Creating a Buzz: The cross-pollination of reality and fiction

 by Margaret Hermes

The day the bees invaded my house, I was getting it ready for a party. As I pressed mushroom croustades into miniature muffin tins, the faint drone humming along the edge of my consciousness grew into a distinct and persistent buzz.  Following the sound, I discovered a dozen bees battering themselves against the glass of the living room window.  Bzzzbzzzbzzz–plink.  Bzzzbzzzbzzz—plink. They were inside, trying to get out.  I had thought I was I finished with my bee story but with each tap against the window, it became more and more evident that bees were not finished with me.

The cross-pollination of reality and fiction is a common experience for many writers.  Something happens to us that we can’t shake off or we are powerfully struck by what happens to someone else.  That moment gets implanted in the imagination, hibernates, and eventually insinuates its way into dialogue and structure.  Real-life occurrences inspired several of the stories in my collection Relative Strangers published by Carolina Wren Press this past spring.  The opening story, titled “The Bee Queen,” was written in part to exorcise the memory of an incident that haunted me since childhood.  At five- or six-years-old, I witnessed the dreadful stinging of another little girl when she disturbed a nest of wasps while climbing a tree.  To say she was stung repeatedly does not convey the horror of the scene.  Amazingly, none of us onlookers was attacked.  As I watched the wasps pursue her and listened to her screams, I was transfixed:  terrified, ashamed, and electrified all at the same time.  I may have been physically untouched, but her wasps left their stingers embedded in my brain, little darts of memory tipped with fear.  Years later, I discovered I had an unusually adverse response to insect stings and was advised by my doctor to carry an EpiPen in case of a severe reaction.  These real-life elements lay dormant for years, emerging finally as “The Bee Queen” and the story’s heroine, Bette Louise Trimble.

Through fiction, I had explored my fears.  I had passed my experiences along to my character and worked through them to what I believed a satisfying conclusion.  But suddenly my little striped demons were back in solid form, buzzing around my living room.  I called my partner, David, to come to the rescue and then I phoned my neighbor, Bob, to ask if he would cross the street for some “bee wrangling.”  Two years previously, Bob and I wrangled a couple dozen bees out of my living room and back into the wild of our urban St. Louis neighborhood.

A complicating factor in both these situations was that, when I’m not writing fiction, I’m steeped in environmental issues as an activist and proponent of our natural world.  I didn’t want to harm the bees.  I just wanted them out of my house.  On the prior occasion, Bob and I had achieved this with the aid of two bug catchers I’d purchased at a nature preserve in Door County, Wisconsin.  The Katcha Bug worked on the same principle as a glass and a thin sheet of cardboard, where you place the glass over the insect and slide the cardboard underneath and then transport your quarry to the great outdoors for release. Only this device was made entirely of plastic with a handle long enough to keep your fingers a reassuring distance from the stingers.  Bob had been so impressed with the device’s effectiveness and I so appreciative of his assistance and, particularly, his calm, that I gave him of one of the bug catchers.  Two years later, he again responded to my plea and showed up at my door Katcha Bug in hand.

What began as a bee caucus in my living room became a bee convention.  No sooner would the room be bee-free—David, Bob, and I all congratulating each other—than the hummmmmbuzzzzzz would begin again.  My house was possessed.  David madly plugged hairline cracks in the window molding with putty and Bob bemusedly shook his head.  We couldn’t figure out where the critters were coming in.

By this time, however, I’d noticed the gathering in the living room was nothing compared to what was going on outside the window.  A dark cloud had formed, a huge black mass of honeybees throbbing outside my house.  Thousands.  A swarm.

“Swarm” is a technical term.

“You are witnessing asexual reproduction,” congratulated one of the many beekeepers I telephoned.  That’s when a colony outgrows the hive and splits, taking its queen with it, not unlike a childhood memory expanding, breaking away, and forming a short story.

According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln website I consulted,  “When honey bees swarm they will settle on a tree limb, bush, or other convenient site. The cohesiveness of the swarm is due to their attraction to a pheromone produced by the queen. . . .The swarm will send out scout bees to seek a cavity to nest in and will move on when a suitable nesting site is found.”  By the time we saw the cloud, the scouts had already sounded the call and the colony had abandoned its “convenient site.” The cloud was the swarm in migration.  The stampede to new digs was in progress.

