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. 

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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.

 

When the Writing Gets Tough…

the tough:

  1. get going
  2. do what they can
  3. give up

Honestly, I can relate to all three of these answers over the past couple of weeks.  Let’s begin with Answer C. I swear that everything I have tried to start over the past week has turned into a steaming page of trash. I came upon a John Dos Passos quote that seemed to speak to how I have been feeling when I try to draft new work:

“Trying to write –God! I have a brain like a peanut… Found a peanut, found a peanut echoes in my head, the insane song.”

Yep. That sounds about right. Peanut brain. Racing in 900 directions, none of them helping with what should be growing into a poem. Anxieties and daily frustrations creeping into every spare thought. So I gave up on trying new work & began focusing on other things.

Which leads us to Answer B. Doing what one can. Which for me were those other things mentioned above – revision, reading, and taking notes for a review. I revised some promising work from late last year, took notes on a new anthology I am hoping to review, and I read. I am teaching Twelfth Night to my 7th graders right now, so I found solace in Shakespeare, which I often do. I am also reading Colin Meloy’s delightful Wildwood aloud to my 6th graders, and his language is just as rich and clever in this YA fantasy as it is in his songwriting for The Decemberists. I read the new issue of Tinderbox Poetry, which is, well, go read it yourself, especially this beauty by Michael Schmeltzer.

Which leads us to Answer A. Get going. Feeling better, I began to prepare some older poems that, after revision, seem ready for submission. I kept to my writing plans for the week, even if the drafts are awful and my notes for the review are not making much sense at this point. I kept moving forward.

And I’m looking ahead – to using my newly-completed home office as a quiet writing space; to an upcoming poetry day scheduled with my good friend and fabulous poet Kristin LaTour; to taking my 7th graders to Chicago Shakespeare Theater for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for most of them their first live Shakespeare performance; to dinners and quiet nights with my husband; to the snow that is forecast for tomorrow.

I’m eager for whatever words may come in the next few weeks, even if I have to look for them. And I’ll have this Neruda quote (purchased at a visit to his home in Santiago)  over my desk to remember that I am not alone:
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The Ear as Portal

When the pen is stuck, my first inclination is always to read. To crack open a book or journal and roll around in someone else’s words and syntax for a while, let my vision guide me to a key that will unlock something new inside my own lexicon. Being a reader is an important practice for every writer, but I often forget how important it is to use the ear, to listen to the work of others to concentrate the mind and the ear on words that are NOT in front of me, to process them in a purer, more challenging way.  I have been doing this electronically through the wonderful Commonplace Podcast with Rachel Zucker, but I always learn something from hearing poets read live.

I was reminded of this last night at a wonderful reading sponsored by The Poetry Center of Chicago. Their Six Points reading series, at which I have had the pleasure of reading myself, hosted Tarfia Faizullah and Kaveh Akbar sharing their poems and then a conversation about Tarfia’s upcoming book and poetics in general. Having been enraptured by Seam when it debuted four years ago, I was not surprised to be enamored with every poem Tarfia Faizullah shared from her upcoming Graywolf Press book Registers of Illuminated Villages. 

Even in the small number of poems she shared, I could hear the multiple meanings of the word “register” – an official list or record, part of a range of voices or instruments, and the action of detection or recognition. These were poems of witness, of generations, the great melodies of all the small things that register in the heart. Faizullah’s reading style was engaging and strong with no hint of artifice or “poet voice.”  My reaction to Kaveh Akbar’s reading was similar – I was familiar with many of the poems from his chapbook Portrait of An Alcoholichaving reviewed it earlier this year, and those poems were lovely to hear in the air, along with newer poems. All were image-rich and full of turns, his reading style all sway and angle. Both poets held the audience with their voices, registers finely tuned to the instruments of their words.

I had a notebook with me, as I always do, but I took no notes. I was present in that moment, listening, as was the rest of the audience packed into the tiny art gallery, an audience that included many other celebrated young voices in the poetry world. During the conversation portion of the evening, I did write down one thing Tarfia said that I wanted to remember:

“We all write with a particular combination of vision & blindness.”

It is this dichotomy that draws me to poetry, the push/pull of initiating & then following the poem’s path, even if I’m not sure where it came from or where it is going. Tuning into the registers of language that are singing somewhere in the hollows of my brain.