The Soda Fountain. My First Months in Stillwater

My therapist told me to picture myself at a fast food restaurant, after ordering my food. In the scene she wanted me to imagine, I need to decide what drink I want and head to the soda fountain, holding the plastic cup in my right hand.

This is already problematic in many ways. First, we don’t really have soda fountains in Italy, so, when you order at McDonald’s or wherever, you tell the cashier what you want  and they’ll put the drink on your tray. So, picturing myself in front of the soda fountain is already a bit weird.

Second, whenever I am in front of a soda fountain now that I am in the States, I feel like Elliott Reed from Scrubs (will I ever stop referencing Scrubs?) when she has to take a very important decision about treating a patient and, of course, she flees. Then, she spends 15 minutes in front of a vending machine to choose between a ginger ale and a cherry soda.

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For my friends from Italy: this is a soda fountain. 

And, last but not least, I have always been independent and strong when it came to my own life choices. I would take a path no matter what, and usually knew what I wanted long before it was even the time to actually take a decision. So, choosing a soda has never been such a problem for me. Until now.

My therapist told me that even if for me it is apparently easy to take decisions, I may be tricked. It’s like, she said, you put your plastic cup under the Coke dispenser, perfectly confident that you’ll get a Coke. It’s your favorite soda and you will be very thirsty after eating all those French fries. Actually, you are already thirsty before even eating, and you can’t wait to have a sip of your drink.

So you press the button, the liquid comes out, you put a couple of ice cubes in it, grab a lid and a straw. You put the straw into the lid and bring the drink to your table. You sit down, start eating, talk to your friends or whoever is with you, and then, as you grab your drink, you take a sip.

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You are there, and as the liquid touches your tongue, you realize it’s actually not Coke. It’s Dr Pepper. It looked similar, but the taste is not the same. And you hate it.

My therapist told me this has been me the first weeks I was in the USA. I am not going to deny that I felt like shit the first month, because I had been so sure I would have loved it here in Stillwater, doing my PhD and focusing on my writing, that I didn’t take into consideration the fact that I might not get what I was actually expecting.

Stillwater is a lovely town, at least, it is to me, as a new student. Oklahoma State University is undeniably amazing. And I’ve never met such friendly people as here – at Sarah Lawrence College, New York, I had fun, but people were more competitive and suspicious, at least at the beginning. There was even a verb associated to the typical behavior of students at SLC: “to Sarahlawrence someone” meant to know someone but not wave at them or say “hi” if you met them on campus or outside classes. Here, like I have always been told about the South/Midwest, everyone is open, easygoing, sweet, smiles all the time. I really have nothing to complain.

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The Student union at Oklahoma State University. 

I have a lot to do, and Grad school is hard but satisfying. Still, I have time to write. I am finally finding the time and the energy to do it, after a month spent not doing anything productive a part from my homework.

Sometimes, even an aspiring writer can have a soda fountain dramatic moment. When they expect they will be happy and then, as they have sacrificed their personal and sentimental life for their career, they realize something is missing and what they get is not what they expected. Not because there is anything wrong with where their career is going, but because they were sure they would feel nostalgic, but not depressed. And this is what happened to me.

The most important aspect of being in this condition is not to give up. Just be strong and keep on doing what you want and have always wanted. As Miles Kane says, Don’t Forget Who You Are. I mean, you don’t have to drink the whole Dr Pepper if it makes you sick, but you can take a sip from the Sprite that your friend ordered. Like I did. And this post is a chance to thank all my friends who have been close to me, both the new ones and the old ones. As a British gal would say, me mates, who have called me and texted me from the other side of the ocean to ask me how I was feeling and to listen to me brooding.

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“Although we’re tongue-tied and breathless we won’t let our worries dictate who we are, throw out the old towels, we won’t let our worries dictate who we are… la la la la la la la la, don’t forget who you are!” 

