This terrific blogger named Jess Witkins interviewed me about my new poetry collection, Little Prayers. There’s a book giveaway, too. Here’s a teaser:
Jess: Why do you think poetry is important today?
Me: I think poetry asks us to tap into a different part of our brains than prose does. It demands and requires more intangibility. I remember well the time my mom told me she liked my poems but felt like she didn’t understand them. I told her she didn’t need to, that she should just appreciate what she got out of them. She told me later how freeing that was for her, that me giving her permission not to work too hard took away a lot of her anxiety and allowed her to just sit with the lines and enjoy them. I think that’s one of the things that’s hardest about poetry—we don’t always “get it” in the way we might, say, a novel or a memoir, and maybe that’s why people run away from it. We don’t want to feel stupid or like we’re missing something. We want clarity, answers. Because poetry often raises questions. But I think that’s a really good thing! Poetry can open us up to mystery and abstraction, which is good for our brains and our hearts. And the music of poetry—learning to hear it—is essential for anyone wanting to write or appreciate good writing.
I hope you’ll read it, and, if it feels right, share on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or wherever you social media.
Well, I’m over the moon. Sometime last October, I disconnected the JetPack plugin from my WordPress site, trying to figure out why my site was loading so slowly. Then all hell broke loose—when I reconnected the plugin, no one could see my blog posts. No emails went out. Radio silence. I’ve been emailing the JetPack people every week for four months, feeling totally frustrated, and saying a thousand little prayers that I’d be able to communicate with my readers again. I wrote this blog post, about activism, which maybe none of you saw, and then I gave up. So then today some dude named Jeremy casually emailed to say he’d poked around a bit, updated a few things, and wham—my “Test” post (which you can obviously ignore) went out successfully.
I’m back in action.
And I have so much to say: it’s already spring in California, which is both lovely and deeply unsettling. I’m having a creative explosion in my forties, apparently, because I’ve been playing music (live! Out! In bars!) and writing and feeling good. The Olympics are rocking my world (my husband and I love to watch the snowboarding while inserting our own commentary, full of pot jokes). And, best of all, I have a book out, my first full-length poetry collection. It’s called Little Prayers, and it was published last month by the wonderful San Francisco–based publisher Blue Light Press.
This book was a long time in coming, testimony to the fact that writers sometimes suffer through multiple rejections, and even a 15-year hiatus, before a thing gets published. Here’s a teaser:
Local friends, I’d love to see you at my March 10 book launch at Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland, where I’ll be reading with the talented Kate Folk. I’ll also read at the San Francisco Writers Conference this Friday night at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco (free and open to the public! Lots of great poets). And stay tuned for more readings and events this spring and summer.
Just shy of his first birthday, planning for reflection and nostalgia, instead wham boom I’m in the hospital with a bum appendix. The husband is away, unreachable, mobile stashed in the glove box of somebody’s car. I wanted this for him, a break from the work and the waves. I was not afraid to let him go. Even in the hospital, frantically phoning the school/the grandfather/the good friend/the nanny I am not even quite afraid, it’s not the right word—incredulous might do it. And, perhaps sickly, slightly relieved. Why? It makes no sense.
My milk threatens to dry up after the hospital stay. I blame Nurse Ratchett, reincarnated as a beautiful blonde named Shelley who refuses me fluids, who looks at the breast pump like it is a medieval torture device. It is clear she does not have children or want children or like children. This is okay; parenthood does not, in my book, an adult make. But kindness? Kindness, yes. She brings me Jello and broths so salty if I drink them my cells will shrivel up. She brings me a vomit bag which I fill and hand to her. (Later, in the 1200-word letter I write to the hospital, complaining, I say the best part of my stay was handing over the puke. This is true.)
