About Molly Spencer

Molly Spencer's poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Copper Nickel, FIELD​, Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, The Missouri Review online, New England Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, and other journals. Her critical writing has appeared at Colorado Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Rumpus and Tupelo Quarterly. Her debut collection, IF THE HOUSE, was released by University of Wisconsin Press in fall 2019. A second collection, HINGE, is forthcoming from SIU Press in fall 2020. She holds an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop, and is Poetry Editor at The Rumpus.​ She teaches at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Find her online at www.mollyspencer.com. Twitter: @mspencerpoet.

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.

what ‘do your own work first’ means to me

Photo on 3-3-19 at 1.22 PM

Meet my to-do list

At some point in my writing life—I don’t remember when, but it was years ago—this became my mantra and my exhortation to myself: Do your own work first.

It may have been influenced by Mary Oliver, who once wrote in a letter something like, “I can’t meet with you, or anyone, in the morning… because that’s when I write” (I’m paraphrasing).

It may have been influenced by Robert Hass, who said, “Take the time to write. You can do your life’s work in a half-hour a day.”

It  may have been influenced by the time in my life when I was sick and literally couldn’t write, couldn’t hold a pen in my hand, couldn’t press the keys down on my laptop keyboard, couldn’t even hold a book to read. I remember lying on the couch shortly after giving birth to my daughter, child number three. My mom was staying with us because I was too sick to care for the baby (or the toddlers, for that matter). I remember saying to her, “I hope I can write again someday.” Her reply: “Oh, sweetheart. I just hope you’re well enough to take care of the kids someday.”

I wished that, too. But also, I knew that someone else would always take care of my kids if I couldn’t. And that no one else could write my poems.

In that moment I felt a little monstrous, as writer- and artist-mothers sometimes do. But I also understood something: I understood what my Work was. I understood that if I didn’t or couldn’t do it, I couldn’t be Molly Spencer. That my life would not be my life.

Do your own work first.

Sometimes I’ll post it on social media as a reminder to myself and others.

Do your own work first.

Sometimes I’ll text it to a writing friend who’s feeling overwhelmed by all the obligations of life.

Do your own work first. 

Enough so that, occasionally, someone will ask me: What do you mean by that exactly? as someone did over the weekend. And here, somewhat edited now from a tl;dr text thread, is my answer:

//

First, it means to give up on the idea of balance and try to embrace, instead, what I call “the juggle.” I’m not someone who does well in a chaotic environment, physically or psychically. But my experience is that family life and trying to raise children to adulthood is often chaotic. Also, capitalism and our society’s power structures like to act as if they’re very orderly, but they are not: They send us bewildering and conflicting messages every day. So one important thing for me has simply been to accept that I may never feel balanced in terms of how I spend my time in this life, but I will keep trying to juggle so that what’s essential gets its time.

Then I had to figure out what really is my own work. What is the very most essential work? What work is it that, if left undone, I cannot be Molly Spencer? For me, it’s poetry. This is the Work, then. Everything else is just work.

Then I had to figure out what must be done to meet my obligations to others, many of whom I love deeply. I need to feed my kids, attend to their health and schooling, and help them find their joy(s) in life. I want to nurture certain relationships. There are laws, so I have to do my taxes. There are bills, so I have to work. And so on.

Which brings me to work-work, the kind they pay you to do. This kind of work could fill up an entire life, and capitalism and the power structures would like us to fill up our entire lives with it. I have a lot of conversations with myself about how to still do a good job at work, while also not doing everything I have the impulse/inclination to do at work, because if I did that, I would never do anything except work-work (tiny bit of perfectionism running through my veins).

This means I’ve sometimes gone into meetings less prepared than I’d like to be—that is, prepared but not over-prepared, since I seem to prefer over-preparing. I’ve sometimes even taught less prepared than I like to be (but always prepared, and, as I tell myself when I’d like to have over-prepared: I know how to teach writing; it will be fine). I’ve said no to extra assignments. I’ve said no to students who want me to add them to my schedule. I don’t—and don’t want to, and can’t—always say no to such things, but I sometimes do. I’ve also intentionally sought work that leaves room in my life for my poetry and my kiddos. My job holds no prestige in the field of poetry, and my earnings (and the potential for earnings growth, and the potential for advancement) are limited. I’ve accepted that I will have less career “success,” as defined by our culture, and less money than I otherwise could have, in the long run.

So now I’ve said no to everything that’s not pretty essential. Including, for example, reading the school newsletter, which I haven’t done in years. Occasionally it has caused small problems, but only occasionally. I mention this, not because it’s any more instructive than other non-essential things I’ve said no to, but because this is the level of the cut: Saying no to many small, non-essential things is what it takes. It’s like when I’m working with students, and they ‘re 100 words over the word count, and I tell them: It’s going to be a word or two here and a word or two there until you’ve cut 100. (They hate that, by the way :)).

