Distance, Driving, and Mixing Metaphors

A poem of mine, “Beneath the Highway, Between Two Nights,” is up at the museum of americana. It’s a beautiful issue and I’m proud to be part of it and hope you’ll read all of it. In the meantime, I’m keeping the promise I made in my last post by talking a little about how this poem came to be.

28657275651_efb659160b_zLast year, I left an academic job. There were a lot of reasons (it feels important to say that my students, who I adore, were absolutely definitely not one of those reasons), but it all came down to three things: 1.) I wasn’t happy, 2.) I wanted/needed to be closer to my family, and 3.) I finally realized that it was totally okay for me to do what I needed to do to be happy and be closer to my family. I knew and absolutely that it was the right thing for me to do, and I was absolutely terrified. I worried that I’d never write again. I worried that I’d never get published again. Over a decade of publish-or-perish, I’d conflated those two things. I’d also conflated my calling — writing — and my career in academia.

It took a while for the dust to settle, and when it did, I looked down and realized that I was still standing. But I wasn’t just standing — I was more firmly rooted, standing straighter than I had in years. I had just done The Very Hardest Thing, but it was also The Very Best Thing I could’ve done for myself.  And after I realized that I was still standing, I knew it was time for me to see if my writing had made the leap — as many who’ve moved out of academic jobs before me call it — with me.

In February, I signed up for a writing-a-poem-a-day project. I figured it was best to just dive right in and keep swimming (these metaphors are mixing wildly, I know, but how better to describe the strangeness and beauty of a life transformed?). I also started looking at calls for submissions (a shout-out to CRWOPPS here) and using them as prompts.

It went horribly, of course — at first. It took a while for me to get used to my own voice, my own words. After a while, though, I realized that the difficulty lay largely in distance: I didn’t realize that the voice was my voice, one I’d been afraid to use. Over the years, I’d walked back from what I wanted to say, what I needed to say, and how I needed to say it. I was too afraid of being exposed. I was too afraid of not being published. I was too afraid of not being the perfect academic that no one besides myself ever really expected me to be.

I decided to just let everything go, to stop stopping myself and to write whatever came to me. I saw a call for poems about transportation from the museum of americana and used it as a safe-room of sorts, a set of parameters in which I could test out my voice. The poem that resulted wasn’t the turning point poem, the poem in which I abandoned fear and found strength. It is the poem in which I stopped trying to be the person I thought I was supposed to be, which may be even more important.

Nobody wins all the time

Full disclosure: At the end of this post, I’m going to provide a link to a poem of mine that was recently published — but I wanted to say some things first.

In a lot of ways, the poetry world has become the Internet world; in a lot of ways, this has saved the poetry world. The Internet allows us a place to promote and share our own work, to talk, to bond, to work together. It gives us a space to share what we’ve read, the small miracles of language that can make very big changes in the world. The story of how Maggie Smith‘s hauntingly, searingly gorgeous “Good Bones” went viral serves as a testament to the power of the online world when it comes to getting good poetry out into the real world — something that itself seems like a miraculous resurrection of what many saw as a dying art.

In other words, the Internet has given poetry and poets something important, something necessary to achieve the goal of keeping one’s “career,” as it were, as a poet — and even the art of poetry itself — alive: exposure.

Damian Rucci makes some excellent points about the causes and consequences of this drive for exposure in this blog entry, which led me to think about how this drive for exposure has affected the way poets act and interact online. We all post about and share poems we’ve gotten published, which is an awesome thing. Lately, people have also started announcing their acceptances. That’s also an awesome thing. It gives us a chance to celebrate with that person twice.

I wonder, though, if this gives a not-so-accurate vision of what the writing life is about, because if the writing life is about anything, it isn’t acceptances. It’s about the twenty times the poem was rejected before that acceptance. It’s about the twenty times you revised that poem between each rejection. It’s about the fact that you still had enough faith in yourself and the art and the language itself to keep revising, to keep submitting, and to keep submitting again.

A confession: sometimes, especially after rejections avalanche through my inbox, looking at my social media feeds makes me feel very happy for other people but very bad about myself. It’s like the creative writing version of FOMO: POMO, if you will, which may be the natural product of a shift in focus to the product and not the (very long, often incredibly painful) process.

I can’t help but wonder if this has also led to a shift towards the dark side in the poetry world. Maybe the thirst for exposure opened a space for predatory presses to pour in. Maybe POMO has played a part in the countless poetry battles that have spread over Internet territory for the past few years. Sometimes, the battles are definitely and absolutely necessary and for good reasons, like calling out predatory publishers, abuse, racism, misogyny, homophobia. Sometimes, though, things just get unnecessarily ugly.


The trolling in question.

My own personal tipping point happened last week, when I got trolled by a figure a lot of people in the writing world have trusted with their work (and out of respect for that, I’m going to keep this anonymous). It was crushing and nasty but what made it even worse is that it wasn’t exactly shocking. It was just like the comments I’ve seen in writing world fights before. Debate and discussion is important and vital to the health of this art that we all love. Aggression, trolling, and abuse? Not so much.

Here’s the thing about poetry: we need community. We need to work with each other, and we need each others’ work. We’re a sparse and diverse group, so we need online spaces for our work and in which we can work together. And we have to work together. We are a group of people struggling to keep the love of our lives alive. We are a group of people united by the unbelievably important task of keeping the art that we love alive. We will gain nothing by tearing each other apart in the process.

In the end, the trolling didn’t crush me, but it did make me reconsider the way I behave in the online world (and, of course, the real world). I’m definitely guilty of focusing on the product: I’ve stopped writing blog entries about process altogether and started only posting about publications. I’ve been focusing on the exhibition, not on the art.

I’m going to work on that. I’m also going to work on representing my life as a writer more honestly and authentically. Here’s a start:

I’ve got a poem called “This Is Not A Poem For You” up on Switched-on Gutenberg. I wrote the first draft of the poem ages ago, in April of 2012, at the end of a thirty poems in thirty days project. I’d been writing about the same thing for months and I was sick of it, so I wrote this poem as a way to tell myself to stop. It was a good goal that the poem didn’t reach — in the end, it’s totally clear that it’s totally a poem about a you. Still, it was the beginning of a new phase, not just in my writing but in my life. It’s been rejected, revised, and resubmitted more times than I can count. There are a lot of things I don’t really love about the poem and I could probably ramble on for thousands of hours about those things. Even with its flaws, I love the poem for the place it holds in my life: it marks the moment when I started down the process of taking ownership of my life, when I started to stop looking for someone else to save me and instead started to save my own damn self.

In other words: yes, the publication is something, but the process was everything.

Also, so what if my cat is my best friend? I mean, look at her. She’s awesome.


Mid-South Book Festival: This Weekend!

impossible-languageI am beyond excited to say that on Saturday, I’ll be reading in the Impossible Language reading series at the Mid-South Book Festival. I’m thrilled and honored and especially excited to hear the three other poets read. Thank you to Aaron Brame and Ashley Roach-Freiman for giving me this opportunity! Playhouse on the Square, September 10th, 1:00 PM. You will probably want to get there early because I hear that the Hot Mess Taco Truck is going to be there, and you are going to want to experience those tacos. Believe me.

Also, it just feels like the right time to revisit a post I wrote a while back about how being alone doesn’t meant being lonely, and how cats are awesome. Enjoy.