There’s always a book

Many thanks to Lesley Wheeler for giving my chapbook Strange Ladies a mention on her blog! Given the circumstances of the past month or so, I have not been on the ball about promoting the publication. Word of mouth and social media platforms have helped the sales, but I have been remiss about scheduling readings, book signings, etc. These days, even well-known mid-list authors often have to be self-reliant about promoting their books. Agents for poetry are few and costly, so while getting the book into the readers’ hands may more easily happen thanks to online bookstores, finding an audience of interested readers takes effort and imagination on the part of the poet. Effort and imagination that, at present, I lack.

But–as Kurt Vonnegut reminds us in Slaughterhouse 5–so it goes. (106 times.) At the close of this quick post, I’ll try to remind myself to add the link to Strange Ladies.

As life has afforded few spare moments of uncluttered mind-time in which to write, I’m back to scribbling notes, phrases, and ideas on random pieces of paper and in my journal. This fallback method works well for me, an old-school pen & paper poet. Quite a few colleagues-in-poetry use various smart phones and electronic devices to write notes-to-self and even to draft poems, but when I resort to that–on the rare occasion that I have my cell phone but not a writing implement or bit of paper–I forget about my ideas, which are filed somewhere “in there” (on Samsung Notes’ app). It’s a good thing I am not considered a significant author whose work is worthy of preserving, because my poet-life drafts and mementos would be challenging to archive.

For the moment, my writing has a work-centered locus: curriculum, to-do lists, meeting schedules and agendas, orientation and presentation scripts, group emails to announce this or that Important Thing that likely 80% of the recipients will ignore. I get home, eat dinner, pick beans, tomatoes, zucchini, and zinnias. And I read. The one thing I always seem to have time for!

While I didn’t purposely take up the Sealey Challenge, I have continued reading poetry books more than once weekly, mixed in with creative non-fiction of various sorts, histories, and a novel or two (recently re-read Our Mutual Friend, by Dickens, to cheer myself up). Here’s a list of the recent poetry books I’ve perused: Linda Hogan’s A History of Kindness, Maggie Smith’s Goldenrod, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Would-Land, and Sumita Omaya’s The Life and Zen Haiku Poetry of Santoka Taneda, tr. William Scott Wilson.

The least exciting was Smith’s book–I liked her previous collections Good Bones and The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison better (this is not to say Goldenrod was “bad.”) The most exciting was Alexander Essbaum’s book, which I devoured and have already read a second time. I find Hogan’s work meditative and calming, even when she writes of trauma and disturbance; it’s her style, I believe, that creates that mood in me. And I knew very little about Taneda or his standing in literary Japan, so that’s been interesting.

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~ And, as promised, there’s always a book! Here’s my latest:

available here: https://moonstone-arts-center.square.site/product/michael-ann-e-strange-ladies/370

Why so strange?

This collection did not begin as a collection. If anything, it originated in the poems that stuck out as not belonging anywhere, poems not quite abandoned (in fact, most of them had been published in journals over the decades) but not fitting in with my other work. Which is in itself an odd statement to make, since my “style” has ever been inconsistent; I try many styles and forms when composing poems: short, long, free verse, rhyming, metrical, prose poems, telegraphic, chatty, narrative, lyric, abstract, broken, experimental, et cetera. So what do I mean when I say these poems did not fit?

From the time I began writing poetry “seriously” (with authorial and craft intent), I developed themes, tropes, and images that I have never stopped employing; but sometimes one topic or lyric current would bob to the surface and occupy my thought-flow for days, weeks, or months on end. When that occurs, I may get a collection out of it. Sometimes several collections create a sort of arc or, in some cases, a thread of resonance that results in a longer collection. Or maybe there are stylistic choices that recur, and those poems seem connected.

Then there are those impulses that just show up for one poem and vanish for a long while. Persona poems. Feminist poems. Political poems. Rants. Love poems. Dreamy poems. Surreal pieces. And so on.

For Strange Ladies, I realized that during the past 45 years I’ve written enough oddly interesting straggler poems about/in the voices of/relating to female “characters” of a mythopoetic variety that they might form a coven. Or at very least, a neighborhood. The strangeness of these women comes from their position as outsiders, exiles, shamans, rebels, goddesses, myths, heroines. A chapbook manuscript materialized, and what surprises me most about this collection is that the poems I ended up choosing date all the way back to some of the first poems I ever got into print. At that time (circa 1981), indie-lit mags were photocopied, stapled affairs often using collages of copyright-free art for graphics. My nostalgia about that era led me to go for a retro look on the cover. And yes, I wrote one of these poems in 1979 while living in New York City…but others are as recent as 2019. A span of 40 years, and yet they seem to belong together in their differences.

