The Truth of the Matter Is

The truth of the matter is fleeting.  The truth is I don’t know.  And this why I normally avoid writing that purports to know, like essays and stories.

I just finished an essay I have been working on for about a year. (In writing time, that is not so long.)

Now it is done and undone.

With creative non-fiction it feels as though as soon as it is done it is false.  That slice of moment of the self that was writing it is gone.

This is true for poetry, but somehow poetry seems okay with being an artifact of the moment, like peeling off a layer of skin, maybe from your thumb where you can spare some thickness of skin, and placing it in a collage of other items, framing it for viewing (no glass as the reader needs to be able to touch and smell the objects) and that is all it intends to be … a slice of a moment to remind us to see those slices.

An essay, however, asserts itself, with all those complete sentences and direct tellings and the bravado of saying, “I know something, so listen.”

A poem says, “I don’t know, so try to figure it out with me.”

See, that is already false.  I can already think of one argument of how that is not true: 1. Writing this essay was necessary to work out my own obstacle, as if I needed to be given permission to be freer and more joyful.   Another is:  2.the wonderfully lyrical essays of Jacqui Morton, who is able to transcend form and invite us in to share her figuring out living (she does a damn good job of it).

So, I wrote this essay, which may or may not hold true, but it holds something that is important to me, so tonight, I am going to send it out into the world because maybe it holds something that someone needs to hear.

Writing Process Blog Tour

A few weeks ago, the brave, lyrical, and all-around fabulous essayist/poet/dear friend, Jacqui Morton, tagged me to continue this tour.  I am sure she thought since I was on summer vacation I would promptly meet the one week deadline to post, but without a daily schedule I lost track days and weeks.  I also have this other graduate program (MLIS) and important vacation obligations to meet, like jet skiing with my sister and brother-in-law and visiting my nephew in Orlando.

What is a blog tour?  Here are the instructions that were passed on to me:

“A writer answers a few questions about how and why and what they write, and then they ask a pal or three to do the same, and as the weeks go by, more and more of us share our precious secrets about the creative process, until eventually, probably in like mid-September, we all simultaneously self-actualize.

Indeed, weeks have gone by.  I can’t wait for mid-September.  In the meantime, here what I do to justify calling myself a poet/writer.

1.  What are you working on?

I am working on the final touches to my chapbook manuscript, Love Lessons from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, due out in November from Dancing Girl Press.  I am also working on new poems (less love lessons and more political) to go along with the love lessons to make a full-length manuscript of poems all somehow filtered through Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  I also have an essay I am working on, which I may or may not decide to share publicly.   Also part of the writing work, the end of the writing process, is trying to get my first manuscript published.  Finally, there are some miscellaneous newer poems from April’s poem-a-day challenge that at least give me hope I will have new projects in the future.

2.  How does your work differ from others of its genre?

It is very difficult for me to be objective about my work in this way.  I would say that, looking at both manuscripts, the style and voice are quite different, as are the themes and subject matter, so maybe the range of my work is something that is different.  My first book (yet to find a publisher) is much more personal, about my heritage and family, about illness and death and identity.  The Buffy poems are much more bold and witty (or so I like to think, perhaps), utilizing syntax, slang, and imagery from the show.  They voice is less easy to pin down which reflects the looser form (the first book contains more formal poems).  Though I often will read poems years later and catch myself in my own delusion, perhaps something that makes my work different is its honesty, or at least the sincerity of the struggle to be honest, to get to the marrow of the matter (whatever that matter is).

3.  Why do you write what you write?

Usually I don’t know really know.  Later, after I wrote it, it is because I needed to — I needed to release it, understand it, figure it out, hold up the beauty of it — or the horror of it — whatever it is.   That said, there is a lot that is written that no one will ever see.  Which makes it sound salacious, but really, when I die, it is more likely if anyone looks at it the hard drive will be thrown in the trash that with everything else no one can figure out why I saved.  I am okay with that.

