Saturday, December 28, 2013

All-Poetry Autumn Wrap-Up and Link Festival

I'm going to say right up front that I didn't go about All Poetry Autumn in a particularly methodical way. A responsible blogger-poet would have kept track of the poetry she read, the poetry she wrote, all the ways in which she honored her totally-invented-for-no-apparent-reason process. I didn't do any of that, although I can tell you that APA 2013 was a staggering success from my perspective.

For one thing, it kept me focused on poetry, an often-difficult task during the Fall semester. I love me some fiction, especially some Scandinavian crime fiction (which is, by the way, not at all limited to that girl and her tattoo, a book I couldn't make it through), and I have a couple of Jo Nesbo-with-a-slash-through-the-o books that have been sitting in my iPad since the end of the summer. When I'm teaching, I regularly want some non-academic reading, books I can enjoy without thinking about them too much, the literary equivalent of a popcorn movie (although my standards for such are, I've come to learn, higher than average). Or Runner's World, back issues of which are also stacked up on my iPad. I knew going into the end of September that trying to focus on poetry during these past three months was going to be tough—it's basically the toughest time of my year to do something like that. But I'm a girl who's been known to enjoy proving herself, so there you go.

I had some rules, but not many: because I get paid to read student essays and other preparatory stuff for my teaching, I couldn't just not read prose. So APA had to apply to my non-academic reading. I also decided that reading prose geared toward my poetry was also permissible, as long as it was no stretch at all to explain it. I'm working on an essay about place in poetry—an aspect of my own work that's pretty obvious to anyone who's read more than a couple of my poems—so I had no trouble justifying my reading of Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, for example, or Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous (which is also about place, even though it sounds like a Harlequin romance novel about a rebellious witch and the ruggedly handsome warlock tasked with taming her). Diane Lockward's excellent craft book The Crafty Poet hasn't left my bedside table since it arrived, even though it contains essays as well as poems. The other thing that doesn't leave my nightstand? A notebook and a pen, because all three of these books prompted poems of my own, exactly the kind of result APA was intended to achieve.

In general, though, I read poetry. Lots and lots of poetry. I'm in the middle of Donald Revell's Pennyweight Windows: New and Selected Poems, which is currently taking pride of place beside my bed. Right here on the breakfast tray I use as a lap desk, there are three books: a collection of Paul Celan poems (70 Poems, translated by Michael Hamburger), Mary Ruefle's Trances of the Blast, and an anthology of poems by runners which I happen to have work in: Bearers of Distance. I've also read Robert Hass' The Apple Trees at Olema, a book by fellow Cider Press Review editor Catherine Carter (The Swamp Monster at Home), Thom Gunn's Boss Cupid, which I must have read a dozen times now, the National Book Awards finalists The Big Smoke (Adrian Matejka) and Black Aperture (Matt Rasmussen), and tons of others. Some of them left me a little cold, some of them (like Black Aperture) left me gobsmacked. Some of them were recent and some of them had been kicking around on my shelves for years. Some of them were me returning to books I'd been meaning to get around to re-reading (like Catherine's book, or Gunn's). All of them were worth my time.

I also wrote poetry—it's too soon yet to say if any of it is worth reading, but it's been written. Or begun, at least. And I'm happy with some of the drafts. I revised older poems, some of which I hadn't previously really known how to handle. What's more, I filled up my tank with ways to think about my own work and the work of others. I found some new-to-me voices to admire. I kept poetry coming off the shelf for sales and coming out of the stacks at the library.

So, would I do it again? Absolutely. I have just begun to read prose again, skimming through an excellent and potentially dangerous (and much-longed-for) baking cookbook I received for Christmas, and spending the moments before sleep last night with the (signed!) copy of Lawrence Block's newest Bernie Rhodenbarr novel my brother sent me, which is always a good time, if a quick read. And the Nesbo books await, along with those back issues of Runner's World. Then again, the Celan translations are right here, next to my left hand, and I used part of an Amazon gift certificate to pick up Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano's already-essential book The Daily Poet, which offers a different prompt for every day of the year. I've drafted three poems in the past two days, and worked on revisions, and thought about my editorial work and my own writing in multiple new ways, so maybe some of that prose will have to wait a little longer…

Five Things that Don't Suck, Random Edition

1. old-fashioned snail mail
2. thinking about new goals
3. avoiding the word "resolution" if at all possible
4. puppies, kittens, and pretty much all other baby animals
5. the idea of writing a phone number on a matchbook so someone can call you from a pay phone in the rain at night*

