middle-of-the-night books and other ways I’m coping right now

my middle-of-the-night books

Every now and then over the course of my adult life, I’ve made the mistake of taking the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory. It’s an inventory of stressful life events with point values attached to each. At the end, you add up your totals to see how susceptible you are to, well, breakdown.

In my adult life, I have never not scored “300 points or more: 80% chance of health breakdown in the next 2 years according to the statistical prediction model.” Pregnancies, my own chronic illness, serious health issues for my children, hospitalizations, surgeries, a handful of cross-country moves, buying a house, selling a house, conflict in relationships, “in-law troubles” (love how they phrase that), divorce, new jobs, major holidays, etc. (A side note: It will not surprise you that two men developed this inventory; thus there is no item / point value for “100% responsible for children’s health, dental, and orthodontic care, transportation to/from school and activities, ER visits, birthdays and other milestone celebrations, clothing purchases including buying winter gear *before* the snow falls every year, laundry, and every meal ever eaten under this roof”—the care work that most often falls to women and is its own form of stress).

I give you my stress pedigree to establish my credibility in saying: I’ve learned a thing or two about coping with stress over the years, and as we all stand on the precipice of this election, this pandemic, this economic uncertainty, this Everything, I thought I might share what I’ve learned and how I’m trying to cope with the many layers of stress right now. None of these ideas are new, but frankly, I needed a reminder, and so:

lowering my standards
There are times for thriving and times for surviving. These are times for surviving. I’ve learned to lower my standards for what counts as dinner, keeping up with housework, keeping up with work-work (where I am always wont to go the extra mile), etc.

asking myself, what will be least stressful choice for today?
This has been a really helpful coping mechanism for me. When faced with the often overwhelming choice of what to do next, I ask myself this question. Sometimes it means a shorter workout than I had planned; other times it means ordering takeout rather than finishing the dinner I started yesterday for today. Yet other times it means actually responding to student writing rather than putting it off again. Asking myself this question has definitely made my days less stressful.

doing what feels good
I learned this from Molly Fisk, who learned it from the amoebas. Apparently amoebas literally move toward what feels good? And there’s some wisdom in that. Today on my lunch break, having been cold all day, I moved toward fifteen minutes under my heated blanket on the couch with a cup of tea rather than toward taking a walk outside as I’d planned to. It felt good.

“kiss your wrist,” (a.k.a., being as nice to myself as I would be a dear friend)
Many of us have a long and thriving relationship with negative self-talk, and I am no exception. My first impulse when something goes wrong is to blame myself. My first impulse at the end of the day is to list for myself, in a punitive mind-voice, all the things I didn’t get done that day or that I did “wrong.” If I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I am apt to notice first the dark circles under my eyes, my hair that needs a good cut, the tiny but growing creases in my neck. At some point I realized that if I talked to others like I talked to myself I wouldn’t have any friends. At another point I listened to Sharon Olds on Commonplace Podcast talking about being nice to oneself. She said, “Kiss your wrist,” so this has become my reminder, my shorthand for: Molly, be nice to yourself. Now, when something goes wrong or I feel overwhelmed, I say to myself, You are doing GREAT actually! When I’m listing unfinished tasks, I say, But think of everything you did do today. When I catch myself in the mirror, I tell myself, You look fabulous. When life feels hard, I remind myself: Just because something is hard doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. I say these things even if I don’t quite believe them. And I don’t quite, tbh. Weirdly, …it works? I never thought it would. And anyway, it feels good to be nice to myself. Kiss your wrist.

eating what sounds good
Now is not the time to start a New Healthy Eating Program. Now is the time to eat All the Comfort Foods. Yours will be different than mine, but they feed more than the body every time.

not sitting down to write the great American novel
I mean, not that I ever would. But now’s not the time to embark on a big, complicated project (unless of course, that sounds like the least stressful thing for today). Now’s the time to remind yourself: It’s all the work. The poems / essays / stories will out. You are a human being, not a human doing.

middle-of-the-night books. and treats.
Since developing the capacity to contemplate my own existence in 1976, I have never been good at sleeping, but I’ve been particularly bad at it as an adult. One of my tricks when it’s two-thirty in the morning and I can’t sleep is to read from certain books (pictured above) that I’ve gravitated toward in my sleeplessness. These are not my desert island books (well, How to Cook a Wolf might be), but they somehow calm my restless night mind. Reading them in the low light of an oil lamp while eating toast with a good deal of butter and drinking hot milk with a shot amaretto stirred in is even better. Sometimes, I can even sleep after.

