October 14, 2011

The newscast moves to a different story. I move too, away from the sink full of soapy water, away from the crumbles of blue glass dark against the white floor. I move through the dining room to the living room. I make sure my hands are dry, and then I draw down from the fireplace mantel a cobalt glass vase with a ruffled rim and a narrow base, cradling it like an infant.
— Margaret DeAngelis, b. 1947, American fiction writer and essayist
from “Cobalt,” winner of the 2011 Past Loves Story Contest

The piece began with the actual incident recounted in the first paragraph. I heard a television newscaster say an old friend’s name followed by the news that he had died. It startled me, even though I determined quickly that the deceased was not my friend, but someone else whose death was newsworthy because his family’s efforts to prolong his life had become the focus of a lawsuit against a major insurer.

A few months later, I found myself at Peter Murphy’s Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway in Cape May, New Jersey. I had set 2000 as the year I was going to develop as a poet, and took the fragments of the experience of hearing my friend’s name to that workshop. As longtime followers of my writing career know, I didn’t last long as a developing poet, and the material got put away.

But I would get it out from time to time, often at my birthday, the anniversary of the day I received the vase as a gift. (The vase is seen in a blurry photo at left. I have it secured to the mantel with museum putty, and I didn’t want to take it down to move it for better lighting and angle tonight.) Eventually I completed the poem, then turned it into prose. The material spent some time as fiction, where it did not work at all, since the basic true story lacks tension, and I was unwilling to lose the autobiography that most ideas that become successful fiction have and manipulate the facts into a plot.

It did, however, work as a brief memoir, short enough to be read at Bread Loaf in 2008 and at my return to the Winter Getaway (this time as a novelist) in 2009. I always brought the vase, carefully packed, along for those events, and bought daisies for it, so that the reading became a kind of performance piece.

I probably became aware of the Past Loves Story Contest through a mailing about “creative writing opportunites” that poet Allison Joseph collects and sends to a subscription list. The deadline was in August, while I was at Bread Loaf. I remember now sitting at the writing table in the little house I rent, tweaking the piece to strip every last bit of fiction from it (there was at one point a son and a toy car mentioned), and finally sending it only hours before the deadline.

A joke at our house goes like this: I will come home from a session in my studio and talk about how I created an entire chapter for the novel I have been writing since 2002 (I took all of 2003 off from it, so it will only be nine years next January, not ten), or come back from a conference like Bread Loaf excited about all I have learned. And Ron will say, “Fine. When is the money going to start rolling in?”

Two Saturdays ago, we had been together at his Uncle Sam’s birthday party, and then gone separate ways, me to dinner with a friend and Ron to a field hockey game of the college team Lynn once played with. I arrived home as darkness was falling, and brought in the mail. I was able to snap a picture of the check I received for “Cobalt,” named the first place winner of the 2011 Past Loves Story Contest, and send it to Lynn with the text “Tell Daddy the money has started rolling in!” (It would be a few hours before I opened the rest of the mail. It included a notice from the township Shade Tree Commission that the trees in the front of our house need to be trimmed to bring the limb overhang on the street side into compliance. Money rolls in, money rolls out.)

According to some of my writing friends, eleven-and-a-half years is not an outrageously long time for an idea to go from inchoate fragments to a finished, published piece. I am grateful to Kate Harper and Leon Marsico for giving my work their attention and a lovely, suitable home. You can read “Cobalt,” as well as the other winners and honorable mentions, here. (The link is also given in the epigraph above.) Scroll down past the announcement of the print anthology which is forthcoming and which will include “Cobalt.” And, as always, thank you for reading so much, so often.