I promised myself a publication date of April 1, 2021. And I managed to pull it off … after what seems like so many years of just thinking about it.
This is the first and only time I will duplicate much of the content of my monthly newsletter in my blog posts. But since I have a whopping dozen on my list so far… I’m spreading the news thick as peanut butter today because I am proud, excited, and a little bit desperate to sell a few books despite my lack of marketing skills:
Mad Orphan Lit is a private publishing project for hand-bound multimedia poetry books, and broadsides (on handmade paper) by Ren Powell.
I realized this week that, although Mad Orphan Lit has been a long time in the planning, everything is a process and Ihave beenworking steadily toward this – at a slant.
When my first book was published in 1999, the original concept with the publisher was a coffee table book of light verse and photography on the theme of childbirth. For reasons I won’t go into, the book wound up a traditional paperback. Though, I was still both grateful and proud of my first book.
The next books were beautiful hardback, bilingual editions of not-so-light poetry with Wigestrand Publishing in Norway. I have also been fortunate to work with Beth Adams at Phoenicia Publishing in Canada on a selected poems book called Mercy Island. Still, all this time, I wanted to work more holistically with the presentation of the poetry.
I have always cared about how the words look on the page. And I have always had a drive to work with studio art – in college, I shifted my major back and forth from art twice.
I’ve wanted to literally be more “hands-on” with my poetry books. About ten years ago I took a book-binding course with the award-winning binder, and expert teacher Ingeir Djuvik. I made blank books at first. Then personal planners. Then I wrote a poetry book for my now-husband. A one-of-a-kind. And the idea for Mad Orphan has been brewing since then.
Who knows, maybe it was the physical isolation of the pandemic, the consequential need for touch, that pushed me onto the playing field finally?
Mad Orphan Lit’s first project is IMPERMANENCE
The project began with my daily meditation on the philosophical problem of impermanence, and the Noble Truth that our suffering is caused by our inability to accept (or even see) impermanence. The poems and the visual/physical presentation of the work evolved together.
The bust was made of plaster and paper mache (using my handwritten poems for the project ripped into strips). I photographed the bust in various locations in the Jæren landscape of Norway. If you read my blog, you already know the story of how I lost my head: it was supposed to break up slowly in the waterfall during filming. Instead, it was taken by the current and slipped under an old mill house - trapped by the torrent of water, the wooden beams, and the rocks.
That’s the way of things, isn’t it?
IMPERMANENCE by Ren Powell A Conceptual Multimedia Artwork: 42 Poems Photography, Handwritten text Acrylic Monoprints
Moroccan handmade paper (hardcover) Double-Needle Coptic Stitching (note: this intentionally loose stitch allows for an open-back and “lay flat” binding) 15 X 20 cm, 60 pages Text block: 160gsm acid-free, ethically resourced paper
NB: Paperback facsimiles available here for 15 USD plus shipping.
“Ren Powell’s Impermanence acts as a reminder, both visual and visceral–in its physiological meaning (the heart, the gut)–that we live in and through the stories we tell. The cursive in her illustrations operates as one of several connectors that loop through her poems until these pictures and words combine to create, as she puts it, origami boxes: “your stories/ folding in on themselves.” – Ann E. Michael, poet
“The delicate exquisiteness of this text, the stories Ren tells, via poems I whispered aloud, is added to, and enhanced, by the artworks created by Ren… I reach page 10, completely in love with the artwork. I turn the pages, as much to read the next poem, as to discover the next piece of art. The clarity of, ‘and we remember it/and we tell it/differently’. The poem seems to float somewhere between the space that is Art, and the everyday reality of recognising a life truth… Reading this collection of poetry, I feel the presence of Ren … wise woman, teller of tales, wandering woman, warrior woman. A woman prepared to share her journeys, both real and imagined. A woman who makes a paper mache bust of her self and takes it out into the world to create images that further delight a mind already seduced by the power of her poetry. This book, IMPERMANENCE … I can only write that I found so much pleasure in its pages.“ – Di Mackey, photographer and writer
“… you look up day after day surprised by the foreign landscapes of your own making” Ren Powell’s seventh poetry collection dissects the minutiae of life, and puts it back together in different unfamiliar shapes. Impermanence is what we are. In this collection of new poems, Ren Powell turns the human condition into a collage of words, drawings, and the blank spaces between breaths.“ -Richard Pierce, poet/novelist/radio personality
Please consider signing up for my monthly newsletter that announces new books, broadsides, and other projects that I’m publishing all by my lonesome. And I promise not to turn my blog into a spammy series of adverts.