*probably in black and white, most likely while wearing a hat and a topcoat because he's probably Humphrey Bogart 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, Funky Dancers Edition

1. Robert Downey, Jr.
2. George Clinton
3. Anyone who was ever on Soul Train
4. toddlers
5. James Brown

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, Boxing Day Edition

1. PJs
2. leisurely cups of coffee (yes, multiple)
3. reading new books
4. gradually finding homes for various little treasures
5. naps

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, Ho Ho Ho Edition

1. Lou Rawls' jazzy "Little Drummer Boy"
2. Dean Martin's drunk, inexplicably German-accented "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"
3. quiet mornings and boisterous afternoons
4. or vice-versa
5. getting a little teary at "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and/or "White Christmas"

*No judging! It's Christmas! And if you're naughty today, the Repo Elves will come and take away your gifts.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, In my Kitchen Part III Edition

1. chocolate peppermint cookies
2. salted caramel cashew shortbread*
3. pan a l'ancienne
4. three different kinds of homemade ice cream**
5. English muffins

*because seriously, my friends. Seriously.
**caramel gelato; peppermint stick; vanilla

Monday, December 23, 2013

On Making a List, Checking it (More Than) Twice, and Finding the Right Word for You

Some of you might know about Lisa Romeo's blog—I wrote a guest post for her a little while ago. She posts some great stuff both for and by writers, and one thing in particular that caught my eye recently was this post about I Did It lists. An I Did It list works differently from a To Do list: instead of listing the things you want to do, or should do, or would feel better to get off your conscience about not doing, you list the things you have done. This is especially appealing to me because I tend to start all my To Do lists by listing one or two things I've already done that day, for the sole purpose of being able to immediately cross them off the list. I may have other strengths, but I am amazing at crossing things off a list.

Lisa's list is geared specifically toward her writing, and before I started to compose my own list, I decided to take the same focus. Within just a few minutes, I had a fairly sizeable list, and it's grown over the past couple of days as I've thought of other things to add to it. Some of them are relatively little, like recording myself reading a friend's poem for a website or writing a blurb for another friend's chapbook. Some would be easy to overlook because they seem so obvious, like writing poems or keeping this blog. Others are huge—putting together a manuscript I'm really proud of, doing the early work for an anthology that a friend of mine and I are editing together, getting the chapbook Dear Turquoise—a small collection of poems that are incredibly important to me—out into the world.

But I'm not going to share the list. I've already shared more of it than I'd intended to. More on that in a minute.

Another thing I've been thinking about recently is my word for 2014. The poet Molly Fisk came up with this idea—or maybe she stole it from another poet, I don't know. We tend to share these things. Hell, it's not like the FTTDS lists were my idea, and look where they've gotten me. The idea is not to pick a word, but to let a word pick you. Last year, my word was towards (because I grew up reading a lot of British fiction—if you'd prefer to think "toward," I won't judge you. Much). I don't much remember how it came to me, but I knew it was right when it got there—I needed to be moving towards something. Anything would do. I was still struggling with grief, I had put my manuscript aside after having fiddled with it so much that it became unworkable, I was feeling stuck. At the same time, though, I was moving—running, getting stronger, getting healthier. It's not that I saw light at the end of the tunnel last December, because I didn't. I wasn't even looking for it. But I knew what I needed anyway, somehow.

This year, when Molly started asking on Facebook whether our word for 2014 had found us yet, I realized I hadn't been thinking about it at all. Once I put the invitation out there, however, it walked right in. My word for 2014 is yes.

Here's where it gets a little strange: part of finding my word for the year is looking up its etymology. Yes seems like a no-brainer. It's agreement, right? "Do you want a million dollars?" "Why yes, yes I do. Thank you!" But it's not that simple. Yes is also a way—and a strong one at that—of negating someone else's statement: "You don't like avocados." "Yes, I do!" Not only that, but while its roots are in the word yea, it was a more powerful form of agreement than yea. Think about it as the difference between yeah or yup and yes: if my response when Jed asked me to marry him was "Yeah," we probably wouldn't have gotten married (my response might have been "Yay!" but that's beside the point).

