A Conversation with Vashti Stopher Klein

“…make time to do what is most important: create art with positive rippling effects.”

Vashti Stopher Klein is an award-winning filmmaker, folksinger, and songwriter in the Washington D.C. area. She is the author of the multi-media poetry collection The Soprano, the Monster, and the Dragonslayer. Her films have won awards, including CINE Golden Eagle; Gold, Houston International Film/Video Festival; Blue Ribbon, American Film/Video Festival; Best Director, International Monitor Awards; Silver Hugo, Chicago International Film/Video Festival. Inspired to produce artistic products with positive rippling effects throughout the world, she formed Butterfly Effect Productions, Inc. In 2014, she released her first album, The Heart of Things. The following year, her album, Path to the Sun, Moon and Stars was born.

What would you decide to do if fighting a battle to save your life threatened the very essence of your life? Written as a fairytale, with enchanting artistic elements, the Soprano, the Monster, and the Dragonslayer will have readers rooting for the Soprano’s success, worrying over the outcome of her battles, and cheering for her triumph. Her voice is then heard in poetry and music.

Vashti Stopher Klein

A warm welcome to film producer, poet, and singer Vashti Stopher Klein who is joining the blog to talk about her unique book The Soprano, the Monster, and the Dragon Slayer. Klein’s origins from a long line of musicians combine with her experience in the visual arts to shine through her book, which fuses three genres: poetry, music, and visual arts. The result is an inspiring, multi-faceted volume bound together by the theme of love.

Truly do give me

the light in the trees

the sun on the mountain

the river at our feet

the wind in our hair

the joy that surrounds us

of all that we love.

from the poem Love in the Daylight Hours

Poetry and song are close cousins. Have you ever wondered when reading poetry what it might sound like? The Kindle version of Klein’s book has an answer with links to the author singing her poems. Klein sings well with a good range and is able to merge the written with the vocal beautifully. Hearing her soaring voice brings the words to life as the author becomes the Soprano.

The book is illustrated beautifully by  Carol Collett, of Carol Collett Desert Studio, whose mixed media quilted images decorate the text with truly unique Americana.

Klein’s goal is to produce art that ripples out into the world with good, and she achieves that beautifully with this collection.

Vashti Stopher Klein

1. I’M INTERESTED IN THE BACKSTORY. YOUR POEMS READ AS A STORY OF HEALING. HOW DID YOUR EXPERIENCE LEAD TO YOU WRITING THE SOPRANO, THE MONSTER, AND THE DRAGON SLAYER?

All of us who’ve lived through this past year have watched our health care professionals on the front lines, like warriors, selflessly take care of people, while risking their own lives to do so. We have seen what compassionate care means, like never before. When you are the recipient of that kind of care from other human beings in your darkest hour, from people you don’t know, it changes your life forever. 

The backstory of my book began in the winter of 2012 when I contracted a deadly virus that resulted in a cough that became so severe, I cracked a rib. A subsequent CT scan showed a mediastinal mass in my thymus gland.  

My doctor referred me, reluctant and terrified, to a cardiothoracic surgeon who said he wouldn’t know whether it was cancer or not until he performed a surgical resection. Robotics were possible to use but he would convert to a sternotomy if that proved unsuccessful. His words made me feel like I was in a nightmare.  

He said if it was cancer, he would remove anything it touched, including my voice box because his job was to save my life. Radiation treatments would follow. If the laryngeal nerves were damaged, another risk, it could affect my voice forever, leaving me hoarse or unable to speak. This mediastinal mass was an anomaly, unknown to me, that I’d had my entire life, so I asked the surgeon why I should risk surgery now. He said it was the only way to find out if it was cancer, and, it may be growing. I asked a million questions, and he answered every one. I was numb.

I weakly whispered something about being a singer; the surgeon said he operated on a tenor recently who only sang Puccini and he had successfully performed this and similar surgeries hundreds of times. These things happen to other people and right then, I was not feeling like I would be one of the lucky ones. 

I was terrified I would never sing again. All I could think of was if I can’t sing, or speak, what value will my life have?  

