Saturday, January 30, 2010

Blogging and my Paper Journal

This morning, I wrote in my paper journal for the first time since November. Hmm.

I've been keeping a paper journal since I was 12--and that doesn't count the tiny journal with a lock that I got sometime in elementary school and waited to have something important enough to say that it would justify being locked away between covers.

There have been years of lesser journaling--grad school, for example, will be the gaping hole which future researchers will have to piece together. Part of why I stopped journaling, of course, is that I had so much other writing and reading to do. Part of it is that I became a bit depressed, and my journaling slipped away, which made me more depressed--a tough cycle to break.

When I first read Julia Cameron's books (my favorite, still, The Realms of Gold), I decided to follow her demand of 3 pages of daily writing. I worried that the daily pages would mean that I didn't write any other pages, but I found that my productivity skyrocketed.

Those of you who follow my blog faithfully know that I tend to write almost daily. I write my blog entries as often as I used to write journal entries--on a normal week, 5-7 entries. I just checked, and my average blog entries are about the same size (word count, page count) as those 3 daily pages. So, my writing amount hasn't dropped off.

But my content has changed, obviously. I tend to save my paper journal for the stuff I want to write about which should not be public content. Not everyone shares my sense of boundaries, I admit. But there are work kerfuffles that need to be kept offline, relationship disputes and disappointments that don't need to be shared with the larger world, and I'm always mindful that future employers may read these online pages (although they'd need a lot of time to read everything that's online that has to do with me).

I have spent many years now, even before I started blogging, pondering the implications of our online lives and our offline lives. What will happen if Blogger is ever taken over, and I have to pay to do this? Or pay to get access to my back files? How will future scholars read our blogs (not just the delivery mechanisms, but in terms of how they take into account the public nature of blogs?).

For the first year that I started blogging, I tried to keep my paper journal in addition to blogging. But now I don't. I write what wants to come in any given day. If I have stuff I need to sort out (or I'm away from my computer), it's off to the paper journal. If I want to work on poetry, I do that. I try to blog on a close-to-daily basis, because I feel like I have faithful readers, and I want to keep having faithful readers. And I've found that my blogging often leads my brain to places it wouldn't have otherwise gone, and that leads to poems I wouldn't have written (or preserves ideas for me to cultivate later).

Still, I wonder if by blogging more, and paper journaling less, I'm less in touch with my deepest feelings. Part of me laughs at even thinking about that. I'm middle-aged, and one of the comforts of middle age is that I don't have as many tempestuous feelings that need to be sorted out away from prying eyes. What a relief! And if I find myself with tempestous feelings, the paper journal is always there.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

State of Apple, State of the Union

So, it's been many years since I qualified as a techie geek, if ever I qualified. In middle school, for some reason, our school got a computer, and a core group of us learned to program in BASIC. Yes, I missed all instruction on decimals and percentages during my years of moving around, but I learned to program a computer. I know that language is dead now, but once I knew the thrill of making the computer do what I wanted, as it played Hangman with me.

These days, I don't often have the thrill of making the computer do what I want. I bow to the will of some unknown programmer somewhere and hope for the best. These days, I just want all the technology units to play nicely together.

I went to a technology meeting yesterday where we saw a presentation about SMART Boards and SMART Slates, and then I heard about the iPad. Frankly, the SMART Boards and SMART Slates I'd seen earlier had more of a magical presence. Maybe I'd feel differently if I held an iPad in my hands. On my old screens, it's hard to judge how much better the iPad screen might be.

I spent the afternoon catching up on some reading, making beef stroganoff, catching up on some poetry and retreat planning tasks. It was lovely.

I have no opinion on the State of the Union address because I didn't stay up to watch it. But truth be told, I almost never watch the State of the Union. Go ahead and talk about your plans. Wake me up when it's time for action.

I used to faithfully watch the State of the Union. I thought it was my duty as a good citizen. I remember in the mid 90's, the first time I turned off the State of the Union, how subversive I felt as I read and listened to old Suzanne Vega CDs. Then I wrote poetry into the wee, small hours of the morning, and I slept a contented sleep. Ever since then, I haven't tuned in.

Last night, I finished reading Nora Gallagher's The Sacred Meal. Gallagher is such a beautiful writer. Even if you're not a Eucharist geek the way that I am, you might enjoy the poetry of her writing. She talks about the first miracle of Jesus, at the wedding feast, turning water into wine. Then she says this: "In the clear water of our lives lies undiscovered wine. It is our charge, as men and women, as human beings, to commit ourselves to seeking and finding that heady spirit in our sisters and brothers and in ourselves. How to do that is probably different for everyone, but the first step is to know the wine is there" (page 66). For more on that book, wander over to my theology blog, where I wrote about it in more detail.

Then I read a bit from my print edition of the Qarrtsiluni journal's Journaling the Apocalypse theme issue. You can read it online here, but I liked it so much that I bought the print copy. What does it mean that I both love the Eucharist and hold the end of the world as we know it as one of my favorite themes? I see certain symmatries in that, but let me not wander into heavy theological territory.

Instead, I'll think about the issue of dead languages: dead computer languages, dead languages like Latin, dead languages in family units. Hmm. I feel a poem percolating.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Reading Outside My Reading List

One of the interesting things about creating a reading list is how many books I've immediately thought about adding to the list. Since I have several quick airplane trips coming up in February, and since I usually get a lot of reading done on a plane, I just ordered some books, some on the list, some not.

I ordered 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein after reading this review in The Washington Post. I confess that this book was already on my radar screen after hearing it reviewed (on Fresh Air? I'm pretty sure it was that NPR show). The Washington Post review made it sound like this book should be on my list for so many reasons: I love books about campus life, I love witty satire, I love books that dance with theology in a smart way. So, soon, this book will be on its way to me.

And if I like this book, the author has written several others. When I was young, I delighted in discovering authors with a long track record. So often I would fall in love with a writer early in his/her writing life, and it seemed like such a LONG time to wait until the next book appeared. Now, of course, the years zoom by, and the next book appears before I have time to read the last book. Sigh.

I'm tempted to add the Patty Smith memoir Just Kids to my list after reading this review by Elizabeth Hand in yesterday's The Washington Post. Hand says, "More than a 1970s bohemian rhapsody, "Just Kids" is one of the best books ever written on becoming an artist -- not the race for online celebrity and corporate sponsorship that often passes for artistic success these days, but the far more powerful, often difficult journey toward the ecstatic experience of capturing radiance of imagination on a page or stage or photographic paper."

Wow. One of the best books ever written on becoming an artist--well, that sentence will be the one that steers me to this book. That theme is one of my perennial favorites.

I often don't bother reading the books of authors who have been making the NPR rounds. By the time I've heard them interviewed on several shows, when I start reading the book, I feel like I've already read it. But perhaps I'll make an exception for this one. It's by the godmother of punk, after all.

