Barbara Toboni: melding poetry and prose

4730926877_c5ba6f60d9_mI was first drawn to Barbara Toboni’s work when we both contributed short memoirs to  the 2011 anthology Wisdom Has a Voice: Every Daughter’s Memories of Mother (edited by Kate Farrell, president of the National Women’s Book Association’s San Francisco chapter).

Barbara has an eye for just the right details to bring scenes to life, as well as a tender yet powerful way of conveying emotions in a simple turn of phrase. Barbara and I have followed each other’s blogs for the past few years, and I was delighted when she submitted her work to my anthology project, Sisters Born, Sisters Found: A Diversity of Voices on Sisterhood. Barbara contributed a memoir vignette to the sisterhood anthology.

1. Zori Sisters, the personal story you contributed to Sisters Born, Sisters Found, is situated in Guam. Did your family travel a lot when you were growing up? How much time did you spend outside of the United States? And how do you think living in more than one culture when you were young strengthened you? Were there any disadvantages you had to overcome? How has this experience informed your writing?

barbbio-3My family moved a few times in the United States before we left for Guam when I was 13. I was born in Pennsylvania, and we lived in Southern California—a couple different locations. Guam was, at that time, my only experience of living overseas. My father worked for the Civil Service there, and he signed on for two years. After the first two years, he fell in love with the island and continued to sign on for the rest of his life. I stayed in Guam for 12 years.

At first, there was a period of adjustment. I looked different and so felt awkward in school. I was jealous of the native girls with their long, straight hair in contrast to my frizzy bob. It took time to get used to the hot, humid weather. There were few phones on the island—imagine a teenager with no phone—and only one TV station in the late ’60s. Without a phone, people dropped by at odd times, but eventually I fell in love with the island and all it had to offer a young girl growing up. There were the beaches, swimming and sailing, friends that taught me their bits of language, and invitations to village fiestas. The Chamorros, Guam’s native people, were very warm and kind to me. The island is a mix of other cultures, too—mostly Filipinos, Japanese, and Koreans. Japanese tourists vacation in Guam, and I once worked at two different Japanese-owned hotels.

As far as disadvantages in living on a small island, I missed some of the things going on back home like rock concerts. Few musicians traveled to Guam back then. Sometimes the slower pace seemed too slow. But, in general, Guam taught me to enjoy travel, and to be less judgmental of cultures other than my own. I’ve been to Mexico and Canada and would love to visit Europe one day.

Guam holds many memories for me. In 2010, my husband and I took a trip back there and when I returned home I started to compile poetry and short memoir vignettes about my years living on the island.

2. Zori Sisters is an excerpt from your book Water Over Time, which is a combination of stories and poems. What motivated you to use both forms in one book? Was it difficult to combine the two into a cohesive whole?

Unknown-1In my book, I was a little hesitant to combine both poetry and short prose, but all of it is memoir. Some stories didn’t communicate well into poetry and vice versa, but I knew all of it was a coming-of-age journey. I remember getting chills when we went to visit the village and saw the house my family first lived in. I took a picture of the house, a concrete shell of what it had been, but the island had suffered many storms. That picture was my motivation.

3. When I think of you, I think of poetry. When did you begin writing poetry? What motivated you to do it? Is there a poem you’d like to share here? If so, tell us a little about the poem you chose.

I began writing poetry at 16. I kept my poems in journals, and I was very secretive at first about them, but as I grew older, my family and friends encouraged me to share. I love language and playing with words.

One of my first poems poses a question about God. I often wrote about what I didn’t understand. I still do.

The Spirit of Love

If the spirit of love is created by nature
And all of God’s creatures are blessed with his touch
Then why can’t we see this mystical image
The spirit of love and the creator of such

Sisters-prelim-cover-v2-460x6844. Why did you submit a story to Sisters Born, Sisters Found? As a contributing author, do you have any hopes for the book?

This is a great idea for an anthology—the notion that some women you meet are connected to you even though they don’t share your DNA. I hope the book helps women take a second look at their friends—and count on them and cherish them just as if they are related.

5. Where can people learn more about you and your work?

On my website: I have two chapbooks available for purchase, and I write a post monthly on my blog.

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Learn all about the crowdfunding campaign for Sisters Born, Sisters Found: A Diversity of Voices on Sisterhood at And do sign up for my periodic newsletter, Letters from Laura, in the column directly to the right on this blog post page.

(Zori photo above by Mari Uesugi, creative commons license.)



Smokin’ story collections!

Short story collections have enriched my reading lately. What strikes me most about the books I’ve read is how creative the authors—or in the case of one anthology, the authors and editors—were in framing their projects. It’s not just writing style that distinguishes some of these works; it’s also the concepts behind the books themselves.

I’m talking about Sleeping with the Gods by Jean Wong; Point Reyes Sheriff’s Calls by Susanna Solomon; Times They Were a Changing edited by Kate Farrell, Linda Joy Myers and Amber Lea Starfire; Our Love Could Light the World by Anne Leigh Parrish; and The Wrong Sister by Caroline Leavitt.

