Poetic karma

I’m sure I’m doing a horrible disservice to an important theological concept by throwing around the phase above. I understand karma itself only in a pop-cultural way—the idea that you reap what you sow, even if not right away, not obviously. Here’s what I mean by hitching it to the adjective “poetic.”

I fervently hope poets get what they deserve. In the long run, the work itself should be all that matters—not whom you know or where you live but what you have to say and how powerfully you say it. I do not actually believe this is true, but I want it to be, and in the meantime every right-thinking Sisyphean poet-critic should be trying to make it true. I want most of our energy to go into writing really interesting, urgent, capacious, intelligent, brilliantly crafty verse, and then when the Roving Eye of Literary Fashion happens to pass over it, it has to pause: wow! look! has anybody noticed this is REALLY amazing? That is, when luck strikes, we’re ready with the goods. Or, you know, we’re not—the work is just decent, not amazing, and the Eye passes on, but at least then we’ve done our best and the results are fair. Some of us have to be the mulch from which a few splendid lilies rise. I hope I’m not compost, I’m trying not to be, though odds are that I am, and that you are too. 

But I’m a modernism scholar, so I can look back and see that well, hell, most of the modernist-era poets we still read knew and helped each other, both with the poetry itself and with the process of delivering it to the world. Some of them dated each other. Granted, there were multiple overlapping circles of influence. There were also outliers who eventually hit the bigtime despite Ezra Pound’s indifference or their geographical distance from New York or London. But clearly extraliterary factors matter, especially personal networks and proximity to literary power.

So what’s a poet to do? I do think about relocation but I can’t move to a big city unless some crazy stroke of luck changes my marketability (or my spouse’s: he’s a fiction writer wildly trying to wave down the Roving Eye, too). My employer gives a world-portable college tuition benefit to my kids, who are now twelve and sixteen (if you haven’t looked at U.S. tuitions lately, know that the pricetag’s obscene). If I moved jobs now their options would diminish. Yeah, Robert Frost would have made his kids take the lump, but for better and worse, I’m nicer than Robert Frost. And this, by the way, is just the barrier to looking.

Here’s what I’m left with: write my heart out, make friends where I am, keep sending the work out, and do what I can to minimize distance through publication and travel (blogging and Twitter open up interesting interactions too, though, again, I suspect they don’t matter nearly as much as all the accidental conversations you have if you physically live in a literary nexus). And, with a mixture of idealism and skepticism, practice the following principles to create good poetic karma:

1. Read books and journals. Also, buy books and subscribe to journals.

2. Publish reviews.

3. Whenever possible, be generous. Say yes.

I’d like to think they’ll get me further than being a ruthless jerk would, but I don’t know for sure. I can say that while I’ve received a ton of rejections this summer, a few editors have sent along some very cheering acceptances. Also, in one of those random benedictions you can’t apply for, Poetry Daily featured one of my poems, “Powder Burn.”  A review I published in Rattle prompted a letter from a writer named Nina Romano who then put up two of my poems in the “Poet’s Corner” of her press web site (they’ll only be there for a few more days, but still, what a random, nice thing!–and if you click on the link belatedly I think you’ll find someone else’s wonderful poem there). I’m particularly proud of a poem in the new Crab Orchard Review, too, in case you can get your hands on it.

I’ve regretted saying yes sometimes and planted plenty of seeds in apparently dead ground. But actions flower unexpectedly, too. Besides, behaving as if poets don’t get what they deserve—meaning selfish striving, I guess, or despair—might be rational but it also seems poisonous. I have a feeling my poems wouldn’t like it.

Union of future literary titans

 

Twenty-four years ago this June, Chris and I set up our first shared apartment. Possessions: a double bed my mother purchased (“don’t tell your father”); one brown vinyl couch with no rear legs picked up off the street, so if you sat down on a humid August night in shorts you wouldn’t be able to peel free until October; and a tipsy round table with white plastic bucket chairs from a university surplus sale. We took a further step and made things legal twenty years ago this week; the wedding was a wonderful celebration. Our most momentous decisions, though, occurred in the summer of ’89, when Chris was managing the database of a regional theater in Montclair and I was buying an improbable number of texts for my first graduate courses. We moved in the wee hours, because the new tenants of my previous house claimed possession at midnight. Our friend Scott Nicolay had a truck or a station wagon, I can’t remember, but he was always game for adventure, so he shuttled our belongings over to the first floor of that old stucco house in Highland Park, New Jersey. We were babies, but we were also somehow right about each other.

 

The stickiest problem, besides the couch, was merging our book and record collections, although after a little wrangling we devised a system that compromised my alphabetical ordering with his topical clusters. Chris and I got to know each other through Anthologist staff meetings—that’s the Rutgers College poetry magazine—so books were at the center of our friendship from the beginning. I studied his copies of Watchmen, Cerebus, and Dark Knight, and then handed him my Charlotte Brontë. We read Dante to each other at night and Adrienne Rich. We argued about chores and Derrida.

 

We were also reading each other’s pages, learning how to deliver tactful critique to the person you sleep with but more importantly cheering each other on. I was and remain mostly a lyric poet; Chris began that way, but his poems started mutating into thirty-page collages. He spent a lot of time in rare book rooms reading missionary diaries back then, learning about the Lenape. Probably Scott got him started—Scott grew up nearby, found arrowheads in his suburban backyard, and made the history of the area vivid for both of us—but in any case, Chris was thinking through problems that required large, complex architectures. Within a few years, he would shift his primary effort to novels and stories.

 

We were writers. We had plans. Art and marriage were intertwined endeavors. One day we wanted children and better furniture and a house of our own, but we also wanted magazine publications and author photos and artistic triumph. We were fascinated by Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, devouring their books as they hit publication, gleaning what information we could about their glamorous writerly marriage. Okay, it didn’t turn out so well, but we were striving for some ideal version of that. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath without the carnage.

