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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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 with another screen door and balance juggle

The screen doors pursue me.

I went 44 years without reading a screen door poem, and here in the last two weeks I’ve come across two that will fold into the Important Poems file of my mind.

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But first a word on balance. Earlier this week, I shared a Gwendolyn Brooks quote about “poeting” (her word) being just one element of a lived, human life.

I went on to say: Yes, but. Yes, but creative people must sometimes say no in order to make their art. I said: It’s all in the balance, I suppose.

A reader wrote asking if I think the balance is really possible. My answer is no. I used the wrong word. I’ve never balanced my life, I’ve only juggled the various elements of it. So, if the balance (whatever that is) seems to you impossible to achieve, you’re not alone. Also, the non-art-making world may wish for us to balance rather than juggle. The non-art-making world may not understand why simply parceling out a certain number of hours per week for our creative work, for example, does not work for the art-makers. [*Returning now to say: Yes, but. Yes, but setting aside regular time is also important]. That the art-makers must respond to the art when it’s ripe for making. Or sometimes, let’s be honest, when the deadline approaches.

Making art is Other. Let us juggle avidly.

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Bachelard:

Shall we repeat with the logicians that a door must be open or closed?

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Here’s a little ars poetica from Franz Wright that makes use of the screen door’s liminal equivocality:

BEFORE THE STORM

The poem seeks not
to depict a place
but to become one—

synonymous
_____________summer
and loneliness…

Mute child-ghost
of yourself
at the screen door.

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The poet Kaveh Akbar recently organized a tribute to Franz Wright to coincide with the first anniversary of Wright’s death. It’s here and in the latest issue of Pleiades if you’re interested.

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Also Bachelard:

But is he who opens a door and he who closes it the same being?

“human being being human”

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This POETRY tribute issue (June) devoted to Gwendolyn Brooks is fantastic—poems of homage, notes and photos from her archives, essays on her work and her life and their bearing on our poetry and our times.

One of my favorite bits is the following quote “written on a slip of paper in her archives”:

Who “does life” as a “poet”? One lives as a human being. In that activity, life “as a poet” is included, I guess, along with life as a black-eye pea boiler, life as a baby-maker, life as a lecturer, life as a Listener, life as a typist-for-five-lawyers. I never gave up love, lunch, book-reading, movies, restaurant-romping, strolling, friend-visiting, for “life-as-a-poet”-ing. Poeting has been, always, part of this life, my life as a warm-hearted resilient, open eyed human being being human. —Gwendolyn Brooks

This  may hold a little something back—creative people must sometimes say no to things in order to have time, space, and solitude to make their art. But the idea of art as one element of a very human life seems just right to me. The trick is in the balance, I suppose.

Also not to missed in this issue: Patricia Smith’s poem, “A Street in Lawndale.” Its third section begins,

Murders will not let you forget.
You remember the children you had—suddenly quarry, target—
the daughters with gunfire smoldering circles in their napped hair,
the absent sons whose screams still ride the air.

—Patricia Smith, from “A Street in Lawndale”

Here’s the POETRY Magazine website if you want to get your hands on this issue.

Horse, then, unhorses…

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view from here

It is finished.

That is, I have finally sent off both my creative thesis and my critical paper to my Master’s program.

The creative thesis I could’ve sent months ago. The critical paper was a particular, and long, labor of love, and I must admit to shedding a few happy/sad tears upon finishing.

I have also removed all the index cards, with the voices of so many writers written across them, from my study walls. It ends up I could not bear to part with the cards altogether, so I fastened them to paper and put them in a folder in my desk drawer.

I’ve lived with these cards and their voices for months now, and although I find the mostly-bare walls more aesthetically pleasing, I miss being able to look up and see the quote I knew would be there, just where I’m looking.

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“Urge and urge and urge” —Whitman

“It’s almost as if we sing to each other all day.” —Robert Pinsky

“Love buries these ghost forms within us.” —Frank Bidart

Plumly: consonance, assonance, & surprise.

