Writer, editor, teacher, other.

This week

I love Madame Clairevoyant, the Rumpus astrologer. But she’s been on vacation, so I decided to write my own forecast for the week. I’m counting the days to mid-December—a new thing for me. I hope the solstice finds us all a bit lighter.

I always sign these “love big.” God that’s hard sometimes. That’s what this week’s Clairevoyant is about, really—the challenges of that sort of love.

It’s so hard. I think it’s still worth it. Even when it’s not met, not received or responded to. I believe it matters.

so love big. be well. xo

This week is going to stretch you, ask you to endure silences you do not want to endure, to grapple with distances you would much rather cross than leave intact. It’s a week to snuggle into your favorite sweater, your warmest socks, the arms that make you feel safe. It’s a week for relearning all those lessons you thought you’d already mastered—learning them fresh and anew, in ways you didn’t know they could exist. This week your heart will ache, but it will keep pumping anyway, oxygenating your whole body, making it strong enough to run your fastest time, your farthest interval. It’s a week for reading poems about parting and listening to songs about loss, for letting yourself feel comforted by speakers who know what it’s like to feel gutted like a fish, to have all your deepest core splayed out for indifferent passersby. This week is not the week for the saccharine songs you used to love, the songs sung by children, the songs that now make you cry. Break those CDs this week if you must; accept that their meaning has fractured, grown barbed. Take the fragments and make a mosaic—a heart, perhaps, a dove. This week of all weeks, remember that even in brokenness, you know how to craft something lovely.

So over at NANO Fiction, we’re doing a series about authors and social media, and we’ve gotten great commentary from folks like Farren Stanley and Justin Daugherty. I have a piece up there as well, though as I joked on Twitter, they asked me to write about social media, but I sent them a piece about my first love. 

And that’s really my way of saying that things are really just all connected, that all the love and loveliness in the world are intermingled with the grief and guilt. It is always all going on. 

I saw an interesting physical manifestation of this last week at SLEEP NO MORE, Punchdrunk Theater’s version of Macbeth staged in a warehouse made to look like a 1930’s hotel. The drama unfolds over five floors of rooms. You pick a character to follow, or don’t. You miss some things. You see some you didn’t expect. The characters will move you out of the way if you’re in their way. They’ll touch you. Apparently sometimes they’ll even make out with you, though I’m grateful that didn’t happen to me (Macbeth did grab my hands at one point, fell to his knees before me, then whispered a line from the play into my ear. His skin was cold and clammy, the way I used to imagine a reptile would feel like, back in the days before I knew that reptiles feel dry, mostly smooth, often warm from basking). But that whispering was crucial—the play is mostly silent, without much spoken dialogue, and what is said is transmitted quietly, to only a person or two, and not declaimed with projection from a central stage for all to hear. And unlike in traditional drama, in which a character who’s offstage is assumed to be inactive, here, there is no offstage. Everything counts. There is always a storyline unfolding. The words that are spoken matter, even if you do not hear them uttered.

I have been thinking about this a lot, and it also brings to mind Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” with its juxtaposition of suffering with the quotidian. Possibly that’s because as I returned to my hotel late that night after the show, after a really just perfect day with lots of people I love (one of my favorite grad school profs who’s transformed into a lovely friend and role model and colleague; a cousin I’m so proud of who’s doing a summer internship in NYC and coming into her own identity in such lovely and confident ways; a friend and editor who lives in France but was visiting family & who stole an afternoon to take us to all his favorite old neighborhood haunts; one of my dearest Tuscaloosa friends; one of his favorite family members), I encountered a really dramatic scene: as I’d stepped off the train, a boy had jumped off a Brooklyn rooftop. I walked out of the subway station and directly into the crowd of his friends screaming not to move him, begging into their phones for 911 to send someone really fast. The boy (man?) was dead, of course, though the response teams came. The sirens sounded for several hours, and I could hear them from my hotel room as I readied for bed, drank tea, washed my face—the late night business traveler’s 21st century version of Auden’s “walking dumbly along.”

And I have known since it happened that I could do nothing. And I have been thinking since it happened about how I could do nothing.

Today I played Year Walk, a game based on Swedish folklore and cultural tradition. It made me cry. It was beautiful. I kind of loved it. And now that I think of it, that’s a pretty apt description of the world at large and of most of the things and people I love:

Sometimes you move me to tears. Often you are still beautiful. Always, there’s Iove.

(xo)

So the lovely folks at VIDA do great work, and I was really honored that they interviewed me and my fellow editors at NANO Fiction, Kirby Johnson & Sophie Rosenblum. 