I told him I didn’t want the surgery. He said to think about it for a couple of weeks and we would talk again. Drawing up my courage, I heard myself assert, more loudly than before, that I was a singer, and it was “important to my life, to be able to sing.” I had never said that out loud before, as a definition of my life’s value. I asked if I could play a recording of one of my songs for him. I thought that if I played it for him, perhaps he would be more careful. He looked a little surprised but said yes.

I played an operatic piece I was learning, En Aranjuez con Tu Amor by Joaquin Rodrigo and my voice filled the exam room. He listened intently. When the recording stopped, he kindly said, he would do everything he could “to save that beautiful voice.” He answered the multitude of questions I had which earned my trust. A second-opinion doctor concurred with his diagnosis and proposed treatment but was so arrogant and dismissive I didn’t think he heard any of my concerns. I returned to the first surgeon. 

From that point forward until the surgery, I reflected on my life and everything I had ever valued. As a filmmaker, I prided myself on being able to control complicated productions that had massive moving parts every day. Now I had no control at all. I began to imagine the world going on without me. In the weeks before surgery, I was learning to let go.

The night before surgery I had a dream. It was simple. My surgeon’s smiling face appeared, and he said, “Everything is going to be just fine.”

The next morning in the hospital’s pre-op room, I was strangely calm. The anesthesiologist briskly entered and asked about dry eyes and latex allergies, after which there was a small prick to my arm. Six hours later I woke up in the recovery room with a tight bandage around my chest. In between sleep and awakening, there was only a sheer black void, the absolute perfection of nothingness. I didn’t want to know if I’d had a sternotomy at that moment. But I had.

In my post-op appointments with my surgeon, I could not have been more fragile, inching my way down long hospital hallways to get to the surgical suite. He said I was recovering beautifully. I knew that I could trust him, and his words meant I was finally on the other side of the precipice where there was no more fear. Just recovery. And life. But I was still hoarse from the breathing tube.

From the first day after surgery, my body felt like the weight of the world had lifted from my chest. My sense of touch, taste and smell were strangely heightened, tenfold. When my fingers touched my skin, it was as though it was the first time I had ever been touched. Meals were so delicious and enjoyable I chewed and chewed to prolong the wonderful tastes. Smells were more acute. 

Sometimes late at night as the pain medicine wore off, and my thoughts slowly assembled, I began to experience the profound depth of what had happened to me. I was captivated by Andrea Bocelli singing Vaghissima Sembianza, “a cherished vision,” a song about a painting that was a replica of a long-lost love’s image. Over and over, in a dreamlike trance, I played the song with this precious vision. It brought me such comfort. I didn’t know why.

As the days passed, I couldn’t believe the kindness I received from so many people throughout my ordeal. The nurse who removed my chest tube; the man at the hospital’s front desk who leaped up to take my arm as I unsteadily walked in for a post-op appointment; the anesthesiologist, with a worried look, who checked on me in the ICU. The hospital caregivers and surgeon’s staff were completely selfless. None could know the profound effect they had on my life simply by being supportive. 

As my recovery progressed, and anesthesia drugs wore off, conversations gradually drifted back into my consciousness, and late one night, I remembered my surgeon saying the mediastinal mass had begun to attach itself to my lung, and the pericardium of my heart. I then realized the monster within had been spreading and positioning itself to make its final move. It could have attacked me at any age; but for some reason, it had chosen this time of my life. A time when I was too young to be old, and too old to be young.

In the flickering light of my television that night, in the wee hours before dawn, in a medicated haze, I suddenly realized that this brilliant surgeon, whom I had entrusted with my life, had reached the monster just before it wrapped itself around my heart and lungs forever. And I knew in these twilight hours of excruciating profundity, this story would affect me the rest of my life.

As healing began, I started to sing a little each day, starting tentatively at first. After a few weeks, it began to feel like my voice had no limits. The high notes were unforced without the obstruction of the mass near my lungs. I felt a part of everything that was alive because my voice was nearly lost forever. 

My life changed. The kindness of these selfless medical professionals rekindled my connection to others and to nature which I was drawn to each day, simply because there were remarkable people who cared about someone who to them was a stranger. I knew I could never go back to my previous life; I had to move forward. It was as if I’d been under a spell. These kind people slayed the monster of my life’s faded expectations. The surgeon stood by me, listened to my fears, and gave me the unvarnished truth. He spoke to me with consideration and respect. It was not only his brilliant surgical skill that healed me; it was his honesty and compassion during my darkest hour and his and others’ innate goodness as human beings that saved my life. 

