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)

Poetry and self-doubt, with footnotes

There’s this late-fall moment, every other year, when many U.S. poets feel a little dejected: once again, no NEA fellowship. This year, for reasons I don’t entirely get, I just shrugged it off. Too busy, maybe. The thought had also hit me the week before Thanksgiving–oh, wait, I bet they’ve decided already–so I felt resigned by the time the email came. It’s just one of those honors I may never earn, although I hope one of my long-term comrades in feet* picks one up, one of these years. I know a bunch of very good poets who are not stars; many of them are middle-aged women, a category that often gets the short end of the stick. Poetry fashions skew young, like fashions in everything else.

One of those fashions right now favors poetry of joy, praise, sexiness, gratitude–and I don’t say that in a disparaging way at all, because I love a lot of the work.** But while I want my writing to lean towards kindness, love, and other happy endings whenever possible, because it’s a hard world and books should help us imagine a better one, I also find myself muttering: you know, screw that. I lead this privileged life and still feel touched by so much sorrow and worry; I’m also basically a serious person from a long line of dissatisfied depressives. Performing lyric joy with my achy body and anxious brain, under the current U.S. administration and amid national conversations about racism and sexual assault, is just not authentic. You wouldn’t believe me. The trend feels linked, to me, to how social media compels so many of us to overemphasize the positive most of the time, because that’s what sells, or gets likes, or whatever.*** We’re just doing too much celebrating, dammit.

I see a therapist from time to time and we had an hour this week in which we talked mostly about self-doubt. She rightly points out that I have a pretty good resume, career-wise; my loved ones, though afflicted sometimes with crises, are basically okay; that I would do well to ease up and slow down. I do not have to be so afraid, say, of never publishing a ms or writing a great poem or getting pats on the head from the prize-dispensers again. I agree with her and we talked about ways to balance my commitments better. I also argued, however, as I argue to myself sometimes, that self-doubt is a necessary part of being a decent artist, and maybe a decent human being. If you don’t stand back and say, “hey, maybe that writing sample wasn’t really good enough to ensure a grant win,” how do you grow? Isn’t a drive to keep upping the bar a necessary pressure? Shouldn’t I keep questioning myself and my work?

Well, I’m probably rationalizing, because that’s what people do. I doubt my self-doubt. Happy December, my writer friends. Put up those twinkly lights, and don’t mind the darkness encroaching.

beach path

*That’s a stupid pun, sorry. I just thought “comrades in arms” sounded too military.

**Think of Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil, for instance. They perform poetic joy even as they admit and face the world’s essential crappiness, somehow. But I think they may be taking vitamins that aren’t sold in this state.

***I absolutely do this–only getting on FB, for instance, when I have good news. Hey, did I mention my brilliant mathematician son is interviewing for a fancy college RIGHT NOW? Or that my class is doing a HAIKU DEATH MATCH on Monday morning at 11 in the Elrod Commons Living Room at W&L, because I’m kind of a creative and risk-taking teacher? Or that I’m now poetry editor for Shenandoahwhich is launching NEXT FRIDAY? All true! My life is so fabulous! But for once, let’s relegate fabulousness to the footnotes.

Don’t read this if you’re focusing on gratitude

As I slice sweet potatoes and cube challah bread for stuffing, I’m feeling not grateful or festive but sick at heart about two things: the injustice at Standing Rock, and what this election is going to mean for my children’s generation. I am fortunate to have my daughter home from college and a visiting cousin to cook for and a warm house full of food, and I think people absolutely need and deserve those consolations between the political storms, but this year, a sense of peace is just not something I can conjure with cups of tea and wedges of apple pie.

“And as the numbers came in on election night I watched him head to his room, his head down, his shoulders curving into his chest…he was slowly beginning to understand new truths: that the people who love you cannot always protect you, that unkindness can be a platform for the presidency.”

That’s Jacqueline Woodson writing about her 8 year old son for the New York Times. Over the last two weeks, as I’ve struggled with my own feelings, I’ve also been watching understanding sweep over the children and young people I know. The Wednesday morning after the election, my phone lit up with texts from friends, telling me their daughters were sobbing uncontrollably. Lots of kids are now worried that they, or their friends, or their parents will get deported or suffer violence. Sometimes they just feel humiliated–here is proof that half the whole country thinks less of them because of their gender or the color of their skin. I don’t know how to name what my own 16-year-old white son seems to be feeling–fury at systemic injustices, certainly, but mixed with a kind of crushed shame. And of course, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has been reporting, hate crimes are up, a high proportion of them in schools. Fear and shame are appropriate reactions, much as I hate to see them in children and teenagers. Most of the young people I know want to believe in justice and want to be good, although those impulses seem to burn out for many by full adulthood.

Kids who can’t remember much about pre-Obama politics are now seeing the backlash, or, as Larry Wilmore put it, the “Blacklash.” They’re only now realizing how impenetrable that glass ceiling for women still remains. They need to know these truths, but it’s still beyond awful to watch them learn it.

And while I’ve always loved Thanksgiving–at least the version of it without my father, who was usually filled with right-wing rage at this time of year–the holiday itself is basically Fake Racial Unity Day, a whitewashing of genocidal histories. The traditional narrative of cooperation is especially unconsoling given the current brutal fight over oil rights on Sioux land in North Dakota. Water cannons. Protest met by police violence. Looks a lot like a Civil Rights struggle but national media outlets are barely touching it. Where is my president now? If even President Obama has his head in the sand–or is unwilling to speak out against big oil–well, is there anything we can be proud of our country for anymore?

