Of Endings and Beginnings

Closing in on some endings this week – it’s May, which means another school year is coming to a close, and I just finished reading To Kill A Mockingbird with my seventh graders. This is bittersweet as I will not be teaching 7th graders anymore next year, which means no more Scout and Atticus and no more Shakespeare, either. (Insert sad face emoji here.) The end of my teaching career is also creeping nearer; two years from now, I’ll be packing up my classroom for good. (Insert excited emoji here.)

Some writing things inched their way toward completion as well. I finally finished a new poetry book review. I love writing reviews, and I have one more chapbook review to get done before I take a break to work only on my own poems this summer. (Insert teeth clenching emoji here.) Which means my “I cannot write anymore and don’t know if I can do this” slump has also reached a natural end. Thank goodness for that.  And that, in a way, is its own beginning. I am writing new poems, even sending them out into the world. Which is a little like stuffing intimate messages into bottles and tossing them into the ocean, hoping someone will discover them and rescue you from the desert island of your own brain. (Insert palm tree emoji here.)

Now I’m beginning to question writing this post. Endings and beginnings are a part of everything, right? Why are they on my mind? Maybe it’s the time of year. As a teacher, late May is both a ending and a beginning for me and has been since I started teaching in 1984. But it’s also the cycle of stressors versus comforts that has harnessed my attention in the last few weeks–  the slow fade of some old friendships versus the lit wick of some new ones; the challenges of care-taking versus a surprise visit from my son for Mother’s Day; the late arrival of lovely spring weather versus the necessity of long-delayed yard work; the apathy and chaos of the workplace versus the slow, sweet comfort of my husband and my home.

I could quote Seneca here, (or the source most people know the line from, Semisonic’s “Closing Time”), the line about how every new start comes from the end of another. But I’ll go deep cuts instead. In one of my favorite old Jimmy Webb love songs (“All I Know”), Art Garfunkel’s pure tenor sings, “it’s a fine line between the darkness and the dawn.” A simple line to be sure. Nothing earth-shattering. But this line works for beginnings and endings. A door has to close to open.  You can’t be happy if you’ve never been sad.  So I suppose this is now the end of this post. But it could be the beginning of something else. It’s a fine line – one never knows.

 

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The Quiet & the Chaos

It’s been both a very relaxing and highly chaotic week. I enjoyed a short weekend writer’s retreat run by Lit Literary, a literary community organization run by poet extraordinaire Krista Cox. This inaugural weekend retreat in Harbert, Michigan, was a minute’s walk to the shore of Lake Michigan in a large and comfortable house along with 6 other writers. In addition to beautiful beach time in the sun and the sunset (which has finally arrived in the Midwest), we were treated to three delicious meals a day (cooked by Krista), craft talks, quiet writing time, impromptu readings, a visual art workshop, and good conversation. It was a productive and soothing weekend for me – thanks to Krista for organizing and being such an accommodating leader.

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The chaos has taken many forms related to everything from teaching 12-year-olds in May to personal stressors. During the chaos, as always, I reached for music as a way out. Here are a few of the lyrics that stuck with me this week:

from The Decemberists “Sucker’s Prayer”

And so I got down on my knees
I made a sucker’s prayer
A grim bode of Baudelaire…
Seriously. The sound in “grim bode of Baudelaire” is intoxicating. And nerdy. And it also is the perfect I’m-feeling-sorry-for-myself-and-don’t-care-who-knows-it song. And since the album also contains songs like “Everything is Awful,” it fed my melancholy perfectly this week.
from the chorus of The Wombats “Turn”
I like the way your brain works, I like the way you try
To run with the wolf pack when your legs are tired
I like the way you turn me inside and out
I like the way you turn
This is my new favorite alt-pop song from a band I really like. It also has great lines like “You could give an aspirin the headache of its life…”
from “Blackout” by Frank Turner
“Are you afraid of the darkness?
Well, I’m afraid of the darkness, too.”
A slightly political, we’re-all-in-this-together confection with a catchy chorus. I usually like my Frank Turner with a bit more edge, but this song is growing on me.
Sometimes I am afraid of the darkness, Frank. I do try to run even when my legs are tired, Wombats. And Decemberists, although I sometimes I may feel like “I want to throw myself into the river and drown,” nothing is ever as awful as it seems.