The black cloud was methodically siphoning itself into two small openings in a defunct chimney shaft on the side of my house.  The bees could use the two air intake vents for ingress and egress—they didn’t even have to bump into each other coming and going.

While Bob and David wrangled about a hundred bees outside, one or two or three at a time, I phoned the Missouri Botanical Garden, a couple beekeepers’ associations, and a whole bunch of beekeepers.  Each beekeeper declined my invitation to visit and each one gave me other names to call.  I was told that the bees wouldn’t sting me unless we persisted with our foolhardy capture and release program.  Several keepers droned on about how we should halt the wrangling and just open the window. But opening the window was not appealing since there were so many more bees hovering just outside it.

I explained that I have a “sensitivity” to honeybee stings—so far, just prolonged pain and impressive swelling lasting several days—and anxiety that this could evolve into a fatal systemic allergic reaction with my very next sting.  I was told that I was probably not sensitive to honeybees (Apis mellifera) at all, but to yellow jackets (Vespula) or other wasps.  I felt defensive when called on to recount the circumstances of my past stings. When I gave up on keeping a long-expired EpiPen tucked behind unopened jars of 1000-year-old quail eggs and pickled watermelon rind in the back of my refrigerator, I worked to master my fear.  I purposely grew flowers that attracted bees.  I planted crocuses, hyacinths, clematis, six redbuds, and a plum tree for the bees to feast on in the spring; echinacea, wild garlic, mint, black-eyed Susan, mullein, and hosta in the summer; sedum for the fall. Clover reigned in the backyard and a golden rain tree dominated the front.  I used no herbicides or pesticides in my garden and only kitchen compost for fertilizer.  Some of my best friends were bees!

After my living room was quiet for an extended period, Bob optimistically departed and I began laying the table for the party while David meditated on the ways of bees.  Even though the bees had all first appeared at the same window, after David had plugged every possible crack, he knew they couldn’t have continued entering that way.  It stood to reason that since the swarm was relocating to the unused chimney shaft, that had served as their pathway into the living room. While the back of the fireplace area had been sealed with an iron plate, David noticed that the mantle in the century-old house had pulled slightly away from the wall in several places.

I remembered the scene from the annoying Hitchcock film, The Birds.  The one where a bevy of small wild fowl swept down through the chimney and into the living room and savagely attacked all that bad dialogue and acting and directing.  So I brought up a heavy plastic tarpaulin from the basement and we sealed off the entire area around the fireplace with blue painter’s tape.  Then we had the party.  The guest of honor was a Swedish-born philosophy professor and psychoanalyst who—contrary to her heritage and training—seemed oblivious to all the Sturm und Drang.

That night, the bees slept.  But I didn’t.  My head buzzed uneasily as I lay listening to David, who had put in a full day’s work as a bee wrangler and party host.    I couldn’t help thinking that the sound bees make was awfully like snoring.

The next day, with the morning’s hum localized to the fireplace, I called more beekeepers, who directed me to folks who practice both beekeeping and bee extermination, delicately referred to as “removal projects.”  I had been nurturing the hope that some bee charmer would appear and extricate the queen and all the others would follow and the colony would thrive (elsewhere) and pollinate and reap nectar and construct combs and reproduce and everything would be the bee’s knees.  One after another, the apiarists disabused me of my naïveté.  Locating the queen and saving the bees was no longer possible.  The University of Missouri Extension website was quite firm: “Once a swarm establishes a nest inside a wall, it requires killing the bees.”

I’d watched PBS and listened to NPR. I’d heard about Colony Collapse Disorder.  I worried about what would happen if the bee population shrank and honeybees failed to do their job.  Those busy migrant workers pollinate one-third of the crop species in the U.S. We’re talking about apples and strawberries and melons and citrus and soybeans and tree nuts here.  And I was going to sign the death warrant for an entire colony.  I’d be responsible for the slaughter of thousands, for whole fields going barren.

