Welcome To My Bed

Gallows Humor

Has everybody read Molly Crabapple's "Shooter Boys and At-Risk Girls" over at Vice?  Ok, good.  Because I started this week off with my first talk therapy session as an adult, and that article was in the front of my mind through the whole snot-filled hour.

adolescent Emily, forever terrified
adolescent Emily, forever terrified

It's no secret that plenty of artists had odd childhoods of one sort or another, and it seems that the general consensus is that most makers spend their formative years on the social outskirts.  Whether than manifests itself in merciless bullying, targeting by school administrators, or just plain, unadorned introvert/outcast status is where the differences lie.  There are lots of factors that went into me feelings marginalized as a child, but the one that came up most when I gave a truncated synopsis of what life was like for me growing up was how difficult it was to connect with others.  I am the middle child in a family of three sisters,  I cried at the drop of a hat, and they teased me mercilessly for it.  My parents wanted me to toughen up.  I spent entire school days in the nurse's office with stomachaches (often the childhood manifestation of stress-induced migraines).  As I got older, this disconnect with the support system in my life made me desperate to find where I belonged.

Like Crabapple, I disappeared into music.  When I was 11 or 12, my favorite album was Everclear's "Learning How To Smile Vol. 1" which might as well be called "The Divorce Album."  As a teenager, I listened to punk, hardcore, and whatever other guitar-and-scream-heavy sounds I could find.  The fast and loud records were angry out loud in a way that I could not be.  I am an introvert, and at the time was painfully shy and unsure of myself.  I had a lot of anger towards people who were either unwilling or simply unable to understand me, but no way of expressing it.  I wrote bitter poetry in dozens of notebooks.  I stopped eating regularly.  I fought with my parents, with my sisters.  I was ditched by childhood friends and started hanging out with the girls who traded prescription pills at lunch.  I dropped out of my private high school and started at public school, where I sank even further under the radar.  Most people knew me as nothing other than the girl with the shaved head.  This isn't to say that there weren't good times too, but the feeling of being isolated overwhelmed me to a point where I couldn't recognize even the smallest social success.  I was desperate for something to take me away from the life where I so clearly didn't fit.

In college, even after I had found my tribe, I continued to make reckless decisions in hopes that something would suddenly click and I would be the well-spoken and sought-after person that people felt close to.  I wrote poetry at a feverish pace, because weekly open mics gave me a place where I could talk to my peers much more honestly than I was capable of one on one.  This was the hinge for me.  So much of that early writing still lives in my archive, and I've slowly been drawing up old drafts and dissecting them to build new, publishable poems.  The process isn't without pain, but it's as if I'm seeing myself for the first time.  I was a morbid mess for a long time.  There are so many references to death, suicide, and self-obliteration through substances or questionable relationships contained in the old work that at times it is tough to get through.  But the thing about seeing your own anger from a new perspective is that things you took so seriously become hysterical.

I've spent a lot of time writing as a form of grieving.  I've grieved my father's illness and death, and for the angry little girl I still am some days.  But that constant sadness and heaviness is exhausting for both writer and audience.  I can't keep writing dirges forever.  It feels like time for something new.  In my revisions, I've been focusing on the funny moments where the  anger bubbles over into absurdity.  It's a lot like the songs I used to shout out car windows at the top of my lungs.  The lyrics were so serious and I can't hear them (or sing them) now without laughing.

Because they have impeccable timing, Fall Out Boy is going on tour this spring.  This coincides perfectly with the winking earnest I'm trying to get to in my writing.  Their songs are so deeply steeped in angst they can't help but be grinning through it.  I will be on line for tickets.  It's important to remember that no matter how intense something seems on the surface, there is humor buried somewhere.

Most Smartest

Photo on 2013-02-02 at 23.29 #2.jpg

It's tough to read backwards (and in low light) so I'm just going to tell you outright that I hold in my hands a contributor's copy from my first anthology, Best Indie Lit New England, or BILiNE.  This is the most concrete evidence I have of how excellent a writing year 2013 has been for me already.

In addition to the arrival of the anthology, I have two poems over at The Bakery and a third at decomP as of this weekend.  And though most of my publishing news is typically in the poetry vein, this month I also celebrated the publication of my first nonfiction article by a major outlet with the appearance of "It Happened To Me: I Grew Up In A Hospital" as an entry in a contest sponsored by XOJane.  Dance break!

In preparation for AWP's impending arrival in Boston this March, I sent out a ton of new submissions this afternoon so that I'll have work to make small talk about when I meet all of the potential publishers.  I never thought of myself as a fastidious person until I started maintaining spreadsheets regarding my writing (and filing taxes when there's a big refund in store).  A week from today I'll be in Pittsburgh on something of a self-imposed writing retreat; I am so antsy to just get on the plane and be there already.  One of my main goals this year is to carve space out of my calendar for solid blocks of time dedicated to making art in other places.  Now that I've been stable and financially flush for more than just a few months, I've had time to think up plenty of excuses to strap on my traveling shoes.  Fingers crossed that my work gives me the legs to see more of the world.  But in a sense, I've already been traveling extensively--at least as far as the me in my poems is concerned.  There are copies of BILiNE floating around all over right now.  I am giddy with trying to imagine the living rooms and bedside tables I've never met that are now homes to my tiny, quiet poem.

Transient

Special Bitch Academy

Still, this story has the best possible ending, because I am telling it.

This was the moment when I had to pause in my hate-read of Elizabeth Wurtzel's recent article and take a deep, cleansing breath.  I'm not sure what I expected her to say that would make me anything besides annoyed or sad, but I went into the article hoping for the best.

When I was young, I had this mostly-inexplicable tendency to put successful women on a pedestal when I knew very little about them.  Wurtzel was one of these women.  She published Prozac Nation at 25, and I wanted to do that too; I wanted a successful book out by my mid-twenties.  I wanted to be played by Christina Ricci in the movie based on the book based on my life.  I wanted to be important enough to be a public storyteller.  I built these strangers up--they ranged from Shirley Manson of the band Garbage all the way to Margaret Atwood (the most repeated name on my older sister's bookshelf)--as idols simply because they were allowed to speak in public, and often.  This was in a time before a seconds-long web search could turn up the details of even the most obscure person's life.  Most of the power I gave these people was imagined.  But it felt real.

