She’s in a state, all right

THIS is the best thing about this week: a stunning cover for my forthcoming poetry book, featuring a painting called “Censer” by Ida Floreak and designed by Nikkita Colhoon. Nikkita’s work was one of the draws, for me, in working with Tinderbox Editions–all her covers stop you in your tracks. I feel really lucky. I owe thanks, too, to Clover Archer for bringing Ida’s art to Staniar Gallery on campus, and to Kevin Remington for getting a high-quality photograph of the work. I went to Ida’s talk just as I was puzzling over possible covers, so there was something magical about the convergence.

Like Ida’s other work, “Censer” has a meditative quality I love. She’s arranged a shrine out of natural objects, highlighting their grace–and the cracking egg suggests rebirth (when am I being reborn again? I’m ready!). Ida says she’s influenced both by botanical drawings and religious art, and this book is full of plants, creatures, and spirit-questions. I had wondered what colors Nikkita would choose for the words on the cover; the pink is both surprising and right. The poems reference pink constantly, from pussy hats to magnolia blossoms to rose-tinted medicines. And somehow the pink lettering makes the shadows more striking, which feels appropriate to this collection, too. Yes, I know I’m close-reading my own cover at length, but I’m excited, dammit.

Of course, having a cover helps me kick publicity into high gear (well, as high a gear as I can manage in my rural location, with no publicist). I’ve been busy arranging a local launch and seeking readings elsewhere with more success that I’d expected but also some disappointments/ loud silences, as you’d imagine. Here’s a preliminary list, but I’ll fill in more details soon. One thought: I’d somehow imagined that when big-name poets posted their tour dates, bookings had just fallen into their laps, because of their dazzling fame. Maybe that happens sometimes. But now I’m suspecting there’s way more hustle involved (my list represents a ton of cold queries and painstaking applications, but also many kind suggestions from allies). I don’t have chutzpah but I am diligent, so I’m trying to compensate for one with the other. I’m also taking any and all ideas about reading venues and I’d be grateful for yours.

I’ll be traveling this spring and summer from Vermont to the Carolinas, with a detour to Wisconsin, and I’m both thrilled to get out there and a little worried about pacing myself. I’ve always been an anxious person but anxiety has been WAY harder to manage this year than ever before–the old tactics and treatments are almost useless, as they sometimes become during menopause, I hear, and I’m having to reinvent my approach. One of my doctors pointed out recently, “The bell rings, and you jump,” meaning I consistently meet my obligations, even when I feel bad. I even enjoy some of them–teaching and giving readings, for example, are generally fun for me. But the costs are higher; I take longer to return to calmness. So I’m thinking maybe I should pair each professional event with a restorative treat–following a guest workshop with a couple of silent hours in an art museum, for example, or a cozy dinner with Chris in an interesting restaurant. I also think I need to decouple the pleasure of sharing work from anxiety about whether the event sells books or not. Sometimes I feel wonderful, knowing that my poems connected, and then I feel crushed when all the impecunious people rush out without buying. But one should not negate the other. Ideas on how you manage the emotions of promotion would be very welcome, too.

Not resolutions but invocations

Last year, I substituted a mantra for a resolution: “breathe.” It helped a little. This New Year’s Eve I wrote up more resolutions, got upset about them, and then decided: to hell with self-improvement. I need fewer bullet points on my endlessly guilty, mildly self-loathing to-do lists. And better ones. In fact, let’s not even call them bullet points. They look like open pupils, too. Pencil points. Poppy seeds.

In considering what words I and others DO need to hear, I’ve been crafting a call for Shenandoah‘s next poetry submission period that will read something like this: “During our March 2020 reading period, please send us prayers, spells, charms, curses, blessings, invocations—poems that try to make change happen. All forms, styles, and procedures are welcome. A selection will appear in a special Shenandoah portfolio in the Spring 2021 issue.”

I know I’m not good about practicing self-care, but I want to keep asking for help this year, sending something like prayers or petitions outward and earthward. (I don’t believe there’s a god up in the sky, although it’s fine with me if you do; I do believe in a living earth that I can listen to and do better by.) I plan to mutter, be kind, pay attention, especially to myself. (And I will remind us to vote for kindness, too, whenever a crooked system gives you the chance. Fires blasting Australia, the U.S. president stirring up war to deflect attention from impeachment–I’m not sure we or the more-than-human-world can take much more of this.)

It may seem paradoxical, given these meditations on care, that I’m beginning 2020 by trying to be in two places at once. As the term starts here in Virginia, I’m handing a pile of syllabi and first-day lessons to my professor-spouse (I swear he’s fine with it, and well-rested!), then hopping on a plane to Seattle to attend the MLA convention. After thinking deeply about whether saying yes was another instance of crazed dutifulness, I decided that, actually, I want to go, as long as I can conference kindly.

The first thing I’m going to do when I arrive is hang out, for the pleasure of it, with a long-distance friend I hardly ever see, Jeannine Hall Gailey. Over the next few days, I’ll attend a few panels, and I’m speaking on a fun one, too (and trying not to stress about it). I joined Janine Utell’s MLA roundtable, “The Space Between Creative Nonfiction and Literary Criticism,” because I thought it would enrich my thinking as well as making my own work more visible, especially the creative criticism in my 2021 book Poetry’s Possible Worlds; this is the kind of conversation I want to have more of, genuinely. On Friday night, I’m part of an all-star lineup at the MLA Offsite Reading (2 minutes each and I’m quite sure most stars will peel off by the time we get to my part of the alphabet, which is fine with me–see the poster below). And on Saturday night, I join Jeannine Hall Gailey to read speculative poetry at Open Books. In between I’m planning to sleep, avoid my email, take a walk or two, and do minimal homework, as well as being super-nice to the anxious job-seekers in the MLA elevators.

Attending is also a way of being kinder to myself as a writer, rather than being maniacally diligent as a teacher (what do you mean, miss a class?!–we will NEVER GET THAT HOUR BACK!). I’d like to do better at fulfilling my responsibilities to what I’ve written, as Jeannine says in PR for Poets, which I’ve been rereading. In addition to the aforementioned 2021 essay collection, I have a fifth poetry collection, The State She’s In, and a first novel, Unbecoming, to launch this spring (look, I made pages!). I believe in them and I want them to find readers. No more prioritizing a tidy email inbox over inquiring about a reading series or submitting to a post-publication prize! I need to do less busy-work, somehow, in 2020, but also keep priorities straight. I will achieve this imperfectly, if at all. But it’s not about checking off a list, right? It’s about keeping those pupils wide. Wish all of us luck. And write some powerful spell-poems, please, no matter where you plan to release their magic.

Credit to a local poet-friend, Julie Phillips Brown, for making a shareable poster!