Oh, and if not for yourself, maybe buy a book as a gift for someone you love. (My upcoming project is designed as a gift book: a notebook with writing prompts for poets and yoga-enthusiasts.)
I have been wondering if the “remains of winter” have left you. Has the poet-warrior returned? I am so sorry for my long absence. I’ve had to pull back for a time. For so many reasons. America being one of them. The whole concept of “it” on a social level, on a personal level. On the level of what am I now appropriating, no longer being an American, always being an American. How much does being identified as American by others make me American forever more. Whenever I speak: I speak “American”, even if I no longer speak for, or as a part of America. It is not the pain you are experiencing. It has been my own grinding pocket of noise. A pocket of past tense, of loss.
I pulled back. Listened more. Tried to discern the panic-inducing headlines (all for the sake of ad revenue), from the facts of damage. Tried to put it in the kind of perspective the priviledge of being on the outside affords. This is a different kind of self-imposed exile. One I didn’t expect, but should have. On 9/11 I felt it. And I was still actually a citizen. Even pulling back, though, Carolee. I feel like I’m doing wrong. Not appropriating what doesn’t belong to me, but then abandoning and looking at it from a position of detatched priviledge. I have no correct way to position myself in the public discourse on this. Except. The truth is there is no position of detachment. The world is too small now. Hate spreads like a virus – faster than a virus. So does fear.
What I’ve learned is that I lived in a bubble over there. As much as they talk about what social networks and the internet have done to insularize us with our opinions, I lived in complete ignorance of the real racial horrors. I was not taught in school that there was a time when you could purchase postcards at the 5 and dime to send home from your vacation, featuring lynchings. I had no idea Black men and women had to school their children in the safe way to answer a policeman if he asked a question. That lives depended on it. At least, that was the parents’ hope.
I’ve been listening and realising that while I did know the taste of government cheese, the smell of a condemned building, what it is to be a woman who jogs alone in the late afternoon, with pepperspray in her fist – I never knew the true breadth of the ills of my own homeland. Maybe it is good Disneyland is falling apart at the fiberglass seams? A deep cleansing of the wounds, and another chance to heal?
But I know. I can say that from here. Where I am safely tucked into a healthcare system that functions. Where I haven’t felt the need for pepperspray in 23 years.
I didn’t want to write about this. My perspective is not important. But maybe what I learned from my perspective is relevant? I don’t know. I’ve tried to focus on writing.
And I know you’ve been writing. And publishing. And that makes me smile. And I know you are getting out in the green world. So have you “laced up your sneakers”? “Reclaimed the brain space?”
How are you coming with the forgivness you wrote about?
Over the past two months, I wrote a play. Finished it. And it was like coming home. It was a great big “fuck you” to every fear I’ve had, to every question of “what’s the point”? Almost every morning, after an hour of writing, I felt like singing. Or rather, like I had just sung…or screamed.
I’ve decided that it’s time for me to take off the bear suit. Not that one.
But this one:
I have been walking so softly – for almost half my life now – that I am a brittle presence in the world. So obsessed with belonging, with not belonging, that I’ve sprouted protection.
“Don’t touch me.”
All the while sending little coded messages into the world, in the form of poems. In books that no one can find. I have competing desires. (If fear isn’t a form of desire, self-protection is.)
I’ve exhausted myself holding both these things in my hands, watching them fight it out. I feel like my body has mimicked every posture, in every wrong instance; my brain (and mouth) have run at the wrong tempo, and missed a crucial sign too often to deserve absolution from anyone. I’m grateful that there is something in me that resists the temptation to fill my noisy pockets with stones. But I do give up. Or give in.
I no longer care. In the quasi-Buddhist sense (because surely someone will correct me), “I” no longer care to figure myself into the equation. This little death happens daily.
And then around bedtime, not every night now, but on some nights: I have this urgent need to have my name in bold letters on the god-damned book cover, poster, neon sign.
