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.
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?
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.
Countdowns and confetti: bah humbug. By New Year’s Eve, I’m tired of festivity. Middle age has clearly settled in, because I now regularly find myself closing out the year by binge-reading.
December is always a good month for catching up on The Year’s Big Poetry Books. My university library orders the US National Book Award poetry longlist and the Pulitzer finalists annually, so after grades are in, I rush in to the circulation desk and beg them to finish “processing” my slim volumes. This year I’ve only perused a fraction of them so far. Someone had already checked out Dove’s Collected Poems and while I’m a big fan and have written about her work, I’m letting the anonymous poetry-reader keep it for the moment, with blessings. But I’ve at least glanced at the other finalists and almost everything seems worth attention. While I’ve only read the first few pages of the NBA top selection, Borzutzky’s Performance of Becoming Human, it’s powerful and I will finish it.
The oh-my-god discovery in this stack, however, was Diane Seuss’s Four-Legged Girl. What a fierce, smart, funny book! An old lesson affirmed: read the finalists, Lesley. I always respect the winners but fall madly in love with a runner-up.
Also worth noting: my favorite chapbook was Elizabeth Savage’s Parallax, but the chaps listed below by Janet McAdams, Carrie Etter, Natalie Diaz, and Rosemary Starace are also terrific. (Is there a best-annual chapbook post-publication prize? There should be.) For YA poetry, although it doesn’t need to be characterized that way: Marilyn Nelson’s American Ace. Among the books I read for Kenyon Review micros were several charmers, but Ned Balbo’s Upcycling Paumanok impressed me as especially ambitious, crafty, and big-hearted.Books I read for various reasons and liked so much I put them on syllabi include Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Field Guide to the End of the World, Susan Briante’s The Market Wonders, Erika Meitner’s Copia, and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds.
Other genres: I’m finishing Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad right now and am totally dazzled. I was also delighted to discover, a little belatedly, Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being and N. K. Jemisin’s sf. But all the novels I read this year were good, with the likely exception of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, of which I cannot remember one scene. My book-length nonfiction reading was more uneven–a few brilliant tomes, a couple of weak choices–but I hope to do better in 2017.
And on that note, I would REALLY like to catch up with NZ poetry this year–I’m appalled to see not one item here from a country I remain so in love with. Please put the word out I’d be happy to get review copies, print or electronic, for my micro-review gig at Kenyon Review Online. I probably won’t lose 10 pounds or exercise more, but sit around with cups of tea and new poetry collections? THAT’s a resolution I can uphold.
Best wishes for everyone to thrive in the new year, except the orange man, upon whom I wish shame, frustration, and disaster.
Every New Year’s Day, after the hoppin’ john, my family of four pulls out a box that gets packed away annually with the Christmas ornaments. It contains lists we’ve been keeping since before our kids, now 13 and 16, could write. We reread them, laughing or chagrined or occasionally pleased, before drafting a new list for the following year. Some highlights in various hands: “Get better at drawing robots.” “Be good so I get a hamster.” “Unlock every single guy on Super Smash Bros.” “Schmooze at AWP.” “Remind whole family to floss regularly.” “Floss no more than 20 times in next 2 years.” “Don’t let Mom make me floss.”
I’m always appalled by how my yearly vows to eat less and exercise more don’t do a lick of good. I should take a lesson from my most successful resolution ever, which was doable and specific: if there are four flights or fewer and I’m not carrying something very heavy, I take the stairs (conserving fossil fuels, spending my own stockpile). A series of resolutions did make my diet healthier—higher in veggies, limited in fats and sugars—plus, having discovered dairy and corn allergies several years ago, I can’t eat most processed foods. Still, like many middle-aged people, I grow a little jollier-looking ever year. Remember when you were twenty, and all you had to do was swear off midnight cheeseburgers and the pounds just melted away?
We’ll see what I write on that slip of paper tonight about diet, exercise, and drawing robots. Here, in the meantime, are my literary resolutions for 2014.
1. Maintain a list of every book I read so when I get those end-of-year “Best of 2014” requests, I can remember favorites from before October.
2. Read at least some of every poetry volume that gets shortlisted for the major post-publication prizes, THAT YEAR, instead of discovering five years later, “oh, that really WAS good!” I’ve asked my library to order them, which should help.
3. Persist in seeking publication for poems and essays, and especially for the new poetry ms, Radioland, despite clerical tedium, existential crises, etc.
4. Draft the middle third of Taking Poetry Personally, or Poetry’s Possible Worlds (title in flux)—this critical-memoirish thing I’m writing, and which I just reread the first third of, and which I immodestly think is kind of exciting.
5. Apply for an NEA, because what the hell.
6. Revise ruthlessly and decisively.
7. Remember my priorities. It’s good to help other people and hard to say no, but I need to be better about directing my not-unlimited energy at the projects that seem most urgent. I have a plan, as far as writing is susceptible to plans anyway, but I’m constantly letting it get sidelined.
As I drafted this I saw a similar post from January Gill O’Neill and liked her list better than mine. “Have a vision” is basically like “Remember my priorities,” but I need some version of her “Ditch what’s not working.” That’s hard for me, letting hours or days or weeks of work result in nothing, even harder than the submission-rejection wheel of pain. Easier, though, than flossing.
 Unintended pun. I’m Wheeler, and I work in Payne Hall. Hmm.