09 March 2014

I Learn All My Best Lessons From Baseball: Revision Edition

A year ago, I was on my way to Scottsdale, AZ, to spend my one-week spring break watching baseball and finishing a revision of my novel. It was a week of heaven.
groundskeepers getting the infield ready
I'm here in my mind.
This spring break, I'm still watching baseball, but it's from my desk, and I'm still working on that novel. This morning, I sketched out all of the things I have to finish this week. The list includes an academic paper revision, a review I promised to do, two grant applications for the Equality State Book Festival, and innumerable small tasks related to said Book Festival. There are other things (remembering how to cook actual food, finishing reading any of the six books I am halfway through, finishing some gifts I am in the process of knitting) that I would certainly like to do, but the others are non-negotiable. March 16 cannot slip past without the first set complete because this life is full of deadlines and some of them actually matter.

This morning, too, I took something off of that list, something that had been on my Spring-Break-Absolutes since last fall. I took "finish the novel revision" off of that list. It's the same novel I was working on last spring break, though it's changed a lot since then (for the better), and idealistic me thought that I'd surely be done with it by now (wherein done means "ready to send it out," really, really ready, not only kind-of-ready like I was last spring and still tried three times, stupidly).

I didn't take it off the list because I don't want to work on it. The opposite is true. I've spent most mornings since January sitting with the manuscript, re-reading, re-considering, understanding the big changes that I've been avoiding. I am getting closer to really understanding it. And I've revised it on self-imposed deadlines twice before. Rushing it at the end is not the thing this book needs. It only took a year to understand that, but understanding it doesn't make it easier to swallow.

Back in February, when I was certainly at the height of the now now now feeling this novel has been causing, someone on Twitter linked a post by Sonya Huber that begins
Your book is taking a long time to write. You see updates on social media about the release of other books, and you get a racing hopeless feeling inside, as if your little book with its million little legs were trying to climb up a mudslide. You have been through this draft so many times. You have been asked how many drafts it takes you to write a book, and you want to say that the answer is really the number of times you thought you were finished, plus one. (read more)
Huber's post gets at what I've been feeling for a year. It's agonizing, feeling like I'm very close to being done, but not being done, and realizing more and more with each revisiting of the manuscript that it deserves better than hurrying. There's a piece of feedback that I need, and there's a slowness that the book needs, a consideration and a deep thinking. Neither of those are going to appear according to a schedule. The week since AWP drove that home.

On Monday morning, I woke up and spent my writing hours organizing my notes and my revision plan. I was doing that in preparation of this week: my plan of attack. How would I approach the revision in a way that would let me get it finished while also finishing the necessary tasks I mentioned earlier? What happened was that, while I was puttering about in Evernote, making checkboxes beside planned edits (so when I made them I could put that little mark in the box--it is so incredibly satisfying and so indicative of why my scheduled process has its pitfalls), I figured out something I hadn't figured out yet about the ending. I did the same thing on Tuesday, just slowly puttering and shifting notes from one file to another, and I understood something else. It happened again on Wednesday. In two hours of slow thinking--not even writing at all--I made more real progress than I had in the two weeks before, at least as far as substantial work goes. Sure, I line-edited and tweaked, but I hadn't learned anything. When I had three mornings to think about the project, clarity came. When I had long days in airports and that post-AWP muteness that makes it hard to say anything, I could hear it. (And I could hear the answer to the hard question I've been asking about a chapter for eighteen months. I've known the answer for six, but I didn't want to listen.)

Writing this novel has taught me more about writing than I was ready to learn, most notably that my process has always been about drafting. I'm only now understanding that my process has to change when it comes to revision. Being goal-oriented is great--when it's time to get the draft out, when the point is to make the words happen in the first place--but it's not the answer for finishing anything.

So maybe, actually, it's good to have last year's trip to Scottsdale on my mind.
Peoria ballpark outfield grass
It wasn't possible to stress out during those games.
Sit in the grass. Take a nap. It's just a game.
Everything about the baseball on that trip was about taking time, seeing how it goes. Yes, there's an end to Spring Training and hard decisions have to be made, but they can't be made before we understand what we have. Don't rush this: it's going somewhere. Watch. Wait. That's part of the process, too.

