Thursday, October 8, 2009

Do Your Brain A Favor

I've been a working adult since just a few months after graduating high school. Sad, I know, but true. I took a few courses at an excellent community college in Escondido, CA, Palomar College, but promotions at work and escalating job responsibilities made completion of a degree impossible. What those classes did for me most was exercise my brain. You get into a groove of asking and answering questions, thinking through problems, and learning new things that, I think, do wonders for your brain.

Recently a neighbor in my oh-so-rockin' Midtown apartment building has been inviting me along to the University of Nebraska's writer's workshop guest author readings, and I'm starting to feel that old familiar pull of education. You may be some sort of mental athlete, suiting up early every morning to go for a cognitive jog with the latest Great American novel, the sort of challenging and complex novel that does NOT show up on Oprah's book list or the rag stacks at the supermarket. I've personally never been very good at finding that sort of thing. College was always brilliant at finding them for me, and in such a way that I would never have even picked up the book at the book store but at the end find myself adding it to my permanent collection shelf.

Lisa Sandlin
The first reading I attended was with Lisa Sandlin, a neighbor in my aforementioned oh-so-rockin' Midtown apartment building. She is currently teaching at the University of Nebraska's writing department. She is the author of several books and short stories, including The Famous Thing About Death: And Other Stories (Cinco Puntos P, 1991), and Message to the Nurse of Dreams (Cinco Puntos P, 1997), which won the Violet Crown Award from the Austin Writers League and the Jesse H Jones Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. She read from her more recent novel, In the River Province (Southern Methodist University Press, April 2004), September 9th on the UNO campus.

Reminiscent of the quietly dramatic Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Sandlin interwines palpable renderings of human experience with the rich imagery of religion. Listening to Sandlin read about a part-Choctaw girl's experience in her New Mexico school, and the interactions of her racially diverse friends, one can nearly smell the notebook paper and feel the curved plastic of the school desk chair beneath them. I found myself nearly despondent that I could not recall the moments of my own childhood so exquisitely, and was left only to drift through the windings of the story with Sandlin's voice.

Chris Dombrowski
My second visit to the readings ocurred last night, September 23rd, with the poet Chris Dombrowski. He has taught creative writing at the University of Montana and Interlochen Center for the Arts, where he was Writer-in-Residence. He read several poems from his wonderful new collection, By Cold Water (Wayne State University Press, April 15, 2009). Dombrowski has a stunning command of the English language, able to aptly use words that are both symbolically appropriate to that particular moment in the poem's story, and lyrically perfect for the flow and movement of the piece. He talked about how, in his past, he was acutely aware of the movement of rivers, and that as he wrote a poem he felt as if his poems were true and good if they felt like the winding flow of a river.

Dombrowski's use of language is very visual, creating images both poignant and fleeting. Just as the river's flows move constantly, he fmoves from image to image. In fact, his depictions are so visual that one gets the sense Dombrowski could very well be a painter in a new medium, and I was not surprised when he mentioned a discussion with a visual artist friend about the challenge of describing color. It seems an apt challenge for him.

Dombrowski cited A River Runs Through It as being one of his formative influences. He claimed that the descriptions in the book so matched his own experiences that "it's like living twice." A good writer is dedicated to truth, to the most truthful description of an experience they are capable of. When that works well, the reader can feel it, get caught up in it, and experience it as if they were living it themselves.

For further information on Dombrowski, and a selection of poems from By Cold Water, visit They also have several interesting interviews with Dombrowski.

There are two more readings coming up. The readings are totally free to attend and occur on the UNO campus in the Milo Bail Student Center. Below is a list of the remaining authors:

Wednesday, November 4 @ 7:30 pm
Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer & Blood Run - memoir & poetry by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke
Milo Bail Student Center Dodge Room

Wednesday, November 18 @ 7:30 pm
Meet Me at the Happy Bar - poetry by Steve Langan
Milo Bail Student Center Nebraska Room


  1. Thank you for coming!! I really enjoyed reading your experience and thoughts on the readings =)

  2. I would love to be going to these with you as well. I wish we'd found more time to do this kind of stuff in Chicago, too. I agree with you, the pull of education is indeed intoxicating. The realization that I had a brain up there that was fully capable of learning physics was a shock to me even after thirty some odd years of inhabiting that very same brain. :)