This week’s digest begins with several posts about the challenges of writing and publishing poetry collections, then spirals out into descriptions of other sorts of writing projects and the importance of connecting with others and with the earth.
I’ve probably mentioned I’ve been reading Sylvia Plath’s newest collection of letters for a while now. I’m finally getting to the end of Volume I, which ends when Sylvia’s about 24 (on page 1300). By 24, Sylvia had already been a Fullbright scholar, had poems accepted by Poetry, The Atlantic, The Nation, had an internship at Mademoiselle and sold several short stories. Looking at her, I look at myself at 44 and think: how do I measure up? I mean, she didn’t publish many books while she was alive, and I have five, but I’ve had fourteen extra years on her already! I didn’t publish my first book until after age 30! I still haven’t had acceptances at any of those magazines (and Mademoiselle is defunct.)
Now Sylvia Plath, along with a few other poets, remains one of the best poets of the past hundred years. You can watch her poetry get better in her letters over the years, from 15 to 21 to 24. Dating Ted Hughes, whatever kind of decision that was for her life-wise, was great for her poetry – she suddenly starts putting a lot of nature in her poems when she starts dating him, specific names of plants and animals, adopts the fierceness of the natural world as her own.
Jeannine Hall Gailey, Measuring Up and Marching Towards Spring
I don’t envy any one poet’s path. The overnight sensation, winning an NEA fellowship before turning 30 and winning a major first book poetry competition . . . . well, some of them are lucky to be alive in the first place, and some of them are riddled with imposter complex. The long-hustling poet, gradually climbing the literary magazine food chain, from the Doglick Undergraduate Literary Review, to the Greater Rockford Quarterly, to the generic MFA Literary Magazine at State U., to the very established and tony Poetry Journal of the Stars, and then finally big time, landing something in Poetry or the American Poetry Review. The hot-shot university poet, finally getting tenure, and then somehow, going out of fashion, out of favor, getting fat, becoming fossilized. The blazing street poet, putting up that hot YouTube channel, getting thousands of subscribers, and currying all that heat into some legitimacy.
What I see is great investment of time by these artists, dealing with the improbability of getting anything published, and treading that highwire of caring and not-caring. It requires arrogance, foolishness, determination, patience, idealism, and dreaminess. All that pressure, just to stay up there, suspended, where the audience is either dazzled by your light-footedness or is hoping, just a little, to see you slip. The worst of it, of course, is our own self-questioning.
So when I consider the roads of those poets who face additional cultural and societal burdens–be it race, gender-identification, class, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity–I realize those roads have more hazards, fewer signs, fewer rest stops. That’s just a fact, one that doesn’t lessen the individual hardships I might’ve faced, but one that requires me to be alert to how my road was more level, more predictable, more well traveled. To state the obvious, my road is built on privilege, protected by privilege, and contingent on privilege.
Jim Brock, Unlikely Roads
I’m frequently victim to The What Next. The Is This Going To Be A Book. The Should I Write More Poems Like This Or Just Stop. I think awareness, and giving it a name, is a crucial first step in confronting such feelings. Then I ask myself if this particular anxiety (I have many) is one that is doing me any good, such as the nagging feeling that I really ought to clean out the cupboards and merge all the almost-empty boxes of uncooked pasta.
Sometimes this energy can encourage me to revisit a project, or to think about it with more seriousness, but usually it causes me to spin my wheels and fret and do another load of laundry just to feel as if I’ve accomplished something.
A book is like a hardy yet reclusive fruit that needs to grow in a certain degree of dark. If you keep walking into its room and flipping the fluorescent overhead lights on just to check to make sure it’s still there, you’ll make it wilt. Or so I will tell myself as I attempt to write some new poems this coming week.
Mary Biddinger, The What Next
Outliers are often difficult to place, particularly when the imagery of the poems tends toward the natural environment, and the subject of the poems tends toward the speculative, and yet nothing about the poems is particularly edgy or youthful or ground-breaking.
This book represents me, the person (not just as poet) perhaps too well. I do understand why it’s been difficult to place.