taking good, even tender, care of my body
One of the gifts (HA! HA, HA, HA!) of chronic pain is that it taught me to take good care of my body. Nothing is okay when I’m physically uncomfortable. So I’ve learned to take good care of my body by setting timers for taking my meds, getting enough exercise, keeping it warm, dressing in clothes I feel good in, wearing fabulous lipstick, resting when I need to, moisturizing(!), etc. It’s part of the “kiss your wrist” philosophy of life, and 10/10 would recommend.

Mrs. Brown, who is not into hugging, but understand the need to find comfort where one can, in this case, between the regular pillows and the chartreuse emotional support pillow picked up on clearance from Target for $13.99 in the Before Times

twenty-second hugs
Research shows that our stress hormones decrease after a twenty-second hug. Sorry, a five- or ten- or seventeen-second hug is not enough. My cat, Mrs. Brown, is not into hugging, and I don’t have any other [*checks notes] options right now #Pandemic, so I try to grab my kids a time or two a day for a twenty-second hug. They don’t always love this, but I’ll tell you what: by second number ten, their body has relaxed into mind, and, again, 10/10 would recommend.

talking to a friend
When I am sad, stressed, overwhelmed; when things are generally shitty, I tend to shut down. Luckily, I have friends who know this and they keep showing up in my texts or missed calls. I know myself well enough to know I should text/call back. So I do. Usually.

seriously, I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but staying active on social media
See above re: shutting down. When I am really (as my big brother would say) deep down in the shitter, I assign myself homework to post on social media at least once a day. Twitter is my favorite place, but Facebook will do in a pinch. The post does not need to be, and almost never is, about being deep down in the shitter, but the interaction with my people—literary Twitter FTW—is good for me.

keeping my routine
Sundays, I fill the lamps with oil. Sundays and Wednesdays, I sweep and mop. I start every day at my desk reading and (sometimes) writing. Then I exercise. Then, feed the cat. Moving through a familiar routine can be anchoring, and I tie myself to it even tighter in times of stress/distress.

undertaking domestic tasks
Tess Gallagher writes, “No matter who lives / or who dies, I’m still a woman. / I’ll always have plenty to do.” Sometimes this feels like a burden to me, but other times it’s a comfort. Cooking, folding laundry, sweeping and mopping… they get me out of my mind and into my body. And that’s often a good thing, especially in Times Like These. Also, bonus!: then, there’s good food to eat; a tidy house; fresh towels stacked in the linen closet. Just the way I like it.

Okay, that’s as self-help-y as I’m ever going to get. Nothing new here. And even now, it all seems a little fluffy for my taste. But I’ve learned. And I needed a reminder. So I’m reminding you, too: These are tough times. Be nice to yourself. Kiss your wrist.

my essay at Lit Hub: complications

my profane desk in the corner of my bedroom—at least there’s a window to look out of on the slant

I had an essay run at Lit Hub yesterday. Or more of a cri de coeur, really—this one poured out of the deepest well of me. The essay argues against the romanticization of the spaces and head-spaces we write in, and for doing your own work first. I’ve received so many nice notes from readers thanking me for portraying a life that doesn’t look like what the predominant narratives—of poet as conduit for the Muse; of woman as caregiver; of mother as selfless saint—say our lives should look like (and I am in the process of responding to those notes—thank you so much for sending them). You can read the essay here.

But, as with anything, there are complications. I didn’t address them all in the essay, and I want to recognize them here. I decided early, for example, that I would not address the fact that some men are primary caregivers and face similar challenges to carving out a writing life amid their obligations. This is absolutely the case, and just as mothers who work outside the home or pursue an artistic life face a stigma for that, men who are primary caregivers face a societal stigma for not working outside the home—on top of the challenges caregivers (regardless of gender identification) face in pursuing an artistic life. My decision not to address this was partly a constraint of space, but it was also because I wanted state my case without diluting it with “not all men.” Truth is, I am tired of hearing “not all men” when confronting issues of gender inequality and cultural misogyny. We know “not all men,” but research—not to mention our own lives—tells us what the predominant trends are. I wanted to speak of those trends without caveat or qualification. The trends matter.

