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sewing like back then

sewing clothes - fall 2014

When I was doing the final year of my MFA I had a one-bedroom apartment off a main street in Minneapolis. The apartment was typical of  apartments in Minneapolis: big windows, white walls, wood floors, screens on the windows, great woodwork (all painted over many times). The kitchen was tiny but had room for a table, and it had glass-fronted cabinets I kept my pretty dishes in. I put my single bed in the main room and set up big tables in the bedroom—and shelves, which I filled with fabric. I sewed so much in that apartment. I would listen to the BBC World Service and sew until 3 a.m., usually in a tank top and shorts because the heat ran full-blast all winter and the radiators had been painted over so much that you could no longer turn the valves.

sewing clothes - fall 2014

I sewed dresses and shirts and lots of skirts and lots and lots of small things. It was the beginning of the Internet for me—I was forming connections with lots of the writers/sewers/makers/artists who are still my friends now. But it wasn’t wireless and it wasn’t fast, so there was no omnipresent sense of connection. A few times a week I would upload pictures to Flickr or post on my blog about what I was sewing, and my friends were doing the same.

Those late nights sewing were so restful and joyful. I never felt that sewing took anything away from the work I was doing in the printmaking department or the writing program, and it didn’t take away from my teaching, either. What it did was offer me long periods of complex thought about the order of operations (figuring out garment construction) and lots of time where I was alone, with my hands occupied, just thinking about everything. I seriously believe it kept me from feeling some of the anxieties that floated freely around the program about publishing and winning and being productive all the time. When I wasn’t writing, I was making things, and I could see without any external validation that I had made the things and that I liked them.

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A few weeks ago I decided to make a skirt. I wanted something with a fitted waist and a longish pleated skirt. I already had the fabric, bought in 2013 in the US. I drafted the pattern and cut out and sewed the waist, then decided I hated it and that it was a failure. I left it a few days—the zipper was not right, I wasn’t sure it would look good after all. But when I came back to it, having thought about it, I had figured out a way to make the zipper work (I devised a fly, essentially). And I sewed on the skirt and it did look good. And I remembered how pleasing it was to figure these things out and to make clothing. It’s the first time since that apartment in 2006 that I’ve had space where the sewing machine can live (and even the ironing board can stay out). What a difference that has made—I can just go and sew, there’s no huge production of getting everything out and then having to put it all away.

sewing clothes - fall 2014

Maybe a month ago the lovely Lisa Solomon (one of those friends from the early days of Flickr) sent me a pattern by Sonya Philip for a dress. (The generosity and intuitiveness and care of these women-internet-friends of mine never ceases to amaze me. Also let me note that that pattern is available up to size 3XL—click through to Sonya’s shop to see that version and other patterns.) And last week I cut out a test dress in bright cyan gingham, gotten very cheap at a fabric shop in Ghent. I don’t always find sewing with a pattern easy, and I figured if I were going to mess something up, best mess up at €2.50 a meter.

But I didn’t mess it up. I love it.

I made bias tape out of the remnant of a piece of Liberty lawn I had, and I hemmed the dress (which I lengthened by a couple of inches because I like things a bit longer) by hand. The pattern is great. I’ve already cut out another in a very very light, ochre-colored wool (still thinking about what I’ll use for the bias tape there). The dress is voluminous and hangs well on me. I made the XS thinking it might be too small but that the S might be too large—my measurements were exactly the size marked for the XS—but it fits perfectly. I wore it over a skirt I made in 2006 and still wear—I think it was an Alexander Henry quilting cotton; it’s printed with big flowers in kind of off-colors: brick red, sea green, peach, gray—and with a red cardigan and a bright fuchsia/purple scarf that was once an obi (it was also once very bright white and purple shibori, but someone ahem might have accidentally washed it). I felt joyful and light all day in these clothes, not only because of the colors, although wearing colors here makes me feel better; also because I remembered every time I looked down what a pleasure it was to sew, and all the ways that sewing contributes to my thinking. And every time I wear a dress from this pattern I will also think of my friends and of the community that we made so long ago, which, although in other forms, is still at work today.

sewing clothes - fall 2014

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concurrence

Dickinson House: Writers' Residency | Literary B&B

This picture is true. Although the gardens are undergoing the first signs of dying off now—a few colder, rainier, windier days have reminded me and them that we are now in October—it is still true that there is open space, there are flowers, the sky is wide here.

I was out getting the mail ten minutes ago when a fighter jet flew over the garden. You know they are coming well before you can see them because of the particular noise they make. They fly relatively low, and they fly east over our house and gardens. I could see the paint shining on the one that flew over today. B-16s from Belgium have begun bombing in Syria, and there is no way to forget that here. I would not want to be able to forget it.

If I could forget it, then people elsewhere would be hearing these planes, not to mention living through or dying in the explosions that follow them there, and I might be able to pretend to have no responsibility for it.