“No verse is really free.” —T.S. Eliot

“Wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall” —Robert Duncan

“[S]ilence is finally the only perfect statement.” —A.R. Ammons

“The poem’s form is where resemblance and distinction intertwine. It’s where you can’t tell something. Dancer from dance, for example.” —Heather McHugh

“It is always less tiring to substitute method for intelligence.” —H.T. Kirby-Smith

“Meter developed in response to the motion of human lives… .” —Stephen Dobyns

“I long for the imperishable quiet at the heart of form.” —Theodore Roethke

“…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful…” —Charles Darwin

Paul Fussell: the pleasures of meter are physical

“I and this mystery here we stand” —Whitman

“Craft dries your tears.” —Molly Peacock

“The rhythm is like an other, attending to me.” —Pinsky again

Calvino: not light like a feather, light like a bird.

“The form of the poem unlocks the mind to old pleasures.” —Donald Hall

“Form is condemned to an eternal danse macabre with meaning. I couldn’t unpeach the peaches.” —Annie Dillard

Is this then a touch? … quivering me to a new identity… —Whitman

Horse, then, unhorses what is not horse.” —C.D. Wright.

*

And more, so many more. I will carry them with me. It’s almost as if they’re singing to me all day.

friday roundup: Whatever in passing

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Spring is trying to arrive; some days yes and some days no.

(I think) I’m nearly finished with my creative thesis and my critical paper.

There are nine weeks of school left for the kids.

We just dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb known to humankind.

There is an app that will wake you up to the sound of birdsong.

I’m not sure what to make of any of it, but here are some things:

no Creative people say no. Women, especially, are conditioned not to say no. And never the twain shall meet.

Someone once tweeted (I can’t remember who, but the words have stayed with me): You will have to say no in order to do your work. It will be worth it. I have said no to lunch invitations, movies, shopping days, volunteer “opportunities,” children, laundry, dinners (as in making them), hairstyles (as in having one), arguments (both having them and settling them), sleep, and more, in order to do my work. I just said no to a second game of PIG on the driveway basketball hoop with my darling girl. “I wish I could, but I have to work today,” is what I said. The more I do it, the easier it gets.

Here are two articles about saying no, and one even gives you some good ways of saying it: One. Two. Spoiler: Even Dickens said no.

reinforcements A friend posted this on Facebook the other day, and it’s now hanging above my desk. In case your will to say no requires reinforcements:

A woman must be careful not to allow over-responsibility (or over-respectability) to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs, and raptures. She must simply put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes she “should” be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only. —Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Men may also need to be careful about this, but since those who identify as women still do most of the child-rearing, household-running, and the Administrative Caca that comes with those tasks—none of which are ever “finished”—, it’s especially important for the Sisterhood.

Whatever in passing  This morning I read two poems at Poetry Northwest‘s website written and translated by two women—Ye Lijun and Fiona Sze-Lorrain—who said yes to their art. We will never know what they said no to in order to do it, but I am so glad they did, because these poems are exquisite and they kindle in me the desire to keep trying to make exquisite things with words.

You can read them here.

one more thing I recently—and finally—created an author website. If you click on it, it will become more findable. Would you? Thanks. www.mollyspencer.com.

Happy weekend!

friday roundup: long time no see edition

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This terrible photo of the book fair is apparently the only photo I took at AWP.

Well. I have my reasons.

I am thesis-ing.

I have been to D.C. and San Francisco and D.C. and back again in the last three-and-a-half weeks.

Care and feeding of the young.

Doing my own work first.

Etc.

But I’m here to tell you a little bit about AWP and to share a poem I read this morning.

AWP was a meat-grinder of the best sort. You run from session to snack bar to book fair to the place you told your friends you’d meet them for dinner. On loop. You finally see in person the editor who was so good as to publish your poems, poets whose work you admire, and your writing friends from distant outposts (or perhaps you are the one in the distant outpost now, but you get what I mean). It is tiring. It is overload for 12,000 introverts. But it is also a little bit of heaven. Here’s why:

You only have to be yourself: poet, critic, editor (in my case). Everyone sees you as a professional, a colleague. They ask about your manuscript and encourage you to keep sending it out. They mention seeing your poems here and there and how much they enjoyed them. They ask about your thesis and encourage you to send it to this conference they know about so you can present it there. To them, you are no one’s mother, wife, daughter, sister, auntie, neighbor, or potential PTA volunteer. There is no laundry to fold, no ground beef to thaw for tomorrow’s dinner. People want to talk to you about poetics, about the work of Poet X in Journal Y. They wonder if they can send a review copy of their book to the journal where you work. They ask what kind of work you’re looking for. They heard the panel you moderated was great. They ask what your next project is and tell you about theirs.