Another complication: while the essay recognizes that women in general do more of the care-work in society, I mostly focused on the demands of motherhood—partly because that’s my lived experience, but also because that’s what the research I had access to spoke to. Women who are not mothers are also expected to take on caregiving roles by our culture, so women who are not mothers face many of the same obstacles that mothers face, depending on their caregiving duties. A lack of available research (I looked) also kept me from engaging with the complications of care-work and artistic pursuits for those who don’t identify as a woman or a man, and/or for LGTBQIA+ folks—for whom obstacles to a creative life, like those for people of color, are compounded due to bias. I am deeply aware of how easy my white, cishet, well-educated, English-speaking, securely-employed life is compared to many other lives; that there are fewer obstacles to a creative life for me than there are for many others just as, or more, talented and committed as I am.

In spite of these limitations, I hope the essay will give anyone who wants a creative life, a life of making, permission to carve that life out of whatever set of obstacles they face without apology. I hope we’ll someday discard our notions of the traditional trajectory of “the artist,” and slip past gatekeepers with our beautiful, made things. If you have a story to share about how you’ve made a creative life for yourself, I’d love to hear it. Thanks again for reading, and write on.

happy pub day to Hinge / tl;dr: this book was rejected over 100 times, I persisted because people I trusted believed in me and my work

Hinge on my coffee table with the toes of my boots

I started this post as a thread on Twitter, but it grew ridiculously long, so I decided to post it here instead.

Tl;dr: this manuscript was rejected over 100 times; I could not have done it without friends and fellow poets who believed in my work when I did / could not.

I began writing this book (although didn’t know then that I was writing a book) when my kids were very young—not even all in school yet. They are now 19, 17, and a few days shy of 15.

I did not conceive of myself as a poet then, just as someone who wrote poems. I was a middle-aged mom of three who was trying to write in small scraps of time (still am, tbh). I wanted to write good poems, but I never imagined that I could be a poet.

I had no degree in writing (just econ and public policy), no writing friends, and virtually no support from my then-husband. I had a dear friend named Mary (still do). She encouraged my writing.

Eventually, I took a class or two at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. That’s how I found my first writing group / friends. We met on Monday nights in the cafeteria at a small college in St. Paul. Our teacher was Tom Ruud. My first debt is to Tom—the first to call me a poet. Eventually, that group disbanded but Tom delivered me safely into the arms of Deborah Keenan’s Monday morning group. We met at Con Amore on Grand Ave. in St. Paul (now closed).

Deborah taught me how to *read* like a poet. She said out loud that she imagined me publishing poems, essays, & books one day. I still couldn’t imagine it, but I liked the sound of it. (She, a mother of four, also understood when I occasionally had to pay the last 5 bucks of the weekly tuition with change I found in the couch cushions. True story. 🤷‍♀️)

All this time, I was waking up at 4:30AM every day—the only time I had to write before the kids woke up at six. I woke, went down to my “desk” (one end of the kitchen table) and read, and wrote as a means of self-preservation. I published a few poems here and there.

At some point I decided: I want to be a poet. I want to write a book. I had no one, though, to share that dream with—and it felt too fragile a dream to tend by myself. I told Mary this. She said, “I’ll dream it with you.”

Also all this time, I was really sick with what I now know is lupus. Attending to the usual tasks of mothering and house-holding was often impossible for me and, when possible, took every ounce of my strength. I relied on friends, neighbors, and especially family for help with childcare, laundry, groceries, meals, and sometimes even opening little jars of baby food and my many prescription bottles (thank you, Kari on Highland Parkway who bore the brunt of this last task).

My mom, especially, carried us. She practically lived with us, coming from Michigan to St. Paul for weeks / months at a time to help me, going home for a bit, then coming back. For years.

Anyway, the dedication:

eternal gratitude

Around this time, the poetry internet came into being. Through it, I found lit mags, books, articles, etc. I made my first poetry internet (now IRL) friends. They encouraged me. They believed.

I was still getting up early to read and write, publishing here and there in small journals. At one point, I took an online class through Stanford with Jennifer Richter. I told myself: She has no reason to encourage in me unless my poems warrant it. She encouraged me. I thought, If Jen thinks I can do this, maybe I can do this!? I started putting a manuscript together. She was the first to read it, and she said: Yes, keep going. She believed.

