I don’t even want to think about how long it has been since I’ve written. Even longer than it’s been since we managed to get together for dinner in London. I am grateful you found the time and that our schedules lined up to allow it.
Since then we’ve been through an entire season. I suppose it’s fitting though. It feels like a season has come to close.
I thought about you all day yesterday. Wondering if the election results would ease your headaches. Would let you release a tiny bit from all the urgency?
Here, I’ve kept my head down. Tried to detach as best I can from the flood of panic-inducing headlines that the media uses to keep us clicking, and sustaining the evil circle of fear and toothpaste ads. I do believe money makes the world go around like never before.
The thing is, I thrived in the quiet. I wrote a play. I finished a play. But even though I’ve already sent it off, and a literary manager has responded that he will argue to include it in a specific theater’s 18/19 season, I’m afraid to let myself experience any kind of satisfaction. Still wondering where that damn line is between smugness and insecurity. If I dare to sit up straight and say, “Look what I did!”, someone will knock me good in the chest. Simply because they’ll feel to obligated to remind me that there is no guarantee it will ever really get off the ground.
Why do we do that sort of thing to each other? Deny one another a few minutes of thrills and the high of having created something and having heard someone else say, “I see you, I hear you!” We all know it wears off – that feeling of joy – quickly enough. (“Marvellous”. He wrote that it was “marvellous”, and I love that because the word sounds like something you can eat with your fingers—in a very classy way.) Here, it may be very wise to actually focus on the moment? Put down the little callipers that will measure whether the ego is dangerously inflated?
For some reason I just now had that thought again about my mother telling me she used to rehearse for her mother’s death. That’s a pretty messed-up way to go through life, isn’t it?
I inherited that practice. I rehearse for the worse. I don’t trust my resilience. Although in this case, it means that I’ve started a new one: a new play. I’m afraid that if I think too hard, or spend one more minute reading theatres’ submission guidelines, I will collapse in dry pile of dust. “Run Forest, Run”. Fear-driven momentum.
The strange thing is all the world’s stories seem the same to me now. Or just as the one I have just finished. The subject matter radically different, the story the same. The poetry the same. Is this a cliché? A manifestation of the fear of not having anything more to say? New to say? Oh, my God: What to say?! I have even written to you about my mother’s dress rehearsals before.
I’m okay. I have a little whiskey here on the desk now. Talk about cliché.
How is the novel coming? Do you find politics creeping into your work, or is it a refuge from at least that particular ache?
This is brief. But I am back. And I hope you will forgive my absence. I’ve been growing.
Much love to you and M.
I’ve missed this.
This is one of a series of weekly open letters to friends – friends who write back to me on their own blogs. Please click through. Category: Correspondence.
If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order here.
Even over here, the election results color everything. I started reading Alain de Botton’s book Status Anxiety last night. It traces the evolution of the perceived connection between personal value & wealth, and morality & wealth. It’s difficult to avoid seeing how our current society that perceives personal value= wealth and morality=wealth; combined with the rise of meritocracy on an unfair playing field got us where we are today. I’m only on page 87, so I’m not sure if he will talk about “influence” as wealth. It was published in 2004, so perhaps not: that was before the average person thought about things like klout (I was actually hoping the app was defunct), or twitter followers.
I hope this is the tipping point of all this chest-beating. Someone told me the other day that human beings are the only animals to act spitefully. I don’t know if that’s true, but how sad it would be if that were the defining feature of our species: the little factions pulling each other down from the rung just above, while a tweeting demagogue climbs high enough to topple the whole rickety thing.
That sounds much more pessimistic than I feel. I scour the net for good news. There is some. There’s always some.
And, hey, they found an ocean on Pluto. That’s worth a poem.
This morning I’ve been listening to Poem Talk. This episode is about C.D. Wright’s One Big Self. It’s one of my favorite books. I’ve always been a sucker for verbatim theater in all forms.
And yesterday I sent an application for kind of verbatim project in England. It’s the first time in a long time I didn’t talk myself out of putting myself “out there”. It’s a collaborative performance poetry project that I would love to be involved with. I’m probably not at all what they have in mind, but just sitting down with the application process sparked a lot of ideas. I don’t need to wait to be invited to work. That kind of brings up another one of those clichés: the audacity of youth.