And that’s what I loved best about it.

Now I’m back in my study-with-the-door-that-closes working on my thesis. Writing a few little poems or notes for poems. Starting my day by reading poetry because that’s how I make sure the day will be okay. Here’s one I read this morning from Donika Kelly‘s debut collection Bestiary. Which you should buy here.

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bridges, headwaters

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[Hmmmm… the preview is not showing attribution for the art I’ve used here. Here it is: wikimedia]

I’ve been reading (re-reading) Mary Ruefle’s collected lectures in Madness, Rack, and Honey. This is because I want to be able to write essays that are as smart, well-crafted, labyrinthine, and aesthetically pleasing as her lectures are.

In “Someone Reading a Book” she writes:

There is a world that poets cannot seem to enter. It is the world everybody else lives in. And the only thing poets seem to have in common is their yearning to enter this world.

In the margin, I have scrawled: Maybe we write poems as bridges to the world. What I meant was: Maybe poets write poems in an attempt to bridge the distance between themselves and the world everybody else lives in. Maybe a poem is an attempt to enter that world.

I know that I often write out of a sense of bewilderment. The world bewilders me. My life bewilders me. Even my own mind bewilders me. Writing poems helps me to understand things, at least a little bit.

Maybe this desire to enter the world is the original wound. Who said it first—that all writing comes from a wound? Maybe Dorianne Laux?

Other times, I’m not so sure I want to enter the world everyone else lives in after all. Ellen Bryant Voigt:

HEADWATERS

I made a large mistake I left my house I went into the world it was not
the most perilous hostile part but I couldn’t tell among the people there

who needed what no tracks in the snow no boot pointed toward me or away
no snow as in my dooryard only the many currents of self-doubt I clung

to my own life raft I had room on it for only me you’re not surprised
it grew smaller and smaller or maybe I grew larger and heavier

but don’t you think I’m doing better in this regard I try to do better

friday roundup: you do not need to leave your room edition

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Here is what the walls of my study look like these days. Thank you, critical thesis.

Dear Reader, I keep starting blog posts like this: I had not intended to be away quite so long. It is still true. I’m just trying to keep all the balls up in the air: my thesis work, my editorial work, motherhood, keeping people (reasonably) well-fed and the bathrooms (reasonably) clean. Laundry (insert deer-in-the-headlights look here). And lest we forget: the poems.

[Confession: I am really good about not forgetting the poems. They are always my first priority, and I work on them every day before doing anything else. This may be a character flaw, but it’s the character flaw that has saved my life.]

At any rate, I’m here to share a few things this cold, snowy Friday.

“to let the words write the words”  One thing I want to share is this amazing essay, “Bewilderment,” by Fanny Howe. I’d printed it off a few weeks ago and finally sat down to read it. First a little background: up until several months ago, my process for writing  a poem was to free-write whatever came into my head, often something off a line by another poet, and often, amidst writing, returning to that line, and then to shave the free-write down or  mix it up or do whatever I needed to do to it to make it a poem. Lately, though, my process has undergone a big (and often, for me, bewildering) shift: Words and lines arrive from I know not where. I write them down. More words and lines arrive. I write them down. And so on until (sometimes) a poem is made. I’ve been thinking of it as the LISTEN & DICTATE process of writing poetry, a phrase which I came across in this interview.

But in this essay, Howe writes a description of her writing process which better describes my own. I never would have been able to articulate it—which is why we need the rock star poets of the world: so they can tell us what we’re doing—but it is exactly how my poems have been arriving and making themselves. Howe writes:

First I receive the impression of a time period as an experience of pure language, glimpses of actions, emotions and weathers. I jot down whatever comes through—in a rush of words. Then I begin to see what is being said and to see it as it unfolds, as if from afar and sometimes I actually stand at a distance from the words that are there. Spotting word-associations and what their sounds suggest and prove about the “point” of this emergent poem forces me to remove my body from the action; to let the words write the words. Letting the lines cohere on their own volition is crucial. Literally it is like watching someone else take form in the dark and I am weirdly disassociated from the action, an observer, a voyeur, though all the objects in the room, and the body, are familiar, are even “mine.”

