Yesterday I spent all day out in the heat at Planting Fields. I acknowledge the privilege I have: access to a friend w/car, a paid day off, NOT having to work and/or live outside…but I also think a lot about what it means to have to travel to see grass, trees, flowers – to have space to walk in nature and away from crowds. Ages ago I made a choice to move to NYC and then to the tiny apartment where I’ve been for many years. And there are many good things about NYC (and my tiny apartment) but all those photos friends post about yards and gardens and sunrises or sunsets, help to build a depth of regret and longing that I can’t quite reason or write myself out of. Now, this is, in theory, a blog about writing and reading, and my life is often spent immersed in editing, reading, writing while trying to balance a “day job” that has nothing to do with any of those things. And part of why I live in NYC is to have access to the world of writers and readers and publishers. But with the pandemic, my life has become one lived mostly inside: I have a disability and have been working from home since March of 2020. It’s a privilege but also can feel like punishment. In the hours I’m not working at the day job, I write book reviews (mostly for Publishers Weekly & The Brooklyn Rail), I read manuscripts (mostly for Black Lawrence Press), I curate and edit an indie publishing newsletter (Sapling – for BLP), and I recently completed a stint as guest editor for The Masters Review Novel Workshop. I read over 200 books a year (only some for pleasure), I read a few hundred manuscripts, and somewhere in there, I go to school (Starr King), I write, and I write, and I write. Even if I had access to sunrises and grass and flowers and trees on a daily basis, would I have time to savor them? To savor life? I’ve recently been reading (again) about “mindfulness” – that overused term that seems to be an attempt for many of us to fix those symptoms that cause us suffering: stress, anxiety, eating too much or too little, grief, aches, pains, and so many other parts of what it means to be human and alive in this time. Assuming you have a job and a place to live – which I know isn’t true for many Americans, not to mention many others across the planet – so many of us fail to acknowledge the privilege of our own lives: a relatively safe place to live, enough food and clean water, bodily autonomy (oops! lost that one), maybe even the opportunity to pursue our dreams. Perhaps, for me, mindfulness exists in those moments when I just stop and acknowledge the many good things in my life – not the ache for trees, not the anger at injustice, not the chronic pain, or even the little failures I see in books or manuscripts I read. It’s when I stop and take pleasure in a phrase or a sentence that works (!) or the drift of clouds above the brick building next door. It’s when I stop to breathe, stretch, or turn the page, maybe even appreciate my body’s ability to move with strength and power. Perhaps for me, mindfulness also exists in the call and response at a protest I recently attended while acknowledging my fear of crowds, other people, contagion, violence, noise, all the many reasons to be afraid. Perhaps for me, mindfulness exists in the act of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and shifting the chaos of sound and vision, of fear and anger, and of people and trees and sky into words.
I’m still recovering from this year’s AWP Conference – too many people/books/bright lights. This year AWP was in Portland, Oregon (a/k/a land of my ancestors or at least great & grandparents) which meant I got to see some REAL trees, some lovely rain, and drink the world’s finest coffee. I tried Alaska Airlines again (why??) and discovered that even with the fancy seats (like Delta Comfort only w/out the comfort part), there were no back of the seat TVs (they do rent “devices” for $10). And so, I spent my flight doing what I used to do on airplanes – reading. It was a lovely way to spend all those hours in the sky and I got a lot of work done. A Portland-based friend picked me up at the airport (apparently something people do outside of NYC) and we spent the day drinking coffee and doing other Portland-type things. I then checked in to the BLP house and waited for the rest of the BLP team to arrive. I sat on a couch larger than my apartment & watched Ricky Gervais play a compassionate human in “Afterlife.” It was very good but not as good as the book I read on the plane. I spent most of my AWP at the BLP table at the Book Fair. I don’t much like crowds & staying behind a table selling books works for me at AWP. I met lots of nice people – teachers/writers/editors/fans of words – and sold some books. At some point I had a short walk & nice lunch with some ArtSmith people & learned that a writer whose manuscript I consulted on (I do this type of editorial work in my “spare” time) just landed a big time agent – well-deserved! It’s a powerful book. Overall the AWP experience was worth it despite the too-many people, the jet lag, the ridiculous flights, etc. etc. There were many good conversations about writing & living & reading & how we all struggle to find time/space/energy to be writers in a world that often doesn’t seem to notice or care or agree that what we do is important. As I start off this spring’s piles of work, I feel equally energized to write and frustrated that I don’t have more time to write the things I want to write instead of the things I have to write. #dissertationVSnovel…
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.