22 February 2014

Where will you be? (At AWP)

'Tis the season and all.

Find me on Thursday morning here:

Redwood Room, Sheraton Seattle, 2nd Floor
Thursday, February 27, 2014
10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.
This interdisciplinary panel features five writers whose work puts significant distance between speaker and writer—whether by writing across gender, setting, historical time, or conventions of language—to reimagine, challenge, and expand the writer’s or narrator’s persona. Each panelist will provide a short rhetorical and practical framework that focuses on crafting these voices before presenting representative work.
I'll be reading a little excerpt from Heading North and talking about character grammar and syntax. Even more exciting is the part where I get to be part of a panel with these excellent writers!

I'll also be reading at Lucid as part of the Festival of Language's 'a reading eXperiment,' on Thursday afternoon from 4:30-6:00 p.m.
The Festival of Language’s a reading eXperiment is an experiment in the reading of original creative works as juxtaposed against expectations, perceptions, other creative works, and audience members. With new and exciting compositions and configurations, this reading eXperiment will be a one-of-a-kind experience for readers and audience members. 
Come say hello! I don't have blue hair anymore, but if you drop a conspicuous hockey or baseball or Beowulf reference within earshot, I'll be the one with her head on a swivel, trying to find the source. 

24 January 2014

read and recommended: "The Old Ways of Defeat" by Chris Collision

Half of this post is months later than I intended it to be, but I'm not often a timely writer, and when I am, usually the coincidence works against me. But maybe it's timely in a different fashion because this week, word hit the hockey streets that the ECHL's San Francisco Bulls are in some dire financial straits. This makes me incredibly sad because I hate to see any team (anything, really) struggling, but I was really hoping the Bulls were going to thrive. I was rooting for them. I mean, the whole team released a You Can Play video, not just a few token players from a variety of teams put together, but a seemingly unified voice, which is still something of a rarity at the professional level. The team has been playing for two seasons, and they've held two LGBT nights (with these pretty excellent jerseys). A team like that makes me want to love them. Back in August, in Classical Magazine Issue Four, Chris Collision, writer of many fine things, wrote an essay I have to talk about, an essay I've been meaning to talk about since it came out, and two San Francisco Bulls playoff games create one of the essay's hinge points. So, here we are.

"The Old Ways of Defeat" is, for detail junkies like me, a joy. The ambient sounds of the minor league sporting event--perhaps in their most Platonic guise at a hockey game played in a place called the Cow Palace--are everywhere, and sharp, and right. The situation of the team, the league, and the circumstances of these particular games are clear and purposefully placed, rounding out a personal experience with knowledge that is effortlessly conversational--"the ECHL will, for example, teach you things like 'there is an Ontario in California'"--and self-aware in a traditionally (and I mean this as a compliment of the highest order) Montaigne-like fashion.

How easily this essay communicates is one of its strengths and ironies, as the piece starts in a moment of isolation, the alone-in-a-crowd feeling that is so difficult to handle--on the page and in person--as it's eroded here and there by the strange charms of the minor leagues, the fans, the trappings, the unlikely Bulls-versus-Alaska-Aces playoff matchup. In this essay, the erosion is only partial, so much in the way that the verve of these particular games are: highs, lows, no definitive Moment, a point best illustrated in an incredibly brief, mostly elided hockey fight that means essentially nothing in the course of a lopsided game and the Bulls' season's imminent close. The fight gets no glamor on the page, a writerly restraint I admire, and it's also an illustration, I think, of a final separation: "There is watching it, and there is doing it." We're just watching, most of us.

But there's something arresting in that, too, and I have to give you the whole final paragraph because I can't bring myself to carve it into anything but itself:
And then there are these live events—moments shared and unrepeatable, in all these shabby but life-full places that pull a poorer and more diverse crowd. They are not glamorous or even particularly beautiful, and there are whole buried rivers of disappointment running under all of it. But these can all be a step towards a life that's less lonely, less canalized through phones and less inert in front of a screen. It's a fight. But Kris Belan fought B.J. Crum, held him accountable for a smallish transgression in an essentially meaningless AA game. He fought harder for less.
***