So, here's a question for the day: if you were going to birth a movement (or be godparent to it), what would that movement look like? Let us all begin writing our manifestos! Or would it be the kind of movement that wrote manifestos?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Creativity Groups and Do It Yourself Retreats

Over at her blog, Kelli writes about her do-it-yourself writers' retreat that she had with her local creative friends and she offers great ideas--you, too, could have a writer's retreat with your friends this very week-end. No need to wait until you get accepted into an MFA program. No need to win that coveted spot in a nationally known retreat center.

I've often had writers' groups as part of my life, but as I read Kelli's post, I realized with a bit of shock that we haven't actually written together. Even during retreats where we wrote, we usually retired to our separate rooms to write. The majority of writers' groups of which I've been a part have been the workshop kind, where we arrive with our work written and looking for feedback or praise.

I found this exercise that Kelli describes intriguing:

"We also did 2 exercises where we would write and someone would say a word from a list of words we had created from books of poems. J & I each chose 5 words each from our chosen book of poems and R & A chose 5 words each from their chosen book of poems.

We put these words in a bowl then started with a phrase, our was something like "...years above the dizzying bridge..." from a Madeline DeFrees poem. We would freewrite then every 30-90 seconds, one person would draw a word from the bowl and we'd have to incorporate it into our poem. This makes you add things into your work that you might not add and stretches your brain. It's very hard to write the cliche poem if you're writing about flying and someone gives you the word "marsupial." It takes your poem to surprising places. (This is our group's favorite exercise at the moment.)"

I like the idea that they use books of poems. I like the idea of surprising additions.

I wonder if I could use this idea with my students. I've now moved most of my volumes of poetry to my office. If I used this idea, it would give my students a reason to touch the books and go through them. They are often so shocked to realize that poems exist in a book-length volume. I was too. For so many years, poems were what you read in anthologies.

Speaking of anthologies, one of the highlights of my yesterday was the chance to read my friend's short story that has just been published in an anthology of Asian American female writers (I hope I have that right). It was a beautiful story. I suspected it would be, but I've only read my friend's poetry. Her poetry takes my breath away, so I wasn't surprised to find that she's very skillful with narrative too.

I'm happy to have these kind of friends, ones with whom we can share our publishing victories. But reading Kelli's post made me realize how few creative communities I have now, groups that actually create together. I miss my old writing groups--well, the ones that worked I miss. The dysfunctional ones can go away. I miss my friends who gamely experimented with the creativity circles that I pulled together as I read Julia Cameron's The Vein of Gold. I miss the quilting group that I had a few years ago, the one that met fairly faithfully once a month.

Let me think some more about this. Let me send out my wishes to the universe and see what echoes back.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Happy Birthday, Virginia Woolf

I'm old enough to remember when not even Virginia Woolf was a certain member of the literary canon, although she was grudgingly accepted by the time I got to graduate school in the late 80's. When I was in undergraduate school, my professors were likely to present her as one of many female writers who were stark, raving mad, and therefore, not worthy of our attention.

When I got older, it occured to me to wonder why so many women writers were stark raving mad. Of course, reading Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic was a huge help. No other book of literary criticism has meant as much to me as that one, and I don't expect that any book of literary criticism ever will.

I wrote my M.A. thesis on James Joyce, and it was interesting to read Mrs. Dalloway after that experience. We forget what a radical experiment those Modernist writers were engaged in: to try to depict human consciousness, just the way we experience it. As far as I can see, most writers in our day have decided not to make that attempt anymore.

As a creative writer, Virginia Woolf's essay "A Room of One's Own" has meant the most to me. She was so insightful in naming all the forces which have kept women from writing, and I have tried to fiercely guard against those forces. I haven't had children, and I've tried to always have some sort of job where money is coming in. I've gone as far as I could go in school, and I've tried to stay on top of the subjects where my lack of knowledge might be used against me. I have writing space that is mine, several of them, now that I think about it. They have doors that close--and lock, if necessary.

Of course, now in midlife, I begin to wonder whether or not the circumstances that Woolf observed early in the twentieth century are the same for us in ours. I think they are. If we're scrounging for money, we won't have time to create. If we have no inviolate space, it will be hard to create. Women who have children will create different art than those of us without children--or they may create no art until the children are older. When I was younger, I would have assumed that would be a great tragedy. Now, I'm not so sure. Maybe the art is richer.

No, if I was updating Woolf's essay, I'd warn about the insidious impact of so much technology that gives us so much information. I think that most of us don't have the kind of downtime that so many creative types need. We're all so plugged in. We may now have the money that Virginia Woolf realized that we would need, but those jobs that make us self-sufficient also drain away a lot of our time. We're always checking e-mail, always checking voice mail--and most of us don't have the kind of jobs where we really need to be present. Really, what will happen at the office if I check my e-mail 5 hours later? What crisis will there be? I'm not a brain surgeon. No one will be bleeding or dying--and if they are, that's responsibility goes to a dean's level person, not me.

We're frazzled and fragmented, but in such a different way than Woolf was. She was denied an education, denied entrance to the library, denied resources. We have more resources than we can ever consume in a lifetime. It's a burden of a different kind.

Happy birthday, Virginia Woolf. Thanks for blazing that trail that so many of us travel. Thanks for the notes you've left us to enjoy as we blaze our own trails.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Early Morning Ramblings and a Love Song to NPR

Yesterday morning, I slept until 7:30 a.m.--that's after falling asleep at 9 p.m. I can't remember the last time I did that. That's one way that I know I'm fighting off a cold, that and my scratchy throat, my awareness of my sinuses in a way that I'm not usually.

I also know that I'm fighting off a cold because my appetite disappears. I could go the whole day without eating.

I wonder if this experience is how normal people experience food and hunger. I spend my whole day thinking about food, enjoying the memory of my last meal, planning for the next meals, making myself hungry, eating. It's no wonder I'm carrying extra weight.

And today, I find myself awake early, after going to sleep later than usual (but still early, compared to most grown ups, at 10:30). I'm listening to an amazing interview on Fresh Air with Patti Smith. I've always found her interesting because she started life with no intention of becoming the godmother of punk. She was a poet. She said that girls didn't become rock'n'rollers back then, with the exception of Grace Slick, and she didn't have Grace Slick's voice. She didn't play an instrument. Her thick New Jersey accented voice wouldn't lead us to think that she could sing.

She says she saw herself as a performer and a communicator, and her first album was where she tried to merge poetry and rock, and to reach out to all the disaffected groups that she saw.

I've always been in love with music, and one of my alternate Kristins (as I think of, when I think of the paths I didn't take) is touring the country, playing everywhere she can get a gig, writing songs as the miles go by, picking up abandoned instruments at yard sales, and collaborating with interesting musicians of all kinds. It's wonderful to hear this interview.

One of the biggest advantages of the Internet for me is the ability to hear NPR stories that I have missed as they air. Now it's amazing to me to think back to a time where if you weren't listening to the radio, you just missed things that were gone forever--the same way, my students can't comprehend a world before VCRs, where movies came to the theatre, you had a narrow window of time to see them, and then they were gone, probably forever.

