Change of (literary) life

upsidedown

It’s fall, 2015. I’m on sabbatical. My mother is direly ill with what turns out to be lymphoma. I’m mourning my daughter’s departure for college and worrying about her experience there; my son, new to high school, faints in a clinic and is diagnosed with pneumonia. My own body is going haywire, perimenopausally. Amid doctor visits, road trips, and existential crises, I can’t concentrate on anything.

I have, however, been batting around an idea. I spent my girlhood writing stories and have always been an avid novel reader–literary fiction but also fantasy, science fiction, mysteries, horror, and a lot of the slippery genre-crossing stuff. Could I write a novel myself? A short one, maybe, drawing on worlds I know well to ease the learning curve? Could I do it–what the hell–right now?

I’d been inventing character backstories and had a couple of narrative threads in mind. Aside from artistic curiosity about the practice of novel-writing, though, the motivating impulse was to rewrite transitions like my own–which seemed at the time wholly about loss–so that they became empowering. In so many tales, magic or superpowers hit at puberty, and the physical changes I was undergoing were basically puberty in reverse. So wouldn’t menopause ALSO be a logical time for a person’s power to change? Why should teenage characters get all the joy?

So I wrote round the clock from November 2015 to January 2016, joyously, shocked at how fun and absorbing the work was, until I had a full draft. It was pretty terrible, but luckily for me, I’m married to an excellent teacher of fiction-writing. I rewrote it a few times and started sharing the ms with other friends. Many gave tough criticism in an encouraging way, bless them forever. Putting the ms under revision after revision, I killed some of my darlings and maimed a few, too. I deleted characters, complicated others, overhauled plot twists, faced a number of things I hadn’t wanted to admit about myself, and cut summary and adverbs and pretty descriptions and clever metaphors (I am a poet…). I queried agents; a bunch asked to see the whole ms but then passed, because I’d been deluded about its readiness. I revised some more.

Somewhere in there I queried Aqueduct Press, whose editors had been good to me during the publication of my speculative poetry collection, The Receptionist and Other Tales (all my poetry books feature ghosts and other flavors of uncanniness, but only The Receptionist is speculative through and through). The verse novella at the heart of it was named to the James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honor List, something I never would have thought I could even be in the running for.

Revise and resubmit was Aqueduct’s verdict, with some challenging, even deflating advice that I quickly recognized the utter justice of. More brainstorming, more character and plot overhauls, and a lot of the smaller screw-tightening fine-tooth-combing stuff. And then, a couple of weeks ago, with yet more notes about revision because that’s the writing life, came the offer of a contract.

So apparently, one of the magical transformations of midlife is that a poet can become a novelist. I have moments of elation about that, and moments of alarm. My turn to novels is a way bigger change than anything that’s happened in my writing life since I won a prize for Heterotopia ten years ago. It’s NOT a turn away from poetry, which is still very much at the center of my daily life, but it will be a turn away from traditional scholarship, I think. My novel, Unbecoming, and my next poetry collection, whose title I’m still fiddling with, will be out in 2020 (there’s a small chance of late 2019 for the novel, but I’m not banking on it). AND I have a book of poetry-based nonfiction, a hybrid of criticism and memoir, scheduled for 2021 (more details on that soon!).

Creative writing across the genres, full speed ahead!–I’ve been drafting a lot of micro-essays and some micro-fiction this winter. Reviewing, too. But I can’t do everything. And I know where my heart lies.

Learning to write a novel has been hard and surprising and wonderful, but now I have to learn about publishing one. PLUS do my best job ever at getting the word out about my new poetry collection, simultaneously, while revising the essay collection. It’s a lot. I anticipate a big pivot next year from the introversion of writing/ revision/ submission work to the extroversion required for traveling, reading, guest-teaching, panel-surfing, and all the other stuff. Some of it at SF conventions! And all this will happen right at my empty nest moment–this is also the winter of helping my son get college applications out and waiting for the verdicts. I mean, really–what’s the appropriate cheerful-but-scared expletive for THAT?

swamp

 

Information and energy

It’s pretty cold and dark out there. Confederate flaggers are stomping around my small town; the news from a larger world remains frightening. Perhaps insanely, I’m always looking for omens of something better ahead. As I walk home from work, I notice the sky is just a bit lighter, and wonder what hopes I can pin to the lengthening daylight.

Friday was an especially tough day. We had to put down our most gentle, elderly cat, the confusingly-named Female (rhymes with Emily). She’s the one we took over caring for a few years ago, when Chris’ mother couldn’t manage anymore. Lately Female hadn’t been eating–you could feel the knobs of her spine when you tried to stroke the poor thing–and I swear the way she looked at me, she was asking for help leaving the world. Chris took her to the vet, who said it was time, and then brought Female home to be buried in the yard. I wanted our other cats to have the news, so I brought her body inside for Poe to sniff; he leaned in, then recoiled. The kitten Ursula, whizzing around like a meteor, never noticed. fem lemon blam

The one class I teach on Fridays, Protest Poetry, was also hard. On Wednesday I’d taught poems about the death of Malcolm X and while most of our discussion was productive, there had been a couple of bad moments–nothing ill-meaning, but students making insensitive comments as they thought aloud about deliberately disturbing poems. I had anticipated the need to discuss a homophobic slur in Amiri Baraka’s “Poem for Black Hearts,” and that went fine, but I hadn’t anticipated pushback, for instance, against anger itself. (We’d been reading about Emmett Till, the Baptist church bombed in Birmingham, a mounting death toll and litany of abuses–in what world is anger not inevitable and utterly just?–but as present politics continue to teach us, we don’t all live in the same world, and many of the students in my classroom are like Ursula, full of verve but not yet alert to the reality of other perspectives.) I responded in the moment, but in retrospect I realized I hadn’t responded strongly enough. So I began with an apology, asked the students to freewrite about a recent time they felt angry and what they did about it, then handed out “The Uses of Anger” by Audre Lorde. The discussion that followed was raw, messy, respectful, persistently oblivious, emotional, and awe-filled by turns, and I ended up having a couple of intense follow-ups with students afterwards. It didn’t do all the necessary work but it was a start.