My interest in the San Francisco Bulls is bandwagon-y at best, due mostly to "The Old Ways of Defeat" and their work with You Can Play. I can't name a player on the team without going back to Collision's essay or Googling something, and I've never seen them play. I wanted to, and I almost had the chance: in October of 2012, my husband and I made a mad weekend scramble to San Francisco over my fall break so that he could see his beloved 49ers play in Candlestick before they moved on to what will be their new, shiny stadium in Santa Clara. It was not a good trip to San Francisco. The point of being there was only the football game, all of it already an extravagance, so we were staying cheaply, far away from any of the San Francisco I'd seen the year before (the piers, Golden Gate Bridge, great food) while road-tripping with a friend. It didn't feel at all like being any place anyone would want to go--just a chain hotel, chain restaurants, and a sense of rushed alienation: not quite thirty-six hours in the city, all told.

Twenty-four hours after we arrived, it would be clear that the trip was a disappointment in many ways. At the top of the list was the fact that the San Francisco 49ers got shellacked by the Giants. It should have been a good game, in terms of 2012 competitiveness, one the Niners had a good chance to win. The Niners did not win, and the experience itself wasn't pleasant. We got the only tickets we could get: in the endzone, in the very top row, at Candlestick Park, where the giant concrete bowl gathers only the coldest air from the bay and slings it back around the rim. The sheer size of an NFL stadium and the distance from the game--something I'd not experienced before--made me want a ridiculous jumbotron uglying up the place, if only so I could see what was really happening. My reading glasses weren't cutting it. The one-sided game drained all of the live-sports-experience out of it, too; the Bay was quiet. The Niners Noise drum line was basically the only life in the place, and they stood in our endzone far too little. But that would come later.

We arrived in San Francisco on Saturday evening, and the San Francisco Bulls were due to play the second game of their inaugural season against the Bakersfield Condors that night, too. But there was no permutation of flights that would get us from Wyoming to California in time to make the game. The BART train we took from the airport toward our hotel actually passed the Cow Palace, probably sometime early in the first period, and had we not also been toting our suitcases, I would have lobbied that we go, anyway. Then the train ride was long, and we walked a long ways afterward to actually get to where we were staying. Even if we'd simply dropped our bags, turned around, and headed back to Daly City, the game would be over before we arrived. Still, as we ate our burgers from In-N-Out, I ended up following the third period from my phone for no other reason than being more near to that game than anything else familiar, which was one version of being connected, in some small way, to everything happening there.

Here's hoping the San Francisco Bulls can hang on.

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21 January 2014

the start of another semester, plus some fiction

Today was the first day of classes for Casper College students, which means it's well nigh time to get back on all of the horses. Part of me protests I never got off the horse, didn't have much time out to pasture over the break, so to speak, because winter break is always a flurry of final grades and airports and preparing to tackle new things. This winter break, it was preparing to teach a compressed video/distance education course for the University of Wyoming. Teaching Middle English Literature using brand new technology in a brand new building is both peculiar and perfectly fitting. It also means slipping into old favorites and re-reading texts I haven't looked at since graduate school, and that reminds me so much of why I'm in this profession.

This afternoon, after from doing a little Beowulf prep (which mostly consists of me writing hard time limits on my class outline because I know myself), I settled down with Richard Waswo's article "The History That Literature Makes" (New Literary History 19.3). Waswo's article looks most particularly at the legendary history of Britain, its hunger for ties back to Troy and an older, more civilized civilization.

Aside from reminding me how much I simply enjoy this article, Waswo's work got me thinking about that reaching desire to see oneself as part of something larger, something older, something lasting. And of course I thought about writing, but also reading, and also American literature and culture, and I was again struck at the way my writing projects inevitably intersect:

One thing that happened while I was away from the blog was that I was awarded a Robert and Charlotte Baron Creative and Performing Artist Fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society. I'll be there in June, working on the pirate book. As a 18th century transatlantic narrative, seeking and also resisting ties--to religion, family, nation, and even narrative itself--are certainly at the forefront.

And because I just wrote that last sentence, which is unrelentingly academic, let me make it up to you with a baseball story: To the Wall, appeared in the inaugural issue of The Rappahannock Review in December, and it offers up rookie-level minor league baseball in Casper, Wyoming, with a side of painkiller addiction and Justice League references.