Yeah. So, okay. There actually is one thing from my twenties that I do want back.
I go back to work on Monday, and it’s been nice to have this week to organise and set new goals. You asked what I’m up to: I have an old performance project that I’m dusting off. I’m going to see if I can reignite the passion I had for it. For him, actually. I have to remember wanting to get under his skin.
Several years ago I had a little project writing “running metaphors” on my blog. I’d compose tiny poems in my head while running in the mornings. I have several hundred of them printed out in a folder somewhere. They aren’t very good. Not that it’s an excuse, but I’m too long-winded for tweets. (I bow to the beauty and elegance of Dave Bonta’s The Morning Porch.) I may dig them up, and mine them for metaphors or prompts.
Meanwhile, at the suggestion of a friend I met while taking a therapeutic writing course last spring, I’ve starting writing haibun based on the morning 6K: And I’m posting them on the blog. I’m looking forward to binding them by hand next year.
I’ve entitled the category on the blog Eros of Language. It’s a phrase lifted from Gregory Orr’s Poetry as Survival. He talks about the sensual aspect of poetry. The way poems be tools that use the body/the physical world to connect. Wikipedia says that the term erotic has been used to mean “life energy” – there’s no citation, but I’m going with it anyway. Eros as life force makes sense to me, the way I’m writing now. The way I am trying to connect – not just with other people – but with nature. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned this past year (since I am rather new to camping) is to stop resisting discomfort. I mean:
I’ve been running again for years now, so I’ve learned to accept my own body -the cramps; the neglected achilles; the little, painful seeds of shin splints. But I’m learning now to give up the resistance to the outside world. Learning to accept the hardness of stones, the sharpness of frozen rain hitting the bridge of my nose, and the slickness of the lichen that sprawls over the mountain’s granite (though it all too often lands me on my very unappreciative ass). Learning to accept the cold feet & the hot belly, or the cold belly & the hot feet, when I’m in the sleeping bag with a rubber flask that’s filled with water we boiled on the Primus – knowing halfway through the night, it’ll be cold “as a witch’s teat” and I’ll have to toss it out.
I guess the root of all acceptance is appreciation. I am learning to appreciate nature (and being out in it) on it’s own erotic terms.
So while I am staring at the lichen, are you looking at the stars these days?
So many things to address in your letter. But I am going to start with fear. You wrote:
“What if nothing comes of the writing. What if *I* don’t amount to anything”
Yes. I recognize that panicked, whispering voice.
When my first book was published, a well-established poet that I’d worked closely with (translating a volume of his selected poems a couple of years prior) told me to go out and buy myself flowers, because it wouldn’t mean very much to anyone else. I did.
And actually, my colleagues – because I have amazing colleagues – also bought me flowers.
But none of them read the book.
In fact, I’m not sure that anyone I actually know read that book. Or the next. Or the next…
I had good reviews, though. Print newspapers. Odd that “print” is more ephemeral now in some ways, isn’t it?
My first two books have already been remaindered.
So sometimes, that voice isn’t a whisper. It’s a scream.
All my fantasies about what could have been, in terms of community, are like little dreamy assurances that it’s only a matter of my physical displacement. Otherwise, my work would be out there: actually being read, discussed, making a difference in someone’s day. Connecting my experience to another human experience. I could read at poetry gatherings. Have those “fans” some poets talk about.
It would be a lot less lonely.
But I know that’s bullsh*t.
When you say, ” I really want my manuscript to be published. And I want it to happen by going through one of those gatekeepers you mention.” Do you know which gatekeepers you are appealing to?
I’m asking because I recently quoted something from an interview with Mary Oliver, and saw how she came under attack from several (academic) poets who called her work banal. Some got downright ugly about it and attacked her. I’m not sure but I’m guessing these are the same poets who criticize Billy Collins for being populist or, worse, pedestrian.
The Nobel Prize committee’s choice just spawned the headline: Musician Wins Nobel Prize in Literature, and people are suddenly spouting off about Sappho fragments, and speculating wildly about her validity as a folk musician. There seems to be a thin road between elitist and pedestrian – and it seems to shift. I’m mentioning this because I think it is related to publishing today. Who are the gatekeepers?
