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.

 

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.

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. 

Rough Week…

I resolved in January that I would post once a week, but this week is kicking my butt. So, instead of investing much brain power in a long post, I will maintain my resolution by presenting a brief (mostly literary) highlight reel:

  • Tuesday, I got to accompany our 7th graders to Chicago Shakespeare Theater for a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Any day with Shakespeare is a good day!
  • Thursday night at our school district’s Young Writers’ Night, I worked with student and parent writers on revising poems, & my seventh grade students ran an Austin Kleon-inspired blackout activity table. Bonus: When we tweeted him a picture of the busy table, he responded! Definitely worth the 14-hour day.
  • I actually drafted a new poem (which hasn’t happened in a while) inspired by watching Blue Planet 2. Ocean bottom creatures are creepy, but penguins and sea lions are adorable.
  • Reading list for this week: Terrible Blooms by Melissa Stein, Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, the new Poetry magazine, & an almost insurmountable stack of student writing. (More on those collections when I am more coherent…)
  • I indulged in two of my favorite TV guilty (or not-so-guilty) pleasures – Project Runway: All-Stars and America’s Next Top Model. (I know nothing about fashion AT ALL, so I don’t know why I love these shows, but I do.)
  • I am currently fighting a terrible cold, so I am heading off to bed. Hopefully stay tuned for something more interesting next week.

Observations: “Truth” & Poetry

Being on writing retreat for three days at the Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway last weekend left me recharged, rejuvenated, and refocused on what words and poems and community can mean, left me ready to be present in the “spoiled and radiant now,” a line from a new poem by Stephen Dunn, one of the special guests who read on Sunday evening. I wrote several viable, interesting drafts and spent time with like-minded people serious about writing. I got to see some beloved friends who live on the East Coast. These are good things. But there are also some questions floating around in my head, especially about workshopping poems.

The Getaway is a unique community and a welcoming one where anything can happen. For example, this weekend, I was honored to stand for someone saying the Kaddish, a moving moment. One year, I had a rousing afternoon of competitive ping-pong with Stephen Dunn and Diana Goetsch, one of the oddest and most wonderful experiences I have ever had at a writing conference. This weekend, Stephen Dunn read several poems including “Decorum,” one of the first poems I knew of by him and also one that addresses the familiar type of conversation that may occur in a workshop setting. (Read it if you don’t know it…I’ll wait.)

Since the Getaway is based on the premise of generating new work in the AM and taking it straight to workshop in the PM, this strategy puts all participants on an equal playing field, more open to critique and less attached to their precious darlings. Still, over the course of three days in workshop, I heard several insistent comments about how parts of poems were capital t TRUE (and therefore could not be altered). I also heard (not only from writers themselves but also from group members & leaders) many assumptions that the speaker of the poem was “obviously” the poet. These were a bit bothersome.

Poems reveal truths.

Poems create their own truths.

Poems don’t have to be factual to be true.

The need to declare “this really happened” about any part of a poem says to me that the poet is not confident in the world that he/she has created, that the certainty of fact is necessary to explicate his/her choices.  I’m not sure why a poet would feel that he/she must vehemently adhere to facts, especially those not in service of writing a better poem. Most writers realize this and, even though they draft from a factual stance, are willing to leave that stance to improve the writing. I heard poets this weekend, however, who, when they had their turn to speak at the end of workshop, resisted leaving the realm of the factual, even if it didn’t do service to the poem.

In a similar manner, assuming that the speaker of the poem is the writer does not allow the poem to be its own entity. It assumes that the writer must be telling the “truth” about the content of the poem. If the reader cannot separate the speaker from the writer, then he has not allowed the poem to be what it is, its own separate world.

Some may argue that all poems are autobiographical in some way, and I may partially agree with that. After all, I am the one writing the poem – my ideas, my words, my choices. However, that should not prevent me from inhabiting the world of a poem that does not fit my own experience. For instance, if the language and impulses of the poem’s first draft seem to create a narrative of someone leaving a relationship, I could write that poem although I have been happily married for almost 34 years. As long as the poem’s central voice is true, the facts of the writer’s experience don’t and shouldn’t matter.

