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


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.




more on negative space


first edition cover of the classic Virginia Woolf essay, wikipedia

Hi Reader. I’ve felt a little quiet this week. This week at the Wee, Small House there have been fevers and, especially for the eldest child, Fun Lessons to Learn (probably only the parents of young ones will understand this reference to the classic Berenstain Bears video). Well, maybe not so fun. But lessons to learn. There have been brief poetry moments, for which I’m grateful. Today, one of the feverish ones and I are playing paper dolls, for which I’m also grateful — who knew I’d still get to cut, paste, and color clear into middle age!?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of negative space from last Friday’s quote. A friend wrote to me after I posted it and asked: what did I think it meant to create negative space in a life?

I wrote back that, for me, creating negative space in one’s life means making room in your life to be truly yourself. Creating this space probably looks a little different for everyone. It might mean putting space between yourself and people who are toxic in your life. It might mean saying NO to things that you really don’t want to do, or that drain your energy. For creative types, it probably also means making room in your life for your art. For everyone it probably means making room in your life for the people and activities that you love and that nourish you. For me, it partly means getting up really early to have my first cup of tea in a dark and silent house where everyone else is sleeping (known affectionately at the Wee, Small House as “mom’s warm-up time”).

I also think creating negative space in one’s life means having some time and space that is empty, unfilled, unscheduled, unclaimed. This reminds me of a phrase I heard once: “I am a human being, not a human doing.” I think it’s important to have time to just be.

As easy as it is to say I believe all this, it’s quite another thing to make it happen. This is my Year of NO, but I’m still coaching myself through every single volunteer request: No, Molly, you cannot drive the Brownies to Ronald McDonald House. No, you will not use one of your only completely free days of February to chaperon an all-day field trip.

Even harder was a decision I made recently to actually GO AWAY from home for a writing retreat where I will be completely by myself for several days. I don’t think I’ve been completely alone for more than a few hours since 1999. Since the nineties, people. During most of that time, I’ve been the primary caregiver to one, two, and then three young children 24/7. There’s a whole body of research (some of it is here) on caregiving and everyone agrees: Caregiving is rewarding but stressful. During this stretch of time we’ve also had other stresses as a family — chronic illness, cross-country move, a very sick child. And I’m an introvert — someone who gets her energy from being alone, from silence. Let’s just say there’s kind of a premium on alone time and silence in a house with three children.

When I told a wise woman in my life that I was just feeling burned out and overwhelmed, she asked me: What do you think you need? “I need to go away!” I blurted this out without thinking. She said, I agree.

My friends — secular and writerly — urged me to go. You need this! they said. Just go — Husband and the kids will be fine. They said, This (meaning writing) is your life’s work. Go away and do it. And of course I know they will be fine, but I really struggled to give myself permission to do this. Should I really spend the money to go off alone — what about a family vacation? Should I inconvenience other people so I can have this time and space? And Spiteful Gillian just had to chime in too: “Who are you to go on a writing retreat!? You don’t even have a book!” (Precisely, Spiteful Gillian, precisely!)

Deep inside, I knew I wanted and needed the time and space this retreat would give me. Eventually, and remembering the phrase that I’ve been living with — radical self-care — I went with that. I created some negative space to look forward to.

The day I booked my trip was one of the happiest days of my life. I’m not exaggerating. Right up there with wedding day and days the kids were born. And my feelings of being burned out and overwhelmed, while not gone completely, are made easier to manage by the fact that I know I am going to have some time and space soon, that I’m going to have a room of my own.

So, to get back to creating negative space — sometimes it’s in small ways: not going on the field trip. And sometimes it’s in bigger ways: running away from home (wait — did I say running away? I meant going away 😉 ). Either way, it may not be easy to create that space, but whatever negative space you need in your life, I hope you create it.

SUCCESSFUL LOGOUT!, or, what I learned by applying for writerly gigs

go ahead, look in that pool, be Narcissus (wikimedia)

go ahead, look in that pool, be Narcissus (wikimedia)

Hello, Reader.Thankfully the applications I’ve been working on lately are all signed, sealed, and delivered, or, actually, submitted electronically. Which reminds me of my favorite application submission confirmation message from last year’s application season: “SUCCESSFUL LOGOUT!” Really, no “your application has been received;” certainly no “thanks for submitting.” Just, SUCCESSFUL LOGOUT! This year the confirmation messages were much more comforting. If nothing else, I’ll have that to hold onto when the results come in.

