Floyd Skloot

 

 

 

 

 

 

Floyd Skloot’s most recent books are the poet­ry col­lec­tion The Snow’s Music (LSU Press, 2008), the mem­oir The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and the short sto­ry col­lec­tion Cream of Kohlrabi (Tupelo Press, 2011). His work has won three Pushcart Prizes, a PEN USA Literary Award, two Pacific NW Book Awards, and been reprint­ed twice each in The Best American Essays, Best American Science Writing, Best Spiritual Writing, and Best Food Writing antholo­gies. With his daugh­ter Rebecca Skloot, he co-edit­ed The Best American Science Writing 2011.

Approaching Winter

Late after­noons when the sun slips behind
the hills I like to sit by my win­dow
fac­ing east and watch shad­ows cap­ture
the river. Cormorants skim the sur­face
as though prey­ing on the edge of light
and yel­low tug­boats nudge grav­el barges
into the spread­ing dark. Once I saw a siege
of herons packed onto the trunk of a young
ash tree swirling in cur­rent after a storm.
Now a kayak glid­ing down­stream van­ish­es
as it fol­lows the bank’s curve below me.
In a few months I’ll be six­ty-five.

Lately, at this time of day, I’m not
always sure where the bor­ders of sleep
might be. Memory ebbs and floods as I try
not to doze. My infant daughter’s voice
is some­where with­in the calls of cir­cling
eagles though she is two thou­sand miles
away, a grown wom­an at work on a book
in her own attic aerie. My father smiles
and dives into a pool where he is about
to die, but sur­faces in front of me here,
play­ful as an otter in the­se waters.
My wife stands near me at her easel
break­ing the river into bold vec­tors
of col­or. Her sweet alto ris­es
with the tune flow­ing into her ears.

As I stare, a shift in wind trans­forms
the midriver pat­tern into prairie
grass, into ice los­ing hold of itself,
then into Hemingway on a pad­dle­board
wav­ing at me. He wants me to move,
I think, wants to lure me out of the house
and onto the fish­ing boat he must com­mand,
anchored near the pil­ings where a dock
used to be. Across the river, at the tip
of Ross Island where cot­ton­woods are still
hold­ing their leaves, an over­turned stump
can only be Gertrude Stein sig­nal­ing
with a flut­ter of arms that she expects
to join us. We’ll need to avoid Moses
in his cradle now drift­ing close to shore
dis­guised as the bole of a white oak.

The room has grown cold. When my wife lights
the fire behind me, the win­dow fills
with its flick­er­ing glow. It’s a kind of smile
that eas­es me from the chair, and she’s there
with me, both ready for the night to come.

 

A Farmhouse in Las Alpujarras

My wife took pho­tos as I drove nar­row
switch­back roads up the south­ern slopes,
try­ing to ignore the sheer edge as I turned
in and out of blind­ing sun. On straight­aways
we could see white­washed hous­es shim­mer­ing
in vil­lages scat­tered down to the val­ley floor.
The crag­gy land­scape was slashed by gorges,
dot­ted with olive groves. Lemon, orange,
fig, and almond orchards fol­lowed a loose
trac­ery of path­ways wind­ing through scrub.
Clouds snagged on peaks and sagged
onto the ridge where we’d been head­ing
since noon. Just beyond Lanjarón a sharp
curve seemed to sweep us into the whirling
arms of three wind­mills on a hill’s crease,
light sparkling off giant blades. Further up,
as an edge of mist began to set­tle, we passed
the wind­mills again, this time far enough away
to see them spread across a seam like a dance
ensem­ble spin­ning in unison. At Pampaneira
rain engulfed us, then the paved road end­ed
in a forest trail. A half-mile ahead, the stone
farm­house we’d rent­ed was hid­den from view.

 

Dream of a Childhood

Childhood then was a raft drift­ing across
the Pacific. It was some­times a shiny yel­low
Geiger coun­ter and some­times the polio
vac­cine at last, which meant you could swim
again in pub­lic pools. Childhood was a fat
stack of green stamp books on a clover­leaf
table in the foy­er. It was coon­skin caps
on boys from Brooklyn, then the end of Wait
Till Next Year
. All you had to do was dream.

Childhood was wak­ing to “Yakety Yak”
on the radio and mov­ing so fast no one
heard it but you. Childhood was don’t turn
on the lights, was tip-toe around the kitchen
so your moth­er could con­tin­ue to sleep,
a week’s worth of hard-boiled eggs peeled
and wait­ing for you in the refrig­er­a­tor.
Childhood was your mother’s dream of no
mess, no trace, no morn­ings to endure.