Told you not to read this. Because I do believe, however, most wholeheartedly, in dessert, I’ll leave you with a scrap of a David Remnick article. Remnick asked the president what he told his own daughters about the election, and this was the reply–sane and yet inspiring, a feat Obama seems to manage improbably often:

“What I say to them is that people are complicated…This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop…You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.”

He’s a good man. I’ll raise my untrusting, ungrateful glass tonight to the hope that at Standing Rock, he’ll follow his own advice.

 

 

Forgiveness, gratitude, and other things I suck at

Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday—historically, emotionally, even logistically. (Reason #647 to be grateful: I don’t have to get on the highway this year.) And yet I love all the rituals leading up to the feast. Last weekend, I made stock and baked pumpkin bread to freeze. This Saturday I scribbled out long lists and laid in ingredients. Now homemade cranberry sauce is chilling in the fridge and cranberry-orange bread is perfuming the kitchen. Wednesday is for pies; Thursday morning I embark on an elaborate plan that will theoretically get all the food hot in time for dinner with Chris’ brother and his family. This orderly sequence—a crazy amount of work for one meal, but carved into small steps doable over time—seems all the more beautiful because I know it will have to change before too long. My daughter goes to college next year, and who knows how our traditions will need to alter as our children’s lives expand?

thxA sense of loss, prospective and retrospective, permeates the rituals. I scored some challah bread at the market because two decades ago, my friend Gayle taught me that it makes the best stuffing—but I haven’t seen Gayle for ages. Some of the recipes, like a maple-glazed sweet potato and apple dish, are from sticky old copies of Bon Appetit, to which I subscribed in the early nineties when I was a grad student learning how to cook. Those first attempts at domesticity are hazy in my memory now. The pumpkin bread recipe was transcribed in a neat hand around the turn of the century by my departmental partner in crime, Suzanne, whom I see much less of since she moved to the dean’s office, although she emails me generous notes of praise after I submit departmental reports. The cranberry bread instructions are scrawled less precisely on a soft green index card given to me by another now-distant friend. She broke off contact with me in long-nursed anger over something I’d said years before. I apologized but couldn’t remember making the harsh remark, or even secretly holding that opinion; I suspected misunderstanding. Not surprisingly, my apology didn’t help either of us—another friendship faded out.

And people near to me are managing much harder losses. I’m giving a poetry reading the week after Thanksgiving at VMI and only belatedly realized the date coincides with a terrible car accident at W&L last year. Over the mountain, the University of Virginia is in the news after the murder of a young woman earlier this fall and more a recent Rolling Stone article about gang rape in its fraternities. In class we’ve been discussing anger in poems and essays by Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Rich, and others—how rage can liberate, how it can harm. This is in the context of our own campus troubles with assault. You want a university to be a place where everyone can discuss their differences passionately yet respectfully, where good arguments can change minds, where everyone is safe to pursue their intellectual curiosities. But it is very, very difficult to cultivate and maintain even a temporary bubble of safety around one seminar or workshop, much less a college that has a million points of intersection with a dangerous world.

What I am truly most grateful for is that my spouse and children are safe and well, that my son can whine about his World History project and Chris can get so obsessed with his works cited list that, after shopping, he leaves the groceries in the car overnight (at least it’s cold). But my relief is so small it feels almost mean-spirited. I always want to hedge my thanks, too. I do feel very lucky, for instance, to teach great students in this lovely college town, but I want to add “where the campus culture can be toxic and good morale is fragile despite splendid resources.” Not very gracious, am I?

And forgiveness! I was so moved by my colleague Deborah Miranda’s reading from Bad Indians last week. She excerpted a passage about her dad coming home from San Quentin—a honeymoon of cooking and woodwork and gardening—but then segued into their alienation and his death. Deborah’s childhood was vastly different from mine, but my father was also an alcoholic and unpredictably mean, so as I listened I resonated like a bell. She finished on a passage about holding in her mind an image of her father as a child, still innocent, and feeling a wave of cool forgiveness wash over her. I’ve been meaning to ask her since: did the wave ebb, or does it stay with you? I have forgiven my father many times. The feeling seeps away, floods in, seeps away again. That night I sat down opposite a baby picture of my father I’d put up shortly after his death. The frame suddenly smashed face-down, though the room was still and the shelf unjostled. That’s how I feel: peaceful most of the time, but subject to sudden crashes of refusal.

Since I’m an unforgiving obscenely lucky ingrate, you’ll know it must be genuine when I say that I’m recently able to feel a little less angry about something that has chewed me up for years. About a month ago I responded to a small-potatoes bit of bullying in my department—by a guy whose previous behavior added up to gangantuan, ugly, poisonous potatoes that still lurk around campus unacknowledged—by publically saying cut it out. (You’ll forgive that potatoes metaphor, I hope, for getting so mashed up.) A tiny act of self-expression has made a big difference in my sense of well-being. I’ll try to make a habit of it.

I’m also feeling unhedged gratitude to have Deborah and other friends around, giving me recipes for sustenance. Thanks to a long-distance poet-friend, too, Jeannine Hall Gailey, for a shout-out last week on her blog. Thanks to Gordon Ball, soon retiring from VMI, for asking me to read there (Weds. 12/3, 7:45 pm in Preston Library). A generous writer from Ghana contacted me out of the blue a few weeks ago to interview me for his blog, Geosi Reads–I talk about anger and forgiveness there, too. And thanks to magazine editors who recently turned on their personal amplifiers on my behalf: the people at Crazyhorse, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Gettysburg Review, as well as guest editor Anny Ballardini at Truck. Tahoma Literary Review just nominated a forthcoming poem of mine for a Pushcart, too. Does that sound like trivial po-biz stuff? It’s not. All my poems are love-letters, solitary broadcasts, petitions for human connection. I am so grateful to feel heard.