6 month birthday for THE STATE SHE’S IN (time does not exist)

I recently ordered a 2021 calendar–I favor a portable Moleskine number–but, with heavy-handed symbolism, the order keeps being delayed. I’m a planner by temperament and I SO wish I could anticipate my future doings again. Not possible. It’s all clouds.

For the near term, all a calendar-minded person can do is brainstorm short-term ways to mark the passage of time, because around here, the cooling air and spots of yellow at the tops of trees strongly imply that the fall equinox is near. I keep daily work rhythms, even on sabbatical. On Saturdays, we take walks somewhere outside of this small town, hiking in the woods if we can. I’m applying for writing-related opportunities that might bear fruit next spring or summer. Other people are desperately trying to layer multiple workdays on top of each other right now–work, homeschooling, other responsibilities–so feeling lost in blurry weeks means I’m getting off easy, but to a surprising degree, it’s still a stressor.

Here’s a small anniversary: my fifth poetry collection, The State She’s In, was published on March 17th, 2020, so if it were a baby, it would be a chubby little person rocking forward onto its hands and trying to figure out locomotion. I bought it flowers and arranged a photo shoot to celebrate the occasion. It actually IS a book about time, among other subjects–the history of my region but also the approach and arrival of my 50th birthday, an event that I could watch descending like Wile E. Coyote awaiting the anvil. Processing age and change, I wrote many poems that reference the dreaded number explicitly (as in “Fifty-Fifty”) or use 50 as a formal constraint: poems of 50 syllables, 50 words, 50 lines, and more. I’m sure much of that formal play is invisible. It worked, though. Attacking a number every which way gave me some control over its meaning. I wonder if I could do some version of that by writing poems about 2021? I refuse to give 2020 that honor.

Here’s the last poem in the book, published in Gettysburg Review but never online. “L” was a title I contemplated for the whole book (50, Lesley, Lexington); for this particular piece I researched events that happened in 1967, my birth year, as well as having a conversation about ambition with the mountain that looms over my town. The weirdest thing about the poem, though, is that all of its 50 lines are 50 characters long–a persnickety constraint you can’t even see without using a monospace font, which neither the magazine nor the book does. I might always have to hedge optimistic claims like “I’ve stopped counting”–nope, haven’t yet!–but that’s one of my aspirations, to let go of measure and comparison. To “avoid mirrors except the page” and spend these blurry days as best I can because everything ends sometime and I can’t, in fact, control when that is.

L
 
1967 was on fire: Apollo 1 waiting to launch / Jim
Morrison on Ed Sullivan stoking it higher / Mekong
Delta / Newark riot hurling out sparks / summer of
o sock it to me sock it to me sock it to me sock /
pulsar first glimpsed black hole first named / far
south Deception Island’s volcano in flames / while
an infancy rages / some recently extinguished soul
was slotted in my pigeonhole (Oppenheimer Coltrane
Magritte) / but I’m no reincarnate star not even a
meteor tail (Toklas) / just a minor cloud of space
dust reborn to squall anew / Four decades & change
accrue & a big birthday looms / half & half golden
jubilee 5-0 code for pigs closing in & also atomic
number of tin / Mystery heat rises to scald / What
is it I’m reaching for over this terrible wall / A
relocation / destination / permission for ignition
because beauty burns low / potential guttered long
ago / I don’t know / So I avoid mirrors except the
page and work / burn the fuel of myself in words /
program words to change this space & time / Recall
Cobain & Philip Seymour Hoffman dissolved to smoke
/ Does it even matter how in that year of our new-
born howl Lou Reed crooned heroin into the cradles  
/o it was a Warhol year surreal bananas / From my
room painted like late-in-the-daylily / I can gaze
across a blank tin roof pocked by finch claws past
snow-packed sockets of a desolate maple toward the
lavender brow of House Mountain that for this poem
let’s personify as Ambition / the blaze considered
discourteous to mention especially by women / Well
shouldn’t I be striving? / Talk to me Mountain / &
with a higher perspective than mine Mountain cries 
/ You are a conflagration / Adrenaline singes your     
capillaries / Let the anniversary of your ardor to                 
be born cool you like a shadow / Desire leads only               
to more desire even were your sororal motives pure              
and they are not / Mountain has spoken! / It meant
cease building with borrowed stones unless to lift
somebody else / message over bottle / O & hey says
Mountain one more thing / All poems may be ash but
some shelter small hot hopes / their seed swaddled
in earth’s velvet / What strikes me now like flint
on tinder is how talking to mountains or to you is
the same as talking to myself / just as impossible           
& just as hopeful / either / or / both / & / Maybe
we’re all alpine & none of us is / disconnection a  
gift of language we are supposed to hand back / No
presents please what’s yours is mine already / But    
come in & have a drink on me / Today’s everybody’s
birthday & I’ve stopped counting / well just about  

Virtual Poetry Salon #5 with Caroline Cabrera

And even in blindness our chemistries communicate. Our instinct, a lace mycelium. When my cheeks go hot and I distrust a man I may be sensing the hair as it rises from another woman's neck. I may smell her experience. We know more than we trust ourselves to know.  -Caroline Cabrera, from "The body gives itself away" 