Childhood was grade school beside a Nike
mis­sile base on the bay side of a bar­ri­er
island. It was duck and cov­er drills in home
room. Teachers had ham radios and decals
from all forty-eight states, for­eign coins
in a plate on the desk. One called you dream
boat when you gazed out the win­ter win­dow
and began to doze. Teachers ate lunch­es
in a secret room stacked with Tupperware
and recalled hon­ey­moons danc­ing in Cuba.

Brothers drove Tango Red Chryslers
to land’s-end and back, over and over.
You dreamed yours would be Parisian Blue
and go twice as fast as his. Sisters had packs
of Old Gold cig­a­rettes you saw danc­ing in ads
on tele­vi­sion. Friends’ moth­ers wore frilled
aprons. They car­ried plat­ters of stand­ing
rib roast, fixed mold­ed domes of lemon Jell-o
mixed with toma­to sauce and topped by loops
of may­on­naise. Fathers rose in the dark
and van­ished till the dark returned them
ready for sleep, ready for their own dream­ing.

In 1988, Floyd Skloot  became dis­abled by viral-born brain dam­age, impact­ing the writer’s most basic of dai­ly activ­i­ties, sev­ere mem­o­ry impair­ment such as con­nect­ing names to faces, fol­low­ing direc­tions, and phys­i­cal bal­ance. Essays may take up to two years to ful­ly com­plete and are done so in pieces or incom­plete seg­ments over time. Nonetheless, the com­ple­tion of a poem, essay, or a piece of fic­tion leaves Skloot feel­ing as though he has over­come the offense (brain dam­age) that he has described as the means to silence his “abil­i­ty to con­cen­trate and remem­ber, to spell or con­cep­tu­al­ize, to express myself, to think.”

Blip: You’ve men­tioned when describ­ing access to cre­ativ­i­ty that the rela­tion­ship to spon­tane­ity must con­nect with qui­et, slow con­cen­tra­tion for you. That, out of func­tion­al neces­si­ty .… In your writ­ing life: can you tell us in specifics what that means in terms of envi­ron­ment and con­di­tions? For exam­ple, what is the best envi­ron­ment for you to write in?

Skloot: I try to shape my work­ing envi­ron­ment so that it has as few poten­tial dis­trac­tions as pos­si­ble. No music, for instance. Very lit­tle social life or activ­i­ty out­side our home. The phone sel­dom rings. The room in which I work now is on the 6th floor of a high-rise, with large win­dows that over­look a river. There’s enough nat­u­ral light, even on over­cast days, so that I don’t turn on any arti­fi­cial light, keep­ing the space as mel­low as I can. My wife and I live qui­et­ly here–she’s usu­al­ly paint­ing or weav­ing or work­ing on tapes­try or at her com­put­er in the same morn­ing hours when I’m at my writ­ing desk, so there’s sel­dom dis­trac­tion with­in our envi­ron­ment. I’ve turned my desk and com­put­er table so they’re side­ways to the win­dows, less­en­ing the like­li­hood that move­ment or action on the river will dis­tract me, though I can turn to gaze at the water if I wish. I try to make it seem like we’re still liv­ing in the mid­dle of 20 acres of woods in rural west­ern Oregon, iso­lat­ed and qui­et, as we did for 14 years.

Blip: Do you have a dai­ly writ­ing sched­ule, and how strict /rigid is this is for you?

Skloot: My best time is in the morn­ing, so that’s when I’m at my desk. I’m there every day, and on good days can work for two or even three hours. I take breaks, for rest and to avoid get­ting stiff. In the after­noon, if I can, I might do some cor­re­spon­dence or writ­ing-relat­ed busi­ness, but most­ly I read. And I keep notebooks/pens every­where, so that I can jot down ideas or images or phras­es as they occur and before I for­get them. So in a real sense I’m always writ­ing, just not in the con­ven­tion­al sense for more than a cou­ple of morn­ing hours.

Blip: Anything about rou­tine, how rou­tine can help you to write if it does…?

Skloot:  I know that each writer is dif­fer­ent with regard to what works, or to what best suits their ways of writ­ing. I’m a per­son very much drawn to rou­tine, to struc­ture. Always have been, even before I got sick in 1988, but even more­so in the after­math of my ill­ness and in light of the neu­ro­log­i­cal dam­age that affects all parts of my life. I need rou­tine and struc­ture even more now. It’s no coin­ci­dence, I’m sure, that my work grav­i­tates toward for­mal struc­ture. So much of my expe­ri­ence is frag­ment­ed and elu­sive, inco­her­ent.

Blip: Regarding mem­o­ry and poet­ry: when work­ing with mem­o­ry, which I real­ize for you is a dif­fer­ent process and a some­times impos­si­ble one… when includ­ing details of times past in poems par­tic­u­lar­ly, how impor­tant is the actu­al or accu­rate?

