Things For Which I Am Grateful, Presented In No Particular Order

Thanks

The rise, fall, and (most importantly) triumphant return of Ms. Britney Jean Spears; the honorific “Ms.”; Ms. Magazine; my parents for buying me copies of Ms. Magazine at the Hoover Barnes and Noble when I was in 8th grade; having survived 8th grade and every other awkward adolescent year; the terrible, awkward, beautiful experience of 8th grade and every other awkward adolescent year; my parents; my parents; my parents again, in so many ways for which we haven’t even invented the language; my right to read what I want and write what I want and to read what I need and to write what I need; having a voice; others having a voice; my right to have a voice about what happens to and inside of my body; my right to protest; my right to feel anger and love and empathy and the importance of feeling all three at once; Cholesterol Leave-In Deep Conditioning Treatment; chocolate covered pretzels (white, milk, and dark); my beautiful and creative friends from high school, and for all of the struggles and triumphs and glories we experienced inside of that concrete art factory, and for the amazingly beautiful and creative people they have become; honey roasted peanut butter; antibiotics, antiperspirants, and antacids; Sarah Lawrence College (and the Teahaus blaring Hendrix and the Coffehaus parties where we danced to Pulp and the waffle bar in Bates and the time someone hid a boombox playing “F*** the Police” on repeat in the wisteria trellis and all of my teachers and conference classes and all of the talks and all of the late nights with charcoal and ash trays and Zoo Tycoon and so many of the best people I have ever known, who are so astoundingly brilliant that they leave me speechless and inspired and so proud to have occupied the same space with them); for my teachers, my teachers, my teachers; for Phenergan and forgiveness; for Skinny Peppermint White Chocolate Lattes and poems and verbs; sometimes even for adverbs; for emergency medicine and nasogastric tubes and the way it feels to ride in a wheelchair down the hospital hallway and out the door you thought you might never pass through again, for the way it feels when you step out of that wheelchair and onto the sidewalk after you thought you might never step out of a wheelchair and onto a sidewalk again; for the Grinders who’ve written day after day after word after word with me; for glitter, sequins, sparkles, and faux fur; for Martha Goddamn Stewart; for my graduate school friends and all of the times we fought with each other and with our words and came together again because we loved the same thing, which was language, which meant that even if we didn’t for the moment realize it, we also loved each other; for all the Wilmington nights we spent out singing loudly but terribly, playing pool loudly but terribly, until the street lights gave up control and blinked as we walked-sung-laughed-stumbled-walked-again by; for my students and everything they have taught me and for the fact that – believe me, believe me — they have taught me more than I could ever teach them; for hummingbirds and hummingbird cakes; for birds and all of their Top 40 melodies and Tin Pan Alleys and B-side songs; for friends who call to talk about MH370 and whether language is a trick and if that even matters if it leads to such beauties and mistakes; Siri’s beautiful mistakes; for maps and for legends; for yarn and crochet patterns and YouTube videos; for Lana Del Rey’s unreleased tracks; for, moreso and forevermore, Beyoncé; for love and for the way one’s definition of love changes as you get older; for the love of getting older; for Anne Carson and Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein and Jacqueline Susann, and for the ability to list them all in one sentence without shame; for cats with literary names, and for the namesakes of cats with literary names; for Internet cats, including Henri and L’Imbecile Blanc, and Yasss Cat and Heavy Breathing Cat and Chairman Meow, may he rest in peace; for the sublime and the revised sublime; for families and couches and how in our shared familiar living rooms on shared familiar couches with shared familiar foods and coffees and cookies and cocktails all of the years and miles we’ve counted between us are suddenly struck out of the equation and we are laughing about the way Maw Maw danced in her Muu Muu with a wooden spoon in each hand to keep the babies from crying; for grandmothers who dance in Muu Muus with spoons and for the babies who really actually did stop crying; for rain and its intricacies of quiet; for quiet; for everyone who will read this and everyone who won’t and for this strange and terrible but amazing online space that brings us and our words and our images together, no matter how far apart we may seem.

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Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tokas, showing Thanksgiving how it is DONE.

 

Farewell, My Lovely: Remembering Diann Blakely

PRE-SCRIPT: If you’ve already read this, please forgive me the re-post.  I posted it on Creative Sweet, the GSU Department of Writing and Linguistics’ Creative Writing blog, but I’ve been thinking and re-thinking through it ever since and wanted to post it here, as well.  Tonight, on All Soul’s Day, when the time lost its footing and the darkness came on early, just felt like the right time.

In my poetry workshop, we started this semester by talking, as we always do, about what poetry does for us as human beings — and how and why it does it. We talked about how poetry works in small, beautiful, and reflective moments that reflect back upon our lives and ourselves, helping us to understand who we are and who we have been, helping us to remember. A poem compresses a moment in time into a substance, diamond-like, that lasts as long as people can read.

