movies, drive myself down to Louisiana to see this museum, having longed to see it since the day I read about it in the New York Times magazine two years ago, these acts are revolutionary. Did I tell you that my reserved tour at The Whitney Plantation was comprised of TEN people, including myself? Nine white, one young African-American woman. All, excepting me, under the age of 30. Our choice to get there, be present with and accept this history, revolutionary and necessary.

I think of Jan, of course, and all the ways her life and actions intersect with my history (that brief period of time we shared) how all of this–my travel, my reaching for art, my healing from an ending marriage, a broken and divided country–somehow connects to her revolutionary acts: to leave a broken and destructive marriage and parent two small children on her own. To build a singing career at the same time. To freelance and cobble together gigs and jobs in order to survive and care for those children. To grow, all the while, a deep and abiding musical life in the presence of all this hardship and challenge. She did it.

I think of steps. Baby steps. How I was sent this useful article about not getting overwhelmed. About how steps lead to roads. To running. Taking longer distances at a stretch. I’m working now on entirely new writing about the four years Jan was at Juilliard. And there’s no way to lay it down but to do it, fact by fact, moment by moment, description by description, until the map comes clear.

Walk on.





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Friday Roundup

It’s Inauguration Day, Friends. I drove 8 hours from Hattiesburg, Mississippi north to Meridian, into Alabama, then Georgia, and finally crossed into Tennessee at Chattanooga. Less than two hours later, I arrived at my hotel in Knoxville for the night. Now, I’m eating cheese and crackers and broccoli and hummus and watching each of the three balls start.

What a strange day. And beautiful. Let’s begin with beautiful: At the Mississippi/Alabama border, the sun broke through the same gray bank of clouds I’ve been living under since sometime last week in Oakland at my dad’s cabin. The rest of the day, everything around me as I drove on, growing greener, hillier, warmer.

I had a long, detailed, excellent conversation with Sister #1 who’s up in Maine.

I asked and received decent coffee at McDonald’s this morning.

And this drive today was easy, seemingly fast–no traffic.

Now, the strange: listening for hours to the swearing in, etc. commentary on NPR.

Aware of lots of feelings bubbling up by the time Jackie Evancho starts singing. Weepy. (This is why I called Sis #1.) Because I learned this morning that our old, swell family dog, our Labradoodle Daisy, is falling ill. Had a seizure last night.

Because I am driving north to get back to our home and town for a brief stay to move forward the ending of my marriage.

Because here is Laurel, Mississippi, the birthplace and home of Leontyne Price, remarkable opera diva. Shacks, rotting and mold-covered wood houses to my left and right, the poverty I can’t now place her in.

Because then I cross into Jones County, Mississippi, the site of a remarkable rebellion by deserters who wished to secede and form their own government in 1863. They lived in the swamps there, among runaway slaves, literally establishing dwellings, methods for finding and preparing food. Among the Bald Cypress. Moss, stone. On The Water.

Because as I listen to the President give his speech, I think of what my tour guide at Whitney Plantation, the only plantation museum in the US to tell the story from the point of view of the enslaved, just said the day before about healing: Every single American must face and acknowledge and embrace our total history in order for this country to heal.

Perseverance. Opportunity. Freedom. The end of things. The beginning. All the closed eyes, still.

But I will leave you on a good note of the strange: This evening, as I was checking in, I get a call from Mexico. Kimball Wheeler, soprano, and one of Jan’s first students is calling. We’re gonna talk about Jan in about five minutes, so here’s the roundup–and sleep tonight. We all get to rest and rise again.

Margaret-Love: about my visit with writer Margaret-Love Denman in Oxford, MS

Bon Mot Radio Show with Rick Agran: You can hear Part One of my 90 minute interview about Jan and the book here!

On the Road Again: traveling along the Gulf Coast and the beautiful Historic Michabelle Inn.





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On the Road Again

So, I have been travelin’ new territory, Friends.