Wurtzel's book  Bitch  lived with these titles I spooned at night during college.

Wurtzel's book Bitch lived with these titles I spooned at night during college.

It still felt real when I was in school and reading for my thesis project.  I spent a long time winding my way through sections of the library, reading broadly and trying to find voices that resonated with me.  Wurtzel's book Bitch came onto my radar because of some list of essential feminist reading, but I was almost instantly discouraged by her hateful tone.  I made it through three chapters before realizing that I was internalizing all of the anger inherent to the text.  Granted, the book is supposed to be a history of difficult women, but instead of delighting in that history, there is very little substance beyond the anger Wurtzel has towards society for labeling these women difficult in the first place.  That anger is important, but another thing that's important when rewriting history is to make sure you produce a more dynamic picture than the one you are seeking to replace.  Instead of replacing a history written by men with something more complete, she simply swapped it out for another incomplete retelling.

I returned the book to the library and have not read Wurtzel since.  Until, that is, this article showed up in my Twitter feed.  I was curious.  It's been years since Bitch; so had she moved past being so enraged at the world around her by now?  The image I had constructed of her was one she could never live up to; I had already dismantled it trying to read Bitch.  She is, after all, a person, not a deity.  And as any writer knows, everything you produce cannot be perfect.  But I held out hope that there was some place I might connect in the rambling essay.  As she sorted through the many unconnected reasons she is glad to be rid of 2012, I waited for some kind of clarity.  She didn't seem as angry anymore, which was positive.  But her anger seemed to have been replaced with a weary disdain, which is just as destructive.  Instead of reflection, there is inventory.  I'm not happy in the conventional way, or maybe at all, but kindly read on as I'm not yet through complaining.    What a dismal thing to celebrate in thousands of words in a major publication.

"Still, this story has the best possible ending, because I am telling it."  With an outlook like hers, there doesn't seem to be a best possible ending at all.  There isn't even a clear ending at all.  Anger doesn't die, it only transmutes into some other toxic thing.  My main complaint about Wurtzel is how angry she seems in her writing, but here I am being negative too.

I am angry.  I am angry at myself for admiring her before I knew her writing, most of all because when I see her by-line, I feel compelled to give her another chance.  I am angry for having such a visceral response to everything she wrote.  I cannot deny that she is talented.  But I can't abide writing so deeply narcissistic that the author deifies herself.  It's one thing if a fan makes you a god; it is quite another if you drink your own Kool Aid.  Anyone in the public eye for as long as she's been is bound to have some warp in their self-image, but it seems that she has a very consistent self-talk loop dedicated to affirming her decisions in the face of continued unhappiness.  There is one place that I agree with her--you don't have to live life by conventional wisdom in order to live fully.  But, at least from the picture her article provides of her life, she hasn't yet found a healthy alternative.

Parting Clouds

When I went to my new doctor the other day (my first visit with a GP in my life, since my last non-specialist doctor is a pediatrician I last saw before I left for college) we started the work of sorting out how we wanted to dispatch my anxiety from its place as overlord of my life.  Up to this point, I hadn't considered that my chronic fatigue and migraines had anything to do with my mental health.  I took for granted that I just need more sleep than other people.  The world exhausts me.  I've taken frequent naps since birth.  I've had the headaches nearly as long.

Transient

But here's what blew my mind.  I assumed that the lab would find some evidence of chemical or hormonal imbalance to explain the 20 pounds I've gained in the last year, or the headaches, or the forever case of the sleepies.  I thought maybe I had anemia, or an iron deficiency at least, if not chemical depression.  But there's nothing wrong with me.  The way doc put it to me, my anxiety is a product of my thin emotional skin.  He doesn't know me very well yet, but I started crying when asked me to confirm that my father was in fact deceased.  It was a simple yes or no question any normal person could answer without so much strife, but so much of my disdain of doctors and medicine in general is tied up in what my dad went through with his health that I could not maintain the membrane between what was happening to me in the moment and what I remember from the past.  I am empath.  That's my thin skin.  I take on other people's emotions, and I am a slave to my own.  Though there's nothing chemically wrong with me, that thin skin means there might as well be.

I'd never considered drugs before, but consented to low dose medication at our appointment just to see if it might help give me a thicker skin.  It's not supposed to have any noticeable effects until about a month from now, so maybe this is just a placebo effect, but that fatigue I battle daily is entirely gone.  I'm going to wait on say the medicine murdered my migraines, as it is a bit soon, but generally I feel like I'm operating at the speed of an average person.  I went to a party full of strangers on Saturday night and instead of drinking too much for social lubrication or chain smoking on the porch as a way of avoiding social situations altogether, I participated without completely freaking out.  It was more than that though.  I had a great night.  I don't know that I've ever felt relaxed at a party before.

It might just be the knowledge that I'm on my way to getting better that's pushed me into a higher level of functionality, but even if that is the case, it's really gratifying to not be crippled in the presence of fun.  I feel so zippy, I even went running over the weekend.  This is the most astounding thing of all.  I hate exercise, but my doctor told me I should try to improve my lung capacity, as my breathing is a real problem during panic attacks.  I planned to run once, just to say that I tried, and then retreat into my cave of potato chips and cigarettes, but instead made it through a mile without flinching.  The following day, I did it again, just to see if the first run had been a fluke.  But it wasn't.

In November, when I was trying to make light of terrifying making doctor's appointments was for me, I told a friend that 2013 would be the year of self-care.  At the time, it was meant as a joke about how I wanted to put everything off for a few more months because of how stressful it felt.  But now that the wheels are turning and I am stumbling (somewhat bravely, but mostly just hopeful) forward, it seems true in a genuine way.  I am taking gummi vitamins every morning, I am making breakfast smoothies with spinach and bananas and honey and yogurt.  I am giving myself the tools to feel better.

Why So Serious?

The turnover of a year has a way about it that makes people take an inventory of things: what's working, what needs repair, what can be excised.  I am more than guilty of this.  Over the course of the last month, most of my reassessment energy has been spent on my writing.  What do I want to write more of?  How can I get the ball rolling and start churning out new drafts at the rate that I used to?  Why have I fallen so out of practice?  These are tough questions for me, as I didn't think much about what to write, or how I wrote, or why, until very recently.

