Creamed Asparagus on Toast

It’s been awhile since I posted a recipe, and tonight’s comfort food is perfect for this time of year (or any time, but it makes me think of spring). So next time asparagus is on sale or you find some at the farmer’s market (or better yet, pick it fresh from the garden), give this a try. It’s easy, filling, and delicious.

The basic recipe includes asparagus cut into 1-2 inch lengths, onion, butter/olive oil, milk, hard boiled eggs (make ahead and peel when cool), and toast. For 3 people, we use about a pound of asparagus and half an onion. Sauté a the onion in oil and/or butter (a generous amount such as a tablespoon of each). When the onions start to turn clear but not browned, toss in the asparagus and lightly sauté for a couple of minutes. Then add two or three tablespoons of flour (a couple of handfuls) and stir until the flour is coated in oil. Add milk a little at a time to make a fairly thick cream sauce. Cut the eggs into halves or quarters and then into pieces (use one egg per person, give or take). Salt and pepper to taste.

Toast the bread — we prefer home made whole wheat bread that is a little dry already (the end of an old loaf), but store bought bread is okay. Whole grain is best, but it’s really up to you. When I was a kid and my Mom made this for us, I’m pretty sure she buttered the toast, but we generally skip that step. Ladle some of the creamed asparagus over a piece of toast and serve. 

To spice it up, add some mushrooms or other spices (I added a little fresh fennel tonight for fun). To stretch if you don’t have a lot of asparagus, you could add carrot or parsnip cut into match stick pieces. A little green pepper might also work or in place of regular onion, use shallot or green onion. If you want a creamier sauce, use whole milk. For a lighter version, use 2% or less, or use low fat buttermilk to replace all or part of the milk.

Poetry Contest Submission

Every now and then, after (or in the midst of) a heavy grading period, I have to remind myself that in addition to being a university professor, I’m also a poet. In the throes of a busy semester, this can be a challenge, but this morning, I took a few minutes to work on a poem and send out a submission to a contest.

In general, I’m not a big fan of contests. It can feel like a waste of time and money, given the odds of winning. So I’m fairly selective about the contests I choose to enter. i like them to have a good reputation but not be the creme de la creme (those top national awards don’t need my money). But more importantly, I like to feel like I’m getting something for my money besides a lottery ticket. So the contest rules need to be clear and fair, and the organization running the contest needs to be one I know, trust, and want to support with my entrance fee. An added bonus is when the entrance fee buys you a subscription to a magazine (which I’d often rather have than a copy of the prize-winning book). It’s also nice when contest entries are also considered for publication in a magazine (though i don’t like it if I get the feeling you have to enter the contest to be considered for magazine publication).

The contest fee should be modest, but there should be a fee. I never trust a free contest unless I am absolutely confident about the organization running it (state Arts Commissions or other well-recognized organizations that run grant competitions are the main exceptions to the rule). I’ve heard of too many scams for poets out there to want to enter your free contest. But I have no interest in paying through the nose just to be read. I’ll take my chances in the slush pile, thank you very much.

I want to support a few contests per year by entering them. They should be sponsored by literary magazines or organizations that support writers, so I feel like I’m giving back to the community with my submission. If I get something good to read out of the deal, even better. And if my name gets mentioned among the finalists or even better as one of the winners, that’s fabulous, but I’m not holding my breath. I like the tangible, certain rewards that build a community of writers the best. Fame and fortune (or at least prize money) always seem too elusive to bank on.

All-State Orchestra

All-State Orchestra

Scott Sandifer, Abbey Schwartzendruber, and Aidan Dunkelberg at Belhaven University in Jackson for the Mississippi All-State Orchestra, March 29, 2014.

Southern Literary Festival 2014

Each year in the South, a group of undergraduate English majors and their professors descends on one member institution for a weekend of readings, workshops, and fun. This year, the host school for the Southern Literary Festival was Ole Miss (University of Mississippi to the rest of the country), who did a fabulous job arranging panels and entertainment. It didn’t hurt that the festival ran concurrently with the Conference on the Book, an annual event hosted in Oxford, so there were quite a few other authors milling around and some of the events were combined. So, for instance, we all got to witness the live Thacker Mountain Radio program as it was recorded for public radio, there was a Blues performance, and of course there was a chance to wander around the Square and browse in Square Books. SLF panels included readings by Cheryl St. Germain, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Chiyuma Elliott and Dereck Harriell, Megan Abbott, and of course the student prize winners, whose work was published in the annual literary magazine of the festival. Students also had master classes in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and playwriting, and there was an open mic where anyone could read.

Started in 1937 at Blue Mountain College by a group of professors, which included Robert Penn Warren from LSU, the festival has a long and storied history. It has fostered many young writers, including the young Flannery O’Connor, and has featured many greats of Southern Literature. Each year is a little different, tailored to the strengths and talents of the host institution. Yet each year features the literary contest, readings, and workshop or master class experiences. It is a great asset for Southern schools, and membership is open. So if you are associated with a college or university in or near the South, contact me or the current host for more information.

The opportunity to hear good writing and have conversations about craft, and the chance to interact with students and teachers from schools around the region is an incredible experience. Though I know well how hard it can be to pry yourself loose from the demands of the current semester, those days spent in a festival like this can be incredibly invigorating and rewarding. If you don’t live in or near the South, search for opportunities like this in your area. Then make the time to attend. You won’t regret it.

How Smart are Smart TVs?

First, let me say that we’re pretty happy with our Samsung SmartTV in terms of its picture quality. It was a good replacement for our previous model that bit the dust (don’t ask). And it does stream Netflix relatively well, even if browsing titles is more than a little clumsy. But the promise of the SmartTV features seems to be more hype than reality.