Here’s what one of Moonstone Press’ anonymous poetry editorial committee members had to say:

“This chapbook is like a chorus of distinct personae over time and myth and family–Hagar, Icarus’s sister, the mother, the grandmother, the daughter, each poem a character sketch, engaging, memorable. I loved lines like: ‘Women shoulder everything’ and ‘gliding brought more joy/ than soaring.’ The poem ‘Witch’ is so tight and mysterious, like a dream. In ‘Heron Heroine,’ I loved this: ‘and she who balances stands often on one leg, /as what’s precarious for others grounds her, toes clawed deep/in mud.’ Themes such as sailing, water, bones are carried through in a nice variety of forms that never got boring or repetitive. The diction is so interesting, nice use of natural terms and details, words like ‘bittern,’ ’tilth’ and ‘binnacle.’ I think my favorite might be ‘I am a Cloud,’ with its powerful ending, ‘Attached to nothing, I dance the wind.’ I vote yes, enthusiastically.”

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I hope other readers will find this little collection of poems as rewarding, and I’m thrilled to have it out in the world. Link to purchase: https://moonstone-arts-center.square.site/product/michael-ann-e-strange-ladies/370

Thysanura

The bristletails (order thysanura) are a group of wingless insects that includes Lepisma saccharina, the silverfish–one of the most common “bookworms,” although they are not worms! They nestle between pages, covers, and bindings of books, though books are certainly not all they eat. I must confess they are not among my favorite arthropods. Nonetheless, I class myself as a bookworm, though I’m far less voracious than some folks I know.

Therefore, I ought to note that my office on campus has been moved to my favorite place: the library! As I noted in some long-ago posts, libraries have been among my comfortable places ever since I was almost too young to read, and my maternal grandmother volunteered at her local library (notably as “The Story Lady.”) I still recall the jingle–from the 1960s–that accompanied a PSA for the library I loved as a 5-to-7-year-old.

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ann e michael
The South Whitley Library as it was in 1967, with my grandmother in her Story Lady attire.

Anyway, it has longed seemed logical that the campus writing center be located where research takes place; we just had to find room. The library staff generously donated one quite spacious office room for the college writing center, and I couldn’t be more pleased!

My colleagues in academic support–my university department–are still housed in the basement of the main classroom building. I miss them, and they envy the fact that I now have a window (and that it’s not freezing up here). But while I would never knock the value of a window after 15 years under the frost line, I’m happiest about having my work office located in my favorite building on campus: the library. Books make me comfortable. When I need a break from my computer screen or from meetings, I can take a deep breath and walk around the stacks in silence. It’s perfectly acceptable to be rather introverted in a library. And the people who surround me are as enthusiastic about books as I am.

I plan to take a short breather from blogging and work-related stuff to visit a far-away Best Beloved and am already plotting which paperbacks to pack for the tedious flights. I hope to avoid silverfish and viral stowaways. Wish me luck.

Meanwhile, embrace your inner bookworm!

I searched for the most attractive photo of a silverfish I could find, and this one came from Encyclopaedia Britannica. Sorry, it was the best I could do. I’m sure another silverfish would find this one quite handsome. To the human bookworms I know: this is not meant to deride those of us who digest books with a healthy appetite. Just a metaphor!

Words fail, & yet–

On December 24, 2012, I posted about a school shooting. So little has changed.

Words fail. And I work in a classroom setting, as do many of my friends and colleagues, and my children’s friends and colleagues (now in their 30s and willing to be teachers–bless them!). These events are not things we can ignore by staying in our own little bubbles of “it can’t happen here.”

~

Words have failed so profoundly that I’m out in the garden instead, or indoors cleaning my bathrooms or reading books. Books–always my solace when my own words fail.

My latest good read is David Crystal‘s 2004 The Stories of English, already out of date in its last chapter–a fact I’m sure he gleefully acknowledges. I adore his love of how language evolves and find his non-prescriptivist approach refreshing and necessary if we are to keep literacy and communication alive. This book gave me so much information, enriched the knowledge I already have about our language, and made me laugh, too. Granted, it is word-geek humor…but that’s how I roll.