Yesterday, I left the Delta and drove I55 south, straight into Louisana, to  Hammond about 55 miles north of New Orleans, where I spent the night at The Historic Michabelle Inn, built at the turn of the 20th century.  My host has been running this inn since 2001 when he moved there from Charlottesville, VA. Here are some photos of the amazing hospitality I experienced and for a very reasonable amount. The bed was fantastic, the breakfast, delicious, and, although I planned on paying for a bottle of wine (which I did not finish!), this morning, Innkeeper just waved me off. I hope you’ll consider this place if you are ever traveling this way.


I stopped there because this morning, I had a 10 am reservation to tour the the Whitney Plantation museum, once called Habituation Haydel, in Wallace, on the west bank of the Mississippi River where hundreds…hundreds of plantations existed.  (Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post about this tour.)

I have never been to this corner of the US; in fact, I decided not to stop in New Orleans (this trip) because I don’t want to do that city alone.

I’ve been through the Ozarks, all around central Mississippi, Memphis, but never south to the Gulf Coast.

OK, that’s not actually true. Some of you might remember this: when I was a senior in high school, I competed as Miss Maryland in the America’s Junior Miss pageant in Mobile, Alabama. I flew into Mobile for the two-week affair. It was mind-blowing. Really. I remember feeling I was so different from my southern counterparts. (Even though Maryland, as many folks like to remind me, is often considered “southern”.)  I couldn’t get used to the delicacy of these gorgeous young women, the protectiveness of our host families and all the women volunteers who looked after us during our stay.

Andy Gibb and Ed McMahon emceed the live broadcast, and people tell me (I’ve only ever seen the footage once) that I squealed maniacally when I won the Talent Award, was called on stage during the live telecast, and kissed by Mr. Gibb and Mr. McMahon. Ah, well, so long ago.

Anyway, my host family, whom I remember as perfectly genteel and lovely, took me and Ms. North Dakota, my roommate, to the coast one evening after we’d had a dinner out. I put my foot in the Gulf of Mexico. I remember my host “mom” talking about storms and hurricanes; this was a forever distance before Katrina.

But as I drove south this morning, I wasn’t thinking about Jr. Miss; indeed, had not thought of it until just now as I type. I was thinking about the swamp to my left, the tall, still-winter trees, the Bald Cypress, green coming from vegetation at their feet, but otherwise, empty and gray and seemingly lichen-covered, or colored. I think about alligators, about runaway slaves, native american enslaved peoples and how they hid, lived, built small communities in these swamps. How when you are able to look long enough, there is a beauty in the stand of cypress rooted in water, muck, swamp. I thought about my mother making this trek many many years ago, that I am beginning to understand how she saw beauty in this slant of south, and how limited–no, occluded–my view still can be.



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Bon Mot Radio Show with Rick Agran


Back in October my friend poet Rick Agran interviewed me on his weekly radio show Bon Mot on WDGR-WDGH radio out of Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont.wdgr

We hung out together for 90 minutes; I read from several pieces of my narrative nonfiction, including excerpts from the book on Jan. Rick also played several recordings of Jan as we talked.

Rick has since edited the broadcast and you can hear Part One of three of this interview here:

You’ll hear a long excerpt from my essay “Secrets” (which was runner up in South Loop Review‘s South Loop Review annual essay contest in 2014) and hear us talk about writing process and teaching writing.

Stay tuned for Parts Two and Three!

WGDH/WDGR Radio Plainfield, Vermont

Rick Agran at the helm. WGDR radio at Goddard College, Oct 2016.





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In twenty years, I want to be Margaret-Love Denman.

Born and raised in the Delta, Oxford, Mississippi, where generations of her family have owned and still run businesses, Margaret-Love invited me to her childhood home where she’s been living again for the past several years.  The dining room table was elegantly set and within minutes, in between spates of chatter–the catching up kind–we sat before her homemade pan cake (corn bread) and butter, black-eyed peas and collard greens stew, green salad. Afterwards, we’d have homemade caramel cake with ice cream for dessert. Before we sat and laid crisp, creased white linen napkins on our laps, she told me the stew was prepared the Delta way: with one dime dropped in the pot, for good luck.