Oh, it is so difficult to sleep in the bear suit!
How are you sleeping, luv?
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.
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.
As you know, I sat down to write to you yesterday, but didn’t get far. But this morning E. gently asked me if I wasn’t up for the morning run.
I have a simple checklist to gauge my mental heath:
Did I get out of bed before noon?
Did I make the bed?
Did I get out of my PJs?
Did I shower?
Did I leave the house?
Did I run, yoga and meditate?
Did I write?
(There are all kinds of sub goals, for example: putting on pants that don’t have an elastic waist, or combing my hair.) I hit 1 out of 7 yesterday.
And honestly, I think that was just because I had to pee.
But this morning I managed 6 before 6.30 a.m. And I’m now in the bibliotekette with coffee and grapes, and with your letter at hand. Literally.
The handwritten version of your previous letter arrived yesterday, and put a smile on my face. I was grateful for the real-world object-ness of our connection on a day that seemed so unreal. It reminded me that we are doing something important in the world. Intentionally having (attempting to have) a meaningful conversation. Not in terms of big issues, or politics, but on a personal level. I think real consideration on that level has extended circles of influence in our own lives – to the big issues, and the politics. And that it matters indirectly, but concretely – in the world.
I like digesting your letters for a few days before responding. Letting ideas take root instead of volleying a tweet or sitting on messenger with a sense of urgency because we both have work to do. Not that one form of communication replaces the other.
I was going to write about freedom. About how you are right: because my kids are grown and call other places home now, I’ve sort of passed that last big pre-set on the list: Rearing Children. (I think probably caring for one’s aging parents is another one, but I don’t have that on mine – for all the freedom and the loss that fact entails).
Parenting gets so damn complicated from here. I tend to tick off both kids with my “meddling” – when I see it as careful suggestions, coupled with reasoning for those suggestions, since I want to make it clear that I respect them and don’t assume I know the answers. They interpret it as me pounding with them instructions and arguments. I still haven’t figured out the transition here, probably because I don’t know what this is supposed to be transitioning into. I respect both of them as adults. I believe that we have (independently, and respectively) friendships. But what is that “always a parent” part? How does that manifest?
Sometimes I wonder how much of my parenting insecurities come down to cultural divisions. Both my kids are Norwegian, and though Norway is home for me, my communication style is still – will always be – very American. Norwegians find it strident. I try not to be ashamed of that. I would quote my grandpa here, something about calling something for what it is, but I heard that phrase probably has a racist origin. But, you get the idea: jeg snakker rett fra leveren.
I worry that my children are still ashamed or embarrassed by me. I still talk too loudly – an American voice is placed in the mask – it carries (in more ways than one). It’s a matter of physics. What am I going to do? Adopt an accent?
It strikes me as funny that this of all things probably allows me to claim status as a “first-generation immigrant” (as opposed to expat): Worrying that my cultural traits will embarrass my children.
Or it would, if first-generation immigrant wasn’t code for something else.
Do you still miss living here? Miss being an immigrant? Are you happy with the unexpected repatriation in terms of your identity? Sometimes I forget which one of you is actually Norwegian: you or M.
Back to parenting and freedom: I sort of crossed into this place at once, though, with both feet – my kids being so close in age. I guess you are dealing with this transition with two, while still negotiating the teen years with two?
But it seems that once that’s checked off the standard list: “Sent the Offspring out into the World”, the rest is up to us. The Big Existential Crisis should be of no surprise. And those who don’t have it, or them, probably stop growing unless some big external event forces them onward? That sounds kind of judgmental, doesn’t it? But my point is that no one should be making fun of or shaming someone for a midlife crisis. It is something to celebrate, really. I mean, unless they think they can buy their way out of it: it’s a new round of “what the hell am I going to do with my life” – with no templates to choose from.
But we both have that covered already right? Isn’t that part of what this correspondence is about – reminding each other of that fact? That we are writers, yes, but more: that we are searching.
This summer I finally read Man’s Search for Meaning. I’m so ignorant that I had to google Frankl’s biography to make sure I wasn’t conflating his story with Primo Levi’s. With all respect due to Levi (whom I sincerely hope did not commit suicide after all), considering the mood I was in, I didn’t want to read a book about searching for meaning by a writer who might have killed himself in the end. I trust you don’t think I’m horrible for saying that out loud.
