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A little less than a month ago, I had a baby, an 8 pound slip of a thing who, in some charmed moments, lies quietly looking out the window from his bassinet:
And I’m tired. In my head I’ve been writing about his magical-yet-crazy birth for weeks now, and about what it’s like to start fresh with a newborn at 43, with a seven-year-old, but hey, little known fact: when you have a new baby, even one who sleeps occasionally, you don’t have a lot of time for things like WRITING. Or showering. Or paying bills, or making dinner, or gardening, or any of the things you used to find gratifying and easy of a day. So the blog post goes unwritten, at least for now.
Which is why it’s so lovely to have a friend like Mike Dockins, who sent this gem yesterday. Mike and I have been writing postcard poems to each other for a couple of years now, but we took a long hiatus last year. Then bam, Mike started us up again with “Postcard with Pebbles & The Bogeyman,” which sums up a lot of my feelings about (re) new (ed) motherhood pretty perfectly: the chores undone, the chores undone, the chores undone?and the boys less little, less little, less little, until one day: gone.
POSTCARD WITH PEBBLES & THE BOGEYMAN
?for L and S
Susie, once again you?ve emerged from Ye Olde Creation Workshop to deliver unto us another squealer?someone to keep L company in the blue Berkeley dark, to help him stalk the Bogeyman, someone even with whom to conspire?against you, old friend?years hence, a list of undone chores dangling unreasonably from your unreasonable lip, the boys slouching over chipped Legos, dusty fire trucks, cobwebbed Darth Vaders?the toys of their childhoods sprawled like an ancient star map across the rug?& clutching god-knows-what intolerable species of techno-gadget, good grief, their eye-rolls locking the planet in a terrifying terrestrial wobble. Look at you: nightly rippling the Bay with the Aeolian wind of your Aeolian words, inviting little tsunamis to lap against the lifeless, lifeless pebbles, your autumn hammock no longer lying in a heap waiting for summer, but carrying you, Mama, all a-sway & lovely & wine-dark as you watch Orion?s belt whip the rooftop with barbaric yawps, all cocooned in that perfect & impossible womb, your boys little, less little, less little with each barbaric lash.
? Mike Dockins, 2016
If you want to read more of Mike’s fantastic work, check him out at the Tupelo Press 30/30 project, kind of a poet’s answer to NaNoWriMo, where he’ll be writing a poem a day all November.
Ghazals for Foley, ed. Yago S. Cura, 2016 Hinchas Press
Yesterday I received my copy of Ghazals for Foley, a book of poems written to commemorate the life of writer and slain journalist Jim Foley, who was a classmate of mine at UMass Amherst. I have a poem in the collection, along with poems by?Martin Espada, CS Carrier, Shauna Seliy, my buddy and writing partner?Mike Dockins, and many more. There is also a short story by Jim that was previously published by Hinchas Press.
I hope you’ll pick up a copy here and spread the word.?Ghazals for Foley is?a beautiful tribute to a beautiful person, and I’m grateful to Yago Cura and Hinchas Press for including me in the project.
ALSO: I’m reading this Friday night at the?Madness?Radio?Book Launch!Feb 26, 2016?w/ Bonfire Madigan, Will Hall, Jacks McNamara, Mandala Project, Susie Meserve, book contributors and more…1017 Ashmount St?7pm?Oakland California?(make sure to park carefully and leave room on street). The essay I’ll be reading, called “A Little Crazy,” is forthcoming in an anthology by In Fact Books called Show Me All Your Scars: True Stories of Overcoming Mental Illness.?
I would love to see you there, if you’re local!
Finally, mark your calendars! My friend Sandra Stringer and I will be teaching a three-hour?writing and movement workshop called “Releasing Your Body, Revealing Your Story” at Flying Studios in Oakland on Saturday, March 19, from 1:00-3:45 p.m. Cost: $75. If you know of anyone who might be interested, please spread the word. I’ll post again about it here, closer, of course.
