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.
Lately, everything has felt busy. Sometimes I think this is the mantra of my generation, at this time in our lives: we’re working parents, we’re social beings, and we’re ambitious, and many of us feel like things?are about as full as they could be. In the past year, my life has amped up in several ways, and it’s left me simultaneously dizzy from the excitement of it?I’ve felt, finally, like a real adult, a real breadwinner with a real career path?and overwhelmed by the day to day.
In general, I’ve been proud of the way my family has?adjusted to me working more and L starting Kindergarten and all the other things we’ve added to our plate. B has become an extraordinary caretaker, making bread for us every week and planting the garden with veggies and folding all the laundry. L is a pain about doing anything to help out, but he’s five, after all. And I’ve loosened the reins on certain projects and I still manage to get a good dinner on the table most nights and keep us in groceries and a clean bathroom. Our life together has felt?very manageable, and very happy, if at times a little too…full.
But something small can throw a huge wrench in the gears, and that’s what March was: this weird cold/flu I had that migrated to my ears and became a double ear infection. For the past month, I’ve had tinnitus (no fun) and this constant sensation like a valve in each ear is popping open, closed, open, closed. I missed a week of classes, which I had to make up, and once I felt a little better I found that my work ethic was shattered: it didn’t feel like much fun to sit at my computer and listen to the roaring in my ears, so I started to postpone grading and planning until the last possible second. And of course, when you get sick, you end up having doctor’s appointments, which means time away from work and writing, and then there are those bills to pay and meanwhile everything else continues unabated. I’m not complaining?it’s been an interesting reminder to me about the nature of life, and in particular the nature of my life, and now that’s it’s all getting a little better I’m much happier seeing it in a different light?but nonetheless, all the worry and sickness and anxiety and discomfort have been…disorienting.
And so, on the most practical level, I had a few days there where I felt quite firmly that my life was spinning totally out of control. I worked a lot over the weekend, just trying to get caught up with a book proposal and all the grading I’d been neglecting, all the while feeling like I was barely making a dent. Hardest were the liminal spaces, the hours and minutes in between classes or events, when I’d expect to accomplish small tasks or phone calls and for whatever reason, utterly fail. Finally, on Monday night after a full day, I spent a few hours catching up with travel plans and my son’s school activities (oh, how I had been neglecting the various appeals from the PTA) and filing bills and paying bills and generally trying to get my head to clear.
It?was amazing how much better I felt once I’d done all that.
But one thing I still hadn’t managed to do was blog, here in National Poetry Month, of all times, when I always feel I should be blogging.
And then, a certain poem came barreling into my consciousness yesterday and I knew exactly what I wanted to blog about.
Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year?s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
? James Wright, from Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Vision (Random House, 1987)
When I read this poem in college, the?professor asked us to interpret the last line. And I recall many of us, then on the cusp of becoming adults, saying?that the last line meant that lying in the hammock, looking around, was a waste of life. I felt quite firmly that what Wright had meant when he wrote this poem was that he had been lazy in his life, that he should have been more ambitious.
How wrong I was. Now, saddled with all the things I’m saddled with at 41, bills and obligations and worries, I see clearly that what Wright meant was that all the noise we fill our lives with is, truly, the waste. Now, this poem speaks to me in a way it never could have when I was twenty-one.
And so, yesterday, after I’d taught two three-hour classes back to back, and used all my liminal spaces for phone calls or emails, I came home to a quiet house. I calmly washed the dishes, changed my clothes, and sat quietly at the table filling out raffle-ticket stubs before picking up L at school. And when we came home, and he decided to run off to play with the neighbor, I sat in the hammock in my backyard for fifteen minutes, reading The Remains of the Day and listening to the birds and the sounds of the guys working on the house across the way.
Eliot was wrong: April is not the cruelest month (I have a particular belief that February is, but actually, I think it’s different for everyone). For me, March was a bear, since I spent much of it sick and am still temporarily (we hope) deaf from a double ear infection that’s lingered. So it was not with great sadness that I said goodbye to March?yesterday (but it was with great sadness that I said goodbye to my parents, who, visiting for three weeks, made the month somewhat bearable).