Skloot:  When writ­ing my mem­oirs or essays, accu­ra­cy of detail is essen­tial. The com­pact I make with the reader–that if it’s non­fic­tion, it’s true to the fullest extent I can make it, noth­ing made up, noth­ing fudged–feels sacred to me. Poetry is anoth­er mat­ter. As is fic­tion. Which is one rea­son why I work in the dif­fer­ent gen­res, and believe ful­ly in the dis­tinc­tion between cre­ative non­fic­tion and fic­tion or poet­ry when it comes to fact. That said, much of the remem­bered detail in my poet­ry is actual/accurate/true, because it seems that this mate­ri­al is already bet­ter than I could make it by lying.

Blip: Please talk about the use of mem­o­ry and sym­bol­ism in your work.

Skloot:  The mem­o­ry of emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence is deeply impor­tant. I don’t wor­ry too much about sym­bol, trust­ing to the mate­ri­al to car­ry its var­i­ous kinds of weight. Some events res­onate on all lev­els, of course. When your moth­er locks you inside your wood­en toy­chest, that is a true event that also has enor­mous emo­tion­al pow­er in mem­o­ry and also obvi­ous sym­bol­ic mean­ing.

Blip: In your writ­ing, if you are seek­ing to rep­re­sent some­thing from your past, do you reach for accu­ra­cy?

Skloot:  Yes, as not­ed above. And I spend enor­mous amounts of time and ener­gy research­ing, ver­i­fy­ing, deep­en­ing. There’s an essay called “The Voice of the Past” in my most recent mem­oir, The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life, which deals with the way–without even seek­ing it–the past keeps reach­ing out to offer its own ver­i­fi­ca­tions. And a recent essay, “The Famous Recipe,” deals with what hap­pened when I set out to fact-check the mem­o­ry that my moth­er nev­er ever cooked.

Blip: I find myself remem­ber­ing child­hood moments with inher­ent dis­tor­tion of events which were trau­mat­ic or became sad, lat­er… As every­thing we describe as writ­ers involves sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, how impor­tant to you as an artist  is the “real”?

Skloot:  It’s essen­tial, par­tic­u­lar­ly as I’ve said in my cre­ative non­fic­tion work–memoir, essay, sci­ence writ­ing. And as some­one who, because of neu­ro­log­i­cal dam­age, deals with frag­men­ta­tion and inco­her­ence, I feel even more com­mit­ted to get­ting at “the real.”

Blip: Do you use dream mate­ri­al in writ­ing poet­ry?

Skloot: Very, very rarely. There’s a poem of mine called “Soft Flame” which is about a dream, and scat­tered through­out my work in both poet­ry and prose there might be a few images or sce­nes from dreams–in which case, they’re almost always iden­ti­fied as such.

Blip: You told me in one of our ear­lier notes  hat you and your wife take long walks togeth­er in the day. How does walk­ing, exer­cis­ing, mov­ing effect your cognitive/mental pro­duc­tiv­i­ty? On days when you are not as active, do you feel a dif­fer­ence in clar­i­ty?

Skloot: Walking does affect the over­all feel­ing of well-being, of course, which is essen­tial to anyone’s work I think. But I’ve had to learn how to do my writ­ing through peri­ods, some­times quite extend­ed, when exer­cise was impos­si­ble. The nat­u­ral set­ting in which we walk–the woods around our house for so many years until we moved to our present loca­tion, now by the river–is always evoca­tive and the source of much of my work.

Blip: What are you work­ing on now? What are your near term goals with your writ­ing?

Skloot: My next book will be a col­lec­tion of poems, Close Reading, to be pub­lished in 2013 by Tupelo Press. It was accept­ed two years ago, so by the time it appears it will have wait­ed three years. Meanwhile, I’m near­ing the con­clu­sion of a new book of poems, Lost in the Memory Palace. Most of its poems have come steadi­ly over the last ten or twelve months, a more sus­tained run than I’ve had in decades. Now that I’m about to turn 65, I hope to find a way for this new book to see pub­li­ca­tion more quick­ly. I’m also six years and 2/3 of the way through a new mem­oir built from inter­con­nect­ed essays. It’s called Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir and I hope to fin­ish in the next year or two.

Blip: Who have you read late­ly that you would like to intro­duce peo­ple to? Which writ­ers deserve atten­tion that you may like to bring atten­tion to?

Skloot: Top of the list is my daugh­ter Rebecca Skloot and her prize-win­ning book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which has been on the NY Times non­fic­tion best­seller list FOR TWO YEARS now. It’s a bril­liant, impor­tant, and fas­ci­nat­ing book.

For the last two years, I was a judge for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes in fic­tion and first fic­tion, so my read­ing was skewed toward more con­tem­po­rary fic­tion than I would nor­mal­ly have read. Among the excel­lent first fic­tion I feel most strong­ly about: The House of Tomorrow (Peter Bognanni), Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry (Christine Sneed), and Leaving the Atocha Station (Ben Lerner).