From the Vault—Aubade: A Revision

Oh, y’all, it is spring and it is glorious. And I’ve reached the point I find in every spring semester when I feel nineteen again, as if I’m back on the heady and blossoming campus of my youth, where everything seemed to come alive with promise and possibility and pheromones.

I’m not nineteen, of course—and that world is in many ways far away. (As you’ll see, a central setting of the first love story is a phone booth—an actual, bona fide, functioning phone booth—perhaps the best proof of all that this season I’m writing my way back toward is very, very distant.) Nostalgia’s a tricky thing, particularly if we aren’t wary of practicing “nostalgia without memory” (a lovely phrase I encountered in the past week, though I’ve got still to go back and track down where, exactly. Maybe David Remnick’s New Yorker article on the Bolshoi Ballet? I’m not positive). And so today I’ve returned to my piece “Aubade: A Revision,” originally published in You Must Be This Tall To Ride, B.J. Hollars’s project about the coming of age story. The project’s no longer available to readers, so I thought I’d post the text of my piece here.

This semester, I’ve been teaching a class on the American BildungsRoman, or coming of age narrative. And on one level, this piece of mine illustrates some of the tropes we’ve discussed in class: certainly, the idea of sexual maturity, particularly for female protagonists, shows up frequently in coming of age literature. And sometimes we do age in a single moment; I’ve admitted to my class that I’ve had moments in my life when I’ve realized that childhood is over (see my essay “Watching Your Brother Die” for starters). But for me, the real growth and the real work of this piece—or (let’s not be coy, as it is nonfiction) the real work of my own life, of my constant quest to be better—isn’t about any single event or defining moment. Rather, it’s more about learning how to be in community; thinking about how to be better (at teaching, at relating, at writing, at community, at love); and all the ways we might look back and realize how we might have improved on what we’ve done, who we’ve been.

I’ve never tried to track down my first love in any tangible way. No final phone calls or notes, no facebook friend requests. I’ve visited, for other reasons, his childhood neighborhood, but I’ve never driven past his home. When I decided we were done, it was finite: one morning, I woke up and drove away, and that was the end of whatever it was that we were.

But this piece is real: I go back to that room often, not really to revisit whatever it was that we were or because I want to pretend that its lifespan could have been longer than it really was, but because now, looking back, I know that whatever it was that we were deserved better than what I gave it, deserved a more compassionate ending than I allowed it.

So I don’t pretend that I’ll see my first love again. And he’s not likely to read any of my words; he wasn’t one to enter into “all this fiddle” (as Marianne Moore says) of poetry. But I know how much I’ve changed, and I like to think that maybe he has, too, that maybe someday he’ll stumble on some of my words. I say, truthfully, that all my stories are love stories. And they are. But as far as the stories about the first love are concerned, they’re apologies, too. 

And that’s why I’m back at this piece today, because nostalgia without memory is dangerous. So each spring, as I’m energized by the coltish energy of April, I’m sobered by the knowledge of all those beginnings I fumbled, and by the conviction that I must keep trying to do better, love better. 

(xo)

Aubade: a revision

(Originally published in You Must Be This Tall To Ride

This is not about the issue of Playboy you stored beneath the hospital bed, or about the phone booth where I found you years later, or even about your room near campus in a house I saw only once. No, this is about you prying the bark from my headlight and refusing to share the twin bed. It’s about me waking at dawn to the sound of baseballs spiraling into mitts worn by college boys, boys who understood what it meant to follow a process, boys who soaked their gloves in neatsfoot oil, stroking the leather until it softened and yielded, ready to embrace each Rawlings, each MacGregor. My brother labored to season the Wilsons his godfather sent each birthday, baking them in mother’s car on summer days in Alabama, retrieving them at dusk to tuck them under his mattress, using his weight to mold them, believing, like the woman who slumbered faithfully on a rooted, hand-hewn bed, that the man responsible for such gifts would someday return to recognize the handiwork.

Eventually my brother quit waiting, and now, fifteen years later, I’m sure that you have, too. But lately I’ve taken to meeting you there in that room overlooking the diamond, to coming back with coffee or vodka, to wearing your shirt that smelled like home or just walking in clothed in my own set of terrors, crumpling the note on your desk and waiting for you to rise.

Or sometimes you’re back at that phone booth, stranded because I never could give directions, and I’m circling town and telling the story: We said we’d meet at the first gas station to the right of the exit, only there isn’t a station for miles. Half the residents of that small town were out that night looking for you, the boy in a black car with out of state plates, so that they could set you back on my path, and this time when I find you in that phone booth I do not wait, but kiss you as the townspeople cheer around us.

