Polishing the Stone, Perfecting the Craft

I was quite regular with my posts but have gotten rather shy of late. In September I signed up for some sessions at this workshop. It’s the largest commitment of time and resources I’ve dedicated to a writing workshop of any kind since I was an undergraduate. I had a lot of trepidation about doing so. My disillusionment with the whole workshop-academia-publishing machine can probably best be summed up by a meme that was going around the Tubes a while back: Emily Dickinson attends a writing workshop.

On the other side of disillusionment, of course, is truth. On the other side is the way things are. And on the other side of it, I still care about writing. I still do it in spite of the paltry rewards because it’s a reward in itself, because writing — especially writing poetry — lets me see the world more clearly. After some years of healing in various venues, I’m ready to ever-so-gently consider how best to polish the stones I picked from the riverbed.

Rest in Peace Adrienne Rich: Fellow Poet, Feminist, Queer Woman, Trail-Blazer

Last week, I was about to board a plan to San Francisco when I saw Adrienne Rich’s obituary on the front page of the New York Times.

It’s hard to describe Adrienne Rich’s impact on my life with grace and brevity. That’s because my relationship to her work mirrors my relationship to the literary establishment as a whole. I first heard of her when I was a junior in high school, young poet full of promise and bereft of friends after the class of 1989 graduated and scattered off to college. A precocious freshman named Deborah, with reddish hair and presumptuous mannerisms, was shocked to learn I hadn’t already read and loved her work. What Deborah didn’t know (and neither did I) was that I’d been raised on the literary canon, comprised then as it is now almost exclusively of men. Five years later I wrote my senior thesis at Vassar on her work and the arc of her life. Seventeen years later, Margalit Fox‘s obituary said it better than I ever could.

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From the Archives: In Pura’s voice

From the archives, a character study I started in 1998. Would you like to hear more of her story?


In Pura’s voice

She turned out to be just like all the other bitches. After all I did for her, she just cut me off. All those good times we had, those long drives in the country, all the times I took her out to dinner, nothing. It meant nothing to her. She just wanted to see how much she could get out of me.

I should have known better when I met her. She was alone, standing against the wall at the club when I saw her eyeballing me, dancing. I could see her eyes shining in the darkness. Demon eyes. I didn’t let on that I noticed her, just kept on dancing. But later, I eased on up next to her. She leaned down to me, like a fly to honey. I pulled her onto the floor. And she could dance. Really something for a white girl, for a pale-skin like her to dance like that. I did like her pale skin, too, all creamy, but dotted with beauty marks. That blonde hair, those blue eyes. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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This is just to say (or, a spiritual petit four)

Too much to say, not enough to say. This is just to say that I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were — No, that’s what William Carlos Williams said.

A little while ago I started a long and rambling post about my late-February trip to California (already, it’s been four weeks since my departure!). Then, instead of clicking “Save draft,” I clicked “Publish.” And thanks to the power of the Intarwebs 2.0, all y’all got a peek at it. More than a peek, on RSS and via email. Which made me retreat further into myself.

So consider this post a sort of clearing of the throat. A burst of rusty water from the pipe. A blogospheric petit four. Now that I’m blogging into the Great Beyond without even my old Livejournal friends for company, I find myself with a bad case of stage fright. The bright, bright lights; the black, black house.

California filled my mind with images and colors and textures and flavors — experiences of the moment, memories from childhood, epiphanies from both. Returning to Boston filled my sinuses with gunk and my mouth with cotton. In between the two, I’ve just been trying to return to equilibrium. Because of course, when I least expected it, chronic illness raised its ugly head. And while I battled with a cold and the symptoms the cold unleashed–symptoms of a deeper, more persistent disorder — springtime crept on little cat feet all around me. New England springtime, in the form of longer days and brief periods of warmth — just long enough to make you think you didn’t need your long underwear anymore. Then, a one-two punch: frigid air, cloudy skies.

First the crocuses, then the snow. Snow on tulips. That, my friends, is springtime in Boston. But the supermoon came and went on Saturday, and the vernal equinox the next day, and I’ve been clawing and plodding my way back to health. And maybe soon I’ll even be able to tell you properly about my latest pilgrimage back to the place of my birth. And the books I’ve been reading — especially that new one by Andrew Himes.

Yin Work (From Treehouse Chronicles)

“If someone climbs quietly up to the treehouse and peeks at me through the window while I’m working, they may think I’m merely taking a nap. This is a part of the work of solitude, part of being with me. Thinking, considering, observing, pondering–these are the tools of my trade and occasionally they have to be wielded lying down with my cap pulled over my eyes.”
— Peter Lewis, Treehouse Chronicles: One Man’s Dream of a Life Aloft. See the treehouse

Alison Townsend in Mudlark: Demeter and Persephone

One of my favorite myths. From Demeter Faces Facts (second poem down)

Without even meaning to, she’s gone underground,

the face whose curve you shaped with your own hand,
fugitive, a sullen stranger’s you’ll never touch the same way

again. Still, you keep brushing and braiding, separating
the strands and binding them together again, as if they were

a rope by which you could hold her, tethering her to your body
as she was once anchored and fed, your blood hers. Before

she got big enough to cross the street without looking back
to catch your eye. When you were still everything she needed.

— Alison Townsend

The poems here don’t always inspire me with tight, bright language, but lately I’ve been inspired by writers whose work is less than perfect. Some deep inner critic, some just-sprouting bulb of defiance inside me says “if they can do it, why can’t I?”

Seeing a feminine moniker in the masthead also soothes the woman-shaped ire within.

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.

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.