Whole Lotta Poems

For the past two summers, I have imagined that I have the poems for a third manuscript. For the past two summers, I have been wrong.

I carefully ordered and re-ordered the pieces, looked for connecting threads, looked for cohesion, but they never seemed quite right. They weren’t ready to be a book. They weren’t even ready to be something that could be a book if it had the right poems to flesh it out.

And I couldn’t help thinking I was doing something wrong. Although I spent years placing my first book, my second came rather quickly, published three years later.  And although I have worked steadily on two chapbook projects in the past two years (one of which found a home with the fabulous Porkbelly Press last year and one which is still making the rounds), I have had the nagging feeling that I should be working faster toward a third book.

Social media hasn’t helped. There is an intense social pressure when Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of others publishing books, winning fellowships and awards.  Even though I know that these successes are years in the making for every writer, and I am always happy to see the successes of other poets, all of these posts make me feel as if I’m not doing enough. As if I’m not a real writer.

So, for the last year, I have been writing. When I have the time. Whenever I have the inclination. When there’s something that is nagging at the back of my mind. I stopped submitting poems altogether for about six months. I concentrated on creating work. And guess what? It’s almost summer. And once again, I really do think I may have a third manuscript now. If not, I have a whole lotta poems. And that’s a start.

***Recent Publications:

“Painting Which Is In Fact Not A Sky” – Juxtaprose

“Variations of Leaving” – Poet Lore (print)

Reasons

I have been remiss. Already. And during National Poetry Month, of all months. But…there are reasons. Some positive reasons; some negative; some just…reasons. But I have been writing. I am 18/23 in an attempted 30/30 for April, I have finished two book reviews, and spurred on by a request from a journal I love, finally completed an essay that I have been thinking about writing for months. The poem drafts are stronger than I imagined they would be, assuaging some of my fears about having lost my poetry mojo.

Reading books of poetry has been a big part of my little sabbatical. In no particular order, digging in to these collections has brightened, enriched, and inspired my April.

I am reading aloud a wonderful YA novel in verse called House Arrest to my sixth grade students. They are completely engaged in the short, poetic journal entries that make up Timothy’s story, and it will be a good way to bring us to the end of the school year, which seems ever so near and yet so far away. (Unlike all of my college professor friends, I do NOT finish teaching at the end of the month – June 6 for me. Keep me in your thoughts…)

And this week has brought GPN – good poetry news, for those not in the know. A poem of which I am quite fond is featured in the newest issue of Juxtaprose here. And another poem is in the current issue of Poet Lore, one of the first journals I started to read and aspire to when I came back to writing seriously around 25 years ago. It has been a while since any new work has appeared in print or online for me, so it feels like coming home.

I do have to say it’s a little embarrassing to have other bloggers continuously link back to the post where the Revival Bloggers are listed when I hadn’t posted anything in two weeks. Some ringleader I am.  But this is about writing, right? And I HAVE been doing that.

The Sounds & the Fury…

I’m back. Although I didn’t write HERE on my Spring Break, I did write. And read a LOT. And submit poems to journals, which I haven’t done in quite some time. But after reading the round-up this week on Dave Bonta’s site, I have decided to embark on some sort of poetry endeavor for April.

Although I always fail at 30/30 attempts–this is not hyperbole, I mean ALWAYS–I decided to try something different. I am going to try to write something every day that plays with sound and tone – phrases, wordplay, etc. – and, in this way, I will free myself from the pressure to even make sense!

Somewhere, I truly cannot remember where, I was introduced to an exercise that I have already used both days of April so far. I will share it here in the hopes that it might give you some ideas about playing with sound.

  1. Start with a lengthy word that has a variety of letters. (I have used the words. ventriloquist, paraphernalia, hypersensitive, and inconsequential. You can use any word you choose!)
  2. Spend some time making a word bank of every word you can create from the letters in that long word. Three letters or more. You may only use a letter twice if it actually appears twice in the word.
  3. Once you have a substantial word bank, start to play with creating phrase combinations. Once you have a few that you like, see if you can use words on the list and other words that stay in that sound family to write a lyric or tone poem.

Last night, my husband gave me the word paraphernalia. My favorite phrases were: repel the leperthe bells peal, a panel of liars, the rapier’s rip.  I ended up with a draft that might be going in the direction of a “dark days” type of poem. Today with my students, we brainstormed a list from ventriloquist. My favorite phrase from that list was a quiver in the soil brings violets.