Transient

In college, I wrote a poem a day for a year (quite literally) and didn't think it was all that exciting until other people made a big deal out of it.  It was a goal, and I made space in my day to get it done.  (Like this guy, who read 366 books in 2012--if you make the time and take the commitment seriously, you can get through anything.)  I got an email invite to this year's installment of the 365 Project blog--a project I say 'yes' to yearly, though I've only finished that once--and almost declined following through.  I didn't want to be reminded of how few new poems I've made in the late months on last year.  In 2012, I wrote something near 150 poems (inclusive of both newly generated work and revised drafts) and posted them there.  I'd say more than half were revisions of drafts from the first half of the year, if not cobbled-together creatures resurrected from the writing folders on my hard drive marked 2007-2011.

Since I've been keeping track of my progress via the closed internet workshop Frankenstein, it's getting harder and harder to finish thoughts.  I don't know if it's the writing online aspect, or the fact that writing semi-publicly puts a specific pressure on me to produce coherent verse on the first go.  It could be either, but I think it has more to do with how little my hands are involved in the whole process anymore.  I don't journal the way that I used to--my notebooks are bland and colorless.  I am a very visual person, and the act of writing longhand makes me feel capable magic: I made those lines, and those lines made words, and those words made sentences.  It is almost embarrassing to leaf through the pages of a journal from even a year or two ago, when I would sit doodling, brainstorming, and drafting wherever I was.

Maybe working in an office sterilized my brain.  I still feel creative, and I also continue to write a lot more than many of my peers, but it is daunting to see such a serious decline in what I am able to produce.  The quality is still there, but the rapid change in quantity is nonetheless alarming.  Maybe this is what happens when time is ever more limited.  I am learning to say no to social engagements (my chronic anxiety is a strange ally on this front) in favor of staying in to work through drafts.  I send out submissions during lulls in my work day.  I am making the space.  But the aforementioned anxiety seems to have overtaken large parts of my brain that did not used to be so encumbered.  I fall into obsessive thought patterns without terminus: tragedies play out in my mind, and then I worry about why I would think such horrible things, a thought closely chased by another about something being terribly wrong with my brain or my disposition in general, and then the pattern circles back on itself.

The pattern is a clear indicator of distress, but even worse: I haven't been able to read anything longer than 20 pages in months.  I just forced my way through Donald Ray Pollock's The Devil All The Time, which blew the lid off of my anxious inability to sit still long enough to get through a novel by inducing an anxiety about the fate of the characters that canceled out my own worry.  When I finished the book on Monday afternoon, I almost cried.  It was such a relief to simply make it out the other side of a book again.  I can't remember the last novel I read from cover to cover.  Before I moved to Boston, I was reading at least a novel a week.  Again, this precipitous shift in numbers is scary.  But I'm trying to right the ship.

I've had three poems accepted for publication in as many weeks, the most recent acceptance letter pinging into my inbox late last night as I was wrestling with thugs in Migraine City.  The smaller my list of poems that are ready to be sent out for publication gets, the more compelled I feel to replant the rows and see what comes up.  I wrote something funny the other night: a research poem to be performed at next week's Encyclopedia Show.  I don't usually write funny, and it felt nice to move through a space without self-imposed rules of engagement.  I got silly.  Talked about acrobats falling off ladders, Nazis, New Jersey, ways disaster can be avoided.  I had fun.  It reminded me to take the words I put in rows a little less seriously.  And I can't say enough how refreshing it was to not sit down once again in hopes of saying something different, only to detour back down the road of grief and loss that I've been treading and retreading in my work for over a year.  I finally wrote something wry, and funny.  It felt great.

Celebrating With My Tribe

I get really overwhelmed every holiday season.  There's so much traveling to do, not to mention the litany of parties (and I NEED to be present at all of them), the stressful shopping trips, the rush to squeeze as many fun nights out of the last few weeks of the year as possible.  Something important to remember--if ever you're feeling creatively adrift, reach out and find someone to collaborate with.  It will remind you of your own strengths, and teach you about new ones you didn't realize you had.  This weekend, I had brunch with my new editorial cohort at Printer's Devil Review, where I'll be helping to edit the nonfiction section.  Besides the excellent home fries, it was exciting to talk deadlines, direction, and delegate responsibilities for the close of our reading period.  If you have any memoir or nonfiction articles kicking around, please send them along.  I'd love to read you.

Transient

I'm also working on founding a robot religion with some friends from Pittsburgh in preparation for a short film project.  Penning flash fiction is something I love, and I don't get to do it nearly enough.  Same goes for experimenting with speculative landscapes.  I've been reading the Bible and thinking about how to make it metallic.  All this pseudo-spiritual excitement is owed to Justin Nixon and his beautiful brain.  (Check out his full-length documentary, Mibsters, about competitive marble players, currently a film festival hopeful.)  Stay tuned for news on our project--there will be a Kickstarter in the spring, after we get through a good deal of world-building.  Oh, and those comic book evangelical tracts.  But for robots.  SO COOL.

Earlier this month I was privileged to be on the judging panel for Berklee College's student slam team, along with visiting poet (and new tribe member) Lewis Mundt, and  Erich Haygun.  In addition to scoring their work Olympic-style, we got to do a live, intimate performance workshop.  There were impromptu group pieces (amazing how quick and deft the kids were with improv) and multiple performances by each competitor.  It was really exciting to feel the love in that room--how much everyone supported one another, even though there were eight students competing for a five person team.  They wanted to win, but they were also committed to making sure they helped each other do their best work.  "Slam family" is a phrase a lot of performance poetry communities kick around, and I often take it with a grain of salt.  But when it comes to Berklee, it always feels like family.

Finally, speaking of performance, intimacy, and family, I'll be performing January 7th as a part of the Encyclopedia Show: Somerville.  The EncycloShow is a variety show with a revolving theme--this month's being explosions.  I'm proud to be sharing the stage that night with an impressive list of folks from time in the performance poetry world, though only a few of us will be bringing poems that night.  Past occurrences at these types of shows have included an invisible bear, a crayon-eating sideshow performance, couch ninjas, and a hysterical rap songs called "The Essence of Fluorescence."  I get to write and perform a poem about an infamous explosion; I won't tell you which one though.  Suffice it to say that it got a lot of media coverage in its day.  And it may or may not have inspired an Archer episode about a similar situation.  You'll only find out what I've been assigned for sure if you end up at the Davis Square Theater (a discount on tickets if you do so in Prohibition Era garb), so plan accordingly.