And I needed a few laughs this past week or so. My heart aches; I am sore afflicted for more reasons than I care to explain at present, though the headline news certainly has much to do with my mood. Crystal’s book got me thinking about the course I teach (come fall) and how I’ve already toned down the prescriptiveness in order to convince my students they can write and can be successful with written communication; that they are not “wrong,” just that their audience for written work differs, in college, from high school and from text messaging and other forms of writing. Crystal says we who teach English need to get over the concern about split infinitives and pronoun antecedent agreement and focus on clarity and genuine expression. I have no argument with him there–but many people I know would quibble and complain. And the English lexicon offers us so many options for how to say we disagree!

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A book about words–but no, a book about human communication through the mediation of words, spoken and written, and how we got to the forms (plural!) of English we now use to express ourselves. There’s a kind of splendid optimism in Crystal’s thinking about language that somehow made me feel a little less low in spirit. Ah, yes. The solace of books.

Reading poetry

In March, I made a pledge to read more poetry than I had been. A poetry book a week, either a new one or a re-read from my stacks (because, yes, I have too many books…). And then I attended the AWP conference, which features an amazing book fair; you can guess the outcome of that.

Now that it’s National Poetry Month, I have plenty of books in which to immerse myself. I chose mostly contemporary writers this time, and the work of some poetry colleagues I have met through past conferences and social media. Here’s my by-the-bedside reading for the next month or two.

Two by Tim Seibles, because his work is such fun to read as well as thoughtful, sensual, and deep–and because he’s my age and his memory-based poems are packed with things I can relate to. I just read his 2012 book Fast Animal and have One Turn Around the Sun in the reading pile.

Eleanor Wilner’s early and uncollected, Gone to Earth. Kim Stafford’s Singer Come from Afar. Susan Rich’s new collection Gallery of Postcards and Maps. Cieve, by B. K. Fisher.

I’m browsing through the anthology Here: Poems for the Planet, edited by Elizabeth J. Coleman–a lovely selection of “ecopoetry.” I discovered a White Pine Press collection called Dreaming of Fallen Blossoms, Tune Poems of Su Dong-Po, that informed me about a type of poem I’d never heard of, the tune poems or song poems of 11th-c. China. Translated and prefaced by Yun Wang, and presented with original text on facing pages, it’s a fascinating set of poems for historical reasons but also offers really delightful poetry. I’m also awaiting the arrival of Emily Rose Cole’s Thunderhead. Emily went to high school with my son, and I am thrilled at her development as a really serious and talented poet. I can say “I knew her when…”

I’m going to sign off, post this update, and read a book. Happy National Poetry Month! Reading is the best way to acknowledge the art.

~

Revision practice

It is National Poetry Month again, and this year, in recognition of the celebration, I have started a practice to experiment with, just out of curiosity and to give myself a nudge. Many of my poetry colleagues invest a month in writing a poem a day or reading a poetry book each week or posting a poem daily on their social media platforms. It’s important to remind ourselves why we treasure and delight in poetry.

I chose a simple project that requires frequent re-imagining/re-imaging. For my starting point, I picked a poem at random from a collection of Fernando Pessoa’s work. I copied the poem, by hand, into my journal and re-read it a few times. Then I turned the page and rewrote it, “revising” it in the way I might revise a poem of my own. My plan is to repeat this process after a day or so, each time revising from the most recent version. In a short time, the poem will have moved away from being Pessoa’s piece–perhaps bearing little to no resemblance to the original…a sort of whisper-down-the-lane approach. The intention is to consciously alter image and voice in each re-imagining of the draft, though I’m not sure how well I can hew to my intentions. We shall see.

from City Lights Books.

Why I decided on Pessoa for this project, I don’t really know; but I think there’s something perfect about using one of his pieces as springboard. Because Pessoa was kind of a springboard for himself–he created several writer-selves who wrote poems and critical prose: heteronyms, he termed them. The poem I used was “by” his persona named Ricardo Reis. Adam Kirsch wrote a good introduction to Pessoa’s peculiar obsession with being a non-person in a 2017 New Yorker article. By revising something by Pessoa in my own voice and through my own images, perhaps I nurture his pursuit of dissolving the self.

It occurs to me now that the poems of several contemporary writers may have induced me to try this writing prompt, most recently Daisy Fried in The Year the City Emptied (which I highly recommend). Her collection consists of “loose translations” of Baudelaire, reimagined in Philadelphia during the covid outbreak while her husband was dying. It’s not a cheerful read–but then, neither is Baudelaire–nevertheless, the resulting poems are powerful and vividly interesting.