At the San Francisco Writers Conference this past weekend, there were so many opportunities to tell someone who I was?in ten seconds or less. The first time someone asked “And what do you write?” I botched my answer, stumbling with some “Ums” and “wells” and “kind-ofs.” Then, I agonized over how I would introduce myself at my panel on revision on the second day, the one I was doing with two experienced editors in a room I suspected would be packed (it was). In my notebook I nervously jotted down phrases like “I write about the darkness in everyday experience” and “I write about the light and the dark of being a woman” and other horrendous, lofty mouthfuls I absolutely could not see myself pulling off in public.
Then one of the other editors from the panel, who is also a new friend and a lovely person with whom I’d just had a delicious lunch in Chinatown, said: “Just say it all?you’re a poet, you also write personal narrative, you write about your experiences with anxiety, motherhood, and infertility, and then mention your memoir.” Wow?that was easier. And when it came time to introduce myself at the panel, I said exactly that, switching the pronouns, and was amazed at how easily it rolled off the tongue and how comfortable I felt not stumbling with some catchy catch phrase. Later, two people came up to me to tell me they couldn’t wait for my memoir to get published, that it just sounded wonderful. Isn’t that nice?
And, perhaps because I wasn’t saddled to a catch phrase all weekend, I was able to let go and be a poet for a few days,?too,?speaking on a couple of poetry panels, workshopping, and reading at the Friday night poetry reading. A poem that’s been just sitting in my computer for two years was enthusiastically received?a poetry press editor insisted that I send her my manuscript, provided that poem is in it.
So I came away from the conference feeling pretty good.
At one stage, in the lobby of the hotel, a group of women somehow converged?we’re all mothers, and we all live relatively close to one another?in the same town, and there was talk of us getting together to write or commiserate or workshop. A trading of email addresses and a “where do your kids go to school?”s. And somehow, in that moment, my identity shifted from “writer” to “mom who writes.”
“How old are your kids?” one asked another.
“Ten and eight. You?”
“Seven and five. You?”
Then it was my turn: “Six,” I said. “Just six.”
And while I felt a part of this, because we all know what it’s like to try to pull off a writing career when you’re also raising children, because we’ve all given birth and nursed and been up all night losing our minds with exhaustion,?I felt again that other identity of which I’ve been so conscious in recent years: that I’m the mother of an only child. If you don’t have kids, you might think, what’s the difference? Either you’re a mom, or you’re not. But I tell you, it’s different, really; having one kid means when you have a playdate your house is still pretty manageably noisy, and your plane ticket bills are cheaper. And two bedrooms don’t feel cramped at all, and it’s not too hard to get a babysitter.
But it also means smarting when, at a?babysitting co-op meeting, someone says casually, “Oh, it’s so crazy once you have your second!” and every woman in the room except you groans and nods in some kind of humble brag, lamenting and loving their full, full, and more full lives. This happened recently, and I sat there feeling utterly apart because I couldn’t say whether it’s crazy when you have two. Because I have not been able to have two. Because I may never know.
But while this was so hard for so many years, this feeling of wanting something I couldn’t have, lately I’ve been wondering if I really wanted it as badly as I thought I did. I’ve been wondering if maybe my life is just perfect as it is.
“God, it’s so nice to have adult conversations for a change,” one of the moms?at the conference said, and I thought, but I have adult conversations all the time. My life is very manageable with one kid who’s in school or childcare 36 hours a week or more; I see friends, I work, and I spend many hours alone, writing. Besides, conversations with L have rarely?been a chore. Maybe this is something about my kid, or my parenting, or something else, but I?have realized lately how, when I’ve been so busy wanting something else, my nice life has been here all along with me.
And again, it’s kind of like writing. At a recent meeting of my Creative Women’s Cocktail Hour, my friend Ascha had us choose lines from a book of poetry and write them on an envelope. Then we shared the lines.
Mine?”like someone trying to walk through a fire,” “What I would do with the rest of my life,” and “your old soft body fallen against me”?all from The?Gold Cell,?by Sharon Olds?seemed to speak to how you have this relationship with something and it lasts your whole life. My writing and I, we’re like old lovers; we fight, we make up, we get on with it, we fight, we make up. We walk through fire together, and we’ll be together forever. And this is a comforting thought, because when my writing and I are not connecting, it doesn’t mean we’re breaking up; it’s all just part of the journey.