I didn’t tell her this at the time, but I had read (x 100) her first book, Threshold. It had won the Crab Orchard Open. So many times, I’d held that book in my hands and thought: If I could write a book this good, if I could publish it at a place like this—that would be a dream come true.

I actively worked on shaping the manuscript for ~4 years before sending it out. During this time, I kept reading and writing. I was publishing more and in “better” journals. Despite resistance from my then-spouse, I started a low-res MFA. There, I made two more crucial poet-friends. There, the program director believed in my poems, read the ms., and gave me some crucial advice for shaping it. Alongside the work of my MFA, I made final revisions to the ms. that would be Hinge. I started sending it out.

It was rejected over 100 times.

But people who believed in me, who believed in the ms. said: keep sending, keep sending. So I did. It was getting semi-finalist and finalist designations—this also helped me think I should keep sending.

Many times, rejection after rejection, I despaired, and my poet-friends would say: “I believe I will one day hold your book in my hands. I’m saving a space on my shelf.” They believed when I could not.

Meanwhile, I left my marriage, the kids grew taller than me, and I finished my MFA, which meant I had a second manuscript. I started sending it out. That was If the House.

When I got the call that If the House had won the Brittingham, I decided once and for all: Hinge was staying in the drawer. It was the book I learned on. I could and would let it go.

When I was withdrawing it from all the first book contests I’d entered, I noticed that I’d sent it to two open competitions. I thought, What the heck, I paid the fee, and left it at those two places, feeling sure it would not win. Feeling sure its destiny was the drawer forever.

Then one day, on my drive home from work, I got a call from someone in Carbondale, Illinois. I wondered who on earth would be calling me from Carbondale. Anyway, I couldn’t answer right then, so I let it go to voicemail.

The afternoon / evening picking up and dropping off of children ensued. At some point, I had a minute to listen to the voicemail the person from Carbondale had left. It was Jon Tribble. He wanted to talk to me about the ms. I’d submitted to the Crab Orchard Open. I thought: no way.

I called back. Allison answered. Jon had stepped out. He would call back soon. I sat in the library parking lot, no doubt waiting for one child or another to come out, and waiting for Jon’s call. He called. Hinge had won the Crab Orchard Open, along with Luisa Igloria’s Maps for Migrants and Ghosts.

I remembered holding Jen’s Threshold in my hands, thinking about my dream. Which had just come true, practically to the letter.

Friends, what I want to say is: I could *never* have imagined this at the time it was set in motion.

I want to say: you don’t need an MFA to be a poet. Hinge was at least 95% finished before I started my MFA program.

I want to say: Just because you can’t imagine a dream coming true doesn’t mean it can’t come true.

I want to say: surround yourself with people who will dream with you, who believe in you. I could never have persisted without people who believed in me and my poems even when I didn’t or couldn’t.

I will now go mop myself up and reapply mascara. /fin.

two upcoming virtual readings

I have mixed emotions about how virtual our world has become in this pandemic. I really miss working, teaching, reading, attending events, and meeting friends in person, and I am grateful that we have ways to connect while in-person gatherings are unsafe.

I know a lot of us are suffering from Zoom fatigue, but if by chance you’re looking for some virtual poetry readings to attend, I have two coming up soon with poets whose work I really admire.

Here’s a link to a June 1 reading with Tommye Blount through The Writer’s Center‘s  Café Muse reading series.

And here’s a link to a June 2 reading with Sumita Chakraborty through the Further Notice reading series.

Join us!

you’ll never need a writing prompt again: join me for Reading as a Generative Practice

IMG_6280

“Magic Word” from Jennifer Richter’s Threshold (plus my reading notes).

On Sunday, May 31, from 2:00-4:30PM, I’ll be teaching an online course through The Writer’s Center on reading as a generative practice, and I invite you to join me.

“Love reading first,” writes Rita Dove, “& the poetry will find its place. Then write, & love the work of writing.” This has been very true in my writing life, and is even more true if I’m reading in a way that’s attentive to how the text in front of me might nudge me toward my own next poem.