 

You know the bit about “wives of geniuses I have sat with” in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, really written by Gertrude Stein? Chris and I, over the years, have taken turns playing genius and wife. We’ve both struggled not to feel invisible and dull while the other was fêted. Mostly, though, we root for each other strenuously and help each other materially. Magazine publication started to click for both of us when our kids were little. Our first books were accepted the same year. Perseverance is key to getting anywhere and I wonder if I would have struggled so insanely hard without Chris’ model. Rejection is constant but if you’re always telling someone else to suck it up and keep going, maybe you talk yourself into the necessary persistence, too.

 

Right now Chris is revising a novel for an excited literary agent. Could be the big one. Another thing we’ve learned together, though, is about the randomness of it all: you get a major acceptance and then the press crashes, but then another day some prize or honor hails on you out of the clear blue. Even more peculiarly, you attain the goal you’ve been striving toward for years and then it starts to feel ordinary. Every success is shadowed by some could-have-been, dwarfed by some higher peak in the distance. The only cure for the constant sense of inadequacy is writing itself, although it’s nice to have company for the ups and downs. 

 

Twenty years ago, twenty-four years ago, though, if we could have seen our 2013 resumes, we would have been damn impressed. All we had then was our unreasonable faith in ourselves and each other, vague plans for world domination, a crazy work ethic, and a promise to stand by each other through it all. We have those bylines and decent couches now, although we’re still waiting on the paparazzi.

1989

Refueling? Yeah, not so good at that

Following a link in Marly Youmans’ blog a few weeks ago, I read an interview with Joss Whedon that stuck like beach sand to sunburn. He describes a work pattern of constant, compulsive production, often on multiple projects at once. Even in rare blocks of downtime his mantra is “fill the tanks, fill the tanks, fill the tanks” by consuming books and plays voraciously. I’m a Whedon junkie so I’m glad he’s a workaholic, and I enjoyed and identified with most of what he said, but the very idea of his life makes me sore, especially since watching Much Ado About Nothing and developing a bad case of house-envy (he filmed at home). First observation: he mentions no intermissions for packing up a sick mom’s condo or worrying over which summer camps to book for the kids (the hardest part of being a parent is trying to juggle zillions of decisions that could be trivial but that add up to a human being’s childhood—when you’re a Libra, no less). Most of my “downtime” is spent addressing other people’s needs. But best to leave the caretaking issue aside; I know I’m lucky and don’t regret my choices.

I’m still bothered, though, by Whedon’s sheer capacity for work, even though others have accused me of the same proclivity. I drafted this post on vacation, feeling out of sorts because I wasn’t sensing fuel rising in the metaphorical tanks. We visited Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington, North Carolina. I’m the family vacation planner and this year we wanted to do something low-key within a six-hour drive; we could squeeze out six days if we combined the travel with a southward detour to pick up my son from camp; and I always like to see an area I haven’t visited before. I won’t be volunteering for the regional tourism bureau anytime soon, but it was an interesting area. The ghost tour in Wilmington’s historic downtown was a blast. I could develop a serious dependency on fried pickles and Britt’s Donuts, so I’m glad my proximity to them was temporary. Eating Thai curry in a fancy little hut at Indochine was lovely. Walking on the wide pale beaches, discussing fiction with my son while bobbing in waves, sipping rosé on the hotel balcony while a guitarist crooned Van Morrison covers down by the pool—all good. I kept telling myself so.

I also told myself: it’s okay to be out of sorts. There were the usual trials of family vacations like picking up after kids in a small shared space, non-cooperative weather, traffic jams. From home, English department personnel upheavals and their consequences chased me via email—I started writing about those worries here last year, and the situation has only gotten more complicated since. I’m waiting on medical tests too, nothing apocalyptic, but one of the weird symptoms of the summer has been a racing heart that doesn’t seem to correlate with anxiety so much as create it (it’s hard to relax in the warm sun when your heart is palpitating madly). And my mother-in-law was hospitalized with pneumonia as soon as we crossed the state line, though she’s much better now. So if I was tired and down, that’s not unreasonable. Bad weather breaks eventually.

I’m less rich, prolific, and free than the internationally famous writer-director: I could afford to calm down about that, I suspect. Still, I was thinking all week, retrospectively chewing over my decisions the way I always do: was this the best way to fill the tanks, fill the tanks, fill the tanks?

Whedon’s metaphor might be the problem. I don’t actually believe that’s how it works: pour art in, then rev your own art machine. For me, writing energy is unpredictable. Sometimes the more you burn, the more you have. Sometimes you break down and lie around in the junkyard, for better or worse, vaguely hoping you’ll be road-ready again after a breather. Sometimes “rest” is the cruelest thing you could do to yourself (see Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and imagine it as a writer’s blog). And then there’s all the worry around the work: keeping any kind of a spotlight on one’s writing can be a more than full-time job, and it’s a frustrating and demoralizing one. I alternate between committing to the publicity game and repudiating it, the way many authors do, I guess. Social media present whole new ways of feeling insignificant, even when the writing itself goes well (now imagine Gilman’s narration as a series of Facebook posts with decreasing rates of “friend” response).

In short, I don’t even know where my tanks are. But I have an idea that fried pickles are going to appear in a poem one day. Also those walks I took to the top of the barrier island: little waves were carving off chunks of sand in sweeping curls just behind me and I kept jumping, thinking I was being followed. And the buckeye butterfly that landed on my head like a benediction. Not fuel, exactly, but the world whispering to me, if I could turn off the engine long enough to hear it.

buckeye