I promised I’d write about what I learned as I worked on my applications. Here’s what I’ve got for you:

Have your reasons. Applying is so much easier for me when I can easily make a case for where my work/goals/needs intersect with an organization’s mission. Your reasons for applying should go beyond “I need some time away from these lovely, crazy people I live with (or work with) so I can write.” Understand the why here? and why now? of your application. I found that examining those questions and understanding the overlap of my work with each organization’s work not only helped me feel more confident about applying, but really gave me some forward momentum as I worked on the applications. Once I’d seen those connections, I felt like, Of course I should apply for this. It’s obvious! Then I took the next step and explained those connections in my application. Fingers crossed.

Apply like a man. (For context on this phrase, read this). As I wrote my statements for these applications, I was worried about coming across as too intense, too braggy. I wanted to make sure the people reading through applications didn’t think I was all full of myself. But what I learned is that when you’re applying for writerly gigs, that’s the time to be all full of yourself, to look down into that pool and fall in love with what you see, to be Narcissus.

When I showed one statement to someone else, I asked, “Is it too intense, too braggy?” NO! she said, It’s not braggy enough! Then she asked me about a list of poetry-related accomplishments — Have you done any of these kinds of things? she asked. The answer was Yes to all items on her list. But I hadn’t included them in my application.

People, my only brag in the whole statement was a list of four (only four!) journals I’ve been published in.

Once the person I showed it to responded with her feedback, I had to laugh. At myself. For thinking my statement was too intense, too braggy.

So next time I’ll know to make a list of all the poetry-related accomplishments I’ve tallied over the years and to weave them into my statement. Better yet would be to create a list now and add to it as time goes on — then my list is ready next application season. Yes, next time I’ll apply like a man, not like a wallflower who’s worried about coming across as too intense, too braggy.

Get help. We’ve all heard it so many times, but I almost didn’t do it this time. I almost didn’t ask anyone else to look at my application materials. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have received the feedback I wrote about above. I wouldn’t have found the errant ‘x’ that was floating after the last line of the last poem in my portfolio, despite the fact that I’d combed through that portfolio forwards, backwards, and upside down about fifty times.  And I wouldn’t have felt the support of my fellow writers when they said things like, “This is a strong application!” and “I love these poems!” Okay, yes, I admit it, I like getting supportive feedback like this and it makes me happy when someone likes my poems. It feels good. It helps keep me going in this writing life that requires persistence and resilience.

So, yes, get help. Ask friends, or pay someone you may not know or know only peripherally to weigh in. Or both. Your work is worth it.

Name and tame. Ah, there’s nothing like working on applications to bring out your inner critic. It’s like setting out a can of tuna fish and a saucer of milk for a stray cat. Enter Spiteful Gillian. Sigh.

Not only will your inner critic try to get you with all her usual tactics, she’ll try to distract you from your task by asking things like, “Who do you think will look after the kids if you’re gone?” and “Are you really going to just leave your family in a lurch in the unlikely event that they accept you?”

But I was prepared. I know that making time for my creative work is part of radical self-care. And I know how to name and tame my inner critic. I wrote about it here, but I’ll give you a little refresher:

  • First say what’s true: “It’s true, Spiteful Gillian, that the odds of me getting these gigs are slim.”
  • Then say what’s not true: “But it’s just not true that I shouldn’t apply, or that I’m just a baby poet so stop saying that! Geez!” (Hey, nobody ever said you can’t get petulant with your inner critic).
  • Then say what’s also true: “It’s also true that I’ll never get these gigs if I don’t apply for them.”

So yes, this is what I learned and what I hope I’ll remember next time I’m applying for gigs. I hope these tips are helpful to you for whatever gigs you might be applying for in this life. I wish you a very SUCCESSFUL LOGOUT! every single time. Thanks for reading.

friday roundup: why apply?, “to make the world strange,” and eating well

What's wrong with this picture (also, please don't look too closely -- my towels are an embarrassment)

What’s wrong with this picture? (also, please don’t look too closely — my towels are an embarrassment)

Reader, it’s been a week of minimum days. And next week is also a week of minimum days. Because, conferences. [I pause here to NOT get on my soap box about how unusual and inconvenient this schedule is. Ahem.] I’ve been breathing deep about all the writing I’m not doing, setting tiny goals for myself, and enjoying long afternoons with my kids. Also, folding towels. Now let’s do the roundup before school lets out for the day:

why apply?  If you’ve been reading along, you know I’ve been applying for a few writerly gigs. There’s nothing like working on applications to encourage Spiteful Gillian, my inner critic, to come sniffing around. She’d like to know why I’m even applying? Do I know how slim the chances are of actually getting one of these gigs? Please indulge me as I write an open letter to Spiteful Gillian:

Dear Spiteful Gillian,

You are so freakin’ spiteful! But that’s not the point of this letter. The point of this letter is to tell you why I’m applying for writing gigs I might not get. Here’s why:

  1. It’s what writers do. Besides write, revise, submit, read, and champion the work of other writers.
  2. It gives me a better picture of what I’m working on — the themes, directions, and impulses of my work.
  3. Assembling a manuscript for an application is a really good way into revision. Bonus: afterwards, I have a few mini-manuscripts to send out to journals.
  4. Just to piss you off.