4. How does your writing process work?

To some extent, I honestly do not know.  I am big on revising and not so great with starting new poems, so when I look at poems that are published or that I am working on now, sometimes I don’t know how they started.   Again, it goes back to that need to work something out or capture the awe or awfulness of something, to illuminate or transform it.    Since, like with most writers, writing is what happens between all the other obligations of being a human (work, other studies, interacting with others, trying to be healthy and interact with the world around me), I find the writing process works best when it becomes part of the routine, when I do not “wait” for inspiration, but summons it by showing up regularly.  Starting about January of 2014, to my own shock, I became the writer who got up before dawn to write before the rest of the day started.  It is only about 45 minutes or an hour, but it is daily and it is done for the day.  It worked really well, but ironically, since summer break started, I stopped getting up early and the writing has been more sporadic.  Now I am traveling and I don’t get writing done when I travel.  I also spent the last two Aprils doing the poem-a-day challenge which generated some interesting new work and opened new directions in voice/style/subject matter using various prompts (so I guess prompts are a stimulus for new poetry).  I will say, regarding prompts, I am not good at following the rules and usually like to combine two so they don’t sound like a-poem-from-a-prompt.  And also so I can write what I want and how I want, but a prompt gives an edge to leverage against when starting out from scratch.  The process is like this response — you set a destination to get you on the road, but end up where you least expected.

I now pass this on two women I admire greatly as writers, women who inspire, support, challenge, and astound me:  Tisha Reichle and Sharon Venezio.  I am also going to pass this on to my co-conspirator, the talented and prolific, Ashley Perez.  Like me, they may not meet the one week deadline, but I look forward to self-actualizing with them in September.   And read their work (and Jacqui’s).  Buy Sharon’s book (which I reviewed at The Rumpus) and follow Tisha so you can pre-order her book when it comes out.

Top Lit Mags that REALLY do publish emerging writers

This is a great acknowledgement of LitMags that really are working to bring established and emerging writings together. I am also reblogging it so I can reference it later. Thanks, Michaelalexanderchaney!

michaelalexanderchaney

2011-12-19

Baltimore Review It is always nice to see a prestigious journal publish fresh, new voices. Such is the case on a routine basis for the Baltimore Review. Most recently, you can check out Priyatam Mudivarti’s “Blue Flame.”  It’s a beautifully weird and hauntingly rich story about aging, photography, and death:

At ninety-two, when I close my eyes and suck my breath, I see fire and ash, playing in smoke.

At the count of one hundred: a mountain, the remains of the cut down trees, a man with a beard and without any clothes, rotting under his limbs.

At one hundred and one, my body grows fiery, as if a log from the pyre rolled into my spine and burned my chest.

One hundred and seven. My heart comes to a full stop. I learned to stop my breath. My chest expands out of my ribs, stretches my neck.

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The Next Big Thing

Author of  the memoir, Thinking Up a Hurricane, Martinique Stilwell, pass on The Next Big Thing baton to several in a women writers listserv we share.  This interlinked blog invites writers to answer questions about their latest book or next big thing:

What is your working title of your book?

The Pictures We’ll Never Print

Where did the idea come from for the book?

As a book of poems, the idea for the book was discovered as I put together my manuscript for my MFA.  I was shocked to realize had over 50 poems from my time in the program and before, mostly about my parents’ illnesses and deaths.  I found that when arranged in certain ways, I had been writing about excavating the questions I never got questions to about my personal history and  about figuring out who I am without the resistance of parents to push back against or to be that loving/nagging voice in your ear.   My mentor at the time, Doug Kearney, was key in teaching me how to create various stories through the sequencing of the poems.

I guess the idea for the poems came out of my grieving.  I started the MFA a year after my mother died.

What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry.  Confessional, lyrical, some are formal and others are experimental.   It is a representation of the working out of identity.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

My mother would be played by Shirley MacLaine, because my loved her and would want that.  My father by Javier Bardem, mainly so I could get a chance to meet him, but really, he, more than any other actor, can morph himself into anyone.  The I of the book would be portrayed by Holly Hunter because she could bring the right mix of strength and vulnerability.

