Book news!

Here’s a bit of glad tidings. My manuscript The Red Queen Hypothesis won the Prairie State Poetry Prize and will be published before the end of 2023–maybe even by the end of this summer! It’s thrilling to have won an award like this.

In fact, I should be jumping up and down with glee that RQH finally will see print, as it has taken me numerous submissions, two acceptances that did not come to fruition, and a considerable number of pauses to reassess the manuscript. But my initial feeling is more of relief than elation. Relief that now I can turn all of my focus to newer work: a manuscript nearly completed and one that I’m just starting to collate and imagine. Well–not all of my focus in those directions. There is the work of promoting the new book, work that I find difficult and challenging because it’s not really in my wheelhouse. Highland Park Poetry is a tiny independent non-profit press and doesn’t have the resources to do much promotion; Jennifer Dotson, Founder & Creative Engine behind the organization, runs several contests, produces a newsletter, and hosts a Facebook page of contributing poets. She also hosts a poetry podcast and at least one reading series…a busy person, working on a small budget. People like her and Larry Robin are the guardian angels of poetry in the USA. Many thanks, Jennifer. I’ll do what I can to promote my book.

There may be reading events in my future this year. If so, I’ll try to post them here as well as my fall-back social media framework, the wretched but still occasionally useful Facebook.

As to new work, grateful to report that it is coming along. I have a small stack of potentially interesting/workable drafts in my file. The month of January wasn’t all dearth and chill and lack of imagery or ideas. Granted, there are days and there are days. I find, though, that I am more patient with myself during low or no-motivation times than I used to be. I kind of hate to rack that up to maturity (oh ye gods! have I become “a mature woman”?)–but age might be a contributor. I feel no compelling reason to push myself past my physical and emotional limits anymore because it isn’t worth the repercussions. Given who I am and the stage of my career and life, there’s no need to prove my worth to anyone, to elevate my status as a “serious writer,” to grind the wheels of ambition to make other people take notice.

I’m an introvert. I don’t really like being noticed. But I do like it when people read what I’ve written, when what I have put into words has a chance to filter into other minds and other emotional frames. It’s entertaining and pleasant to imagine fellow human beings might sit quietly with a book (or screen) and consider, in their own minds, what I have observed or invented. If they don’t like it, that’s okay. At least they are reading. That’s valuable in itself.

Admiration

Carolyn Forché has a new collection of her own poetry, which is always cause for joy. She has compiled anthologies and written memoir and essays, but her poetry collections don’t appear frequently–five collections since 1975, averaging one poetry collection a decade. This is not a prolific output in terms of poetry collections compared with some of her peers, but her books are worth waiting for. I suspect that her poems, crafted with such memorable pacing and imagery, which unspool so purposefully–even mindfully, though that term is overused–must take time to consider, revise, or compose. I have to slow my breath just to take them in.

In the Lateness of the World lies on the book pile beside my bed at the moment, and I read about three to four poems at a time. Savoring them, thinking about their implications; despair and concern and grief, and deep love for the world we inhabit and the people who labor through the days. Forché, because of her “poetry of witness,” often gets called a political poet, mostly because she never shies away from confronting, and writing about, the injustices and damages inflicted on people and on the planet–and implicating the perpetrators. But she also avoids ideology. The perpetrators are not easily pegged in her work: all of us can be implicated, and all of us are affected, a network no single person or nation can untangle or resolve. Forché’s poems resonate with a complicated love and a recognition of how much work we must be willing to do.

~

Imagining Forché writing, I ponder my thoughts on revision and why I love doing it but simultaneously procrastinate on getting to it; good revision, in my case, requires a dedicated mindfulness and singular devotion that seems to require large blocks of time. I can compose drafts rapidly–jottings, notes, even entire pieces (unfinished but on track). Revision doesn’t work that way for me. It requires critical thinking. Analysis. Concentration. Mulling. Bouncing the work off others. Re-entering the mind of the moment. Waiting things out. Reading other poets. For example, reading the poems of a writer who seems to take her time on each piece, yet manages to keep the immediacy and gorgeous imagery in each of her poems intact.