Lots of love,


Reader, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel of my application season (woohoo!), and I’m really itching to get back to creating some new work. After everything’s signed, sealed, and delivered I’ll write more about what I learned in the hopes that it might be useful to you.

“to make the world strange” At my writing group this week, we talked a bit about surprise in poetry. Surprise is a word that often gets bandied about in classes, workshop, and submissions guidelines (surprise us!).

But what is surprise really? Dictionary definition: surprise: a feeling of mild astonishment or shock caused by something unexpected. What about a poetry definition? I think I found one this morning as I read a Poetry Foundation interview with Lyn Hejinian. She says,

Techniques of defamiliarization are precisely intended to revivify the familiar, animate the ordinary, and make the world strange so that it’s visible — even amazing — again.

I really love this idea of making the world strange so that it becomes visible again. I’m tucking it away into my “poetic surprise” pocket. If you’d like to read the whole interview, which is not actually about poetic surprise, here it is.

eating well  I have an admittedly conflicted relationship with cooking. On the one hand, I love it because 1. yum, 2. it connects me to people I love, and 3. healthy, nourishing meals are so important. On the other hand — Oh my goodness, three meals a day every day!? As I write this I’m cooking beans in the crock pot so that later I can make a pot of chili so that we can have an easy, early dinner then head out for my reading tonight. Cooking beans made me think of this poem by Louise Gluck (pretend there’s an umlaut over that ‘u’).


Firstborn by Louise Gluck

The weeks go by. I shelve them,
They are all the same, like peeled soup cans…
Beans sour in the pot. I watch the lone onion
Floating like Ophelia, caked with grease:
You listless, fidget with the spoon.
What now? You miss my care? Your yard ripens
To a ward of roses, like a year ago when staff nuns
Wheeled me down the aisle…
You couldn’t look. I saw
Converted love, your son,
Drooling under glass, starving…

We are eating well.
Today my meantman turns his trained knife
On veal, your favorite. I pay with my life.


Louise Gluck, the X-acto Knife of poets.

And now, reader, it’s time for me to check the beans, then practice some more for my reading tonight. I hope you have a happy Friday and a relaxing weekend. Thanks for reading.

thoughts on the creative life: you have to be willing to waste your time

‘Waste’ is an interesting word.

It comes from the Latin vastus (with a little bar above the a) meaning “empty, desolate.” It entered the English language probably before 1200 and meant “to devastate, ravage, or ruin.” Later in its life, around 1340, its meaning expanded to include a sense of “to spend or consume uselessly, to squander.”*

I’m here today to tell you that wasting time is a crucial part of the creative life.

Now, I’m not talking about all those hours you’ve spent reading Dear Prudence instead of going to bed early so you can get up and write (not that I would ever do something like that).

And I’m not talking about all those long conversations you have with your inner critic before writing — the ones where you try to convince her that SHE’S WRONG and YOU’RE RIGHT (who, me?) instead of just picking her up by her belt an dropping her tiny self into a little glass jar and screwing the lid (no airholes) on tight.**

[Side note: just the other day I was congratulating myself for how practically nonexistent Spiteful Gillian, my inner critic, has been lately. As if she overheard me, she set up camp today. Thanks, Spiteful Gillian.]

What I’m talking about are all the side projects that come up in the middle of the big project you thought you were working on. And the book that jumps off the library shelf into your hands. I’m talking about the Internet rabbit hole that you dive down into, completely fascinated, and the research you’ve done on that one word because it just won’t leave you alone. And yes, I’m talking about all the notes you took on the wreck of the Whaleship Essex (or whatever you were last obsessed with).

I’m even talking about the days you (who, me?) might spend sifting and sorting through poems, drafts, and revisions — the time you spent making mini-manuscripts, only to discover that not one of the stout little piles of poems is made up of all send-out-able poems.

Here is where Spiteful Gillian (and, for that matter, Western Civilization) has no traction with me, because I fervently believe that all those things our inner critics and our culture at large would have us believe are a “waste” of time, are actually the fuel of the creative life:

Playing, wondering, searching and researching. Reading, doodling, sorting and stacking. Obsessing.

I’d even make a case for coloring; it’s very soothing.

You may never be able to point to the specific outcomes of some or any of these activities. But I believe that all of these ‘fueling’ types of activities are actually present in whatever work we’re doing, whether or not we can point out exactly where.

It reminds me of the Elie Weisel quote I know I’ve used before here. He says, of writing,

Even those pages you remove somehow remain.