Because I’m still digging out from illness, I don’t know that I’ll be able to post a poem a day in April this year. But we can celebrate National Poetry Month nonetheless.
Today, I wanted to plug two beautiful books of poetry that found their way to me this winter.
The first is called Where’s Jukie??(Absurd Publications, 2013) by poet Andy Jones and essayist Kate Duren. I met Andy at the San Francisco Writers Conference in February. It’s interesting to meet someone?as charismatic and upbeat as Andy. He’s something of a legend, with his own radio show and a reading series in Davis. But his book is about his family’s struggle to figure out life with a child with a rare disorder called Lemli-Opitz syndrome and regressive autism, to boot. It’s a really beautiful book. Kate Duren’s essays about her son feel controlled and confident and wise, but Andy’s poems attest to the incredible doubt and difficulty of parenting a special-needs child.
Here’s the poem “Dinner” from Where’s Jukie?
When I get up from the table,
Our relationship is the most honest.
Sometimes with the spoon,
sometimes with the napkin,
I wipe the applesauce from your chin.
The crow caws to us
from the backyard.
You crane your neck to see.
At dinnertime your fingers
are dull tools.
You swat at the spoon.
Feeling gravity too keenly,
you sink into the chair.
You must be strapped in.
You look at me as if to speak.
Your eyes refocus before
you chirp like a hyena.
The wasps thump against the screen.
How they wish the door
were thrown open.
Sometimes your mouth opens
so wide that I think you could roar.
The wind shifts the vertical blinds.
You look at them and cry.
How I wish I could understand you.
? Andy Jones
The second book is called Thunderbirds, by Christine Penko (Turning Point Press, 2015). This is an extraordinary book. It’s poetry, but the poems are linked so as to tell a story, so it feels as much like a memoir in verse. And the subject of the memoir is a family riddled with dysfunction and confusion, and a mother who’s both observer and orchestrator. I came away–having not been able to put the book down, I should add–with great respect for the writing and the characters in the book. Here is “Science Fiction” by Christine Penko:
After the intensity of my daily posts in May for National Poetry Month, I haven’t blogged much. I actually had a brief mourning period when that month was over–mostly, I felt relief because choosing the poems and blogging them felt like a very important task that I was constantly worrying over–but I also loved the feeling of being so connected with readers and poems. Many people wrote me privately to say thanks, and, as I said on the last day, I felt after posting those daily poems like I was reminded of poetry’s great importance in my life. My recent feelings of cynicism about poetry’s power were dashed in favor of a great respect and awe for that most underdog of forms, teacher of children and adults, reminder of the daily wanderings of the mind, irreplaceable, sturdy, delicious poetry, for which we should all be very grateful.
Image from mpclemens, whom you can find on flickr
So have I been writing any? Not a lick.
In fact, I owe the esteemed Mike Dockins a postcard poem in a big way, but I’ve been very busy attending to other things: personal essays.
And brooding, of course.
I turned forty this past year, and had the important realization that, to quote a good friend, life should not be treated like a rehearsal. What would I have to lose, I wondered, if I just put myself all out there? More to the point, what will I feel if, on the verge of 50, I’m still in the same place I am now–mostly happy, mostly lucky, yet angsty about my writing career? I don’t have an answer for that, but suffice it to say I decided this year to push my writing in every direction possible until it makes sense not to. To be relentless in my pursuit of an agent for my memoir. To be shrewd, smart, driven, and careful. To keep at it. And, though this may sound crazy, to learn how to Tweet.
Yes, Tweet. One thing about this crazy stupid world of ours: you can become someone, sort of, through social media. I guess if you do it right you can at least generate interest, book sales, a following. And more and more, my rejections from agents say things like “I need someone with a strong media platform” or “You’re very talented but I’m afraid I won’t be able to sell this in the current market.” Maybe my work is unsellable, or maybe I just need to work harder, better, different, to become someone with more cache and power. So I’m trying both to get published in more high-profile places than poetry ever allows (read: personal essays in women’s magazines with huge readerships), and, well, to Tweet about it. Or something.
