Dear Carolee

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.

Doesn’t everyone want to leave evidence that they have been here?

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.

Maybe I will go back to making  handmade books this year.

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.

img_8174I’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.”

I’m in.

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.

XO Ren

Carolee’s reply.


This is one of a series of public 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.

“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.




Good morning, Richard.

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.

XO Ren

Richard’s reply

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.


Dear Carolee

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?

No rush in the mountains. But you know that.

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?

Looking forward to hearing from you!

XO Ren

Carolee’s Reply

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 cannot write – and I ought not.”
– Dorothea Lynde Dix, in a letter to her friend George Barrell Emerson

Dear D.L.D.,

I’ve been thinking of you, and your “no-thing disease”. I’ve been thinking about your conscious decision to avoid writing poetry during your no-thing seasons, while I find myself writing through mine.

I can only guess, but I’m assuming those were the times when the world was too thin, and you knew a single word could pierce deep enough to empty you. But you did write. Letters, at least.

In Norwegian, there’s a descriptor: kontaktsøkende. Literally translated, it means “contact-seeking”. In use, it means needy – with all the negative connotations. I hear teachers describe students as kontaktsøkende, with an air of judgement and (ironically) dismissal. I’ve heard them use the word in reference to colleagues, too. And I’ve wondered if they’ve used it to describe me when I’ve been frank and intense in conversations. (I get called “intense” a lot.)

The term disturbs me, in the best sense of the word. I’ve been in need of contact often in my life for a myriad of reasons, and I’ve always felt ashamed. You were described in this way, though obviously not with the Norwegian word. But as needy. And people advised you to be “less candid” in your correspondence with them. Is it horrible for me to say I was relieved when I read that? It eased my feelings shame just a bit.

11161336_843427735712924_913401089575855313_nRecently it came to light in a discussion, that someone I care about thought being “depressed” was wallowing in self-pity. They didn’t understand that it’s easier to tell a friend that you feel unlovable than to admit that you are afraid you may not be capable of loving. That you are useless.

I know that was your greatest fear, to be useless in regard to your talents. You were afraid to let God down. I’ve often wondered if you felt that God had let you down?

Need is misunderstood, and pity is a miserly response that leads to resentment. Or else it is understood, along with the realization that there’s nothing that anyone can do to relieve another person’s need. That also leads to resentment.

Another Norwegian phrase: “folk har nok med sitt“: people have enough on their plates. I think most often it’s used to illustrate that people are selfish. But people are also kind and generous, and overwhelmed. No doubt, if you might have tolerated me at all, we would have quickly grown weary of each other in a no-thing season.

I believe there’s a primal, unconscious fear of people whose emotional needs are obvious. There’s the mistrust: if no one else has been there for that person, there must be something wrong with them. And there’s the gut knowledge that loneliness is contagious, I guess. Monkeys shy away from the shunned and the injured, and so do most of us.

I think it’s a matter of  learning how to attend to our needs obliquely.

I wonder if you realize how well you did that? I mean, once you found  your voice in speaking on the behalf of others. All the good you did in the world, the difference you made in people’s lives was born of your need to “express yourself” (a phrase that I think is a poor replacement for a more accurate “make yourself visible”). Although your work was born of that need, but it wasn’t an expression of the need itself. Your needy poetry informed those masterful orations in a way nothing else could have.

“The process of writing was important. Even though the finished product is meaningless.”
– Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore.

During times like this, I look to you. I don’t stop myself from writing, but I’m conscious of the need. I find the writing therapeutic. Didn’t you? Maybe you weren’t entirely truthful? (You weren’t always.)  Maybe you were writing poetry, but knew better than to share it with anyone. Maybe you’d learned not to place demands on the people you wrote to. After all: letters, poems, and stories should be gifts, not the assignment of obligations.

I have a small notebook of poems I wrote in high school: angry, hurt, resentful voices. Only one was written from a place of defiance and strength. I believe I needed to write through all the others to get to that poem; to be able to acknowledge myself, be visible to myself, before I could move on and communicate with the world. But our lives aren’t linear are they?

Sometimes I think of it as simple stitching. Running over and under the “right side” of the garment. But it all holds together in the end, doesn’t it?

We accept our seasons. Or try to.

I’m struggling with writer’s block. It isn’t that I can’t write. I’m writing a lot. But I have nothing to give at the moment, from this no-thing place. I’m not sure whether I would even be having these thoughts on the subject if it weren’t for having read yours. As uncomfortable as these thoughts are, I guess I should thank you.