Somehow it’s already October & as I watch deadlines fly by somewhat akin to the leaves blowing off trees, I realize it’s been weeks (months?) since I’ve written a blog post. I could blame the volume of reading I have to do for Grad School “comps” or the hundred manuscripts I have to read or the heavier workload at my “day job” this semester, but really, it’s this “non-writing” thing that’s been happening since August. I’ve gone from writing a “poem-a-day” to maybe one every couple of weeks. I haven’t written a word of fiction since August & the only non-fiction I’m writing is of the academic variety: dry and focused on exposition and argument, not image/character/plot/rhythm. For a while in September, I was creating “erasure” poems from various texts and that was fun but it didn’t stimulate my writing the way I’d hoped it would. Much of my energy these days is focused on keeping up with the workload(s) and getting my body moving again post-surgery. I’ve done a couple of hikes & I’m walking to/from work again most days (about 1.5 miles each way). A walk that can be both freeing and irritating (cars blasting through crosswalks, bicycles on sidewalks/blocking crosswalks/ignoring red lights, tourists, people glued to phones). My commute takes me from the West Village to the East Village and this time of year, everything is decorated for Halloween except the banks & that hideous IBM tower in the midst of Astor Place. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday & this year is no exception. I’ll be celebrating in various ways: a séance at the Merchant’s House Museum, two episodes of Radio Theatre NYC’s HP Lovecraft Festival, and maybe a spooky movie or two. I may even go see The Damned. Every few years I attend the Village Halloween Parade but last year it was such a crowded mess, I’ll likely skip it. There’s something about the season that brings on a certain post-Goth nostalgic-melancholy that is both uncomfortable and oddly pleasurable. I miss dressing up. I miss going to see “scary” bands with my scary Goth friends. But seeing the new Clash-inspired film London Town last night I was reminded of just how dirty, cold, and brutal London was under Thatcher. I lived there at the height of the London Goth scene and while it was a formative year for my very young self & rife with positive new experiences (Joyce’s Ulysses, punk rock/Goth boyfriends, Sisters of Mercy/Virgin Prunes/Nick Cave-Bad Seeds/Neubaten) I also have a strong memory of ALWAYS being cold. Freezing in fact. London was damp and everywhere I lived suffered from poor heating and terrible water pressure (when there was running water). It’s not much different in NYC. Although I have a door that locks, a toilet that (mostly) flushes & a shower that (nearly always) has hot water, and at least an expectation of heat at home and work, I’m still cold. And maybe that’s a lesson I learned all those years ago living in my own version of Halloween Town, all the beautiful words & books & all the loud music in the world won’t keep me warm. Sometimes writing eases that deep, dark cold inside but sometimes it serves only to open another door into that well of nostalgia and melancholy from which much bad poetry emanates. Still, I’ll celebrate the best holiday of the year & maybe I’ll even write a line or two in celebration.
While I’m still slogging away at NaNoWriMo (and about now it DOES feel like a “slog”)…I’m also trying to get through the last of this semester’s course work and final papers, etc. As a Ph.D. student with more than one Master’s Degree behind me (I have 4 if you’re counting), I’ve learned to separate “emotional” responses from “critical” responses. Despite this ability, since 2012 when I was first diagnosed with PTSD, one of the struggles I’ve had is responding “appropriately” to images, sounds, and texts. In other words, when I see violence, I “over” react. But what does this actually mean? This week’s reading for a course I’m taking on the history of documentary photography – Susie Linfield’s “Cruel Radiance” – focuses on images of “political violence” and responses – critical and personal – to these images. It’s rare that my academic reading aligns with specific “real life” events but reading critical discussion of how “we” should respond to images of human suffering while the events in Paris unfolded was both apt and also, incredibly difficult. To be clear – my suffering is not as “personal” as that experienced by those who lost loved ones or were direct witnesses to the Paris attacks (or those in Lebanon) – I’m not claiming that. One of the worst symptoms of PTSD is the way it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to view violence and achieve that distance necessary to “process” it. But is this really what we should be doing? I don’t want to feel the debilitating pain that I feel when I view new footage, photographs or read about human suffering (torture, war, famine, etc.) but I also agree with Linfield that we have an ethical obligation NOT to turn away. But how do I get past the feeling of shock and helplessness such viewing causes? How do I process these images (or in the case of my class assignment – write an “appropriate” response paper to an academic text) without internalizing the fear and despair I feel at witnessing the suffering of others. Linfield suggests that it is through the viewing of images of suffering that we become inspired to be active in human rights efforts. But for those of us who suffer from PTSD and who don’t have the “proper” filters for viewing such images, is it ethically wrong to turn away? How can we learn to empathize without descending into the deadly cycle of flashback-anxiety-hopelessness that PTSD can cause? No answers here, just questions.
I meant to post these a few at a time over the past few weeks but as is often the case, life got in the way…So quickly and off the top of my head…Here are some of my favorite spooky reads:
- The Bloody Chamber/Angela Carter
- Dracula/Bram Stoker
- The Haunting of Hill House/Shirley Jackson
- Collected Ghost Stories/Le Fanu
- Something Wicked This Way Comes/Ray Bradbury
- Poe. all of it.
