It’s that time of year when everyone is publishing “best-of” and “top ten” and so on. For once I’m not either grading or writing final papers [oh…hello Dissertation] but I am “taking stock” a bit. So what have I accomplished, written, read, listened to, and seen this past year? January started with the death of my beloved dad (Jan. 12) and my beloved uncle (Jan. 5) and that’s all I’ll say about that. Then there was the whole #NotMyPresident thing. I got angry. I marched. again. I swore at the TV. again. But still, Trump remains. In February I adopted a large black cat variously known as Mr. Remy, Mr. Kitty, and El Poco Diablo. As for accomplishments: I finished my PhD comp exams [one in FA16 and two in SP17]. I continued as Senior Fiction Editor at Black Lawrence Press where I read a couple hundred manuscripts and curated, edited & produced BLP’s weekly newsletter Sapling (52 issues). I read a lot of books & wrote several reviews for The Brooklyn Rail. I wrote a draft dissertation proposal, applied, and was accepted into the first cohort of the Early Career Workshop at the Center for Women’s History at the New York Historical Society. I applied for and was granted a fellowship to attend ArtSmith – a one week artist’s retreat on Orcas Island. I wrote another novel draft (60K words) for 2017 NanoWriMo. I published another chapbook w/Mary Ellen Sanger (maybe our last). I went back to the gym, did my PT, and went from barely being able to walk across the street in August to doing 7 “moderately strenuous” hikes this past fall. I met my GoodReads 2017 Reading Challenge goal of reading one hundred books (not counting manuscripts). I went to a few live shows/concerts. I also watched way too much Netflix & Amazon Prime & went to a ton of movies. Top 10-20 out of all that: sound: Nick Cave at the Beacon. NY Philharmonic Beethoven’s 9th. visual: City of Ghosts (dir. Matthew Heineman), Kedi (dir. Ceyda Torun), Byzantium (dir. Neil Jordan – Netflix), The Kettering Incident (Netflix), and of course Twin Peaks: the Return & Stranger Things. text: The Power/Naomi Alderman, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me/Sherman Alexie, Hunger/Roxanne Gay, Wait Till You See Me Dance/Deb Olin Unferth, Blaris Moore/Medbh McGuckian, Ph: a novel/Nancy Lord, An Unkindness of Magicians/Kat Howard, The Folly of Loving Life/Monica Drake & a re-read of Simone de Beauvoir. And so goes another year. Here’s hoping 2018 brings us a better President and a better world.
This year’s AWP conference was in WDC and what with the current political climate & the crowds of deep-thinking humans attending, I had high hopes for “activist moments.” Perhaps there were some in the keynote(s) that I was too exhausted to attend or during something of the panels – too numerous to choose from. The single event advertised as specifically activist was on Saturday. After a tour of the very poorly designed DC Metro system trying to get from the Convention Center to the White House, I witnessed the end of a short “vigil.” A vigil where poets spoke and no one could hear. A vigil where there was insufficient light and no one could see. A vigil where the messages were so muddy as to fizzle out as soon as they were voiced. After taking part in countless post-election protests in NYC, I felt let down. This isn’t a time for holding candles politely and speaking softly. We’ve done too much of that.
AWP is always a bit of a mess – too many panels, too many people crammed into the book fair, not enough drinking water or edible food, terrible coffee (except the year AWP was in Seattle). But AWP is also a yearly affirmation that words matter; that people still read and write books; that there is more to American life than Reality TV, the LCD, fake news, and sound bites. At AWP17, I had countless enthusiastic conversations with writers, poets, editors, and even a few who self-identified simply as “readers.” There were also a number of MFA students who weren’t quite sure they could identify as “writers.” Note: If you commit to an MFA program – you’re a writer.
Working for a small press is a bit like working for an indie label (something I did a lot of in decades past). It doesn’t pay, it’s a lot of work, and you have to care about what you do. Many people who stopped by the BLP booth at the book fair asked, “What kind of fiction do you like/publish/read?” and “What do you look for in a book?” The best answer I can give to any of these questions is, “something good.” By which I mean a manuscript that shows not only a knowledge of plot and character but language, how to craft a sentence, how to edit. So many manuscripts I read have unnecessary prefaces, prologues, endless paragraphs telling me what the book is about. I want to read the book, not words telling me about the book. Certainly there are publishers, editors, agents who require query letters, a synopsis, etc. but not BLP. That first sentence is crucial. The first chapter in a novel, the first story in a collection has to be strong. Often when I read a manuscript that saves the best for the middle, I’m reminded of listening to band demos where the “best” song is third or fourth. This makes the assumption that the listener/reader/editor is going to listen or read more than the first song, the first few pages. We’re not, we don’t, we can’t.
I’m a writer myself and I know how frustrating the publishing world can be. In the past couple of years, my own non-academic writing has suffered from a surfeit of neglect. Sure I do poem-a-day & NaNoWriMo but I rarely send anything out into the world that’s not a book review, an academic essay, or a blog post. After each AWP, I feel inspired (at least a little) to send stories, poems, manuscripts out to any of the hundreds of journals and/or small presses that publish work I like. But it’s rare that I follow up on that feeling.