So I have a plan. Which may not come to fruition. But I am enjoying the music, nonetheless.

***

If you are looking for prompts for your 30/30, when I first started this blog seven years ago, I posted a prompt a week under the label The Poetry Tow Truck. That archive of 52 prompts can be found here – since it’s been so long, I may go back and try some of them again myself!

Fluctuation

There was a day this past week which started in sun, cold and clear, sky the blue of the opening seconds of the Simpsons cartoon.  Around 1 PM, large fluffy flakes, the kind that almost look like they are cut from paper, tumbled past my classroom window, diffusing into the pavement without a trace. By the time I made the walk to the parking lot at 4 PM, the snow swirled furiously, almost a white-out, the kind of snow that makes it look like the air is full of fog or that at least your windows are. After I pulled into the garage, dropped my bag, let the dogs out, and changed into some yoga clothes, the sun was shining, the snow had stopped, and the accumulation on the pavement and street had already melted.

It is not uncommon to have a day like this during the month of March in the Midwest. It’s almost Spring, but the threat of snow is still very real on any given day. (This morning, we woke to an ice/sleet storm. It was melted by 2 PM.) My spring break begins next Friday, and I’m not sure whether it will be sunny long walk weather or inside with a blanket weather. The plants aren’t sure, either–the day lilies are already pushing their green through the cold ground, as are the clusters of crocus. The coyotes from the nearby forest preserve are getting bold, loping into the neighborhood yards, and the birds are back, shimmering the trees with their tentative song. Everything seems to be waiting for a change, one long inhale held and held and held.

Changes abound, and not just in the weather. I have resurrected the YA novel manuscript I began two summers ago in the hopes of trying something a little different. The poems are coming slowly, so slowly, and yet I want to write. On any given day, my writing seems very much like strange weather – something begins well, then it dissolves into something beautiful but meaningless; it occasionally gets a little dangerous, and then melts into oblivion or a journal page that I won’t look at again. Even the writing of this post seemed to follow that pattern – at first, it came easily and then, when I got to this paragraph, fits and starts. A lot of deleting and rewriting. A lot of fog and dissonance. (You can decide what the weather is like as reader here…) And I may not post next week during my time off from work, giving myself a break from the self-imposed resolution to post once a week, my own internal weather just as fickle as Mother Nature’s.

Spring will come…as Amy Gerstler says in her poem “In Perpetual Spring” –

Suddenly the archetypal

human desire for peace

with every other species

wells up in you

So here’s to the extended exhale of a long-awaited spring, the poems flowing onto the page, whatever breath you are holding released in one relaxing wave. 

FOMO vs. CTSH

I know you’ve all heard of FOMO – fear of missing out. But I’ll bet you haven’t heard of CTSH. That’s because I just made it up.

Thousands of writers this past weekend converged on Tampa, Florida, for the annual AWP conference. Reading all the tweets and posts about the book fair, the readings, and seeing the faces that I usually don’t see except for this conference, there was a little FOMO here, I’m not going to lie. I did feel I was missing out on the biggest writer gathering of the year, but I did not miss the lack of sleep, the crowded panel rooms, the difficulty in getting around to off-site readings.

So there is much to be said for being CTSH – Content To Stay Home. I have been working on being well-rested after a cold/illness that has lasted over three weeks and am forty days into recommitting to a daily yoga practice as a part of my wellness routine. I am starting to write again after a long dry spell.

Kelli Russell Agodon expressed it well in her blog this week:

“As creative people, I think we need to listen to what our bodies and mind needs at all times. Sometimes we need to go big, reach out, interact, tweet, post on Facebook, bloggity-blog-blog. But other times whether it be because of news, our own personal life or families, our own creative work, we need to go smaller and explore less.”

Rather than go to AWP, I went smaller. Explored in a different way. Went for long walks with my dogs, watched movies with my husband. Read. Drafted a few poems. I even went to see former student Tomi Adeyemi on tour with her blockbuster debut YA novel at a local bookstore.

I’m hoping to attend next year’s conference in Portland, Oregon, a city I have never visited. For now, it’s all CTSH. And waiting for spring to finally come to the Midwest.