Thursday, July 20, 2017

Notes from the “Way-Back Room” -- How I Made My Home Office My Own

I’m a writer and poet. Ideally, I need a quiet place to be creative. It doesn’t have to be large. But for years I never had such a space other than a shared dining room table. Team that with the notion that I was soon to embark on a new work-from-home schedule after a number of years commuting 50 miles a day to and from a suburban company office. Alas, it was high time for my own home office. I was joining the 30 million Americans who now work from home, and more than 60 million who telecommute.

My husband and I have a smallish house, which had no extra bedroom at that time to use as an office. I looked into renting a small office space close to home.  Of course, since we live in the city of Chicago proper, commercial rents are high, even for a one-room office. My husband panicked a little. He didn’t want me spending extra money we didn’t have on office rent.

A creative poet and thinker himself, he brainstormed and suggested converting an enclosed second-floor heated back porch into my home office. It had previously been used as a catchall for storage, odd boxes and a rack of off-season clothes. Similar to the way other people use an attic. I thought we really needed the space for all that stuff. Yet as we cleaned it out, sorted through, and made sure our grown kids took what belongings were theirs, the five-and-a-half foot by 12-foot space opened up before my eyes.

Another woman may have made it into a light and airy feminine walk-in closet, complete with a bench, accordion screen and full-length mirror. And that’s what I may eventually turn that room into if and when we sell our house. A house with an extra closet is extra valuable.

But that can wait. This office was my priority. And for that space, I favored the “Old Chicago” colors of dark rustic red, olive green and ochre yellow for my palette. My husband and stepson gifted me for my birthday with the room conversion paint and labor, meticulously painting each surface in those colors – juggling walls and trim with a mix-and-match of the three hues.

Adding a desk, a lamp, a small file cabinet, a supportive office chair, a number of bookshelves, a small throw rug, curtains that picked up the color scheme, and Chicago-themed art and photos, my office was complete.

I now lovingly call it my “Way-Back Room,” not only because is it the farthest room at the back of the house (with a beautiful view of our back urban vegetable garden, by the way), but also because it’s provided a serene, inspiring and personal space for me to find my “way back” to my writing whenever I enter.

A few small details: I like to cover my desk with a horizontal woven runner to add to even more quiet to the desk, where I place my laptop and active writing files. I stash my cellphone on a higher shelf away from me and use a coaster on my desk to prevent rings and spills from my morning coffee cup. A small wastebasket has proved invaluable in helping get rid of excess papers I no longer need, with the next stop the recycling bin.

Rather odd and serendipitous in such a small space, there are two doors leading from my office. One that connects to the rest of the second floor, and the other leading down back stairs to the first floor kitchen -- where I can grab coffee and pad back up to my haven without waking my husband during early morning writing sessions.  

Ultimately, my “Way Back” home office is not only way-back, but also perched way-up and way wonderful for creative contemplating and productive writing.  Be assured, if you can find a corner in your home that may have once been a walk-in closet, porch, stair landing or kitchen pantry, you can turn it into a creative space that’s uniquely yours. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

For this author, a writing contest made all the difference

The following is a reprint of a recent message from my publisher, BookBaby. Company President Steve Spatz interviewed me and wrote this piece in regard to the recent National Indie Excellence Award I received for Frugal Poets' Guide to Life: How to Live a Poetic Life, Even If You Aren't a Poet:

"Last weekend I shared posts on some writing basics to help you start your next book. Today let’s talk about the other end of the process—after you’ve finished and published your book.

That’s where BookBaby author Cynthia Gallaher was last July. She had just published her book, Frugal Poets’ Guide To Life. Gallaher describes her book as 'part personal journey, part life-coaching for poets (or those who’d like to live like one), part creativity guide, and part reference.' Her book is available on her own BookShop page. Take a look.

As all self-published authors know, promoting books can be a daunting task. Gallaher saw a BookBaby blog post on entering book contests and decided to enter a few contests, including the prestigious National Indie Excellence Awards. Read it here.

'When you self-publish, it makes it that much harder to get attention,' said Gallaher. 'As I come from an advertising/marketing background, I understand the need to get the word out to as many potential readers as possible, but the word often needs to be backed with some clout, i.e. a blurb from a well-known author, an excellent review, a high number of Amazon reader reviews, and having your book be an award winner.'

I’m pleased to report her book was one of the 60 top books of 2016 produced by small presses, mid-size independent publishers, university presses, and self-published authors.