This post is not a great post, but it does serve some purposes, including making those two pointers about my own writing that I'm pretty excited about. But more importantly, it's pulling the Band-aid off on the blog-drought. I've been thinking about what kind of post I could make after more than two months that could justify the absence, and I didn't have one. I have this, which is a post, after which another can be written, more easily.

06 November 2013

Travel Light: A book recommendation & a November impossibility

Several years ago, the inimitable Linda Koons sent me a book: Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison. It's a short, sharp tale, a Norse fairy tale, rubbing up against allegory in a way that reminds me of The Little Prince, but the unrelenting, marvelous Norseness of Travel Light also means it is nothing at all like The Little Prince. It's been years since I read Travel Light, and it's on my campus bookshelf, so I can't really turn to it now and dig you up a quote or anything like a proper review, and that's not what I'm doing here this morning, anyway. It's simply that I'm on my way to the airport quite soon and I was thinking of it and I wanted to say so. It's a beautiful little book, hard around the edges, the way stories of its kind are, and it's also a wind-bitten, incredibly sunny November morning. How can I avoid thinking of it?

And I am thinking of practical details. I'll be in Corpus Christi from Wednesday until Sunday, and I'll be attending the National Learning Communities Conference. As a new Learning Communities program director, this conference is an excellent opportunity to learn a great deal, and, having looked at the schedule, I fully anticipate shuttling from session to session for three days straight. This is a very good thing. But I'll also be in four different airports, twice, on six flights all together, and there are mornings and evenings and stray bits of time between events, and it's hard to know what to bring.

Writing wise, it seems I've never been better equipped: I have a few dozen small projects to work on. But because this wouldn't be a post on my blog without me whinging about my novel, there's that, too. There's always that, looming (and companionable) in the back of my mind, and it's ridiculous to even think about traveling light. (That Corpus Christi also requires me to add a rain jacket to my suitcase, too, adds a material dimension.)

...Middlemarch is also going with me. The edition I'm reading is a Norton Critical, which means it weighs more than it should because there are so many of those onionskin pages jammed between its covers.

I want, very badly, to take knitting along. The best project for it, though, is getting too large, and it's something that requires multiple colors of yarn, which means multiple balls, taking up more space, and I am dedicated to a) not checking luggage on a trip like this b) actually respecting the dimensions allowed for carry-on items. I also am not-taking the knitting because it's an excuse. It is always an excellent excuse: I can neither read nor write while knitting, and I know myself. During my five-hour layover in Houston, when I could probably finish a draft of a short story or finally get to the back cover of Middlemarch, I would knit (and listen to hockey). And it isn't that I don't love knitting; it's that it's always too easy to love.

And that weighs on me. (Every breathing moment I am not writing or reading weighs on me. I intended to write this morning. Instead, I cleaned some things because I'm going to be gone for four days and I went to buy toothpaste because I didn't have a TSA-approved size in the cupboard and I had a bunch of angst about how I did those things instead of writing.)

And that's ridiculous.

It's a constant struggle to balance good discipline (which leads to good craft) and masochism for the sake of it. Ten minutes ago, I decided that I'd rather be the person in a suit carrying a be-patched and be-buttoned backpack because it's just a lot more useful to hold my stuff than the laptop bag I have for work. And that's going to be fine. There's more room, for one. There's a pocket expressly for my indispensable, unspillable travel mug.

And because there are a few minutes until I have to leave, I reserve the right to change my mind about the knitting.

Travel light.

It's an excellent book. I still take everything too literally.

02 November 2013

now what?: on writing I don't know how to share

On Wednesday, October 30, at 10:15 a.m., I received the new issue of The Classical Magazine (issue six) in my inbox (as a PDF because the only iDevice I own is an iPod so old that it can sing along with most of the music on it). The premise of this issue is econo, short pieces of prose and poetry and the things between, and it is full of work by writers I enjoy and admire. But I haven't read any of it yet.

I have work in this issue, too, a short nonfiction piece called "First Star," my first published hockey-writing, a piece woven around Sidney Crosby's broken jaw, a Predators-Avalanche game I went to last season, and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. A piece hinging, in many ways, on Semyon Varlamov and his play with both Colorado and Yaroslavl. I wrote the piece in the first third of October, about events from last season.