And I guess that’s a bit like parenting, too, like me parenting my one beautiful child: his young soft body fallen against me, for the rest of my life.
**Nota Bene! Susie will be reading on Friday, 2/26 at the?Madness Radio Book Launch! With?Bonfire Madigan, Will Hall, Jacks McNamara, Mandala Project, book contributors and more…1017 Ashmount St, Oakland, California?7pm. Hope to see you!**?
This morning, meditating on the back deck, I noticed California’s subtle signs of fall. As a New England transplant?who grew up with?dramatic fall weather and the trees in flames, the signs here are a little too subtle for me, but today was pretty good: a gorgeous late sunrise (we all piled into L’s bed to watch it through his windows at 7:15), walnut-tree leaves littering the deck, crisp air, and that slightly maudlin fall light that seems to strike diagonally. This weekend I’m planning to spend a lot of time in the woods, watching fall, clearing my head.
Fall’s diagonal light
Last night at my writing group I asked a few veteran fiction writers how to approach writing a novel. When I wrote my memoir, the plot was laid out in front of me; I didn’t have the blessing or the curse of having to make things up. (Sometimes, I wish I had, since many traditional publishers have been calling the story “too quiet.” What can I say? That’s my life. Quiet.) Given all this freedom, I have no idea what to do with it. I have 100 pages from last year’s NaNoWriMo, and then about 25 of a “new draft.” I have my main plot points. But deciding what happens in between?what should go on?in, say, chapter 2?is beyond me. I stare at the laptop, longing for someone to tell me what?to write.
Of course, I suppose the character could do that. In this terrific podcast, writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about having a conversation with your book, and while I haven’t quite done that yet, I’m open to the idea that my main character, Hilly, could?somehow tell me what’s next. Is that ludicrous? Yes, and no. Maybe I’m just not listening right.
But anyway, back to the writing group. We talked about writing exercises and introducing conflict and what the characters want and pushing myself to be more outrageous and maybe losing a major thread that’s not interesting me after all. But mainly what I took away from the conversation was to just make a big mess of things, for now. You can’t know what a character will do until you’ve written her, and then written her some more, and then written her some more. And maybe none of those scenes will make it into the book, but maybe they will. And maybe, as I write, keeping notes, starting new files, disorganizing everything and trying new things and then sticking it all back together again, I’ll learn what’s supposed to happen, what’s important to me, what’s important to Hilly and her friend V.
Making a mess terrifies me. As you know from posts like this, in my old age, much to the shock of my parents and brothers, I’m sure, I have actually become a hyper-organized individual. One of the beautiful things about writing, for eight years, a memoir with the plot?laid out for me, was that I spent much of that time tinkering. Polishing. Moving things around. It felt joyful and straightforward (or maybe I’m misremembering all the hours I spent pulling my hair out, freaking out?probably). There is nothing straightforward about writing a novel, not when I’m?in what we might call the ideation phase.?Not when I have so little time to actually write these days. And especially not when I’m hoping against hope to finish this book before another decade has passed.
Nonetheless, I?am resolved to try: to see what happens, to make a mess, to not know what’s coming next. Maybe there’s a metaphor here? (There always is.)
And, lest I leave you on that dubious note, here’s an old poem about fall.
It?s raining colored paper.
No, birds?cardinals, orioles, and canaries,
swooping, dipping towards the hard surface
of the road, then gone. It?s the cornfields
have turned to paper, and a pumpkin
spills its guts on a front stoop.
A boy discovers it and starts to cry.
Who would do such a thing,
bring down the jagged grin, hard, on the steps?
Something in him falters.
He imagines his house on fire: water boiling
in the goldfish bowl, floating, weightless fish.
He thinks about God and Judas
and seventeen-year locusts, how they ruin things,
wringing his hands, worrying his fingernails
to splinters. He stares out at the fields,
counts minutes till schooltime, his breath
a neat circle on the window,
because it?s cold this October, already?
and there in the road is the flock of leaves,
swooping, dipping into the hard surface,
then gone. They touch down, and then they?re gone.
The cornfields have turned to paper,
and behind them the sky.