I didn’t want to squander the precious time they gave back to me. My heart was open wide, and it led me back to the music of my life. 

As I recovered and began to sing and write poetry again, I felt my life change as I healed. I practiced until I built up enough courage to perform one night at a local open mic. I was so nervous; I had no idea what to expect. I sang Raglan Road and when I finished the audience stood and applauded wildly. I was overwhelmed.

I then began to sing and perform more locally, and the audience reactions moved me. Sometimes they stood and applauded; other times shouted “Wow! Just wow!” Some walked on stage with me and hugged me as their tears fell; others told me that listening to my music had a trance-like effect on them that soothed them and helped them to relax. 

During this journey, I came across a paper by Edward Lorenz whose theory famously became known as “the butterfly effect.” One small action, a butterfly flapping its wings in Kansas, can have reverberating effects throughout the world, and cause a tornado in Japan. I began to feel that my singing, like the rippling effects of Lorenz’s butterflies, might be something positive I could contribute. I began to feel that everything affects who you are, and who you are affects everything.

I formed Butterfly Effect Productions Inc. to produce artistic products whose rippling effects could be a source of comfort and beauty. Because I didn’t know what the future held, I wanted to capture my music, so I decided to record my first album, The Heart of Things, released in 2014. The artwork of the woman on the cliff, with arms wide open, and heart energy flowing, was an image of how I felt as I healed. 

The next year, in a flurry of inspiration, I composed numerous songs and poetry. They came to me as I walked each day in the park, they appeared in my dreams or as I walked into a room. As the music came, I decided to record a second album that became Path to the Sun, Moon, and Stars, released in 2017. 

I was tested regularly to make sure the monster didn’t return. They said it was unlikely. But I felt I had been given a second chance to leave something of whoever I was in the world, and I wasn’t going to waste it. My music, my singing, my poetry, the films I made, the songs and stories I wrote, would be my contribution.


2. THE SOPRANO, THE MONSTER, AND THE DRAGON SLAYER STANDS OUT AS IT INCORPORATES THREE GENRES: POETRY, MUSIC, AND THE VISUAL ARTS. WAS THIS INTENTIONAL, OR DID IT EVOLVE? HOW HAS IT INFLUENCED YOUR EXPRESSION AND ABILITY TO CONNECT TO AN AUDIENCE?

The book evolved from the songs, poetry, and films I’ve been writing since I can remember. I find artistic expression to be such a fluid process that it has a life of its own. For me, the inspiration selects the genre; it’s as if it comes from somewhere else and demands to be expressed. Sometimes it wants to be a poem; sometimes it must be a film; other times, music; sometimes the lyrics come first, other times, it’s the melody. When it happens, it’s as if I must sit down right then and write it down, or sing it and record it, or play it on the piano until it is roughed out. I can’t rest until this is done. I once wrote a poem called “The Late Great Roscoe Mac,” when a friend told me that in medical school they practiced on a cadaver they named Roscoe Mac. That night as I ate my dinner, it was as if Roscoe was next to me saying, “Write this down. Write this down, now!” I had to stop eating and write the poem. Every line was very nearly perfect from beginning to end after one draft. 

One of my songs called “Whatever He Wants,” started as a tune in my head. It had a certain levity to it but also had a helpless feeling. I had no idea what it was about, but the melody kept coming back to me. One morning, after a recording session, the previous day, I woke up out of a dead sleep thinking, “Whatever He Wants! Oh, that’s what it’s about!” Then, as I sat up in bed, I wrote the lyrics on my phone. The song changed very little after that.

This process has gone on for years, off and on; but I had lost touch with that part of myself before my surgery. Afterward, I felt I needed to do as much as I could as soon as I could because I was keenly aware that we only have today to share who we are.

In 2019, I decided I wanted to capture some of the work I’d already created in a book. I thought it should have a specific theme, so I chose love poems I had written over the years. With newfound confidence, I now dared to put it out in the world. I reached out to my lifelong friend, Carol Collett, and asked if she would share her lifetime of amazing artwork for the book; some pieces she had created over the years; others she created especially for the song or poem as needed. It was a joy to collaborate with someone dear to me with whom I felt such a kinship. And it was exciting to think our artwork would be shared in one book.

