Monday, April 17, 2017

Bitter Waters: The Struggles of the Pecos River by Patrick Dearen

When I closed the cover of Patrick Dearen's Bitter Waters: The Struggles of the Pecos River it was with both gratitude and the unsettling sense of having arrived into new territory— raw, rich, appalling—in my understanding of Far West Texas. This is no minor thing to acknowledge; for some years now I have been at work on a book about that very region.

But first, for those who don't have a jones for, shall we say, Wild Westerie, why bring Far West Texas into the cross hairs? And why give a hoededo about its skinny river so salty, to quote one of Dearen's informants, that "a snake wouldn't drink it"?

Texas is one of the most powerful economic and political entities in not only the United States but the Americas. At the same time, "Texas" is so hammered out into tinfoil-thin clichés of popular culture (and many of those informed by warmed-over 19th century war propaganda and Madison Avenue-concocted boosterism), that we have the illusion we know Texas, when in fact it enfolds concatenations of undeservedly obscure histories, stupendenous beauty, and the lumpiest of paradoxes. If Texas—and I mean the real one, not the confection of Marion Morrison aka John Wayne, et al—is still in many ways terra incognita, its "iconic" far west, profoundly moreso. What delineates Far West Texas from the rest of Texas is precisely that skinny, salty river. And a most peculiar body of water it is. CONTINUE READING

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, April 03, 2017

A Visit to the Casa de la Primera Imprenta de América in Mexico City

This is an excerpt from my long essay, of creative nonfiction, "Dispatch from the Sister Republic or, Papelito Habla," which  is forthcoming in Kindle.

In the shadow of the National Palace:
La Casa de la Primera Imprenta de América,
the House of the First Printing Press in the Americas,
Mexico City.
Photo by C.M. Mayo, 2017.
...There is one more a pearl of a place that cannot go unmentioned in any discussion of our sister republic’s literary landscape. 
From the Claustro de Sor Juana, in less than twenty minutes’ walk north and slightly east—weaving your way through the shoppers, touts, tourists, beggars, businessmen—honking cars and buses and motorbikes—and a skate-boarder or two—blaring music, freighters with their trolleys piled to toppling with boxes—don’t get run over by the pedicabs—and once at the Zócalo, wending around the Aztec dancers in feathers and ankle-rattles, the toothless shouter pumping his orange sign about SODOM Y GOMORRA MARIGUANA BODAS GAY, and an organ grinder, and to-ers and fro-ers of every age and size, you arrive, out of breath, at a squat, terracotta-colored three-story high building. This is where the first book was printed in—no, not just in Mexico—then New Spain—but in the Americas. 
La Casa de la Primera Imprenta de América.
To step into the foyer of its museum and bookstore is to relax into an oasis of peace. 
The uniformed guard hands me a pen to sign the guest book. It’s late afternoon; I am the third visitor for the day. 
I take a gander at the exhibition of contemporary textile art—a few pieces reference one of Frida Kahlo’s drawings in the Casa Azul of a tentacled monster of paranoia, each limb tipped with a staring eye. 
In the second gallery I find the replica of our continent’s first printing press soaking in sun from the window. The wooden contraption is taller than I am, but so spare, it occurs to me that it might serve to juice apples.
How my Mexican amigos scoffed at the auction of the Bay Psalm Book in 2013. Not about the record sum—14.2 million US dollars—for which that little book, printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640, went to a private collector, but about the report in the international media that the Bay Psalm Book was “the first book printed in America.”
To Mexicans, America is the continent, not their sister republic. Mexico is part of the same continent, of course, and so the first book printed in America—or, as we estadounidenses prefer to say, the Americas—was Breve y más compendiosa doctrina Cristiana en lengua Mexicana y Castellana (Brief and Most Comprehensive Christian Doctrine in Nahuátl and Spanish), printed right here, in Mexico City, in this building, in 1539.
Mexico beats out Massachusetts by 101 years! But this sinks to silliness. That printer in Cambridge, Massachussetts, was English, and the one in colonial Mexico City, a native of Lombardy named Giovanni Paoli, Hispanicized to “Juan Pablos.” The technology that found its way to the Americas with these printing pioneers—to the north, Protestants, to the south, Catholics, separated by religious schism and the whirlwinds of European politics, and that century, and moreover, by the staggering distance of desert, swamplands, oceanic buffalo-filled prairies, and sunless and unmapped forests—had one and the same root: the fifteenth-century workshop of a German goldsmith by the name of Johannes Gutenberg. 
Gutenberg was inking his little pieces of movable type more than half a century before Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue,” and the indigenous on this continent chanced to hear the first stirrings of vaguest rumors and weird omens.
Still, 1539 is an early date indeed for that first book printed in the Americas: only eighteen years after the fall of Tenochitlán. Three years after Cabeza de Vaca’s miraculous arrival in Mexico City. Fray Sahagún was still a year away from launching the research that would result in the Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España, or the Florentine Codex. The lodes that would turn Mexico into an industrial-scale silver exporter had not yet been discovered. The Manila Galleons, treasure ships bringing porcelain, spices, and silks from China to Acapulco, would not begin their annual crossings for another twenty-six years.
In England, Henry the VIII was between wives three and four. It would be sixty-eight more years until the first, disastrous English settlement at Jamestown. The Pilgrims who would land at Plymouth Rock? As a religious community they did not yet exist.
Tucked in the shade of the National Palace and a block east from Mexico’s cathedral, the Casa de la Primera Imprenta was built, it turns out, over the ruin of the Aztec Temple of Tezcatlipoca, Smoking Mirror, trickster god of the night sky, of time, and of ancestral memory.
Aztec snake head on display, 2017.

