I’m in a place I’ve never been to before, staying here for two weeks, and I’m more unsettled than I usually am in such a situation. I love my rut and routines. Change makes me anxious. Usually, though, new places make me curious and happy to explore, happy to find corners where I’m comfortable, happy to find new things to look at. But somehow here, I don’t know. It’s odd. So I’m trying to write out of this strange unsettledness.
I think that’s a good thing. I hope the work comes out as strange as I feel, as uneasy, a bit jagged. (Or maybe that’s my insomnia talking. My old stand-by, an over the counter sleep med, seems to have deserted me in effectiveness. There is nought between me and the void of sleeplessness.)
Maybe this is the strangeness of the entire past year catching up with me, or the losses, the uncertainties.
Maybe it’s just that I’m very place-oriented, alive to how I interact with my environment, and this place is not, for some reason, sitting easily on my skin.
It’s interesting, though, this situation, my reaction.
The other thing though is that it’s chilly here and my cold hand around the pen is crabbing my handwriting even more than usual. So whatever comes out of this period may be illegible. That also might be interesting. What I thought was writing might really be an exercise in asemic writing, that mysterious art form that invites, and frustrates, any attempt to decipher. Like life. Like this experience. Like staring sleepless at the ceiling looking for signs in the dark, listening for a voice with a message. Or for mice with malintent toward my granola.
I keep encountering things that talk about “writing out of your deepest dark” or creativity as a way to “exorcise the demons.” Well. Allrighty then. Demons, step right up.
A member of my writing group was wonderfully oppositionally defiant of the intentions she would set herself from month to month — this was how we ended our meetings, with each of us setting intentions for the coming period of time — but would instead appear the next month having done several other, unlooked for, unanticipated, and productive things.
I read that the act of thinking of one’s intentions can actually give the brain so much pleasure that it never bothers to embark on the messy and difficult business of actually acting to complete the stated intentions.
Which is where we find me at the moment.
Summer is not my season. I waste much of my energy hmphing and rssnfrssning about the heat, the humidity, the people everywhere where I might want to be, the legions of imagined lyme-carrying ticks dangling on every branch, the real legion of poison ivy creeping creeping toward me, and the closed notebook. Closed closed closed. In spite of my intentions to get down to it, start that daily practice I’ve thinking about.
Except here’s the thing. I know that come autumn, I will look back in my notebook and find all kinds of stuff I managed to sneak in there while I wasn’t looking. It happens like this every. year. I don’t know how I do it.
It is true that some of what I find has actually been written in the spring. I don’t pay particular attention. When I do these dives into my pages, I don’t care when I find stuff, I just care what I might be able to do with it. Like even now, I may sound like I’m bragging to admit, but I find myself with a chapbook-number of similarly themed poems I somehow churned out in the late winter/early spring. This is not, to me, terribly good news, as I already have two full length manuscripts, one of which also has a chapbook-length version, that are gathering rejections like dust. Damn my f’ing productivity.
But if I’m not creating, making something, trying something, then I’m fitful and depressed. Well. It is possible I’m fitful and depressed while I’m creating/making/trying. But it’s a DIFFERENT fitfulness and depression. More pleasant.
So as with the weather and the world, so with my notebook, I’m looking forward to discovering, come fall, what I’ve been up to over the summer while my notebook seems to be shut tight. Creativity will out. It will have its way, sneaky as tears, as a sigh, a nervous tic.
I have a Facebook friend who just posted some terrific playing around she’s been doing with her visual art. It was inspiring to see how gleefully she was trying things. Yes! I said to myself. THAT’s my intention! So I sit here happily looking out the window, thinking about my intention. My brain feels good. Real good. I’ve worked so hard I can probably relax now. What’s the date again?
I think the poems in Victoria Chang’s Obit are a lesson in how to write poems, if only I were clever enough to be able to draw out that lesson, articulate it to myself.
Something about the contrast between the careful rectangle of them and the leaps within, between the dispassionate tone and the intensely personal experience, between the dispassionate tone and the imaginative leaps, between the utter clarity of them and the sometimes inexplicable details, between the cleverness and the seriousness.
I come away from them (I can only read a few at a time) and find it almost impossible not to start writing in that tone. I found the same with reading Diane Seuss’s Frank: Sonnets. I kept writing Seussians; but of course, not, as both Seuss’s and Chang’s brains are wildly their own, their experiences wildly refracted through their personal prisms.