Or else we’re sixteen again. We’re back in the recovery ward, and I’m pulling the blanket from your shoulders and running my hand down your chest until I meet the hem of your hospital gown, recuperation and caution and avoid all exertion be damned. I’m watching the monitor as your heart rate beep—beep—beeps all the way up to the nurse’s station, and a team runs in, alarmed, and discovers how I move you.

But most nights, you’re still bedridden and veiled in morphine, and I’m still too timid even to touch your hand near its IV. Love, I know I cannot save us. But I come anyway, slipping back until I find that room, smell the chlorine products the janitors favored, see the roses you could not have wanted, the crutches you cannot yet wield. I rescue that magazine from the place where you believe it is hidden, moving it from the tile to your pillow to keep you from waking alone.

"Thirty-Fifth" (Poem Memoir Story)

I’m excited that my essay “Thirty-fifth” appears in the new issue of Poem Memoir Story, a journal out of Birmingham, AL. It’s one I’ve hoped to get into for years, and it’s nice to have finally accomplished that. 

I wrote this essay as my birthday approached one year. I was feeling restless about it, anxious, and I decided to channel that by writing myself something—a commemoration of sorts, with one section per year. (That sounds really pretentious now, but hopefully if you read the essay, you’ll see that I was overwhelmed with grief and health issues, and writing was a way of working through those.) Anyway, I wrote 6 line-paragraphs, one for (though not necessarily describing or depicting) each year, choosing the arbitrary number 6 mostly because I knew I needed to rein in my words somehow, and that was the length of the first paragraph. 

The essay ends before I decide how I’ll spend my upcoming birthday, and since I like to use this blog to give you, dear readers, an inside scoop, I’ll admit that I did go to the concert in question, that my dear friend Brian made sure (unknown to me) that the performers knew it was my birthday, that they serenaded me, that afterwards they invited me for celebratory tequilla shots; that initially I thought I’m a college professor who’s probably too old to be drinking with rappers, and that there was a moment in our tequilla-fueled conversation when I revealed to one of them that I’d graduated from Tuscaloosa’s Central High School, and suddenly I realized with that one sentence I’d established my credibility. He called and texted me periodically after that, which was a lovely and incongruous aspect of my life. (I wrote a different piece about him, and it’s been published elsewhere, though I’m guessing no one’s realized that he’s at the center of it, and I’m okay with not identifying it overtly.)

So that’s the unofficial conclusion to the essay. Today in our town it is warm and bright, and though I’ll be working most of the day, I might sneak the laptop outside to do so.

I’ve thought a lot this week about how to be better at the things that matter, and, frankly, this week’s giving me lots of opportunity for that. So I’ll end with a few lines from “Thirty-fifth,” as they still ring quite true to me. They’re describing a time when doctors thought I had a really serious heart-health issue. They were wrong, thankfully, and these lines describe the moments when they finally figured that out:

"My heart was, as I’d later read on the CT report, unremarkable….[The doctor] said Your heart is a normal size, and though I knew this was positive in physiological terms, it made me sad. I vowed again to live better, love bigger.”

So that’s the goal, the life’s work, the reason I almost always end these posts the way I do.

Love big, y’all. 

(xo)

"Letter Not to Be Sent to the Adirondack Correctional Facility" (OVS Magazine)

At AWP (yes, a month ago now—oops) I picked up copies of my recent-ish print publications to send my college mentor, and I realized I’d never mentioned the publication of this particular poem. (Or a more recent essay, though I’ll get to it on a subsequent day.) It’s based on a fan letter I received from an actual inmate, who had read one of my prose poemsin a literary journal and wanted to know if I’d “care to make a genial pen friend.” His letter referenced Victorian lit, and the statues on Easter Island, and his crime—not naming it, but admitting that he had done it, that he had been imprisoned for nearly as long as I’d been alive. 

The letter arrived at the school where I taught at the time (one reason I’m more circumspect these days in contributor’s notes), and my husband brought it home. I was in the bedroom when he gloated his way in, taunting, “I brought you mail.” Prisoners have to list the prison as the return address, so my husband knew this was not a typical letter. He tossed the letter on the bed, and I’ll admit that since then I’ve often thought of his action: He introduced the knowledge of violence to a place where there should not have been the knowledge of violence. He later admitted that he thought it was funny, that he suspected the letter was from a former student. (I want to return to this in a minute.) He later admitted that he had been wrong.