Who knows what still lies beneath in the rubble? Dug up in the eighteenth century during a renovation, a gigantic Aztec stone snake head was, no doubt with a shudder of horror, reburied. But we live in a different time with a very different sensibility. In 1989 when renovations unearthed that same Aztec stone snake head—elegant with fangs, nostrils, scales, eyes the size of melons—it was carefully excavated and cleaned by archaeologists. This monumental sculpture, heritage of the nation, is now displayed atop a roped platform in the Casa de la Primera Imprenta’s Juan Pablos bookstore, surrounded by a shelf of fiction, a table of poetry, and a sign informing us that the Aztec snake head is carved from grey basalt and weighs approximately one and a half tons.
The Juan Pablos bookstore, named for that original printer Giovanni Paoli, retails books from the press of Mexico City’s Universidad Autónomo Metropolitana (UAM). Such are my interests du jour: I came away with a copy of the first Spanish translation of an eighteenth-century Italian’s journey to Mexico and the 2015 El territorio y sus representaciones. 

A splendid and very important book:
El territorio y sus representaciones
by Luis Ignacio Sainz Chávez and
Jorge Gonzlález Aragón Castellanos
winner of the 2016 Premio de Investigación
Published by the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana,

From "Disptach from the Sister Republic or, Papelito Habla" by C.M. Mayo
Copyright 2017. All rights reserved.
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When the Kindle is available I will be sure to announce it here. If you'd like to get my very occasional newsletter, I welcome you to sign up for that here.

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

> Another excerpt from this same long essay, on Cabeza de Vaca's Relación, is forthcoming in Scoundrel Time; another, on Mexico's great baroque poet, Sor Juana, appeared in this blog Monday before last; and yet another, on Lord Kingsborough's colossal Antiquities of Mexico, was posted back in February.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Thank You, Dear Readers: On the Occasion of Madam Mayo Blog's Eleventh Anniversary

Images courtesy of Pulp-o-Mizer
Methuselah of Blogdom here. Why am I still blogging? I am heartened to say, dear readers, that I know you're there, more of you each year, and I appreciate your visits and your comments (as always, I welcome comments via email.) As for the granular whys and wherefores of this blog, I wouldn't say much that I didn't say last year, on its tenth anniversary, which echoed much of what I had to say on its eighth anniversary. The latter link goes to my talk for the 2014 AWP Conference panel on "Homesteading on the Digital Frontier: Writer's Blogs." To quote from that:
"Madam Mayo" is not so much my so-called "platform," but rather, a net that catches certain special fish the readers who care about the things I care to write about. 
As ever, I aim to provide posts on a variety of topics that might be, in turn, of use and/or interest for my writing workshop students, and/or for Mexicophiles, and/or for Far West Texasphiles (is that a word?), adventurous readers, and myself. 

One of my many motivations for blogging is to iron out my own thoughts, especially on subjects that tend to come up in my correspondence with other writers and in my writing workshops, for example:

(What do you mean, "reading as a writer"?)
One Simple Yet Powerful Practice in Reading as a Writer

(How do you keep up with email?)

Email Ninjerie in the Theater of Space-Time

(Where do you find the time to write?)
Thirty Deadly-Effective Ways to Free Up Bits, Drips & 

(What do you think about social media?)

