My brain hurt like a warehouse

It is a truth universally acknowledged that middle-aged women sleep poorly. Hormones, hot-flashes–pandemic and political ugliness are just icing on the cake, really. From what I can see, middle-aged women, although they don’t seem like an envied or celebrated category of human, do a LOT, and it weighs on their brains. They pile myriad many obligations onto their full-time jobs, including caretaking of growing children and aging parents; all the invisible labor of maintaining social ties at home and at work; organizing the resistance; community service of a million kinds; some tolerable minimum of housework and the vocations that may or may not overlap with what they do for pay. I’m not the most overworked by a long shot, but I often fall asleep (eventually) worrying about my latest failure of compassion as well as what I’m not doing to nurture a career; I wake up planning chores, meals, and tweets. In between, I now have anxiety dreams about teaching in person and suddenly realizing that no one is wearing a mask. Meanwhile, apocalyptic Bowie lyrics repeat on a loop: “My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare,/ I had to cram so many things to store everything in there.”

I gave myself some time this week to write and revise, and it reminded me how happy that makes me, to concentrate on one kind of work at a time. Instead of hurting like a warehouse (I love that simile), my brain shifts into a mode of focused exploration; I can fall asleep all right, and I wake up almost cheerful. It’s amazing to me how even sabbatical, a time supposedly dedicated to focused reading and writing, gets fractured into a million tasks. Or, I mean, I fracture it; there is a world of need out there, but there’s also my guilt and, often, restless energy. The problem with the writing-dream being my salve is that it eventually begets more busy-work: submissions, proofs, getting word out on social media even when I know social media makes me unhappy (oh, FB)… Again I think of Bowie, whose 1970s diet allegedly oscillated between cocaine and milk.

My endless little post-writing tasks bore sweet fruit this week. Last winter, I thought about who shine a light on The State She’s In: my small press sends out copies but doesn’t have a publicist, so I was telling myself I needed to make my own luck. I sent out a ton of applications for festivals, reading series, conferences, etc., but I also tried something I hadn’t before: I studied the reviews in The Rumpus, found someone who writes really great ones and seems to be interested in books like mine, and wrote to her out of the blue to ask if she’d like to see my digital ARCs or receive a copy of the published book. Yes, she said, although no promises; even if she got to it, it would be a while. And here it is, an extraordinarily long, thoughtful, generous dream of a review by Julie Marie Wade in The Rumpus.

Most queries and applications are rejected or ignored, and most publications are greeted with what sure looks like silence. I’ll probably never figure out what level of effort is worth it. But here is a notice in my graduate school alumni magazine–I thought they’d ignored me. And a friend just texted me about teaching an essay I published last year in Waxwing: “White Rice: Teaching in the Confederacy.” She said “it was a big hit. It allowed the group to voice apprehensions and see that failure can be a vital process in making art.” I need to do more “pushing through the market square” this week, to quote Bowie–writing bookstores about potential readings in summer or fall–and those little echoes of efforts long past give me heart.

cats : making a ruckus :: poets : blogging

My daughter and her cat have moved in for a couple of weeks. We have two cats of our own who were already unimpressed with each other, so the house is full of hissing AND purring, as each cat circles back around for reassurance that they are still the best cat, the most handsome and loved, and certainly everyone’s boss. I know from living with Poe and Ursula that the feline dominance battle never ends. Ursula wins more often–the toy, the spot in the sun–but there are flags Poe keeps re-staking, such as the sill of a certain downstairs window. Without that particular view of sparrows, the mailman, and an offensively brassy groundhog who needs to be shown a thing or two, would life even be endurable?

As you suspected, I’m working myself up to a metaphor: the vehicles are cats, the tenors are moods, and there’s struggle all round. (I could even say that Ursula stands for inexplicably confident cheer, Poe for the rational pessimism of intelligence, and the visitor Sabina for rage behind which is a yearning for peace and freedom, but I think we’ve all had enough of this.) As the season turns to lengthening daylight which is also the start of a long winter, my equilibrium is shaky. I had a challenging year; I had a lucky year and should never complain about anything. It’s all true.