(lack begins as a tiny rumble), a brand new collection by my pressmate Caroline Cabrera, belies its title: these hybrid poems, almost lyric essays, brim with language that nourishes me. Pain and grief are starting points, but line by line, with amazing persistence, Cabrera digs herself out of those very dark places. Sisterhood helps, but so does a renegotiation of her relationship with her own body. “The womb is a world,” she writes in one poem, clarifying that image with the eye-opening closure, “Our first act is one of emigration.” In many poems, too, Cabrera unfolds what it means to be a blonde-haired Cuban American: “My skin keeps me safe. My blood, it boils in me.” My own concentration is poor these days, but this book riveted me. Bonus: the collection includes great poems about toxic bosses. I really appreciate poems about toxic bosses.

This book, by the way, feels very much in sisterhood with Girls Like Us by Elizabeth Hazen, star of my last salon, but really I’m just contacting people with new books and posting these interviews in the order I receive them. I’m really enjoying this project, as well as the new books it’s leading me through. Virginia’s governor just gave a stay-at-home order. I totally agree with it, but it makes connecting through writing more important than ever.

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

We would eat popcorn and parmesan cheese. We would eat kale with bechamel and fried rice. We would eat spaghetti and meatballs, shrimp and grits, and beet risotto. We would eat fried chicken. We would eat guava pastries and croquettas and yucca frita with creamy cilantro sauce. We would eat blood oranges and pomegranates. We would eat and eat and eat and eat and never be filled.

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

Right now I am reading and thinking and processing, which all feels like the precursor to writing. To a Floridian, this period of hunkering feels a lot like preparing for a hurricane that never comes. I’m living from that headspace and trying to be present with where it takes me. 

How can your virtual audience find out more?

I co-host the advice podcast Now That We’re Friends with two other poets, Anne Cecelia Holmes and Gale Marie Thompson. We’re hosting a virtual live episode on Saturday April 11. Check out @NTWFpodcast on Instagram or Twitter for details.

#Virtualbookfair, disappointment, little gifts

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This week has been a bummer. I voted for Elizabeth Warren, whom I love love love but who did poorly across the country in Super Tuesday. It’s been clear for many weeks that she wasn’t going to win, so I’m more resigned than some to this country being a sexist retrograde mess, but still… I’m also worried about coronavirus–not freaked out yet but worried, less for myself than for all the immune-compromised people out there, including my mother and many friends, some of whom lives very close to the quarantine implosion in Seattle. Further, colleges are a petri dishes, although I can see that mine is taking this chance of pandemic seriously. So many people at W&L just got back from travel to hot zones, so I and many others think the bug is already here, incubating. One little fact that struck me: I have a relative who’s a VP at a major insurance company and she said they’ve been preparing for one of these hundred-year major pandemics for 5 years, because it’s due. If Big Money is worried, the risk seems more real. I sure hope this is a false alarm; I’d be delighted to have egg on my face. I am, after all, a Cold War baby who did nuclear bomb drills in grade school–the threat of apocalypse has always been on my mind. But, worrisome.

Also, and I know this will rightly seem trivial to many, I’m so sad about AWP. I decided to opt out for several reasons: I have a cold and didn’t want to expose people to it on the plane, nor deal with their alarm at my sniffles, nor pass through security wariness. Further, one of my panels got canceled, I knew attendance levels were crashing, and my press (very understandably) decided to not to come. Advance sales at AWP are a big deal for the success and visibility of a poetry collection, which is my best yet and which I’ve been hoping would make a tiny splash. If you’re interested in it, I hope you’ll consider ordering it at an excellent discount from the Tinderbox Editions website. Just use the discount code AWP2020. In fact, check out all your favorite small presses, many of which canceled and are giving similar #virtualbookfair deals. I’ve been buying a lot of books myself.

There are compensations, plus more than my share of good things happening. I sorely needed some rest and time, and since I had already arranged makeup assignments for my classes, I’m taking it. Bonus: many friends who couldn’t attend AWP are enjoying these bookfair perks. A few lovely people have lately offered to review The State She’s In (which, by the way, is a pretty political book–let me know if you’d like a copy for reviewing or teaching). If you can, I hope you’ll look at some of my recent publications: poems in Kestrel and Literary Matters; microreviews of recent collections by Erin Hoover and Amy Meng in the very first issue of Revolute; an interview in the anthology Inside the Verse Novel, edited by Linda Weste. Please, friends, stay well, and if you get stuck at home, read poetry!

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.

Revision, re-audition

With both a novel and a poetry collection due to editors this spring, this winter is all about revision. I’ve been combing through my poetry ms, trying to get the opening tracks right (I’ve tried five million variations) and forcing myself to fix or cut iffy but beloved poems. I’m also organizing a last round of submissions, alerting magazine editors to the publication date, and thinking hard about the title. Finalizing the title may entail yet more re-tuning, as well as research into cover images. Eventually I’ll hand it over to Molly Sutton Kiefer at Tinderbox, and I’m sure she’ll will find more for me to do!–but it’s exciting to be circling in.

