the last hours of another August

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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:

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all this happened, more or less

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Exhortation from the restroom of the Hungarian Pastry Shop. Who’s in?

(That title is from Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five; it may be off-tone to use a title from Slaughterhouse Five for a blog post. But.)

Hi.

I haven’t been here in so long I wasn’t sure of my password. Now the semester’s over and all this happened, more or less:

Over the last few years, I sent every poem in both of my (as yet unplaced) manuscripts‚—that’s seventy-four poems— to FIELD, a journal I’ve long loved. FIELD rejected all of them except three from the very last batch I sent, which are in the current issue. I’m really happy to see some poems from the new ms. finding homes in the world, and happy to be in good company at FIELD.

Over the last month, I’ve been to New York City and back to attend the Poetry Society of America awards ceremony. One-hundred years ago, I lived in Morningside Heights while I earned my first Master’s degree. During my visit, I stayed way, way uptown so I could bum around in the old neighborhood. I visited what I think of as my first coffee shop (where I grew up and where I went to college, there was no such thing)—i.e., the first place I ever went with my writing notebook to write: the Hungarian Pastry Shop. They still have the smallest tables and the best apple strudel ever.

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at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, Amsterdam between 110th and 111th

I visited the MoMA, where I saw my favorite Jackson Pollock, Full Fathom Five. I saw my favorite Franz Kline: Painting Number 2.

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Franz Kline, Painting Number 2, 1954

I saw the water lilies… my favorite part of which is the right-most territory of the painting, where the beauty trails off into murk.

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Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1914-1926

And I saw my all-time favorite Matisse, “View of Notre Dame,” which I love for its abstraction and its unfinishedness. Especially for its unfinishedness.

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Henri Matisse, View of Notre Dame, 1914.

I saw my dear, dear friend, one of four crucial Lauras in my life. Late in the last century, we found each other being highly introverted on the edges of a room at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. These many years later we shared loves and losses and BLT’s at a diner at 103rd and Broadway. A gift.  Alas, we were too busy enjoying each other to take a photo.

Then, later, I took a cab way, way downtown and met, in person, poets whose poetry I’d admired from a distance for years. I dressed up and wore the bling-y-est earrings I’ve worn since the last century. I shared some Real Talk with other poet-moms about motherhood, and poethood, and mother-poethood. I talked with another Laura Jensen fan about Laura Jensen (another of the four crucial Lauras in my life). I listened to these poets read their poems. You should read them, too:

Victoria Chang, winner of the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, read one of her obit poems, which have been appearing here and there in journals recently. Here is the one she read at the awards ceremony.

Kevin Prufer read his poem, “The Newspapers,” winner of the PSA Lyric Poetry Award. Every time I read it, I lose my breath at the end and need a minute.

Jennifer Chang won the William Carlos Williams Award for her book, Some Say the Lark (Alice James). I adore this book, and have been waiting for it since I read Chang’s poem, “Dorothy Wordsworth,” years ago. Happily she read this poem at the ceremony, along with another of my favorites from the book, “We Found the Body of a Young Deer Once.” This one’s a poem about friendship, a subject I believe doesn’t get enough attention in contemporary poetry.

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Daffodil

Elizabeth Knapp, winner of the Robert H. Winner Memorial Award, read her very timely poem, “Fourth of July.”

I listened to Billy Collins award the PSA Frost Medal to Ron Padgett, whose acceptance speech was mainly a list poem comprised of the names of all those who have been a part of his poetry life. It was a reminder that we are all standing on each other’s shoulders.

 

And I read my own poem, “Interior with a Woman Peeling Oranges, Snapping Beans.”

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Me, reading.

That seems like at least a year ago now. It seems like it all happened to someone living in another body, not the one I inhabit. But the photos and the memories are proof.

I missed my kids (and they might’ve missed me?). I missed my cat and she definitely missed me. And I am glad I went, even though it’s always easier (at least for me) to stay home with one’s nose to the grindstone. Shout-out to my mom who made it all possible by coming down to stay with the kids and keep the wheels turning en la casa del poeta.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been doing all the mom stuff, applying for jobs, helping my students with their final essay of the semester, snuggling with my cat, looking side-eye at the news, reading Jorie Graham, looking side-eye at the laundry, reading Jenny Molberg, getting shook by an earthquake (wha–?), writing a panel proposal for AWP19, looking side-eye at The Winter That Will Not Loose Its Grip on the Midwest, reading Ghassan Zaqtan, Driving People Places (this always deserves its own category), soaking in the tub, looking side-eye at the (generally empty) refrigerator, reading more Jorie Graham (“I think I am in love with silence, that other world.”), editing book reviews, grading, grading, grading, grading, and grading. Submitting final grades. Collapsing.

Also, it was 84 the other day, so, BYE, winter.