My fifth poetry collection The State She’s In, seems to be doing well. But, and this won’t shock anyone who knows that 2020 has been a bad year for publishing, I just learned that my first novel, Unbecoming, isn’t selling much despite good reviews. I am heartsore. I’ve seen my spouse go through this; in 2011 he published a novel in stories with a university press that immediately went under and eventually learned that the marketing person, last woman standing on the sinking ship, never sent out the review copies or publicity she’d promised. He wrote a couple of great novel mss after that and just couldn’t sell them, because the publishers’ marketing people looked at those numbers and said “bad risk.” This happens in poetry, too–the best way to jump to a press with a big presence is to sell the hell out of your small-indie collection–but the effect is stronger in novel-publishing, probably because poetry has so little money in it anyway. I had felt excited about the new novel I’m drafting but pivoted immediately to fear that no matter how good it is, it might get stuck in limbo. What I care about here isn’t advances or royalties–I have a day job–but to keep writing books, publish them when they’re good and ready, and find appreciative readers.

I’m sad but not paralyzed. On the practical side, I’m making to-do lists for post-publication prize entries and other ways 2021 can be an occasion for a second push. On the emotional side, I’m reminding myself how many literary gifts I’ve received in 2020: generous reviews, reading opportunities, and a LOT of nice notes from friends and strangers praising one book or the other. I am truly, wildly grateful, even when so much about the publishing landscape is dispiriting or just plain pisses me off. I’m also trying to pay back the love. Here are a few things I do beyond buying indie books (ideally from independent bookstores), and I hope you’ll try them too:

  • celebrate books I like on social media (especially books from indie presses).
  • rate books on Goodreads and Amazon. I know people don’t like those linked sites for many good reasons, yet it’s a big kindness to authors to post a few stars there. The number of reviews matters much more than the content; I don’t know what the magic numbers are, but more reviews makes it more likely the books will pop up as search suggestions.
  • ask your local/ university libraries to order titles. I’m behind on this myself but will work on it in the new year.
  • teach new work when you have the opportunity, especially when the book can be on the required or suggested list for your class. Many indie authors are willing to Zoom in cheaply or for free–I’m one of them–and that’s a great way to raise the energy of a flagging class.
  • suggest a book for your book club or library event series, also with the potential excitement of a virtual author visit.

You can also look for a year-in-reading post from me soon, featuring a few poetry titles that deserve more love. And please sign up for one of my readings early in the new year! I promise to make them fun as well as quite different from each other. For the Poetrio event, poster below, the wonderful bookstore Malaprops is stocking The State She’s In. Another bit of light from the moody universe! Happy holidays, stay safe, be patient with whatever your feuding cats are, and I’ll see you next week.

Poetrio Series at Malaprop Books with Kathy Goodkin and Eric Tran, 3 pm ET, January 3rd, https://www.facebook.com/events/708758299776747

Café Muse with Don Colburn, January 4th, 7 pm ET, sign up here (https://sites.google.com/view/cafe-muse-events/home)

Still at the Egg-life–

I’m dormant these days, sometimes “chafing the shell,” as Dickinson wrote, but also conserving energy and trying to stay focused. Some hibernaculum thoughts:

  1. I clearly know nothing about words or publishing, because I posted my most popular tweet ever this week and it was about…boots. Success, if that’s what that is, isn’t always confidence-inspiring.
  2. I am working hard to launch my books with a bang, but this effort is grounded in sheer stubborn grit. Made a promise to myself; gonna keep it.
  3. “February is not my favorite month,” I told a kind person who is also my hairdresser. He answered, “Good title for a poem.” Maybe I’ll write it when I hatch.
  4. I’d be lying like a Fox newscaster if I didn’t admit to cracks in my self-containment. Thanks to Colleen Anderson for posting a Q&A with me in her Women in Horror Month series. Two magazines with my work in them just arrived, too–Hampden-Sydney Review and 32 Poems–and those editors have placed my poems in dazzling company.
  5. I am also reading the news and issuing an occasional plea to representatives (talk about horror!). I suspect and fear this corrupt and compassionless president will be voted into a second term, not least because he’s doing his best to disempower voters. I want a President Warren and don’t understand this country’s grudge against competent women–of everyone in the running, she’s the person I trust most profoundly to fix what’s broken–but whoever wins the Democratic nomination, I’ll be all-in. The stakes are so high for vulnerable human beings and for the more-than-human world.
  6. A zone that’s smaller, but in which my power and responsibility are greater: I am, again, amazed by my students’ energy, talent, and ambition, and I am determined to serve them well, but I am struggling to keep my teaching and advising load within a reasonably-sized container. This term it’s a composition course on speculative fiction; a general education course called Poetry and Music; and a small senior seminar on documentary poetics (we’re currently reading poems responding to Hurricane Katrina). I’m also advising an honors thesis and prepping a brand new Whitman-Dickinson course for our May term, all of which is fun, but could easily keep me in my eggshell office around the clock. The grading alone!
  7. Yet I AM making some time for those double book launch preparations–not a ton, but some. I’m inquiring, applying, and updating my Events page when something comes through, all the while trying to tamp down my delicate-flower dismay about asking for things AND pondering how much busy-ness Future Me will be able to handle (Chris sometimes says, “Former Chris, the one who put me in this position, was an asshole.”) Next year is my sabbatical, so there has to be time in there to write, revise, recharge.
  8. Tiny triumph: please check out the book launch party flier below, which despite its simplicity took much of Saturday morning to put together.
  9. I also finally squashed down my loathing of being photographed to book a headshot session with Anne Valerie Portrait. Turns out the photographer is a lovely person with a calming vibe. When she said, during our first meeting, that she usually has a long preparation process but had read my blog and recognized that I need to do this efficiently, conserving energy, I almost burst into tears. Maybe it can be good to be seen.
  10. What I’d like to do right now? A box of mss just came from Cider Review Press, because I’m serving as this year’s judge. I want to read read read–something I know for sure I’m good at. Pondering them will be good work for February’s closed-in evenings, when wind rattles the tin roof and poems are the only hubbub I feel drawn to.