This workshop explores the importance of reading for your writing practice, and the ways close reading of a poem can be a generative act. We’ll read poems by contemporary poets, discuss specific methods for finding entry points to our own poems through the work of others, and use one (or more) of the strategies to write something new. Once you’ve learned to read this way, you’ll never need another writing prompt!

It’s a class that’s appropriate for any poet at any level, and I’d love to “see” you there, or, on Zoom, rather. You can find details and registration information at this link.

hope

Annuaire_du_Musée_d'histoire_naturelle_de_Caen_(1880)_(17802448583)

It feels a little risky to hope right now, but I find myself doing it anyway.

This is not because I’m a particularly optimistic person—I’m not. In fact, I’ve often found comfort in the theory that, as we evolved as a species, pessimists may have been more likely to pass on their genetic material than optimists [*shrugs]. And I’ve often thought that, since the dawn of vaccines and the long absence of wars fought on U.S. soil, some people have forgotten how much we need a functional government and one another.

As our lives have changed in order to (we hope) slow the spread of the Coronavirus, I find myself hoping that our world, our lives, our society will be different for those who remain after… whatever and whenever “after” is.

Here are some of my hopes:

I hope we finally build the healthcare system that our country needs, and that we make sure everyone has access to it, no exceptions.

I hope we finally build the social safety net that our country needs, and that we stop thinking people who have had harder lives and/or one or more run(s) of bad luck  are free-loaders looking for a handout [*stares directly at Lindsey Graham].

Put another way: I hope we realize that some people’s lives are harder than our own.

I hope we stop thinking that a rising tide lifts all boats when some people don’t have boats to begin with. NB: the same goes for picking oneself up by one’s bootstraps.

I hope everyone has access to clean, safe water. Every day, no matter what.

I hope we do the hard work of dismantling structural and individual racism.

Related to this, I hope we stop blaming bad things on “bad” people; I hope we stop thinking that being different from ourselves is “bad.”

I hope we value the lives of our elders, the disabled, and the chronically ill as much as we value the lives of younger, healthier people.

I hope we stop thinking that healthy people did something, or everything, “right,” and that’s why they’re healthy.

I hope we discard the concepts of deserving and not deserving.

I hope we remember that homelessness is a solvable public policy issue.

I hope we value the labor of grocery clerks, delivery people, farm workers, letter carriers, child care workers, custodial workers, and other “low-skilled” workers as much as we value the work of tech gurus and investment bankers and auto company executives.

I hope we value the labor of stay-at-home parents and educators—especially K-12 educators—as much as we value the labor of working parents and professional athletes.

I hope we stop acting like our home lives / family lives should never be visible to our superiors and colleagues at work.

I hope men who didn’t realize how much actual labor it is to run a household and care for children and feed a family, because women have been doing the majority of this work since forever, will realize it and pitch in more.

I hope we remember that children and teens don’t need to be scheduled from 7AM to 9PM.

I hope we remember that, left to their own devices during unstructured time, children and teens will occupy themselves with some pretty amazing (and educational) things.

I hope we remember that it’s really nice to be at home in the evenings.

I hope we remember that human beings are not designed to be productive during every waking minute. I hope we keep in mind that productivity is a capitalist concept from an economic theory that is literally merely a theory and does not play out in practice [newsflash: we are not rational actors; information is not symmetrical [*stares directly at Richard Burr]; profits are not actually zero].

I hope corporations will be required to pay taxes on their profits to help fund the programs and policies we need. I hope those (people and corporations) who resent paying taxes will stop acting like they’re doing the rest of us a favor: you use taxpayer-funded things, too.

I hope we remember that “the economy” itself is a construct and that anatomically modern humans existed on earth for nearly 200,000 years before the Dow Jones Industrial Average was created in 1896.

I hope we remember that, as John Maynard Keynes—economist of my very heart—said: In the long run, we’re all dead.

I hope we tend fiercely-gently to those who have lost, or lose, loved ones.

I hope we tend fiercely-gently to ourselves.

I hope we moisturize our hands more.

I hope we keep taking a walk every day.

I hope we all let our hair go gray so everyone can see how beautiful it is.

I hope we stop trying to have perfect bodies, and remember that sometimes a little extra weight can be a really good thing, especially when/if you get sick.

Tbh, I hope we all learn to cook with dried beans and legumes (Reader, I’ve been doing it forever and it is a *rock solid* approach to feeding the young on a budget).