All this happened, more or less, and I am tired, and a little dazed, and a lot grateful.

friday roundup (sort of) with a body and a rough net

Hello, reader, it’s been a while.

Summer has come and gone, the kids are in school, and—now that I’ve finished my MFA—some days I have time to do nothing for a while.

A short while.

The other day, I put up corn and tomatoes with my aunt. We blanched them, then cooled them in a cold water bath, cleaned (corn) and diced (tomatoes), then put them in containers for freezing. It reminded me of the importance of sometimes doing things that allow me to be just in my body, to take a break from what’s caught in the rough net of my mind.

I love the phrase “cold water bath.”

Most days I’m busy reading, writing, editing book reviews for The Rumpus, sending out poems and manuscripts of poems, looking for work, taking people to the orthodontist, making dinner, dropping off and picking up from ballet, etc.

I’ve been writing only small things. A list of words, a phrase, a grammatical construction: “The (n.) is what the (n.) (v.).” “Where (n.) (v.) you can find a way to (v.).” “I say (x) so as not to say (y).”

I’ve been casting about for something to read that will (get ready to laugh with me) Finally Make Sense of Everything Once and For All, that will (as I think of it) save me: a book of poems, just one poem, a couplet, a line, one word, rafter, loiter, femur, blanch.

Did you know the technical term for a joint (the kind in our bodies) is articulation? We say that one bone “articulates” with another where they join. Did you know that, amongst other things, articulate means “to divide into distinct parts”? Isn’t it odd that we use a word that means “to divide” to indicate a joining? From the Latin articulare, “to separate into joints,” from articulus, “a part, a member, a joint,” also, “a knuckle, the article in grammar.” A knuckle(!). Did you know that, amongst the many architectural (as opposed to corporeal) joints, there is one called birdsmouth. BIRDSMOUTH(!!!).

[This, by the way, is how one word can Finally Make Sense of Everything Once and For All, can save someone, at least for a while. A short while.].

I’ve been listening to the Commonplace Podcast while folding laundry, chopping onions, sewing ribbons on pointe shoes, ripping out ribbons from pointe shoes because they need to be repositioned, sewing ribbons on pointe shoes again (true story). If you’ve never listened, I recommend it enthusiastically. Rachel Zucker has interviewed poets (and some other people) and recorded their conversations. There are many gems for poetry, the writing life, and for all of life, really, in these interviews, and I’m grateful for the way they catch in my mind’s net and pass the time while I am in my body, folding, chopping, sewing on, ripping out, and sewing on again.

I’ve been reading women poets along with other poets and readers of poetry on Twitter. If you’re looking for books by women poets, search the hashtag #SeptWomenPoets and you will find treasure. This project is the brainchild of Shara Lessley. It’s been fun to read and tweet along.

Here’s a poem from one of the books I’ve read this month, which also happens to be by someone from my old writing group (during my California days): Even Years by Christine Gosnay (Kent State University Press, 2017). There is a particular joy in reading the poems of a friend and colleague, poems that you read when they were just born and solitary things, poems that you’ve watched grow up and begin to join together in constellations of theme and thought, poems that are now bound in a book.

*

AKADEMOS by Christine Gosnay

I give my daughter the name Hypatia, tell her
the monks pulled Hypatia through the streets
and sewed her back together. I give my daughter

an astrolabe and tell her ships baste slit-
seams in the ocean to snag falling bodies.

Earlier, white stones fell from my hands
and landed on the road
until I could not see one stone.

I give my daughter a body and a rough net,
tell her to straighten her back and be ready
to weave the welkin sphere that bleeds

skeleton-blue and gray. I give my daughter
eyes and a sky.
I give my daughter a long, bright day.

My daughter carries a harpoon. She drifts
the sea with her barb the size of a needle.

Sea full of bodies, she sings, stalling. Then bends
her back, out she climbs. Oyster shells
bunched in her net.

*

Happy weekend, thanks for reading.

today

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my “desk” (once again, it’s a kitchen table)

I am at my “desk.” The kids are at school all day. This miracle last occurred on June 3rd.

I am so happy that three out of three kids came home from school yesterday with smiles on their faces (it was the first day, a half-day).

We are still not living in a house. The duffle bags and their contents, which I thought would need to get us through until mid-July, are going to have to limp along until mid-October. At least.

(Do you know of this book?

I love the book. I do not love not living in a house.)

I have bought duplicates of:

  • More books than I want to think about (sometimes you just need Zbigneiw Herbert, …and… some other books)
  • A chef’s knife
  • MANY OFFICE SUPPLIES. Many.
  • A printer
  • A broom, a rake, a bucket, sponges, scrubbers, rubber gloves

I am *this* close to buying a duplicate Swiffer. I am even tempted by the crock pots of the world, but I refuse. I refuse.