All that being said, small personal triumphs are always welcome.  I just found out my poem "Under Fresh Growth" will be appearing in the next issue of The Pedestal, which happens to be their 12 year anniversary issue.  They published the first poem I was ever paid for, "Nursery," which is still very dear to my heart.  Because sharks.

It's cold out.  Go hug somebody you love.  Or, if you're feeling ambitious, ask them to work on something you're excited about.  More often than not, more than one great mind turns a project into a party.

When Ageist Artists Attack!

I went to a tiny reading in Cambridge last weekend that ended up a round-robin situation with some saxophone players and a few poets trading off, sharing renditions and drafts.  Normally, I can make this kind of set-up work for me.  At readings, I am often the tag-along friend, rarely the featured performer.  An accidental salon-style round-robin lets me pull out my smartphone and jump into the mix without any of the pressure of preparing a set, worrying about merch, or feeling obligated to make small talk.  I can read my work and then recede into the background until my next turn.

CUPSI ’09 (college slam nationals), the last time I felt remotely close in age to my writing peers
CUPSI ’09 (college slam nationals), the last time I felt remotely close in age to my writing peers

During the salon, someone asked if I was applying to MFA programs; in response I mentioned my age and said I felt like I still had a good chunk of time before a graduate degree would feel like a priority for me.  This is my knee-jerk response to such questions.  I feel far too young to be on the graduate school path.  Mentioning my age is my way of arguing that point.  But the deflection tactic came back to bite me once we got to the bar.  One of the women I was with told me she was impressed my work was so mature for someone my age.  Now, sometimes backhanded compliments happen by accident.  But this one felt purposeful, dismissive.

I am thoroughly familiar with being the “baby” socially.  I had an early birthday in school and was always the youngest of my friends.  I had a full time job throughout college and graduated a semester early, so I was thrust into the “adult” world when I was barely 21.  My partner is 7 years my senior.  So the, “wait, you’re how old?” conversation has gotten a bit tiresome at this point.

The woman and I danced around this awkward spot in our conversation: she piled on qualifiers for her original statement while I answered shortly and tried to reorient the conversation in a less uncomfortable direction.

HER:  So, when did you start writing?

ME:  I mean, I’ve always written.  Do you mean “seriously” writing?  I guess in college, but I had kept notebooks very seriously for years before that…

HER:  It’s just so interesting, I mean, when I was your age my voice wasn’t nearly as…

UGH.  That’s the only thing it feels appropriate to say in this situation.  I refuse to apologize for my age, or the fact that I’ve made writing a very serious part of my life for at least a decade.  The biggest frustration that I have about this reoccurring conversation is that I could easily avoid it if I would just keep my stupid mouth shut.  That number is at once an excuse (just in case I disappoint) and a jibe (just in case I’m really awesome).  If I under-perform, I can blame it on being young.  If I exceed expectations, I can obliquely taunt those in nearby company with my wunderkind abilities.

Either way, I will never understand how age is at all proportional to talent, drive or craftsmanship.  I take my writing seriously, and have for quite some time.  I know what excites and interests me in my own writing and the writing of others.  Shouldn’t that be enough to make me a peer to any other writer?  Aren’t we all just lovers of words regardless of age, intention, or advanced degrees?  It seems so arbitrary to draw attention to what year I was born as it relates to what I’ve managed in my writing life.  Except, of course, if it’s making somebody older a little uncomfortable with where they stand in relation.

Being Seen

Confession time: I used to take near-daily photobooth portraits of myself.  Not the fancy kind that are developed while you wait, but the iPhoto kind.  It was a habit that began with my entrance into the land of all-white computers and has since tapered off to a rare, necessity bound activity.

I don't show most of these photos to anyone.  They live on my hard drive anonymously, where I have them stashed for the nights when I get nostalgic for old haircuts.  I peruse the ones from my first months of college when I miss my shaved head.  I dig through the mohawk and Manic Panic phases to remind myself that I can always just say "fuck it" and look as strange as I always feel.  

Transient

But more recently, I've been digging through them looking for appropriate head shots for writing situations.  I have a new editing gig, which means writing a bio for the staff page, and finding a picture to offer up to my editor in chief as my personal internet thumbnail.  My hair changes length, style, and color so frequently that this is one of the things I hate the most about living out my writing life publicly.  If I send one of the recent blonde pictures, it won't look like me.  If I send the shot from the weekend post head-shave, it won't look like me.  Go too far back into the archive and piercing and tattoos disappear one by one.  I get too pale, too tan, too round in the face, too made up, too wildly dressed, too comfortable to lay around PJs all day.  Every picture is just too much of something.

The most infuriating thing about this practice is that none of the pictures looks quite like how I see myself.  No matter what, the picture I choose will be somehow inaccurate.  The one I've dug up for my new editorial bio is a little old, but perhaps one of my favorites buried in the archive.  I am dressed up for Halloween at the retail store I worked at during my last semester of college.  My costume that year was the Angel of Death.  I cropped the giant goth wings out of the image.  The black lipstick is a little faded, and seems more like a burgundy than full on onyx.  I have yet to stretch my ears.  If the frame was wider, I'd be missing a few tattoos.  But the girl in that photo looks just the way I feel on my strongest, best days: she knows exactly what she is doing and exactly where she needs to be.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

Transient

Mercury is in retrograde, which means general upheaval and discord.  I have a new, sunny desk with a lot of natural light at work.  I shaved my head just after Halloween.  I'm getting ready for a week on the Cape for general giving of thanks and a few jogs around the sand dunes.  There are big plans in the works for grant and fellowship applications.  Sure, I've been running around Boston in below-freezing temperatures in lieu of getting the recommended amount of sleep per night, but instead of letting the off-kilter tone of November get me down, I've taken all the constant activity as an opportunity to clean house.  This means throwing the windows open and airing all of it out--digging up old drafts and kicking them into shape, cleaning up on-going manuscripts, and making sure I'm spending my writing time the best way I know how.