? Susie Meserve. This poem originally appeared in Indiana Review, Fall, 2001
Earlier this spring, a young woman?named Terra Ojeda, from Whitworth University, contacted me. She’d read my poem in Rock & Sling?and, as a part of a class assignment, wanted to interview me. I of course said sure. I liked the questions Terra asked, and I thought I’d post her interview here.
Thank you, Terra!
Terra: Do you have a writing routine? If so, what does it look like? (I?m sure in the midst of life, it is difficult to find and time and place every day to simply sit down and write).
Susie: I do have a writing routine?of sorts. My mantra is, ?write first, before everything else.? If I try to start my paid work first, or start with paying bills or anything else, I never get to the writing. Currently, I write at my kitchen table or at the library or at a coffee shop nearby (though I just had the very exciting news that I may be renting a small studio adjacent to my house as a writing space. I can barely contain myself at the thought of it). I can?t write every day, since I?m a college writing instructor and I have to teach, but I manage three days a week during the semester and four or more when I?m on break. Every so often I block out a Saturday or a weekend to work, too. I also set very specific goals and deadlines. I?ll aim to finish a chapter, a poem, a section of a book by a certain date?this motivates me and helps me not feel lost and depressed about how much there is to do and how little time I have to do it.
T: I have noticed that you are a vocalist in a band, Hotel Borealis. Do you contribute to the songwriting for this band? If so, how is it different from other modes of writing? If not, how does this band influence your creative writing process?
S: This is a great question. While I wrote the lyrics for one song on our upcoming album, and have tweaked Dave Mar?s lyrics here and there, the truth is I?m not much of a lyricist. I keep thinking this will come with time, but so far, it hasn?t. In terms of the music project influencing my writing life, it has and it hasn?t. Writing is very solitary. The music is much more collaborative. But playing and writing music has made me much more comfortable being spontaneous and taking risks?things that have been hard for me, historically. I?m hoping that riskiness translates into my writing at some point.
T: The same question goes for your role as a wife, mother, teacher, etc. How do these play into your creative process?
S:?I love teaching, but it doesn?t inspire my creative process except insofar as my students and I discuss artistic process (I teach at an art school). Mostly, teaching is an exercise in forcing me to be super organized with my time so I can write. Parenting has certainly been the source of material for essays (not so much for poems?not sure why). And having such a lovely kid in my life makes me feel centered when my writing career is not going as planned. My relationship with my husband has been the main topic of the memoir I?ve been writing for ten years, so that?s been central. So, yeah, it all plays in?.
T: If you could be any animal, what animal would it be? Why? Is this the same animal that you identify with now?
S:?My son is crazy about animals, and he asks me every day what my favorite animal is. I always says cheetah, but that?s not entirely true, though I would love to experience that furious running somehow. I would be interested in being a bear or another kind of powerful predator; a powerful bird; or?.I?m not sure what else. I?d actually be fascinated to be a male human for an afternoon, too!
T: I love how you include a variety of connections in your poem, ?Postcard from a Sailor.? You mention a fragmented mess of thoughts: ?as if the parking tickets were scattered everywhere.? You compare this also with ?all the marriages torn asunder — the children unborn.? Then you close the poem with ?all the tools tossed into the sea — if there were a sea if there were any stars by which to navigate –? The universality of this poem is undeniable, yet there is a sense that you are speaking from a specific, individual experience. How do you balance the two?
S:?I see ?Postcard from a Sailor? as a kind of thread that came rushing off a spool at breakneck speed. So, in other words: I started with this very personal idea of having a ?mess of thoughts? (I like that, thanks), which was something that I was indeed experiencing: my brain was running me ragged with small and big life questions that seemed to be unraveling everywhere, and one day it occurred to me that ?pensive? didn?t even begin to describe it. But then as I riffed on that in the poem, the whole world started unraveling (and the list of what would happen if the world unraveled came very quickly). The list I came up with was how I imagine the post-apocalypse, I guess. I tend to use a lot of quasi-fantastical, end-of-the-worldish images in my poems. I don?t know whether the poem, especially the end, feels depressing or whimsical. For me, the last two lines feel much darker than the rest. [Note: You can read “Postcards from a Sailor” below.] Something else is going on in there that you didn?t ask about. If you look at contemporary poetry, you?ll notice that this phrase ?as if? is totally overused. It?s like all of us poets can?t create an image without a comparison to something that might or might not happen. I wanted to play with that by pushing it: I started with one ?as if? but the next five lines all have an implied ?as if.? I thought being relentless about it would subvert it. But that may not be working; maybe I?m just another poet overusing the phrase ?as if.?
