Sunday, November 23, 2014

Two Books

A photo posted by Terra Leigh Bell (@leighandharriet) on

            Two books, very different.  Though both were crafted replies to other writers.
            The first — first in chronology as well as psychic weight — is Beltenebros, or the Beautiful Obscure.  This is my first book of poetry, and it was released by Seattle's Babel/Salvage at the end of August.  Beltenebros is a (short) book-length poem.  It was written in direct response to Cervantes' Don Quixote de la Mancha; I think of it as sort of "talking back" (albeit with a great deal of affection) to the novel(s).*

A photo posted by Terra Leigh Bell (@leighandharriet) on

            The second, though it got finished around the same time, is quite different.  It is a very small, handmade object.  Each page contains "memorabilia" from either Lemuel Gulliver's journeys in Jonathan Swift's 18th-century novel, or from my own journeys, or some of each.  It took much longer than I'd expected, but I have to say that I'm pleasantly surprised by how it turned out.  There are a couple of pictures in this post, but if you click through to my Instagram account, you can find images of all the pages.


            I wish I could remember more clearly.  Like most children, I did various art projects when I was little.  And I'm sure that, also like other children, some of my experiments prompted my mother and other grown-ups to say, with a mix of pride and puzzlement, "What is it?"
            I wish I could remember exactly how I felt about that question.  I suspect it doesn't bother kids as much as most adults worry it does.  I vaguely remember feeling pleasure.  Not because of their interest, but because, in realizing the adult didn't recognize what my picture was an image of, I could tell them whatever I wanted.  A dog could suddenly be claimed as a giraffe.  A tree could become a boat.
            I like the adult version much less.  Now people say, "What is it about?"
            In the last few months, each time I have told a person that my first book was published, or that I made a handmade book/art-ish object, I have heard the question, "What is it about?"
            I can think of two appropriate responses.  I could launch into a long analysis of all of the themes and shapes and recurring images and all the layered meanings in Beltenebros.  I could talk about memory and materialism and my highly clichéd but nonetheless thriving romance with the sea in the Gulliver's Travels book.  That's one way of responding that seems as least reasonable.
            Or I could shrug my shoulders and say, "I have no idea."  This seems most honest.
            But I am just as socially assimilated as the next schmuck, so I politely say something like, "It's an homage to Don Quixote/Gulliver's Travels."  Blatant relief sweeps across their face as they realize A) it's not sexual, and B) the fact that it is "about" books they haven't read lets them off the hook from having to feign interest.  They (equally politely) reply, "Oh, I haven't read it."

A photo posted by Terra Leigh Bell (@leighandharriet) on

            The reason I think all of this matters is simple:  I caught myself.  I caught myself being more proud of having had Beltenebros published than I was of finishing the handmade book.  And if I dig under that pride a bit, I realize that my pride in having a book published stems from a sense of validation.  Having someone — anyone — choose your poem or novel or essay collection to send off to a printer's and slap an ISBN on it feels like "someone" — that conveniently vague notion of the rational capitalist at the back of everything — has put their stamp of approval on my work.  Receiving that stamp of approval permits others to grant theirs as well.
            But...really???  Have you seen some of the  books to get published recently?  I know I'm showing some of my elitist colors here, but "getting published" (and the passivity of that phrase should probably bug you) says nothing of the artistic value of a,  What it tells you is something about its capitalist value; that Babel/Salvage and many, many publishing houses like it are so clearly labors of love, doesn't change that fact.
            For the time being, I'm not going after this so much as an attack on capitalism "out there," so to speak, as I am concerned about the ways capitalism and consumerism have clearly shaped my own mind.  I care deeply about human creativity, and any ideology that fucks with the underlying structures of our individual minds and the consciousness of our larger societies to such an extent that we value the approval of the market more highly than our own inner compass should disturb me.  It should disturb me often enough to actually do something about it.  Maybe I could start with being proud of having written the damned thing.


            As I mentioned in my last post, the move to Portland has been tumultuous, and I can't currently locate my copy of Don Q.  But in the next couple of weeks I should be able to put up a couple of posts that show some of what I did in working with Cervantes' text.  If you're curious, you can search for "quixote" in the upper left-hand corner to see a couple of short excerpts, as well as some of my thoughts on the novel and my process in general.
            As always, feel free to comment, and thanks for the patience in my transition to Portlandia!