That being said, I've made the decision to leave Side B Magazine, and the up-coming Class & Money issue will be my last as poetry editor.  (In the meantime, check out the 7 Days In The Art World issue--it just went live!)  Please submit, as I'd like to go out with a bang, and have the last group of poems I select really kick serious ass.  The past few issues have set a pretty high bar, so I'm looking for a few stellar poets to round out my tenure there.  Could one of them be you?  In preparation for my exit, I've brought the backlog of essays in my Side B series, "Adventures in Anarcho-Poetics," to this site; you can find them under the ANARCHO-POETICS tab.  Besides musings on writing life, there are also interviews with James Caroline, Sophia Holtz, and soon, a brand new conversation with Cassandra de Alba.  I think my favorite part of life at Side B has been the excuse it gave me to try my hand at journalism.  The interview series, though brief, gave me license for real talks with writers I love and admire, but never really get the chance to talk much about craft with.

Transient

In my personal writing world, I've got poems all over the internet this fall.  At FRiGG Magazine, you can find a selection of five of my recent pieces, running the gamut in subject matter: there are sharksdrinks with the deadsummer flingslucky pennies, and a little bit of amateur magic for good measure.  Cassandra has a handful of poems in the same issue, and you better read those as well.  (There is nothing more cool to me than appearing in an issue alongside my best friend.)  Also debuting this month is the new edition of The Well&Often Reader, a literary magazine geared towards teaching artists that includes lesson plans alongside published work.  I'm honored to have two of my poems included, not least of all because Caits Meissner wrote a lesson plan based on "Kismet" encouraging students to tackle their fears through varying artistic mediums.  And to round out the end of this year, there is a poem of mine appearing in the forthcoming issue of Sugar House Review, another online at Paper Darts, and a third tapped to appear over at Word Riot.

I spent Tuesday night on Boylston St, celebrating "The Same Love" with students at Berklee College of Music's reVERB spoken word collective.  (You can read all about it here.)  I haven't been attending many readings of late, so it was tough to drag myself down to the train for this one, but once there, I felt completely at home.  The theme of the night was giving space to queer voices, and the students' work was brave and exciting, brilliantly capped by Adam Stone's feature, where the poems emphasized the power present in the language of identity.  If ever you are feeling apathetic about writing, I urge you to go to a spoken word reading.  It will kick your ass, even if there's just one poem that jumps out and scares you out of your seat with its sharp teeth and big heart.  This is why I love performance poetry--if a night goes well, I feel changed completely at the end of things.  (I'm sure the post-show margaritas only emphasized the euphoria.)

And one last bit of good news--I'm joining the team at Printer's Devil Review as one of their nonfiction editors.  It's a big step outside my comfort zone as a writer, and I am so ready for the change.

Scared To Read

Transient

At some point in high school or college, I remember being assigned some selection from Harold Bloom’s book The Anxiety of Influence.  I can’t, for the life of me, recall what passage we read for class or why, but the title comes to mind every time I get into a reading rut.  Today, I am in a serious reading rut.  The past few weeks, I haven’t been spending much time with books.  I cracked open Murakami’s 1Q84 in mid-October, and though his work is typically something I can’t keep my hands off of, I’ve consumed all of two-hundred pages since then.  I’ve also been sitting on Eduardo C. Corral’s brilliant poetry collection, Slow Lightning, unable to push through the last few pages and pass it along to the friend I promised it to.  I have a to-read list I’m loathe to record here for posterity, as writing every title I mean to get to sometime soon will betray me as poorly-versed in what plenty of my friends and peers deem essential to a writing identity.  I quoted Joan Didion last week, but I’ve only actually read one of her books, The Year of Magical Thinking, in its entirety.  When authors mention the writers that shaped their work in interviews, I cringe, knowing I should have gotten around to some Octavia Butler or Edwidge Danticat by now.  I’ve not read Vonnegut (tried in high school when everyone was doing it, hated him) or Bukowski (ditto), writers most of the bibliophiles around me agree are the bees knees.  I bought a beautiful copy of War and Peace after a course in Tolstoy that made me fall in love with Russian fiction five years ago, but I’ve yet to even write my name on the inside cover.  All these books are more than worthy of my attention.  Much more worthy than all the circuits of internet I’ve been treading and retreading, from blog to email server to Duotrope to Twitter, back and forth until I shut down my laptop for the night and get into bed.  I know it’s not the quality of the work that’s holding me back, but something much more nebulous, intangible.

When I can’t get through the books on my plate, I tend not to write much either.  I’ve never been able to figure out whether the dearth of writing is the product of the drop of in reading or vice versa.  Normally, I’m firmly of the mind that to be a good writer, you must be a voracious reader.  I like to think I’m a decent writer.  I feel confident workshopping my drafts and reading my work in public, do alright when it comes to publishing.  But to call myself a voracious reader in my current state would be self-flagellation; saying such a thing is an invitation to the other party in the conversation to interrogate your taste.  ”What are you reading right now?”  I dread being asked that question.  Not because I have nothing to answer with, but because it invariably leads to the asker telling me what they are reading, then insisting I read it myself.  I then have to add the title to my ever ballooning list of books to get too.  And my bookcase grows ever-more intimidating.

There are ways around the attitude that a book is an insurmountable task, but you have to start small.  Running interference on my brain by taking in some (or any) kind of writing helps–I’ve been picking up back issues of journals lying around my apartment and reading them in fits and starts.  The frequent shifts in form, tone, and content in publications like the brilliantly quirky Forklift, Ohio have been a godsend.  I read all the articles in every issue of Vanity Fair that arrives in my mailbox; it’s not always a literary experience, but it’s something.  And as long as I don’t have any pressing errands to take care of, I spend my lunch hour at the office curled up with a book.  Even if I can only manage fifty pages a day, it makes me feel like less of a fraud when anyone asks about my degree in literature.