An experience of pure language. To let the words write the words. Yes, please.

the poem wanders away from the demonstration  Since the election, there have been many calls to many different kinds of action. On social media, in articles, and elsewhere, I’ve read several outright imperatives and a few gentle suggestions that our poems must now be political. That poetry that does not engage in the public sphere and advocate for change is a useless endeavor.

I disagree. I think the act of making art is, itself, political. Roethke: “Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.” Lyn Hejinian: the poet must “undertake the preservation of otherness.”

I also think that poems are the very opposite of tools. Which is not to say that a poem can’t be political and can’t become a rallying cry for a movement—we know poems can do this—but it is the poems themselves that decide what they will be. It is the poem’s will, not our own.

This essay at Lithub by Matthew Zapruder expresses and explores these ideas better than I have here. In it Zapruder argues that poems are an unreliable vehicle for advocacy; that:

The poem is by its nature and design easily distracted. It wanders away from the demonstration, the committee meeting, the courtroom, toward the lake or that intriguing, mysterious light over there. What is that light? It looks like something, I’m not sure what, I’m sorry to leave this very important conversation but I have to know.

He also argues:

The role of poetry in our time of crisis is the same as always: to preserve our minds and language, so we may be strong for whatever is to come. And also, to preserve the possibility of mutual understanding, not by arguing for it, but by demonstrating it.

I guess what I’m saying here, to myself as much as to any of you, is: keep writing your poems. If they are political, so be it. If they are about a pair of socks a friend knit for you, so be it. If they are about the moss growing on the garden bench despite the snow, so be it.

and in a departure from our usual Friday programming  I am not going to share a poem today. Not because there aren’t one thousand poems I could share, but because these words from Franz Kafka seem to belong with the other words I’ve written here today. And because, in a way, they are a little poem in and of themselves:

You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

I’m planning to try a little something new here moving forward. Which is: smaller, more frequent posts. We’ll see how that goes. Meanwhile, I’m wishing you warmth, comfort, and poems, yours and others’.

friday roundup: make the words for me

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One of *those* weeks. Nothing flowing. Feeling uninspired. Can’t seem to pay attention reading. Can’t seem to string together a coherent thought. There are weeks like that. I’ve learned to chalk them up and just fold the socks. So just a few little snippets today, including something…

…from the archives  I was looking for a particular quote last night, and figuring I’d probably shared it here at some point, I searched my olds posts for it. Didn’t find it, but I came across this gem, which, after the dead-endedness of the week, gives me no small measure of comfort. I give you Mary Ruefle:

“I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, ‘I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I want to say’; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.”

Yeeeeessssssssss. From Madness, Rack, and Honey.

on form  I’ve been reading (or trying to read) and thinking (or trying to think) about my critical thesis for my MFA program. In a moment of enthusiasm last spring, I decided I’d write about form in free verse poetry. While I am actually really interested in this topic, right now it feels like a brick wall that I’m hitting my head against. This too shall pass. Meanwhile, I’m collecting little bits of what other writers have said about form. Here are a few that I’m particularly fond of:

“If goals create content / stealth creates form” —Fanny Howe (not sure I agree, btw)

“Something that you feel will find its own form.”—Jack Kerouac (also not sure I agree)

Form is “the organization of experience from the manifold of sensation.” —Alice Fulton quoting Kant (this one I can go in for)

“Love buries these ghost forms within us.”—Frank Bidart (now we’re cookin’)

“[W]hatever is said / in the world, or forgotten / or not said, makes a form.”—Robert Creeley (officially in love)

make the words for me  Amidst my trying to read, it is always a poem that pulls me in, wakes me up, makes me pay attention. Here’s one that did the job this week: Rachel Hadas’ “Codex Minor.”

I love the richness of the language and images, and how they swirl and eddy around and back on each other. I love the rhymes tucked in here and there. I love the way it begins and unfolds in what seems like a deep psychic space, a quiet interior monologue, and then opens out into, perhaps, a memory(?), at any rate a physical place on the earth, and ends in something spoken, a question no less.

And most of all I love this line: “I have no song, bird. Make the words for me.”

Bird, wherever you are, make the words for me, too.

Thanks for reading. I wish you a clear mind, many poems, and a happy weekend.