Then I switched gears to my novel, Unbecoming. (This week is an academic break, which helps.) Timmi Duchamp at Aqueduct asked me to read it aloud before handing it over. I’m finding plenty of klutzy sentences to fix as well as an unbelievable number of adverbs, although I thought I’d weeded them out in the last round–they’re like bunnies or dandelions, proliferating in a fallow ms as soon as you turn your back. Like my poetry book, Unbecoming has survived more than a dozen major revisions, but the last ones focused on character, pacing, and a tendency to summary and over-explanation. I still have traces of the latter to expunge, but what I’m really striving for now is clean, direct sentences.

I like revision, even though it hijacks ALL my creative energies. (With these rewrites to tackle, plus Shenandoah poems to read and grant proposals to draft for my 2020-2021 sabbatical and this pesky full-time job as teacher-adviser-program coordinator, I feel like I’ll never write a new poem again.) It’s rewarding to hone old efforts and feel sentences click into their grooves. But I’ve been thinking about the word “revision.” Its emphasis on “looking anew” doesn’t entirely capture what I’m doing. In both genres, I’m re-sounding lines, trying to hear them freshly, managing echoes within mss. I’m also thinking hard, as I revise, in order to revise, about giving readings. What passages or poems would I choose to read aloud to audiences, and why? Do they sound right in my voice? If I would want to kick off a reading with this poem, or end it with that scene, do those preferences have implications for the arrangement of a printed book? Or do the mediums of print and live reading simply have different requirements?

Can you hear the anxiety? I’m really happy about these books but subject to fizzes of terror, too. I know the poetry book is my best ever and I have decent credentials to make that judgment; what puts me on alert is mainly my drive to do right by the work, shining it up and showing the widest possible audience that my poems are worth their time. I know that sounds arrogant, but I actually believe it. Fiction, though! Giving readings from a novel!! At least Ursula finds revision relaxing.

Pleased as punch (with recipe)

pudding

Maybe I need to blog about poetic self-doubt more often. As soon as I did, my luck seemed to shift under my feet. I had been doing math some of you have surely done, too: I’ve been showing the ms around for a while now. What if this poetry collection I thought was so great doesn’t strike any editors the same way? The poems have done well in magazines, but what would I do with the larger structure, with its support beams and fancy finials, if no press wanted I genuinely wanted to work with returned my affections? Keep trying while I write another one, I realized.

I don’t feel that way about literary criticism; blogging about poetry is fun and I care very much about boosting the poetry that inspires me, but there’s no way I’d keep writing footnoted articles if no one wanted to publish them. I’ll write the best poetry I can for as long as I can, however. It’s work I love desperately. Returning to it after occasional absences, with renewed interest, joy, and creative ambition–that’s been one of the deepest rhythms of my adult life.

Then a piece of fan mail popped up from Molly Sutton Kiefer at Tinderbox Editions, to whom I sent the ms a year ago. Submittable still said “In Progress” but I figured she’d given it a pass. Au contraire. She loved the book. Was it still available?

If you don’t know it, Tinderbox Editions is a small press based in Minnesota; their titles are beautiful inside and out, appealingly designed and carefully edited. I’d reviewed a couple of them and talked to one of the authors, Athena Kildegaard, about her publishing experience, so I’d long felt the press would be a good home for my work. When Molly contacted me, we talked about timing, too, which has gotten messed up for me in the past; if you don’t have a cover and galleys/ advance copies months before the official launch, publicity becomes much harder to do well. She had really good answers about a 2020 launch and working backwards from that due date through a nine-month process to make sure we get it right.

So I am all in, and wildly grateful. My poetry book has a home!

And there’s more! I’ve blogged about my role as poetry editor for the redesigned Shenandoahpublicizing the new issue and celebrating its contributors has felt really great. Plus I’m going to publish my first venture into poetry comics: Split Lip Magazine has just accepted a longish piece Chris and I co-authored called “Made for Each Other.” (Don’t go “awww”–it’s about decrepit robots, as I just told the generous blogger Bekah Steimel in an interview which will be posted sometime today.) The editors at Flockbless them, have nominated one of my poems for a Pushcart–that issue will be live soon, too. And even though I’m receiving my share of literary journal rejections, as everyone seems to this time of year, I do have another bit of loveliness I can’t reveal yet, and that’s dizzying. This middle-aged cyborg isn’t too old yet to pivot, but still, the good news feels overwhelming. Now, if we can just get Trump in prison and solve a few geopolitical crises, I’ll be outright cheerful.

Delicious Holiday Punch I Invented Last Night

*1 cup each pear juice, pear vodka, and ginger liqueur (Domaine de Canton)

*1/2 cup simple syrup (1:1 sugar dissolved in boiling water; I add lemon peel)

*juice of a lemon or two

*ice and Asian pear slices for the punch bowl

Proportions can be doubled or tripled for a crowd. Add lemon seltzer or prosecco to each glass for celebratory fizz.