Despite all that, while my January so far has been certainly been INTENSE, on balance 2019 has been good. There were also some really splendid local events this week, most of them centered on the first of two residencies by our Glasgow Distinguished Visiting Professor Aimee Nezhukumatathil. She is teaching a one-credit master class in poetry and the eight lucky students taking it are buzzing with happiness. She was also wildly charismatic and inspiring in her public reading–really lighting up a packed room. I’d done a lot of advance work to increase engagement, such as running a book club discussion in December of her newest collection, Oceanic, so as the programmer/ organizer I sighed with relief when I saw the crowd, but it was the quality of the event itself that made it all feel worthwhile. It was that rare cosmic conjunction: community payoff that was genuinely in proportion to the months of hard work! I feel grateful to her and also just deeply satisfied and happy about it. More strong feelings.

“Anger is loaded with information and energy,” Audre Lorde writes, and further on: “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is the grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.” There’s more information in her powerful essay than I’ve been able to process, but I treasure that insight about the deep connection between anger and grief. My heart is full this weekend, but not in a bad way. I feel anxious always; sad and thoughtful; but also joyous about good conversation. Hopeful about what else this young year might bring.

urs

Breathe (a brief post on posting)

The painting above is “Breath” by Lee Krasner, which I found in the New Orleans Museum of Art last week, on a breather from work (the new term starts tomorrow). I don’t know much about Krasner, but the exhibit caption says this painting’s “rhythmic marks…call forth the rise and fall of breathing, as well as the more meditative act of taking a deep breath. Krasner’s paintings were often more subtle and introspective than her husband Jackson Pollock’s frenzied ‘action painting’…one reviewer condescendingly claimed, ‘There is a tendency among some of these wives to ‘tidy up’ their husband’s styles.” I was drawn to the canvas for its beauty, but that caption transformed me into an ally. 

Looking at art, I’d been wondering about my lack of interest, this year, in making new year’s resolutions. Do I really need another list? I’d also just read this article about resolutions and was considering a couple of points the reporter made. For instance: “Imagine it’s the next New Year’s Eve. What change are you going to be most grateful you made?” Hmm–living a more peaceful life, I guess. Concentrating effort more thoughtfully and taking care of myself so that I can be more open to unpredictable emotions, and to other people. I love January O’Neil’s “Poetry Action Plan”, but I tend to tick so doggedly down checklists, virtue becomes bad habit, in that I get so busy fulfilling promises to myself and others that I don’t take enough meditative, restorative time. Also, one of the experts the journalist interviewed (oh, so many experts out there on self-improvement!–shouldn’t we all be perfect by now?) recommended “reflecting on what changes would make you happiest, then picking a ‘theme’ for your year. That way, even if a particular habit doesn’t stick, your overarching intention will.” As someone who has tried and failed to create a meditation practice about five million times, that resonated.

So, standing in front of “Breath,” I chose my theme for 2019. Breathe.

I don’t know how, yet, that translates into particulars. I know visiting museums fills me with oxygen, but I need to find more air locally, too. For the moment, in addition to cleansing breaths, I’m trying to get ready for the semester without getting anxious about the to-do regimen. Work will be demanding, and both my kids are in their senior years (high school for one, university for the other), so lots of transitions ahead, but one step at a time, right?

BLOG BADGE 2019 Poetry Blogging Network

Here’s the meta-meditation on how poetry blogging fits in. I posted pretty much weekly in 2018, energized by Kelli Russell Agodon’s Poetry Bloggers Revival and sustained by Dave Bonta‘s brilliant weekly digests. That mega-project has been formalized now into the Poetry Bloggers’ Network (fancy badge below). I hope you’ll sign up here and join the party! But I’m also giving myself permission to be more irregular about posting in 2019–I’m nourished by the project of maintaining this space, which focuses on the intersections among poetry and other parts of my life. But I also have other work that feels urgent, and a blog can be a hungry beast that needs constant feeding. (Breathe.)

In the meantime, in the spirit of movement without frenzy, here’s a first stab at blog redesign. I’d put up an image of an ivy-covered wall when you-know-who was elected and felt a strong need to open that up; I’ve also been craving warm colors. So the new header image is some pinked-up Blue Ridge Mountains photographed by my daughter, although I might keep tinkering with how it all looks. I’ve got a poetry book to name, after all, and choose cover art for–a blog design based on those elements, as they come into focus, would make sense. I’m on the lookout for women artists whose work would resonate with my poems, which have a lot to do with the landscape and history of this part of Virginia. Send me a line if something comes to mind, please!

And in the meantime, I hope the new year brings you light and air, whether or not you get to visit the bromeliads.

spanish moss