Depressed as well as anxious, I made calls to keepers who were part-time assassins.  When I explained that the chimney openings were about 30 feet above the ground, all but one wished me luck.  The one who agreed to come said, first, he was going to have to borrow a longer ladder.  And, second, I’d have to reconcile myself to having my chimney disassembled.  “It’s not just the bricks,” he said.  “Breaking into those flue tiles is going to be a bear.  Can’t predict what this is going to run you.  Those tiles are hard.”

Now panicked as well as depressed and anxious, I avoided the living room entirely.

Then I called Critter Control.

Two days after the baby-faced killer from Critter Control did his work, there was no activity around the outside air vents and no buzzing on the inside.  Still, we waited two weeks before unwrapping the fireplace.  David peeled away the tape and gathered up the tarp while I went upstairs to work on writing this piece.  That was our division of labor.  I know:  he needs a union.

At my computer, I had the grim satisfaction of learning that we could blame this invasion, as well as everything else, on Global Warming.  Spring came early this year (Global Warming!), causing bees to emerge from their hives, but then turbulent weather (GW!) made the colonies return to their hives more frequently before finding a new home with the result that this year the swarms had grown in size.  Substantially.  This was not a local phenomenon.  I found reports of early, massive swarms across the country.  ABC news reported residents of San Francisco confiding that “40,000 bees in one swarm was enough to keep them on edge.”

Downstairs the hearth tiles were covered with rotted bee corpses, and dust, and some sticky substance—honey? insecticide? bee venom?  “Not a pretty sight,” David commented with typical understatement.  Seeing my face, he added, “But I don’t have the same empathy for insects that I do for people.”  He fashioned a mask from a green bandana and, in frayed jeans and an old T-shirt, looked more like a bandito than my hero.

He swept up the bees and tape and deposited them in a grocery bag.  As he scrubbed the tiles, he told me to hunt up some scented candles to get rid of the smell.  He described it as pungent, “acrid and sweet,” while my verdict was “sickening.”  The clove-infused candles seemed an apt conclusion to the ritual of exorcism.

Now our chimney vents have inserts, courtesy of Critter Control, which allow air transfer but prevent insects and bats from moving in, so we hope that marks the end of our bee adventure. But I want everyone to be ready for the ensuing episode if next spring brings another invasion.  Both David and Bob had birthdays coming up:  I had two “Bee Wrangler” T-shirts made, just in case.

Meanwhile, if you’re curious to learn how the Bee Queen’s story unfolds, I hope you’ll get a copy of Relative Strangers.  You may also enjoy trying to pick out the other bits of reality that infiltrate my fiction . . . and relating to stories that reflect how we all, at times, are strangers to those who should know us best.

 

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Relative Strangers makes the bestseller list

Margaret Hermes’ collection of stories, Relative Strangers, has hit the St. Louis independent booksellers bestseller list for March, 2012. This stunning collection was selected by Jill McCorkle as the winner of the most recent Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman. We are now happily reading the next batch of submissions for this contest.

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Carolina Wren Press on WUNC 91.5 fm

Today I had the great pleasure of appearing on The State of Things at WUNC 91.5fm, along with Minnie Bruce Pratt, to talk about Carolina Wren Press. Here is a link to the segment

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L. Lamar Wilson wins the 2012 Carolina Wren Press Poetry Series

We are delighted to announce that L. Lamar Wilson’s manuscript Sacrilegion was chosen by Lee Ann Brown as the winner of the 2012 Carolina Wren Press Poetry Series. Of this collection, Brown writes: “Sacrilegion chants new songlines of the sacred and profane, radiating legions of regions we must all negotiate together. Love, life, identity and language wrestle and riff here with pure expressive power.”

L. Lamar Wilson, a 2012 Pushcart Prize nominee, has poems published or forthcoming in journals and anthologies such as jubilat, African American Review, Callaloo, Rattle, Vinyl, The 100 Best African-American Poems and A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. He’s the winner of the 2011 Beau Boudreaux Poetry Prize and was twice a finalist for the New Letters Poetry Prize. He is working toward a PhD in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying 20th-century African-American and Caribbean poetics. He has presented scholarship at the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History Convention in Raleigh, as well as at other conferences. He holds an MFA in writing from Virginia Tech and has been a graduate fellow at Cave Canem.