'Because my book is independent/self-published, I felt that the National Indie Excellence Awards was a good fit,' said Gallaher. 'The entry fee wasn’t too expensive–remember, I’m a frugal poet! I entered this contest basically to see what others thought. As a result, I was fortunate that National Indie Excellence Awards chose my book as one of its winners. Now I wish I would have entered more contests, but it’s a little late for my 2016 book!'

It’s not too late for self-published authors to enter this year’s contest. Submissions for the 12th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards will open on August 1st, 2017. Here’s the entry form."

All the best,
Steven Spatz

President, BookBaby

Link to a BookBaby online page with the same article.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Finding my first book -- Night Ribbons

After my son marked his third birthday, I felt ready not only to take a small breath after raising a son from a baby to toddlerhood, but also mark a few beats to focus on my next creative leap. I was 35 years old. I had some general hopes and ideas, but little did I know that this would became the year my first book of poems, Night Ribbons, was published.

I thought it was so late in my life in "getting started," although I had been writing poetry for 15 years. It was true that I had given readings all over Chicago, had numerous poems published in small press magazines, but had for many years longed to get my first book published. I sometimes thought it would never happen.

My previous readings and publications came in handy when I drummed up the nerve to apply for artist's grant from the City of Chicago. My step-by-step background served as documentation of my poetry career up until that point. It's what helped me land the grant to fund the publication of my book. I was surprised, thrilled and relieved.

But now to put the actual book together. Riffling through 15 years of poems was an interesting venture to find just the right ones that would help pull the collection together. I focused on four different subcategories to group the poems in the book, almost like chapters: Women of Day and Night, Chicago Days and Nights, Donde Hablan Espanol (Where They Speak Spanish), and Ancient Days, Faraway Nights. These four themes seemed to distill what I had been working on those first 15 years of my writing life.

Gathering poems into themes for Night Ribbons became a lifelong practice for my other books. Although Night Ribbons carried four themes, my subsequent books narrowed down to carry single themes: Earth Elegance (poems  about animals), Swimmer's Prayer (poems about Chicago), and Omnivore Odes: Poems About Food, Herbs and Spices. My nonfiction reference/memoir/creativity guide Frugal Poets' Guide to Life: How to Live a Poetic Life, Even If You Aren't a Poet also carries its own theme. 
At my Night Ribbons book release reading at Guild Books on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago,
I served black and red licorice, and bottles of cheap champagne


Friday, July 29, 2016

Frank O'Hara in action at NYC's Museum of Modern Art

I was 12 years old and my mother, stepfather and I had chosen that summer to leave Chicago, at least for a short while, for our big family trip to New York City to see the World’s Fair and all the major sights Manhattan Island had to offer.  None of us had ever been there before, and none of our summer vacations had had its destination as a big city.  

Near the end of our trip, my parents and I were exhausted after a morning of walking for miles and sightseeing in New York City. I was awestruck by New York.  There was more of everything in New York than in Chicago, and the abundance seemed more thought out, more polished, more avant-garde, more talented, more new, and more old.

After much of a day of sight-seeing in Manhattan, we wandered into the Museum of Modern Art like cow-town bumpkins, amazed, tired, and upon entry coming to a revelation that we couldn’t take one more step.  But we had already paid our admission and weren’t about to turn around and go back to our hotel.

What I had expected to see was art. Who I didn't expect to see was Frank O'Hara, the poet, himself. He was one of the art curators at the time at the museum. That was what his obituary said a year later. Yes, that he was a museum curator, the New York Times stated, "but also a poet."

But wait, I was only 12 years old at the time. I didn't know anything about poets or poetry back then. And certainly didn't know who Frank O'Hara was. 

It went like this. My parents and I decided to take a breather and sit in the atrium which led to the sculpture garden.  The sculpture garden had just been redesigned the year before, the brochure read. A long bench was where we parked ourselves faced the window looking out to the sculpture garden. When we turned the other way inward toward the building, we faced a large hallway with a group of workers and museum people talking and maneuvering crated paintings into another room.  

Too exhausted to converse and undistracted by anything else to do, we sat and just absorbed what unfolded before us as if watching a movie. Like someone on a fast, having visions, I watched and remembered with a great intensity. A slim man with a receding hairline was energized over all the commotion of mounting what seemed to be a new exhibit. He paced briskly into other rooms and back out again, stage left and stage right, making lively comments to his fellow workers great and small about the paintings, pointing to one crate and another, turning to someone else to make a remark, then laughing so loudly his melodic voice almost echoed in the halls.  