How does a poet do that? Talent helps, but talent alone doesn’t get a writer to the fine observations and imaginative layers really good poems possess. That may require mediation, play, solitude, practice, revision, a community of writers, long gestation for some poems, mentorship, nature walks, travel… It’s likely I have not been dedicating enough mental and creative energies to my drafts. Or that I need some new methods.

My excuse is I don’t have time. But enough excuses. This is stuff I love, that I enjoy doing. Why shy from what I love?

Oh, the mundanity!

Ah, the challenges of staying organized! I spent this morning finally starting the process of reorganizing my poetry files–the paper ones, which I keep in various arrangements of document boxes, accordion file boxes, and an index card box. This is stage one of a project I have procrastinated on for far too long. The digital files will be the next step, assuming I actually complete this stage. Being something of a Luddite when it comes to digital organization methods, I have no idea how to manage that stage yet; paper documents, however, I understand.

January’s tenor usually strikes me as a bit dull, damp, chilly, dark, and generally unmotivating. My mood concurs. It’s therefore rather heartening that I find myself up to this task–and that the task itself has given me a sense of accomplishment in more ways than one. For one thing, getting around to doing what you know has to be done but have been putting off can feel surprisingly good. For another thing, the reorganized materials take up less space, which is never a bad thing.

Also, it was a boost to my writerly confidence to make an informal accounting of my published work. After 40 years of writing it feels good to know that many editors, and a few publishers, thought my poems “good enough” to print. The unpublished poems take up considerably more space, of course. And I haven’t even started to page through THAT pile yet, let alone find a method of organizing the pages. The sense of having at least begun this lengthy process cheers me in the middle of the bleak, blah, January days.

~

This cartoon by Sarah Kempa (The New Yorker, Jan 11, 2023) struck me as applying also to poets and other creative writers. I know this feeling well. Many of us benefit from the occasional boost in confidence.

And believe me, I have many thoughts about AI-generated prose and poetry; but that’s for a later post.

Received assumptions

Every once in awhile a book comes along that makes me totally rethink my received or assumed knowledge by shaking up the usual perceptions. The most recent book to have wrought such a rethinking on my part is The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. The effusive blurbs–and there are many–on the MacMillan page the preceding link takes you to strike me as accurate; on every page or two I find myself saying, “I have to look that up! I never heard about that! I need to read that book/author/article!”

Beyond the illuminating information, though, what excites me most about this book is how revelatory it is concerning human possibilities. These authors (unfortunately Graeber died in 2020) are drily funny and unrepentantly anarchists among the scholars of so-called pre-history. The research they gather and present, and their theories based upon what we now know about ancient peoples, upend the evolution of human society that I was taught and that seemed so logical I never thought to question–the foragers/hunter-gatherers/agriculturalists/city-makers “development” of human societies and cultures that Rousseau’s philosophical state-of-nature idea essentially founded. I was aware that archeological discoveries have been found that challenge the narrative, but I wasn’t aware of how many of these are being examined and the amazing data they reveal. I was aware that views of indigenous peoples, past and present, are most often through a lens of “Western civilization” and tainted by the assumptions of researchers but was not alert to my own blind spots and received assumptions.

Which makes me pretty much a human being, right? We do tend to short-cut to our beliefs and accept the “logical information” we learn from parents, teachers, and other authorities. Then, we use that framework to test out the logic of other assumptions. Sometimes that framework is not as strong, correct, or universal as we thought. And it feels marvelously disruptive, sometimes, to buck the system, make art, behave differently–illogically–and find that new ways of thinking about the world can be fun.

This is a very long book, and you really want to stop and read the footnotes, which are excellent and super-informative. I am a fast reader but am taking my time with this one, savoring each surprise and thrilled at the ingenuity of human beings. From a political and from an earth-stewardship perspective, Graeber and Wegrow say the societies of the past teach that the current structure of most cultures (greed- and power-based hierarchies that require property rights and that leave vast numbers of people starving) is not the only and inevitable outcome of human communities. We are not inherently in Hobbes’ world, but neither are we in Locke’s. Mills’, or Rousseau’s.