The peaches are ripe. The plums are ripe. The tomatoes are at their peak. You can often find me holding my head over the sink, eating some drippy, delectable fruit of the earth. Bliss.

I hope no one ever looks through  my books and reads my marginalia. “Bzzzt” means: I disagree. Entirely. “Bwhahahaha!” means: I can’t even believe he said that. “ZOMG!” means: Utterly incredible. In a good way.

There are two flies—one big, one small—buzzing around my head. I am, of course, thinking of Emily Dickinson. And wondering why there is no fly emoticon.

I keep reading this poem*:

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[*Please note how he borrows from Emily Dickinson: From her letters, “This world is just a little place, just the red in the sky, before the sun rises, so let us keep fast hold of hands, that when the birds begin, none of us be missing.”]

And I keep reading this poem.

And I keep reading this poem.

And Joanna Klink’s poem “On Diminishment” from the current issue of Tin House. Go get you some. The poem worth the cover price.

And this poem, mainly because my eldest is playing football. I am surprised by this. He has football homework every night. I am also surprised by this. I am formulating a theory about high school athletics and the roots of male privilege (I am not surprised by this, and I am complicit). There’s a game at 4:30. Weather forecast: 88 degrees and stormy. I now own ponchos. I am, you might guess, surprised by this.

I’ve been writing, mornings. I’ve been sending poems out. I’ve been doing both things slowly, as usual.

I’ve been typing up notes from my MFA residency. It’s like learning everything all over again.

I have nearly killed the geraniums I bought a month ago. I am not yet ready to commit to mums. I abhor everything pumpkin spice.

I am glad to be here at this blog, writing something, anything.

I am trying to do this thing called “today,” every day, the best I can.

 

have poems, will travel

Now reading: Copperhead by Rachel Richardson (two thumbs up!)

Now reading: Copperhead by Rachel Richardson (two thumbs up!)

Those four words pretty much sum up the summer.

Well, also: have kids, at pool. And: put on your sunscreen! And: kid projects gone wrong. And: “Are we there yet?” And: laundry never ever ends.

We have been to Portland (pilgrimage to Powell’s Books) and the Oregon coast (“Mom, look: Michigan sand!”). We have been back home to Michigan to see family (ate orchard-fresh cherries; found many Petoskey stones; pilgrimage to spirit dunemade s’mores with cousins; drank wine with Mom; “Let’s go tubing, Grandpa!”).

The photo above is from yesterday (have kids, at park). We rode our bikes to the park, and I gave thanks for forty-five minutes of reading time on a park bench in the shade beneath the redwoods, which, by the way, are looking mighty stressed in this drought.

I’ve always been grateful for the portability of poetry (slim volumes, easily concealed). It’s an art form we can take with us, whether reading or writing.

As for writing, there has been precious little (slept in again, damn!). But there are seasons.

One more trip for me this summer, then back to the P-town for the first day of school (another f*&%$#@ half day).

Then, maybe, some long awaited time at my desk. And orthodontist appointments, and trips to the ballet studio, and grocery runs, and cross-country meets. And all that. And through it all, poetry is with me.

Until soon…

friday in lieu of a roundup: silence can be a plan

Silence by Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (wikimedia)

Silence by Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (wikimedia)

Hello and happy Friday.

Today I’m planning for silence.

By which I mean, I’m preparing to leave tomorrow for a little cottage near the ocean where, for one week, I’ll read and write without any competing demands (laundry, meals, homework help, broken fingers, settling arguments,dentist appointments, track meets, leaky faucets, grocery runs, and the like). And without the sounds of other people’s voices, and bouncing basketballs, and overheard Pokemon episodes, and the chorus of “Mars, Mars We’re Going to Mars” from the third grade play, and perhaps best of all, without the nightly whine of leaf blowers blowing out the parking lot of the grocery store loading dock across the street.

I did the same last year for the first time, and learned what a gift it can be to plan for silence.

And yet, it’s a struggle. Mainly against guilt. Spiteful Gillian, who really doesn’t hang around these parts much anymore, has made a comeback. She wants to know: “How can you abandon your family for a week just so you can go off and (air quotes) make art (end air quotes)?” She wants to know: “Wouldn’t that money be better tucked away for college — which is in FIVE YEARS (this one, in particular, kills me every time — FIVE YEARS till my oldest goes to college). She says: “What if the house burns down, what if someone gets sick or breaks a finger, what if the earthquake finally hits and YOU ARE NOT THERE?”

She’s so annoying.

I counter her, saying: Writers and artists have always needed periods of solitude in order to do their work. I am setting a great example for my kids; I am showing them how to be committed to one’s work as well as one’s family. I am not (air quotes) abandoning (end air quotes) anyone — I am doing my job. I am a person who needs periods of quiet and solitude in order to be my true self.