A week later, shadows in the studio play off the green chair and make me think someone is passing by. I am writing again, or attempting to. My milk has come back slowly, so slowly. I hear voices telling me one year of nursing is enough, one year is good. But I could not take it from him so abruptly. Returning from the hospital, I was greeted by his outstretched fists clutched tightly in the “milk” sign, his body tense, his desperate crying for me. There was no mistaking it. Why would I take this away if I didn’t have to?
When the husband finally calls from the road two days later, he too is incredulous. “Hi,” is all he says, but his voice says something else. “I’m okay,” I tell him, though I do not feel okay: my belly is full of fluid and air. I can feel them sloshing together, waves crashing on a ship’s prow. Later, after he gets home, we will spend six more hours at the Emergency Room. When did they stop calling it a CAT scan and call it CT? The contrast dye makes me have to pee, flushes me head to toe. The pedantic tech had assured me it would. I guess I was grateful to know ahead of time.
Fluid in the abdomen. Start of an abscess. Maybe. Shit.
“Antibiotics,” says Dr. James Starr, ER doctor. “Three to four days intravenous, incompatible with nursing.” This is the first time I feel fear. Later, moments before they are hooking me up to an IV, he comes in to say stop. “The surgeon says you can go home with a prescription instead,” he reports, and then I cry again for a different reason.
The pain is like needles. The pain is a dull ache. The pain is like needles. The sloshing gets lesser. The air passes through. The incisions are like angry little mouths, glued shut. I cannot get comfortable. The air lodges in my shoulder. The pain killers make me stupid. I take one a day, tops.
Let me see your scars, the eight-year-old intones every day. He tells me appendicitis is contagious. He tells me he does not want to get close to me. The first night home, I remind him to be gentle. As if possessed by the devil, he leans over to my belly and with both hands, presses. After, wailing, he insists it was an accident. I pretend to believe him. I tell him it is okay.
It was not an accident.
Someone brings soup.
Someone brings flowers.
Someone does my dishes.
The house is still a disaster.
By his first birthday, things are mostly right-side-up again. The mornings have grown colder. In California you watch for these subtle signs of fall. By mid-day it could be any season, but the mornings are crisp. We attempt a walk. In the bath the night before, I noticed my tailbone, jutting out. Three pounds lost in the hospital, all, apparently, from my ass. How many ounces is an appendix? Not that many.
Pounds lost: 3
Hours in hospital: 30
Babies un-nursed: 1
Size of inflamed appendix: 11 millimeters
Pounds of air pumped into belly: too many
Appendixes left: 0
The incident with the appendix cuts something with the baby. It is not so simple as that, for two days, waiting for contrast dye and antibiotics to leave my system, I can’t nurse. It is also that, in that time, I avoided him altogether, fearing his desire. Out of sight, out of mind, I told myself. Lying in bed while someone else takes care of him, I feel for a minute like I never had him. I could let my milk dry up, forget all about it. But I do not. Guilt, I think. When he resumes nursing he kicks at my belly. The two of them, these two boys, slowly batter me.
The eight year old, who has always been in control of his feelings, is acting strange. Mad. Reserved. Finally, I make him say it. “I was scared,” he says. “You never called me,” he says. “I never got to visit you in the hospital,” he says. “I was so worried,” he says. “I didn’t know what was happening.” My love for him floods the room.
I’m sorry, I say.
I’m sorry, I say.
I played around with the style of this blog post after reading Jenny Offill’s amazing and experimental novel Dep’t. of Speculation, which I can’t say enough good things about.
For me, and I think for most, the writing life is feast or famine: years of not much happening, then little periods of publication or great strides on projects. And occasionally, it comes all at once.
To wit: I had two essays published this week, within minutes of each other. I’m thrilled. It was a nice personal moment in what’s been a very difficult week politically and globally. I think it’s important to mention that: wildfires in Oregon, the end of DACA, hurricanes everywhere—my heart goes out to so many people, right now.
So if you want a diversion, I’ve got two essays for you.
I kept the rejection letters because I was told to.