Here’s a link to his poetry at Lambda Literary Review

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Minnie Bruce Pratt’s “The Struggle to Write”

Check out a wonderful two-part piece at The Poetry Foundation’s website: First is Minnie Bruce Pratt’s long biographical piece, “The Struggle to Write.” Following that is critic and historian Julie Enszer’s Afterword about lesbian publishing, especially Night Heron Press, a collaboration among Mab Segrest, Minnie Bruce Pratt and Cris South. Night Heron published Minnie Bruce Pratt’s first chapbook, The Sound of One Fork, in 1981. And now, the Lesbian Poetry Archive is releasing it as a downloadable PDF file at their website www.LesbianPoetryArchive.orgA direct link to the book is here.

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2011: The year in review

This morning, when I went to wake my 11-year-old son, I found him at the window, a camera in his hand. “What are you doing up already, Paul?” I asked. “I just had to take a picture of the fog; it looks really cool,” he answered. His reply made me realize that the impulse to create, or to record what is beautiful, is inherent in all of us. Whether inspiration comes to us in a photograph or a poem, the arts are vital to us, maybe even more important than sleep.

At Carolina Wren, we nurture writers outside the mainstream—especially women, people of color, writers with disabilities and experimental writers. We believe these voices need to be heard, that they are vital to us. This year has been an eventful one for us:

  • In January, we went live with a new website that includes many browser-friendly features such as videos of poetry readings, downloadable submissions guidelines, a blog, and an online store for our books and merchandise. In addition to books by our authors and some friends of the press, we also carry North Carolina Alphabet Posters, Carolina Wren Press hats, and some audio collections.
  • In February, we launched two more books in the Carolina Wren Press Poetry Series: Minnie Bruce Pratt’s Inside the Money Machine and Yvonne Murphy’s Aviaries. Launch festivities included a party at the Hillyer Art Space in Washington D.C. Later in the year, Yvonne Murphy visited the Triangle for several readings, and she read widely in upstate New York through the year. In September, Minnie Bruce Pratt joined us in Durham for a reading co-sponsored by the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University’s Rubenstein Library, and to ride on our first-even Carolina Wren Press Parade Float. Our banners read “So-Les-Po” (Southern Lesbian Poetry) and the truck-bed was filled with poets waving to the crowds.
  • On a sad note, in April of this year, we learned of the death of Jeanne Leiby, author of Downriver, the inaugural winner of the Doris Bakwin Award. Leiby, who had risen to editorship of the prestigious Southern Review, was memorialized widely this fall, in conferences and online.
  • In May, we joined forces with Grey Mare Press and the National Library of Wales to make their newest title, The Book of Ystwyth: Six Poets on the Art of Clive Hicks-Jenkins, available in the United States. We anticipate a lot of interest in this book at next year’s Associated Writing Program’s conference.
  • Another result of collaboration was the publication of The Monti’s Hippo Awards, Volume 1. This two-CD set features winners of the Hippo Awards for 2008 and 2009. The Monti is a monthly storytelling event in North Carolina.
  • Nancy Simpson’s Living Above the Frost Line, our inaugural collection in the Laureate Series, was named a finalist in poetry at the Southern Independent Bookseller’s Association. It was recently reviewed in the North Carolina Literary Review and the Asheville Poetry Review.
  • More and more of our poetry titles are being chosen as texts for university courses: Karen Anderson’s Punish Honey, Minnie Bruce Pratt’s Inside the Money Machine, and Evie Shockley’s a half-red sea.
  • Grants from the North Carolina Arts Council and the Durham Arts once again helped us with publications and overhead.

In the coming year we will launch (as paperback and eBook) Margaret Hermes’s Relative Strangers, the most recent winner of the Doris Bakwin Award, selected by Jill McCorkle. We will shortly announce the winner of the most recent Carolina Wren Press Poetry Series competition, which is being judged this year by Lee Ann Brown. Later in the spring, we will be producing several back titles as eBooks, and also producing an audio sampler of Carolina Wren Press poets, from 2005 to the present.  Back in the office, we are awaiting he next round of Doris Bakwin submissions, which will be judged by Moira Crone.