It’s been fun to try to ski in their tracks, but ultimately it leaves me gasping. And of course, the trick is to take away something of the effort and skill and artistry, but ease it back toward my own rhythms and directions.
I love reading poems that are so amazing that I have to put the book down and catch my breath. Poems that surprise me and inspire me: in how I live, what I notice, and how I write. Poems that remind me of the power of what is said and the beauty of what is left unsaid.
I struggle with my species. Struggle with the overwhelming evidence that we suck. That we’re greedy and short-sighted, stupid and vengeful, petty and violent. But as “they” are me, and I am interested in “their” stories, it’s not unusual that I’ve ended up reading two memoirs in a row. And what I took away from those memoirs was not the individual author’s story but rather the sometimes stunning generosity and love of the people around the person. As I look back on them both, it’s not the individual I remember but they people they met along the way.
Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jouad is an illness memoir of a young woman diagnosed in her early twenties with a complicated disease that ultimately required complicated and lengthy treatment and lots of medical mishaps along the way. But the constancy of her parents, doubtless daily sick with worry, and a boyfriend who, though the relationship was pretty new when the illness kicked up, stuck out for a very long time the vortex and the diminishing bubble that is the life of the very ill.
This Land of Snow is Anders Morley’s tale of his ski trip across western Canada, undertaken both to scratch an itch and to run from a marriage that was wearing thin. What remains with me are all the people along the way, strangers, who stopped their giant logging trucks or small pick-ups or slippery-tired sedans to find out what he was up to and then offered him food, shelter, a ride, a beer, or a story. I was particularly struck by the three loggers who for several days sought out his trail and tent and left him lunch. And the Native man, who, if Morley wrote a memoir, wanted to be known as “the mysterious stranger,” who brought him two bags of groceries, presented solemnly “on behalf of my people.”
There is never one story. Never one side. Nothing is ever only one thing. Even my species. The bastards.
The physicist Carlo Rovelli wrote this in his pleasantly incomprehensible book The Order of Time: A human being is “[a] knot of knots in a network of social relations, in a network of chemical processes, in a network of emotions exchanged with its own kind.”
I had never thought to pay attention to the secondary characters in a memoir, but these two books have awakened in me a curiosity about how memoir writers deal with the people around them. How present are they in the narrative, how alive? As a life is richer for the cast of characters in it (yeah, I’m talking about you, friends), so, it occurs to me, is a memoir.
Go more wild, was the advice about a recent poem draft. I know what she meant. Sort of. But how?
She meant let the poem leap more, keeping the reader surprised and fleet on her feet. Let my mind go more wild, she meant.
So I said, Okay, mind, go more wild. But it just sat there. Jump! I said. Dance, you varmint! Nothing. I felt like Toad (of Frog and) trying to get his garden to grow, jumping up and down and yelling at the seeds.
But I realized, actually thanks to the Rick Barot book I’m reading, that when my poems get leapy, it’s not because my mind has leaped but rather because it has picked up shiny objects like a crow, objects that are similar, or reflect each other. In one poem in Barot’s The Galleons, he mentions an old woman at a casino, Gertrude Stein, time, a food court, lost languages, extinct birds, Keats. Some of these act as metaphors, some more as associations. Not so much “like” as “as.”
When my mind is usefully gathering, it’s catching the glimpse of connections as I read or listen or watch in the world. At times I’m stunned by the ways in which books and articles I seemingly randomly pick up to read begin to resonate with each other. At times like these, I can just reach out and pluck ideas as they whirl in front of me, so tuned am I to what I’m thinking about that the act feels almost mindless, like reaching for pistachios in a bowl. Later at the page, I’ll do the work of figuring out how to present the images or ideas in a networked way.
At the moment, however, I’m either not paying enough attention or I am just not stumbling on things that are reminding me of other things. Blame summer, my least favorite season, or general distractions of life, or just happenstance. But I can rest easy knowing I don’t have to yell orders at my mind. I can just sit by the seeds for a while. Maybe when they muscle up from under the soil, they’ll remind me of something.