In my first year of graduate school, a professor described a poet who’d wallpapered the bathroom with his. Without questioning why one would want their failures staring them in the face while they did their business, I nodded gravely and made a note of it. Apparently, writers saved—and sometimes displayed—their rejection letters.
That first year of grad school I learned all kinds of things about “what writers did.” For one, I learned to say “I’m a writer” when anyone asked, because if you didn’t believe it yourself, then who would? And that night, I went home and started a “rejections” folder, eagerly awaiting my first one.
The second essay is completely different; it’s called “In Praise of Mindful Birthing,” and it’s about how I harnessed a technique I learned through meditation to get me through Baby S’s birth. You can read it over on Elephant Journal. Here’s a teaser:
Fast forward to week 40: I’m sitting on my back porch on a swelteringly hot day. I had a castor oil smoothie for breakfast, followed by a trip to a delightful sadist of an acupuncturist who made me stumble around her office with my feet full of needles. The doula has arrived, and so has my friend Steph.
The candles have been lit.
On the stereo, sacred music by Hildegard von Bingen plays.
I am in labor.
I don’t have time to think about how different this birth is so far, with my candles, my team of women, and my sacred chants, because I’m breathing. I’m having a contraction, in fact. It’s painful, but I don’t think about the next one. I don’t panic waiting for the pause.
And…there it goes. I look lazily around the yard. A bumblebee nuzzles the late summer flowers. I can almost see the pollen on its back as it lifts off. A hummingbird stops by. My feet feel hot on the deck. The birthing ball beneath me sways lightly.
I am not in pain, I think to myself—not at this moment, anyway.
I’d love to hear from you! Got a question or comment? What’s YOUR experience of rejection–or giving birth? Drop me a line, below. And follow me on Facebook, where I just might read aloud from one of these essays a little later today.
It’s been a while since I’ve plugged a book on here, not because I haven’t been reading (I’m always reading!). I loved Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle Books One and Two, for example, loved them because they took me so fully back to my time in Norway and because Knausgård manages to elevate the domestic to the sublime, to make regular old life seem like something very powerful and profound indeed. And I’ve been slowly but gratefully working my way through Bonnie Jo Campbell’s book of short stories Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Currently, I’m turning most of my attention to my book club book for next month, a non-fiction number called Midnight in Broad Daylight by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto, which, if not entirely my cup of tea, is a good story nonetheless.
In Holding Silvan, Wesolowska describes how, after a seemingly normal pregnancy, labor, and delivery, her newborn baby is determined to have massive brain damage—so massive that doctors predict it is only his brain stem that will ever fire. What happens next is the process of letting this baby, who will have no life to speak of beyond the one he could be afforded on machines, die.
It’s been a while since a book has affected me as physically or as intensely as Holding Silvan did. As I emailed to Monica the next day:
“During the part when Silvan is actively dying—if that’s not an oxymoron—I felt this almost physical energy tugging at my body, at my uterus and breasts and forehead, almost pulling me forward and out of my chair. Every fiber of me that’s a mother felt his dying, and I just read and read and sobbed and sobbed until L came in to see why I was crying and I just wanted to grab onto him and hold. This may sound overwrought, since our losses are so tiny in comparison to yours, but while I was reading and crying I also felt like I was healing some of the difficulties of our past five years, trying to have another baby, losing a seven-week fetus when we found out it was ectopic (and I nearly bled to death), all the near misses and dashed hopes…”
I did—I sat in my living room and sobbed for what felt like hours. And while that may not seem like the most ringing endorsement—I know some of you want reads that are “uplifting,” I have to say that my gratitude for this book, for its beautiful, careful prose, its pacing, and the lessons in it about letting go, death, and motherhood, were so profound to me that I think in a way it IS an uplifting book.