As to how [The Red Queen Hypothesis] acts as obstacle in my writing life? Um. I guess I have to say I am finding it hard to move to the NEXT manuscript when THIS one still hangs out in my psyche and on my hard drive, unpublished. I know that should not impede me; I have many colleagues who work on multiple books simultaneously, sometimes even books in different genres. How they do that remains a mystery to me, however; I guess I do not share that operating system–though I dearly wish I could learn it.
Ann E. Michael, “Next Big Thing”
Though I think I could pull the manuscript together to make a book at this point, I prefer to let it simmer. as I mentioned in my post on chapbooks, I’m not in a great place to launch a book right now, both geographically and seasonally–my life is all diapers and babies and picture books and parks, not so much readings and academia. my poetry spirit-animal right now is Wendell Berry. do you know that he spends most of his time on his farm? and that is deemed fitting? I think that route makes the most sense for me, though I know 99.999% of poetry is born out of the dusty halls of academia. not that i’m out on a farm–domesticity and suburbia is a trifle less sexy and i’m too religious to be cute and not in a religion that is fashionable (though presbyterian might sound a little less southern hillbilly than southern baptist).
all that to say, i think, when the book is done, i’ll likely have about five readers, so i might as well take my time with it and include it all. my husband reminds [me] a poet is still considered a young poet til her 40’s, so i’ve got time to wheedle away, lines to tinker with.
Renee Emerson, new poems in Dappled Things and an update on the 3rd poetry collection
Friends and family have been extremely generous about supporting my poetry — buying each book as it has come out, sometimes buying an extra copy to give away, sometimes even reading them! Sometimes even reaching out to tell me about a poem that affected them in some way. But a few have said things like “I’m sorry, I don’t really understand the poems” or “I don’t like poetry” or “I don’t read poetry at all.” With them in mind, for my last book, Glass Factory, I created a short reader’s guide, thinking that I could provide some hand-holding to those who might enter the book with trepidation, or those who might not enter at all without some guidance.
It turned out to be quite a fun process for me (although I confess, I don’t know if anyone really used the guide — perhaps it was more fun for me than anyone else….)
Marilyn McCabe, Let Me Take You By the Hand; or, On Developing a Reader’s Guide
My friend Ronda came over at 1 pm on Friday and we wrote until 11 pm at night. Since it was so late, she spent the night and we woke up, had coffee, and wrote 3 poems in the morning.
There’s a magic to these “mini-retreats” where I sit with a friend and write all day.
Maybe it’s the energy of focus, of two people each writing poems.
Or maybe it’s just intent–we intend to write poems, and we do.
Sometimes we do prompts, or sometimes we just find a line in a book of poems and use that as our jumping out spot. There are so many ways to begin a poem.
What you need to do your own writing retreat at home?
–a laptop or journal
–books of poems (for inspiration)
–time and a semi-quiet house
–A friend can be helpful, especially if you find yourself not making the best use of your time.
I have found the times I’ve done these retreats (or even writing dates) with other poets, I end up with a lot stronger work than if I just hang out by my own. I think sometimes the interaction, the listening to poems, the talking with another poet can get my mind working in unusual ways. It’s the back and forth that is helpful to me.
Kelli Russell Agodon, Confession Sunday.. Mini Writing Retreat
Currently I’m writing a lot of . . . just verse, and it’s a stretch to call it that, I suppose. I’m participating in the Brooklyn Art Library’s Sketchbook Project through a collaboration with M.S. — we alternate weeks with the sketchbook and add to its pages (me, sketches through text; her, sketches through drawing). In late April we’ll mail it back and the B.A.L. will catalog it and create a digital copy. It’s something that’s different enough from my normal mode of creating — and sharing — poems that my interest is piqued and pressure is low — it’s fun, invigorating, and keeps me from obsessing too much over what’ll happen to the work in the long run because, ultimately, I already know: It’ll be archived. Some people will see it. And M.S. and I will have created something together, accomplished something, and that’s keeping me afloat while all the other stuff tries to sink me.