Here are my thoughts on each:

Sleeping with the Gods

41VHqa61UEL._SS300_Many of us read about the ancient gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome in Bulfinch’s Mythology, a book that was required reading for middle and/or high school students. (I don’t know if it still is required but perhaps my friend Lysle and other educators can weigh in on that in comments to this post.) Jean Wong shakes up those deities of old and throws them into the 21st century to great effect. She selected nine gods or goddesses and used each as a point of departure for a story. The deities have contemporary personas and become deeply involved with unsuspecting humans. The results are stunning. The stories take us to various locales around the world, giving Wong a chance to subtly demonstrate not only her knowledge of the gods and goddesses, but also her ability to convey the flavor of different cultures. The biggest thing on display in this collection, though, is Wong’s wild imagination. Sleeping with the Gods is cohesive, surprising, slightly disconcerting—a delight to read.

Point Reyes Sheriff’s Calls

41ue8nc1R9L._SS300_Occasionally, I’ll come across a book with a premise I love so much I wish I’d thought of it myself. Such is the case with Pt. Reyes Sheriff’s Calls by Susanna Solomon. Her inspiration was the Sheriff’s Calls section of the Point Reyes Light, a newspaper covering the goings on in rural West Marin County, California. She selected entries from June 2011 through December 2012 (for example, TOMALES: At 8:20 p.m. a woman said she saw a car full of costumed people, possibly burglars, on her ranch” and “NICASIO: At 4:40 p.m. a baby dialed 911”) and used each to create a story. What she wound up writing is a series of interrelated tales that create a fictional realm so quirky, intriguing and appealing, I wanted to drive there in my Ford Escape and stay for a long visit. These stories sparkle with life; they combine humor, depth and compassion; they are deeply affecting and memorable.

Times They Were a Changing

I know I’ve stumbled upon a rich reading experience when long after I’ve put the book down, it comes to mind from time to time. I read Times They Were a Changing: Women Remember the 60s and 70s months ago and enjoyed the anthology in its entirety and, yes, it reached my heart. A combination of prose and poetry, the 48 works included are all personal, vivid and compelling accounts of aspects of life for women living in the 60s and 70s. As someone who came of age during that era, the book is a potent reminder of the promise and turmoil; the victories and strife; the music, the costumes; the love, love, love that was in the air. And there is something strong and solid, yet gentle, about the language of the book and the messages it contains. The memoir that keeps drifting into my mind is “Altamont” by Amber Lea Starfire. I wish I could say what it is about that particular one that struck me so deeply—perhaps it was because as a teen I slipped into many a car packed with friends (as Amber did) and went on adventures that changed me, but usually not in the ways I expected. I believe there is enough variety in this book—edited by Kate Farrell, Linda Joy Myers and Amber Lea Starfire—that there will be selections that deeply affect just about everyone interested in this period in history.

Our Love Could Light the World

51Y5+2PYW5L._SS300_The thing that binds together the stories of Our Love Could Light the World by Anne Leigh Parrish is that they are all about one family, the Dugans. The parents’ divorce is a catalyst that causes upheaval, pain and ultimately growth for them and their five children. Now, that sentence could describe just about any family going through divorce, but this is not a generic tale. The particulars of this dysfunctional and not particularly likeable brood are fascinating enough to engage and keep a reader’s interest. I wanted to know every detail about them as I read. However, for me, this book was ultimately not satisfying as a short story collection. I think it would have worked better had the writer decided to shape it into a novel. The parts of the whole might stand alone. I don’t know. I read them one after another in rapid succession, and they seemed like chapters in a book that didn’t quite come together.

The Wrong Sister

28---Medium_image_resized_200x320The Wrong Sister: Stories by Caroline Leavitt is an ebook consisting of two short stories. Nothing connects the stories except their author. And what a fine author she is. Her characters are complicated and uniquely flawed in ways that makes them intriguing. I felt like I was drawn deep inside the families at the center of each story. A young man enters the lives of two sisters in the first story, The Wrong Sister, and the drama unfolds seamlessly to a surprising conclusion. The second story, The Last Vacation, which explores a daughter’s relationships with her parents, also unfolds seamlessly to a surprising conclusion, one that I found especially poignant. The characters I met on these pages seem like real folks whose paths just haven’t happened to cross with mine.

51vA42tlbhL._SS300_Thinking about these books makes me want to write and publish another collection of stories someday. The elements that connect the stories in The Ice Cream Vendor’s Song, which I published in 2012, are that they’re all flash fiction and I wrote them over the course of a year, posting one per week on this blog. I don’t have any ideas yet about what the concept behind a new collection could be. I also have projects on my plate right now (an anthology on sisterhood and a sequel to Reversible Skirt) that will keep my publishing calendar full for the next year or so.