I hope we do a little more of “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” And at the same time, I hope we buy those few, small luxuries that we can afford along the way—things that give us pleasure. I hope we don’t save them for “special” days.

Tbh, I hope all these corporations who want me to buy their products stop emailing me. FOREVER.

I hope we eat more comfort food.

I hope we never again vote for a racist, narcissistic sociopath with no experience in public service—who a month ago called this virus a “hoax” cooked up by Democrats—because “he says what he’s thinking.”

I hope everyone who wants one gets a dog.

 

 

 

this is not a list

It is list time of year. Shopping lists, baking lists, grocery lists, book lists (currently, best of 2019; soon, most-anticipated of 2020). Add to it the end of a decade, and I—.

This is not a list.

This is in praise of constellations.

Constellation: from the Latin: con- a word forming element meaning “together, with”; and stellare “to shine.” Meaning “a collection of stars.” Meaning “a group or cluster of related things.”

Before standardized calendars and maps, we (humans) used constellations to determine when to plant and (to an extent) when to harvest. We used them for navigation. They were points of reference as the world spun and tilted, and time rolled on.

But the stars in a constellation only look like they’ve joined together to make a shape. They only appear to be close to each other—in fact, they are often several thousand light years away from one another.

In this, they are contrary in nature to lists. Praise be.

Instead of lists, I am in favor of constellations—those lights that appear to gather together across gaps, those harbingers of seasons, those guides, those shapes if you squint hard enough.

While it’s natural and human to mark endings and beginnings—of years, of decades—and to say something summary about them, I am in favor of things not-quite-gathering in an apparent cluster of shine: the books or passages of books that gave us light; the friends and family; the camping (or other) trips and memorable meals; the works of art; the long-held dreams finally come true; the perfectly poached egg; the nagging obsessions; the ditch flowers; the scraps of language or thought gathering other scraps of language or thought unto themselves; the saplings of hope and sensing when to plant them; the griefs; the ideas that led us along on our way somewhere (who ever really knows where?); the true norths, still there, always there, when we look back over our shoulders.

My constellation(s) will be different than yours, and yours, and also yours. My constellation needn’t matter to you, nor yours, to me. I could tell you about my constellation this year, but why should I? You have a perfectly good constellation of your own.

It’s enough to have them, these unlikely not-quite-gatherings that somehow give light and points of reference to a year. To know that light-years of darkness stretch between one shining thing and the shining thing that appears to be next to it (but isn’t, actually). To, as Praxilla did in ancient verse and in Michael Longley’s poem about her, “set [your] groceries alongside the sun and moon.”

Squint hard enough, it’ll make a shape. Call it a year, call it a decade, call it an optical illusion—but one that hung in the sky for you. It’s enough. No list needed.

worlds collide / pre-orders for If the House

IMG_4801

When worlds collide on a bookshelf.

Last week was new student welcome week where I teach. During faculty introductions, I gave my usual spiel about having studied economics as an undergraduate, having pursued a Master’s degree in public policy, and having started my career in the policy world…. . But having always been a writer, too, … and eventually pursuing writing and writing instruction as my life’s work—then (SHAZAM!) finding my current job: teaching writing at a school of public policy. Worlds collide.

Years ago, when my kids were tiny and I was raising them while free-lancing and stealing (it felt like stealing, anyway) as much time as I could for reading and writing poetry, I’d read poet bios and despair. One was an attorney and a poet. Another a psychiatrist and a poet. Another a biologist and a poet. How? I wondered, How, how, how? Many days, I could barely get dinner on the table, let alone conduct a full professional life while publishing poetry collections every few years. I thought those poets had something I lacked—whether it was intelligence, talent, stamina, money for childcare, a supportive partner, or something else,… I didn’t know.

Ends up it was just time. And I don’t even mean time to write—I just mean the simple passage of time, one year following another; strands of a life weaving themselves together or—often seemingly in my case—diverging and lying fallow; then picked back up again and re-converging: First policy. Then poetry. Now both.

Could I have imagined this 22 years ago, fresh out of policy school, reading a poem late, before leaving my office of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window, in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet long after rush-hour? No.

Could I have imagined this 14 years ago, pacing beside the stove warming milk, a crying child on my shoulder, a book in my hand, a toddler and a 4yo running through the house, and a poetry lesson for 5th graders to plan? No.