We are increasingly busy at Carolina Wren, but book sales continue to lag in this economy. So we ask for your help in support of our mission. Won’t you please consider giving Carolina Wren Press a tax-deductible donation?  Remember the boy with the camera at the window, how the arts sustain us…. You can click right over to http://carolinawrenpress.org/donate and donate online, or send a check to Carolina Wren Press, 120 Morris Street, Durham, NC 27701.

Sincerely,

Andrea Selch, President

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Jeanne M. Leiby, 1964-2011

Last month I learned of the death of Jeanne Leiby, editor of The Southern Review and author of Downriver, which we published in 2007. Downriver had been selected by Quinn Dalton as the winner of the first Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman for its well-crafted style. This award, named in honor of my aunt Doris, a feisty but loving native Tennessean who married into our wannabe-WASPish Yankee family in the 1970s and became, by the 1990s, its matriarch. Jeanne was the perfect choice for this award, and very similar to Doris in manner and habit. Like Doris, she made her way into a previously conservative domain, and made it her own. Like Doris, she could tell a good story. Like Doris, she loved to stay up late, a drink tinkling in her hand, her voice rusty with talk.

In the month following Jeanne’s death, there has been a proliferation of tributes and memorial essays. I wanted create a space to “digest” them but since blog entries sort of disappear from view under new posts, I have turned her book’s page into a site for links about her–reviews, memorials, whatever I can find. I welcome you to send me links to add, or to use the comments section to let everyone know about them.

When Jeanne came to Durham in October 2007, she sat for an interview with Ruth Eckles, then an administrative assistant at Carolina Wren Press, but also a wonderful writer. The transcript of that interview was never published, but you can listen to portions of through YouTube. Here’s a link to that interview’s video playlist .

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The Book of Ystwyth – a post from Wales

I am in Wales just for a few days, to attend tomorrow’s opening of Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ 60th-Birthday Retrospective Exhibition at the National Library of Wales. The exhibition will continue through August, and is celebrated additionally by the publication of two books: The first is the exhibition catalog, Clive Hicks Jenkins, which features essays by a multitude of writers and artists, as well as dozens of images. The second book, The Book of Ystwyth: Six poets on the art of Clive Hicks-Jenkins, is a publication of Grey Mare Press in collaboration with Carolina Wren Press (we will be the book’s American publisher and distributor). Tonight many of the poets will be present at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre for a launch reading.

PS: The reading was lovely. All five living poets, Dave Bonta, myself (Andrea Selch), Marly Youmans, Damian Walford Davies and Callum James read from their works. In addition, Ian Hamilton and Clive Hicks-Jenkins read poetry by Catriona Urquhart. The bookstore was packed and a multitude of books were sold. Following the reading, a small group (of 14!) went out for curry and conversation. I got to know the illustrator Paul Bommer; you can see some of his work here.

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How we promote our authors


Here are some of our younger workers helping with the recent mailing for Minnie Bruce Pratt’s Inside the Money Machine and Yvonne Murphy’s Aviaries

For every book we publish, we engage in a major marketing campaign. We send out about 40 copies of the book in bound galleys, ninety or more days before publication. When the finished book comes back from the printer, about 100 to 120 packets are sent to review bodies, ranging in size from Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Times, to medium size journals such as Book/Mark Quarterly and Parnassus: Poetry in Review, to smaller literary magazines where the author has published, as well as to numerous independent reviewers such as Michael Parker and Ron Silliman. We also send to radio stations across the nation, and make an effort to send to the local papers where the author lives. Each packet contains a copy of the book, a letter to the reviewer with specifics about the book such as print run, price, ISBN, distributors, and a press release. We also can include a longer biography of the author, such as the one we sent out with Pratt’s book.

These efforts are a bit like slow-motion fishing…it may take 6 months or a year, but we seem to garner about 6 reviews for each book we publish.

Here’s a little about the importance of small presses, from Ruth Eckles’ interview of Jeanne Leiby in 2007.

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From Wrens to Chickens… Judy Hogan now

Just wanted to note a lovely report from past CWP staffer Ruth Eckles about a backyard chicken workshop she attended. The workshop was led by none other than CWP founder Judy Hogan. Here’s a link to Ruth’s report.

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