I hope you read it, and I hope when you do that you buy it from your local bookstore (ahem) or, if you must, from Powells or Amazon. And pass it on. And buy a copy for someone else you know. Monica’s book was put out by an independent press, the terrific Hawthorne Books in Portland, Oregon, and with independent press books it’s always a big help to spread the word, grassroots style.
Happy, poignant reading,
If you’re looking for more great memoirs, check this and this out.
**Note! Special offer for writers interested in my Saturday, March 19 workshop Releasing Your Body, Revealing Your Story in Oakland (1:00-3:45 p.m. at Flying Studios at 4308 Telegraph Ave.) Bring a friend, both of you get $10 off the workshop fee. Email me through the contact page on this blog or contact Sandra at firstname.lastname@example.org to register.**
I’m really excited about this upcoming workshop I’m teaching with my friend Sandra Stringer on March 19th in Oakland: Releasing Your Body, Revealing Your Story: A Writing and Movement Workshop for Writers.
I’m excited because I’ve been ruminating a lot on the nature of fear, and how it prevents us from doing good creative work. Truthfully, I feel like the thing that hinders me is more like procrastination, and grading papers, and parenting, but nonetheless I think it’s all of a piece: I get tense in my body and in my mind because of work, social, and familial obligations, and I worry that I won’t get everything done, so I act frantic, and then I don’t carve out enough space to write, and then I feel bad, and then I can’t work because I feel bad, and then…
Anyway, it goes something like that, and I’m excited to do a workshop where we simply slow down for a couple of hours, let the body do its thing (e.g., release), and see what happens. I realize, in fact, that I’ve been craving this kind of time to just be still for several weeks. This is always a busy time of year; the papers-to-grade seem never-ending, spring break is fast approaching, somehow we’re supposed to plan for summer already (!), and we’ve had family visiting and more family coming. (I love seeing them all, so much, and it also means that I lose some writing time.)
So it should be a good afternoon.
In preparation for the workshop, I’ve been reading the famous book The Artist’s Way, which I’ve heard of for years but never picked up. The book is full of interesting practical ideas and an overarching theory that some would probably find a little too much: this notion that, to be an artist, writer, or creative person generally you need to put your faith in some kind of higher power. It’s all a bit 12-steppy, and yet, and yet—there is something about it that really resonates with me. Julia Cameron, the author, talks about the divine plan and how creativity works through us, like God working through us, and how, in a sense, you just need to make yourself receptive and then do the work and then, poof, it will all work out: you will become a creative and successful person. If you’re not religious, it might sound crazy (and I am not, so at first it was a little alarming for me), but it echoes notions of creativity that seem to be finding me everywhere these days: in this terrific Radiolab episode featuring Elizabeth Gilbert, and in a TED talk she did a few years back, both of which, when I first listened, absolutely blew my mind.
In a nutshell, Gilbert suggests that creativity is something outside of us, that creativity finds us, like a muse, or a little floating angel, as long as we’re open and receptive to it. There is something very anti-Puritanical about this notion! I, personally, was raised to work hard and not to expect too much. But for Gilbert, and Cameron, there is this belief that if you’re a good and dogged creative person, if you put the words on the page again and again and again, the universe will reward you with little gifts: a first chapter, a beautiful painting, the faith to keep going.
Whether you believe it or not, it’s kind of comforting, wouldn’t you say? It reminds me, actually, of my decision to name my chapbookFaith a few years back. I was obsessed with the word; it cropped up for me in everything I wrote. I think my entire notion of “faith” at that time centered around the belief that the words would keep coming, that things would work out if I kept at it. And in a way, I guess that’s what Julia Cameron and Elizabeth Gilbert are trying to say.
I hope, in my way, to bring some of that wisdom to the workshop the 19th.
Enough philosophizing for today; I need to go get some work done.
But I hope to see some of you at my workshop on the 19th, and, as ever, I’d be terrifically grateful if you spread the word to anyone else you know who might be interested. Note the special offer for bringing a friend! ($10 off for both of you.)