I've always written best with NPR talking in the background. I used to live in a place with an NPR station that was more classical music, and when the news programs clicked off, I'd try other forms of talk radio--but the shouting and screaming was too much for me (although I must confess a shocking addiction to Dr. Laura Schlessinger for a brief time)--and the commercials were jarring, with their change in volume, their sound effects--impossible to tune it all out.

I like having NPR on when I write, because when I hit a snag, I have something to focus upon, until I either call it a day or I figure out how to go on in my writing. I like having NPR on when I do other art forms, because I have something to listen to. I know that television works for some people, but I find the picture too distracting. I like having NPR on when I drive, because I have something to think about besides the miserable traffic situations.

I wonder if individual stations will soon find their donors not giving money because of the easy availability of programming on the Internet. Will NPR stations find themselves in the position of newspapers?

This morning I'm feeling better--not much of a scratchy throat left, just some slight congestion. Hurrah.

Soon it will be off to spin class, off to the office. But I'll take that vision of Patti Smith with me: poet turned musician turned godmother of punk. I'll think of roads not taken--or should I say, roads not yet taken, roads yet to be revealed?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The National Arts Index

If you're an artist who relies on the Internet to deliver your art, you'll be cheered by the recent report by the nonprofit group Americans for the Arts. If you're an arts group that relies on people to come out of their houses, to leave their computers, you won't.

I read about the report in this story in today's The Washington Post. It contains lots of information that you probably already suspected, like the fact that more people are getting their arts entertainment from their computers. It also contains some surprising facts, like more people are signing up to take ceramics courses. More people are also taking knitting classes, but that didn't surprise me.

The group found that a new arts organization is created every three hours. Every three hours! My first thought was hurray, Americans are devoted to the arts. My second was despair at all the statistics about who isn't going to which events: "Attendance at art museums was down 13 percent from 2003 to 2008, the index found, while audiences at popular music events were down 6 percent."

I'm glad I didn't follow my first inclination in college, which was to major in Arts Administration. I thought it would be a good way to combine my love of the arts, while giving me something practical to do for money. But I took an Accounting class, and that, as they say, was that. Blhh. I now wonder how my life might have been changed if I had taken a different sort of business class first, but I didn't. And it was 1984, and I was convinced that Ronald Reagan would detonate the nuclear bombs at any moment, so what I majored in didn't matter.

And here we are, twenty-five years later, still looking for that mushroom cloud. Well, I'm still waiting, but I realize I'm probably one of few who still occasionally anxiously scans the horizon for that telltale sign.

I can't complain too much about the Internet, however. I still think that the Internet keeps many of us artists more connected, both to each other and to potential audiences. I've bought most of the poetry books I've bought in the past few years because I love the blogs of the writers or because some of my favorite poets blogged about the books of other poets. I think that more people are reading my poems now that they're online, both on my blog and website and in online journals. Ten years ago, my poems appeared in paper journals with a distribution of 250 copies. How did those journals survive?

Well, as Steven D. Schroeder points out in a recent blog post, many of them don't. And in fact, the book itself may be obsolete. The Americans for the Arts report tells us that reading rates are plummeting. I know that many people are willing to say that in our lifetimes, books will cease to be published (except digitally). But I still love books as objects, much as I love LPs (those old vinyl records, for those of you who are too young to know the lingo). I will always hope for something that comes along to save them, even as I participate in the newer technologies.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Leadbelly Sing Along

At the folk music festival, one of the bluesier performers attempted to engage us all in singing the chorus of the old Leadbelly songs, "In the Pines" (also known as "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?"). It's been recorded by just about everybody, but my favorite version is the one by Nirvana on their MTV Unplugged in New York album--ah, those glorious olden days when MTV still played music . . . but let me not digress. If you want to see the Nirvana performance of the song, go here, but it may break your heart.

My spouse and I belted out the refrain and then realized that almost nobody else was singing. And despite being encouraged by the performer each time as the refrain came around, almost nobody sang.

Now, it's not a complicated refrain, some variation of: "Oh girl, my girl, don't lie to me. Tell me where did you sleep last night? In the pines, in the pines, where the sun don't ever shine, we shiver the whole night through." It has two or three notes. You can whisper them or scream them, the way Kurt Cobain did. Like many old, old folk songs, it's hard to go wrong.

It was Woody Guthrie, after all, who said if your song needs more than three chords, you're showing off (or was it 2 chords?). Folk music, like punk music, has a do-it-yourself ethic. We should all be able to participate.

So, why did so few people sing? If we'd been in a regular gathering of people, I'd understand. The idea of a group of people singing together, regardless of skill and talent, has largely been relegated to church these days (and even in churches, there's a disturbing trend of having star performers and congregations who don't sing . . . but let me not digress). But we were in a group of folk music people, many of whom perform/sing/play on a regular basis.

I've spent days thinking about that reluctance to sing and thinking about how we live in a culture where people are likely to know fewer and fewer songs. Arts programs have been cut out of schools so that students can bubble in test questions more efficiently. Radio stations have been gutted, so that we have less access to free music. In some ways we have access to more music than ever before, thanks to the Internet, but I'd be willing to bet that most of us are listening to less music these days.

I've also been thinking about my PhD and about teaching Brit Lit survey classes year after year. One of the advantages of the PhD has been that it opened that teaching door to me. One of the other advantages of my particular PhD program is that we read a lot of literature. And when I taught the survey classes, I had to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, so I read even more literature.

One of the things I miss with my move into administration is that teaching life where I was surrounded by literature (even when that life was surrounded by Composition too). One of the things that shocks me about some MFA programs is how some of them produce graduates who haven't read much more widely than the works of their fellow grad students.

In both music and literature, so many of us are losing our heritage. I was lucky, in that I went to a liberal arts school, where I met lots of people with music collections even more extensive than mine, in genres unfamiliar to me--so I have a familiarity with country music, for example, that I wouldn't have otherwise. Both my undergraduate and graduate programs believed in a broad literary focus, in addition to following my particular passions. I could analyze the work of a little known female writer, but I'd also be delving into the work of the dead white guys that generations of English majors before me had studied.

I suspect we're also losing our heritage in other fields too. On Monday I wrote about my students and their glancing acquaintance with history. I bet the same is true in most fields, especially in the humanities.

How to combat this loss? I wish I knew. Perhaps when Obama has finished transforming the medical system and the financial system, he can turn his attention to education. Perhaps in an age of access to more and more knowledge, we will just have to accept the loss of some of it. Lest I glorify my undergraduate days too much, let me remember that my research plan was to go to the library and read the 6 books and 9 articles (on microfilm!) that the library had--and then I was done and wrote the paper. Now we have access to so much more--maybe I'm wrong to expect more comprehensive understanding of subjects.

It's the human condition, isn't it? Everything we love will be lost, and we must figure out how to go on living with the knowledge that it will all be lost.