So, okay. Back to putting my own Work first. It means a couple things to me. First, it means I devote time to it—probably not ever as much as I’d like, but I clear time for my writing life every day. This is true even when I’m not writing much, like right now. Sometimes I am only reading. Sometimes I write down one word. But I make space in my day, in what we call Time, for writing. I am exceedingly stubborn about this. It sometimes causes tension in my relationships. It sometimes makes getting the kids out of the house in the morning a little crazier/more rushed. But it’s just not negotiable for me.

(NB: What I do not mean by Do your own work first is that you must do your own work in the morning before you do anything else. It is a philosophical first, not a chronological first. For me, it happens that I prefer to do my own work first in the predawn hours whenever possible).

Second, it means I keep headspace clear for writing, so that even when I’m not writing, even as I’m teaching or cooking or editing or mothering, there is a province of my mind that is a writer, and is thinking like one. It means listening to poetry podcasts while I fold the sheets. It means reciting poems I have by heart as I walk across campus from my office to the parking structure. It means repeating and repeating a scrap of language that has announced itself to me—I still miss the tree they swerved the road for—and listening for the next scrap whenever it arrives. And writing it down. Always writing it down (you think you’ll remember, but sometimes you don’t).

There is only so much space in one brain, and defending a  province of it for writing often means I forget other things capitalism and our society would’ve liked me to keep in my brain, mostly to do with mothering, like: when is show and tell, when are permission slips due, when is the meeting for basketball parents, when is the field trip, etc.. Generally, this has not led to disaster and (the kids and) I can live with the fallout when there is any.

Another thing: I’ve learned the hard way through chronic illness that if my body is not tended to, I can do neither the Work, nor the work. I make sure to take care of my body. I eat what sounds good and stop when I’m full. I rest sometimes when I could be [fill in the blank: cleaning bathrooms, doing laundry, putting together a photo album, cooking a few meals ahead, etc.]. I get regular exercise. I make sure my body is comfortable (e.g., warm socks, clothes I feel good in) and cared for (e.g., occasional long baths with lavender oil to soak the pain away).

And let me say that this is all much easier said than done. Some weeks I do better than others. Some years I do better than others. And it always, always means that there are things I “should” be doing that I’m not doing. It always means my house isn’t quite as tidy as I’d like, and the laundry piles up on the regular. It means I always owe about 57 people an e-mail. Another important mantra in my life, which I write on my calendar page every day: Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. (Capitalism and the power structures would like you to believe you are doing it wrong—especially if you are a woman—so you keep scrambling, working, buying, achieving, striving, etc).

So, I don’t know if any of this will help you. I just know that life and the culture as it currently stands will grind us to the bone if we let them. I try to keep the boundaries of my chaotic little juggle intact. It’s hard. This poem helps. This poem reminds me that my life is a “made place.” Either I can make it, or capitalism and the power structures will make it. I’m not giving those assholes my life. The end.

//

[Editor’s note: a friend has since pointed out that I could just call “capitalism and the power structures,” “the Patriarchy.” And she’s right.]

Do your own work first.

 

end-of-semester report

IMG_3106

This is my favorite—as a Jane Austen character would say—prospect in my new house.

It’s part way down the stairs. This is and is not a metaphor.

The photos on the wall to the left are of my kiddos, at the First House, standing at the screen door, looking out. This is and is not a metaphor. These photos have adorned every entryway of every house since then (and if you’re just joining us, there have been many, too many).

The green light was my housewarming gift to myself. I call her Minerva and we have a quick conversation every morning when I go downstairs at 5AM to make my tea: Good morning. Good morning. Another day, another 70 cents on a man’s dollar. Yep. Let’s smash the Patriarchy. Yep.

Beyond that, the warmth of the living room, and my beloved books and bookshelves.

I am grateful for this view, for this house which I purchased ambivalently but with the intention of giving my kids a home for their last few years at home, for the relative peace it holds for me after some very difficult years. I am grateful for my kids and my books, for this lovely green light that makes magic when illuminated:

IMG_3142

I’m grateful to be a poet and a writer, (though, lately, I have felt a long way off from poetry); for whatever kind attention my work has received in the world; mostly, for the quiet mornings at my desk, in lamplight, with the words of others:

______…something

is running across the field,
______can you see it coming
through the yellow grass, can you see it coming
______from the windowpane,
are you closing the shutters, do you think it’s rain? (—Dana Levin)

I’m grateful for the work I do at The Rumpus, for our reviewers and my fellow editors there (which reminds me: here you can read about staff favorites from 2018). I’m grateful for my kitty; wouldn’t you be?:

IMG_2970

This year, I’m especially grateful for a teaching job I love, and for my colleagues, and my students, who, at this point in the semester, are stressed out and exhausted and coming to office hours with their final papers. Like them, I am going in early, skipping lunch, staying late (Unlike them, because I am older and wiser and, let’s face it, a mom, I am reminding everyone to eat and sleep; I am giving out chocolate and throat drops and Excedrin. I am saying, There’s a time to be perfect, and a time to be done.).

