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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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)

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.

Some People Want to Fill the World with Silly Love Songs…

…and what’s wrong with that?

Having finally succumbed to the flu/crud/illness that has been sweeping through my school for the past six weeks, I spent most of the weekend tucked under a blanket trying not to cough all over my computer screen. But I did some drafting and revising this week, engaging with poems that address subjects I’ve been exploring in depth for some time: aging, faith, hope. And love. Rather like I Corinthians 13:13 –  “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Writing love poems isn’t popular. I’m not talking about traditional love poems, as in poems addressed specifically to a lover – but still, they are poems that, at their core, are about love. In an age of dystopias and apocalypses, at a time where confessional poems of trauma and violence and loss and illness shine brilliantly in almost every poetry journal, here I sit, trying to explain how something as ubiquitous as love is what saves me, what nourishes me. Writing these poems reminds me how lucky I am that, among all the bad things in the world, I know love.

However, I wonder if I’m writing these poems only for myself. It seems that, although we need more love in the world, that no one is really interested in more love poems.

But I’ll keep writing them. And I’ll let Ewan McGregor try to convince you to join me:

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.

Fear of Hibernation

As I write this, there’s a fire crackling in the fireplace. The dogs lounge sleepily on the floor, and my husband sits next to me. The incredibly gorgeous (but exceedingly creepy) Blue Planet is on the television. (Seriously, ocean creatures, why must you be so nightmare-inducing?) I spent a few hours with a good friend today catching up on life. I will get to spend another few hours with another good friend tomorrow writing and hanging out. The snow from last week’s storm has diminished but is again looking lovely after a fresh coat from a smaller flurry yesterday. Perfect conditions for hibernation.

Hibernation is defined as “the condition or period of an animal or plant spending the winter in a dormant state.” Yes, it is winter. And yes, I have been dormant. The dormancy above has been relaxing, down time that I treasure. But my writing brain has been dormant as well, and this is troublesome to me.

Usually winter is a productive creative time for me- the weather is not tempting me outdoors, and the long drag of school days without breaks usually leaves me very eager to think about other things at home. Any other things. But not this winter.

After the poetry writing I did in January at the conference I attended, every bit of writing I’ve done since has been non-poetry related – this blog, reviews of other poets, proposals and lessons for work, etc. The poems are dormant.

I am hopeful that they are dormant in the same way the iris bulbs in front of my house are dormant – sleeping safe beneath the soil of everyday “stuff” but ready and able to push through and bloom when the weather dictates. But there is a nagging fear that, this time, the poems are dormant the way a volcano can be dormant – seething beneath the surface for years and years and years, roiling and alive but never surfacing. And this is a little scary.

Why? I will be retiring from 36 years of K-12 public school teaching in 2020. It has always been my dream that writing would become my everyday job, that I would devote the time and energy to it that I never could while teaching full-time all of these years. But what if the well is dry? What if, when finally faced with the time to write, I have nothing to say?

For now, I cannot answer that question. I am still curled on the couch; the fire is still burning. Somewhere inside, I hope the lava is not destroying the blooms.