But I can't afford to go down that existential path any further. I must make soup for the homeless (tonight is my church's stint at the soup kitchen), poems for myself and anyone else who's interested, changes to a manuscript, and then there are the errands to run . . . some day, I will feel profound sadness at all the errands I can no longer run.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Thinking about Poetry at the Folk Music Festival

On Sunday, my spouse and I went to a local folk festival. It used to be a much larger, outdoor festival, with multiple stages held over a long holiday week-end. Then that festival was essentially wrecked by several disasters--a series of hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 left the park where the festival was held unusable. A series of power and money struggles left the leadership of the folk club too fragmented to regroup the festival elsewhere (at least, that's how it's been told to me).

But last year, the new leadership decided to hold a scaled down version at a local bar that's usually a country-western dance hall. Some people complained about the lingering smell of cigarettes, and it was an imperfect venue in other ways (dark, cavernous, not a wide beer selection), but it seemed to work. And so, we went to the second annual event on Sunday.

As we listened to one performer, my spouse said, "This guy was an NEA literary fellow?" It seemed hard to believe.*

I said, "Maybe his creative writing is better than his song writing. Maybe this music would seem more profound if we were stoned."

But there wasn't a chance of getting our chemistry altered legally. The bar had no microbrews, and the one bottle of Merlot they had on hand had been open God only knows how long. Yes, we've become alcohol snobs in our middle age. We, who used to mix up huge vats of almost undrinkable beverage from grain alcohol and Kool-aid (we called it PJ--was that done elsewhere or just at my small, Southern college in the mid-80's?), we now turn up our noses at swill. My spouse used to drink Milwaukee's Best beer (as my Sociology professor used to crack, "If this is Milwaukee's Best, I'd hate to taste Milwaukee's Worst!"). Now the only American beer he'll drink needs to come from some small, anti-corporate brewery.

Since I had no wine to savor, I turned my overactive mind to the music. It was quite a mix. We had some really great performers who did wonderful blues and bluegrass music. We had some earnest singer-songwriters: some who wrote good stuff (if you haven't checked out Rod MacDonald yet, you should--do it right now), and some who sang rather predictable lyrics about the loss of orange trees and overdevelopment. There were some tribute bands (one guy who covered John Denver songs and a group that keeps the work of the Weavers alive). It was an interesting mix. Everybody got half an hour to play/sing.

I asked one of the organizers if the performers got paid. They got paid barely enough to cover the gas. I guess they came because they were going to be in the area anyway--there's quite a folk music circuit, and we're on the way to some other venues. I suspect that some came hoping to sell CDs. Some are local, so what did they have to lose?

So many art forms are becoming ones we do for love and perhaps for a pittance of money. I used to write hoping that I could write my way out of my teaching job. I had a vision of a best selling novel that would be made into a movie.

But even if I'm not going to make a living from my poetry, I'm happy to be a poet. Not everything has to be transformed into dollars to make it worthwhile.

In some ways, I feel like a mystic who is still functional in the world. The normal world hears some Science story about tectonic plates and the earthquake in Haiti. The normal world shrugs. I take notes, and my mind starts to whirl away, creating a poem that has nothing to do with earthquakes, but instead thinks about the planet as a patient with arthritis.

I'm like Blake, seeing figures in the flowers. My students assume that Blake was some drug addled freak who died young in a gutter; they're amazed that he had a completely functional life as a printer and engraver, in addition to creating his mystical illuminated writing.

A modern Blake--could that be my goal? I'd better get back to my paintbrushes. Or maybe I'll be a modern Blake who works in poetry and fiber. I like having something luminous to think about, today, when I get back to work by going to a meeting about the Spring schedule that promises to be long and perhaps combative.

*I couldn't resist trying to figure out if the one performer really did get an NEA grant. He did. So have lots of other people. If you want to see your tax dollars at work, go here for the complete list of who has gotten which writing and translating awards (it's not a complete list; it's a report that was published in 2006). It's really an impressive list.

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Back When You Marched with Martin Luther King"

I'm always amazed at how much people don't know. I'm not fabulous at remembering dates myself, but I can get decades straight. I assume that people coming out of high school will know basic facts, and that might be my first mistake.

I've had more than one student say, "Back when you marched with Martin Luther King . . ."

I always interrupt to say, "I was born in 1965." Often I get a blank look. I explain, "I was born in 1965, and King was killed in 1968--that would have made me three when he died. I could hardly walk, much less march." Notice how I did the math there too; I never assume people can do basic math, since I often can't (I'm a disaster with percentage questions).

Don't get me wrong. I'm flattered that they think I'm an old Civil Rights veteran. I'm just a bit aghast that they don't understand the history. Perhaps they're really telling me how old I look, but I don't think that's the case. My students just don't know their decades.

Well, that's what teachers do, right? They teach. They make up for the gaps left by teachers who have come before. So, I give a mini-lesson about the Civil Rights movement, and on we go.

Once I played with a poem idea:

I'd like to think I'd have marched with Dr. Martin Luther King,
but he'd have made us wear our Sunday best,
and I can hardly get from the car to the church
in these high heels,
much less from Selma to Montgomery.

There's more, but I can't remember it. It's buried in a rough draft file. Perhaps I'll dig it out and spend some of this holiday revising it.

This day has always felt almost sacred to me (for more on the religious aspects of this day, go to this post on my theology blog). I've always been impressed with the Civil Rights movement, with how they stayed civilized, even when the agents of civilization (the police, the sheriff, the white establishment) seemed mad and crazed with rage. I've always been impressed with how they held fast to their beliefs, even when they flew in the face of what society might teach us. I've always been impressed with the changes that they wrought.

My younger self, that impatient nineteen year old, was impatient with how long social change took. My older self looks back at how far we've come and how quickly, and I suck in my breath and pray for continued success. A black president: my nineteen year old self would not have believed it would have happened in her lifetime. But it has.

Today is a day to dream big and bold visions. We could change our society. We could make it better. What would that society look like?

We have to dream that dream before we can achieve it. We have to find the courage to hold tightly to our visions. We have to face down all the fire hoses, both those of our minds which inform us of the impossibility of our dreams and those of our society, that tells us to move more slowly.

But first we have to dream. Dream boldly, today of all days.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Trivializing Slavery and the Middle Passage?

In one of my classes, in 2002, I showed the movie Amistad. The depiction of that passage across the Atlantic stays with me. Even as I watched it, my poetry brain was making connections, seeing it as a metaphor for so many things. It led to the poem which I pasted below, which was published here in Clapboard House.

In my writing, I've always felt free to go wherever I wanted to go, to follow whatever sparkling threads and bread crumbs my muse (the one who works in cahoots with my subconscious) leaves for me. In my publishing efforts, I pause a bit.

I worry about being sacrilegious--not that I worry about a jealous God smiting me, but I don't want to trample all over people's beliefs. While my poems stay true to my beliefs, my beliefs which are undergirded by decades of reading and close study, I know that alienating people is not the way to open a discussion about differing beliefs.