On Wednesday night, I was having a Twitter conversation about Varlamov, his kickass season so far, his apparently affable nature. Half an hour after that, the news broke that Varlamov had turned himself in to Denver police and was arrested on domestic violence and kidnapping charges. I turned my attention to the Penguins' game in-progress, I circled social media warily, I tried to focus on new writing tasks. Mostly, I felt sick to my stomach. Mostly, I didn't want to read anything, anywhere, at all.

***

It's been a few days since then. I don't want to think he's guilty, but I also refuse to assume he's not because already the crows are calling the alleged victim a liar. (Women are just like that, lying about terrifying and humiliating things for money and attention.) Already the heads are shaking and saying that it's just not possible that Varlamov could do such a thing. (Everyone knows nice guys don't do bad things.) Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy gave Varlamov the start last night in Dallas because he didn't see any reason not to. Varlamov has yet to be officially charged with any crime; he posted his bail; he is, legally, quite free to play. The slow unfurling of legal procedures proceeds apace, and it's unfair of me to assume guilt or innocence in any direction until that process is completed if I believe in this legal system.

I do. And I don't.

As someone who wants everyone, under all circumstances, to have the right to real due process, not just torches and pitchforks, I must believe in this legal system. As a general optimist and person who attaches affection easily to people, places, and things, I cling to that benefit of the doubt. I want this goalie whose play I appreciate and whose career took a path I found conveniently symbolic to be innocent. And I mean squeaky-clean, photographic-and-eye-witness-evidence-plus-retinal-scan-that-the-accused-was-instead-volunteering-at-a-trick-or-treating-event-for-at-risk-youth-at-the-time-of-the-events, evil-impostor-committing-crimes-in-my-stead innocent. Except not exactly that either because I also do not want, at any time, for anyone to be guilty of domestic violence. Of violent crime of any kind. Because I don't want people to commit acts of violence. Ever.

I want desperately for the system to work, too. If he's guilty, I want every possible book thrown at him, preferably by Aroldis Chapman (metaphorically, of course: the weight of guilt should feel like that fastball in the unprotected ribs).

As a human being who's walking around this world with eyes open, too, I know that the system often doesn't work. I know that many cases like this (domestic violence cases, cases involving high-profile, wealthy persons) don't reach trial stage. They can be settled out of court, charges can be dropped (and not because they were invented but because of a host of larger, frightening reasons), and the very idea of the system can be collapsed before one even gets to the part I think of as that proper due process. I know that due process doesn't necessarily lead to justice, either, and that more people want to believe that the victim is lying than to deal with the wages of a culture that excuses and masks violence.

I want an impossibility: I want Semyon Varlamov to be innocent and I want Evgenia Vavinyuk to be telling the truth.

***

This post was never anything I ever wanted to write, but I also couldn't say nothing, even if no one even noticed the connection: "Hey, you wrote that thing praising that guy who might have assaulted his girlfriend." It's most of what I've been thinking about since Wednesday, and even as it strikes me as egotistical that I am in fact thinking what about my writing? in this context, we are inextricably tied to our work. Better to acknowledge that than not.

I loved writing "First Star." I loved that Predators/Avalanche game I went to. How I feel about that piece of writing now--I don't know. Rereading it doesn't make it more clear. What is clear is this: I don't know how the rest of this story plays out, and I know that it will absolutely matter to me when it does. I also don't know how to compartmentalize--hockey here, humanity there. There are enough talented and skillful people in this world that I don't think it's too much to ask that we be good at what we do and also simply good. Decent.

And if I'm feeling uncomfortable about my own work in the new issue, there's no reason that I should feel that way about the rest of Issue Six. So I'm going to go read that, and enjoy it, and wait.

01 November 2013

another not-NaNoWriMo post

It's the six a.m. hour, and I've decided that the short piece I drafted at the beginning of the week is finished. So before I had a second cup of tea, I submitted it to two places, and it doesn't feel as unwise as maybe it should. (Of course, I trust my decision-making at this time of the morning far better than I trust it at two in the afternoon.)

At the same time, all over the world, NaNo'ers are leaping into beginnings, including my friend and colleague Jill. She came to dinner last night with notebook in hand, and it made me so happy to see that. Last night, at midnight (when I'd been soundly asleep for two hours), a local writing group had a NaNoWriMo kickoff write-in. I envy them. I envy their fresh starts sorely. I have never done NaNo, not in any way that is "correct," though I have made attempts of varying kinds to keep in the spirit. There is a buzz in the air about it, and anything that spurs one forward in any writerly way is a marvelous thing.