I never get through finals week without these words thrumming through me: In the evening we shall be examined on love. They are the words of St. John of the Cross, and the title of a poem by Thomas Centolella:

Screen Shot 2018-12-14 at 10.32.36 PM

Life is hard, even easy lives. This semester, I have lived every day in the “blue of no more daily evasions.” It is not a gentle blue. I often feel like the student who doesn’t even recall signing up for the course who now must take her orals (See: single mother of three teenagers). And like the teacher wracking her brain to find “what unknown quantity / will balance the equation.”

I don’t know, and may never, but I hope it’s the small, heartfelt acts that balance things out after all: Waking early to read and (try to) write even just one word in my notebook. Making the kids a hot breakfast, packing their lunches, because I can, and here they are, hungry. Going in early, skipping lunch, staying late. Cherishing my family and friends. Calling my elected officials again. Writing about books I loved and learned from. Living my small, wingéd, provisional truths; saying them out loud regardless of whether anyone’s listening; abandoning them when they show themselves to have been faulty after all.

I guess this is not your typical end-of-semester report. I meant to come here and say: here’s where you can find a few of my recent poems; here’s a review I wrote; I still haven’t published a book.

Instead it’s this: I’m grateful, my grades are in, my kids are well-fed, I have a gorgeous new red lipstick, I’ve kept my house reasonably clean. This semester, I tried; let’s all keep trying; in the evening we shall be examined on love.

the last hours of another August

IMG_9781

Cuneiform Tablet with Receipt for Eight Bronze Sickles and Envelope, 2050 BCE, Clay (Detroit Institute of Arts; photograph by me)

I write began writing this in the last hours of another August.

Maybe because I was born in August, or maybe because my life has generally been tied to the academic calendar, or maybe because I’m a bit of a romantic and sentimental about things turning gold, then ending, my life has always seemed to move from August to August.

And it has done so again, and this last turn around the sun has been a doozy. I mothered two teens and an almost-teen. I finished my MFA. I freelanced and edited and taught. I sent out poems (and landed several in journals I’ve been sending to for years—yay!). I sent out two full-length manuscripts. I kept mothering two teens and an almost teen. I won a poetry contest and did not win a first book contest (many times over). I ended my long and long-difficult marriage. I found a full-time teaching job and bought a house. I did my part to resist the diminishment of our democracy. I adopted a cat. I pitched a panel on the work of Laura Jensen for AWP19 (and it was accepted—also yay!) I kept mothering two teens and an almost-teen. I grew houseplants that did not die. I started my new job (which I love—another yay!). I picked out paint colors and cupboard pulls and window treatments (groans). I went to IKEA at least twenty times (also groans). I am still mothering two teens and an almost teen (soon it will be three teens—gulp).

Even the easiest lives on the planet—and mine is one—are often hard. But here I am, just past another August. Now my age rounds up to fifty. The life that for so long I thought I was making is not the life I find myself living. But here I am. So much is still unsettled—the kids and I are about to move, again (this time just several blocks away); I still don’t have a book to my name; I’m embarking on the project of single motherhood and full-time work, and a far less stable financial picture. But here I am.

I took the photo above—of a museum display, “Cuneiform Tablet with Receipt for Eight Bronze Sickles and Envelope”—last August (2017) on my birthday. The artist is unknown. Here’s what the exhibit text says:

You are looking at an opened envelope and the clay tablet it contained, like a letter. The outer shell—the envelope—was invented as a security measure. A version of the letter was repeated on the envelope, which had to be broken to verify the message inside that 8 bronze sickles had been delivered safely.

Yes, that’s it exactly.

Now it’s September, and I invite you to join an online reading project begun last year by the poet Shara Lessley. She proposed that anyone interested join her in reading women poets during the month of September, and sharing what they’ve read on social media with the hashtag #SeptWomenPoets. I participated last year, and it was a wonderful way to build community online around poetry, as well as to discover new-to-me poets. It also made for a much more nourishing and relaxing Twitter feed than I’d had before. Here’s what I’ll be reading this year for #SeptWomenPoets:

IMG_2671