I wonder, too, about some of the imagery I've used, imagery that doesn't come from my own heritage. If you look at my fair skin and hair, it's clear that I'm not descended from slaves or Native Americans. My Scottish shipbuilder ancestor wasn't rich enough to own slaves, I'm fairly sure, and my German farming ancestors could barely afford to feed themselves, so they weren't owning other humans.

I'm reminded of the discussion that we had in a creative writing class that I took when I was nineteen. We (the students) all argued that a man couldn't possibly understand what it was like to be a woman, and that a white person couldn't write the experience of a black person. The teacher fought valiantly against our view, but he didn't convince any of us at the time.

How little we believed in the powers of the imagination! Oh we of little faith!

Needless to say, after several decades of writing experience, I disagree with my nineteen year old self. I think that a thoughtful, empathetic imagination can probably understand the situation of any character we want to create.

Yet I also want to tread carefully. I don't want to trivialize anyone's history.

So, after all that preamble, here's my poem, which links marriage at midlife to the Atlantic ocean voyage endured by slaves. Have I pushed the metaphor too far?

Middle Passage of Marriage

Our younger selves—those feckless
European adventurers—fettered
us together. Marriage, a brilliant capitalist
scheme to make money
or at least to collect presents,
and we are left to cope
with the decisions of our younger selves,
decisions made with callous
disregard for the human flesh involved.

Shackled below the decks, we make our perilous
way across the Atlantic of our lives together.
We have spent most of our days
on this journey staring at each other’s skin,
knowing the other’s every habit.
We have kept each other alive and sane,
in part because the alternative is so grisly.

If I let you go, watched you slide
into the abyss, I still wouldn’t be free.
It would be worse to be chained
to your corpse, so I settle
into this Middle Passage.

I yearn for the freedom of our youth,
those carefree days when we didn’t know
the boredom of these watery vistas,
the endless irritations in the hold of this ship.

Ignorant of the horrors
that await us, the indignities we shall suffer
as we slave on the plantation
of aging, I hold tight to the hope
of a New World, a continent to call my own.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Harriet Tubman Haunts My Poems

Since I spent so many years as an English major, it's hard for me to just write my work, without also imagining a grad student several hundred years from now writing about it. I know what images I've put in my work, but I wonder what images other people will see. Will they focus on what's important?

And here we're back to some interesting questions in the field of literary criticism. Does it really matter what the author intended? How much should my background as a reader affect my literary criticism? How much should my knowledge of an author affect my reading of the work?

So, dear little future grad student, I wonder if you'll even have access to blogs and such. How will you treat them? Will you see them the way that I see the journals, diaries, and letters of poets and writers? Or, since they're more public documents, will you see them differently? Will you care about what I thought about what I was writing?

In case you will care, let me expound a bit.

I'm a woman who grew up in the U.S. South, just after some of the great successes of the Civil Rights Movement. Our schools in the 1970's and early 1980's were uneasily integrated, that integration enforced by busing (integration which has largely fallen by the wayside now). Our teachers were intent on teaching us that prejudice was wrong. It was hard, though, not to notice what a new idea that was, surrounded as we were by the ruins of great plantations, the ruins of the U.S. South, the knowledge that before the Civil War the U.S. Southern states would have been the richest states and now they seem forever destined to be the poorest.

Or maybe I was just an unusually aware child and teenager.

Anyway, it's no surprise to me that images that come out of slavery haunt my poems. They haunt our country, so why shouldn't they haunt our creative work?

I do worry that perhaps I trivialize some of the material, but I'll write more about that tomorrow.

For today, here's a poem inspired by Harriet Tubman. It first appeared in South Carolina Review, and I included it in my chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.

Running from the Plantation of Despair

I dwell in the plantation of despair,
held in the chains of mistakes and doubts,
whipped by all the demons who keep vigil
over this boggy rice farm of depression.
I’m an ocean away from my home, my happy
self, in a land where I can’t speak the language,
digest the food, or interpret the constellations.

I inhale the dust
of a million dashed dreams. I sink into a songless
sleep and wake to a day drained of color.
Gradually I forget my real name, my mother’s face,
the syllables of my own language. I can no longer
trace the steps that brought me here or plot
escape. No revolutionary, me.

And then she appears at half a crack of dawn, dark
as the night, with my running shoes in her hand.
“Girl, we got to set you free.”

She doesn’t listen to my fears, my creaking
knees, the slow heaving of my lungs.
I follow her light, my North
Star, setting me free. We run to liberty,
avoiding the dangerous dogs, the slaveholders,
naysayers who would sell us back
to the plantation of despair.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dreaming About Poet Laureates, Community Colleges, and Harriet Tubman

Last night, I dreamed that I was some sort of employee who was trying to help Poet Laureate Kay Ryan. In my dream, she had come to me to tell me that she didn't want to be Poet Laureate anymore, and we were strategizing her exit strategy.

I woke up and thought, Great--even in my dreams, I'm some sort of low-level administration type. If I'm going to dream about Poet Laureates, why can't I dream that I'm the actual Poet Laureate?

Of course, I've been daydreaming about the Poet Laureate position for years. I've always been intrigued by the projects that the Poet Laureate chooses to pursue. Most of us are familiar with Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project, but other Poet Laureates have done interesting things too.

When I woke up this morning, I thought, I wonder if Kay Ryan is still Poet Laureate, and I set out to search. I came across this story, which talks about the project that Kay Ryan will do, a project which focuses upon community colleges: "The Community College Poetry Project is made up of three parts. National Poetry Day on Community College Campuses will be celebrated on the first day of April beginning next year and will include events, readings, and a conference call with Ryan. A Web page, 'Poetry for the Mind's Joy,' will launch early next year hosted by the Library of Congress' site. Lastly, colleges will submit their best work each year to feature on the site."

In this story, Ryan says, ""I simply want to celebrate the fact that right near your home, year in and year out, a community college is quietly—and with very little financial encouragement—saving lives and minds. I can’t think of a more efficient, hopeful or egalitarian machine, with the possible exception of the bicycle."

What a wonderful statement about community colleges. I finished my Ph.D. during another time of deep recession and cuts in teaching staff (back in 1992). I won a job at Trident Technical College, which was one of the biggest community colleges in South Carolina. I think some of my professors might have felt I was a bit of a failure, but I was happy to have that job. It paid a living wage and gave me benefits.

One of the benefits that it gave me was that I really felt I was doing important work. Most of my students were the first in their families to attend college, and I felt fortunate to be their guide. I knew that this chance to attend a community college was their shot at escape from a low wage future. I liked being part of the team that helped that to happen.

During those days of teaching endless sections of Composition (and the lower level, pre-college Comp classes), I often thought of my childhood hero, Harriet Tubman, and how our vocations were similar: leading people to freedom, some of whom were a bit resistant to being rescued. Seeing myself that way helped me during the days when my job felt more like drudgery than heroism.

In this story, Kay Ryan says, ""I always think writers will come from the most unlikely sources. Maybe that is because I was educated in a community college, I didn't look a bit promising and I got to be poet laureate of the United States."