I really wrestled with how to respond to this letter. I wanted to write back—and frankly, over a year later, I still do. But last year was marked, for me, by violence of many kinds—threatened and actual, implicit and explicit, relatively minor and the kind that I’m still trying to find a vocabulary for.

In the midst of last spring, a cop looked at me and said, “You’ve got some strength in you,” and thankfully, in the subsequent moments when I most needed to believe it, I realized she was right. But she hadn’t yet told me that when I received my inmate’s letter. I hadn’t yet had to fight my way out (physically, yes, but also psychologically) of things no one should ever have to fight her way through. And even without those strains, I knew that I was unprepared to embark on this sort of proposed correspondence.

I still struggle with that, though. I believe in second chances, in redemption and rehabilitation, in grace and forgiveness. I believe in compassion and caring. I believe that reading literature can instill empathy, that books can help us envision new ways of being and relating. I know that I am who I am because people have taken chances on me when nothing about my being suggested that I deserved their faith.

And yet, I know that sometimes you have to concede things that are beyond you. And this one was—as my friend the DA made explicitly clear. (You lack both the proper security staff and, frankly, the cynicism to do this, she told me, and I knew she was right.) So I didn’t write a letter back to my inmate. (“My inmate”: yes, that’s how I think of him, though I don’t think too closely about what that might say about me.) And though he’s imprisoned for life, I have a google alert set up in his name, just in case. 

So I didn’t write him back, but not writing him back bothered me, so eventually I wrote a poem about this whole experience (Yes, I changed the name of the prison, and no, you can’t identify him from the poem.) The poem proceeds in stanzas with different margins—reading down one set shows you the conversation I’d have with my inmate if I were to have a conversation with my inmate. Reading the other, you’ll see my reasons for not having the conversation. It’s a form I like a lot—the dialogue—though I’m aware, of course, that this dialogue is not real: unless the prison library gets OVS, he’ll likely never hear my response.

I’m not really Biblical, but isn’t there a line somewhere in the Bible about a voice calling out to the wilderness? If a poem is written for a person who never reads it….

Now that I type that, I realize most of my poems are written for persons who I believe will never read them. Or maybe that’s wrong, and really, they’re all—this one included—written primarily for me.

 

I said I was going to return to my students, though it seems odd to segue to them through a felon. This spring has held lots of interesting challenges in terms of classroom community building, but I genuinely like and enjoy (and in some wonderful, wonderful cases, admire the hell out of) my students. My senior (ish—some not-quite seniors made the cut too) seminar has particularly delighted me to no end, and when, in a few weeks, we’re no longer sitting down together for several hours a week, I’ll be genuinely sad about that. But I know my job is not to pull them tighter but to show them how very ready they are (and they are!) to move out into the world and share all their talents with it. I know it’s selfish to hoard them, though I’ll admit that I wish a little bit that I could. 

Mostly, though, my affection for them has made me reappraise (yet again) my own relationship with my undergraduate mentor Tim, who’s still in my life some 15 years after my college career (and who’s still in my inbox about every month, slightly less in basketball season). When I graduated, I thought I’d used up all my allotted time with him, that we were done. It’s been the great joy of my life to realize that we aren’t, and now, watching my students prepare to embark to a slew of disparate places and pursuits, I finally understand what Tim means when he tells me, as I apologize once again for instigating yet another conversation, this is the fun stuff. I’m hoping my students will get it in ways that I didn’t, will realize that we’re only done when they want to be done, will write from their road, whether that road leads them to graduate school or their parents’ basement or jobs they don’t love or people they do, whether that road is papered with poems/stories/essays or whether they never write creatively again, whether they are whole and happy or desperate and broken. I hope that they will keep instigating conversations, will keep sending me their work, will keep telling me about things they fear, believe, covet, love. Some of them have already vowed, on their own volition, to write me, and I hope they do. I hope they all do.

I do not believe that any of these students will ever end up in prison. But I am grateful my husband believed that if my students were in prison, I am the kind of professor they would feel comfortable writing. 

So y’all, if you’re reading (I know that some of you are reading) here’s the first instruction: don’t go to prison! But here’s the second: wherever you go, write me. For you all, I’ll always write back. 

 (xo)

The great folks at Brevity were kind enough to run an essay about my essay “Variant Table” on their blog. You can find it by clicking the link above. 

