after Richard Brautigan
When I clean the house
it’s like a mine disaster.
I think of all the poems
trapped inside me
after Richard Brautigan
When I clean the house
it’s like a mine disaster.
I think of all the poems
trapped inside me
Veteran poet Penelope Schott’s latest offering, How I Became an Historian, traces a spiral from innocence into an abusive marriage, and out again into wisdom and forgiveness. Three slug poems serve as markers on this switchback trail. In “Pestering the Slug,” the first poem of the book, she recounts something almost all of us remember: the small child’s delight in harassing bugs. “I briefly understood / the unblameable charm of evil,” she writes.
That evil coalesces but also turns to remorse in “Glory is Reached by Many Routes,” when the speaker spends “a whole morning trying / to press a brown slug through a wire sieve / and all afternoon apologizing to the slug.” That remorse turns to redemption in “Keeper.” Here, the speaker keeps the slug for a week, feeding it
waking and trembling
trying to write anyway
nothing is easy
A fellow poet recently had the courage to complain about the expense of our chosen vocation. It’s a sad fact that the net proceeds for poets are usually negative. We often have to pay to develop our craft and get ourselves read. Perhaps it’s not unlike many art forms in this way — especially the “fine” arts like ballet. In the case of poetry, schools, workshops, conferences, book tours, and contest fees all add up. Those of us who publish books may end up making little or nothing on them. Readings at most venues don’t offer remuneration, while the poet usually ends up having to pay for gas and dinner. If you sell a few books, you’re lucky to break even.
Payment — or lack thereof — is difficult subject to speak about in public settings, partly because of the unspoken taboo on discussing money matters at all, and partly because of the notion that artists must do what they love for free, or have to suffer for their art, living in garrets and shivering next to wood stoves. It’s easy to sound bitter, and no one wants to publish — or read — a bitter poet. It is possible to make a living as a writer of prose, but not with poetry. Not in American society, where most mentions of poetry in mainstream society joke about how awful it is to have to listen to it.
This double bind is why I went into web development in the mid 1990s. I didn’t have parents who could support me or supplement my income and I didn’t have the connections that make it so much easier to break into publishing. Zines and websites used to circumvent the snooty literary establishment, but the fact is that my education and inclinations have given me champagne taste when it comes to literature in general and poetry in particular.
After 20 years in an industry that’s taken me further and further away from my literary roots, I’m embarking on a low-residency MFA program that will allow me to keep my job while I focus on honing my craft in my off-hours. An MFA is not cheap. I was fortunate enough to qualify for a merit scholarship, but I’ll be paying for the bulk of tuition with student loans. Once I graduate, my monthly payments will equal about half of mortgage. Worst case scenario is that I end up saddled with so much debt that means I can’t afford to make a career change more in line with my passions.
All of that being said, I do believe there are bright spots in the cloudy future. Grants do exist. Paying gigs (mostly teaching, but also prose writing) do exist. Scholarships do exist. Free artist residencies do exist. Lesley awarded me a scholarship and I’ve won awards in the past so I know it’s a possibility for me. The key is to not get sucked in to the maw of the pay-for-play mentality of some literary circles. And that’s hard because sometimes the people in those circles are the poets I really admire and want to be like.
I’ve spent so much time avoiding dedicating myself to the arts because I’ve been too afraid of failure. I’m taking the leap this time — or, more accurately, I’m taking a measured, clear-eyed walk along a rocky and difficult path that hugs the side of the mountain.
Succeeding in the end might require a revision of my definition of success into outcomes I can directly affect rather than those that depend on the whim and tastes of judges and editors. When I look at it that way, success is inevitable.
Rushing between off-site meetings, I carve out some time to sit and eat lunch in the lobby of one of the hospitals in the Longwood Medical Area. There’s a huge family at the table next to mine that has an entire catering setup — I guess to feed everyone who’s come down to support their loved one. They take up four tables and are eating delicious-looking Indian cuisine, speaking in what may be Hindi or one of India’s many other languages.
Seeing them makes me think about frugality, and how it requires you to stop worrying about what other people think of you, and about what it means to live in a multicultural society, and about how diversity is hard because humans are hard-wired to fear the Other, and also about what it means for me to live so far away from the support system of an extended family. I’m lucky to have a huge constellation of family-by-choice, and friends, and kindred spirits — I know more wonderful people than I can possibly have deep friendships with. But the bond of shared DNA runs deep, even with the low-level irritation that can develop among grown-up relatives. When I’m in the hospital, it’s my family that comes to visit me. And if they’re not related to me, I begin to understand who truly is my family of choice.