Sarah Kain Gutowski, The Pressure of Silence, Poems Like People, and the Pleasures of Digging Snow
Fifteen years ago today, the U.S. invaded Iraq, and I started this blog. I just re-read what I wrote on March 20, 2003 (link here, scroll down to the last entry on the page), under my then-new moniker of “Cassandra,” after the Trojan princess and prophetess who was cursed to be always right, but disbelieved. Those words from 2003 still sound like me, and I still think what I wrote then is true: that we’re witnessing the death-throes of patriarchy and, especially, white male domination of the world and its systems, and that ultimately we’ll see a world with greater justice and equality for all of its people — though the fate of the natural world is not at all secure. In 2003 I tried to take a long view., and still do. But even I would not have prophesied that things would go from bad to so very much worse in the space of this decade and a half, with so much suffering for so many. […]
[M]y life changed because of this blog. In addition to the extremely valuable practice of near-daily writing, it has given me some of the best friends of my life, and relationships and conversations that continue to this day. In recent years it’s given me a forum for sharing not just my thoughts in words and photographs, but my art, and all three of those personal pursuits have improved hugely as a result. In turn, I’ve been privileged to read your words and see your bodies of work develop and change. Out of those relationships have come several collaborative efforts, including a literary magazine, qarrtsiluni, and my own publishing venture, Phoenicia. And this blog also functions for me like the diaries I kept before: as a personal record of my life and thoughts that would now fill a small shelf of books. So I can’t even find words for how significant blogging has been for me, but I’m extremely grateful.
Beth Adams, Fifteen Years
Q~What appeals to you about erasure/visual poetry?
A~This is my first foray into erasure poetry. At the time I erased this piece, my mother-in-law was staying with us for end-of-life care, and I found that though I had vast swaths of free time while she slept, the need to be on-call at all times meant I couldn’t get into the writing space in my head. So, I decided to try erasure instead, and that worked really well for me, possibly because the act of erasing mimicked the experience I was having as I watched my mother-in-law dying, disappearing slowly.
Q~So sorry for your loss. Your new book, Whiteout, is also about loss. I am fascinated to hear more about the book and your experience as writer-in-residence at Denali National Park and Preserve. How did that come about?
A~My most recent book is about my uncle who was a mountain climber. He died on Denali in what was, at the time, the worst mountain-climbing accident in US history. I applied to be a writer-in-resident in the park in order to finish that book. I stayed in a one-room cabin out by the Toklat River, with only my sister. We were in the park (Denali National Park and Preserve) for 10 days. Being there gave me an understanding of why my uncle was compelled to do such a dangerous thing as climb Denali. Wandering around the vast park, feeling completely alone in the wild, going places we knew he had been, was profoundly moving. We were there 49 years and one week after he was lost—watching the sun wheel around the sky instead of set in the evening, I knew he had seen that, too. For the park I wrote a series of poems as an artistic donation. They say better than I am doing now what my experience was. Here is one:
My sister’s drawn to clean-edged kettle ponds,
learning how to tell which pools were formed in basins
left behind by glaciers, and which weren’t.
I’m captivated by erratics, empty-house-sized
boulders stranded in a strange land by ice
that melted out from underneath them.
Erratic comes from the Latin errare,
meaning to wander, to stray, to err. We are
not wrong, my sister and I, to feel kindred—
kin and dread—with what remains after
a mammoth force, no longer visible,
has carved out such a tattered landscape.
Bekah Steimel, At the Landing / an interview with poet Jessica Goodfellow
It’s almost the end of March, and I haven’t begun even thinking about the garden. I have enough leftovers in the fridge so there was no need to cook. Laundry, done. The sun was out for a couple of hours, but by the time I took a shower, the sky had clouded over. I never made it out of the house. Listless. Uncommitted. Tired. A wee bit hopeless. Perhaps it was just one of those days.
Of course, there was this: I knelt in awe of students who were out in the streets speaking truth to power, demanding an end to gun violence in their schools and communities. And I was heartbroken by it too. Wanting to be hopeful, yet wondering whether demonstrating against war in the sixties really made any difference in the long haul towards a more peaceful world.
Then, Sunday blooms with possibility. There will be breakfast, coffee with a friend, a walk, some writing. Finding the effort, the will, the inner resources that allow me to find meaning, to move forward, to survive. To be grateful.
Risa Denenberg, Sunday Morning Muse with Leftover Saturday Ennui
Yes, oh yes, it is enough to say
what you can, the gift of transcribing
ordinary suffering into
extraordinary joy, your name
hangs in the brilliant morning air, a
feather, eyelid of a magpie, closed.
Lana Ayers, In Praise of Philip Levine