This is not to say that poems cannot contain true experiences – how else would one ever figure out what to write about? –but once a poem is created, what happens in revision must work within the poem’s own boundaries to improve it AS A POEM. This is why neither of the stances above is helpful to the poet in workshop.

So what IS helpful (at least to me) in workshop?

Pointing out places in a poem where its created universe doesn’t cohere, where the writer has inconsistencies in diction, syntax, or voice that take the reader out of the poem’s established realm or conceit.  Offering suggestions about line breaks. Reiterating the reader’s perception of the poem’s central idea. Discussing confusions in the poem, places where readers are unsure of intent or movement from image to image or event to event. Offering ways in which a title could do more or less work for the reader to draw them into the poem’s orbit. Do any of these for me, and I’m a happy listener, taking notes. I may or may not apply all of your suggestions, but I will learn from them.

As long as you don’t ask me if my poem is true. 🙂

 

Rekindling

“I don’t focus on what I’m up against. I focus on my goals, and I try to ignore the rest.”

This quote, attributed to Venus Williams, is a good summary of my writing mantra for this year. I spent a lot of time last year mired in doubt about my writing. Why was I bothering? So many talented people out there (many of them SO much younger than me) writing pieces that absolutely take my breath away. Like this one by John Murillo. The more I read, the more discouraged I became. I decided to take a step back and see if taking a break from writing poems would help. It did. For a while.

I did other things – wrote reviews, pecked away at an outline for a YA novel, and read SO many books. And when I sat down and tried to write again, one of two things occurred–I was surprised that something of quality showed up on the page, or I nearly wept over the drivel that found its way there. And then I attended the Poetry Carnival at Butler University in mid-August (organized by Kaveh Akbar) and some kind of spark was rekindled. A whole day of readings and workshops and people who love poems. And caramel apples and popcorn and conversation and photo booths. An exercise in a workshop with Ron Villanueva that yielded what is not yet a working poem but something that made me FEEL like a writer. And since then, the poems have started to arrive again –more slowly, perhaps, and with more difficulty. But they are there.

This sense of community, that feeling that I am a part of a larger literary conversation, is something that I seem to need from time to time. Something I hope to rekindle through this blog as well as through making time for these types of events in my life. So, in two days, I will be off to the east coast to start my writing year at The Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway. Its company of writers, amazing setting, and focus on generating new work have been a jump start for me the many years that I have attended in the past, and I’m certain this year will not disappoint.

Emari DiGiorgio, in a workshop there two years ago, discussed the idea of making writing plans, setting goals (short or long-term) that made your writing life a priority. I tried it for a while and, like so many other things, it fell by the wayside. But, starting January 1st, I began again. In a blank journal (I love paper journals and only type after things are drafted in pen first…), I listed the dates January 1-8 and three goals:

  1. Write three-four drafts. (I was traveling & knew I would have significant down time.)
  2. Read and write a post about Rocket Fantastic by Gabrielle Calvocoressi
  3. Read & take notes on two poetry books I am reviewing.

That’s it. Brief. Practical. As I achieved each goal, I checked it off (very satisfying). At the end of the week, I commented on each draft (lousy & weird, keeper, questionable, something there), and listed any other writing-related news for the week. For me, that was a long list for the new year:

  • My review of Avery M. Guess’s The Patient Admits from dancing girl press went live at Crab Fat Magazine.
  • Issue Five of Ovenbird Poetry, which I guest-edited with Darren Demaree, also went live.
  • I had a poem (one that came from that initial rekindling in August) accepted by a journal I admire.
  • I updated the Blog Revival list, which has turned into a full-time job. As of today, the list of poet bloggers returning to the medium numbers over 90, and the post containing the list has been viewed over 1000 times!

Focusing on small goals in this way, I hope to keep a more consistent writing practice this year, one that celebrates the words that ring with possibility and one that recognizes & lets go the words that only sing dirges.