He didn’t lift a finger, and though directive, was not dictatorial, and seemed to treat the whole episode as if at a party, or a friendly spider excitedly weaving a web around and around where only he could move freely up and down the strands to wherever he wished. It seemed like this man never rested, and did not need to rest. You could almost tell he was always like this. This was him, he loved what was going on, and although he seemed to want to attract a lot of attention to himself, it's as if he did so to invite you in to love what was going on, too, if you wanted. Were the crated items possibly for the forthcoming Robert Motherwell retrospective?

I knew about sex, but knew nothing about homosexuals. I really was naive about it.  I didn’t, at that point, know such a thing existed.  As we continued to watch, my mother grew irritated.

"That guy is too much," she moaned. She seemed disgusted. I couldn’t understand what he had done to offend her.  He wasn’t talking nasty, or wasn’t slobbering around like a drunk, which were two other public behaviors which offended my mother.  She is a person who can’t stand when a person puts on airs. It seemed as if the man’s vocal, though light bravura got to her.
"I wish he’d just go away," she said. "Get lost," she said softly, "or we’ll get lost." To me, he was just being enthusiastic. In fact, his energy seemed to energize the fatigue I was feeling, and his enthusiasm over the paintings somewhat primed me to discover for myself when we’d go upstairs to see the galleries what he found so compelling between four stretcher strips. 

Years later, as I began to make my own way through the world as a poet, I read Frank O'Hara's poetry and as well as his biography City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara, learning then of his work as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Wasn't he the energetic man I had witnessed during my visit to New York City as a seventh grader? Although I knew nothing of his poetry, or anything about poetry at that age, wasn't I inspired by him, at least back then, by his enthusiasm, so precious especially in light of it being his last year of life, not knowing that an accidental death lay before him that next summer. 

Why were my parents and I led to the museum that day? Only to spend an hour of our time sitting on a bench? I think it was a personal blessing for me to see a great poet, Frank O'Hara, in action, not reciting poetry, but celebrating life itself.

I mention Frank O'Hara in my new nonfiction reference/memoir/how-to/creativity guide Frugal Poets' Guide to Life: How to Live a Poetic Life, Even If You Aren't a Poet, and how City Lights Pocket Poet Series published O'Hara's Lunch Poems.


Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Frugal Poets' Guide to Life: The Book!

Frugal Poets’ Guide to Life: How to live a poetic life, even if you aren’t a poet, my new eBook and print paperback, has just launched this summer.

Frugal Poets’ Guide to Life is part my personal journey, part life-coaching for poets (or those who’d like to live like one), part creativity guide, and part reference, with a special section on the modern history of the Chicago poetry scene, including the birth of the poetry slam. In many ways, this book is an anti-MFA guide to being a poet – or any other type of creative person. As poet Robert Frost said, “ To be a poet is a condition, not a profession.”
Some of my more personal sections of the book trace dating a well-known underground comics artist – dinner at a Denny’s restaurant with an Academy Award Best Actor -- seeing a UFO in central Wisconsin – a night when poet and men’s movement icon Robert Bly was “tarred & feathered” at a poetry reading -- play rehearsals at David Mamet’s Chicago theater featuring then-unknown actor William H. Macy – how I met my poet husband, Carlos -- reflections on my family relative, artist and member of the Algonquin Round Table, Neysa McMein -- visits and stays at a variety of writers’ colonies around the country -- and celebrating how friend Sandra Cisneros launched an international literary career starting with a little eight-poem chapbook at a humble bookstore in a Chicago Puerto Rican neighborhood.

Available in paperback and as an eBook: Softcover ISBN 978-1-48357-142-3 ($12.98); eBook ISBN 978-1-48357-143-0 ($2.99). See the table of contents and read the book's first several pages on Amazon or obtain either version on my online bookshop.

“Frugal poet, thank you for documenting the Chicago poetry scene as I remember it. Thank you for the abundance of writers’ quotes, spot-on about the real writer’s life. Thanks for a great reference tool for those starting out on their own writer’s path. Finally, frugal poet, thank you for sharing your own personal story with generosity and, above all, honesty.” 
~ Sandra Cisneros, author of House on Mango Street, Caramelo and A House of My Own, and recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship.

About the author: Cynthia Gallaher is a Chicago-based published poet with three full collections of poetry, Night Ribbons (Polar Bear Press), Swimmer’s Prayer (Missing Spoke Press) and Earth Elegance (March Abrazo Press), and two chapbooks, Private, On Purpose (Mulberry Press) and Omnivore Odes (Finishing Line Press). The Chicago Public Library lists her among its “Top 10 Requested Chicago Poets” and Today’s Chicago Woman magazine named her one of “100 Women Making a Difference.” Most recently, she became a certified yoga instructor, and is completing a new manuscript of food and medicinal herb poems, Botanical Bandwidth.