For better or for worse, that’s my life: to be a stranger in a strange land, even when it’s one I’ve lived in for years. Writers and artists often live at the edge of society. It’s what gives us the perspective and the fearlessness to speak our own truths about what we see. I’m most comfortable on the edges of things, observing the swirl and color of human existence — I see things that I wouldn’t if I were at the center of my own drama.
And perhaps it’s why I need the company of plants and animals to recharge myself. They speak a quieter language free of the body-mind duality that plagues humanity.
The Poetry and Place 2015 Anthology came out this week with a reprint of my poem “The Flooded Field.” I got my copy in the mail a couple of days ago, and as I peruse it I can see I’m in very good company. You can read more about the anthology and link to places you can buy it (in both print and ebook) on the website.
During “launch week,” (May 2-6) you can hear recordings of poets reading their work.
The editors have indicated that they’ll be compiling a second volume in 2016/2017, so keep an eye on their submissions page.
National Poetry Month culminates this week with the Mass Poetry Festival — an event that fills all of downtown Salem with readings from poetic luminaries, a small press fair, and workshops of all kinds. The poetic fervor continues into May.
Thanks to those of you who came to the workshop I did last weekend at the Rozzie Public Library — if you missed it and want to know about the next one, sign up for my mailing list.
All events below take place in Massachusetts unless otherwise noted.
Thursday, April 28, 6 pm
Woodberry Poetry Room, Lamont Library, Room 330
It was through Holly Zeeb that I first learned of The Widows’ Handbook: Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival, an anthology of poetry written by, for, and about women who had lost their life partners. Holly, a fellow student of the PoemWorks workshop and an excellent poet in her own right, was one of the many poets who contributed to the book. Holly lived with cancer for years before succumbing to it in late January 2016. Her literary legacy includes not only her poems in The Widows’ Handbook, but also a chapbook from Finishing Line Press and Eye of the Beholder, a book-length collection in limited run. In addition to — or perhaps because of — her poetry, she left behind a wide circle of friends and fellow writers. They crowded Newtonville Books to grieving friends read her work. I got one of the last seats in the house and found it deeply affecting to hear the finished versions of poems I saw take shape in workshop.
I met Jacqueline Lapidus through entirely different circumstances and only realized her connection to The Widows’ Handbook and to Holly after we had been corresponding for some time. The anthology had been on my reading list for some time, and meeting Jacqueline was the push I needed to crack the book. A slight woman with a mop of curly blonde hair, Jacqueline has a fascinating life story that spans continents and waves of the feminist movement. She was kind enough to talk with me about the societal implications of widowhood, her own experiences with it, and the work involved to create such a comprehensive anthology.
What role did poetry play in the grieving process for yourself and the poets in this collection?
My significant other, with whom I was involved on and off over more than 40 years, died suddenly the day after Thanksgiving 2004. We’d been together continuously for the past 10 years of his life. I wrote poems to deal with my own grief, and anger, and frustration, because writing poems is what I do when I have strong feelings. I’ve done it all my life, and I’ve always sent my work out in the hope of getting it published. But the poems about widowhood that I submitted to literary magazines were rejected, probably because the editors—mostly young—couldn’t deal with such a painful theme. Then Lise Menn, a college classmate of mine who was also widowed, came to Boston for a conference. We went out to dinner, and while we were waiting for our order, she showed me her widow poems. After reading them, I had this bright idea. I said, “You know, this would be a great topic for an anthology.” And when you have a bright idea, well, you’re the one who has to make it happen. That was how we got started on what became The Widows’ Handbook. I pretty much knew what we’d have to do because I’ve worked in publishing for most of my life. I knew there was a potentially huge readership out there—eight million widows in this country alone!—and I knew that nobody else had done this kind of anthology before.
More experienced poets in The Widows’ Handbook, wrote widow poems because writing poems was what they always did. Lise Menn, my co-editor, wrote her widow poems particularly as a way to communicate her feelings to her therapist, because at first she couldn’t talk about her grief directly. But some of our contributors hadn’t written poetry at all before they were widowed. They started writing, sometimes in the context of therapy or writing groups, as a way of coping.
You are the salt of the earth
If the salt has lost its savor, wherewith
shall it be salted?
She was driving home on a Friday night
suddenly he slumped forward in the passenger seat
and in mid-sentence he was gone I pulled over,
I called 911, I begged him, talk to me, talk to me!
Every move is sad and hard to make
the only positive distraction for her is work
her friends make sure she’s not alone during the week,
rattling around in that enormous house I’m numb,
I’m on automatic pilot, I still can’t talk
He was closing the summer house and didn’t want help
The fridge was full of food for Thanksgiving
her pie was cooling on the rack any minute his key
would be turning in the lock
I called the caretaker and told him to look
everywhere, even up in the attic
He was in the kitchen, he’d had a stroke