December is a time for reflecting.
It’s the end of the calendar year, and this is what you’re supposed to do- reflect, make resolutions, set goals for the new year- but I have to admit, this feels a little forced.
Maybe it’s my past career, my 25 years in the classroom still directing my sense of time, when the new year actually began in early September and ended in May with the promise of summer vacation. That many years have a way of staying in the body.
My routine then was to wake up early to write. I wanted to be quiet and alone before I had to be social and teach for 7.5 hours. I still wake up early now, but I have the privilege of staying quiet much longer into the morning. I can choose to be social when I’m good and ready. So here I am in the morning, writing, trying to reflect on this year, partly yes, because of social tradition but also because I’ve had an abundant twelve months. I want to summarize it, get it out of my head, exhale, make space for new thoughts.
January 2019 marked one year with my new hip, one year pain free. I celebrated this by packing my poems and heading to Florida.
I spent February 2019 under the warmth of the sun with my family and the land and water that belong to this fragile, unique place. I had packed poems that I wanted to flesh out, poems about my hip, my limited mobility and the movements of other species. I woke up early, writing on my parent’s back porch or in my brother’s studio. I also wrote from my bike on the Pinellas Trail as I watched pelicans fly over the water of Honeymoon Island and Caledesi State Park.
I was working toward the goal of submitting 8 pages for the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference. It was good to listen closely to my free verse voice again. I’d been working a lot with forms (pantoums, villanelles, minute poems) and to play with a more personal sense of rhythm, to listen for line breaks specific to my voice felt like an exercise in trust or a visit from an old friend.
I spent March, April, and May doing this kind of intense writing and revising. During those spring months, I also corresponded with Helen Doremus, Editor of Two Hawks Quarterly. This lovely magazine published my poem, There is a Passing. I was grateful for Helen’s attention to fine edits and respect for my title. Thank you again, Helen.
I maintained a steady cadence on Instagram because I wanted to visually document my work and connect with more readers. Instagram seemed like the best choice. I could collaborate with Benjamin, using his lovely photos to compliment my writing. Despite my hesitation with social media, my fear that it would exhaust me, I did enjoy this process and plan to stay with it for 2020.
I entered poetry contests and was rejected. I also tried to reach out to 20 agents, pitching my novel, and I was rejected again. It’s never easy to trust the void like this, to know your work is out there, being read and reviewed by a stranger. I always hope the reader is someone with kind, honest eyes. I try to see rejection as a lesson to clarify my work, make it stronger. It’s not easy but it’s part of the process, the life of a writer, learning tenacity, continuously searching for the right home for your work.
I did homework. Prior to the Bread Loaf Conference, my mentor, Jennifer Chang, asked everyone in our group to read each other’s poems responding to the following questions:
How does the poet perceive the world and how does this manifest in their poetry?
What habits of language and form do these poems reveal?
Does the writer seem to have any preoccupations?
How would I describe the poet’s vision?
What do I admire and learn from the poems?
What questions do the poems generate?
How do these poems teach me to read and pay attention to the the world?
I loved this! I appreciated that Jen was asking us to examine poetry on both a challenging and positive level. When we met for face-to-face critique, she kept the discussions moving, pushing us to consider the many aspects of nature poetry- the historical, cultural, socio-political implications, our perspectives and voices, what we were leaving out and what we were contributing.
Jen provided quiet when we needed to think and she made us laugh when we needed the release. She also took the time to meet with us one-on-one over lunch. In our conversation, I learned more ways to get my work out there that I hadn’t considered, and when she said I was ‘creating a unique world’ within my work, I felt more motivated than ever.
If I could take another class with Jen Chang, I would not hesitate. I would also remember to have her sign my copy of her gorgeous book, Some Say The Lark. I stupidly did not do this while I was with her for a whole week, and I regret it. I go to her poems regularly, reading and rereading, feeling settled and unsettled, holding my breath and exhaling. Every poem within this collection is brilliant. I strongly encourage buying Some Say The Lark and reading it cover to cover.
For that first week of June, I floated in Vermont. I detailed more of this experience in a previous post, so in the interest of brevity here, I’ll simply repeat that it was an honor to attend Bread Loaf, and my colleagues’ work continues to resonate with me.
July was our crazy travel month. Benjamin and I took a train from New York to Chicago, then out to Colorado and back. I will be writing an extended post about this soon. For now, I can say that our trip was lovely in terms of people, educational and challenging in terms of train travel, weather and topography.
After returning to New York (and resting for a few weeks), my body’s true sense of time kicked in, and my new year began. Late August and all of September had me spinning. The poems that I had worked on in Florida and workshopped at Bread Loaf spun into a flurry, one after the other in a most fruitful autumn.