Friday, March 18, 2016

Yoga, the outwardly active, inner-directed frugal choice

For the frugal poet or any person in pursuit of a simple, yet elegant, intelligent and active lifestyle, yoga is one of the frugal choices. Yoga can be performed virtually anywhere, at most anytime, indoors or out, with little to no equipment. It’s also easier on your joints and other body parts than running, for example. Yoga is therapeutic not only to the body, but also, ultimately, to the mind and emotions.

I consider yoga the “superfood” of physical practices. My definition of a “superfood” in the edible world is a food that offers the most nutrition for the least amount of calories.  I consider yoga a “superfood” or “super-practice” because even small amounts can bear much reward for so many of our human aspects. Yoga can for many become a lifelong learning experience.

It certainly has for me. As a poet with a background in dance, yoga attracted me about 15 years ago. It attracted me not only for its nature of being physically outer-directed and ballet-like in its attention to alignment and form, but also because yoga is inner-directed with its focus on breathing and meditation. And being a poet who’s already inner-directed, I felt practicing yoga bears a “sympatico” similarity to the process of writing poetry, as each assists in the unfolding of inner authenticity and self-knowing, if you let them.

As time went on and the more hours I spent at my desk writing, the more I felt the need to balance my life with yoga, walking and hiking, and occasional drop-ins to Zumba and weight-training classes. Today, “sitting is the new smoking.” Our contemporary lives spent sitting behind a computer or at our tablet/cellphone is now considered even more dangerous to our health than smoking. I didn’t want to envision a future life ensnared by doctors’ bills, pharmaceutical medications or my time shortened by being sedentary. As the years progressed and I found myself in career transition, I actually took the plunge and spent 10 months training to be a yoga instructor.

Since my graduation and certification last year, I now about spend a third of my time writing in my home office, a third of my time teaching yoga at various Chicago-area studios, and a third of my time (not counting sleeping, which is important to me!) living my life involved in other activities and among family and friends. I know I am quite fortunate and even blessed to be at a time in my life to able to experience this great balance. And yoga itself offers even more inner balance, as does my spiritual faith. I look forward to uncovering more secrets about yoga as my practice deepens. I yearn to connect more dots between human anatomy and how yoga can enhance every part of the body. The more I learn, the more I understand how much I don’t yet know and have yet to explore.

Teaching yoga and getting paid for it is a great way for me to keep in shape, contribute to my cash flow and avoid the cost of a pricey yoga studio membership at the same time. Also, I am invited to use some of the larger facilities’ weight rooms at no extra charge, and can take additional classes either for free or based on my hours of participation as a teacher or substitute teacher.

There is a quote on the wall of one of the local yoga studios: “When one teaches, two learn.” ~ Robert A. Heinlein. It’s so true. When I teach yoga, my students each teach me something, whether it’s about another way of getting into a pose, a question about yoga I may have never questioned before, a new way of using a yoga prop, or simply teaching me more patience and compassion.

We all don’t want to become yoga instructors, or need to. So how can anyone simply interested in yoga or looking for a new place to practice do so frugally? Most yoga studios offer a drop-in rate to try out their facility for one class so you don’t have to be caught up in a membership you may not want. Groupons are often available for one-month or two-month memberships on a seasonal basis, as they are at McFetridge Sports Center, where I regularly teach. Many studios promote other deals such as bring-a-friend-for-free, one free week, three-class packages and the like. And if you don’t own a mat or any props, most studios provide them.

As much as I appreciate yoga, I don’t believe it should stand alone as your solitary physical practice. A good walk (which can also be mindful as well as inspirational for your writing!) and some regular, and not necessarily strenuous, weight training can round out what your body needs to maintain strength, flexibility and endurance. 


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

After Vincent Van Gogh's "Bedroom in Arles" 1889


within temporary refuge,
your trapezoid palette
inside Maison Jaune in Arles.

pale violet walls,
bed, fresh yellow butter,
scarlet coverlet against
citron sheets,
puzzle-piece floor
of celadon clay,
orange toilet table, blue basin,
a mirror awaiting a face.

there is no white
in the picture,
so the frame will be white,
you said,
as your thoughts
edged charcoal borders.

two chairs beg company,
one holding firm against outside bluster,
the other pulled close as your mother’s
to your childhood bedside,
does night whisper dreams

you reenact on canvas by day?