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.

In a Samhain state of mind

Not to get too pagan on you, but this week I can feel wheels turning, for good and ill. On the good side: above is the cover of my first novel, to be released in June 2020. I’ve been so grateful for the excitement people have expressed about it. As I keep saying, this venture feels more like a leap into the dark than poetry publishing. I’m getting publicity gears grinding for my March 2020 poetry collection, too, but I know perfectly well that except for rare cases, “Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon,” as Don Marquis poetically said, “and waiting for the echo.” I worked insanely hard on that novel, I’m proud of it, and I WILL get out there to give readings, etc.–but will it be like dropping a moderately-sized rose bush into the Grand Canyon, meaning, not much more echo-producing? I really have no clue. I feel pretty philosophical about it these days; I just want to know, a year from now, that I gave all my pretty rose petals the most energetic pitch possible.

Pitching, however, is a LOT of work. The “bad” of this liminal season is feeling stressed and anxious as I step from the overwork of October (teaching, grading, applications, event programming) to the overwork of November (teaching, conferencing, applications, and exceptionally heavy committee work). I just keep plotting out tasks on my calendar, trying to prove to myself that it CAN be done, and hoping I reach Thanksgiving in one piece. I’m also trying, to whatever extent possible, to pare off obligations that rev up my worries and spend time instead on what makes me feel better.

Ridiculously, that sometimes means work, but the kind of labor that produces an experience of flow rather than jitteriness. I gave Monday morning over to intensive lesson-planning, doing some background reading on William Carlos Williams and getting ready for tomorrow’s campus visit by the fabulous Lauren K. Alleyne, and you know what? I felt noticeably better after those hours of concentration. Answering email: not so soothing.

Today’s treat was reading a splendid new anthology I am lucky enough to have a poem in: the brand-new Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia, edited by Rose McLarney and Laura-Gray Street. They commissioned pieces on various plants and creatures from poets with connections to the region, and so many of the poems are gorgeous and moving. Each species, too, is described by naturalist L.L. Gaddy and illustrated in black-and-white by seven Southern Appalachian artists. The resulting book is both local and diverse, and truly a stunner.

The next task: prepping for the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference starting on 11/8, because I’ll be away this weekend, visiting the kids (it’s Haverford’s Family Weekend). That’s downtime I sorely need, as I keep telling myself as I watch work pile up on either side of it… but I’ll be striving to be in the moment there, and at the conference, too. Check out the program; it looks kind of brilliant.

What I want to do most of all is work on a short story I’m feeling excited about; the poetry hasn’t been coming lately. And that leads to one last Samhainish thought: one of the funny things about publication is that by the time the work gets out there, you’re often mentally and emotionally moving on to new ideas. When you give a reading or do other kinds of promotion, you can feel like you’re trying to call up the dead and hoping the doors to the otherworld open, as they’re supposed to do this time of year. Come, ghosts, and help me out. I have, in fact, been thinking about my father and dreaming about my maternal grandmother, as if spirits are visiting–and I’ve also been remembering that tarot card reading I got around New Year’s, when the psychic told me two ghosts were following me around. If they are, and they want to be of use, maybe they could help with the committee work?