The house is beautiful and full of light and the gardens are a pleasure and a relief. But both are in the world. If it looks like an idyll, that is my failure—because an idyll is not in the world. An idyll is fantasy. This place is not removed from the fact that its country is bombing another country. Not removed from the complex discussion about when it is okay to hurt or kill someone else. Not removed from the large-scale dances of colonialism, Eurocentrism, patriarchy, and capitalism that are the unspoken histories and presents of this place. There are gardens here, and well-lit rooms, and there is space for you, writer or artist, but there is no escape from the warplanes that continue to fly east above our house.

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1873

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1873 is the name of the long-form prose object (easier? ‘Novel’, although what I’m writing differs, I think, in significant ways from novels as they’re sold and spoken of in general, at the moment) I’ve been working on for a few years now. It is about an archivist living in Sendai; the first half of the book takes place over about four years, and the second half takes place during and directly after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. 1873 is also about how time and memory work, and about the ways we have of making sense of the past. It’s about how history is constructed, and what is forgotten in its making—specifically the way that ‘insignificant’ things and people are lost. It moves between more traditional narratives (like the one in this excerpt, published last year in Two Serious Ladies, or this one, in Bluestem) and more fragmented pieces (like this, published just recently in Sundog Lit, or this, published a while ago in DIAGRAM) that represent both the movement of one character’s mind and the way that, in an archive, many times and places are simultaneously together and alive.

Vermont Studio Center

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Berlin notebook [2]

Berlin, September 2014

The name of the palace, built by workers for Frederick the Great in the 1740s, is Sanssouci. Meaning ‘carefree’. But everywhere the evidence of great pains taken to ordain the landscape just so. Extremely orderly vegetable rows, the house set on a hill with a precise vista, geometric mowing, lawns punctuated by evenly placed statuary.

Berlin, September 2014

No matter how much empire desires order, the chard bolts, the nasturtiums unfurl over everything. It’s not a new thought, but I was struck by it here. The order of the placement of things. My feeling for the correctness of placement an order in and of itself: how some things seem, by dint of a habit of historical association, to belong together. How surprised and not surprised I was to cross a bridge and see the Italianate building there (so beautiful and graceful; so Italian, all of a sudden in the German landscape, a reminder about how recently the invisible lines we call national borders were applied, and how fluidly culture moves across them, even now but certainly in the past of this land and these buildings, if one is only rich enough). The building itself crumbling inside, windows boarded up on the back façade. In an upstairs room I saw a huge black-and-white poster of a Classical statue. Kings may have intents and purposes for their kingdoms, but individual humans/plants/animals—not to mention the movement of tectonic plates, the action of water on concrete and metal, the accumulation of toxins and abrasives in rainwater—tend to circumvent these plans. At least in fragile, minuscule ways.

Berlin, September 2014

A palace is an attempt at preservation. For one, the building (even ownership of the land) retains value and pomp and position in ways that currency or gold cannot; ownership of a building like this is not anonymous. It will always have belonged to the emperor. I nearly wrote ‘it will always have been built by F. the G.’, but realized that tic is habitual. The emperor did not build his own house, but his is nearly the only name that remains (yes, the architect is known. But who were the masons?). And now the palace is Historic; a double preserve. Holding the Name in itself, and held from outside by the State which longs to maintain a sense of its past. The Way We Were.

Berlin, September 2014

Sanssouci is fascinated with a past it imagines itself into: not only the palace of Now imagining itself into the time of the great emperor, but the palace as it was in 1747 imagining itself (in company with palaces all over Europe, not to mention buildings elsewhere) back into a refracted Classical antiquity. Geometry a demonstration of the perfection of forms. The ‘true style‘—simple and symmetrical. In Man as in Nature (no place for Woman, then, except as allegory to be subdued—domesticated and made to bear fruit).

Berlin, September 2014

In the woods (sometimes almost wild, but never so unkempt or uncontrolled that I forgot I was walking on a planned estate—and never far from a paved path, even when I walked on a dirt one), we came across hidden gardens or remnants of gardens. A statue of the empress has been missing since the early part of the last century. There were plinths without busts. A rose garden where the rosebushes were absent and the grass had been mown into the geometric shapes—complex, interlocking circles and rectangles—where they would have been. The follies included a truly hideous ‘Chinese house’ which I thought might be a building brought in by the emperor (like the Chinese Pavilion in Brussels) but which turned out to be this. An overdecorated imperial cupcake. I suppose another right of empire is the right to control the depiction of the other.

Berlin, September 2014

As usual the things that appealed to me most were the gardens that were used to produce flowers and vegetables, and to work in—not the formal gardens or lawns or the remnants thereof, but the ‘parent’ gardens (above, where plants are grown for transplanting throughout the park). And also the yellow-ochre house with its cape of rosehips and the server in the outdoor café just behind the house, who made jokes when we asked whether they had tea. We saw maybe a quarter or a fifth of the grounds in an afternoon, and even after so little it was hard to imagine how anyone really could have lived in these places or why they should stand empty as historical markers when there are families who have nowhere to live and when, in the history the houses and grounds are meant to mark, there would have been hundreds of courtiers, royal family members, and servants living in these spaces. The daily life of the human is the first thing to go when it comes to historical sites, I guess. If people lived here, their presence would ruin the effect of timelessness (timelessness in sites like this is the representation of history-in-the-now; history-then is gone and unrepresentable, at least in life, maybe in books it is still there).