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.

How and why

70000I’m not the only writer who’s fascinated by the processes of inspiration, composition, and revision, but horrified by the processes of self-promotion. And  I do mean full-on gothic trauma complete with repressed guilt rising monstrously from a shallow grave and chasing me through the Cemetery of Dead Projects. Brave heroine that I try to be, I conquer fear enough to submit work, ask for blurbs and reviews, and nominate myself for various kinds of attention, especially if I can do so in writing, without face-to-face contact with my potential rejecter. I always feel haunted, however, by the ghosts of opportunities lost.

So I was surprised, browsing the Jan/Feb Poets & Writers, to feel inspired by the “Practical Writer” column–a piece by Frank Bures called “Brand You: Questioning Self-Promotion.” It’s print-only, but the gist, as I explained it during a chilly walk with my writer-spouse, is Bures’ recommendation to think like “politicians and cult leaders”–in a good way. The existential nausea of self-promotion recedes when you proselytize for the book itself: why you wrote it, why you imagine some group of readers needs or wants it. “Which means the ‘why’ should be deep in a book’s DNA,” Chris said. Yes.

Hows and whys are on my mind because I have a recent book out, but also because my writing life just took a weird turn. A year ago, I had an idea for a novel and started mentally toying around with it. I put a few paragraphs down last summer but didn’t go further.

Then, while balking at other kinds of work in late fall–my mother’s illness colored life with urgency–an opening scene arrived. I wrote it then, to my shock, kept on going. Every day I could, I’d write for six hours in my pajamas, then shower, run errands, exercise, whatever, and go back to work in late afternoon or evening. I generally work hard on sabbatical–seven or eight hours a day, five days a week, which is a lot of writing–but this was full-bore. I wrote in passenger seats and Christmas outfits, at the crack of dawn and in the middle of the night. During respites my brain would fill with sentences like a bucket under a roof leak. I’d put a bunch of tops in motion and just had to keep touching them, maintaining the spin. I ended up drafting 70,000 words in five weeks, adding a few thousand more during the first revision. It’s not ready for prime time, but it’s not terrible, either.

The whole process was a revelation–that I knew how to tell the story, that I loved the work. I will, at some future point, see if readers like it, too. The aforementioned spouse just finished it–thumbs up–but he gave smart suggestions, too, and there’s lots of work ahead.

I thought this experiment worth undertaking even if I never published a word–that I’d learn from the adventure–and already that seems true. Last week I looked at a languishing memoir-critical hybrid piece and, bam, knew how to fix the thing. Distance helps, but I also understand more now about rhythm and pacing in prose. Trained in poetic compression, I had just been eliding too much. I have infinitely more to learn about time in prose narrative, but practice has sped up my education. I’m curious what lessons I’ll bring back to poetry.

I just finished reading a book that holds up a mirror to this experience: Ben Lerner’s 10:04. His semi-fictional narrator Ben figures out how to write a prose book during a five-week residency that he devotes, contrarily, to writing a long poem, even though he just signed a six-figure contract and desperately needs to get some bill-paying prose underway.  A disobedient excursion through one genre teaches him how to approach–maybe even reinvent–the other.

Unfortunately, the milieu of 10:04 brings me back to the publicity dilemma. If I never again read a novel in which bright young literati in Brooklyn earn fabulous amounts of money, it won’t be too soon. It’s a testament to Lerner’s gift that I couldn’t dislike the book. It wasn’t long ago that an author visiting W&L (not Lerner) said, “I don’t know why anyone living outside Brooklyn even bothers to write.” The remark, leveled at Virginia writers over artisanal cocktails, was brutal, but I do get it: I live far from the publicity machines that might amplify my promotional effort a thousandfold.

Disheartening, sometimes, but as a Philadelphia friend reminds me, I do get a lot done in my tiny boring nowhere-town. On the subject of smallness: check out my microreview in a new Kenyon Review series. And thanks to Hampton-Sydney Poetry Review for publishing my poems and reflections about undergraduate teaching, and also to Valerie Duff-Strautmann for reviewing Radioland so intelligently in the new Salamander. Hurrah for all these great people striving to amplify poetry’s signal!

As I gladly receive their broadcasts, I think about the “why” of Radioland, which is a good book but Sisyphean. It’s about how incredibly difficult it is for human beings to get through to one another, and how vital it isSalamander to try anyway–basically a skeptic’s big pitch for listening and love. Which means it’s a qualified pitch, a little wry. Un-Trumpery from the poet as charismatic loser, as Eileen Myles brilliantly puts it.

I hope you’ll accept the connection and read it, whether you buy, borrow, or cadge a free teacher/ reviewer’s copy. (My link’s to the press but it’s also available from your favorite monstrously convenient online retailer). Or come see me at the VA Festival Book or at the AWP–I’m working on keeping my Events page updated, when I’m not, that is, hiding with my exiled friends behind the tombstone of Literary Recognition Undemanded, R.I.P.