The Work, the Meaningful Work

I haven’t been writing as much poetry. In January, I had a flood of it. And then, gone.

The work, the meaningful work. When I am not writing, I worry. It feels as though a part of me is missing. I know that the idea of the muse–well, it’s true. The muse is there. Especially with poetry. With other kinds of writing, other kinds of writing, you can force yourself, you can sit yourself down in small increments, sweat it out, give yourself small rewards for small steps forward.

But poetry isn’t like that for me. It comes or it doesn’t.

There is more, of course, to the meaningful work than simply the generative act. There is the revision. The compilation. The submission. Hah. Submission is not something I am good at. But it must be done. Dancing Girl Press is taking submissions through the summer. I should submit. To some women in Chicago whom I’ve never met, but whose work I admire.

I am afraid of being told no, of course.

I’d rather wallow in my fantasies of the perfect collection of my work than do the real work, the meaningful work, of tightening it, revising it.

Writing is hard work. And not rewarded as lavishly as some other kinds of work.

But you don’t write for the rewards. Or, rather, I can’t. I write because there is a thing inside of me that needs to get free. I write because the gift goes sour if I don’t pass it on.

At This Moment

“I care a lot about you,” he said. “And I have a deep affection for you.”

Later, he said, “I like what we have. And maybe it will develop into something stronger. Or maybe it won’t.”

He also said, “It seems that we have different long-term goals.”

I hate this, even though it’s probably true.

Maybe there’s a way to reconcile that, or maybe there isn’t. But even if we had exactly the same long-term goals, I’d still be scared. Skeared.

Because even if he’d said, “I love you madly and want to take care of you for the rest of your life,” I wouldn’t really have been happy.

I just don’t like not knowing what’s going to happen next. Especially with this stuff. The more of them I have, the more the painful ends of relationships haunt me. And it’s trust, trust. It’s stepping out onto ice and hoping it doesn’t break. What happens when I stop noticing it’s ice I’m walking on?

Media Recommendations: Kate Nash, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ellen Kushner

Kate Nash. Like Laura Viers, she’s one of those female artists they play on WERS but utterly fail to promote. Mabye I’m a tad sensitive or maybe shit is still broken and needs fixing, but I do wish I could go a day without noticing how many more MALE artists get major promos — in music, in the visual arts, in poetry, in the mainstream book publishing world. Anyway, Kate Nash. After hearing her song “Foundations” for like the hundredth time and wishing they would tell me who the hell was singing it, it finally stuck in my head. Thank God/dess for Google solving the search problem. Wikipedia entry here, official website here. (I’m not linking to the Myspace page because Myspace hurts my designer’s eyes. It buuuuurrrns!!) I went ahead and gave Universal Music all my personal information so they can spam me incessantly and get free market demographics data. In return, I got a music download and a peek at the video for “Foundations”.When I listened to her song on the radio, I had this image of Kate Nash as a tough Londoner, possibly of color, the kind of woman who wears jeans and leather jackets and yells really loud at soccer matches and can kick ass if she needs to. Turns out she’s actually super-feminine, curvy, given to wearing girly dresses with puffy bodices in ice-cream colors. The video is extremely well-done. In very detail-oriented sort of way, it does an excellent job of evoking the general sense of wrongness that accompanies the end of a relationship.It reminded me of a moment when Army Guy and I were walking through the Pru. A woman at one of those little carts stopped me to demonstrate a little device I’d heard about that gives your nails a shine without the use of nail polish. I’m a sucker for personal care products, especially if they’re made with natural ingredients, and I’d been meaning to seek out exactly what this woman was selling. Of course, she was offering it at a tremendous markup (I got the same thing on eBay for less than $10 later). But I digress. Army Guy patiently waited because he’s a sweetie like that. When I showed him my new, shiny thumbnail, his reaction clearly showed that he didn’t see much of a difference.

Continue reading “Media Recommendations: Kate Nash, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ellen Kushner”