Also, I have left them a bunch of homemade food in the freezer, so get off my back Spiteful Gillian, geez!

But someone has said it better than I ever could (shocker). Here’s Adrienne Rich on silence:

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Silence can be a plan
rigorously executed

the blueprint to a life

It is a presence
it has a history a form

Do not confuse it
with any kind of absence

(from “Cartographies of Silence”)

*

So off I go, into a plan rigorously executed. I may or may not be around this corner of the blogosphere during my time away — I tend not to do well with grand pronouncements of I will or I will not, but instead with going with the flow.

Whatever you need to do your life’s work and be your true self, make a plan to get it. Execute it. Rigorously. Make it the blueprint of your life. Amen.

friday roundup: to collaborate, “I work and I pray,” and The Blue House

Monet: Das blaue Haus in Zaandam (wikimedia)

Monet: Das blaue Haus in Zaandam (wikimedia)

Hello, Reader, and happy Friday. Did you survive April Fool’s Day? I confess, I almost didn’t.

One of my darlings swapped the sugar and the salt.

Let me tell you something: when you take your first sip of tea at five a.m. in a dark and silent Wee, Small house, you do not want to have put salt in it.

And later as you are trying your damndest to be good natured about the salt in your tea, and when you poach eggs for your darlings big and small and line them up on the counter and break the yolks and people take their first blessed bite of a rare, hot breakfast, you do not want to have shaken sugar on them.

The truth is, I’m not over it yet and may never be. But I will soldier on. Now for the roundup:

to collaborate  Earlier this week, I went with a po-friend to a very cool event a few towns up the Peninsula. It was a reading/discussion/Q&A with Jane Hirshfield and Ellen Bass. Hirshfield read from her two recent books Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (essays) and The Beauty (poems). And Ellen asked her questions about particular passages or poems, a bit about process, etc. I loved the format, and both women are such authentic and generous people, so the room was brimming with warmth and good energy.

Also, if you ever have a chance to be in the same room as Ellen Bass, take it — because she will laugh at some point, and her laugh is the most amazing laugh, and it will heal your soul. But I digress…

Here are a few treasures that Hirshfield shared, and that I hastily jotted down in my little notebook of grocery lists/scraps of language/hangman games from various waiting rooms/notes from the urology clinic, etc.:

On process:

“A phrase arrives with its own rhythm, music, and tone. My job is to collaborate.”

On the preponderance of objects in her work: Hirshfield noted that the vocabulary of objects and things is a vocabulary that everybody already has. Everybody has relationships with a chair, a table, a spoon, a tree. Although she didn’t say this verbatim, my sense was that she feels objects have a context that can enrich a poem just by having appeared in a poem, and without a lot of extra words around them. Duly noted.

On the transformative power of writing:

“If you can write the poem, you are not flattened, and writing the poem is a way to unflatten yourself.”

“I work and I pray.” Earlier this week on Facebook, I linked to an interview with Cecilia Woloch. There are so many hundreds of interviews, videos, poems, articles, etc., linked to on Facebook that one cannot possibly read them all — but I’m so very glad I took the time to read this one. In case you haven’t seen it yet, or can’t take the time to read it for yourself, here are some gems (you can read the whole interview here at Speaking of Marvels):

On how her chapbook manuscripts came together:

“In retrospect, at least, it seems as if both manuscripts came together kind of magically, but I think the creative unconscious is hard at work when we’ve been working hard, and it knows what it’s doing.”

On process:

“No prompts, no strategies, no tricks. I work and I pray.”

On reading work aloud:

“I think when we listen to our own poems, when we hear them, we engage the body as well as the mind; and, when we’re not privileging the mind, we get a better sense of the music and the dance.”

On aspirations:

“Aspire to make the best poems you can make and then see what happens.”

(Quoting James Baker Hall), “‘Don’t let your worldly ambitions drive a wedge between you and the work that’s most sacred to you’.”

The Blue House  This week, I’ve been reading Tomas Tranströmer, who died last week and left us the poorer. I’ve been reacquainted with his poem “The Blue House,” which is the one that reminds us that “our life has a sister ship, following quite another route.”

I don’t know about you, but I am always scanning the horizon for that sister ship (not very Zen of me, I know). And also, I’m kind of obsessed with the fact and concept of: a house. So this poem has been nipping at my heels all week, asking to be read again and again.

I found a lovely reading of it set to music, and the link also has the text if you’re more of a reader than a listener (as I sometimes am). Find it here.

I am amazed by how that final image — the one just past the sister ship — flames at the end. I mean, how did he know to push through for that? He already had a sister ship, for goodness’ sake! I suppose that is why he is (was) Tomas Tranströmer.

And that’s all for today. My deep, sincere wish for you is that you never take your first sip of tea at five a.m. in a dark and silent house of any size, and find that you have put salt in it. Amen.