* Today if you go to your local bookstore (my favorites being Elliott Bay in Seattle and Portland's Powell's on Hawthorne), you will find the single book Don Quixote de la Mancha.  I only think it worth mentioning that it was actually two separate books written by Cervantes because the two are quite different, and writing the second book probably contributed to Cervantes' decline in health.  He worked his ass off to get the book out partially because so many copycats had published spurious second volumes to his original, and he wanted to set the records straight.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


            That really, really sucked.  In fact, much, much more so than I'd anticipated.
            For those who may be reading who don't know me live and in person— and my stats insist that some folks in Germany and Russia just keep on trucking, so hello there — I just moved.  I had planned to write a big, long, self-important essay on personal transformation, and the necessity of occasionally injecting severe discomfort into one's life, and especially on the importance of women being financially self-sufficient.  I was going to write about how big of a deal it is to me to finally be living away from where I was born, raised, and have spent all of my 34 years on this earth.  I was going to write about the direction(s) I want to take in terms of both "career" (i.e., that awful thing capitalism forces me into) and writing (the thing I keep trying to cut away from capitalism, though I'm sure ineffectually).
            Specifically, I moved from Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon.  Which, if you know the area, you probably realize isn't all that impressive.  But wait!  I would have moved somewhere more impressive if I could have found somewhere else that had absolutely everything I insisted on:
  • midwifery school
  • solid doula community
  • friendly (enough) relationship between natural birth and medical communities
  • artsy-friendly
  • craploads of yoga studios and options
  • queer-friendly  (I'm about as un-queer as they come myself, but my patience with homophobia and its ilk have deteriorated rapidly as I've aged.)
  • politically left
  • great massage school
  • decent community colleges that won't charge me an arm and a leg for being from out of state
I wasn't really being all that open-minded, was I?  This is perhaps a bit specific.  And of course it begs the question:  why leave Seattle?  Seattle has all of these things, in even greater abundance than Portland.

            Well, that was going to be my post.  Why leave Seattle?  Lots of reasons!  Let me tell you some!


            Instead, the move went less than smoothly.  First, I didn't check before I left — because who knew that an upper-class, over-educated white girl could ever NOT be able to find housing???? — but Portland's housing market is, to put it politely, fucked.  The vacancy rates are incredibly low, and the prices have skyrocketed so quickly that you can now rent a modern box/studio with that neon accent shit that developers love so much right now FOR $1500.  For your viewing pleasure, it will be lodged  (bizarrely) between beautiful, 100-year-old houses that were vacated by the black families we just forced out of the neighborhood.  Thank you, Dwell magazine, for your loathsome influence.  You have successfully convinced rich white people that their homes are a fashionable expression of their innate quirkiness and good taste.  Of themselves.  Also, you're damn good at whispering "simplicity," a gentle sigh of relief now that the heavy shackles of income restriction and human-centered architecture have been removed.  You're so good, no one notices that your rooms are actually designed for suicide.
            But the housing market really is bad in Portland.  Places were going within hours of being posted online.  I kept calling one place after another, minutes after it was posted, only to hear, "Yeah, sorry, I've already got three people in front of you."  Places were consistently being rented sight-unseen, which I couldn't bring myself to do.  And some of the really tiny, crappy places that I could have barely afforded just made me angry; I couldn't stomach $900 a month on a 290 sq. ft. studio, on the ground floor of a loud street.  And 99% of what I found that was genuinely affordable was, at minimum, a 45-minute walk from the nearest grocery store.  I don't have a car, so that freaked me out.
            So, if you thought Portland was the land of starving artists, it might be.  But these days they're starving for very different reasons than they were ten years ago.
            It got way worse, though I'd rather not go into the gory details; I talked to enough folks who were recent transplants to know my experiences were not isolated.  Suffice to say, I moved here officially at the end of August, but I will only be moving into my long-term place at the end of this month.
            But then — Glory be!  Stability!! — things should calm down.  I've obviously never been a really frequent poster, and my writing process insists on staying as slow as it ever was.  Also, I'm working on certification as both a birth and postpartum doula, as well as working full time, so I've got a lot on my plate.  Still, I look forward to getting back to philosophy and poetry once the dust has settled, and hopefully some posts on women's bodies, pregnancy, and childbirth will be forthcoming as well.  Lord knows I've got to do something with all the Heidegger and Ina May rattling around in my head.