Bloom’s Anxiety is built around the concept that poets feel oppressed by the generation that came before and that this anxiety is what informs a lot of their work, preventing it from being truly original because of how preoccupied the poet is with her predecessor.  Some days, this thesis applies to me.  If I’m working on a story or poem, I try to steer clear of work that might pollute my own with borrowed ideas–the last thing I want to do is accidentally regurgitate somebody else’s artistic product and write solely in reaction to what they’ve already said.  But I’d be lying if I said that reading doesn’t help me write.  The most powerful aspect of reading is how it transports you worlds away without forcing you to leave the comfort of your favorite chair.  That transportive quality is invaluable, and it is what I most want my own work to have whenever I start in on a new piece of writing.  Instead of being scared of how few of the books on my list of to-reads I’ll actually get to, I have to remind myself of how many people I have met through the pages of a book, how much I’ve learned about myself as a writer (and a person) just by slogging through someone else’s imagined universe a handful of pages at a time.

Experiments In New Formalism

I am not good with rigidity when it comes to writing.  I like to write on my own schedule, about whatever emerges when my pen hits the page.  I can’t be bothered with memorizing metrical patterns or when lines should repeat, so I am famously bad at form poems.  I signed up for a form slam once and nearly withdrew from the competition out of sheer embarrassment when my sestinas and villanelles turned out less than pleasant to listen to.

Last week I mentioned that Dana Gioia’s essay on New Formalism really got under my skin when he asserted that contemporary poetry has no idea how or when to employ form, and therefore has no ear for language.  It made me want to, in spite of my deep and serious aversion, write a form poem, and not only do it right, but do it well.  Easily said, but pretty difficult to execute.  Unless you have the right tools, of course.  (Here’s where it gets weird.)

i mage from Biography.com

image from Biography.com

I’ve been itching to write a poem about Danny Williams, tragically disappeared filmmaker and Warhol lover, ever since I first saw the documentary A Walk Into The Sea for the first time a handful of years ago.  (If you’ve never heard of the movie, you’re not alone.  But it is available for instant viewing on Netflix and very worth it, so go!  See!)  In fact, after seeing the film, I’ve been thinking about writing a series of poems about the revolving cast of characters in Warhol’s Factory, but I could never figure out where to begin.  So much about everyone of that specific cultural moment is myth or hearsay, and writing about people I have no personal connection to is rather difficult for me unless I can find an access point.  So the Warhol poems got shelved indefinitely.

Until Monday night, when I decided it was finally time to write Danny Williams a poem.  I cued up the movie and took notes from start to finish, filling four pages of my notebook; you can see the distilled version of those noteshere.  Initially, my idea was to write a found poem, using only dialogue from the first person interviews.  But as I scrawled away and then typed up the quotes, I realized how repetitive the information was.  How many people uttered some iteration of, “I don’t remember Danny Williams,” and then revised their statements, the truth building on the initial lie until something completely new and very real had come from the original obfuscation.

It seemed the perfect opportunity to write in form.  The repetition was already there, it was simply my job to shape that repetition.  Working from my notes, I started building a pantoum using the documentary dialogues.  Words were tweaked here and there, but the final product is almost entirely composed of found text from the film.  When starting a poem from scratch, form intimidates me.  But with all the raw material laid out in front of me, it helped to organize all that talk into a compact, evocative story.  Where normally it’s difficult for me to write about strangers, the form became my access point for speaking comfortably about someone I can never meet.  It imposed a distance from the subject that made it easier to pick out which pieces of information were important enough to present to a reader multiple times, while reminding of the way the layered truth comes about in the documentary.

Repetitive forms lend themselves especially to this layered version of the truth.  Check out contributor to our up-coming art issue Cassandra de Alba’s sestina, “Tchaikovsky, 1944,” in this month’s issue of Printer’s Devil Review for an example of contemporary formalism gone incredibly right.  Contributor to our Gender, Sex, and Sexuality issue and Side B‘s representative in the BILiNE anthology, Sean Patrick Mulroy, has a poem called“wight,” that consists of two blank sonnets based on some pretty upsetting footage of Brittany Murphy from her last public appearance before her death.  Amy Newman’s poem, “The Letting Go,” is another bit of neo-formalist excellence, and her book Dear Editor invents something of a new form by collecting cover letters as poems in their own right.  And though there are plenty of literary journals that may turn up their nose at such formal experiments, online lit mag Radius solicits submissions of invented forms with instructions, seeking poets who are not only willing formalists, but inventors as well as authors.

On Poetry And The Academy

Transient

I’m going to start by saying that I don’t read a lot of theory when it comes to poetry–I tend to get annoyed with the holier-than-thou tone of a lot of critical writing, essays that end up so far removed from the original subject matter that ultimately what is said could be in reference to any situation or details disdained.  But I recently had a birthday, and my grandma gave me a collection of critical essays entitled Can Poetry Matter?  The collection is built on its title essay, which has a lot of points I generally agree with.  Dana Gioia makes plenty of convincing arguments therein that I fully agree with, most of them about how poetry’s shift from the artistic community to the academic community has institutionalized the art.  In my favorite moment, he diagnoses why this shift is dangerous:

Today poetry is a modestly upwardly mobile, middle-class profession—not as lucrative as waste management or dermatology but several big steps above the squalor of bohemia… The campus is not a bad place for a poet to work. It’s just a bad place for all poets to work. Society suffers by losing the imagination and vitality that poets brought to public culture. Poetry suffers when literary standards are forced to conform with institutional ones.

Unfortunately, he contradicts himself in a later essay, “Notes On The New Formalism,” claiming that the dearth of formal training evident in contemporary poetry has caused a generation of poets unaware of how their work sounds aloud, and wholly ignorant of how ugly their verse is.  His argument attempts to impose the institutional view of poetry–poems as rigidly organized syllabic structures instead of intuitive art objects–on a world where free verse reigns supreme, and has since the modernists he so lauds.

When Gioia speaks about free verse as the death of attention to sound in poetry, I get uncomfortable.  Not just because it seems hopelessly reductive, but because free verse, by its very nature, is the most democratic of poetic forms.  One need not have any kind of formalized poetic education in order to write a successful free verse poem.  There is no rhyme scheme to memorize, no feet to count out, no binding metrical pattern to organize the writing.  Because of this fluidity, free verse can be used by any person to enter the world of poetry.  It is how I fell in love with the medium.  It is the bridge poetry has into the layperson’s world, the one Gioia so craves in Can Poetry Matter?, where the academic guardianship of poetics acts as an affront to all things holy about being a poet.