You will also find posts on my work in-progress and anything relevant to it (at present, a book about Far West Texas):

Once in a zera-striped-chartreuse moon of Pluto I touch on nonwriterly topics:

Yet one more reason to check in with this blog is for announcements about my publications and interviews:

To share my talks and podcasts:

And, something I especially relish, to learn about and celebrate the work of other writers:

> More interviews here.

P.S. For those of you who are writers / bloggers, herewith the top five things I would have done differently back in 2006 had I known what I know now:
1. Use WordPress
2. Post once per week, something verily crunchy, otherwise take a vacation;
3. Post interviews with other writers more often;
4. Maybe tweet the link to a post once or twice; otherwise do not waste time with social media;
5. When possible and when there is substantive content, upload the bulk of that content to the webpage, not the blog itself (because of those scaper sites).

(Your comments are especially welcome on this subject. Write to me here.)

P.P.S. Yep, one of these days I will move the whole enchilada over to WordPress. It's still on my to-do list...

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, March 20, 2017

What the Muse Sent Me About the Tenth Muse, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Door to the quarters of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,
"the Tenth Muse." Photo by C.M. Mayo, 2017.
Late last year my amiga the brilliant short story writer Paula Whyman invited me to send a "Dispatch from Mexico City" for her new magazine, Scoundrel Time. So I dialed in to Muse HQ... 

As I told Paula, woefully past the deadline, I had asked the Muse for a slider, a yummy little note about books in Mexico, but she delivered the whole ox. In other words, my "Dispatch from the Sister Republic or, Papelito Habla" is a novela-length essay about the Mexican literary landscape, from prehispanic codices to contemporary writers. It is what it is, I don't want start chopping (there would be blood!!), but of course, a 30 page essay is too long for a magazine. 

Scoundrel Time will be publishing an excerpt about Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca's Relación-- a nearly 500 year-old memoir little known outside of Mexico and Texas, yet that stands as one of the most astonishing and important books ever written. (As soon that goes on-line, I will be sure to link to it from here.) As for my full-length essay, "Dispatch from the Sister Republic," look for it as a Kindle under my own imprint, Dancing Chiva, ASAP. 

Herewith my other favorite excerpt, about the Tenth Muse, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz:

Excerpt from 
by C.M. MAYO 

For rare book collectors, Mecca is Mexico City’s Colonia Centro, and for such aficionados of mexicana as myself, its sanctum sanctorum, the Librería Madero—by the way, recently relocated from the Avenida Madero to the Avenida Isabela La Católica, facing the the formidable wedding cake-white corner of the 16th century ex-convent of San Jerónimo, known today as the Claustro de Sor Juana, that is, the Convent of Sister Juana.

And if you would not know Sor Juana from a poinsettia, gentle reader, with all respect, you must crowbar out that boulder of ignorance, for which you will be rewarded by a glimpse of the diamond of the Mexico’s Baroque period, the first great Latin American poet and playwright, “the Tenth Muse,” a cloistered nun.

Texan poet John Campion was the first to translate Sor Juana’s magnum opus, “Primero sueño,” as “The Dream,” in 1983. (Alas, that date is not a typo.) Campion’s translation is out of print, but he offers a free PDF download of the text on his website, The first lines of Campion’s translation beautifully capture Sor Juana’s uncanny power:
death-born shadow of earth
aimed at heaven
a proud point of vain obelisks
pretending to scale the Stars

In her time Sor Juana was one of the most learned individuals, man or woman, in the New World, and her prodigious oeuvre, from love poems to polemics, comedies to enigmas to plays to villancicos, was exceptionally sophisticated, so much so that its interpretation is today the province of a small army of sorjuanistas. As Mexico’s Nobel laureate poet Octavio Paz writes in Sor Juana: Or, the Traps of Faith (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden), “A work survives its readers; after a hundred or two hundred years it is read by new readers who impose on it new modes of reading and interpretation. The work survives because of these  interpretations, which are in fact resurrections.”

And perchance startling discoveries. In his 2011 El eclipse del Sueño de Sor Juana, Américo Larralde Rangel makes a radiant case that her “Primero Sueño” describes the dawn over Mexico City after a lunar eclipse on the solstice of the winter of 1684.

In the Librería Madero I find on the first shelf, facing out, two new books by sorjuanistas: one about Sor Juana’s family, another, just published by a Legionario de Cristo, that purports to decipher her twenty enigmas. The latter work incorporates a series of contemporary paintings of Sor Juana in the baroque style—dim backgrounds, crowns and scepters of flowers, and afloat above her head, fat-tummied cherubs, flounces, unspooling bundles of draperies. But these Sor Juanas look too pert, make too coy a tilt of the head. It seems to me as if, session over, the model might have just tossed off that habit to wriggle into some yoga wear.