Perhaps this will be the first poetry book made into a movie.  Has that been done?

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

An orphaned 1st generation Hungarian-American sifts through the legacies of grief and illness to redefine herself.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? 

I am seeking a publisher by submitting to various poetry book contests and small presses.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I was just updating my acknowledgements page and the first poem from the manuscript to be published was three years ago.  I started many of the poems, or other versions of them, as my mother was dying and that was six years ago this weekend.

I’ve spent the last two summers in major revisions.  I really love revising, so likely, if I don’t find a publisher this summer, it may once again become a different story.  Just when I think I got it done, I surprise myself by writing a new poem or expanding poems or cutting poems.

But this asked about the first draft.  It is such its own living organism, I don’t know when the first draft came together.  Three years sounds about right.  Plus three years of revising.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

It feels like hubris to compare my work to the poets I so admire.  Moreover, the influences are so varied and subtle, it is difficult to untangle them. Poets I turned to in order to learn how to write about grief and hope include Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, Marie Howe (What the Living Do), and Terry Blackhawk (The Dropped Hand).  I also read a lot of fiction that inspired me to try to get to the root of experience and emotion, such as The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano and Love Begins in Winter by Simon Van Booy.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I started writing, just writing not this book necessarily, just before my mother died.  I wrote because I did not know what else to do and realized that the passion and the creative outlet I had been seeking much of my life is writing, specifically writing poetry.  This manuscript is a sort of artifact of processing loss (not just my mother’s death, but many losses left undigested) and falling in love, in this case, with writing.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Though many of the poems have been revised extensively, I think the collection of poems from such a vast period of my writing life reflects the arc of the book, as much as a poetry book might have an arc.  While there are themes and imagery that weaves the poems into a book, the forms and styles are quite varied.   It will either please or frustrate formalist and free-verse poets equally.   Hopefully it will open the readers’ own unhealed place of mourning and let them know that healing it is possible, though not easy.  Not that I have special insight into this realm of experience, but, like in a yoga class where a teacher asks you to consider a pose in a new way or from a new perspective and suddenly this pose you thought you knew and had mastered opens up in a new way, at once becoming more difficult and more liberating.

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This post is something like tag or a relay race and probably has some special internet name I don’t know about (today I learned that FML means more than fix my lighthouse).   Read about the Next Big Thing for these talented writers:   Khadija Anderson and Heather Luby.

What Poet-Librarians do on Vacation

I think I took Patty Tokahuta-Kelsey’s message at the 8:15 service on Sunday a bit too literally.

She talked about how we clear space in our lives for God, the need for rest, for retreating to our own personal desert.

So, I spent Sunday afternoon clearing space.

I started with a project that I’ve been longing to do for a while: consolidating and alphabetizing all my poetry books onto one bookcase.  Before, I had the books I have not read downstairs on a high shelf (every time I read one poem or get a recommendation for a new poet, I’d buy a book; poetry books are savored as much as read, often need to be read in bites, a poem at a time, hence, many remain unread), and the rest scattered between several shelves on various bookcases (I have a total of 6 bookcases in my studio), so that when I thought of a poet and want to find their book, it took time.  I want to be able to quickly find the poet I am looking in one place easily, just like in the library (well, if my students would master the dewey decimal system).  Now they are all here:

Yes, these are all my poetry books, except for anthologies (what?  poetry comes in something other than an anthology!) and critical work about poetry/writing.   Those are mostly here (along with the graphic novels, which are another kind of poetry):

This led to a complete re-organization of everything from my other bookshelves — — and closet (no, not putting those pictures up … trust me, it is immaculate).  Resulting in a pile to give to GoodWill  or other charities:

And the fortuitous recovery of my vintage phone:


Fortuitous because my cordless phone can no longer hold a charge (not that many call on the landline).  Still, this lovely, non-electronic phone works like a charm.  Better than most cell phones.  And if some natural disaster occurs, when electricity is out (but not phone lines –is that possible these days?) and your cell has died, I will let you all come use my phone.