Invocation of the Goddess

Great Mother Goddess, help me through this day
Great Mother Goddess, keep my eyes on the task before me
Great Mother Goddess, let me release the nonessential
Great Mother Goddess, teach me love and compassion
Great Mother Goddess, open my heart to your abundance
Great Mother Goddess, I am your child and your companion
Great Mother Goddess, remind me I am being taken care of
Great Mother Goddess, I am a lily in your eyes
Great Mother Goddess, I am a rose before you
Great Mother Goddess, I am an oak, I am ironwood
Great Mother Goddess, I am all the creatures of the forest
Great Mother Goddess, I am the bugs crunching within the soil
Great Mother Goddess, I am the slime mold that dismantles the dead
Great Mother Goddess, I am the silence of the frozen winter
Great Mother Goddess, I am the secret germ in the seed
Great Mother Goddess, I am the silence of a swan gliding over still water
Great Mother Goddess, I am a cherry tree in blossom
Great Mother Goddess, I am an apple tree bearing fruit
Great Mother Goddess, I am a hive of bees making honey
Great Mother Goddess, I am a bear moving deliberate through the trees
Great Mother Goddess, I am a wild mustang in the desert
Great Mother Goddess, I am a cow grazing in a green paddock,
Great Mother Goddess, I am a hen laying eggs in the barn
Great Mother Goddess, I am a tadpole wriggling in a pool
Great Mother Goddess, I am a serpent flying through the endless sea
Great Mother Goddess, I am your child, I am your child, rocked to sleep in your lap
I am blessed, I am blessed, I am blessed

After shamanic invocations of the Celts before battle and the work of the bard Taliesin.

Robyn Art: Here at Last the Body, Window Cracked Open at the Helm

In recognition of National Poetry month (April) and belated recognition of Women’s History Month and Small Press Month (March), I’ll be posting notices for the rest of the month about (and, wherever possible, links to) women poets from small presses.

From Wicked Alice Poetry Journal, Winter 2008, Robyn Art:

And here at long last the body, its window cracked open at the helm
[…]
stay here all you broke-down
visions, supernumerary impulse-buys and over glutted infomercials of love, stay here
betwixt and between Restless Leg Syndrome, TMJ, discretionary income and the oft-extolled pleasures of the drug-free life, O boggy and efflorescent self, self of root cellars and forgotten tinctures, of mud and excrement and loam, but still at long last
the body, the non-body nearly arrived, relentless, full-throttle toward the irreparable
becoming […]

See full text here (second item on page)

Faithful America, Religious Liberal Traditions, and Why I Belong to a UU Church

I came across the activist group Faithful America a while ago and really appreciate the message they stand for. Political discourse in this country around religion has been very much shaped by the religious right. Faithful America aims to reshape the discourse to include members of more liberal religious traditions. Their latest campaign is to shape some of the debate happening during this year’s presidential campaign. There’s a “compassion forum” live on CNN this Sunday at 8pm. You should vote on which issue to have the candidates address: click here to do that.

Whenever I talk to someone new, I feel self-conscious saying things like “I know her from church” or “I do lay ministry,” because as soon as people hear the word “church” slip from my lips I know they’re making all kinds of assumptions about my religion, my politics, and my beliefs. For the record (are the new viewers gone yet?), I have been a practicing witch for more than a decade. Most of that time I spent as a solitary practitioner, although I did study with a coven in Connecticut and also ran a website for About.com on the subject that included virtual ritual in chat rooms (not to mention mountains and mountains of emails, and the time-sink-hole morass of bitchy pagans forum). I belong to First Parish Cambridge, a Unitarian Universalist church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Years before I attended a Sunday service at the church, some friends of mine introduced me to the CUUPs rituals that take place on Fridays near the Sabbats of Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, and sometimes Samhain. I appreciated CUUPs’s eclectic approach to pagan practice and was also impressed with the depth and breadth of knowledge possessed by the facilitators.

While the notion of a liberal religious tradition is not entirely new to me, my experience at First Parish Cambridge really was life-changing. To steal the words of my ex-girlfriend, it was an important part of my re-churching. It wasn’t until Sunday services at First Parish that I actually heard the man up in the pulpit saying the exact same things I believed. The words in the hymnals weren’t full of things about Jesus, only-begotten Son of the Father saving us from eternal damnation. They were about a hard-working Mother God, a loving Father God, a Spirit of Life that imbues us all. Instead of the “thou shalt nots” of the 10 Commandments, the seven principles talked about things like the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings, the importance of social justice, and the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

People like to make fun of the UUs for having wishy-washy beliefs. At the beginning, I used to laugh along with those jokes. But I don’t anymore, because I see the Unitarian Universalist movement as a group of people with very deeply held beliefs. They’re beliefs not based in shame however, but in the irrepressible presence of the Divine in all aspects of existence: in human beings, in society, in the earth itself. People need deeply held beliefs to fight the genocide of the Jews in Nazi Germany, or speak out against the excesses of the McCarthy era, or take practical steps to fight racism, or get arrested protesting the genocide in the Sudan, or support the rights of gay families to equal treatment under the law.

The UU tradition allows for a heterogeneity of beliefs that includes secular humanists, deists, Buddhists, “Jew-U’s”, pagans, Christians, and others. It also has something sadly missing in the Catholic church of my youth: democratic governance. All members of a congregation have a say in how the congregation is run, and all matters of theology and the like come up before the General Assembly each year. Ministers don’t get any more say in the running of the church than lay people.