As part of this lovely twirl, I was fortunate to have monthly Skypes with my poet friend and editor, Athene Dilke. Athene had a goal to finish a collection dedicated to her mother, and I was determined to finish those poems about my hip and the movements of other animals, so she and I sent poems back and forth, writing comments, editing, revising, reading again. Of course, from working with Athene on my novel, I trusted that she was a careful, honest reader. I knew she could commit to staying with large projects, because we had worked together for a year on my book. I also knew, simply by conversing with her, that she had a thousand poems inside her body. She spoke like a poet, fixating on imagery, her voice dreamy, quiet, and beautifully lost, as if she were looking out a window trying to see what she wanted to write. She was raised by strong women, her mother and grandmother, both of whom encouraged her to love stories, memorize poetry and roam in wilderness. Athene’s collection, Hide, reflects this power. She completed 10 pages and sent her work to a contest, and she helped me to do the same.
I also attended a Friday night reading in late September at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center. Poets Nickole Brown and Jessica Jacobs shared work from their collections, To Those Who Were Our First Gods and Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going. These women floored me. Not only did they share powerful work, they engaged with the audience, connecting with us through both poignant and humorous anecdotes. I’ve been to readings where poets telegraph the entire content of the poem before reading it, and this ruins the experience. Jessica and Nickole knew how to hold the audience with charm and grace. I loved their poems so much I bought their books and registered for two of their workshops that same weekend.
That Saturday, Jessica and Nickole co-taught Promoting Your Book of Poems. This workshop was incredibly helpful! What I really appreciated about both of these groovy women was how detailed and organized they were. They provided specific information about how to network, build an audience, find and select a publisher and give a great reading. Like Jen, they were focused, and they shared their lovely senses of humor- a perfect balance.
On Sunday, I participated in Nickole’s workshop called Writing in the Age of Loneliness: Eco Literature and the Writer’s Task.
I arrived early, and Nickole was the only person in the room. I did not want to disturb her as she prepared for class, but I was also dying to speak with her one-on-one. Graciously, she invited me to sit beside her and ask questions.
Within our conversation, I shared that I had written a hybrid/mixed genre, and Nickole immediately listed publications that might be interested in this kind of work. When I asked her how she balances the business side of writing with simply wanting to write, she said that she has “a conversation with her muse,” telling her to be patient when business needs attending. Also, she and Jessica keep a color-coded calendar of the entire year, marking deadlines, conferences etc. They give each other “retreat days” where they don’t talk much to each other, so they can be alone inside their heads and work. Finally, when I asked her why she thought poets never had agents, she laughed and said, “Because we don’t make any damn money.” I suspected that this might be the answer, and I don’t know why hearing another poet laugh about it was comforting, but it was.
Earlier this summer, (and I realize I’m jumping around in time a bit but this is how writing works sometimes) I’d corresponded with another poet-friend, and he had a great response to the poet-agent question. After I had scribbled this long email to him, whining about not being able to find an agent, Lew brilliantly answered with this:
“Why do you write?
I write because I need to…because no can document my inspirations the way I can. I write as prayer. Reverenced by my pen my voice is heard, even if it’s by my ears alone. I write to communicate…to the past, present, and future. I write because I don’t know what I think until I’ve expelled thoughts from my mind and am able to wield them with my hands. I write to work on myself…to confront myself…to expand and free myself.
And, it’s for these very reasons, I believe we publish. Target audiences and consumer profiles aside, published works (as I see them) are meant to benefit society as whole in the above mentioned way and so many more.
I thank the stars that Martin’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Langston’s “To Artina,” Giovanni’s “Lorraine Hansberry: An Emotional View,” Baldwin’s “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” and Whitman’s “To You” were published. Because they changed me. From 1855 Whitman spoke all the way to me.
For aims greater than money these writers wrote. And, greater still were they published. I pray you keep these aims in your heart for a while as you document your time in mind and share with the world.
Why do write?”
Yeah. Lew is a rock star.
He was right, dead on right, and he still is. His words to my heart. A lovely school to keep inside… like Nickole’s course where we read excerpts from Rebecca Solnit and David George Haskell and poems by Matthew Olzmann, Caitlin Gildrien, Bob Hickok and Catherine Pierce. AND where she took us through a guided writing exercise, softly asking us to choose a species we would save, to experience this love slowly, writing through our senses. I chose wolves, and by the time the exercise was over I was in tears. I’d started with the wolves I met at the New York Wolf Sanctuary, but I’d ended with memories of my first canine love, my yellow lab Duke.
Yeah. Nickole is a rock star too.
Thanks to Jen, Athene, Lew, Jessica, Nickole, and all the other lovely writers of this year, I wrote in October and completed 28 pages of poetry by the end of November. I’ve written a chapbook, a collection of poems with connective threads and a cohesive theme. I’ve written something I can send to publications in 2020, but more importantly, I’ve written something out of my body, something I needed to communicate.
It’s December 31, 2019. I’ve reflected and set goals. It doesn’t feel as forced as I thought it would. In fact, it feels cathartic. Thank you, readers, for indulging me. May your 2020 be healthy and fruitful. Happy New Year!