worlds collide / pre-orders for If the House

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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:

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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

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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:

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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.

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[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.

 

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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poems for this fraught history

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My sister-in-law and I took the kids to see fireworks the night of July 3. We had a picnic while the Detroit Symphony Orchestra played. Waited for the long summer light to leave the sky. Then watched the darkness spangle and pop, ooohhed and ahhhed with the rest of the crowd.

I love fireworks. They amaze me. My favorites are the ones that pop, then trail off slowly, a thousand tiny lights spiraling down before ultimately succumbing to the dark. But I’ve also always felt (at least as an adult) a bit conflicted about them. They seem a glorification of war. They frighten dogs, not to mention many of the men and women who’ve served in our endless wars. They are, for me, beautiful, magical, and fraught.

This summer, as our country moves further and further away from what we say are our ideals—liberty, equality, justice—, the fireworks were even more fraught than usual. I kept looking and my kids and their cousins sprawled on the quilts we’d laid out for them, the fireworks lighting up their awestruck faces, and thinking of the kids separated from their parents at the border. Thinking of black boys killed by police (Tamir Rice would’ve turned 16 last week, had he not been shot dead at age 12). Thinking of pleas for civility in the face of abominable treatment over centuries. Thinking of kids who, though they may be fairly safe day-to-day, face subtle and not so subtle racism, homophobia, and other forms of bias that make the beautiful, magical, and fraught process of growing up even more fraught.

What to do? Read poems. Here are three that are not comforting, but feel true and so very important. In that way, they make me feel less alone in this deeply flawed nation, this fraught history that we’re all a part of.

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“Tamir Rice” by Sean Thomas Dougherty, whose latest book is The Second O of Sorrow (BOA, 2018):

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(originally published in The New York Times Magazine)

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“American Sonnet For My Past and Future Assassin” by Terrence Hayes, whose latest book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, is just out from Penguin.

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(image from Google Books)

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“How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This” by Hanif Abdurraqib, whose poems and essays are new to me over the last year, and consistently blow me away (check out this poem in the May 2018 issue of POETRY):

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(originally published by the Academy of American Poets)

 

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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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.

so is blurred / in me

So many good intentions, so few blog posts. But here’s one.

At the final residency of my MFA program, one of the faculty spoke of wanting to live more like a poem asks her to live. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. These days when I read a poem, to the many other questions I ask it—How did you do that? Why break the line after “field”? Couldn’t you live without your last stanza? What made you say “spider” just there?—I’ve added this question: How, poem, do you want me to live?

Here’s a poem I’m living with lately: “I Would Like to Describe” by Zbigneiw Herbert, one of my dearest poets (forgive the somewhat clumsy images):

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I think the poem asks me to live like this:

Use the right words. By “right,” mean accurate, precise, true, interesting, yours.

You will be uncertain.

The poem starts in your body.

Whatever it takes—run around like mad picking up handfuls of birds if you must.

Let it blur in you.

Regarding the white-haired gentlemen: unsubscribe.

Be amazed. Be infinitesimal.

You are of the earth.

Keep going.

Despite pain.

I might be wrong about all of this.

To put it another way: so is blurred / in me.

What poem are you living with these days? How does it ask you to live?

 

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.

an August poem

AnneS

I REMEMBER by Anne Sexton

By the first of August
the invisible beetles began
to snore and the grass was
as tough as hemp and was
no color—no more than
the sand was a color and
we had worn our bare feet
bare since the twentieth
of June and there were times
we forgot to wind up your
alarm clock and some nights
we took our gin warm and neat
from old jelly glasses while
the sun blew out of sight
like a red picture hat and
one day I tied my hair back
with a ribbon and you said
that I looked almost like
a puritan lady and what
I remember best is that
the door to your room was
the door to mine.

—from her collection All My Pretty Ones

And so does my life tremble, or, the poem I can’t stop reading

GUGG_Signs_in_the_Sky

Paul Klee, “Signs in the Sky,” wikimedia

I had not known the poems of Denis Johnson before he died last week. This is the fate of the mostly-self-taught: holes in the tapestry. The Internet came to my rescue when someone posted this poem, and I fell hard. Bought his books. Am amazed.

Here is the poem I can’t stop reading this week:

*

NOW by Denis Johnson

Whatever the foghorns are
the voices of feels terrible
tonight, just terrible, and here
by the window that looks out
on the waters but is blind, I
have been sleeping,
but I am awake now.
In the night I watch
how the little lights
of boats come out
to us and are lost again
in the fog wallowing on the sea:
it is as if in that absence not many
but a single light gestures
and diminishes like meaning
through speech, negligently
adance to the calling
of the foghorns like the one
note they lend from voice
to voice. And so does my life tremble,
and when I turn from the window
and from the sea’s grief, the room
fills with a dark
lushness and foliage nobody
will ever be plucked from,
and the feelings I have
must never be given speech.
Darkness, my name is Denis Johnson,
and I am almost ready to
confess it is not some awful
misunderstanding that has carried
me here, my arms full of the ghosts
of flowers, to kneel at your feet;
almost ready to see
how at each turning I chose
this way, this place and this verging
of the ocean on earth with the horns claiming
I can keep on if only I step
where I cannot breathe. My coat
is leprosy and my dagger
is a lie; must I
shed them? Do I have
to end my life in order
to begin? Music, you are light.
Agony, you are only what tips
me from moment to moment, light
to light and word to word,
and I am here at the waters
because in this space between spaces
where nothing speaks,
I am what it says.

*

I rest my case.

(From his collection The Incognito Lounge).