In terms of the visual media used, as a filmmaker, I’m familiar with the power of sound over images. And since music lyrics are simply poems, I decided I would add my music lyrics to the poetry in the book and link them to my published songs to enhance people’s experience. I imagined someone putting on their earphones, taking my little book of poetry to a coffee shop, looking at Carol’s exquisite artwork, and reading my poetry in an e-reader and listening to my music as they remembered what it was like to be in love. 

I think people are connecting to my music and poetry because they feel a kinship in terms of their own life experiences. It seems to soothe them. Steel Drums and Ode to Harley have received such heartfelt responses of joy from people who found comfort in the promise of the future in Steel Drums, to tenderness and empathy from those who treasure their “best friends…” in Ode to Harley.

I hope that my songs, poetry, short stories, and films will always have positive effects that are meaningful, that move people, and that help heals their hearts, even for just a moment.


3. WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE PLANS?

There is so much I have yet to do. I have pieces of music waiting to be completed; and finished songs waiting to be recorded. I have poetry to collect in another volume; short stories for a book; one is about my mother called, “Sun Mother, Dream God.” Another is a rough draft I’ve written of a book of dreams I want to finish called “The Winnekawe Bear Book of Dreams.” I have a rough cut of a short film to finish producing called “The Trouble with Venetians.” The pandemic stole a year from all of us; for me, I went inward. But now that we are starting to get some semblance of our lives, back, I feel myself opening up, going from survival mode to one of gratitude for my life again. This feeling inspires me to consciously make time to do what is most important: create art with positive rippling effects that will live long after I am gone.

Follow Vashti on Facebook and hear her sing on her website.

Go For It: When Self-Publishing Becomes Small Press Publishing

Welcome author Fran McNicol to Sea Crow Press!

I wrote a few blog posts here last summer about what it is like to self publish with some how-to information. Since then, I have launched two books of my own at Sea Crow Press, which I created because all books need a home.

Now that I know how to make books, the press is growing and has just signed on its first author who isn’t me!

JOIN SEA CROW PRESS IN WELCOMING AUTHOR FRAN MCNICOL

Fran is an accomplished surgeon and horsewoman and she writes from Nelipot Cottage in the English countryside.

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What if we could keep our beloved horses in a way that is governed by their needs, rather than our convenience? What if we could offer horses a life that fulfils their need for friends, forage and freedom, as well as our goals and desires?

This seems a fair exchange in return for allowing us to share their grace and beauty. A healthy, happy and sound horse would be a partner in a dream come true.

This book is the story of my journey, from horse-mad child, through goal orientated doctor training horses for competition, to listening to my horses and learning from them about life and love.

Fran McNicol

An afternoon spent reading Fran McNicol is a journey through the English countryside with her band of horses and loyal dog. Along the way, she shares her best practice techniques to achieve barefoot healthy horses pastured in social groups with access to forage in fields rewilded to combine best horse nutrition with best environmental practice.

Barefoot Hooves and Open Hearts will be available on March 30 from Sea Crow Press and wherever good books are sold.

Until then, stay tuned for our cover reveal, and a series of blogs from Nelipot Cottage.

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ABOUT FRAN

Fran McNicol is an amateur equestrienne living in the UK. As a full-time surgeon, she obviously knows a huge amount about the human animal, but the most useful product of medical training, from the horses’ point of view, is that she learned how to research, evaluate evidence, and then apply theory to optimise the care of her horses.

Her writing is therefore a mix of opinion and her current state of learning from 25 years of doctoring, time working around the world as a polo groom, and many years of keeping her own horses. She loves training young horses and focuses on riding the sport horse both classically and holistically. She competes regularly for her local riding club, especially in One Day Eventing. 

Nelipot Cottage started life as an educational blog to share learning and best practise to promote the benefits of a barefoot and holistic herd lifestyle for whole horse health and to reflect on life lessons learned along the way. She believes that horses exist to bring out the very best in humans. Fran hopes that sharing these tales will bring new friends, kindred spirits, exchange of knowledge, and lots of positive energy into the lives of the Nelipot herd.