I love the commonsense approach that says human beings are adaptable, curious, inventive, and complicated–so it is unlikely that we spent most of 30,000 years “doing nothing” until suddenly: agriculture, writing, cities, technology, beer! (Not necessarily in that order.) Graeber and Wengrow find human beings endlessly fascinating, and their enthusiasm is contagious.

During cold days and long nights, when the world seems not entirely right and I wonder whether we have the motivation to make things better, this book has shown me many ways people can find solutions, get along together, find time to sing and play and maybe even live without money, boss men, and kings most of the time. We can be free to do what we want and still help others out, free to hang out and enjoy each other’s company, or get together and build a monument…it’s what people have been doing for thousands of years. Right now we’re kind of stuck in capitalism and oligarchies and warfare and pollution and climate change, and that won’t change in my lifetime. But it is good to know that this sort of thinking is not the peak of human development in a real sense. That gives me an odd sense of hope.

Also, books like this one provide so many stories and ideas and new concepts and terrific words that I am sure it’ll filter into my creative writing endeavors one way or another. Poems on the Jōmon sites or Mesolithic kelp-belt people? One never knows what will creep into my subconscious mind.

Jomon pottery, between 11000 and 7000 BC. Hinamiyama site, Japan.

Solo endeavor?

It was great fun to be back in person, in Philadelphia, reading poetry aloud. Prepping for the performance made me aware, though, that I have no current obsession to mull upon; that may be why I have not been writing many poems of late. However, I recently felt inspired by Lesley Wheeler’s blog post including some prompts from poets. Prompts! Of course. Those are ways into writing when writing has not supplied the writer with her own ways into writing.

Therefore, I’ll close another year of my blog with a piece I drafted using Lesley’s conjunctions prompt. What resulted from the free-write surprised me, which is a good thing (it’s fun when I surprise myself, though this gets a bit dark toward the close–but dark contains interesting objects). And many thanks to Lesley and to the other poets whose prompts she shared. It’s likely I will keep working with them until my next poetic preoccupation.

~

So I’m tired of hearing people start their sentences with “So” on podcasts and the radio and TV, “so” a verbal tic, a word instead of “um,” which serves the same purpose but admits, more humbly, of uncertainty, which says I am pausing to gather my thoughts before speaking; whereas “So” sets up an explanation leading to opinion or argument, or so it seems to me.

So I’m sitting on my back porch even though it is late December, clouds gathering over bare trees. I hear woodpeckers deepening holes in trees, a rat-a-tat drill, and white-breasted nuthatches loud along the woodlot, and I ponder emerald ash borers and climate change and how to handle human aging in a capitalist society.

So what I wonder is “Am I afraid?” Some questions possess a looming quality, I guess this is one such. In my wicker chair, in my own backyard, no. Not afraid. The mood’s serene, no tightness in my chest no racing heart, not even facing death–as we all must do, though most of us refuse. Where are you going with this, Writer?

So all I’m saying is, I have fears about the future yes but not about dying, because dying I will face alone. Even when loved ones can be beside us, we are not an us when death comes. Each dies to their ego alone, interior to the world, most alone at death no matter who surrounds us.

So why, then, do I volunteer for hospice work, where the goal is not only to alleviate some of the pain but also to keep people from dying unaccompanied? My reasons are complicated, people are complicated. So let me just say that having been present when human beings die, that passage may not necessarily be a lonely one. But it is accomplished alone.

Readings in person

I have not done any in-person readings in awhile (thanks to covid and fibromyalgia); but I will be returning to Philly’s jawn environs on the 28th of December at the lovely Irish pub, Fergie’s, 1214 Sansom St., and well worth a visit if you can. Moonstone Arts Center hosts readings at Fergie’s fairly regularly. Moonstone’s Larry Robin published my latest chapbook, Strange Ladies.

I’m not at all sure I am ready to present in public again after so long a time away; yes, I teach–but it is not quite the same experience as reading poetry to a beer-consuming adult audience. Nonetheless, I’m excited about a post-holiday reading in the City of Brotherly Love! Philadelphia hosted me early in my poetry “career,” and fond memories surround the city.