I never expected to find a congregation that so completely shared the same views as me, and certainly not one as active, welcoming, and thriving as First Parish Cambridge. As a result, I give back a great deal to the church, both with an annual pledge and with a fair amount of lay ministry. I’m co-leading a Sunday service for Beltane this year on May 4. If you’re in the neighborhood and would like to hear me preach, please come by. It’s the second lay-led service the Women’s Sacred Circle has done in the past 12 months, and I hope there will be more to follow.

Rita Dove

Rita Dove may have been one of the first published poets I saw as a real human being rather than a sort of mythical demi-god. Sure, Adrienne Rich is still alive, but I’ve always seen her as much more removed and unattainable — in that regard, she’s in the same category as Eliot and Pound and Bishop and Millay. But Rita Dove, for some reason, seems like a real person, someone I might actually be able to meet and talk to one day. Perhaps it’s because she was poet laureate of something or another when I was in college (the U.S. maybe?). Perhaps it’s because I always associate her with a joint project I did with another student, and I still vividly remember that woman’s frustration with me for not being as on-the-ball as her. She also introduced me to those little sticky flag things from Post-It. They cured me of my archivist-horrifying habit of dogearing pages — plus, it’s easier to find a yellow flag than a dog-eared page. I have a package of them in my desk right now.

So. Rita Dove. In an interview in some literary journal, probably conducted because she was the poet laureate of something or another, she talked about learning to leave the end of a poem open, rather than sewing it up with a final sewing-up type line. I think about that a lot when I’m writing poetry. I try to leave room for the poem to breathe at the end, rather than making it a self-contained little jewel. A stale cream puff. Some poems lend themselves to open-endedness more than other poems.

Continue reading “Rita Dove”

AHWOSG and McSweeney's

I finally made the connection between that interesting (note I didn’t say completely genius, just interesting) memoir of Dave Eggers’s from the 1990s called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (AHWOSG for short) and McSweeney’s. Eggers started McSweeney’s. As with his memoir, I’m not 100% sold but it’s definitely worth reading from time to time. I find some of the pessimistic satire of the McSweeney’s articles a bit too heavy fare, but this one was priceless:

From ERNEST HEMINGWAY
BLOGS ABOUT THE TOP
TEAMS IN COLLEGE
BASKETBALL.

Roy Williams is soft. His hands look manicured. They have never pulled tobacco from the dirt. He has never gutted a fish fresh from the sea. Soldiers shoot soft men in the back rather than follow them into battle. Williams should look out. He should watch his back. But junior forward Tyler Hansbrough is a 2-ton bull in baby-blue shorts. When he broke his nose last year, he saw red. He charged. His horns went down and gored opposing players. I would fight with this man. I would die for him.

See, that’s clever because it’s using the voice of a famous writer to describe something current. I answered GRE questions along these lines.

Unfortunately, the further you get into the piece the more the actual author’s voice comes through. Still, McSweeneys: a fun addition to any RSS feed.

DIY Poetry, Micropresses, Kristy Bowen

In the past couple of months, I finally got hip to a phenomenon that’s been blooming in the poetry world: micropresses. While I was busy doing things like developing my own small business, filing quarterly taxes, and shivering in my shared flat in Cambridge, a whole new flock of poets were flipping a big middle finger at the poetry establishment and publishing their own damn books.

Some folks are publishing in print, some are publishing in electronic form. It’s bizarre: the very thing that first motivated me to learn web development, back in the dark ages of Textpad + FTP + $150 domain names and annual webhosting fees, has apparently caught the attention of a whole slew of indy poets. I can’t help but feel simultaneously like a dinosaur and an early pioneer.

My own career as a poet has been full of twists and turns. I suppose I’m not unique in this way. Most writers–and poets in particular–are solitary creatures. I’m no exception. There’s a part of me that’s very comfortable with being on the edge of things. But in the past decade or so, that alienation turned to bitterness. I never found my niche in the Boston writers’ community. I never stopped writing, but I did stop reading; my own work and others’.