In the brain melting heat of last week, I pulled out a very short book I’ve read many times but it was the only thing I thought I could concentrate on. And what a pleasure it was again. Poet friends, if you have any interest at all in translation and you have not read this book, please find a copy of it: 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, by Eliot Weinberger with additional commentary by Octavio Paz. My MFA experience was not my favorite life experience, but it brought me to this book, for which I am forever grateful.
Presented is a 4 line poem of 5 characters per line, by Wang Wei, a Chinese poet from the 700s, written in an ancient Chinese literary language no longer spoken. A rough character-by-character English approximation is offered, and then 19 different translations from both scholarly-oriented and poetry-oriented translators, each with a short observation by Weinberger, often containing some delightful asperity. For example, he says of one attempt: “Thus Liu’s version is more accurate than most, but the first two lines heave, the third gasps, and the fourth falls with a thud on the mossy ground.”
But even as he is being impatient with a particular translation attempt, Weinberger is very forthcoming about the enormity of the translation task, detailing some of the challenges of translation in general, and particularly, translating a tonal language with a tradition of strict syllabics.
Paz’s translation is one of the 19, and additionally he is almost given the last word, as his concluding brief essay allows him to reveal some of his considerations and reconsiderations around his translation attempts.
But Weinberger ends with a postscript that gives the last word to an infuriated professor from a Mexican university that wrote a spitting letter about Weinberger’s ignorance of some scholarship around the final character in this 20-character poem.
And that is the life of translation. Glorious and messy and hopelessly imperfect. And filled with passion.
It makes me want to try 19 of my own translations of this one poem, just to see how far I can wander and how close I can stay.
Nine percent. That was the rate of return on my lit mag submissions in 2020. Not very encouraging. And it does NOT include the mss I sent out to publishers. (And none of the acceptances came through Submittable, so my database on that miserable site looks particularly bleak.)
So far 2021 is far worse, with still a handful of outstanding submissions lurking around from 2020. I say if a lit mag can’t get to your submission in 6 months, they have to publish it whether they want to or not. I mean, by that point hope has been sparked in the little writer’s otherwise dark and bitter heart. And a year with no reply? That spark has lit the kindling. “Surely that they kept it this long means it’s in the line-up,” the writer begins to allow herself to think, warming her hands on the fire. Come on, lit mags, are you really going to send your hard, cold rain down now, douse the small flame?
Yes. Apparently, yes. Back in 2018 I submitted to a magazine I had been published in before. A year and eight months later I got a rejection. Standard reject, no “thanks for your patience,” no “sorry it took us a while.” (That’s the last they’ll hear of ME. THAT’ll learn ’em.) Not to mention the no-simultaneous-submissions mag that’s now had three poems for six months.
Talk about being nibbled to death by ducks. My goodness po is a terrible biz.
But, wait, in terms of my development as a person, am I not supposed to be cultivating my gratitude toward what I have?
I mean, a chapbook came out just last year!!, winner of a contest!!!. And let’s not forget my two books with such great covers that came out in 2010 and 2014; and my first chapbook (also a great cover), back in 2009 or ’10; and my varied and fun adventures into multimedia: video, dance, music; nice reviews of my books; and a whole bunch of wonderful etcetera. Plus, I mean, a great life. Come on, whiner. Count the blessings.
Yes, yes. Multitudinous.
But I covet. I’m covetous. I want more than what I have. I have graspy fingers. Gollum, c’est moi.
My inner voices go back and forth between those characters in the shadowy doorways of Leonard Cohen’s song: “You must not ask for so much” and “Hey, why not ask for more?”
Writing is a give and take. The world gives, I take and write and give, and ideally the readers take. And give…copies of my books away or forwards of my poems, or my blog posts, for that matter. (Kristy Bowen in a recent blogpost called getting her work out into the world in however small a way leaving breadcrumbs for readers to follow. I love that.) (My sister, by the way, has been a champion of giving my work to others. I’m grateful!) So “acceptances” are a part of that equation, to my mind.
Periodically I watch some free videos offered by artist Nicholas Wilton, who has a program called Art2Life. He’s unflaggingly enthusiastic and filled with wonder at discovering or uncovering processes by which he, and theoretically we, can bring our creative impulses to fruition on the canvas.