Deep Listening

I’ve had a lot of questions recently about how I write. I listen deeply, and then the floodgates open.

The landscape is different but always the same. The tide is high or low, lapping the shore or booming chased by the wind, but always the tide. The sand is a soft carpet, a million tiny pieces worn from parent rocks of distant times, sometimes wet, sometimes dry, but always under your feet.

I’ve heard the sand whistle.

A fish washes up, a keening gull drops a clam, it smashes on the low tide rocks, and a meal is served.

The crows are a Greek chorus, chortling from low trees.

Your feet splash and leave prints on the flats that are gone when you return.

These are the sounds of poetry.

Deep listening on the ocean

To write a poem, you must listen deeply and inhabit your subject.

Befriend a tree. Sit with it and listen. In time you’ll hear its story, and if you listen well, you might, for a time, become the tree.

It’s a form of shapeshifting.

The magic is in the listening and the becoming. Become your subject, and return to write about it.

I’ve had a lot of questions recently about how I write. I listen deeply, and then the floodgates open.

I’ve been driving through traffic and said to the child in the backseat, quick! find a piece of paper and a pen, write this down! Luckily the car always provides the needed materials.

I’ve jumped out of the bathtub with an entire new poem. Water seems to aid creation, and why not? We come from the sea, and we float in water for our first nine months.

I have fragments scribbled on napkins, envelopes, and pretty much anything to hand. It looks messy, but it isn’t.

This is what a first draft looks like

Walk the place you love most each day.

Listen. Watch. Inhabit.

I am not on the ocean right now, so I am listening deeply inland, along freshwater woods and fields. At first, it didn’t smell right, no salt, and I didn’t know the birds.

Freshwater deep listening

But I’m listening and slowly shifting, and new things are coming.

You can read Mary Petiet’s poems in Moon Tide and Owl Magic.

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Cat Poems

No birds were hurt in the writing of this blog.

Fall winds are blowing in the Netherlands. It rained and hailed last night, and the dark is falling earlier.  The recent equinox of September 22 offered a rare moment of balance in an increasingly unbalanced world, and I for one grabbed it!

Fall is subtle here. It creeps in on foggy cat feet as the trees turn slowly russet and yellow. 

Dutch fall

At the moment, the huge old oak behind my house is welcoming hundreds of swallows as they migrate south to warmer climes. My cat watches them, but his hopes are thwarted by the warning bell he wears around his neck, the unfortunate consequence of hunting too well.

The cat’s name is Pip and he started life in a parking lot in Hyannis on Cape Cod, from which he was rescued as a very small kitten. Later, I brought him home from the SPCA because I needed a good mouser in my old farmhouse. Later still, Pip made the trip to the Netherlands with us and now he is a popular sight in the neighborhood. 

If he could speak, he’d probably tell you the bell on his collar is his biggest problem. 

Pip

Pip’s prowess as a hunter is legendary. I imagine he has quite a reputation in cat circles, so I wrote a short poem about him in Moon Tide called Four Feathers, after the gift he very proudly left me early one morning several falls ago.

Pip’s bell warns the birds effectively of his approach, so I can guarantee no birds were hurt in the writing of this blog.

Read more in Moon Tide: Cape Cod Poems

Dog Wise

We can embrace the beauty of the moment…

Black Dog lives entirely in the moment now

running the beach

with no thought of later and before

no what if, no regret…~ from Moon Tide: Cape Cod Poems

The two things that separate us from the animals are what might teach us the most: Animals have a different sense of self, and they live entirely in the moment.

Encountering life on those terms could open up a whole new reality.

Once I knew a dog called Daisy. She was a black pointer lab mix with a white bib, and she didn’t stay with me because I made her, she stayed because she chose to.

We were friends, and she had many lessons to teach me.

Have you ever watched an animal look at its reflection in a mirror? It is unable to connect the image it sees with itself. 

Daisy knew to eat and sleep and keep herself well. But her animal self-preservation never extended beyond that to the point she made others suffer for her benefit.

Imagine people doing that.

Daisy also lived entirely in the present moment.

We can’t do that, memory and time work differently for us, but it has something to teach us.

We can embrace the beauty of the moment and not let regret for the past and fear for the future ruin it. 