You can eat your food and then go home and have a great, big cup of water with ice, if you are thirsty. Or you can go to the cashier and tell them that you had a Dr Pepper instead of a Coke and the soda fountain is broken. Or you can discover that maybe, at the end of the day, Dr Pepper is not that bad. But it probably is. 

In other words, anyway, you can always do something about your situation, or, at least, you can try. I have started to love the place where I am after just a month of hating myself and feeling miserable all the time. At the end of the day, I am really doing what I wanted and what I worked hard to accomplish.  And I love this. I am excited to be here for the next 4 to 5 years, even if at the beginning I was feeling trapped and lonely.

This is a small town, but it’s beautiful in its own way. I will talk about it in the next post. It has already given me plenty of inspiration, possibilities, friends, lovers and, most of all, new stories to tell. Which after all is what I have always been looking for, from Livorno to Florence to Oslo to New York to London to here, in the middle of nowhere, Oklahoma.

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The Book of London

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I am always on the run. I have lived in four different places in the last four years. am tired. I moved from Livorno and my University in Florence to Oslo for a semester, then back to Tuscany again. I went to Bronxville, a small town 30 minutes away from New York City, and then back to Italy. And then I moved to London, where I stayed for one year and a half.

Now I am back to Livorno. My last days in London were hectic, as I had to pack, say goodbye to my old job, complete a one-week work experience at HHB Literary Agency and, of course, see my friends for the last time. I have been thinking about London in the last few days, right after the emotion of being home fade away. I am spending my time with my loved ones in the places that I know and love, but London keeps coming back. I have the impression that it will always be.

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The first emotion I feel when I think about London, even before nostalgia or sadness, is gratitude. I don’t think I would ever be able to express my gratitude for all the people I met in this amazing year and a half. I would like to hug all the amazing people I met, my flatmates, my friends, my professors. My classmates and friends in London always did their best to help me with my writing and my English. They read my shit and gave me feedback. They listened to my clumsy English and corrected me if I needed it. Now I am braver and I know for sure that my grasp on the language is improved, thanks to them.

Almost all of my luggage is unpacked and settled again in my room in Livorno. But there is a bag, full of notes, memories, pictures and stuff that I am afraid to open. I am afraid it may mix up with the life I have here and I am sure I’ll start crying when I open the notes I received, the presents and gifts and the love all the people I met showed to me. And then, of course, I am scared of going back to London with my mind, and fall in a blurry place. But I just can’t leave everything there, in the dusty bag. I need to take everything out and, possibly, write my book of London. Stick all the notes and pictures and memories and the songs I listened to and the stories I wrote and the films I saw and the small things of life that I am so afraid to forget when I’ll leave Livorno again. Because I will.

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I left London three weeks ago and I am still living in some strange place where I can smell toasts from Pret in the morning. Where sudden gusts of wind mess my hair up in the tube station and everything goes too fast. A weird, blurry place where people are always busy and girls go to work stumbling on high heels.
Here in Livorno, instead, the wind on my face smells like the sea, even when I am not on the shore. The buzz of the too many mopads pierces my ears constantly and the food oozes with oil and garlic and flavour. I have eaten the best Cacciucco of my life. I have spent 20 euros to eat eight different dishes at dinner – something that is simply impossible in London.
I have written a new story about London, because I miss this huge part of me so much that sometimes Livorno seems like a temporary place. Maybe tomorrow I am going to prepare my suitcase and head off to Stratford again. I will take a long walk in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and go shopping at Westfield, buy some shit at Poundland and decide what to eat for dinner while shopping at Sainsbury’s – always the same tasteless shit, I am afraid.
I will hear guys calling their pals “mates” instead of “bimbi” and I will smile when I’ll enter a pub, with the smell of ale and old carpet that is so vivid and alive to me now that it seems like I have never really left.
And when I am in this blurry place in my mind, missing London and thinking about this cheesy shit, I will think about Livorno, about the smell of jasmine in my garden, the threatening gazes of seagulls scanning the moats for some pigeons to slaughter. My hometown, with the accent that I know so well and makes me laugh everytime.
I have been living in too many places in the last 4 years and I miss them all. The world where everyone is scattered, trying to find their own path even if far away from loves ones, is a tough one.
I left a piece of my heart in London and I can’t wait to visit again.
It is not home now, but will always be anyway.