Wednesday December 28, 2022
7PM – LIVE
Live at Fergie’s Pub, 1214 Sansom Street, Philadelphia PA
And on Zoom – Registration Required. Register Below!
Register Here
https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZctceCppz8iE9HhItlupBaoL-TCdkVXAuhL

Also, January 9 at 4 pm, if you are local enough to the Lehigh Valley of PA to attend an event at the Parkland Library (Allentown) at 4pm, please consider coming to my book talk and reading!

In May of 2023, I’ll once again be reading in Reading (PA). So–time to practice my reading skills and choose poems I can sensibly present effectively at readings. Whew–work ahead. Meanwhile, just getting through the holidays, and the vicissitudes of contemporary long-distance travel (read: travails), have been challenge enough for this particular writer. And this particular winter.

~~

Noel, folks.

Alone not lonely

Recent read: Party of One: A Loner’s Manifesto by Anneli Rufus, a book that I would have found enlightening if it had only been around when I was 18 years old. But many things were as yet unwritten 45 years ago, and even if this book had been–I might not have discovered it. Rufus celebrates social loners, decrying the myth that people who prefer time by themselves to socializing are by nature dangerous and threatening. That knowledge would have been a great relief to me when I was young; but I eventually learned on my own that the “loner myth” is, indeed, a mistaken idea perpetrated by too many so-called experts in our society. Through my lifelong bookworm habit, I learned a great deal about people who chose to be alone, chose small circles of friends, or chose to keep friendships going by letter rather than through visits.

All of which options seemed perfectly reasonable to me. I like people and deeply need my friends and family, but I’ve always found a different form of comfort in–and need for–being by myself. I joined Girl Scouts mostly because my two best friends were Scouts, but I was the kid who dawdled on hikes, slowing down to look at the plants and mosses, and I pretended to be asleep when camping so that others would stop chatting to me. When I found my old Girl Scout sash some years back, it was festooned with badges earned for loner-type skills: literature, sewing, whittling, embroidery, and other crafts or pursuits I could accomplish on my own. Selling cookies? Nah. I managed to be the worst cookie salesperson in the troop for several years running.

In high school, I joined the marching band. It was required duty for every student in the concert band, where I played flute. My sister protested against that requirement and succeeded in getting out of marching band, but the self-advocacy did not seem worth it to me-at-15. Besides, band provided me with a few close friends and some sense of high-school camaraderie which, as a sensitive nerd who was never much for teams or competition, gave me a veneer of normalcy in a very team-oriented time and place. I was not a rebellious loner but a stealth loner.

Despite often feeling a bit like an outlier among my peers, I had no burning need to belong or be accepted, and that need (and lack of acceptance) in a person is what leads to “pseudo-loners” (Rufus’ term). Those are the people most likely to get angry, resentful, hostile, or suicidal, she claims: the ones who want to fit in but are ostracized or blocked. The rest of us just want to be left alone when it suits us. It’s not the same thing.

Loner, introvert, eccentric, moody, artistic, creative, sensitive, weird–at my age, I don’t need a manifesto. Experience demonstrates a person can be friendly and funny and easily-tired and sometimes withdrawn and able to speak in public and irritated by too much noise or novelty and can dance at parties and laugh too loudly and a thousand other things that are contradictory and not simple to pin down. (And capable of polysyndeton!) But if you know a child who is content being by themselves and who may feel pressured by well-intentioned adults, I recommend Leo Lionni‘s Caldecott-winning book Frederick. It is a story I loved as a child, and now I realize why. The quiet mouse who is off on his own while his busy community harvests food for winter proves valuable to his mouse-society by offering them poems and stories that ease their discomfort when they are cold and hungry.

In some ways, that has been my lifelong dream.

In deepest fog

Autumn here was a bit dry, but as we approach the winter solstice–mild temperatures, rain, and many days of fog. Fog seems apropos. My mind has been fuzzy lately, clarity of intent and expression lacking. It’s one reason I have not been blogging.

When the air temperature gets up to 45° or 50° F, stinkbugs come out of their torpor and slowly climb up the window screens where they have been hiding or buzz noisily about the rooms, acting as sleepy and undirected as I feel. True, the daylight’s dwindling, and that makes many of us go into a sort of hibernating mode, mentally if not physically (likely a bit of both). True, the Fall semester at the university is in its last week or two and, as usual, is wearing on me.