Could I have imagined it 5 years ago, in a room where too much had happened for me to bear, where the bedclothes lay in stagnant coils on the bed and the open valise spoke of flight but I could not leave yet? Also no.

[Shout out to Adrienne Rich for knowing.]

A year ago, when I moved into my new house after leaving my marriage, my mom and my aunt shelved my books (they did this first, before unpacking anything else, because they knew I would not be at ease until my books were in place, I think). Months later, I noticed that, on one shelf, a bunch of my policy-life books met up with several of my poetry anthologies. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized: I am one of those poets who has a professional life in one field and publishes poetry collections, too. It took me longer than the poets I’d once despaired over—I turned 47 two weeks ago; they were in their 20s when they published their first collections—but here I am.

At the welcome week luncheon, more than one student approached me and said how relieved they were to hear the story of my professional trajectory. They found comfort in hearing about the unexpected turns a life can take. I’ve always been comforted by such stories, too, and I’m a little shocked and a lot delighted to have one of my own to tell.

All this to say: Fall Term starts this week, and my debut poetry collection, If the House (University of Wisconsin Press), is available for pre-order here (it may also be available for pre-order at your favorite independent bookseller—worth asking).

For the record—and although when people ask me what kind of work I do, I say that I’m a poet and I teach writing—I am still very interested in public policy, public and corporate finance, Gary Becker‘s theories of the economics of family organization, the history and mathematical theories of risk and how it affects the market and human behavior, constitutional law, and innovation in the public sector. I love it when I can surprise my students by being able to discuss the economic concepts they’re writing about, or Keynes, or John Rawls’s veil of ignorance, or the Nash Equilibrium. And I love it when they think I’m saying “sin tax” but I’m saying “syntax,” and when I think they’re saying “syntax” but they’re saying “sin tax.”

I love it, too, when they’re telling me something about their studies or work or life and I can say, “Hey, I know a poem you should read about that!” (Stanley Plumly’s “Early Meadow Rue”—which I can’t find online—for commuter corridor policy; Lena Khalaf Tuffaha’s Water & Salt for Middle East policy; Jamaal May’s “There Are Birds Here” for those studying urban renewal in Detroit, to name a few).

Mostly I want to tell them, and everyone, and to remind myself, that sometimes we can’t imagine the good things that await, and we don’t have to. I want to say listen I love you joy is coming. These are Kim Addonizio’s words, and and there’s a poem you should read about that. Here it is:

Screen Shot 2019-09-02 at 10.58.50 AM

 

 

 

 

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ / hierarchies?

IMG_3603

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ / hierarchies?—this is the first line of the first of Rilke’s Duino Elegies in Stephen Mitchell’s translation.

I had read the Duino Elegies many times over the years, but I don’t think I really encountered these poems for the first time until five or six years ago. I was on vacation with my family on the Oregon coast, one of my favorite places in the world. I brought Mitchell’s Selected Rilke down to the beach with me day after day and read, and read, and read. And puzzled (please note my decidedly not-incisive marginalia: “seems important”). And studied. And read some more. To this day, there is sand in the spine of my copy of Rilke’s Selected.

Sand from the Oregon coast—it clings. That first line of the Elegies—it also clings.

And it has been especially on my mind for the last week or so, and so has the poem “I Find Myself Shelved Between Rich and Rilke” by Jennifer Richter. Can you imagine, Reader—finding yourself shelved between Rich and Rilke? I can’t. And for years, and after many—so many—manuscript rejections, I had a hard time imagining myself shelved between Anyone and Anyone. True story.

Luckily, I had friends and fellow writers who pledged themselves to imagining it for me when I couldn’t. We all need people who will imagine our dreams for us when we’ve lost energy / momentum / confidence / hope / imagination / presence of mind / what-have-you.

Nonetheless, over winter break I gave myself a stern talking-to. I said, You can’t keep throwing money down this rat hole. I said, You need to lower your sights, find a little press who will publish your work, and stop aiming so high. I said, You’re obviously more ambitious than your manuscripts are (Wow, that really sounds like Spiteful Gillian). And I meant it. My plan for 2019 was to stop submitting my manuscripts to contests and look for other, less ambitious options. Like maybe a ditto machine.