This idea, of course, is not my own. It’s one of the most ancient ideas we have about poetry, an idea that poets from Sappho to Keats to Dickinson have set into the intricate setting of their language. It’s an idea I am most familiar with from Shakespeare’s sonnets, and as I talked with my class, my mind is turned, as my mind has been turning all semester, to the teacher who led me to understand the sonnet, who spoke so eloquently about poetry, about how it fails and succeeds and fails again at showing us who we are and who we fail to be. That teacher was Diann Blakely. I was seventeen when I took her class at the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference, where I had showed up with my Nirvana CDs and teenage angst, hoping to find the answer to the question that shouted continuously in the back of my mind: what on earth am I going to do with the rest of my life?

In Diann’s class, I got my answer.

A few weeks ago, I opened up my inbox to an announcement I had long dreaded but nonetheless never quite prepared for: Diann had passed away. I received the news too late to attend her memorial service, and so I figured I would take this opportunity, in this digital space where the line between teacher and student is blurred, where we are all just writers working to find the best way for our words to say what we need to say, to memorialize her.

I began writing this by using dictation software, which changed “memorialize” to “memorial realize.” her. This feels fitting: when we memorialize well, we realize not only what we have lost but what we had. We walk beyond a recitation of our own pain and into the field of celebration of the person as a real human being, with all of the beautiful and terrible attributes that human beings share. We allow the dead to live not just as a memory but as the people that they were.

A photograph of Diann and I, posed so as to appear in deep conversation, from 1998.

A photograph of Diann and I, posed so as to appear in deep conversation, from 1998.

This is what I remember when I remember Diann.

I remember her oversize T-shirts, one printed with Courtney Loves’ tiara-topped face, one with a portrait of T.S. Eliot. I remember her holding conferences while she finished her 30 minutes on an exercycle. I remember that I had never really seen the city of Birmingham, the city I called home, the city I drove into and out of every day for high school, until she described it as a “Dantescan pit.” I remember that her very first assignment required us to write a sonnet for which she had provided the end-words. I remember that one of those end-words was “bolster.” I remember her pronouncing, clearly and unapologetically, every single word in Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse.” I remember the way she pronounced the word “Harvard,” without any Rs. I remember the white lace shirt she found at an antique store, how she only posed for photographs in profile, preferably in conversation, in a construction meant to imply the candid; otherwise, the camera could take her soul. I remember riding in the passenger seat of her car up and down and up the difficult curves and turns of the Sewanee, and I remember telling her about the plans I had made for myself and my future. I was going to try to do this very difficult thing. I was going to try to be a writer. And in that car, she gave me the confidence I needed to believe that maybe I actually might be able to do this, someday, and that I was at least doing the best thing I could do for myself and for my work, which was to try.

I stop writing. I can hear her voice in my head. “Oh honey,” she says, “who is this woman you are writing about? It sounds like you’re eulogizing a saint, not poor little old me.” In honor of Diann, and what I’m pretty sure would be her wishes, I will say this: she was difficult, demanding, exacting, and in ways that sometimes felt dizzying. Though she was an expert practitioner of that particular brand of Southern manners that makes “bless your heart” an

A classic example of one of Diann’s comments, this on a poem of mine from 1997: “Your best piece! I love this! (Most adolescent death-wish poems seem self-regarding, even coy, in the Plathian sense, but this is terrific, convincing and utterly unsentimental)”

A classic example of one of Diann’s comments, this on a poem of mine from 1997: “Your best piece! I love this! (Most adolescent death-wish poems seem self-regarding, even coy, in the Plathian sense, but this is terrific, convincing and utterly unsentimental)”

insult meant to carve straight into said heart, she could also, at times, be harsh. This sometimes extended to her comments on our work. I remember, distinctly, that once, after reading one of my poems, she put her head in her hands, made an exasperated sound, then looked up to say, “Well, it’s a bunch of pretty images, but they just don’t mean anything.”

And this is the moment when perspective enters, which might explain why the faults of the dead die with them, because the living see these harsh moments as just that, a moment, one small moment in the middle of a life that is over, for all of us, far too soon.

In that moment, her comment shattered me. It continued to shatter me for several moments to come. But eventually, I realized that the lack of a gentle presentation didn’t make her words any less true. They were just a bunch of images, ones that I could no longer find pretty, because I knew for sure that she was right. There was nothing behind them.

And this is perhaps the most important thing that I learned from Diann: that we as writers and as human beings must continue striving, all of our lives, to make every part of our lives — every word, every letter, every capitalization and every punctuation mark — have a real and true meaning.

“Good Lord,” I hear her say. “Aren’t you finished? Haven’t you better things to do?” I realize that this is a very long entry, but it’s hard for me to finish it. I don’t want to end this because I don’t want to admit that Diann’s life has ended. And so I end with an invitation to begin, one from Seamus Heaney, Diann’s own beloved teacher and mentor, who says exactly what I think Diann would want for me to say:

Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,
so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.

– Seamus Heaney, “Station Island” (Part XII), 1984