T: Who do you write for? Does the audience change for every subject, or do you lean toward one type of audience?
S:?This is a tough one. With the stuff I?ve been writing lately?personal essays, memoir, more commercially viable stuff?I definitely have audience in mind. In fact, I even spend time thinking about my ?target audience? and my ?brand.? (I picture a smart woman around my age, probably a mother but not necessarily, who also feels muddled by the choices she?s making and the difficulties and joys of her experience.) But when I write poetry, I don?t even think about audience, is the truth. I just write.
T: On writing for yourself: How does writing function for your own personal purpose? Do you write for yourself? Is it a healing process, like writing in a diary? Or does it take on a life of its own?
S:?Writing is definitely healing. For example, when I got things off my chest after writing a couple of essays about my inability to have a second kid, I actually felt that I could cope better with that huge disappointment. But writing is definitely not like a diary for me. I?m pretty obsessed with making things polished and viewer-ready. And yes, I would say all of my writing takes on its own life. That?s a beautiful thing about writing: you start with an idea for A and end up at Q, at Z, or in a different language entirely.
T: I?ve read and watched excerpts from your memoir ?Quiver.? How has traveling with your husband Ben (before you were married) shaped your life?
S:?That year with Ben was probably the most difficult and the most amazing year of my life to date, if I?m being honest. I still think about it all the time, probably because I?ve been writing about it for nearly ten years (!). Mostly, I think it was an exercise in solidifying what has been the most formative and important relationship of my life. But I think it also shifted my perspective as a writer. Before we went, I was working a very demanding job and barely managing to put together a poem every couple of months. On that trip, I realized that I wanted to be a writer, to really put writing front and center in my life. It also signaled the shift from me being a poet to being something else?whatever I am now.
T: When you contemplate taking ?next steps? in life, what does that look like? For example, the last couple lines of the excerpt from ?Quiver? on your webpage read:
“He had made up his mind: he was going to travel for a year. There was very little I could do about it.
Except go with him.”
The white space in between the two sentences seems essential, because it represents that space in your mind that says, ?Why not?? Does this explain the kind of leap of faith you have on taking big steps into the next stage in your life? Or are they normally subtle, baby steps that ease their way onto your path?
S:?I wish I could lie and say that I often take those kinds of leaps, but the truth is that I?m a total chicken about any big change and I have to worry it to death before I do anything. That excerpt from ?Quiver? ends there, but in the actual book, about two pages of angst and second-guessing and miscommunication with Ben follow before we actually decide to travel together. So I would say, subtle baby steps, for sure. And research. And talking. I?m big on reading a lot of books and having a lot of discussions and generally gathering as much information as I can before I make any big life decision. I have always wanted to be different in this regard. Oh well.
T: Thank you so much Susie, I have enjoyed reading your work. You have already influenced me to download a meditation app on my phone (which I gladly used earlier this morning). Sometimes I forget that all I need to do is sit down, come as I am, accept myself for all that I am, and breathe. You have been a lovely reminder, nurturing me personally with your words and honest stories.?
S: That?s so great! Thanks for telling me that. And you?re very welcome.
POSTCARD FROM A SAILOR (#6)
Arriving in California
just before Thanksgiving,
I?d say I felt pensive
if pensive were the sensation
of one billion thoughts colliding
in the cerebral cortex,
not pinprick stars,
more like dark matter chaos,
more like an unweaving,
the loss of any sense of order,
of any sense of navigation,
as if the parking tickets were papered everywhere?
and the email had begun to explode?
and the cars all crashed into one another?
and all the marriages torn asunder?
the children unborn?
all the tools tossed into the sea?
if there were a sea?
if there were any stars by which to navigate?
(? Susie Meserve. This poem appeared in Rock & Sling issue 9.2)