First, most of the Samsung apps involve subscription services. Free internet TV is hard to come by, though Samsung does provide a web browser app. This is the biggest disappointment. Not only is it next to impossible to navigate with the supplied remote — calling it clumsy would be an incredible understatement — but it won’t play much and is constantly in need of updates.

The main problem seems to be with Flash. Videos on some sites tell us that we need to update our Flash player, which we can’t do except by updating the whole SmartHub or the browser or possibly the firmware. Other sites tell us we’re out of memory, but we can’t delete apps because Samsung doesn’t allow that for their recommended ones (the subscription apps). So we could buy movies and TV shows with the recommended apps. Or if we subscribe to cable, we could watch TV on demand if we had the premium channels.

But to watch the content we’d like to stream from network TV or other free sites, we might as well hook up a computer to the TV. Or an AppleTV or possibly Roku or other box might work. So where’s the value in the Smart features?

At least we got a good deal on this model, so we could not feel cheated that the hype of SmartTV was mostly hype. I’d rate the IQ of our TV at maybe 100. It does a few things relatively well, but there are serious limitations, and it has a long way to go before it will be a full replacement for a computer (even just for watching video.) It always felt like a waste to dedicate a computer to the TV, since there was so much processing power that we really didn’t use. The idea of a SmartTV makes a lot of sense. The reality is far from perfect, though.

We’ve read that Samsung will make major revisions to its apps on March 26, getting rid of all paid apps (not the subscription apps). There may be more changes in the works, which could make the experience better for awhile, but then it could all change again as Flash gets updated on websites, for instance. Oh, and there used to be an app called SwipeIt for streaming iPad or iPhone video, but I could never get it to work. Now it has disappeared from the Samsung apps store. The constant flux in what’s available and what the capabilities are may hold out some hope for the future, but it also makes the user experience more frustrating in the present.

Concrete Poetry

I always have a little fear and trepidation introducing concrete poetry to a class of creative writers, as I did today. On the one hand, I’m afraid I may get a lot of texts written in a shape that don’t have much poetry to them; on the other hand, I am convinced that the visual side of poetry is at least worth considering. Concrete poetry can lead to abuse or innovation, in other words, so it helps to show some examples.

What I like about concrete poems is that they can develop their own, visual sense of grammar. There is a syntax to the spatial arrangement of words on the page that works counter to sentence syntax. Indeed, often there is no sentence and the ‘words’ may not even be pronounceable. I like getting students to think outside the box and to think of poems as something other than prose. But I don’t like to give the idea that concrete poetry is static.

Far from it. The best concrete poetry challenges our linguistic norms, including challenging our habit of making language sense from left to right and top to bottom. So I show them a poem written in different lines that curve and bend in different directions, even one circular line. There is no logical place to begin the poem. If you start with one sentence and end with another, you might get a completely different sense of the poem than if you did it the other way around, or another way. There are multiple readings of the same text, depending on your entry point.

Writing a poem like this may take more technical prowess with typography than your average undergraduate can muster, but being exposed to the poem (and to other concrete poems) might allow them to think of poetry as not being (completely) linear. If they begin to look for connections around and within a poem, and not just in the straight line of prose, then they may pay more attention to other ways of creating meaning in a poem. Some of those may be more visual than auditory.

How to Drive Traffic to Your Blog: Be Useful

I keep marveling at how much my blog’s traffic has increased in the past year and thinking about the posts that made this happen. On the surface, the best advice I might give for driving more traffic to your blog could be: write about technology. My techie posts, which weren’t part of the original concept for the blog, have garnered far more hits than my poetry or teaching posts. But I don’t think that writing about tech is the only solution. Some of my food posts have been fairly popular, and there’s even a post where I was trying to define Nonfiction that regularly gets a hit — welcome students from Full Sail University (wherever you are) who must be assigned to find a page like mine. I see you in my stats now and then.

No, rather than taking the easy solution, to write about tech issues, I want to suggest that you write about whatever is on your mind, but make it useful. That said, I know it’s hard to predict what will be useful for others. So my rule of thumb has become to write about things that are useful to me. Then if others think so, too, I may have a hit, and if not, at least I can use it.

Case in point: when I was having problems with my DSL modem last year, I started a series of posts chronicling my problems and eventual solution. I tried to be very detailed about what my symptoms were and how I fixed them. I described every step as accurately as I could remember (without giving away personal details). I did this at the time, so I wouldn’t forget what I’d done if I ever had the problem again. People (and then search engines) started to notice. It was a rant, and that felt good, but it was a useful rant because it also provided information, and I’m convinced that’s what drove the traffic to my site.

I’ve done the same with a rare blood disease that our dog came down with a year ago. I recounted what I had learned about it, but I also recounted the experience of caring for and ultimately losing our beloved pet. I don’t think it’s the emotional content that draws viewers, but instead they want to know what someone else has experienced and what they might expect. I don’t know that our experience will be similar to theirs — and I sincerely hope theirs will be one of the cases where the dog responds to treatment and goes into remission — but knowing our experience must be useful.

Of course, I’ll continue to write about poetry, teaching, cooking, and the occasional odd-ball topic like the Motorette my mother eventually sold (thanks to someone who found out about it on my blog). You can’t always predict what will be of use to others, after all. So don’t let this advice stop you from writing about your passion even if that seems like the most useless topic in the world. As long as you approach it with the goal in mind to make it useful, at least to yourself, then my bet is there will be others who find it useful, too, and they will find you.

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