So, back to my little project for April: I figure this need not be a daily practice, though I have managed to get to revision three by now–so it is moving apace. The deepest challenge is not the revision, as I enjoy revising and wish I had more time and energy for it. The challenge is just that: time and energy! As the semester sidles past mid-terms into the final stretch, I get busier at work; in addition, my chronic health conditions have moved into a frustrating flare lately, leaving me fatigued and feeling as though my brain were swaddled in cottonwool and embroidery floss. The news from Ukraine drags on sadly in the background of my day-to-day. My mother’s aphasia worsens. I am dealing by plodding away, sometimes without much brilliance, at the revision challenge. Also by watching the goldfinches as they molt into their yellow plumage… and urging my tomato seedlings to flourish in their little indoor pots.

Then I pluck daffodils and set them in vases. There’s nothing like fresh flowers on the dining table to cheer a low mood. Onward to revision four…

~

daffodil photo Ann E. Michael

Squalls

It’s still March; and yes, a few daffodils had begun to bloom–and yesterday the weather was raw and today it is frigid, and both afternoons I got stuck in snow squalls while driving. Squall: a good word, apparently Old Norse in origin and related to squeal. My students were cursing the return to cold air. I put my mittens on and endeavored to teach myself patience. We do need the cooler currents, but the worst things about overall global warming are the meteorological extremes, the cold that is so cold and the snow that is oddly early or late and deep, the hurricanes, the hailstorms and tornadoes, the flooding.

Tree frogs know how to take care of themselves. They leave the trees and go back into amphibian dormancy until the weather breaks again. The shallow burrow where a tree frog waits out a spring freeze is called a hibernaculum. Days like this one, when the winter smacks back the warmth again, a hibernaculum appeals to me.

Having just returned from three days at a writers conference [the AWP], the concept of a solo burrow to recoup my energy fits the bill. The conference–largely due to covid 19– was not as well attended as those I have been to before (& required masks and a vaccine certificate); also, the Philadelphia Convention Center is vast, so I did not feel overly worried about the virus. The event felt as overwhelming as ever, though, and hard on an introvert. I did attend with writerly buddies, and met nice folks and learned new things. I remembered the lessons of past conferences in terms of pacing myself, purchasing books in a manageable fashion, and not lugging too much stuff around: general attending-a-conference navigation. One thing I will grouse about was my own inability to use a phone app to figure out what was going on where. My phone is small, and I am inept at its tech capacities. I prefer a paper guidebook, though I suppose that’s not as environmentally friendly.

Re-entry into my routine was bumpier than it used to be. I had post-conference physical aches and fatigue, and I felt oddly rattled intellectually, as if all those marvelous and interesting poems, concepts, people, theories, books, journals, programs, and voices had jumbled themselves into my brain and not finished synthesizing. I suppose that about describes it, too…it is a LOT to try to connect and to sort through. Worth it, however.

The upshot? I need my hibernaculum to screen me from the squall. But spring will come.

Photo by Eva Elijas on Pexels.com

Relevant, possibly

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Of note: I’m happy to have a poem in Scoundrel Time, a journal I enjoy reading for work that’s relevant to the contemporary moment. Here it is; please read it, and read the other wonderful poems in Scoundrel Time: “A Brief History of Kyiv.”

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This poem also came to mind, for different though possibly related reasons. It will appear in The Red Queen Hypothesis when that book (my second full-length collection) gets into print. I was writing many poems in various forms at the time. The poem’s story is second-hand, the we a personified plural community of human beings, one repeated line taken from, you’ll recognize, A Tale of Two Cities–there’s a reason for the allusion as well.

Somehow, may all be well. Somehow, may each of us find some happiness.

~~

Variations on a Line of Dickens
			(Belarus, 1985)

It was the best of times, it was the worst
of times, when nothing seemed to go our way,
though happiness is what we wanted. First

we stood in endless queues, outside, and cursed
the lack of cheese or bread; our pals would say
it wasn’t the best of times, it was the worst.

We’d swill cheap vodka, harshening our thirst,
highlighting deprivations of each day,
when happiness was all we wanted. First

we’d press our bodies close enough to burst
the paper bag of lack. Kisses could not stay
our own best times, but it was the worst

thing to let go. Our lips still pursed,
the tastes of sex would linger and relay
that happiness is what we’d wanted; first

times were the best, solid, immersed
in flesh and heat—forget the fray—
those were the best of times, and yes, the worst.
Happiness was what we wanted first.

~~





Sir John Tenniel, of course.

Collecting & creativity

Somehow or another, I completed a chapbook manuscript. The longer collection is coming together, as well. Yet it feels to me as though I have not spent nearly enough time on my creative work. And when I find myself awake at 3 in the morning, it’s not poetry that runs through my mind. Usually those wee-hour thoughts are work-related. I guess that makes me normal.