I’d like to expand that, and propose that even those pages we never write somehow remain. Or perhaps the seeds of those pages — planted by all our fueling activities — are still waiting to germinate. Whether or not they will ever germinate, we don’t know.

If you look up ‘waste’ in the OED, the very first definition is thus: “use carelessly, extravagantly, to no purpose.” I’d like to focus on the “extravagantly” there. I think artists (I include writers in that category) need to be extravagant with their time — and spend it following their nose, their interests, their obsessions, their intuition. Be careless: forget about product for a while. Set purpose aside. Your work will make itself known. Yes, I’m giving you permission: go ahead and waste some time.

*etymology from Barnhart’s

**inner critic disposal instructions from Anne Lamott

sunday words: then at dawn

…A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

      Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley…

For anyone on a journey. For anyone battling the singing voices (Spiteful Gillian is the lead soprano). From T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi”; whole poem here. Blessed Epiphany to those who celebrate it, and good journeying to all of you.

S.O.S. week 7 update: still learning the ropes

public domain from the NOAA via wikipedia

Reader, did you know that rope used to be made in long structures called ropewalks? Workers would walk the length of the ropewalk, back and forth, wrapping and coiling the strands of rope together.

The phrase “learning the ropes” comes from sailing lingo. New crew members had to learn all the knots required for sailing, and which ropes controlled which sails.

I am that new crew member on the good ship Poetry, and I’m still learning the ropes.

First off, let me say that week 7 of the Summer of Submissions was wonderful in so many ways. I’m so happy that a few more of the Mail Order Bride poems have made their way in the world. Still, I struggled last week with balance and did not meet my personal goal of sending out two submissions per week. There were Extenuating Circumstances such as a globe-trotting spouse, three summer colds (one of which was mine), and camping preparations. If a writing friend said to me, “I didn’t meet my goal last week. I am a weak person,” I would say, “Of course you didn’t send any subs out last week — life intervened! You are not a weak person; you are only human.” But I struggle, as you know, with a formidable inner critic who truly believes I could’ve sent out two subs if only I were committed enough, tough enough, fill-in-the-blank enough. So yes, I’m still learning the ropes of allowing life in, of respecting the limits that we are all presented with as we make our way in the writing life, and in the world.

I’m still learning the ropes of poet-editor relationships and the evolution of a poem, too. When I first sent a couple of Mail Order Bride poems to Linebreak, I was sure they were as tight and polished as I could make them. But, alas, after they were accepted I revisited “The Mail Order Bride Abides” and made a few changes. I waffled about whether or not to offer the revision to the Linebreak editors. I waffled for a very long time. I finally decided that most people of good will would understand that sometimes a poem seems done and is sent out, and then, later, gets tweaked a bit. I contacted Linebreak and they were very cool about it, but the poem had already gone out for audio recording so the timing wasn’t good for tweaking.

No problem, right? Except that I had harvested a line from “The Mail Order Bride Abides” and dropped it into “The Mail Order Bride Spills” (did you notice? it’s “The inmost room is called ‘the keep.'”). And then, both poems were published within days of each other online. So, sez my inner critic, the whole world knows that you are a Recycler of Lines. Nice move, Rookie Poet!

Of course, when I can get Spiteful Gillian to can it, I know that readers and writers of goodwill know that poems evolve over time. That the chances of those two poems showing up within days of each other are slim to none. That it was my good fortune to have them selected for publication. Et cetera.

So, yes, still learning the ropes. And reminding myself that all of life is a learning process; that if we stop learning, we start dying. And so, as usual, I carry on.

sunday words from Mark Doty: on doubt and voice

Reader, this is a special edition of Sunday words, in that there are more words than usual and special instructions. Humor me?

I want you to do me a favor. Go get your earphones. I’ll wait.

Ok, they’re plugged in? Okay. Oh, you couldn’t find them? Really? That never happens to me. Well, no problem, you can listen on your computer’s speakers if you must.

Now, if you are not a poet get ready to interpret what comes next a bit broadly. Substitute the word “work” or “days” for “poem.” Maybe replace “voice” with “self” or “spirit.” Or just tell yourself as-in-poetry-so-in-life, without substituting words and all that.

Ok, still with me?

Now, I want you to go listen to this audio clip of Mary Doty talking about doubt and voice. It’s short. But please, please, pretty please go listen to it. Thank you (and come back when you’re done — there’s one more step!).

Okay? Okay. Now I want you to bookmark that page, and every time your Spiteful Gillian, or your Perfect Polly, or whoever your inner (or, for that matter, outer) critic is, starts up a little doubt festival in your head, I want you to go and listen to Mark Doty again.

Ok, now we’re done. Have a wonderful week.

P.S. The clip, sent to me by one of my po-friends, came from this blog.