Especially now, as we face unprecedented times.

…Only Black Dog beach and sky

The eternal now, now, now. ~From Moon Tide: Cape Cod Poems

Read more about the Black Dog in Moon Tide: Cape Cod Poems. Available now.

Old Cedar

If you have not befriended a tree, go out and find one to sit with.

Old Cedar knows why growing into the wind is certainly no solution. It tried to once, and proof of the attempt lingers in the twisted gray trunk below a shock of green on branches curved by the forceful old north wind.

~from Moon Tide:  Cape Cod Poems

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Old Cedar

The last time I visited my favorite tree on Cape Cod was in January, about six weeks before COVID put a temporary stop to travel home.

Old Cedar lives on a quiet stretch of shore between the marsh and the ocean near a tidal creek and not far from a friend’s boathouse. I like to sit at the base of the tree and survey my kingdom.

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The view from Old Cedar

If you have not befriended a tree, go out and find one to sit with. The world is full of wise old trees.

The green leaves at the top of Old Cedar are gone now, and as the ocean claims it from below, there is not much left, really. It is becoming the skeleton of a tree, the very memory of a tree.

I found two feathers stuck fast into the Old Cedar’s tangled branches the last time I visited, so I suspect I am not the only one. Maybe trees have some memory of their ancient sacred role in pagan belief, and maybe that adds to what they can teach us now.

As the world changes around me, I think about Old Cedar, and how it chose to grow with the wind instead of against it, how its roots have held it tight for so long, and how in the near future it must inevitably be swept out to sea to make room for whatever new thing comes next.

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The poem Old Cedar can be found In Moon Tide from Sea Crow Press.

Bouillabaisse Stories

 

The clan gathers for a summer family reunion. It’s a beautiful beach day, and my grandfather’s second wife is treating us to lunch at the Black Pearl, Newport Rhode Island’s classic seaside dining spot.

 

The Black Pearl puts poetry in the chowder and fries fish to write home about. But our host is rich as Croesus, and also stingy, so everyone is ordering hot dogs and peanut butter sandwiches.

 

When asked what I want, I say the bouillabaisse. I am six years old.

 

Bouillabaisse is associated with the southern French town of Marseille but may have even earlier origins in ancient Greece. The classic fish stew was how fishermen fed themselves by utilizing the shellfish and boney fish they couldn’t sell to restaurants by boiling it in garlic and fennel to make a savory stew at the end of a long day’s fishing.

 

In time, as Marseille became rich with tourists, the simple fisher-fare made its way to resort tables with the addition of saffron and tomatoes.

 

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A bowl of bouillabaisse.

On the French Rivera, the seaside town of Frejus launches fireworks every night. Imagine Van Gogh’s sunflower phase, and you’re pretty much in Frejus. The colors, the sea, and the tastes! At the end of another sunny summer day, my husband and I found our way to a tiny restaurant in Frejus under a train track famous for serving only bouillabaisse.

 

We weren’t sure what we getting into, but the trains turned out to be few and far between, and the bouillabaisse to die for. It was served by an ancient lady in separate courses, first the broth, and then the fish.  Redolent with saffron and filled with cockles I had never eaten before, it was food for the gods.       The ancient lady serves us until we can eat no more.

 

It is my 28th birthday.

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I learned to make bouillabaisse on Cape Cod in an effort to recreate the one we loved so much in Frejus. It turns out Cape Cod has its own recipe made to suit the local fish.  This is one of the few recipes I have the patience to follow, and I do it so I don’t muddle the flavor and waste pounds of seafood and many threads of precious saffron.

 

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I never share recipes, but this is an exception. From the Cape Cod Fish & Seafood Cookbook.

I was pretty much able to recreate the French bouillabaisse we ate so many years ago in Frejus with the help of the recipe and the addition of fresh New England fish.

 

Instead of the strange cockles in the French use, Cape Codders add Littleneck clams. We also add shrimp, but only the carefully deveined tails. We have ample summer tomatoes, and garlic and fennel, and sometimes, when I’m feeling a little wild, I’ve been known to add sweet summer corn to my Bouillabaisse, because why not?

 

This summer, I have found myself stuck in Amsterdam due to COVID-19.  Since it’s my birthday again, and I’m turning 28 again, I spent a recent evening cooking with friends.