Yes, just as in the United States, in Mexican cities yoga studios have been popping up like honguitos. 

But if a vision of modern Mexico would have been obscure to Sor Juana, by no means is Sor Juana obscure in modern Mexico. She has inspired scores of poets and musicians; there have been movies, documentaries, and novels, most recently, Mónica Lavin’s 2009 best-seller Yo, la peor (I, the Worst—yet to be translated into English—fingers crossed that Patricia Dubrava will do it). 

As I write this in 2017, Sor Juana graces the celadon-green 200 peso bill. From the portrait by Miguel Cabrera in the Museo Nacional de Historia: a serenely intelligent young woman’s face framed in a wimple, and behind her, her quills and inkpot and an open book of her poetry—and a few lines:

Ex-convento of San Jerónimo,
now the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana,
Mexico City. Photo by C.M. Mayo, 2017.
Hombres necios que acusáis 
a la mujer sin razón, 
sin ver que sois la ocasión
de lo mismo que culpáis.

I cannot pretend to render the music of Sor Juana’s lines into English. But here’s a rough go at their literal meaning: You pig-headed men who accuse women unjustly, blind to the fact that you are the cause for that which you cast blame. 


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P.S. Those of you who follow my blog may be wondering, what in blazes does this have to do with my book in-progress on Far West Texas? More anon about the truly fantastic connections.

>> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, March 13, 2017

One Simple Yet Powerful Practice in Reading as a Writer

I'll be giving my annual one day only workshop on Literary Travel Memoir at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland this April 22. [Learn more and register online here.] New in ye olde packet  of handouts for this workshop is "Words I Like," my name for a powerful yet simple practice that you might think of as Feldenkrais for your vocabulary. 


As writers, albeit human creatures of habit, we tend to use only a woefully limited portion of our vocabularies. Hence our first drafts may be stiff, dull, and vague. To add verve, freshness, and focus, it helps to loosen up our mental joints, as it were, and reach for a greater variety of words.

The challenge is not necessarily to expand your vocabulary --I am not talking about trying to sound fancy-- though perhaps you or one of your characters may want to do that-- but to bring more of your writerly attention to words you know but do not normally use.

Towards that end reading is vital-- but not reading passively, as a consumer of entertainment, nor reading for facts and concepts, as would a scholar. Instead, read as a writer, with a pencil or pen in hand, noting down any words that strike you as especially apt or somehow, for whatever reason, attractive to you. 

These might be simple words such as, say, brood; caprice; crackpot; pall; nougat; persimmon. 

When I read I keep a notebook, PostIt, or index card handy so I can jot down any words and phrases that I like. I used to worry about keeping all these notebooks and bits of paper in some semblance of order, but I now believe that most of the benefit is in simply noticing what it is that I like; and second, writing it down. (In other words, when it comes time to declutter, I will, as I have, and so what?) Of late I toss these index cards in a recipe box that I keep on a shelf behind my desk. When one of my drafts needs an infusion of energy, I pluck out a random batch of cards, shuffle though them, and see if anything might be of use. Often it is. 

From another card plucked out at random:

shrewd; sagacious; "intrigue and shifting loyalties"; surmise; astute; console; relentless; do not relent; never relent; pout; nuanced; verdict; deadly; banal; banalities; dejected; munificence; fail to grasp; thieving toad
Thieving toad! I don't know why, that makes me laugh. And it makes me want to start (or perhaps end?) a short story thus:
She failed to grasp that he would never relent, he was a thieving toad.
I also note phrases and sayings I like, e.g.:
"Trust in Allah, but tie your camel."
"Birds of prey don't sing"
"the apostles of -- " 
"camarón que se duerme amanece de botana" (the shrimp that sleeps wakes up as an appetizer-- that's a variation on the old Mexican saying, "the shrimp that sleeps is carried off by the current.")

Bonhomie! I love it! Why? 'Cuz!

From that second index card pictured above: bonhomie; obviate; banal; decrepitude; penumbra; chronic; salient; pieties; vim; dour; bouyancy; bouyant; circumlocutions.

Why these words? Because I like them. You might not. The point is, as you read, write down whatever words you like.

Well now, I hear Henry James' Muse yelling! 
So many salient pieties... In the penumbra of his chronic bonhomie, she felt at once dour and bouyant.