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Obstruction #8. Self-Portrait

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Session 5 was about our condition as expatriates in the city as home. Ron started obstruction #8 by asking us to take a selfie with our phones or to watch ourselves in the mirror and to try to draw a sketch of ourselves, a self-portrait. I did, and this is the result.

He asked us to notice what we drew and what we avoided. I avoided eyes, the nose and all the spots on my skin, while glasses, my style and my messy hair seemed relevant and strongly present. He then gave us the guidelines.

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Form/Shape.

Title must be “Self-Portrait as….” An everyday object or something that seems at first unlike you.

Finished.

 

Content.

Some memory from adolescence.

Make what’s absent present.

Good strangeness.

 

Action (What the poem does).

Confront, promise.

 

Self-portrait as blue eye-shadow

First Draft Version

 

So that day I said, I’m going to wash my hands quickly

After eating as much pasta as it was humanly possible.

She nodded yes, and helped him zip up his sweater.

I heard her cursing him as I walked through the hallway.

 

The lampshade of the toilet was shaped as a big chunk of quartz.

She had always had everything a girl could want.

Her lipsticks were called camellia, lobster, Moulin rouge red.

And she had this this dark blue and dusty eye-shadow

 

I have never found in a shop and still can’t.

Her drawer would open under my fingertips

As my personal Pandora’s vase. I had always put on her

Brown eyeliner and gone out the toilet without her telling me

 

To wash my face.

I would put on her pearl necklaces dangling over my belly.

Her clothes would make the whole PETA pissed

Ocelot, leopard, fox and wolf would dangle as well

 

From the coat hangers of my favourite Narnia.

She would laugh, watching me stumble in my feet.

The day I heard my grandpa groan and her swearing

She told him, you were a fucking surgeon, how’s it possible

 

You can’t zip up your own sweater now?

I heard him screaming, of course I can, if you give me a minute.

We all knew he couldn’t.

I headed to the toilet, thinking of when he had

 

Pretended not to limp when the family doctor

Had come to see him.

I sat on the toilet and opened her drawer.

The pearly pink of the quartz-shaped lampshade

 

Made my eyes shine over the makeup I craved for.

But the dark blue eye-shadow was finished,

an empty, old golden box with no magic dust.

The eyeliner was not sharp. Lipstick tubes were consumed,

 

There was only a small splotch of colour at the bottom.

I heard him saying, I’m fine, I’m well. It was the last time he told so.

She kept on wearing those old furs and coats,

And I bought my own wolf fur. I looked like her.

 

She started pushing his wheelchair, but she kept on

Hissing you were a fucking surgeon, how

Can’t you walk now?

She was so angry, but had heavy tears in her eyes.

 

I still look for her dark blue eye-shadow,

Lipsticks with magical names and brown eyeliner.

She didn’t throw them away. As she pushes his wheelchair,

The empty eye-shadow box lies in the drawer, perfectly still.

 

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The Middle of the Poetry Path: Reflections

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At the beginning of session 5, Ron wanted us to reflect and think about our progress in the previous sessions. Being exactly in the middle of our path, we could have a more specific idea of our work and what to present as a final project. Therefore, he wanted us to answer to three questions.

1) What have you made these past four sessions? What feels like a particularly powerful change, what do you pay attention to now, that you did not pay attention before?

I think my process in writing in another language changed a lot. Before studying poetry, my aim when writing in English was trying to move on. I felt like I was too dependent on forms that I had read or heard before, on the shortcuts that helped me to just shoot what I had in my head on the page (usually, I would think in Italian and try to write them down in English, which is not the best way to produce a good piece of writing). Now, I feel like I am more daring in using different forms, I pay more attention not only to how the sentences and periods sound, but also how single words sound. When I write fiction, I like my stories to be simple, to use a straightforward language. I like to write like how people talk, using swearing, slang, colloquial expressions. With poems, instead, I feel like I can use different words for the same concepts, I am more eager to be misunderstood. Not everything need to be simple and straightforward.

