I am certain that I have written on this topic before. Certain because I have had the same exact prompt for exploration of the subject again and again.
And again someone offers advice that to make myself more visible as a poet I should teach workshops on this or that (sometimes the suggestion doesn’t even involve teaching poetry). It is interesting. And it is unintentionally demoralizing. I already have a job that isn’t writing.
There seems to be this idea that if people like you personally, they will like your poetry. “They just need to get to know you.” That seems odd to me. I don’t know writers whose work I admire. And in some instances, I dislike writers whose work I admire. And I wonder if the genre writing “community” is as similar to a cult-of-personality?
I asked my Canadian publisher which of her titles sold best. She didn’t take a beat: those who are very visible on social media.
It is interesting. And perplexing. I have a full-time job. I write daily, hand-bind books and make broadsides from handmade paper. I’m writing the newest manuscript, keep two Instagram accounts, a Twitter account, and a Facebook page (I spent weeks setting up a shop there, which has yielded 1 view). I have even begun to delve into Etsy and Pinterest. I have a dog, a husband and – despite Covid – friends. The last two things I mention require me to shower, too.
Where do people find the time to do more? I am impressed!
“Serve the Community”. It’s common advice to writers – and to visual artists. The marketing advice is almost identical to the advice offered to people selling workshops about marketing. To people selling pilfered quotes on t-shirts and coffee mugs.
The word “ingratiate” keeps coming to mind. I am not saying people who are popular ingratiate themselves, but any conscious attempt to become popular on my part would be.
I have never been someone who (successfully) vies for attention. Four people in a room, and I will press myself against the wall to watch. I think it’s why I am a writer. And a writer who has on occasion had much more to drink than was wise at conferences, just to be able to make small talk.
I am naturally more of an (amateur) social scientist, watching discreetly from the corner of the room noting observations about the fascinating gaps between spoken language and body language, than I am someone who dances on the table. I can control a classroom, but when all the teachers are in the room at the same time, the only thing that tells me apart from the students is my gray hair and drooping skin.
Literally, I have been an alien for nearly 30 years. Figuratively for much longer. I tried very hard to fit in in high school. And gave up entirely my junior year. All that contorting was very painful. And I never could figure out what I would win from it. Is it possible for life to still be like a bad teen rom-com when you are over 50?
I’m not going to win any popularity contests. And I am going to be okay with that.
In 7th grade, I did win a dance contest. The hustle was on the way out, but disco was still in. All the boys were named Steve or Greg. All the girls were Rebeccas and Pams. I do remember some things. A Halloween party and I tripped and got an ironic nickname for my performance. The nickname meant I belonged – for about four months. Then moved again. To start over in another town. You can’t bring nicknames with you. Especially when they’re ironic.
It’s weird I remember that nickname. Those people.
I’ve been thinking about how I have carried on a pattern of starting over throughout my life – even when it wasn’t necessary. Sometimes I circle back. And even though I get distracted, “Ooo – wouldn’t that be fun to do!”, I do think I am moving in an ever-tightening circle. Sort of zeroing in on a kind of contentment that isn’t dependent on other people’s responses. Not there yet. But closer.
I have a tattoo on the base of my neck. It is one of those Eastern-inspired Western designs that are about life’s path. I asked my (then) teen son to design it for me. It has a strange hard turn in one of the concentric circles. I’ve never asked him what it was. I assumed it was the divorce in his mind, though it was something else to me. Or maybe: AND it was something else for me. So when the tattoo artist assumed it was a mistake and asked me if I wanted him to “fix” the design. I said no.
My older son keeps reminding me to stay true to my joy. He doesn’t use those words – I have no idea whose words those are, actually. He says, only do the marketing as long as it is fun.
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.