This, I suppose, is another of those keeping-in-the-spirit posts, though the last thing I can/should do this month is start anything new. My goal is more now in line with my 2010 November: do something that I need to do as a writer every day. Sure, that means sending out work, but more importantly, it means finishing.

I have folders of unfinished things, fully drafted short stories that don't quite work; half-written things that I'd forgotten I'd even thought of, let alone written; two-and-three word ideas that still blister and crackle no matter that I tossed them into a file years ago. I have kernels of pieces that can only become poems. I have a novel to be written, all furled potential; I have a full, old, old draft of another whose re-vision I'm starting to be able to see. More importantly, I have the novel I'm still working on, the manuscript I keep thinking is finished and keep understanding is not and the only right thing to do by that book that I love, the book that made me completely forget that there was a November last year, is keep working until it's right. Until it's as good as it deserves to be. And that is terrifying. It takes a kind of patience I don't have, that I have to make, and maybe I'm doing that kind of stepping back that Michael P. Nye wrote about earlier this week. I know good work takes time. I spent big chunks of my summer taking that time, considering things, and the revision I did in August did leave me with a better book than I had in July. I'm now understanding that "better" is no substitute for "right."

It's not right yet. I'm not sure what "right" is for it yet, but I know it deserves to be right.

So I will try to be patient and listen and if I can't do either of those things gracefully and contentedly (and I can't), I'll finish smaller works. They've been waiting longer still, and they deserve to at least get where they were going. I won't set another artificial deadline to finish another revision by a date or a time: I understand that my problem is not getting myself to work. It's not about spurring forward this time.

I do want it to be, though. I want to be part of the dash. I'm good at the dash--even elementary school gym class showed me that.

I loved gym class. The period was never more than forty minutes long, and in forty minutes, there was never enough time to get into the things I couldn't do. The longest we ever ran was a mile and a quarter. More often we sprinted. More often we dove after a ball, the goals quite clear, the scores clearer.

Novel writing is not gym class. Even my own process is not the one-size-fits-all yellow mesh pinnie, appropriate for all activities, no matter how much I want it to be. But there's something to learn from thinking about gym class--about exertion, in particular, because what is writing except exertion of one kind or another--no matter what shape I'm in, no matter what shape this novel or those drafted stories or those little poem seeds are in, I can do something. And so I must.



29 October 2013

How many times?

At this time of the year, every year, at least twice a week, I have the same conversation with myself. After the litany of cold cold cold miserable cold death despair hibernation cold I wish I was dragon runs its course, I wonder how many times I have to fall off the wagon before I learn to hold on tight. It makes me quote Pirates of the Caribbean at myself because this year has proven again that the answer is this:
"How many times must I tell you to call me Elizabeth get your ish together?
"At least once more, Miss Swann."
(Nevermind that I'm far less Elizabeth Swann or Will Turner and far more Ragetti, trying to make myself an eyeball out of wood and then wondering why I can't see.)

(And also, I'm quoting Pirates of the Caribbean at myself, so maybe I deserve what I get.)

The wagon remains as the wagon always was: wake up early, write every day, eat real food, go to the gym. None of those things are particularly difficult in their own right, particularly not if I switch to an actual alarm clock that I have to get out of bed to turn off. I did that five days ago.

The real kick in the pajamas was a piece from Pacific Standard about the folly of the snooze button. I'd been setting my alarm on my phone, conveniently on my bedside table, for 5 a.m.-ish every day and then manipulating it in various ways until I was waking up around 6:45, which is pretty much the weekday threshold for mornings around here. I'd been doing that all summer, too, in various countries and timezones. And that was also not awesome. (All the places I was were awesome. My habits, less so.) Waking up at that time doesn't leave me time to write before school, and it doesn't leave me feeling motivated to make anything particularly interesting for lunch, which inevitably leads to afternoon horror show of despair and low blood sugar and no desire to go work out. (It all sounds very dramatic. It all feels very dramatic. It's really not. Just very...sad and dull and unfulfilling.)

