Friday, December 13, 2019

Here's a recent poem, "The Regret of the Poet after Sending Work to a Magazine," that's up at the Cafe Review. Yesterday I posted a link to the poem on Facebook, and among other kind responses I received a "Lovely!"  from the great poet A. E. Stallings, which completely made my day. I hope you pardon my small crowing.

Except for a couple of loose author ends to tie up on an editing project, I am now closed for the season: no teaching, no editing until January. Today I'll go to a yoga class, and then maybe do some Christmas shopping, maybe read some books, maybe sort through some poems, maybe bake some cookies . . .

Yesterday I whipped up a syllabus for a poet friend who is struggling with his work and thinks that a crash course in form might help him out. I had a really good time coming up with a three-month plan. I'm wondering how many other people would like such a class. I've conceived of it as a kind of exercise program for writers who automatically reach for free verse.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

I've got one more editing project to tackle, and then I can slip into my holiday recess. I love that the word recess connotes both a "break" and a "hole" because that's exactly what I want from this holiday.

Last night my son messaged me with the question "Is the adjective version of Barbie barbaric?" And now you know why I am so fond of my children.

Words, words, words. I bumped up against two lines from the Inferno and I thought I might have a heart attack: they are so beautiful and bossy and mysterious--

But look down now and pay attention.
The river of our blood draws near.

Add in that they were translated by a poet I've always struggled against--Jorie Graham--and the bossy mystery deepens.

Yet in the realm of wordlessness, let us celebrate sleep . . . which I finally achieved last night: a full 9:30-to-5:30 dive into the watery unconscious after days of one-armed dog-paddling.

And now here I sit in the dusk of morning, busily transmitting words and no-words, dredging them up from my silent swim.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Driving to my class up north can feel like embarking on an Arthurian quest . . . my faithful steed Tina the Subaru and I pricking the plain, through fog and sleet and terrible roads, as the black night draws in and lurking spirits crowd against the road edges, their pagan eyes glittering . . .

And once I get there, it's like being in a castle in the wood. A giant furnished apartment, shining with newness and amenity. Nothing to do but read and write and stare out the window. Then the next day, a room filled with brilliant young people.

. . . And then the Arthurian quest in reverse: wind, rain, fog, terrible roads, and the lurking darkness.

The class itself was wonderful. We worked on exercises for stripping down poems, read work by Nezukamatathil and Akhmatova and Nigliazzo, listened to Stuart Kestenbaum talk about his blackout-poetry project, discussed hard questions about the ethics of art. These students are so thoughtful and funny and honest, and they are dead-serious about the power of the vocation.

Today: Back in the editing saddle. Walking alone in the cemetery. Making chicken curry for dinner. Hoping to sleep.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Now and then there are readings that make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark--readings when knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognised, become fully cognisant of, our knowledge.

--A. S. Byatt, Possession

* * *

I've been sleeping so badly these past few nights: waking abruptly in the black hours, my mind churning over unsolvable conversations, dull to-do lists, mortal terrors. At that time of night, dread is the identical twin of tedium. "Did I forget to buy lettuce?" carries the same weight as "What if I'm dying?"

* * *

Whoever's homeless now, will build no shelter;
who lives alone will live indefinitely so,
waking up to read a little, draft long letters,
and, along the city's avenues,
fitfully wander, when the wild leaves loosen.

--from Rainer Maria Rilke, "A Day in Autumn," translated by Mary Kinzie

Sunday, December 8, 2019

I spent most of yesterday cleaning house, a job that I'm usually rigorous about but that I'd let slide a bit since before Thanksgiving. Cat hair was starting to build up, dust starting to film, weird bathroom grime starting to surface.

I hate clutter and accumulated dirt, and I'm much better at working and writing and keeping my temper if my surroundings are clean and neat. So allow me to complain about those stupid mantras aimed at women: "Every hour you spend on housework is an hour away from writing" and similar kinds of crap exhortations. Every hour anyone spends on anything is an hour away from writing. Why zero in on housework? And why assume that housework can't be a creative trigger? Who says, "Don't go for a walk! You should be writing!"? Housework is like any other physical-observational task: you can mine it for material, and you can use it as a contemplative space. To me, those anti-housework screes are borderline classist (artists are too high-brow to scrub a floor?), not to mention a historical insult (who's been cleaning our houses for generations?). This should not be only a woman's issue either: those generations of servants included the men who filled the coal cellars, the boys who blacked the shoes. Nonetheless, today's "Don't waste precious time on toilets when you could be writing!" memes do primarily seem to be aimed at women. Are there equivalent public service announcements for male writers--say, "Don't be playing hoops in the driveway when you could be working on a sonnet!" or "Put down that TV remote and think about characterization instead!" or "Fixing that broken pipe will destroy your novel!"?

Ugh.

Thus ends today's rant. Thank you for your patience.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

"All of us have things in our lives which we know in [a] brief, useful allusive way, and neglect deliberately to explore."

                           --A. S. Byatt, Possession

* * *

I've been thinking about Byatt's remark for the past couple of days. This deliberate gap in focus has worried me deeply as a poet. I know I purposefully avoid writing about certain things. For the most part this isn't because of prissiness, or fear, or laziness. The reasons tend to involve (with sex, say) an interest in the power of wordlessness: I like having a few things in my life that aren't framed with language. My elisions also relate to other people: e.g., whether or not I have the ethical right to publicly explore a situation that living participants may prefer to not share.

Nonetheless, these gaps become a habitual slip in concentration: "Oh, I'll pay attention to that later" risks becoming "I never figured that out." Word silence about physical matters risks a deeper inattention to cause and effect, to longing and weariness, to fervency and making do.

So I'm anxious about these neglected avenues, and my rationales for elision often feel inadequate, even false. Yet a mind cannot encompass everything, can it? There are days when I feel I have to stop looking at the world . . . the pressure of observation becomes so painful. And then, words themselves are a knife. Sometimes that knife opens a surgical route into truth. But sometimes it's a tool for slicing off the toe I can't cram into the glass slipper.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Success! I not only finished the entire editing project, but I also wrote and submitted the book review, and even found time late in the day to go for a slip-n-slide walk around my snowy neighborhood. This morning, after yoga, I'll ship the editing project, prep for next week's Monson class, and maybe, just maybe, steal a little time for my own writing. That would be a sweet end to a hard-pressed week.

In the meantime, I've started rereading one of my favorite books of all time: A. S. Byatt's Possession. And I've forked the Inferno out of my to-do stack and am ready to get back to copying it out. Monday, I'll be on the road again, and then the holiday season will start tumbling down like boulders on a highway . . . cooking travel boys travel shopping cooking boys . . .