Also true, it’s hunting season until the 10th, and the deer may be grateful for the fog…at any rate, taking advantage of it. It’s not all negative. Water molecules in the air can be good for plants, hydrating them after a dry autumn. Fog means less dry skin for those of us who wander around outside.

But let’s face it: fog encourages molds and increases the chance of traffic accidents and tends to head people into a low-barometer frame of mind. Foggy-headed. Brain fog. Here’s an informative breakdown of fog’s kinds and outcomes (yes! of course there are categories of fog!) https://mrcc.purdue.edu/living_wx/fog/index.html Some of my readers may find poetry in these categories.

Just before dusk this afternoon, I stood at my window and marveled at the dense cloudiness of the valley, at the stark bare trees snaking their way up through the pale damp air. I felt a twinge of European Romanticism: Caspar Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” and all that. The view was analogous to my fusty mind. All sorts of possibilities out there in the mist, nothing to strike toward, no path, potential risk. But beautiful in its way. I thought to myself, “There is something hidden in all this, and among the hidden-ness, things that are dear and familiar to me, not just fearful unknowns.”

The garden is there. The deer. The beech tree, some of its leaves still clinging. The bank voles and the red squirrels, the holly bush, the daffodils underground that will emerge in April. My fog will clear.

Then darkness overtook fog, and the coyotes called their carols in the moist air.

Break-taking

It is a particularly lovely autumn in the region, colorful, clear, dry and mild. This evening at 5 pm: 70 degrees F, crickets and frogs singing. My mood has, however, been unsettled–and I have not been writing much. Indeed, this feels like a good time for a hiatus on a number of fronts and in a number of ways. I recently read Katherine May’s Wintering, which was not terribly memorable but which offers the reader support for, well, resting. Resting one’s bones, mind, endeavors…seasonally apropos.

Mostly I’ve been on a Murakami kick, reading three books that a recently-departed friend had with him in his hospice room. Novels take the place of doing my own creative thinking. I get wrapped up in their worlds and can rest from my own. Thus reading is a form of wintering. (May agrees.)

My poetry output has been minimal recently, and I have hardly sent out any work; mostly, I feel tired and eager for the semester to come to a close (one month or so hence). There are reasons for this it is not necessary to go into. But I miss the writing.

I will return to the “best words in the best order” in my own time. So if you follow this blog, don’t think that I have fallen off a cliff–I have merely oriented differently, for a time.

Meanwhile, please remember that there are books for sale you can find on my ‘My Books’ tab. Support the small-business publishers of poetry now, for poetry is as necessary as ever, and not a luxury.

Autumnal

I have been re-reading Allen Lacy’s charming and informative book The Garden in Autumn. I first read it years ago and enjoyed his writing as much as I appreciated his useful ideas about landscaping with autumn in mind. I treasure books that offer more than information–well-written and inspirational texts which in this case includes attractive photographs, as well. I am outside in the clear, cool weekend days and doing some garden cleanup, but I don’t tidy things up as neatly as I used to: many insects and other small animals need some vegetative cover, and incautious hoeing can disturb nesting bees. I was almost 40 years old before I learned that most bees don’t live in hives and that our precious pollinators of many varieties need winter shelter.

Meanwhile, haiku drafts. Meant to kick myself back into creative writing gear. Practice/Zen practice.

~

So hot!
drinking the last of my morning coffee
with ice...


cicadas whirring.
under my bare feet
	dry grass.


Fall semester
remember to practice 
resting Buddha face


Jays and chickadees call—
louder but not as constant as
crickets in the dew


four cantaloupes
on the vine
I didn’t plant!

~

In the profusion 
of morning glories:
		one gold leaf


good morning, cicadas!
	at least some of us
feel wide awake

~

in the tulip poplar
red squirrel scolds 
a Carolina wren


dew
on crabgrass is 
still dew


farm stand:
fresh eggs for
a dying friend


late summer
six young sparrows—
empty birdfeeder


Three bats flit
at dusk the doe huffs, sneezes—
bedtime for fawns.

I don’t need
the word September
I see the spider’s orb