Only Myself to Blame

It’s been a good week: five poems accepted for publication and acknowledged, a time-consuming project cancelled and a new poem written. Of course, I did my daily morning pages and insisted on a focus. I updated my submissions list and noted the next round of subs. But I did not tackle the long projects on my to-do list. It’s not that I don’t want to write the family history that’s outlined and started. And I would happily write a long essay about the need for writers to be vigilant in following the news, no matter how unsavory it is. I should sort and revise the short-fiction manuscript lurking in a fat notebook. But big projects don’t reach the finish line quickly. And that’s where I give up, curl up with the cat and a jigsaw puzzle, defeated by my own expectations: that I need to finish everything efficiently, right now.

Writing doesn’t work that way. It needs to incubate, grow in the dark, gestate. Pick a metaphor. I forget this regularly because our consumerist society demands efficiency and products with a price tag. What I need is to turn off all the media, stack up a dozen good books and withdraw from society for a while. And I don’t mean one afternoon. I mean a deep retreat from the angst and pace of public life. An article in the new Poets & Writers advocates a writing retreat.

Ah, yes, a writing retreat shimmers on the calendar, so bright that I squint at May 23rd, when I will fly back east for three weeks. I’ll house/dog/cat sit and stuff the TV remote under a couch cushion, post my absence from social media, and stop the clocks. I’ll write whatever comes, play with the dogs, and sit by the ocean. From here that feels right and easy. The catch, of course, is I’ll still have my own attitudes to deal with, my need to reassure myself that I am, in fact, a writer, no matter what shows up on the page.

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DC: Wetlands or Landfill?

Washington DC is not a swamp. A swamp is a vital wetland, home to biodiversity. No, DC is a landfill of braggadocio, selfishness, lies and greed. An executive gag order has silenced the EPA, built a wall between citizens and information about the ground we walk on, the air we cannot help but breathe and the water we must drink or die. I am outraged.

My solace comes, when it comes at all, from the stories, poems and memoirs of writers who practice the literature of witness, whose work grows out of their experience. It may be poetry, fiction, or memoir, and while it may not be fact, it is not fake. Not propaganda or alternative truth.

I am thankful for the Rolodex of writers that flips through my brain at 3:00 am when I’m wide-eyed in the gloom and the faint glow of the digital clock: Nujood Ali, Brian Turner, Kurt Vonnegut, Sojourner Truth, Richard Wright and Paul Theroux, Sherman Alexie, Elie Wiesel, Anna Akhmatova, Anne Frank, Carolyn Forche, Marge Piercy, Terry Tempest Williams, Louise Erdritch, Vandana Shiva, Tim Hall, Ernesto Cardenal and Robinson Jeffers. These are only some of the brave, outspoken “unacknowledged legislators” of my world.

If I am what I read, then I am a citizen of a truer world than that of the solid sewage rolling down Capitol Hill. This witness work is, as Ezra Pound requested, “news that stays new,” heartening me when I want to hide under the bed with the cat for the next four years. But here I am, doing what writers do, speaking my truth as well as I can, declaring myself a member of the scribbler tribe and their cousins, sisters, brothers and forbears.

Beginners/Middlers/Enders

This week, emptying the box in which I had stashed a year’s worth of journals,  I found that all too many had blank pages at the back because I rushed to start a new one before I finished the old. I love a new journal, a new pen, a new car. (Though in truth I have kept a few cars for a decade, but that’s finance riding herd on my impulses.)

My writing plans sprout like radishes. I start stories, poems, essays, reading lists, but too soon, I fade. I’m a sprinter, not a marathoner. My tendency to quit before I’m done might have started in childhood. (Always fair game, eh?) From the age of six months I was moved from state to state, house to house, a chess pawn in adult hands, not much staying put. Then as a military wife, I fell under the spell of the DOD. As a nurse I was so employable that I changed jobs easily, never got the gold pin for longevity.

As a writer, this impulse to move on like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party means that I draft a story, maybe revise it a time or two while it’s new and full of exciting potential, but then I’m apt to stuff it into a file and not finish it. I wrote my novel Providence in scenes, small chunks that I then had to wrestle into a more or less logical structure. That challenged me.

Poetry comes more easily, the bright-light beginnings seduce me and, given the brevity of my poems, I usually finish them. If one can ever call a poem finished. I admit that my revisions folder gets cobwebby and the resident house spider is no help. As I type, I realize that I’m in the middle of this little essay and I can’t see the exit sign. But you get the idea. Identify your patterns and adjust to taste.

What’s the Use of Poetry?

In W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” we find the line “For poetry makes nothing happen …” but we also find this: “Let the healing fountain start,/ In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise.” Assuming that the free man might be man or woman, we need right now a healing fountain. Today poetry will make this much happen: nine people will drive to Longmont, CO, from Denver, Broomfield, Erie, Lafayette, Louisville and Arvada in pursuit of healing; if not healing, at least thought about the uses of poetry. Like a flight of wine, we will taste a variety of what some call political poems, others label poems of witness or protest.