I have been writing, working on a variety of things, but the timing is wrong. I've been doing a lot because I have to--the semester is busy--but nothing feels quite right. 

So I changed my alarm set-up. I've had to give up my clever custom wake-up tunes that my phone allows and that my 1999 clock-radio does not, and I've moved it well past the foot of the bed. In the pre-dawn blackness, I confess that I will actually mouth the words, Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, to keep me walking out of the bedroom, up the stairs. I have to make it past the most comfortable sofa in the world (salvaged from Bill's grandparents' basement) then, too, but by then, it's become okay. My eyes open and adjust to the dark. I turn on the electric kettle. In the shower, I plan the morning's writing, and therefore every morning starts well.

I've been up appropriately early since Friday. I've done a lot of work in those morning hours, only about 90 minutes a morning (except Saturday and Sunday when I undertook a pretty gigantic academic revision task), including drafting a complete piece of flash fiction that's under 700 words between Monday morning and today. The last time I wrote a complete piece of short fiction--brand new, start to finish--was in March, when I wrote "Jonah, The Whale." I have a stack of short stories that I've been working on much longer than it took to draft my novel. Some of the reason for that, of course, is that I spent last year almost exclusively working on the novel. And I wrote that novel in those morning hours, some of the happiest I've ever spent, writing. 

The story shorter still: the process works for me. Why do I insist on stopping working for the process?

Time to start again. In this case, too, with writing, doing the same old thing continues to create new things. It requires little from me. So I can do that much. 

18 October 2013

dispatches from the shadow of the Tetons

I spent last weekend in Jackson, Wyoming, for the annual Wyoming Arts Conference. There's something terribly intimidating about attending a conference in the shadow of the Grand Tetons, which are visible from most parts of town. Right now, with the aspens all bright gold and the foothills and fields still their muddy Wyoming green-brown, the mountains don't look real. They are, of course, quite real--perhaps more real still because they were forbidden while I was there, the National Parks closed because of the government shut-down.

I wasn't sure what I expected in terms of what that would look like; I didn't expect white-and-orange striped sawhorses with stapled-on laminated signs barring entrance to half a dozen small side roads. I wonder what percentage of people I passed were stymied vacationers, how many of them were supposed to be hiking in Yellowstone right then, but if that was the case, it's not very apparent. Everything seemed to be business as usual, which includes a lot of people drifting here and there in search of a fresh coffee, which I did, too, between sessions. Downtown Jackson has a lot of good options for good coffee, and good food, and I took shameless advantage of that.

I didn't take advantage of the chance to take pictures while I was driving in, though, and I'm kicking myself because the drive home was done under a shroud of squalling snow, all the way from Jackson to Casper, and the trees were a sad, smeary mustard color, and the Tetons had simply disappeared from view.

Missed opportunities.

But having a hotel room to myself and a dislike for television and not much access to my usual evening inundation of sports meant the opportunity to actually do some more reading, which means, right now, Middlemarch.

It's on the list of Books I Am Ashamed At Having Not Read Before As An English Major, and it's so much a winter book, the kind for reading inside a blanket, and not simply because of the weather: if I'm wrapped in a blanket, or actually bundled up in bed, I'm not doing anything else. I don't have my laptop or my phone near. I'm reading. A book like Middlemarch requires full attention, and not simply because there are a fair lot of characters with not-so-dissimilar-names whose relationships hinge on a word or gesture in that incredibly nineteenth century way. Rather, Middlemarch demands and commands that attention because I want to pay attention at the smallest point of the sentence.

George Eliot is funny. I mean, honestly:
She pinched Celia's chin, being in the mood now to think her very winning and lovely--fit hereafter to be an eternal cherub, and if it were not doctrinally wrong to say so, hardly more in need of salvation than a squirrel.
I do, of course, have to reserve judgement on the whole--I'm not that deep into the book, and the fact that it requires all of my attention means that I don't pick it up as often as I would like. But it's good to have that reminder: I can't skip on to the page's end. I find myself doing that too often when I read, impatient and diving ahead for full paragraphs, only to remember--obviously--that I needed the middle of the page, and going back.

This book reminds me of some of the best parts of my graduate school experience, the dense and self-aware arc of the evolution of the novel. I loved those books. (I also hated them a little, but that's part of graduate school.) And this one, because I'm reading it for fun, I can simply enjoy.