I’m actually pretty proud that I’ve reached a point where I see living as learning for the sake of learning – no reward, no grading, no big answer-key in St. Peter’s hands at the end of the line. It’s sort of like being let loose on the playground. If it weren’t for this nagging yearning to be “useful”. At first I was excited to see that Frankl tries to release people from that idea:
“[…] this usefulness is usually defined in terms of functioning for the benefit of society. But today’s society is characterised by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful and happy and, in particular, it adores the young. It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise, and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness.” – Viktor Frankl
But, yeah. No. I got no shot at being dignified. You saw I mentioned pee earlier? Usefulness is my only chance.
When it came to parenting, I figure even where I screwed-up, at least my example was still useful in terms of bad examples for my kids to take into account. I have the same attitude toward teaching, actually. And when I translate, I feel a bit like a midwife for other people’s gifts. That is all useful. But I’m trying hard to summon the confidence that my own gifts are worthy as gifts.
Just realised how handy that word is: gifts. The fact that we use it to describe a talent, and we use it to describe a generous contribution for other people’s benefit. Of course it’s the same word. A built-in reminder that we should be focusing outward in terms of our creative “making”?
At any rate. Confidence. I used to think that men had an easier time feeling confident in their own work. But now I believe that it is more that men have an external (gendered) pressure to have behave as though they have more confidence. It is part of being “a man”, isn’t it? Is that what taught you to not care what other people think?
I’m curious: you write, “I must admit I’ve given up caring about what people say about my writing, but frustrated when no-one is saying anything. Maybe I do have the constant need to be the centre of attention […]” But when you are frustrated that no one is saying anything, do you secretly fear that that is because they are being too polite to say it sucks? Not because I think anyone would think that, but because that is what I assume when my writing meets with silence.
When something is met with silence, I immediately begin looking it over, a bit panicked: “Did I just make an ass of myself?” Yeah. It’s like I leave no room for a continuum. Applause or Ridicule. I need to get out of other people’s heads.
I haven’t asked what you are working on now. Are you using November’s NANO as an external deadline? October 1st, I committed myself I would submit something – anything – once a week. I did it for two weeks. Both pieces were accepted, but maybe that’s why I’ve been slacking now? Knowing rejection is due? Trying so hard to avoid it. Imagining how hard a series of ten rejects would be on my ego now. Ego? Confidence. That sounds better.
Most of the prestigious journals charge for submissions. I’m having trouble getting my head around that. I know I’m paying them for a chance to use them as a conduit to reach readers. Readers who are primarily other writers. Other writers who need their work in that journal because they need a solid CV to get or keep their jobs in academia, or to convince a book publisher that they are worthytheir work is worthy of publication in book form. We make the gatekeepers and we serve them. We pay dues. Monetary dues.
I know it is arrogant to think I am “beyond that”, but at the same time it seems really stupid. I don’t even keep track of my journal publications, mainly because I don’t need a CV to keep a job. And I haven’t (thus far) needed one for book publications.
But my situation is changing regarding the kulturråd her. I’m not sure what to do.
Is it the same game with you? Do agents charge you to read your work, charge to consider representing you? I really like the indie idea(s). I’ve been listening to a few episodes of Rocking Self-Publishing. But they are talking about algorithms and things that sound like they involve steep learning curves, and a lot of marketing savvy. Have you dived into all that serious research and “writing to target”? Did you consider pen names for different genres? I dare say that Dead MenandThe Failed Assassin are quite different from each other.
There was a poet a few years ago who established what she called nano-publishing (but it wasn’t what they call nano-publishing now). It was very like a tiny publishing coop. Are there many of those around? It seems so do-able. I think Alice James, in the States, started out that way. Their writers have to live in the States. I’m assuming because they can do book tours and sell books.
Seriously thinking I will just go back to handmade books. I could set up a card table in Paris, like the guy in the photo I sent you with the last letter. That might buy me a hunk of cheese once a year. But it won’t pay for the plane ticket.
But neither will a whole CV full of publications in prestigious journals.