 

Right now things in the Netherlands are pretty normal, so it was no problem to haul out my favorite book of Cape Cod fish recipes and get to work.

 

I cook Bouillabaisse about once a summer, and it’s a big undertaking fit for a celebration. This time, I was hoping to bring the Cape Cod recipe to the Netherlands, and one step further away from France while maintaining the vital essence of the Bouillabaisse.

 

The Dutch do not have Littleneck clams.

 

This makes me sad, but I found tiny Venus clams and hoped for the best.

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Venus Clams.

Shrimp come whole in the Netherlands, and since there is a local tradition of boiling and serving shrimp that way, I just chucked them in the pot, with heads and shells intact.

 

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Whole Shrimp.

A firm white fish is essential. Do not add oily fish, it will ruin the dish. I was lucky to find cod on sale.

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Cut the fish into small portions.

The heavy ripe field tomatoes you want for the sauce are hard to come by in this land of efficient greenhouses, so I grabbed the only can of tomatoes I saw in the store that day. The plot thickened with the sauce when I realized they were cherry tomatoes.

 

Have you ever seen a can of cherry tomatoes? I can tell you now they’re actually quite good.

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Canned cherry tomatoes.
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Don’t skimp on the garlic.
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You need good fish stock.
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Adding the fish stock.

Rouille, the classic red sauce that tops a traditional bouillabaisse, is one of the things that keeps the essence of France alive in the recipe. The other is saffron.

 

Rouille is basically mayonnaise with red peppers, lots of garlic, and a shot of tabasco. If bouillabaisse leaves you with a fine garlic hangover, it’s because of the rouille.

 

Use your Cuisinart to make the rouille to ensure you hit peak emulsification.

 

The rouille works with the croutons you make from french bread slices to make the dish taste very, very French.

 

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Adding olive to the rouille sauce.

The trickiest bit is really the timing. After you’ve made your tomato-based sauce in your biggest pot (I use my biggest, orangest Le Creuset) you add the fish according to cooking times. Beware of overcrowding the pot.

 

I learned the hard way that Venus clams open almost the minute they hit the heat, unlike littlenecks, which are tough as nails and will put up an impressive resistance to opening. Think about your timing as you add each fish and learn as you go.

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Bringing the ingredients together.
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Bringing it to the table. Bouillabaisse topped with croutons and rouille.

I ate the whole thing.

 

For more Cape Cod stories check out Moon Tide!

 

Photography by Rikke Dakin Photography.

 

 

 

Writing From a Sense of Place

It is a fluid place for shifting between realms, where poems can be written, paintings painted, and universes created.

 

Dropped by a retreating glacier on the Atlantic’s wild edge, Cape Cod has always offered a shifting landscape. As the sea takes a bit here and deposits a chunk there, the landscape is ever changing, yet somehow always the same.

 

Winter storm in the Great Marsh

Every winter sand from other places washes into Barnstable Harbor spurring off Barnstable’s annual harbor dredge. Some coastal change is predictable, and some is totally random, like the nor’ easter that broke the bulkhead in Barnstable Harbor, or the time Hurricane Bob left a wrack line of destroyed boats across the south side and littered the streets with scallops for the taking. 

Between land and sea

Cape Codders might not be completely shocked by the inevitable coastal shift brought on by climate change because it is a part of the natural condition of their shoreline and their marshes. They are used to inhabiting the liminal space between land and sea, and they and their stories are inextricably bound to it. 

As I writer, I call in that space to create. 

Double sun over the Great Marsh

The Great Marsh is a wild space bridging the sea to solid land. It is a sacred space from the point of creation because it is unconcerned with the mundane cares of the solid land behind it.

It is a fluid place for shifting between realms, where poems can be written, paintings painted, and universes created. 

It is perhaps why artists traditionally flock to the Cape, that and the light cast by short trees and reflecting seas, which looks a lot like the light you can still see in the fields of Holland to understand what inspired the Great Masters’ work.

Dutch light in the Netherlands

Go For It: Why Book Covers Matter

Do you judge a book by its cover?

Do you judge a book by its cover? Bookstores do, and so do potential buyers. Your book cover is your chance to make a great first impression, and since you only get that chance once, you don’t want to waste it. 