>> Workshop Page 

>> Resources for Writers
(Includes Tips & Tools; On Craft; On Editing; On Publishing; On Digital Media & more) 
>> Giant Golden Buddha & 364 More Free 5 Minute Writing Exercises
>> For more on reading as a writer, see my archived blog, Reading Tolstoy's War and Peace.

>> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

P.S. Still working on Marfa Mondays Podcast 21. Twenty podcasts have been posted so far; listen in anytime here. 

(Remarks for the panel on Writing Across Borders and Cultures, 
Women Writing the West Conference, Santa Fe, November 2016)

Monday, March 06, 2017

Email Ninjerie Update: Old-School Tool to Break the Ludic Loop

Behold the Zassenhaus.
Back in December of 2016 I posted "Email Ninjerie in the Theater of Space-Time or, This Writer's 10 Point Protocol for Inbox 10 (ish)." As I explained, for me the game-changer was point #1, tackling email in scheduled batches using a stopwatch. To quote:
I usually do 20 minutes of email processing with a stopwatch. It's not that I am trying to hurry through my email, but rather, I am respecting the limits of my brain's ability to effectively focus on it. I'm a speed-reader and I can type faster than lickety-split, but on most days I can deal with email for only about 20 minutes before my brain cells run low on glucose and I end up scrolling up and down the screen, dithering, feeling scattered in short, procrastinating. (You might be able to do 10 minutes, or, say, an hour in one go of course, not everyone's energy to focus on their email is the same, or the same every day and in every circumstance. One can always set the stopwatch for a different amount of time.) 
Don't believe me about batching? Check out the extra-crunchy research at MIT (PDF). 
By processing email in 20 minute batches, when the sessions all add up over the arc of the day, I find that I accomplish more in, say, one hour of three separate 20 minute sessions than I would have had I plowed on for an hour straight.
When the stopwatch dings, I do not expect to have finished "inbox zero" is a fata morgana! And that's OK, because I have another email batch session already scheduled (a few hours later, or five minutes later. It's important to take a break, at the very least stand up and stretch.)
Above all, because I am focussing on email at my convenience, on my schedule, my attention is no longer so fractured... [Read the complete post here

I didn't put it this way in that post, but now that I've grokked the term ludic loop, I must say, that rrrrrring slices right through it. In other words, paradoxically, the reason I was drowning in email was that I was spending too much time on it. That is, I would get stuck in a ludic loop, checking, looking, checking, looking. 

Yes, indeed, gentle reader, batching with a stopwatch works. But of course, when it goes off, you have to actually stop. I added the habit of standing up. Bell rings, I stand up. 

Which stopwatch to use? Of course everybody and their uncle's cousin's zonkey has a smartphone with a stopwatch app, and I know, for a lot of people, especially those under the age of 30, any other option would be, like LOL, a total eye-roller. 

For those answering email on their laptop, such as myself, I recommended using a free on-line stopwatch (get yours here). 

But of late, I have switched to using a mechanical Zassenhaus kitchen timer.* I chose that particular brand because it's better quality and heavier than the average cheap-o plastic kitchen timer.

Why an old-fashioned kitchen timer, pray tell? Because using something not on the computer screen but in the real world-- ye olde meatspace-- helps me stay focused on the task at-hand. It's one less reason look at the "desktop," one less thing to have to go click on (and so reduce the risk of another journey down the rabbit hole, or to put it another way, of getting caught in a ludic loop). 

As I quoted David Allen in my guest-blog for "Cool Tools" on why I use a paper-based organizing system, "low-tech is oftentimes better because it is in your face."

Methinks Dmitry Orlov is onto something. But that's another post.

*Perhaps you are wondering if I have not heard of Francesco Cerillo's The Pomodoro Technique and  his tomato-shaped kitchen timer? (Pomodoro means tomato in Italian.) Actually, I have... long, long ago... so long ago that I had entirely forgotten about it until this very moment! Well, definitely, Cerillo is onto something! Check out his website and watch his introductory video about the technique here. But I am not actually using the  "pomodoro" technique which, as I understand from having just watched the above-linked video, is about doing all kinds of work in stopwatched 25 minute "pomodoros," or chunks of time. For the past months I have been working on email in not only 20 minute batches but also 10 minute and, on occasion, even 5 minute batches. Neither do I want to stopwatch all the work I do... I like a lot of fluidity in my day.

One of the benefits of fluidity in one's day:
As the Muse does not call,
one can ever and always take the opportunity to 

assume energizing random yoga poses.
My writing assistant demonstrates.

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.