And now I’ve learned that, in fact, I will be shelved between Someone and Someone. I am stunned and grateful to have placed both of my manuscripts in separate contests this year. If the house, the second manuscript I wrote, was selected by Carl Phillips for the 2019 Brittingham Prize from University of Wisconsin Press and will be out in September of this year. Relic and the Plum, the first manuscript I wrote, was one of two winners of the 2019 Crab Orchard Open Competition selected by Allison Joseph, and is forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press in September of 2020.

I think we all wonder sometimes who, if we cry out, will hear us. For years I sent my manuscripts out as if into the void. I know it’s easy for me to say now, but in poetry, and in life, I’m in favor of continuing to cry out until we’re heard.

 

 

 

The spider—why the spider?, or, a defense of recurring images

Ten spiders, showing much variation in shape and colour. Gou Wellcome V0043845

(art from Wikimedia)

A few days ago on Twitter, a poet tweeted about searching through her poems to make sure she hadn’t already used the image she wanted to use in a new poem. Another poet responded that she often does the same.

My response: I will fight you.

I mean: I haven’t slept since.

Well, okay, I have, but only restlessly.

Let it be said that these are poets whose work I admire deeply. And yet… And yet… My response: horror.

Horror, because what if Bonnard had only painted Marthe in the bath once?

What if Diebenkorn had worried about repeating himself, and only painted a handful of Ocean Parks, rather than painting 150 (correction: according to this source it was 145) Ocean Parks over the course of eighteen years?

What if Ruth Asawa had thought more than just a few of her sinuous and shapely wire sculptures would be repetitive?

What if Louise Bourgeois abandoned her obsession with spiders, which began appearing in her work in the 1940s, and which she was still using in her art early in the next century (i.e., this century)?

Reader, I would not want to live in that world.

Nor in a world without Charles Wright’s spiders. Nor without Ted Hughes’s crows, nor Larry Levis’s horses and wrens, nor Whitman’s body-as-land / land-as-body imagery, nor Emily Dickinson’s birds.

What if Mahmoud Darwish had stopped writing about his homeland, and Terrence Hayes had only written one American sonnet for his past and future assassin?

I mean—and now I’m getting really serious—what if Jack Gilbert had stopped writing about Gianna and Linda and Michiko and Pittsburgh for fear of being repetitive?

No thank you, my friends, no thank you.

There are images (and, I would add, subjects, and even colors, and probably other things, too) that belong to certain poets. They use, and reuse, and use again these images across and throughout the body of their work. Why? Because obsessions fuel art. Because images do more than simply describe or represent something in a novel way—they also haul up to the surface a particular emotional resonance. An image is a portal into a poet’s mind and interior world, and hopefully, into our own as well. And troubling a particular image over time, over time, over time, and more time—this is one of the things I love about reading and writing poetry.

Look: now Wright’s spider is “recit[ing] his one sin.” Now he’s “still there, invisible, short of breath, mending his net.”

Now Marthe is in the tub, practically Ophelia. Now she’s in the tub again. Now she’s—you guessed it—in the tub again. (I could go on).

So, no, we don’t want to close ourselves off to using new images. And we don’t want to read or write an image in the exact same wording and in the exact same situation every time across a body of work (although now that I think of it, I may not be entirely opposed to that either—I mean: think of the guts that would take). We don’t want to be lazy or unthinking. But yes, please, for all time to the obsessive return of a writer or artist to his/her/their foundational  images.

Especially because the best images, returned to, reveal more of themselves to us each time we read or write.

Especially because we change and (we hope) grow and (we hope) become more capacious and complex beings—so that a spider to us in 1987 will be very different to us than a spider in 2021.

Even the same spider.

Here are some of the images I return and return to in my own writing: the roof, the fence, the rib, the stone. The birches. The hillside and its forever-willow. The ditch, the meadow, the snow. The wood thrush; the indigo bunting, it’s song about fire. The dune. The doorway and the window. Abandoning them would be like giving up my own, well, rib.

Here is Bourgeois: “The spider—why the spider? Because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider.”

Why the rib? Because mine aches in times of grief or sorrow. Why the ditch, the hillside (which is also where the meadow was, ftr) and her willow? They were my best friends—places to see from without being seen. Good for watching storms blow in. Dappled, quiet, buggy, blown. Useful as a ditch / hillside / willow.