I doubt we will reach consensus over the value of these poems, but we will listen to the considered opinions of others. Over lunch at The Motherlode Cafe, we will talk about poems that react to war, violence, bigotry, and abuse of power. In these strange, divisive times we thirst for language to express our angst, our shared fears and hopes. Here are the poems we will wrestle with: “The Last Election” by John Haines; an excerpt from the prelude to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forche; “Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison” by Nazim Hikmet; “On the Steps of the Jefferson Memorial” by Linda Pasten; “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats; “Listening to Distant Guns” by Denise Levertov; “Why I Don’t Mention Flowers When Conversations with My Brother Reach Uncomfortable Silences” by Natalie Diaz; and “Explanations” by Stephen Dunn.

These poems are meant to disturb complacency, to cause reaction in troubling times, and there’s always trouble, so I see no end to the need for poems and poets who struggle to wake us up.


			

To Pee on the Tree or Not to Pee?

When I walk Duncan the Dog, he reads tree bark the way I read books. He’s not interested in the tree itself, only the messages left by his canine tribe. I don’t know what he learns from his sniffing, maybe something like “Oh, that old lab was here today and that little Pomeranian is pregnant. Wow!” His own signature is writ in urine.

Critiquing poetry is much the same, though we write in ink and sweat, not pee. We don’t judge the poet, only the work. We neither defend nor prosecute the “tree.” It’s what’s on the bark that matters.

Today the critique group to which I belong, Gamuts, will share a potluck lunch and review a poetry manuscript. It works this way: the poet du jour has assembled her manuscript to the best of her ability. She has included a title page, a table of contents and the full text of each poem on a separate page. She has numbered the pages. She will have handed out print copies of the manuscript weeks ago. The rest of us will have read the work at least twice and written comments on the pages.

First we talk about the collection as a whole: the themes, style, structure of the book. We pretend the writer is not at the table, sipping her wine and crunching her salad. She’s eating and she’s listening and taking notes. After discussing the larger elements, we work through the poems one at a time, looking for fresh, precise language, rhythm, structure within the poem. What I like someone else mourns. We look for leaners–poems too weak to stand alone outside this manuscript. We name the keepers and the cuts, the pets and the mutts. We remain civil and somewhat objective. Objectivity challenges us because we often know the backstory of a piece and may not be alert to what a stranger needs to get the news.

Most of all we don’t lift a leg to offend the poet because each of us at some point will be the tree.

Revise and Let It Loose

Many hours this past week I prepared to keep a promise to my writing group from Wellfleet that I would be more proactive about submitting work for publication. I have a pretty hefty publications list already, but it’s stale. Prior to the workshop in June I had concentrated on writing new material and didn’t have the energy to attend to what already existed. Well, advice I heard in the workshop was to take risks, send the work out. Writing needs an audience. Yes, I know that. I believe that. So why would I hesitate?

Fear of rejection, fear of exposure and fear of inadequacy: all play a part in the urge to hide my writing under a big rock. But it is also true that offering work to the world makes me a better writer. Knowing that a reader, editor or publisher will cast a mean eye on my work leads me to question the piece before I hit send or drop the submission into the mail box. Have I done my best to make the writing clear, fresh, and worth the paper it might be printed on? Is the title intriguing, inviting, wacky enough to make someone read on? Does it have substance and endurance? This challenge keeps me polishing when it would be easier to stuff it in a notebook and let it rot.

Exposing my work to others can have a down side: I’m guilty of people pleasing and can be overly sensitive to the taste of other writers. One of Marge Piercy’s rules for groups is to respect each other’s style and substance. I know I’ve been writing under the influence–not of Irish whiskey, though that’s appealing–and I’m trying to be more confident that the work I produce, poems or fiction, has to be my choice, my responsibility. After listening and considering any advice I get, I have to trust my intuition and my intention when to call a piece done.

Do You Duotrope?

Having written poetry for decades, I have about 300 pieces that have not been published, some for good reason, some because I felt overwhelmed tracking and sorting them. In response to the promise I made to myself and the Wellfleet Dozen (twelve women in Marge Piercy’s recent poetry workshop), I spent hours this week updating my spread sheet on a site called Duotrope (Google it). This site will allow me to track where an individual poem has tried to worm its way into an editor’s heart, and when it succeeds, out there in poetry land, I can stuff it into the retired/published category, where it will rest until I choose to include it in a collection. The site does not keep the poem, just its title and its submission history.

This website costs $5.00 a month to maintain, and can be used for fiction, individual poems, manuscripts, etc. If you start early and maintain it on a regular basis, you will not have to replicate my process of hours on screen catching up. Furthermore, the site sends members a newsletter about potential markets with detailed info, like rejection rates, length of time until a reply, etc. If you return to a market you have previously tapped into, Duotrope keeps that information and reminds you which pieces have already been offered to a particular publication. No embarrassing comments like “We didn’t like this the first time we saw it.”

I looked at several other websites before going back to Duotrope, but none of the others that I found were as complete, and for the price, it’s a great help. So, I am better prepared now to keep my promise to be more proactive about submissions. Now if I can unclench my fingers from the keyboard, I’ll go get breakfast and then come back to my desk to send off a submission or two or five.