Kay Ryan's comment touches on one of the difficult parts of being a teacher: you rarely know whether or not you've been successful. You teach your lessons on Composition in sixteen weeks or less, and the students go off to their next class, and eventually they graduate, and you never know what happens.

Well, sometimes you know. On Friday, a former student came to see me. She said, "You changed my life."

No, gentle reader, it was not my writing instruction, exactly, that changed her life. She said, "I brought some flan to class, and you had a bite, and you told me that I'd be really successful if I went into business making flan." Years later, that's what she's doing. I hope she'll be successful. I hope my taste buds weren't wrong. I hope she has good business skills to go with her superb flan making skills.

Perhaps most of us have this job difficulty. Very few of us have jobs that let us know for sure that we're making a difference. The other day, after my Penelope of a day of re-revising a revised report to turn it back into the original report and updating it, I asked a friend, "Is this is what I was put on Earth to do?"

My friend said that was the wrong question, but she couldn't tell me what the right question would be.

I think it's the right question. And happily, most days, I do feel I'm doing what I was put on Earth to do, at least for part of the day. It's one of the joys of midlife. When I got my first teaching job, I spent a lot of time wondering if I was at the right school. Now I know that I can do my Harriet Tubman work in any number of settings with many types of work.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Of Changes, in Weather, Sleep, Writing, Work, Movie Viewing

We've been having several weeks of record breaking cold now. What a strange weather month: record breaking heat, record breaking rain, record breaking cold, record breaking length of cold.

On Sunday night, the lights flickered, and then half the electric in the house went to half strength. And the heat wasn't working. So we sat in our dim house, with a fire in the fireplace, watching The Simpsons. You know, a fire doesn't really give out much heat, especially when it's your sole source of heat. Again, I'm in awe of what the colonists and settlers accomplished. I could never go off and settle Minnesota. Brr.

In the middle of the night, the electric came back to full strength, so it wasn't a restful night. So I didn't write yesterday morning before work.

I thought I might write when I got to work, but I discovered that I needed to revisit one of our SACS assessment documents. During the break, I took out a lot of material, on the advice of one dean. Then I had to rewrite a bit to make the remainder make sense. Last week, a different member of the team decided that the new document was a bit thin, so I spent several hours yesterday putting back in what I took out, and again, revising so that the document would make sense. Sigh.

I must keep reminding myself that when I taught, I had these Penelope moments too. Weave a tapestry, unweave at night, weave the same patch the next day--a metaphor for modern work!

At least I finally saw an uplifting movie. My parents were vacationing in Orlando, where we went to join them. It was much too cold and rainy/sleety to do a theme park (all those runners, doing the half marathon and marathon in such unseasonably cold weather--poor runners!), so we went to a movie. Mom chose The Blind Side.

I hesitated because the reviews and previews made it look like your traditional football movie and/or your traditional do-gooder/white person's guilt kind of movie. It was a bit of all that and so much more. There was a bit of your teacher feel good movie. A bit of your cute kid movie.

But more than that, it was one of those uplifting kind of stories, the kind where you leave feeling positive about the potential for human kindness (and if you're like me, you leave feeling like you haven't done nearly as much as you could have for your fellow humans). There were plenty of scenes where the movie was emotionally manipulative, but I didn't feel annoyed about that, the way I sometimes do.

Maybe I forgave the movie because it was based on a true story. Maybe I forgave it because I was being manipulated into feeling hopeful, as opposed to the effect that most movies are trying to manipulate my emotions towards. I grow tired of feeling bleak and hopeless about how existentially alone we all are. I decided against seeing The Road, because I wasn't sure I could handle all that bleakness (and because it left our theatres fairly quickly).

Of course, I'll probably go see The Book of Eli. Will it be uplifting or depressing? I don't know, but my spouse is interested in seeing it, and I'm always up for an apocalyptic movie!

Here we are, the first week of the term. I shall try to put some good patterns into place, so that all my writing efforts don't get subsumed into accreditation documents. A day here and there is to be expected, but my inner poet will get snappy if we don't get some real writing done soon.

Friday, January 8, 2010

On the Death of Mary Daly

On Historiann's blog post, she mentioned that Mary Daly died, and talked about the discussion of Daly that spiraled down into feminist bashing on several other blogs: lots of people talking about her transphobia, which I don't really remember being a major part of her writing--it was the late 1970's, and there weren't that many transgendered people running around--who could afford that surgery? Of course, I was a kid and a pre-teen in the 70's, so I might be remembering wrong.

Notorious, Ph.D. did a lovely blog posting about Mary Daly, and I enjoyed reading it and the comments. I haven't read any Mary Daly in years, so once I got home, I pulled her books off the shelves, and was transported back to a time when I was a more fiery feminist. She also shaped my views on theology (for my views on her theology and how it shaped me, go to this post on my theology blog).

I remember reading Gyn/Ecology and both devouring it and having to take it slowly at the same time. I read her work and felt like the top of my head might come right off as my brain expanded.

Now I read it, and though it seems somewhat dated, I remember how it expressed all kinds of angry ideas that I didn't feel permitted to say. I remember thinking that we were all supposed to be liberated with all kinds of opportunities, but it still seemed like a man's world to me, especially when I got to graduate school.

Yet if you could strip away some of the angry, feminist language, you'd see that her ideas are still true today. For example, she quotes Valerie Solanis' view that males love death and get sexually aroused by death. Daly says, "The statement would seem to be adequately substantiated/documented by the state of this male-controlled planet. If patriarchal males loved life, the planet would be different" (p. 352). I find it hard to argue with that thought. Males still run the show on the planet, especially in developing nations. And they enact so many policies which do not enhance life on the planet, and in fact, endanger it.

I wish I could say that the status of women has improved since Daly's books first appeared, but it really hasn't. In many places, it's even more precarious to be a female (like the Congo, for one horrifying example). And we still haven't made the kind of progress that I'd like to see. During the State of the Union address this year, count the females in the room. It will be easy; they'll be the ones wearing colors. There will be about 30 of them in a sea of serious suits.

I also flipped through Pure Lust yesterday, which I don't think I ever read, in the same way that I read Gyn/Ecology or Beyond God the Father. Pure Lust doesn't have underlinings and passionately written notes in the margin. It does have linguistic leaps and leaps of logic. I read chunks of the book yesterday and recognized the graduate school writer that I was, the writer who drove my serious academic mentors crazy.

I'm old enough now to understand why I irritated them. I'm old enough to realize that my linguistic tendencies really belong to the world of poetry, not literary criticism. It's good to arrive at mid-life, having figured some things out.

I will always feel a fondness for those feminists of the 70's and 80's who blazed a trail for me and my compatriots. I've said before that Our Bodies, Ourselves changed my life in so many ways, and other feminist thinking worked the same magic. I miss that fierce anger that my younger self had, that fierce, transformative anger that so many earlier feminists had. At the same time, I'm aware of how much energy that level of anger takes, energy that won't be there to spend on other things, like creative pursuits or raising children.