2) Do you have written a draft, poem or story that you think embodies that change?

I think my poem Bundy and the sequence of sonnets I wrote about the cities where I lived can be good examples of this. As for the sequence, I think it embodies my attention to single words because I spent a lot of time trying to figure out their pronunciation, their sound, their syllable structure (which I’ve never thought about when writing fiction). It’s only a draft, but I guess I spent more time than I thought looking for single words, erasing line I did not like that much. In fiction I usually write the whole shitty draft down and then go for mistakes or syntax problems, but the most important thing is the development of the plot.

3) Which do you think was a text that was influential to you?

I think The Lottery by Shirley Jackson was one of my favourite. I know, it’s fiction. I found it a perfect short story, with a good build up and an amazing ending. It showed me how well a story can develop in such few lines as this. As for poetry, I loved Song by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, which structure and tone was quite “fictional” but also had the sound of a good song. I loved Public Toilets in Regent’s Park, because it taught me how irony can be used in poetry. You can really write about anything: nothing is “holy” anymore, you can even write poetry about sexual diseases and be ironical about it. One of the lines in this poem is only made out of names of sexual diseases.

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For this class, Ron wanted us to move around the room, sitting at places we had never before. He wanted us to reflect on the changes we experienced and to consider everything we noticed about our poetry and writing in general. This may include our subject matter, that can be shocking to us just as it is our effort of making. To me, the effort of making poetry was very different from the one I used to have for fiction. I paid attention to the sentences, to the lines, to the periods much more than before. This does not mean to forget my roots, but it is also interesting to notice the shifts, switches, the layout structure. I thought about the process of creating a poem, the “make while making”. There were strange mutations. Writing, and thinking about our own writing while doing it, means to grow up, to face our demons.

And of course, I got angry. I got angry because I noticed that I had not a complete mastery of my pieces, I could not express myself at best and I re-thought every word and line carefully, cutting and deleting the ones that didn’t convince me. Ron told us that if we want to be writers we need to delude ourselves, to face our flaws and issues.

We also discussed what the obstructions and limits meant to us. Sometimes, having to write poems while following strict rules can seem quite hard and students may want to just write anything they want. Be told what we can do and following those rules meant to experience a respectful rebellion. What can we include and incorporate in our poem? What is our form? What can we write while following some specific guidelines? Publishing houses and magazines have guidelines. Learning to follow them means getting used to the literary world. Also experimenting is an important part of writing poetry. What makes prose prose? What makes poetry poetry? This is something that is worth to explore in our own writing. What makes the difference, which are the limits and where can we push ourselves? Sonia Sanchez said that your ears can catch what your eyes cannot.

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Thinking about form means also to consider what is important about line breaks, where we feel in our bones that we need to do line-break and where we don’t. What is the difference between lines and sentences. Can we be conscious writers?

When talking about her own short story Bloodchild, Octavia Butler said that she writes about what worries her. Her story is shocking, as all the best literature and art in general. Science fiction is interesting because of the subject matter, which says a lot also on all times, it focus on evergreen anxieties. Concerning this, Ron told us to read Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith.

What are you showing us that is odd? What is special about you and your writing? I need to consider my condition as a non-native English speaker an asset, to find the joy in it, to use my poetry as to ask someone to be part of my country and my tradition. Making our writing universal and not linked and associated to a single place is just bullshit: the more “local”, particular our story is, the more it is universal and believable.

The story of Hamlet is not relatable it its particularity, but it is relatable because it is about human condition. We are expatriate to it, but there is something that invites us to an expatriate space, that invites the reader to human experience.

I do not need to be scared and to write about small details of my own experience. The important thing is to consider carefully the form and the style and to take risks.

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