If you’re interested in purchasing any of these books, here’s a link to a page containing these reviews on Amazon, where you can purchase them with a few clicks.

One more thing. A mini memoir I wrote is posted on Sonia Marsh’s My Gutsy Story website. I’d appreciate it if you’d hop on over there, read my story, and, if you get there before June 11, 2014, vote for my story. She runs a contest each month for the readers’ favorite story. If I win, I’ll get to pick a prize from those offered by a list of site sponsors.



A poem: Blank Is

Blank Is

Blankness. What is blank behind you?
Stillness, rage, blank. On and on. Blank fear.
Lid on, eyes open blind, blank.
Bars rattling, chains breaking blank apart.
Sign torn, smeared blank. Long ago.
A boot on the neck, blank.
On the stomach, on the head. Blank.
A crack swallowed. Blankness, how are you?
Do you know? Blank is blank, is hiding under the rug.
Inside wrinkles and fingers licking wounds.
Blankness, a necessary impediment. Blank.
Be careful what you scrape blank. Truth.
A whole life to feel, to love, to blank.
Possible for some but not. Blank.

Laura McHale Holland
Jan. 21, 2014

Copyright  ©  2014 by Laura McHale Holland



A reflection by Laura with a way cool poem by Moira Kathleen

11.23.versions.photoSometimes I feel like a bloated computer file stuffed with too many variations of the same old story. Other times I’m like a youngster again watching Jiminy Cricket sing When You Wish Upon a Star on the Walt Disney Show. But I wonder whether I’ve been wishing upon the wrong star, chasing something illusive, unattainable.

Typhoons and tornadoes rip across the landscape in far off lands and closer to home. Cars crash. Fires break out, consuming homes in a flash. Any of us could lose everything in an instant, or our lives could dribble away slowly.

I worry about all of this way too much, I know.

imageBut occasionally I’ll do something routine that shifts my perspective—like yesterday, I took a shower, toweled off and rubbed a new brand of vanilla lotion all over my skin. The scent reminded me of a poem my daughter wrote when she was 10 years old.

It was selected for the Anthology of Poetry by Young Americans, 1997 edition.

I looked through a book shelf near my bed and found the slender volume. I’d forgotten how wonderful the poem is. I hope I never forget again. It reminds me of the power of giving and receiving everyday, constant love—and what an honor it is to be my daughter’s mom:









My Mom
By Moira Kathleen Holland

My mom is as beautiful as the sunset
She smells like a bundle of new roses
She loves to garden and write
When I wake up in the morning
she smells like vanilla
My mom has a dancing heart
I love her very much
I think she is a child wrapped
in a grown-up’s body


Copyright  ©  2013 by Laura McHale Holland



Looking through the blinds

looking through the blinds
by Laura McHale Holland

IMG_1006lower branches shorn
the redwood stands
beside brick, steel, glass
high above the building
the tree is whole
made to last
it will outlive
our desks, computers
smartphones, copiers, deadlines
we are but blips
looking through the blinds
at eternity

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Photo by Laura McHale Holland


The day

imagesSince it’s National Poetry Month, I thought I should write at least one poem. I began with “the day is” and took off from there. I will welcome your thoughts, and if you’d like to share a poem that begins with “the day is” or begins with something else, please paste it into a comment. Click on the title to this post if you don’t see a comment area below.

the day
by laura mc hale holland

the day is a love letter
run-on moments punctuated
by breezes, shadows, whispers, sighs
crumpled by engines, exhaust
discarded curly fries
torn by jets soaring
the message, so tender, falls, hits landfill
unrequited love, blighted
it turns, turns through the night
until composted, reconstituted
the day opens anew at dawn
trying again to speak again
for love again

Picture of sunrise from


Beyond tomorrow

beyond tomorrow

by laura mchale holland

two dinner plates
two towels in the dryer
two sets of keys
two parents memorizing
one pair of sandals
left behind

one young woman
driving south
dreams burning fears
just beyond tomorrow


Celebrating the equinox

It’s the vernal equinox tomorrow, when night and day are approximately equal in length. I like the balance of that. And I like knowing it’s something ancestors of many ancient tribes now disbursed throughout the world, who never imagined such a thing as a blog, noted and celebrated well. I’m going to have coffee with Claire Blotter while listening to her read a few poems while looking out over the glistening San Francisco Bay. A good way to celebrate.


Are they waiting?

Here’s a poem I just wrote.

Are they waiting?
By Laura McHale Holland

Are they waiting in rays of sunlight
kissing the ivy that creeps
across the courtyard?

When I sleep,
do they peek in my refrigerator
straighten album pictures
check on my daughter
pet the dog?

Forever suspended
do they ask
what might have been?

Would they have danced the Watusi,
campaigned for George McGovern
joined the Peace Corps?

What scars would have
etched their skin?

What songs would they
have sung
to me,
my brothers and sisters
never born
to a mother
who choked
her breath
with a rope
long ago