Back to that question of balance, where I so often end up. Do I want to spend my time storming the barricades, demanding changes in the world? Do I want to write poems? Was I wrong to have decided not to have children? Is it a sign of moral weakness that so often these days, what I really crave is a nap?

I feel like Mary Daly would have judged me and found me lacking. My inner 19 year old certainly does. Yet my inner wise older crone (to use Daly's language) reminds me that there is a time for righteous anger, and a time for art, and a time for a meal shared with friends. There is even time for a nap. My wise crone self reminds me that all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well (yes, I am aware that my wise older crone is actually Julian of Norwich; I'm cool with that).

Thursday, January 7, 2010

While You're Waiting

Many of us consume many hours of time on our manuscripts, both of individual poems and of collections. But perhaps you've made your manuscript as good as it can be. You're still likely to have time between sending out the manuscript and publication. It might be lots of time. What can you do to get ready?

I've spent lots of years of my life thinking ahead, saying, "In the Fall, what will I wish I had done with all this lovely free time?" I've spent lots of time getting ready, because often, once the big event arrives, there is no more time.

In some ways, my chapbook publication was a great dry run, a rough draft of a book publication. I remember thinking, I wish I knew more about websites; I feel like I should have one. And now, I do.

Kelli Russell Agodon has a great post of what to do while you're waiting for your book to be published. Some of it you might have already done; I spent some time during the dull spots of a meeting composing a book description, because I want to submit to Graywolf this month, and they want that as part of the cover letter. Most of us have a bio or two.

Some of her suggestions are brilliant, like this one:

"8) If you have any reviews or articles about you online, cut and paste them into a MS Word file and save them on your computer.

This just happened to me. I went to get a couple sentences from an old (positive) review of my first book and it's gone. That means I have to find it in the Way Back Machine or cached somewhere else. Had I just had it saved in a document form, it would have saved me much work."

I always assume that online sources will be there forever, and alas, it's just not so. It never occurred to me to save the article in a different file. Duh!

For those of you who are earlier in the writing process and finding the thought of a book length manuscript daunting, perhaps you'd rather have some simpler resolutions. I particularly like Diane Lockward's post on her resolutions, particularly # 1: "Write on a more regular basis. Aim for three morning sessions per week. Show up at the kitchen table. Do chores later. Or not at all."

Sometimes I look at the work of other poets, and I just feel behind, especially when I see poets who are younger than I am, who have several books with spines. I forget that the main task of a writer is to write. I think of all the poets, like John Keats, who weren't known much at all in his day. I think of poets like John Donne, who have gone in and out of favor--there are centuries where his work would have been lost to us.

We don't have much control over the publication process, although we like to think we do. We can prepare, we can send out our work, but much of the rest is out of our power. It's important to remember to write, to remember that the writing of poems is what enriches our lives, not the publishing of them. Publication, and all that may or may not follow, is extra. The task of the poet is to observe, to make connections out of those observations, and to write them down.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Of Epiphanies and Other Shifts in Perspective

Today is officially the end of the Christmas season, the twelfth day of Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany, the day that celebrates the Wise Men who visited the Baby Jesus. For an essay that contemplates the spiritual nature of this day, go here to visit my theology blog.

For those of us who aren't in the mood for a spiritual day, Epiphany still offers us a fine opportunity to think about our perspective and the kinds of insights we might wish to experience.

For example, yesterday I decided that the heat part of our new system just wasn't working. It took me some time to decide that we really didn't have heat. I turned the thermostat up to 70 degrees, and four hours later, the temperature inside the house had fallen four degrees.

Happily, it was an easy fix. One set of wires had been connected to the wrong place. A few simple turns of the screwdriver, and voila! We have heat.

This morning, as I made coffee, I thought about my parents, who left yesterday, and all the things I worried that might go wrong during their visit: noisy neighbors, the water being disconnected (I got a threatening bill the day before they arrived), one of us getting sick. It never occurred to me to worry that the heat wouldn't work. It's South Florida! We use the heat maybe two weeks a year at the most.

So, what happens? My parents visit during a record breaking cold snap, and we discover we have no heat.

If I was a character in a novel, this might be an epiphany moment. James Joyce, the master of the epiphany, would use it to show what a small, sad life I have. An inspirational writer would use my epiphany as a way to turn my life around: no more worries, since I'm always worrying for no good reason. A darker writer would be waiting to zap me with a bigger catastrophe, and readers could say, "Ha! Look at her, worrying over all the wrong things."

If you want to spend today thinking about epiphanies in literature, we might take a moment and read some of the masters of epiphany, like Flannery O'Connor or James Joyce. Here's what Garrison Keillor says about Joyce and epiphany on The Writer's Almanac:

"Around the time that Irish writer James Joyce was defecting from the Roman Catholic Church, he was investing secular meaning into the word "epiphany." In his early 20s, he drew up little sketches, sort of like "prose poems," in which he illustrated epiphanies. He explained to his brother Stanislaus that epiphanies were sort of 'inadvertent revelations' and said they were 'little errors and gestures — mere straws in the wind — by which people betrayed the very things they were most careful to conceal.' He also wrote that the epiphany was the sudden 'revelation of the whatness of a thing,' the moment when 'the soul of the commonest object ... seems to us radiant.'

It was a literary device that James Joyce would use in every story in his collection Dubliners (1914), a technique that he would become known for and that many modern writers would emulate. Joyce's Dubliners ends with a story set at a party for the Feast of the Epiphany, 'The Dead,' and the story ends: 'His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.'"

I will spend some of today thinking about epiphanies in poems. I tend to think of the use of epiphany as limited to fiction or essay writers, but I'm sure I'm wrong.

I also plan to write a poem about the Wise Women who visit the baby Jesus. Of course, they're erased from history because they realized the wisdom of Jesus, who would later instruct us to forgo housework so that we can focus on what's important and what might not be around us very long.

A few years ago I realized that I'm usually preparing syllabi on Epiphany proper. That led to great poem possibilities, which eventually became a poem--unpublished at this point, so I won't post it here.

Today is a great day to think about epiphanies, those moments of realization, those blips of insight. How can we be more alert to the possibility of epiphany, both in our writing and in our lives?

Monday, January 4, 2010

2010 Reading List

I read a great article at The New York Times, about older brains and how they learn; it's less about working puzzles and more about approaching tasks and thinking in new ways. At the end of the article I saw that the author has a book coming out this year, and so with this book, I start my 2010 reading list.

Here, in no particular order, is my list for 2010. In addition, I want to keep reading one book of poetry a month. And I want to keep buying at least one book of poetry a month. If poets don't support each other, how can we expect other people to buy our books?