I think I’m going to write some poems today. I love you for giving me this space to explore, Richard. And before I sign off, I have to tell you that I got all warm and fuzzy inside when I realised that your letter came on two different sized sheets of paper. My grandmother used to type her letters to me. For some reason, her standard letter was one and a half sheets. She would cut the sheet in half, and save the other half for the next letter.
After a day of being painfully touched in such a deep place by the news, it was beautiful to have a warm light shine on that same deep place. We find meaning where we look for it.
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.
“A diary…” N.B.: Whining Post – like something J.K. Rowling forgot to mention in Harry Potter.
Mary Oliver’s new book of essays sits on my desk. It arrived last week. Today, Sigrun quotes from it on sub rosa:
“I was very careful never to take an interesting job. Not an interesting one. I took lots of jobs. But if you have an interesting job you get interested in it. I also began in those years to keep early hours. … If anybody has a job and starts at 9, there’s no reason why they can’t get up at 4:30 or 5 and write for a couple of hours, and give their employers their second-best effort of the day — which is what I did.”
Also this morning, I read the final consultant report on my new book, the report that also addresses the translator’s afterword, which is an overview of the arc of my writing career -so to speak. I’m thrilled to have someone take my writing so seriously. Most people have to be dead, or at least famous. However…
It’s difficult to translate the consultant’s words directly, but he refers to the fact that I’ve only four previous poetry books published in Norway: 17 years, 4 books. Not very impressive in terms of volume. (Thankfully, he’s on board in terms of quality).
Most Norwegian poets give out a book a year, since the Kulturråd will purchase up to one literary work from each author, each year. (The published book is sent to the jury of the DNF for consideration to reimburse the publisher and pay a minimum royalty to the author. Full disclosure: my books are considered on the merit of the translations.)
Most Norwegian poets lecture on literary subjects, write non-fiction, tour high schools, and supplement their tiny publishing income with other promotional gigs that deflect the image of a “day job”.
I did that for a year, and was thrilled to call myself a poet and feel confident about it. But I hated the day-to-day of it. And I didn’t find myself writing more.
When I was in the U.S., the path for me was pretty clear: I would be a professional poet when I was a professor at a university. I would have a list of publications in reputable journals, a few books, and I’d be invited to teach at retreats in the south of France.
I had a plan. I got my PhD. But I fell in love with Norway.
My image of being a particular kind of Poet is still so clear and difficult to relinquish, that I have considered applying to teach the one-year intro writing courses at colleges in Norway (Creative Writing is not taught in the universities here). But even if I got a job, I would have to take a 20% pay cut, which would necessarily mean giving up my mortgage, moving across the country and living in a 30 square-meter apartment: just so that I could say I was a poet without feeling like a fraud. (My writing wouldn’t improve. I know that.)
Talk about not having a solid sense of self at midlife: I find myself fantasising about this all too often – still!
When I worked for an international organisation for persecuted writers, I often travelled with the writers to present them at events. Some of them, however, had not published new work in over a decade. How much, how often, is publishing required to earn one the status of “legit”?
You see, I have thought of quitting my day job, finding an “uninteresting job”, as Mary Oliver says she did. But I’m not Mary Oliver.
I’ve had musician colleagues at the high school who have quit to work in offices or detailing cars, because they said that teaching was sapping their creative energy. But I don’t believe (in my case) creativity can be sapped by other kinds of creative work – it all primes the pump. What I do believe is that being the handmaiden for other people’s creativity can be a source of envy – and that needs to be dealt with. Again: in my case.
And, even though I do get up at 5 and write before “work”, I would be upset if I thought my students believed that I gave them my second-best effort. I would be ashamed if I did that.
What I need to do, is learn not to give a damn about being a Poet.
Sitting down this morning with coffee and a clementine. I can’t believe it’s that time of year already. I light the candle under the bowl the rosemary oil, and between that and clementine, it’s difficult not to think of Christmas. This morning, the bridge at the trail head was covered with ice. I guess that means the sparrows I was listening to yesterday will be staying through the winter. I’ll need to remember to fill the feeder on the porch regularly.
The old lady is settled on the rug next to me, and it’s quiet – except for the grinding of the coffee machine and the small sounds E. is making in the kitchen. I need the quiet. The silent run in the morning, the yoga routine with the silent chanting of old hymns in my head. Then this: the humming of the space heater in the tiny library. Now my head is quiet enough to write.