The next step, once a writer has completed a manuscript, is to have another writer or two review it; I’ve done that, too. So now? I guess I submit the work and find out whether a publisher agrees the poem collection does the job of poetry.

And I get prepared for rejection. Comes with the territory.

Upon reflection, the reason I feel I haven’t been doing creative work is that I am not generating many new poems right now. Some, but not many. But let’s re-think the process of revision: it’s a process of deciding upon the order poems should appear in a book, and which of the poems ought to be there to speak to one another, to resonate with one another (and with the imagined future reader). Hey, I am using my imagination here, and I am doing creative work. If all I ever do is generate new poems, those poems won’t have a chance to go out into the world and endeavor to speak to other humans.

Figuring out how to make that happen is the creative work of revising, editing, rethinking. Imagining the reader. Striking the tone of each individual poem to see whether it adds harmony, or works with a fugue-like trope, or changes the mood to minor, or unleashes a surprise. The book of poems can have an arc or act as a chorale or zigzag about to keep the reader on her toes.

The collection of poetry, when it is not yet a book, presents problems the writer and editor must solve. Problem-solving requires creative thinking–I tell my students this almost every time I see them in class!

Will the manuscripts find homes? That’s a different “problem.” Meanwhile, more new poems, more revisions, maybe more manuscripts ahead…while I await the first frost, while the leaves turn and fall. All part of the cycle.

Being receptive

When my parents moved to a senior-living campus about 10 years ago, one of the hardest aspects of downsizing was what to do with the books. My dad’s bookshelves were full of texts that he found meaningful, valuable, inspirational, informational, necessary; he loved to read. Choosing which books to give away and which to keep was agonizing for him. And then he faced the task again when he and my mother moved to a smaller, assisted-living apartment. That time, he donated many of his books to the facility’s library, so he could “visit” them if he needed them. There remained one large bookcase. Because you can’t live a happy life without books!

Then he died; and my mother, who also loved to read, developed such aphasia that she could no longer decipher sentences. Now, every time I visit, she gestures at the books and urges me to take some of them. It’s hard to explain the response I have to taking home my dad’s books–a mixture of tenderness and discomfort, nostalgia and pain. Sometimes I end up giving the books away, but usually I read them first. Because they are books and deserve to be read, somehow, just by virtue of existing. No–by virtue of their having been significant to my dad. That is why I feel compelled to read them.

I cannot say I got much inspiration from my father’s 1955 copy of a text on caritas by Martin D’Arcy, The Mind and Heart of Love, although I found suggestions about the philosophy of Christian love that my father would certainly have noted {indeed, his penciled checkmarks in the margins confirm it}. Last time I was at my mother’s, I chose to take Karen Armstrong’s 2004 book The Spiral Staircase, a book I appreciate rather more than I did D’Arcy’s. Much of Armstrong’s memoir deals with the frustration she felt as she struggled to find her place and purpose in the world of work. As it turns out, she is a writer, although it took her awhile to discover and admit it. Part of being a writer involves isolation or solitude, which Armstrong equates with silence: “Without the distraction of constant conversation, the words on the page began to speak to my inner self…I was no longer just grabbing concepts and facts from books…but learning to listen to the deeper meaning that lay quietly and ineffably beyond them. Silence became my teacher.” That passage resonates for me. I can recall times when what I learned, and subsequently, what I wrote or composed, emerged from such silence.

But I like most of all what she says in her next paragraph (p. 284).

This, of course, is how we should approach religious discourse. Theology is–or should be–a species of poetry, which read quickly or encountered in a hubbub of noise makes no sense. You have to open yourself to a poem with a quiet, receptive mind, in the same way as you might listen to a difficult piece of music. It is no good trying to listen to a late Beethoven quartet or read a sonnet by Rilke at a party. You have to give it your full attention, wait patiently upon it, and make an empty space for it in your mind.”

It helps if we can give our hearts to poems and books we read, make space for them in our minds, hear what they have to say before rushing in with our own clever ideas and personal perspectives. When writing, the same approach applies. Often I think I know what I have to say, yet the poem on which I’m working proves me wrong. And it helps to be compassionate to the writerly self, which is another thing Armstrong had to learn, as she was far too hard on herself about her thinking and writing.

Her subsequent books, and her recent work, center around compassion, I notice. I have not read them yet, but I plan to. Another thing I notice is that the copy of The Spiral Staircase I brought home from my dad’s bookshelf is inscribed:

Tom and Bonnie    with best wishes     Karen Armstrong