Italian language books on display at Feltrinelli’s recently opened RED Store in Florence, Italy, Photo Credit Jonathan Schilling

Make sure your book cover is eye-catching, unique, and fantastic. 

I had the cover for my latest book, Moon Tide: Cape Cod Poems, in mind before I had even assembled the collection of poems for the interior. It started with a lucky photograph I had taken of our local sailing fleet on a full moon low tide. I didn’t know at once how that would translate into a cover, but I was sure it would.

My lucky shot destined for cover fame

If you are not a designer yourself, there are designers out there for hire. If I had tried to make my cover, I’m pretty sure crayons would have been involved, so as a self-publisher/small press, the cover design was the only part of production I hired out.

It was worth it. 

A great designer made my lucky shot into a beautiful book cover

I found my cover designer through word of mouth. Networking with other writers, online or in person, is a great way to find resources. There is an entire community out there self-publishing, so you don’t always have to reinvent the wheel. 

I’m going to make an important disclosure: The designer who made the cover for Moon Tide is Sybil Wilson. She is wonderful to work with and you can contact her over at PopKitty Design if you need a great cover.

The Self-publishing school Self-Publish.com lists the following steps to finding a cover designer:

  1. Research your book’s target audience
  2. Brainstorm cover designs within your genre
  3. Research book cover designer’s styles
  4. Know where to find cover designers
  5. Use a strategy to select the best cover designer in your budget
  6. Begin the selection process
  7. Use a rating process to help you choose the best book cover designer
  8. Hire your book cover designer

If a potential reader can somehow relate to your cover, and it catches their interest, if they find it beautiful, and want to go in there and check it out, you have succeeded, and hopefully, sales will follow. 

Book stores are also looking for covers that look professional and entice readers in a display. First impressions count, make yours as beautiful as possible.

And as always, be brave and keep writing.

Go For It: Launching Your Book in the Time of COVID-19

‘The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry…’

“The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men gang aft agley…”

That’s some nice Robert Burns to start the day: “The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry…”

And they do, especially for authors launching books in the middle of pandemics.

Old school. How I launched my first book in 2017 at my fabulous local library.

Before COVID-19, authors introduced new books with in-person readings and signings. Maybe a party. Definitely a celebration, because it’s no small thing to write a book. In the last few months that has changed completely, for both traditionally and self-published authors.

Suddenly we all need to figure out how to launch books without actually leaving the house.

This is even more challenging for the self-published or small press author because most of us do not have an army of publicists and a big publishing house to support our efforts. The regular challenges of promotion are compounded by not being able to engage with your audience in person.

In Amsterdam, as the most beautiful spring weather on record eased the strain of lock down, I spent a lot of time eating stroopwafles. The classic Dutch waffle/syrup cookie sandwich, best cut with strong coffee, stroopwafles are the perfect size to balance on the top of your coffee cup so they get warm and gooey.

Dutch still life with tulips, Moon Tide galley, and coffee with stroopwafle.

I may have looked idle, but I was trying to figure out how to promote a book about Cape Cod to other people who love Cape Cod. As you probably know, Cape Cod is on the northeast coast of the U.S., and that is a long way from Amsterdam.

I had planned a beautiful, garden book launch on Cape Cod with the local historical society, with a reading, flowers, wine, and a book signing. I had plans for another reading down the road in the lovely Swedenborgian church, and I was grateful for the community support the book had inspired.

But all I could think of was Robert Burns. He pegged it. The best-laid plans do go awry, sometimes in ways we never imagined. Many, many writers have been caught short by the quickly changing circumstances brought on by COVID-19. The entire publishing industry has been caught short.

So we need to be agile.

We need to harness the technology that made self-publishing possible in the first place, and we need to move it all online. Even though we miss the experience of direct contact, this is how we can still connect to readers.

In the end, I grabbed my phone and recorded my book launch at my desk. It took a couple of minutes, and it was far easier than I had imagined as I sat there eating stroopwafles.

I posted it online, and people liked it.

It’s doable people, be brave and think outside of the box, and if you’re launching your book in these times, I’d love to hear how you adapted to the situation.

COVID-19 style book launch, I never left my desk.