In a recent short one, he talked about how he’s trying to stay present with and focused on not what he is putting on the canvas but how he is feeling while doing it. And the feeling he is trying to maintain is, basically one of openness and a sense of possibility. And deliberately NOT a sense of assessment, judgment, predetermination of what should be happening on the canvas. He talks about having a “free outlook” and the “sense of wildness and freedom” with which he often starts a new painting — all that blank space, how it frames the first few marks beautifully — and maintaining that outlook and free sense throughout the process.
By focusing on the space out of which he is creating, rather than what is being created, he’s able to allow all kinds of things to happen. He says he can see both his own training at work in this more intuitive way of making, as well as a new “wild”-ness that is exciting.
Yes, I say. And thank you for the reminder. I’m talking as a writer now, and agree that the key to when I’m writing well and interestingly, and maybe the key to revision as well, is the center — i.e., me — out of which I am creating. And I love that feeling of openness and possibility. It’s a kind of ebullience, a word that means boiling up, bubbling up.
I find it hard to maintain, and of course, any effort dooms it to stiffness, resulting in a stiffness of the work. And I can’t always get to that place in the first place. And I don’t necessarily mean (I don’t think I mean this, anyway) that it has to be a still, calm center. Strong work also can come out of strong inner turmoil, I suspect. (I’m not sure, though, that good revision can come out of inner turmoil. I suspect good revision requires a calm core. I don’t know. I know when inside myself I’m jumpy and upset, I can’t focus enough to revise. I can probably slather some stuff on the page, but I can’t then look at it and shape it.)
What he doesn’t do, Wilton, is tell us how he gets to that feeling, and how he maintains it.
I read this interesting tidbit in Lydia Davis’s book Essays One: she is writing about her own development as a writer, and how she has discovered her way into her own oddball work: “…setting myself absurd or impossible subjects made it easier for difficult emotions to come forth.”
I’ve sort of used this approach in ekphrastic workshops I’ve facilitated — I ask students to do a ten-minute free write about a piece of art that either they do not like or paid little attention to when we moved through the museum/gallery. It’s sometimes the most effective ten minutes they have all day, asking their minds to enter into something that feels, on some level “impossible.” You’d think I’d take that approach myself. You’d think.
Nicholas Wilton does talk about his recent shift to larger canvases, which require a different kind of gesture, different tools, different vision. He uses paint in buckets rather than a palette, uses large brushes and trowels along with fine-line oil sticks. These external things have also changed his work.
What would be the writerly equivalent? Maybe shifting genres, working in form, as I almost always write free verse. Would my writing be different if I wrote directly on to the computer rather than onto paper? If I wrote on my iPad versus my MacBook? If I used a crayon rather than my trusty Bic? I have tried to change venues but have found, for example, writing in a coffeeshop does not work for me — far too much going on, too many people to watch, things to listen to. But I suppose changes are always worth trying and trying again, now and then.
I’m reading a very engaging book called A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow, by Tim Brookes, who had, as a young man in the early ’70s hitchhiked across the US, became a writer, and decided in the late ’90s to reenact his journey and write about it, enlisting the support of National Geographic and a NatGeo photographer to crisscross paths with him periodically as he, at least theoretically — as who hitchhiked in the ’90s? — travelled across the nation. Spoiler alert: he makes it, although he does take a few buses now and then, and he rides with the photographer for a few days here and there. But mostly he hitches, and his drivers range from truckers to a family in an SUV on vacation.
He says this, though, about the zen of hitching, which I think has something to teach me about writing: “I couldn’t shake a very strong sense that giving up control exerts some kind of attraction…It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the conscious mind; in fact, our conscious mind seems mostly to get in the way, by second-guessing and worrying too much. Every time I’ve started worrying about whether I’ll get a ride…it has done me no good.” It was the many times he just stood and let unfold what would enfold that he got picked up by improbable people for improbable distances.
There is more to be explored here with regard to the line between “showing up to the page” or “putting pen to paper” and actually churning out some real writing. As I’m sure, if truth be told, Tim Brookes also spent many mindless hours standing by the side of the road getting no rides at all, no matter how zen he was being. And Nicholas Wilton has doubtless had some ugly portions of canvas.
But letting go worry and effort certainly makes for a better moment passing, for a nicer day in general. And, as Annie Dillard has reminded us, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
So. Anyway. I guess I’ll stick my thumb in a bucket of paint and write a big word on the road.