When my father died earlier this year I thought a lot about what I would say at his memorial. I ended up writing something the day prior and tossing everything else I’d drafted. When I thought about our relationship over the years and what it means to me to lose him, a lot of that loss is the silencing of his stories. He was a wonderful story teller. He told stories about his life, his ancestors, his childhood home, and the many and vastly varied places he saw in his long life and travels. There is some part of me now that wonders just what it matters whether or not my own stories ever get out into the world now that he’s gone. But there’s also a part of me that knows that when I say women’s voices matter, I also mean my voice, my stories and so I know I have to face down the ugly dual monsters of discouragement and fear of rejection and send my stories out into the world. Because I’m a writer and because my dad would want me to.
In the wake of yet another terrorist attack, I find it hard to stay focused on the myriad projects with deadlines looming (or already passed). But one thing I learned from those horrible days in september 2001 in NYC when the dust was everywhere and sirens became a part of our daily soundtrack is that there is a way through and for some of us, that way is with words. I write to understand the world. I write to understand myself. And when I can’t understand either, I write because I have to. That may sound pretentious or self-involved (aren’t all humans by nature self-involved?) but I really believe in the healing power of art. For several years I volunteered as a writing workshop facilitator at the Brooklyn Vet Center leading workshops for veterans with PTSD. They didn’t write about combat all that much and (with a very few exceptions) they were positive, mutually supportive and wonderful writers. The opportunity to write with them every week was one of the high points of my writing life. While that workshop ended due to a mixture of organizational dis-organization and my own PTSD making it difficult to take the subway to/from Bklyn every week, I still draw strength from that time spent writing with men and women who have witnessed horrors I will (I hope) never see. To be real, no one is “safe” and there is no such thing as “normalcy” (a word thrown around a lot in the days and weeks after 9/11 in NYC). But I can’t live life worrying every minute about when the next attack will come. And on those days when I just can’t see how we will ever get through this, how humanity will ever become “humane” on a global scale, I know I can’t do much but what I can do is write. And whether that writing helps anyone else? I don’t know. What I do know is that it helps me: to process rage, sadness, guilt, and confusion. So my advice to you: take some time this week, this month, this year to write, to read, and to write some more. Art does matter. Writing does matter. Even if you are the only person who sees it, it matters.
I generally try to keep these posts focused on writing and editing and the more creative aspects of my life but in the midst of one of the more bitter Democratic primary processes I can remember, I find myself at odds with many acquaintances (I hesitate to call them “friends”) over the rhetoric being slung about by the Sanders’ campaign. I’ve been told I’m “voting gender,” “voting with an older demographic,” and “not understanding Progressive politics.” Several people I admire have responded to this rhetoric – perhaps none better than Gloria Steinem – but I find myself feeling that people just want me to “be quiet.” As a woman and a feminist, this is a feeling I’ve had before – many times. It’s a part of the insidious anti-woman behavior of many in this country. When I was a young undergrad at Smith, I traveled with a group to UMass-Amherst for a rally in support of Geraldine Ferraro. We were met with a HUGE crowd of “bros” holding signs that read “Ditch the Bitch.” This atmosphere has not changed. The assumptions made by Sanders’ supporters that Clinton supporters are a) not “Progressive” b) voting w/a gender bias c) not smart enough to understand the nuances of this campaign, or d) too “old” to vote outside “the Establishment” are all deeply disturbing and deeply flawed. I am an intelligent (some would say “over”) educated, politically Left, “progressive” and yes, a woman of a certain age. To suggest that my politics are “invalid” or “simplistic” or that I have not thought through ALL candidates and their ability to represent the causes I champion is not only disrespectful but also leaves me questioning the foundation of their views. When Obama ran the first time, I was hesitant to support him – because, I believed, he simply did not have the experience necessary for the job. Because of this hesitancy, I was called a “racist” by more than one person. The assumption was that I was hesitant because I didn’t want a black man in office. I was (and am) thrilled that we had two terms with a black man in office. Obama accomplished a great deal but his lack of experience did cause problems during his first term. And that’s part of why I’m supporting Clinton – because she has the experience. (Sanders does not). The other part? Because she is a champion of human rights – including women’s rights (why we always have to specify “women” as if we’re not included in “human” speaks to the broader issue of misogyny). That Clinton is a woman who is both accomplished and intelligent leaves her open to vicious attacks from the Right and from those who position themselves as a part of the “Left” – but bias is bias and I for one am sick of it. It is time for this country to have a woman president – we’ve waited long enough. I am proud to call myself a Liberal and a Leftist and I am voting for Clinton – not just because she is a woman but because I’ve done the research and I believe she is the best PERSON for the job. I also believe that there is nothing “progressive” about a bunch of white people voting for yet another aging white male – whatever he claims his politics may be. Whatever the outcome, I remain, as always, an optimist – eventually women will have equality in this country and eventually, we will have a woman president. Here’s hoping 2016 is that year.