1. The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain by Barbara Strauch

This book joins the book from 2009 that I forgot to read:

2. My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor

Other books on the 2009 list that I want to get around to:

3. New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton

4. After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of Religion by Robert Wuthnow

I'm already reading the next 3 books, so let me add those to my list of theology books to read:

5. The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life by Joan Chittister

6. The Sacred Meal by Nora Gallagher

7. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller

I want to read 2 books of history:

8. When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins

9. History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism by Judith Bennett

I want to read two memoirs by writers:

10. The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws by Margaret Drabble

11. Literary Life: A Second Memoir by Larry McMurtry

And let me not forget novels (and please, let me enjoy some vacation time like I had last August where I can just read novel after novel):

12. Gail Godwin, one of my old-time favorites, has just published a novel: Unfinished Desires

13. Lorrie Moore's latest book got lots of good press, so I'll give it a whirl: A Gate at the Stairs.

14. Richard Russo's book, That Old Cape Magic, will come back to the library shelves eventually; if that many people have checked it out, it must be good, right?

15. Zoe Heller is always a treat, so I'll read her latest, The Believers.

16. And last, but not least, I want to remember to read Barbara Kingsolver's latest, The Lacuna.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Writer's Resolutions--Monthly and Yearly

On November 1, I made some 2 month goals. How did I do?

Once again, I'll cut and paste the goals, and write underneath how I did. I'll use a different color, although those of you who read this blog on Facebook won't see the different color:

--keep writing a poem or two a week.

I only did this for 2 or 3 of the weeks of the last 8 weeks.

--organize next book-length manuscript and chapbook manuscript. The book-length manuscript will be my Jesus/God in the world poems and the chapbook manuscript will be the modern working women poems.

I accomplished this--hurrah!

--submit to the journals that stop taking submissions at the end of December.

I did this too.

--submit older book manuscript to 2-4 publishers.

I submitted the full-length manuscript to 2 publishers, and a chapbook manuscript to one publisher.

My goals for 2010 aren't much different from the ones I always post.

My main writing goal is to keep writing. I'd still like to write a poem or two or three a week and submit individual poems to journals.

But here's my main hope/dream/goal: by this time next year, I'd like to have a book forthcoming or published from a press that's reputable (I'm not averse to self-publishing, but I don't think that 2010 will be the best year for me to start a press). I'd love for it to be a book with a spine, although I'd also be happy with a chapbook.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

2009 in Review--the Reader's Report

As 2008 drew to a close, I created a list of books that I wanted to read in 2009. Before the year-end taking stock gives way to new lists and resolutions, I wanted to check in with this list (if you want to read more about my experience of reading these books, I tagged them with "2009 reading list" and you can clink on the link to your right and see all the entries in one place.

I'll paste the list below and I'll put my comments in under each book. Maybe I'll put my comments in a different color!

2009 Reading List

1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

I read this one--it failed to move me the way that it did in high school and college, and I found the ending downright disturbing: "We're not really suffering mental illness. It's a sign that we alone are sane. Let's ride back off into America and get in touch with our inner voices!"

2. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Great Book. Philip K. Dick continues to be amazing to my reading mind--one of my few high school reading passions that holds up over time.

3. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

Also amazing--history is cyclical, knowledge is precious, but not held in high esteem, monasteries are more important than we realize . . .why wouldn't I still love this book?

When I looked up A Canticle for Leibowitz on Amazon, I discovered #4. I'm always a sucker for a good tale about the apocalypse--what could be better than a book of short stories? I can dip in and out:

4. Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams

Great stories. I read most of the book, and I read it mostly at night when I couldn't sleep. Then I'd go back to sleep and conk right out, like a baby. What does that say about me?

There are 3 books by some of my favorite female authors that have come out recently:

5. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Fabulous book. Skillfully done. Geraldine Brooks hasn't disappointed me yet, and all her books are so different. I read her books and say, "Why should I bother to write fiction, when more talented people are doing such a good job?"

6. Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

I wanted to like this book. I read 50 pages before I decided that the main character just drove me nuts.

7. A Mercy by Toni Morrison

My favorite Toni Morrison book thus far, and a mind-blowing experience for such a short book. No other author, fiction or non-fiction, has helped me really understand what life in the colonies was like.

This one is probably the best book I read all year.

I added a novel that I've always meant to read, but haven't:

8. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (maybe my friend Elizabeth--who used to read this book several times a year--will read this at the same time as me and offer encouragement).

What was I thinking? The size was daunting. I didn't even try.

I wanted something to make me think about my brain in a different way:

9. My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor

I never got around to this one.

And of course, no list would be complete without some theology:

10. Any book by Thomas Merton (I've never read a whole book of his before)

I read part of New Seeds of Contemplation. Very good stuff. I plan to finish reading it.

11. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Nope. Didn't get to this.

12. Tell it Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers by Eugene Peterson

I read this one, but don't remember much of it.

And some Sociology about Religion (plus, I love this generational stuff!):

13. After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of Religion

I'd still like to read this one.

And another book of essays by a modern master:

14. Citizenship Papers by Wendell Berry

I accidentally ordered 2 copies--and then, I didn't like the book. Heavy sigh.

And the last novel, which seems to wrap together many things: my love of theology, my love of poetry, my fascination with cloistered life of all kinds, my Victorian/Modern British Lit background . . .

15. Exiles by Ron Hansen

I read it and liked it, although it was different than I was expecting.

I also said that I would read one volume of poems a month, and most months I did so, although most months, I didn't write about what I was reading.

In the coming week, I'll post a 2010 list. I found it useful to have a list, even though I was less mindful of the list after August. I need a few days to think about my reading goals for 2010.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Good Reasons for Taking Stock

Yesterday, as I was counting up poems written for my writer's report, I came across some poems that I had forgotten writing, in a notebook that had been put in the wrong pile. I came across four poems that will fit perfectly in my new book-length manuscript. Hurrah! I had a few poems that didn't seem to fit, and I suspect I put them in the book-length manuscript because I was trying to hit a page number. But now I'll have a stronger book.

I had that experience of finding missing poems in the morning. And in the afternoon, I got a water bill that reminded me I hadn't paid the last bill and that my water would be cut off if I didn't pay. I always think that I'm a very organized person, that if you needed a piece of paper, I'd know exactly where to find it. I probably would, but some things do seem to fall through the cracks. And I don't always sort through my piles as often as I should.

That point has been driven home in several ways this week. I've moved offices at work and tried to sort through paper piles--amazing how old some of the information is. I got that bill that threatened to cut off my water--a panic inducing moment, since my parents will arrive later today, and I don't want them to arrive to a house with the water cut off; I paid the bill, so hopefully that won't happen.

I feel like I'm on top of everything, even though I sometimes feel harried and crabby. Should I see these incidents as early warning indicators, or should I just realize that these kind of moments happen to most adults? Am I trying to do too much? Should I scale back? Or do my jam-packed days account for my productivity?

I suspect that I'll wrestle with these questions for most of my life. Work-life-creative balance--it's the classic conundrum for our time (and I suspect most times).

Happy New Year! May we make reasonable goals and may the world respond. May we remember the less fortunate, who don't have the time, money, and other resources to make goals above simple survival. May we remember to be grateful, especially for all the small things we overlook: the bottle of wine that's delicious and affordable, the smile of someone we love, warm bread, the sun and the rain and the beautiful moon in all its phases, and the million small happinesses we get every day.