(Which is good because there's still a lot of book left.)


25 September 2013

read and recommended: Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Girmay

I've been trying to read more, which is to say making time to read more, because finding time to read more will never, in fact, happen. But also, if I've read something and loved it, it feels wrong not to share it. I often do that on Twitter, but that's not like really digging into a work and pointing out why it's loved. Here's one. I intend more to follow.

Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Girmay

First, a note on the press: I love BOA Editions. They make beautiful, interesting books that are written by artists I like a lot. They also run a few contests, so if you write, check them out.

So, this poetry collection. I discovered Girmay's work through the Tuesday Poem blog because friend and BOA poet Sean Thomas Dougherty shared it on Facebook near the end of August.

The Tuesday Poem & work Sean posted was "For Patrick Rosal Who Wore a Green Dress & Said."

And before I even looked at the poem I wanted to look at it because Patrick Rosal was mentioned. Rosal read at an AWP off-site reading I was at with Drunken Boat one year, and I teach his essay "Improvisations: Everything I Know About Pianos" every chance I get. (He also wrote an essay about kettlebells that I absolutely need to re-read, especially as we're approaching a new Olympic year.)

And then I read Aracelis Girmay's poem and I bought the book before the sun set on the thought because the poem is so vibrant, so much of everything I want to see everywhere: color and joy and snap.

That poem did not prepare me one whit for this collection. "For Patrick Rosal..." is, even, in my memory of the book (completed five days ago), an outlier. What remains with me from the collection as a whole is mortality. I don't mean to suggest that the book is depressing, but there's a feeling of the grave about it, exploratorily so, investigatively so. I've never read a poetry collection like it.

Girmay opens with earth, closing the first poem, the title poem, with this:
Whole years will be spent, underneath these impossible stars,
when dirt's the only animal who will sleep with you
& touch you with
its mouth.
The feeling lingers, soft and tender but curiously (appropriately) cool; so many of the poems work as memento mori of one kind or another, but seldom do anything so expected as outright mourning (and where maybe the poems do mourn, like in "Abuelo, Mi Muerto," they're also celebratory; they're finely detailed; they're so sharp I can't think of feeling sad). Instead, the focus is on "[t]he kingdom of touching; / the touches of the disappearing, things."

That's what Girmay does, over and over: she shows us the rich points of overlap, overlap of life and death, the skin of lovers, the place one is and the place one is going and the place one has been. History and representation. The image of the swan and its fading away.

There are a number of portrait poems in the collection, too, some proclaimed self-portraits, some identified as portraits of others, but they all approach their subject obliquely, or as though done from one fragment of a fractured mirror--they don't seek the whole, but instead capture the particular with startling precision. "Portrait of the Woman as a Skein" does this by lines, each a new revelation of possibility. The poem's address to the second person, always seemingly a new conception (not a new person, a new idea of the same person), is a constant re-engagement:
Sometimes, it is true, you are like Lake Sovetskaya.
Buried underneath an arctic ice sheet:
           ________________________________________
                                   (                    ).
Sometimes it is true. Sometimes it is not.

There are poems in this collection about large tragedies and small, and again, that constant feeling of grave dust on the pages (dry, honest dirt, dirt we have to admire and respect), but nothing in this collection hit me like "Praise Song for the Donkey."

At first, I thought of Christopher Smart's "Jubilate Agno" and his treatise on his cat, Jeoffry. And that's a little odd--Smart's poem is so mannered in its eighteenth century way--but it's a list of things that charm me about an animal, written by someone who notices because he cherishes. But that's what Girmay poem does: it notices because the poet cherishes:
Praise the Mohawk roof
of the donkey's good and gray head, praise
its dangerous mane hollering out.
There is no way not to love this donkey with that mane. There is no way not to grieve this donkey because this donkey, like nearly everything else in Girmay's collection, knows death. That the poem is written after a real event--a bombing in Gaza in 2009--gives it context, yes, but it's the donkey that becomes real here at line one, all fresh, bristled words, and it's because of the donkey my heart breaks because Aracelis Girmay makes the reader know the donkey. And how can I keep from grieving the donkey once I know her? 

How can I keep from celebrating these poems, now that I know them?