I guess I shouldn’t say “today”. There has always been such a thing as elite fashion vs popular taste.
How does a publishing house that requires a minimum number of pre-ordered books to go to print differ from a Kickstarter project? Are they the taste-makers? The editors who take no chances? Who gives them that mandate? I don’t understand “publishing” anymore. I read recently about a woman whose memoir was turned down – even though the publishers said the writing was wonderful – because she didn’t have a big enough twitter following.
Is a list of journal publications a demonstration of quality, a proof of “dues paid”, or an indication of name-recognition that is undeniably important? What the hell is the value of a twitter following in terms of literature? Did you see the Black Mirror episode about the class system based on popularity ratings?
We like you. I have a little earworm now: “Stop Trying“.
When I was working with PEN, I was invited to several international poetry festivals and was surprised by the power of political poetry. Keywords would incite howls of appreciation, and flowers from the audience. It was a fascinating thing to watch. It was also something that I had no business taking part in.
And yet – I’m not willing to accept that my voice is of any less value because I don’t speak to a particular political movement.
So since then, I’ve been a little lost. Technically, I’m no longer an American poet. In practice, this means that there are several wonderful publishers that I cannot even submit work to. In Norway, I am – and will always be – an American poet.
Yeah. That’s not a good thing, if you are wondering.
What is my voice worth? How is it relevant? As you said before , “wtf do i want to say?” and the nagging voice that says “nobody cares what I have to say, even me.”
We care, though.
Is that enough?
This year the kulturråd that purchases literary work for libraries has yet to purchase a single poetry collection. My publisher is taking a huge risk with my book this year. And if this turns out to be a permanent trend, it may mean the end to my path for publication here in Norway.
Like you, I just want to want to shrug and say, “I don’t care. Whatever.” I’m working towards that. But I’m not there yet.
Last week, with my GP, I explained that I was still slightly hypomanic, but writing a lot. She interrupted me: “Where are you putting this stuff you’re writing?” I explained that I had sent something things out under a pseudonym, some to my best friend for comment (because she’s a professional editor), and some on my blog.
She pronounced blog like it was something more disgusting than abscess (which really doesn’t sound all that gross, does it? – makes me think of recess): BELAWGH. She caught herself mid eye-roll and told me I probably shouldn’t write these days, because if I were blogging I was probably not being critical enough of what I put out there.
It took me several hours to convince myself that she had never read anything I had written, had absolutely no basis for an opinion on the matter. (To be honest, I reread everything on my blog in a panic, and wrote to friends for assurances. And I’m still rereading in a panic every time I hit publish, with the fear that I’ve not be critical enough).
I’m sure you noticed that, in the Facebook group, when I tried to ask about poetry blogs -and even gave examples – someone suggested a blog with poetry prompts for elementary school children? How do I respond to that without sounding arrogant?
So there’s my greatest fear: It’s not the gatekeeper as a community elder (which would be weird to think anyway, since most journals are edited by undergrads); it’s the gatekeeper as an institutional rubber stamp of quality. A second opinion. A safe little consolation in the face of criticism. “Well, they liked it.”
Legitimacy. I am ashamed that I still even think it’s a thing.
I also have a fear of being too personal. It’s like showing up in a dress that’s just a smidgen too short, and crosses some line no one explicitly told you about. Everyone lifts an eyebrow, and then looks away.
Be honest, but don’t be too honest. Earnestness makes everyone feel awkward.
I’m reading Gregory Orr’s Poetry as Survival (I’m only on Chapter 2). He talks about the terrifying vulnerability of the self, and he describes the personal lyric as the self encountering its existential crises.
You know, I’m just going to give into this. To the fear. To the existential crises. To the who-gives-a-damn about propriety and position. To the friggin´earnestness.
I’m also going to let go of expectations. I’m going to pause and listen, like you say:
“…In pausing you create an absence (emptiness, openness). Stillness, it turns out, is a physical sensation and can be heard just like a flame in the bone-dry woods.”