So yes doesn't always mean "I agree." It runs the gamut from absolutely to absolutely not. It's a flexible, contradictory word, and anyone who knows me knows I love the contradictory—I love that sort of mushy middle, where everything gets messy. That's where all the interesting stuff happens. And I really love the idea of having a word for the year that is itself so contradictory and complicated, that its false simplicity is part of that contradiction.

The I Did It list is a way of saying yes—and yea, and Yay!—to the things that I made happen this year. Or to the things I allowed to happen, because some of my accomplishments for 2013 are really more about giving things the opportunity to happen than they are about actively doing things. They're also about the work I did in order to be able to give them the opportunity to happen. If I had won an award, for example (I didn't), it would be easy for me to leave that off the list, because I didn't actually do anything—in grammatical terms, I was the object; the event occurred in passive voice: an award was given to me. But if I wrote the poem (and did all the reading and drafting and following-of-dead-ends and such that comes before and with writing a poem) and revised it and then put it out there into the hands of someone who was in a position to give it an award…well, then. That's active voice right there, right? I won an award. So that kind of thing—stuff I didn't do myself—goes on the list, as does the work I did to make it happen.

I'm still working on my list. I'll probably work on it right up to the end. Just during the time it's taken me to draft this post, I've added seven items to the list. SEVEN. To a list I thought was complete yesterday. And yesterday, a close friend of mine told me she hoped I'd share the list when I had it where I wanted it.

Despite the fact that I had found my word—yes—just an hour or so before I received that particular email, I told her no. I thought about it for maybe a minute: Am I supposed to say yes to this? Am I already turning my back on my word for 2014 before the year has even started? Then I realized that there are different ways of saying yes.

It is far too easy for us to compare ourselves to other people. Writers are particularly bad about this—maybe we pay more attention than non-writers do, or maybe we're just more open about it. We compare ourselves all the time. So-and-so just got her third book accepted at Such-and-Such Press, and I didn't even like the first two. Famous-for-Being-Famous Man just signed a book deal at Major Publishing House and he's not even going to write his own damn books. My Best Friend got nominated for a Pushcart and I didn't and I feel like a jerk for not being happy enough for her. My Other Friend is doing this or that cool thing that I haven't been asked to do. Guy-I-Only-Know-From-Facebook is writing for Salon. If you write, you've probably engaged in these comparisons, and you might not even know you're doing it. Sometimes you might come up well ("I'm way better than he is!") and sometimes you might not ("I could never write anything that good!"), but it's human nature, and it's compounded by the fact that writers by nature are observant beasts. We notice things. We're good at it. Combine that with how few writers—especially poets—can make their living writing, and things can get very, very ugly.

In no way did I want to be a part of that, especially not with my friends, people I love. It is far too easy, I told my friend, to compare our own work to one of these lists and then bludgeon ourselves with that list. It's especially tempting to do so without writing a list of our own, because we "don't have anything to put on it" because we "haven't done anything." If we're in the right place, we can celebrate another writer's accomplishments, especially if that writer is a good friend. If we're in the wrong place, we can create a circle of self-loathing: resenting ourselves for not measuring up, resenting the other writer for her accomplishments, resenting ourselves for not feeling generous or supportive enough, which means we don't measure up….

You can see where this is going.

So I said yes to my friend—and to all the other friends in that particular email string—by saying no to that specific request. I said yes to encouraging her to make her own list, and yes to being a source of support instead of a potential weapon. I said yes to my own list, yes to recognizing that I have kicked ass this year and deserve to feel happy instead of vaguely guilty about it because I have friends who are struggling, yes to taking the things I truly deserve and deserving the things I take. The coming year is the Year of Yes, but before we get there, I hope to spend another post or two talking about where I've been—how the running goals went, in particular, but also a report on the newly-ended All-Poetry Autumn.

Meanwhile, I'd encourage you to think about writing your own I Did It list—as a writer, in another aspect of your choosing, or just for the year in general. I'd also encourage you to see if a word for 2014 finds you. Open the door, as Molly Fisk says, and it will find you.

Five Things that Don't Suck, Christmas Eve Eve Edition

1. how good the house smells
2. getting good news, even if it screws up your sleep
3. news so good you can't even talk about it in public
4. knowing the power of the jinx
5. being vague*

*Don't tell my first-year comp students, please. They should think being vague sucks.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, In my Kitchen Part II Edition

1. chocolate chip cookies
2. brownies
3. candied orange peels dipped in dark chocolate
4. candied lemon peels (not dipped in anything yet...contemplating)
5. sugar cookies