I’m happy to share this piece for a lot of reasons, but one is because it shows how creative production often relies on just being out in the world and encountering interesting things. You can’t force it, or even necessarily predict how the alchemy of artistic production works. When, as a graduate student, I first signed on to help Heather White with her first book, she thought it would be about four hours’ worth of work. I spent sixteen hours on it that first weekend, sprawled out at my kitchen table, telling my not-yet-husband, Stay quiet, I’m working. I couldn’t have known then that my not-yet-broken brother would fracture, that I would spend a year helping Heather with her next book, that the two storylines would intersect in the manner they did, that Marianne Moore would give me a form for grief. And that’s the point: we never know. All we can do is continue to give ourselves to interesting work, to engage as fully as possible in the world around us, and then hope for the alchemy to happen, to take the dross of our lives and transform it into the gold of literature.

I keep trying to explain this to my creative writing seminar students. Mostly seniors, they are eager and anxious about graduation. They keep asking me for reading lists—first, of poets they should know about, then all the fiction they should read, then nonfiction “like that one book we read in that class I took with you as a freshman.” I get the impulse: I, too, have often faced down scary parts of my life with little more than literature to guide me. And, given the right literature, it can be an excellent resource for helping us make sense of the world. 

I’ve replied often to these requests that there’s no real definitive way to assemble what they want, though I haven’t yet said what I really believe: I know that what you want is reassurance. And the truth is, I can’t reassure you in the ways you might hope. Because if you’re at all like the rest of us, you’re going to screw some things up. Sometimes, you’re going to act naive and dumb and clueless, and the good part about that is that someday, when you realize how you acted naive and dumb and clueless, it will mean that you’re no longer so naive or dumb or clueless. And here’s what I can tell: I did that, too. Most of the folks in your life probably did that, and most of us still made it. We turned out okay. And I have every deep and abiding faith that you will, too.


I won’t tell them that, exactly, but when I give them my list, I’ll tell them (again, as I’ve said it repeatedly before) that my list is just that—my list of texts that hold meaning for me for reasons that are subjective and unique and tied to whoever I was when I read those texts. In some cases, that person was a lot different than the one my students now know. Hopefully my list will contain some texts that hold meaning for them. But I’m going to tell them my list is only one half of an exchange, and that their last assignment, ungraded but crucial, is to someday send me a list of their own texts that matter. Because then I’ll know they’ve outgrown my list, exchanging it for their own. And that will be a very, very good thing. 

Be well, y’all. Love big. Love brave.

(xo)

I have a new nonfiction piece up in the latest issue of Brevity. (Clink the title above to read it.) I love this journal, and I’m really thrilled to be part of it. 

I’m a bit fan of manipulating form, of writing in new ways. This one was particularly challenging, because it took me several years to find a content that fit the form organically, a set of words whose interpretation really did hold life-or-death stakes.

I say I found the content, but that’s not quite right. It found me. I wish it hadn’t. But I’m convinced that writing helps, that there’s value in art. 

Today, my little East Coast neighborhood is light-filled and vibrant. The pup’s frolicking in the yard, soaking up sunshine and stalking squirrels. 

And so we go on.

(xo)

http://botticellismars.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/a-dappled-thing/

So I’m working on overhauling this tumblr and setting up (finally) my own website. In the meantime, I’ve been a bit neglectful here; sorry! More soon on the new setup, but for now, I wanted to share this lovely review of my piece “Prognosis,” which was published in Corium Magazine. The author, Dana Burgess, teaches classics and is spending this semester teaching other teachers in Costa Rica. It sounds like she’s doing really interesting work, and I’m thrilled she’s turned her careful attention to my writing. 

My piece “The Central Governor” is up live over at damselfly press. You can even hear me read some of it, if you want. 

Tonight I kept redacting my tweets, because I couldn’t decide if I want to talk about the thing I thought I might want to talk about. There are conversations that you can’t come back from, you know? So I’m thinking still about that, about reticence and revelation, about walking away, keeping. 

I guess in many ways that’s what this piece is about, too—-what to do with all the pieces of things, which ones to lean into, which to turn from. Last year, a lot of the time, I told myself to lean into the things that could hold me. And I was lucky to find a lot of them—people who love me, work I enjoy, a pup who likes to snuggle. It helped.  

I refused to be cold last year, and the moments I describe in this piece touch on the reasons for that. A week or so ago, when temperatures dropped here, I found myself shivering through my evenings, reluctant to turn on the heat. And there was a moment when I realized what a change that was: this year, I saw, I could take it. The heat’s on now, but it’s nice to know I don’t have to spin it way up over 80 this year. I can take the cold, or some of it.

I think this is rambling. But I already told you there are things I’m not saying. [redact, redact, redact]

Until then, then.

Be well. Be warm.

xo