Just in case you think I’ve always had my head up my butt, I would like to point out that I used to run the circuit of open mics. I must have read at every venue in the mid-Hudson Valley and made some great friends that way. I was a featured reader at the sketchy poetry night at the Cosmic Bean in Hartford, until I realized that the guy running the series just wanted to get into my pants. Oh, and the owner’s sleazy comments about how great it was to hear my poem about a girl sleeping between my breasts: priceless. I’ve read in queer settings and straight settings. I’ve read in private homes, in bars, in the basements of churches, in bookstores. I was on the editorial board of my college’s first student-run literary magazine and later served as the managing editor. I sat in a candle-lit attic room with a bunch of beatniks. I was responsible for the creation of the literary section of Chronogram, based in New Paltz, NY. I’ve worked professionally as a writer and copy editor. I’ve designed shit in Quark and Pagemaker and Photoshop and Illustrator. I’ve shopped around for printers and chosen Pantone colors. I know the pros and cons of digital versus offset versus letterpress printing. I know how to do this. I just got tired of it.

A confluence of events has led to a renaissance of my interest in poetry. There’s a cycle of percussion that happens with creativity; someone else’s creative expression inspires your own. And something like that has been happening for me since January. I’ve been sort of lurking around the edges of these micropresses and the online communities that surround them. I’m a bit afraid of making myself known to others, afraid that I’ll make some faux pas that will alienate me from this new community (or these new communities) I’ve just discovered. I’m easing into it, commenting on blogs, posting a lot more poetry on my own. I attended an open mic in February. I’m mulling over how to start my own press, what I want to call it, how I want to design the books, how to print them. I’ve realized I have enough material for at least three chapbooks of my own. And I’m also acutely aware of something else: that poetry is a gift economy.

This realization is like a light bulb going off. I finally get it. I was never destined to win the nobel prize or live in the groves of academe. I was supposed to live my life, and to write. I was supposed to make a contribution to a different sort of world. A world of people who live outside the rarefied atmosphere of the literary establishment, but who still care about words. Hells, if William Carlos Williams could be a doctor and Wallace Stevens could be an insurance executive and still kick ass with their poetry, why the hell can’t I be a web developer and do the same?

A lot of things that annoyed me about the literary establishment appear to exist in this other DIY community of poets, but I’ll get into that later. I feel like I need to create actual relationships and enter the community itself before I start trashing it. I need to do more research. And perhaps instead of bitching about things, I should just roll up my sleeves and pitch in. After 24 years of writing poetry, I finally get that it’s about making a contribution, not waiting for applause and a laurel wreath. You really do write because you have no other option. You write because of the fire in the belly. You write because the muse grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you if you don’t.

One book that really blew me away recently was Brief History of Girl as Match, by Kristy Bowen. Brief history of how I found this book:

1. Aaron Tieger sends me the link to the DIY Poetry Publishing Cooperative. I add it to my RSS aggregator.

2. DIY Poetry Publishing Cooperative posts an announcement about the Dusie Kolletiv chapbook exchange

3. I click randomly and find this.

Bowen’s work really speaks to me, as a woman, a sexual being, in a world that gives us conflicting messages about what constitutes a good girl, a powerful woman, a feminist.

notes to self on the female body:

1. girls who like to be tied up make terrible feminists. Also Mailer.

2. When dancing, do an awkward shuffle to the left, then vague hand
movements resembling the mating sway of swans. When he dips you,
meet the eyes of other men indifferently. Hold, then release.

3. dishabille: adjective. 1.a. archaic : negligee. b: the state of being
dressed
in a casual or careless style 2: a deliberately careless or casual manner.

4. French doors do not, under most circumstances, induce the female
orgasm.

5. ligature: noun. 1 a: something that is used to bind; specifically : a
filament (as a thread) used in surgery b: something that unites or connects
: 2: the action of binding or tying

6. Also thigh highs. Soap operas.

With a light touch, Bowen manages to convey the simultaneous desire to be an empowered feminist and a sexual being, both a subject and an object of sexual desire. She evokes this dichotomy through random association, through choosing words that associate and elide with each other on various levels: the level of meaning, the level of sound, and the level of connotation. That do thigh highs and soap operas have to do with the female body? Or Normal Mailer’s work? Nothing. Everything.

I greatly admire this ability to evoke meaning — to say something without saying everything. As Aaron Tieger put it, “work that invites some kind of participation from the reader in order to complete the experience of the poem.” It’s something I strive for in my own work, which I do not consider minimalist. It’s a constant tension: saying enough to make my meaning clear, but not so much that I’m banging the reader over the head with it.

Bowen always has an ability to slide her language into surprising directions, to the same sort of disorienting effect as Sexton’s work. For instance, from autobiography:

In which I am carnelian, carnal. All carnage all the time.
In which I am curator to a museum of clarinets.
[…]
In which I am Anne Boleyn or a B-movie bride.
In which my hands are like a box with two birds.

Bowen runs Dancing Girl Press, founded in 2004 to publish and promote the work of women poets through chapbooks, journals, and anthologies. Atelier Women Writers’ Studio in Chicago is the home of Dancing Girl Press.