In the same way that Gioia abhors the idea that poets must teach to eek out a living, I abhor the idea that a poem must be written in recognizable metrical pattern or formal structure for it to be well-crafted.  Full disclosure: this difference of opinion is likely owed to the fact that I cut my teeth in the spoken word community.  This happenstance is what inspires my biggest issue with Gioia’s reasoning; “Notes On The New Formalism” claims that poets have lost track of the importance of the sounds of words in their work.  He assumes no one reads their work out loud.  He could not be more wrong.  The proliferation of poetry readings in every major city I’ve ever visited makes him a liar.  The rampant popularity of slam poetry among young poets makes him a liar.

It is fully possible that a lot has changed in the poetry world since Gioia first penned his essays.  But what is more likely to be the case is that the poetry community exists in deeply divided factions.  Poetry’s most visible home has become college campuses, without a doubt.  Poets, more now than ever, make their living teaching.  Despite this change in the way poetry fits into our culture, it can still be found outside of the academy’s sphere of influence, and thus, outside the rules the academy has for what makes a poem.

I was in New Jersey this past weekend and ended up in a dive bar for drinks with a few close members of my family.  After the atrocious cover band finished up their last set, the bartender put on a hip-hop mix that was mostly Lil Wayne songs.  My uncle said, “You hear patterns in this, don’t you?” and we got into a discussion about the literary devices at play in contemporary hip hop.  I thought of a poet I know who structures poetry workshops for kids in juvenile detention around Lil Wayne songs.  That’s definitely not what Gioia was thinking of when he begged for form to be taught to budding poets, but I think it speaks to all of the roads we can take and still end up with a poem.

Recognizing Writers

I had an incredibly bizarre dream the other night about attending a David Foster Wallace reading.  He stood atop a massive pile of trash, bloated to a massive girth (were it not for his ubiquitous bandana, I wouldn’t have recognized him), and read from a new collection of short stories.  I was completely overcome by the experience.  His prose has wormed its way into my top ten list over the past few years, so as far as the writing was concerned, I was un-surprised.  But beyond the writing, I was annoyed at everyone else in the room.  They were listening, but impatient.  I could tell none of them knew who he was, simply because he did not look like his author photo.

D avid Foster Wallace, as found  here .
David Foster Wallace, as found here.

The dream went on to other strange places, but once I was awake again, the thing that still bothered me was how no one had wanted to listen to him because he simply did not look like a writer.  He looked like a slob.  He was wearing dirty clothes that did not fit, he had not showered in some time; in stark contrast, everyone standing around his trash podium was well-heeled and deeply skeptical.  But what is a writer supposed to look like?

Often, especially when talking to strangers, people act surprised when they find out I am a writer.  Their level of shock increases when I mention the publishing success I’ve been blessed with.  Granted, I am pretty young to have done as well as I’m doing right now.  But I don’t think age is the main factor in their surprise.  My appearance is a good-sized leap away from average; I look more like a bartender than a bard.  I think the strangers seem uncomfortable that I’ve done well for myself in a highly competitive and often deeply academic field because  a woman in her early twenties with more than a few large visible tattoos and facial piercings isn’t someone they typically take very seriously.   But that’s where my empathy for their confusion ends.  Maybe this is due to my lifetime of friendship with crusty misanthropes, tattooed barflies, and other such misfits, but it really gets my goat that appearance and “refined” language are seen as requirements for a successful writer, or an intelligent person in general.  Show me your stuffy, elbow-patched ideal of a poet, and I call probably show you five writers just as talented who might be mistaken for carnies.   Even if you think they don’t or can’t exist, they do.  And they are no less brilliant at writing because of their unconventional appearances.

I wouldn’t take such serious issue with this line of thought if it didn’t show up across the board in academia.  Anyone who’s gone to college has had at least one “wacky” professor who exists beyond the norm, but for the most part, academia is pretty inhospitable to those who do not exist within that elbow-patched brainiac norm.  (Not that I don’t like elbow patches, but they have certain connotations.)  When I was finishing up my last semester at school, I had a few wonderful professors encouraging me to continue my studies, and a big reason I didn’t is because of judgments people made about me based on the way I look.  I wish I’d handed every skeptic of my intelligence level a book by Daphne Gottlieb or Rachel McKibbens or Nick Flynn or any number of hard-swaggering, big-brained rock-n-roll poets.

When I finished college, I had a teal mohawk, a septum ring, several large (and visible) tattoos, and a serious chip on my shoulder.  Anytime I spoke eloquently about literature or politics, people seemed genuinely surprised that I was not only a reasonable person, but a well-educated one fully capable of putting them in their place in spite of my somewhat-wild appearance.  It made me almost as angry as people assuming that because I am a woman, I couldn’t possibly have anything interesting to say.  To think that these kind of stereotypes exist when we close our eyes and picture our favorite writers makes me sick.

This disconnect between what the general public assumes writers should look like and what we actually look like isn’t only a poet’s problem.  Isabel Slone writes very eloquently about why spending most of her freelancer’s day in pajamas does not disqualify her from being a worthy fashion writer:

Frankly, it doesn’t matter what I look like, as long as the work gets done. …The grand dame of fashion journalism Cathy Horyn, is also a really boring dresser. Horyn may be fashion critic for the New York Times, sitting front row at fashion shows, but she isn’t there to be seen. She is there to have an unobstructed view of the collections being presented, so she can write about them with honesty and clarity.

Unfortunately, when it comes to stereotypes about appearance, things are rarely honest or clear.   The assumptions made about appearance are not only vehicles for racism, classism, and sexism; they make writing into an elite club that can only be accessed by those who “have the look.”  In Sloane’s article on the homogeneous nature of street style fashion blogs for the Toronto Standard, she discusses how the sameness is really just another form of advertising:

I started blogging before Susie Bubble, before Tavi, and I have never achieved insider status or anything close to it. For example, in October 2011, FLARE.com created a slideshow with 22 bloggers wearing Canadian fashion. Picture after picture featured a blandly “fashionable” aesthetic that appeals to people with too much money, not enough taste and a charge account at Holt Renfrew. …I remained embittered that none of the creative Canadian fashion blogs that I read and love (Nice and ShinyPull TeethCalur Villade) were included either. Whoever is creating this content seems to be aiming for mass appeal over unique perspectives.

