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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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