Collard greens and black-eyed peas

Southern hospitality: collard greens and black-eyed pea stew.

I met Margaret-Love when we both taught in the English department at the University of New Hampshire. In late 2005, I was writing my lecture for my final semester in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts about how creative people balance art and life, how to make a life in writing while having to earn a living, raise children, attend to all things domestic and about daily necessities. I interviewed Margaret-Love because I knew she was a women fiction writer and I wanted to know how she’d made her life work as writer, university professor, mother and wife.

We sat in her house in Durham, NH for several hours as she told me about her marriage, its ending at 30 years, her five children, that she’d started teaching at age 50, and how she’d written the first novel during her lunch breaks from her administrative job at NC State so many years ago when the family lived in Raleigh. A Scrambling After Circumstance, 1990

A Scrambling After Circumstance

Margaret-Love’s first novel, 1990

Margaret-Love left UNH in 2008; she told me she was going home, to Oxford, and to teach part-time at Ole Miss, her Alma mater. We hadn’t communicated since then, but when I knew I’d be spending several weeks with my dad this winter, I reached out, hoping we could reconnect. Something told me the time was right.

Margaret-Love answered the door, and I recognized her instantly—that open, wide, lovely face, warm smile, the southern drawl, and–I didn’t recognize her at all. She seemed to have shrunk against what my memory held; indeed, she told me she’d lost a fair amount of weight. But it was more than this: she seemed smaller, less tall than I’d remembered, but no less energetic and compelling. Fit, compact—well, springy–but now her blonde hair had gone white. She clipped it loosely from her striking jawline, pulled into a kind of pony-bun at her neck. She wore a multi-colored, thick poncho-sweater, slacks, and long earrings; bracelets. She seemed completely transformed, and yet there was no mistaking her.

Why do I want to be her? Because she has written four books, and continues at age 77, to write and lead and coach writers and attend festivals and conferences and residencies. In 2010, she spent 6 weeks writing in Malta. This summer, she is flying to Spain to walk 100 miles. Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia in northwestern Spain. Wikipedia quickly tells me that the city is a destination of the Way of St. James, a leading Catholic pilgrimage route originated in the 9th century. A walk of 800 miles. Margaret-Love will do 100 in ten days. She’s been training and waves her wrist at me, her Fitbit visible.

She gives me the Spanish word for perseverance, but now I can’t recall it or find it online. [I don’t know Spanish.]

I think of Margaret-Love. All she’s endured and thrived in and under, the clear-minded, strong-willed, quick-witted person she is now. I think of this Mississippi, the Delta, what lives, threatens, weakens, strengthens here, all the aspects of this place I have for 25 years purposely “un”-seen, “un”-heard, “un”-witnessed in my attempt to keep myself detached from it, even when I am right here. Because I don’t know what to do with it. Margaret-Love suggested I get a book, which I did that evening at Square Books across from one of the buildings her family has owned for decades, maybe more than a century. In Dispatches from Pluto,  Richard Grant, an Englishman reporter tells of his recent move from New York City to down here west of Oakland where my dad’s cabin is, about how and what he’s lived and learned about Mississippi in order to write about it. He kept me up one night this week with stories about snakes and crime in the state. “I think he gets is right,” she said, “because he’s British. He’s a true outsider.”

Dispatches from Pluto by Richard Grant

Richard Grant’s award winning nonfiction book about the Delta

I think about myself here, the child of people who chose to live her for more than 20 years, who by now should not see herself as outsider, but remains so.

And, I have persevered in so many other ways.

I can’t think of a better vision for myself than to be where Margaret-Love is when I hit that stage, still moving, walking, writing, connecting, throwing my whole self into whatever living form I find myself


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