- the Call of Cthulhu/HP Lovecraft
- the Hellbound Heart/Clive Barker
- Salem’s Lot/Stephen King
- The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All/Laird Baron
Some of my favorite spooky viewing:
- Dracula (1932)
- Don’t Look Now
- Nosferatu (1922)
- The Hunger
- The Shining
- The Others
- Nosferatu: the Vampyre (1979)
- Shadow of the Vampire
- The Hunger
- Near Dark
And some of my favorite spooky music:
- Saint-Saens: Danse Macabre
- Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
- Liszt: Mephisto Waltz No. 1
- Bauhaus: Bela Lugosi’s Dead
- Rolling Stones: Sympathy for the Devil
- Nick Cave: Red Right Hand
- Sisters of Mercy: Alice, Body & Soul, Temple of Love
- Christian Death: Only Theatre of Pain (entire)
- The Cramps: TV Set, Voodoo Idol, so many more
- The Misfits: Skulls [and too many others to list here]
“The night was sweet with the dust of autumn leaves that smelled as if the fine sands of ancient Egypt were drifting to dunes beyond the town.” Although I first read it when I was very small, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes remains one of my favorite books. I recently gave a copy to a young friend who is reading his way through a lot of Sci-Fi and Fantasy classics (and not so classics). He said he “really liked it” but that it was “too short.” I remember when I used to judge the weight of a book by the number of pages but I’ve learned since that a book can be “short” and still have immense weight. Without turning this into an essay on Jeanette Winterson or Angela Carter or Shirley Jackson, I’ll turn instead to the season: when the door swings open between worlds [to paraphrase Carter] and the leaves start to fall. Today is the first day that’s really dipped below 60 and the air has that specific sharp taste that means summer is gone. The leaves are changing to gold and crimson and most shop windows in my neighborhood are decorated with badly painted zombies, wolfmen, and of course, there are pumpkins everywhere. I’ve lived in this city so long, I’ve forgotten how we carved our pumpkins when I was a kid and what we did with all that pumpkin flesh. Most of the brownstones in the West Village are decorated for Halloween and it’s one of the joys of working in this neighborhood though, really, this time of year always makes me nostalgic for New Orleans where people REALLY know how to dress up and celebrate this best holiday of the year. Reading AO Scott’s predictably snarky review of “Crimson Peak,” I’m reminded why for much of my teen years (and well into the decades after), I lived with the conviction that “normal people don’t get it.” Because they don’t. You can watch zombie dramas on TV and dress up in Day of the Dead masks from Rickys NYC once a year but you still won’t get it. There is a certain slant to the way some of us view life: the way we like to scare ourselves with movies and books and ghost stories, the way we find beauty in dark and shadowed places, and it’s a way of viewing the world that you can’t buy. Certainly, I’m happy that it’s so much easier now to find like minds than it was when I was a quiet, shy kid obsessed with all things gothic and I’m not going to join the ranks of crabby old people complaining about “kids today.” Instead, I want to acknowledge a few of the books and movies that reflect that certain sensibility I mean when I use the word “gothic” and that I will likely be watching and reading and enjoying this time of year. In the days to come, I’ll be posting brief lists or reviews or what-have-you because, for me, Halloween isn’t just one day a year. And for anyone who’s read my fiction, that should be pretty obvious.
I just got back to NYC from AWP 2015 in lovely Minneapolis, MN. It was a great experience aside from the total lack of drinking water (the only options – the yellow water coming out of the drinking fountains or $3.50 small plastic bottles of water available if you had time to stand in a LONG line), the lack of decent food options (I ate a LOT of bananas and Cliff bars), the lack of reliable wireless either in the Book Fair or in the panel presentation rooms, and then of course, there were the immense lines for mediocre coffee. But all of these negatives are the fault of AWP and the Convention Center and not the attendees. The hundreds of small journals and big magazines, small presses and big University presses, the many, many poets, writers, and editors all made it worthwhile. I attended both as an editor for Black Lawrence Press and Sapling and as a panelist. My panel was Echoes of Displacement: Sound in Poetries of Diaspora. My fellow panelists presented on a diverse range of topics and most read their own work. Chris Santiago was the moderator and spoke about his own dissertation work on sound and the poetics of diaspora (it’s much more complex than that of course!); Shane McCrae (one of my favorite BLP poets) spoke about his own work and its evolution; Abdi Phenomenal Farah gave a gut-wrenching spoken word performance focused on his journey from the violence of Somalia to the U.S. And I talked about the Irish Diaspora, the “government of the tongue” and the sound of Irish poetry (both in Irish and English). I ended with an uncharacteristically (?) political poem about language loss and issues of identity.
BLP had a great off-site reading and party at Kieran’s Irish Pub where I was introduced to Two Gingers (yum!). Highlights for me were B.C. (Carter) Edwards, Bettina Judd, Shane McCrae, and Mark McKee. Of course, so many of the BLP writers and poets are wonderful that every one of the readings was stunningly good.
Overall, it was a great AWP and although I did miss seeing the sky and breathing outside air, Minneapolis has lots of intriguing skyways and some great Irish pubs.
Happy National Poetry Month everybody! Another April means, I have another poetry chapbook out featuring poems written by myself and my poet friend Mary Ellen Sanger. You can get it here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1511434120/ref=tsm_1_fb_lk
If you want a signed copy, come see me at AWP in Minneapolis next week or hit me up via Facebook and we’ll figure it out.
Meanwhile, spring is finally here, everyone’s running around naked (despite the wind chill) and I am already once again considering moving North or Northwest.