I can not comprehend how you can write with music playing! Music whips up so much noise in my head, it would be like trying to collect fallen leaves in a whirlwind. It would be interesting to be in your head for a while. Is it chaotic in there? Or compartmentalized, like a smoothly running production line in a factory?
In regard to dealing with aging, you wrote, “Sometimes, often, I think you have a more definite sense of self than I do. And because I lived a very sheltered childhood, I find I’m still kicking against things that maybe I shouldn’t be kicking against. I don’t think I’ve ever known who I really am.”
I’ve never really thought I had a strong sense of self, but perhaps because of my own childhood, I was so disassociated with my body that these physical changes aren’t (perhaps) as startling. I was 45 before I began to live in my body with any kind of appreciation or awareness. Any kind of gratitude. Maybe it is a sex issue, too? My body changed so much with childbirth that midlife brings with it gentler changes?
When I look down at my hands now I see my grandmother’s hands when I held them during church services. It’s a strange kind of self-comfort, having her incorporated in my life in such an intimate and physical way.
Although a friend was visiting a few months ago; she saw a photo from the wedding and said, “Oh, your hands don’t look that old in reality.” To be honest, what I was uncomfortable with was how thin my hair looked in the photo – but now I have yet another thing to be self-conscious about.
And at the doctor’s office last week I skimmed through an article in a women’s magazine I used to read in my 30s, the headline was something like: What You Can Look Forward to as You Age. It went on to describe, in language I can only categorise as contemptuous, how even your vagina will look old. I cannot for the life of me figure out why that made me feel so deeply ashamed. And had I taken my plump, youthful labia for granted somehow? What’d I miss?
So, no. I’m not unaffected by the ageism and age-shaming that is so integral to our culture. Do you think those places where people revere the elderly are just a myth?
Have you ever read Being Dead, by Jim Crace? I might actually reread it, now that I’m thinking about it. He has descriptions of a couple’s decomposing bodies, interspersed with flashbacks of their lives. I remember it all being extraordinarily beautiful. Even the decomposing.
Like you said, this is midlife, Richard. I don’t think we should feel obligated to spend the second half hiding so as not to remind people under 40 that they will eventually die. Every time I read the words, “the aging population” as a euphemism for “old people”, I laugh. We are all aging. I’d say from birth, but really, from conception. It’s a done deal from the get-go.
And there is still plenty of time to set new goals and achieve them. It’s just that the goals are no longer laid out for us. There is a terrific freedom in that. Maybe this is where we actually are able to be individuals?
A writer in Paris. Not exactly the romantic image I had in mind, but maybe the reality of having to do self-promotion these days?
Anyway, back to the sense of self. I think you have a better grasp of who you are “metaphysically”, as you described it. You write birthday poems for your children. I believe that the last birthday poem I wrote was for my grandfather when I was six or so.
[Quite] A few years ago – just after my first book was published – a friend got married, and I sent a poem to him and his wife as a wedding gift. I framed it like a broadside. Almost immediately, I regretted it.If I know who and what I am, I am not very impressed with her. Seriously: 18 years and five books later, I’m still embarrassed by my little wave of confidence that day, or week, or however long it lasted.
I think this is why I’m still not posting poetry on my blog. I’m still craving outside approval. Kind of like writing a story I am proud of, but waiting to get the little smiley stamp and an A from the teacher before I show it to my mother.
That is pathetic, isn’t it?
Fame? I just read the translator’s afterword for the new book. It’s an essay about my writing over the years, and he makes flattering comparisons to canon writers. He describes this book as representing a “late style”. Most writers have to be dead or at least moderately famous to get such close attention to their forfatterskap. I’m thrilled. And I’m terrified. People will say (as they have before) that my work doesn’t warrant such attention. I’m preparing myself for that now, even before it goes to print.
So: Respect, renown? Yes, please.
Fame? People are just plain mean sometimes.
By the way, loved hearing you on the radio this weekend! Your name is incorporated into a radio jingle. That’s a kind of famous, isn’t it?
Give my love to M., and I hope you guys make plans to visit soon so we can meet your kids. We have this ludicrously large house and plenty of space.