Slone’s criticism can be applied to the larger writing world, in that the day we start having expectations about what a writer should or should not look like is the day we are deaf to innovative voices simply because they do not fit our idea of what a writer needs to be.  What should a writer look like?  What should an artist look like?  I know plenty of people who belong to both categories, and there is no one visual trend I could describe for you.  Every race makes art, as well as every permutation of gender, every political background, and every level of intelligence.  They all wear different clothes, listen to different music, have diverse vocabularies of both words and experiences.  There is no one-size-fits-all image of an artist we can use to recognize the creative class on the street.  It is not unreasonable to have expectations, but you need to be willing to question why those expectations exist.  Does stature or speech pattern tell us much about the capabilities of somebody’s mind?  Not even close.

David Foster Wallace came to me in a dream for a posthumous book release and I knew it was him because of his words on the page, their cadences, the thematic concerns.  When a writer has found his voice, that is how he can be recognized.  Not by height or weight or style of dress, but by the words he makes.  That is how we know writers.  Because they put words in rows on a page.  That is the face of a writer that should be the one most important to their audience: the face that changes and becomes more whole with every chapter.

Bambi, Dyed In The Wool

The heat won't come on in my apartment building until mid-month, but I am hiding under afghans in the interim and dreaming of all things crisp and fiery.  Beef stew simmering all evening on the stove?  You got it.  Hot whiskey lemonade nightcaps?  Yes, please.  Forest creatures on canvas?  My latest endeavor.

Transient

I started painting the guy to our left a few nights ago while watching television.  It's no secret that my dude and I both got deer tattoos at the end of this summer, and I've always been a little giddy about antlers. He'll be up on my Etsy store as soon as all the finishing touches are in place.

Generally, all my new projects for SickDomestics involve antlers, horns, and headwear (oh my).  A few weeks ago, on a jaunt to a garlic and arts festival in Western Mass, I picked up a bunch of yarn from local sheep (and more than a few varieties from the warehouse at Webs) and have been prototyping some stuffed gift creatures.  Unicorns, curly-horned rams, narwhals.  Maybe I'll even engineer a stag of some kind to match the new painting, though, knowing me, I'll get carried away and he'll end up top-heavy with twenty points knocking him off his spindly feet.  And hats.  There will be lots of hats, as I am a knit cap obsessive and am forever in search of new, bizarre patterns.

I've accumulated more scrap yarn than I care to mention, so it may be time to get started on another zigzag afghan.  My own has seen me through five New England winters with no signs of quitting.  It might be time to share that cozy secret with the world.

Drink To That

The holidays haven't quite started yet, but summer's been thoroughly nailed into her coffin, and we all know there's plenty on our plates to finish before the new year.

Transient

I have poems appearing all over this fall--look out for them in the next issues of Sugar House Review and FRiGG Magazine, as well as on the Paper Darts website.  My poem, "Sense Memory," first seen over at Amethyst Arsenic, has been selected for inclusion in the first BILiNE anthology, where it will live among many friends.  I'm also exceedingly proud to announce that my poem, "A Spade, A Spade," is a finalist for the Gigantic Sequins poetry contest, judged by Nick Flynn.  I'm told he's picked a winner, but no one will say who.

For the month of October, I've been banging out a poem a day on a private blog with some very motivated (and very talented) far-flung friends.  It's been a welcome challenge to make space in my schedule for producing one brand new serviceable draft each day, and it's also forcing me to write about the things I don't typically sit very long with.  I'm developing a series of letters to the moon, as well as wringing out some demons that needed banishing.

Oh, and just in case you forgot, I have paintings and prints for sale over at SickDomestics.  Some of my favorites have already gone to wonderful new homes.  (I feel like a proud parent.)  And in time for gifting season, there will be an entire ark of strange, wonderful yarn creatures to take home and snuggle up by the fire with.

In honor of all this newness, I bleached my hair blonde on Friday.  It feels right to suddenly appear so different, what with all the big accomplishments and even bigger changes on the horizon.

A Major Message, Courtesy of The Rider-Waite Deck

I went out to NoHo at the end of August to spectate at the first of their monthly poetry brothels  and had the first tarot reading of my life.  It was just a simple three-card thing and I don't know much about the whole process, but I like having an interpretative framework for life and a trusted friend was doing the readings, so I went for it.  Lapsed Catholicism doesn't really help sort out the details on a regular basis, so cards will do.

Transient

It was a Past/Present/Future reading; my cards came up Ace of Wands, The Hanged Man, and The Sun.  I was told this is a really positive sequence.  In the past position, the Ace signifies coming from a place of intense creative spark, which definitely applies.  The past year has been one of explosive changed, especially creatively.  My first issue with Side B is under my belt.  I've had more than my fair share of publishing credits.  I've picked up my paints in earnest.  The recent past is a kind, glowing place in which I am at the pinnacle of productivity.  The Hanged Man is apparently a tough card for Virgos, no matter where it lands.  We don't like being restrained or asked to remain patient while the world continues to speed by.  (This must be why I always have such a hard time meditating.)  I am on the cusp astrologically speaking though, which means that if I can force myself to be more of a Libra about the now, then I will be much better for it.

Finally, my future card: The Sun.  My friend was ecstatic when I turned this last card over.  Apparently it means that the creative sparks in my past, through patience in the now, will result is big creative triumphs for me.  The waiting it the key, but the horizon has lots of good things in store.  And from the the bottom of the deck--my "distant future" card--came The Knight of Cups, a sign of more success to come.  Now, I am nothing if not impatient.  I had this reading about a month ago and am still antsy for something big to happen.  I've got over about 25 submissions out being read, many of them held onto so long that I know the writing must be getting at least a second look with an eye towards publication.  Anxiously tapping my foot while waiting for acceptance letters to come rolling in won't make them come any faster (or protect me from the inevitable rejection letters that will pepper the same batch of responses), but I'm still doing it.  On the bright side, I sold a painting for the first time in my life on Saturday (and there are more for sale here, along with full-size prints).  So, thus far anyway, the predictions have been correct.  I suppose I'm just greedy when it come to getting the good stuff I've been promised, even if the promises only came from an entirely fallible deck of cards.