But back to the personal essays. And angst. A friend recently stopped writing. She said she was too wrapped up in ideas of her own success, too obsessed. If an agent told her her book lacked X, she’d stay up all night rewriting it. If a different agent then told her it lacked Y, she’d freak out and rewrite it again. She asked me, if your memoir never gets published, would you still want to keep writing? And for me the answer was a very quick yes. Maybe that’s crazy; maybe the fact that I am not yet published means I should give this up, but the truth is if I could do anything all day long, it would be write. So I’m keeping at it. For now. Until it makes sense not to. What’s my point? I don’t know. Something about perseverance.
The personal essays, wow–they’re fun. And raw. It’s a challenge to remember that while you can ramble and play with language all you want in a poem or a longer work, in an essay that will stand out online or in a women’s mag you want to be pithy, smart, funny, honest, not too cerebral but not too light. It took me a lot of revision to get the first essay polished up and tight as a drum, and I think it’s really, really good.
Now to find someone who feels the same and wants to publish it.
In the meantime, follow me on Twitter: @susiemeserve.
A living room. Where one could, say, sit in the sun and read poetry.
I’m going to say out loud something I have mostly only said in my head: poetry is a dying art. I don’t always believe that, but more and more, I do. In this world of blogs, tweets, and texts, we all have lost our attention spans. And poetry, usually, requires us to sit with things for a bit. It’s a hard task, and I wonder how many of us will still be sitting down to read poetry in ten or twenty or thirty or a hundred years.
Doing this blog all month, I have realized a couple of things about myself. I used to be a very dedicated poet. I inhabited that basement room where poets live: we were off the grid, into something a little off-kilter, part of what felt like a secret world, because so few others were in the room with us. And I loved it. I wrote many, many poems, some of which got published, many of which did not. I didn’t have to miss poetry because it was my entire existence.
Then, in 2004, when I cut out and went to travel around the world with my now-hubs, B., my relationship to poetry changed. When we got back to the States I decided I was going to write very seriously for a year, so we got a cheap apartment, I took a part-time job, and I wrote. The trouble was that I couldn’t fill the time. For me poetry happened in little fits and starts; I’d write all morning some days, and on others, I’d write for ten minutes. Or not at all. There was all that time. It was only natural that after a while, I started to write prose, which for me is something you can chip away at all day, all week (or for seven long years).
But I realized that I lost something when I stopped writing poetry: I had stopped slowing down and sitting with things in the same way. And I missed it. I still miss it.
I’m pleased to report that my long break from poetry officially ended when I started the postcard poem project with Mike Dockins. It ended because now I have an imperative to write a poem every couple of weeks. It’s not the same as it used to be, but it’s something. And it’s all coming back to me: that necessity of being slow, of being careful, even of being kind of frivolous and capturing a moment or an emotion without dogging it to death (as I do when I write, say, an essay). And I realized that the world really does need poetry, for that very reason. Because it slows us down, because it exists outside of our crazy world. It gives us a unique challenge. There’s nothing else like poetry.
Which is all to say that I hope I’m wrong that poetry is dying out, and I have resolved to help in that cause. Here’s how you can help, too.
Support Poetry Daily! It’s a great site, with a poem a day, and while I have not yet been featured there, I hope someday I will be. They’re in their spring membership campaign, and you can donate here.
Read poetry yourself. In addition to the many fine poets I featured this month, check out T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, H.D., Lawrence Ferlinghetti, John Ashberry, Gary Snyder, Jorie Graham, Louise Gl?ck, Adrienne Rich, Cathy Song, Carolyn Forche, Joy Harjo, Carolyn Kizer, Heather McHugh, Russel Edson, James Tate, Dara Wier, Ai, David Rivard, Tomaz Salamun, Wislawa Zymborska, Adam Zagajiewski, Margaret Atwood, Rita Dove, Tess Gallagher, Marie Howe, Deborah Digges, Mary Oliver, W.S. Merwin, Charles Olson, Cornelius Eady, Matthew Rohrer, Matthew Dickman, Michael Dickman, Joshua Beckman, Cate Marvin, Brenda Shaughnessy….the list goes on and on. Who are YOUR favorites?
Finally, good news for me! I got a poem accepted for publication recently. It’s forthcoming in the journal Rock & Sling. Stay tuned.