I would find a picture, evidence of its vintage status, of it in my college dorm room, but I have to go pick-up another bookcase.

You are a writer because you write

This is a dangerous assertion.   A political statement that “staggers” and “shuffles” and “dislocates,” just as do the poems of Doug Kearney, who asserted this truism about writing and writers at PSA’s Red, White, and Blue : Poets on Politics panel at the Hammer Museum.

Yes, says my writer self who feels guilty for not doing more than just writing (like this).  And, hell no, says my other writer self who knows how writing is not just writing, but work (like foregoing summer travel to hunker down and get the manuscript done).

Either way, it is a transformation, as Kearney, Prageeta Sharma, and Matthew Zapruder noted in their discussion of poetics and politics.

Poetry transforms the writer and the audience, even if that audience is just the writer.  So it is not just writing, but writing something that surprises you, the writer, surrendering to something other than LISTEN TO WHAT I WANT TO SAY.

For Kearney it’s a stagger and a shuffle, a throwing the audience off-balance, that achieves this transformation.

For Sharma, surprise comes through mocking the authoritative voice of the canon, of the paradox of creativity supported by the institution of academia.

It is not just politics and poetry, but the politics of poetry.

For Zapruder it is inescapable.  Poetry.  Politics.  It is Sappho writing the first lyric poems under a moon reflecting, on paper, her own thoughts and feelings (Zapruder’s image, not mine).

Poetry.  Confessions. Politics.

The poem as the only place where they could be themselves (Sharma and Zapruder).

But how can we be ourselves in the institution of academia and politics, in the public?

Particularly when the poetic self is so often not the self the institution hired or the public will like:  the anxiety, as Kearney pointed out, of autobiographical interpretation of each poem.

Is this what people will think of me?

Versus the poem as our own imaginative “danger room” where we can crash and fail and flail and be ourselves and not ourselves, as we need, to find that transformation.

Sharma, in talking about art in the institution of academia, called the poem a product that proves success.  More specifically, the public poem, the published poem, the poem published in the right journal.

If I am not being published (by the ‘right’ journals) or validated by an institution, can I continue to call myself a writer?  What do writers do besides write and teach writing?   If I leave behind teaching and the pursuit of teaching college, will I still be a writer?

I simply want the lightness and time to slip into that poetry mind more often, the space of Keats’ “negative capability” where paradox and contradiction exist, where I can stagger and shuffle and go into the danger room of thought.

Reentering that room after a long absence is scary:  did I lose my edge?  how out of shape am I? where to start training to regain ground?  and how, poetically, does one measure the regaining of ground?

Suddenly, the striving for a title or position that seems to fit the writer persona, the proper resume with the right publications seems secondary to the writing and the living.   I enter the danger room, pick up a word, and start with one rep, then two, then three . . .

Suddenly, I am a little be closer to being a Poet & Writer.

Love by any other poem . . .

I suppose I should be thankful that organizing my poems is a problem. I try to file my poems on my computer by themes. I create aliases of files to place in multiple places as I sort them into possible books and some just in hopes I will later remember which category I decided it best fits. I have family poems, found poems, poems organized by forms, and then the love poems. Or not. This is what the folder is labeled, I told my poetry workshop group, mocking my inability to write a proper love poem (which we will not equate to my inability to find love, of course). Instead, my poems are about lust, about infidelity, about heartbreak, about breaking free. They insisted these ARE love poems.

As I find myself reliving these poems once too often I wonder where we get the idea of love being like this. For a moment, recently, I felt love that was not smothering, hurtful, confusing, deceitful, or purely physical. Perhaps I read too many love poems and forgot what love is, thus am looking for the wrong things. Just as I am determined to write a blues poem, this year, I will learn how to write a love poem and maybe learn how to love better in the process.