I learned this summer not to look ahead up the mountain, but take one step at a time and enjoy each one. To remind myself the trip isn’t about the destination – I mean, yes, what a cliché: it’s funny how often we laboriously arrive at a cliché, but at least we really understand it for the first time.
6 year-olds and 80 year-olds alike passed me by on the trails this summer. But my route so was very different from theirs.
“So let’s just decide that it doesn’t matter how we got here or why we came. Let’s decide to cast away any notions that blogging is a terrible idea because we can’t attach specific value to it. People climb mountains just because they’re there or backpack for days (as you and I have both done recently) in part to see what they can endure and how far they can go. We can explore here just for the hell of it, too.”
And now I think I might go take a selfie. Selfies make me feel very awkward. Seems like it might be a good starting place to beat down my barriers.
I was reading the newest posts on your blog, beginning with the one about begining again, about missing the “old days” of blogging. And about being post divorce, post MFA and waiting in a middle space to listen to the universe and see what’s next.
In the comments you tell Dave Bonta that now that you are back at it, you struggle with what to say. I find myself nodding in recognition. Here I am in another liminal space: unexpectedly remarried, post doctorate, empty nest. Also drawn back to blogging.
Except I was never completely comfortable with it the first time around. I kept losing track of my own voice. Common writing advice is to “know your audience”, right? I think that was the problem. I’ve never been able imagine “my audience” for a blog. I think the hyperawareness of statistics and “followers” sucked the joy out of it for me. I’m a competitive person by nature. It was depressing. I would compare comments people left on other blogs. It turned me into a weird, skittish person I didn’t recognise. I teach for a living, so it would be a lie to say that I am uncomfortable or dislike taking centre stage, or expressing my opinions. (I actually like being bossy.) But I see my students, look them in the eyes. It at least feels like communication. (Unless they’re sleeping – which they sometimes do despite their best efforts. They are eighteen and up late. I get it. I don’t take it personally. At least, I try not to.)
But who am I talking to on a blog? What do I want them to see? Am I the teacher/mentor? A social commentator? A mid-life paleo-runner, hiker, fitness wannabe-guru poet? God forbid that I would be a “thought leader” (how I hate that term). Maybe I’m a wildly messed up poet with bipolar disorder, and hellofalotof baggage. In which case, I will need a new profile picture, and way to steel myself again the onslaught of advice.
Like Whitman, I contain multitudes. I was am too unsure of who I wanted to project. Toying with the idea of returning to blogging last year, I fell into this trap of an entrepreneurship group. Blogging seems to be something different now. Branding and monetising. Is the whole world like this now?
I was listening to a podcast I rather like, but the guest kept talking about “conversation” in a way that I have never imagined it. It was something about seven questions to ask the other person. Only the questions weren’t designed to facilitate conversation, so much as to ask the right questions to “help” the other person improve themselves. Since when did a good conversation begin with thinking you would help a stranger improve herself?
I joined a blogger group on Facebook. It seems almost all of the bloggers there are curating independent zines with posts like “10 ways to turn your life around”, with ads for that thing you can buy to do the turning. (I am glad I stumbled back on the poetry bloggers.)
What I truly miss is letter writing. And I miss the long email exchanges of the mid-90s, when my children were small and napping nearby – I could dig deep, take my time to think things through, but still be in conversation with a real person. Both my boys have left home. They are napping in foreign countries these days. So I’m asking myself, why is it I feel rushed now?
The blogosphere, and later writing on Facebook (and God-knows, especially Twitter) sometimes felt/feels like grunting half-thoughts into a void for attention. (My Instagram feed is just pretty pictures: a respite.) And everything has to be timely. I felt an odd pull this summer to post my photos from the plateau camping trip while I was on the plateau camping trip.
Something has to give in my life. I’m not my Instagram feed, that has me almost fooled into emotionally equating little heart tallies with a sense of community.
Who am I when I blog? It is odd really, I have never had this problem writing poetry. I think, after all these years, I’m still writing to Edna St. Vincent Millay. But I doubt she would like blogs.
And then there is the fear. You didn’t say much about that, but you mentioned it. What are your fears?
And what about posting poetry? You mention another poet’s project to post on his blog rather than wait for journals to present his work online. Are we still in need of the gatekeepers?