Old? Outta Here. New? Come On In.

A little while ago, someone asked me what my year had been like.  I said, “It was the worst year of my life, but it was pretty good.”

And that’s about right.  2013 was, if not the worst year of my life, the most difficult year of my life.  I faced my greatest fears, my hardest decisions; I found myself in unimaginable circumstances.  At the same time, though, I did face my greatest fear.  I did make my hardest decisions.  And I did make it through all of the circumstances that 2013 brought my way – and I survived.

Though this year was unimaginably difficult, I made it, with the help of friends and family.  And I’m a far better person for it, and far better at appreciating my friends and family – and the smallest, most routine, everyday things.  That’s why I can say this was a pretty good year – and really, I should say it was a really good year.  I faced my greatest fears, but I also faced my greatest dreams, with the publication of my first full-length book.  I made my hardest decisions, but I had friends and family there to help, and I was a stronger person for it.  I found myself in unimaginable circumstances, but sometimes they were unimaginably good circumstances – from having the honor of teaching brilliant, hard-working students to reaching some of my biggest writing-related goals.

I usually do a wrap-up entry at the end/beginning of every year, but I’m finding it difficult to approach 2013 in any of my usual ways.  A list of achievements seems like the wrong way to go about things, because the year wasn’t really about those achievements – and the same thing goes for the defeats, or just the negative things that happened.  I thought about some kind of itemized list, but that didn’t seem right, either – this was the kind of year that went beyond the number of Cipro tablets I took or the number of hospitals I visited or the number of words I wrote.  Then I thought that I’d write a little bit about what I learned this year, and that seemed just about right – if there’s one thing I learned this year, it’s that learning is the most important thing.

Gather Ye Rosebuds Every Day: Listen.  I’m a poet.  I’m moody and angsty.  Most of my clothes are black and I wear a lot of scarves.  Obviously, I’m not one who typically goes for happy-happy-positivity supposedly-life-changing things.  That being said, I totally started doing this happy-happy-positivity thing this year and it was life-changing.  Every day, no matter how moody and angsty and black and scarved the day was, I made myself write down three positive things.  Sometimes they were very small positive things, like “managed to eat mashed potatoes,” “didn’t get stopped at that one red light,” and “realized sweater was on backwards before class.”  But I learned that even the smallest positives mattered, and I learned how easy it is to turn my attention away from the bad and towards the good.

Learn How To Do New Things: This year was the year that I got serious about crochet, and though this basically makes me a grandmother, it was still a great thing for me.  I’m not the most co-ordinated person in the world, so it took me a while to figure out what the instructions and crochet maps (no, seriously – there are these weird little MAPS that show you how to make things with yarn and a hook — I’m not making this up) were telling me to do.  But I kept working until I figured it out, and I learned how to solve problems and that even if I have to undo all of my stitches, I still learned something.

Learn New Ways of Doing Things:  I spent a lot of this year in bed, either because I was told to stay there or because I was nasty sick.  Sometimes I had my laptop or a notebook by my bed.  Sometimes I didn’t.  I learned to write on different surfaces – paper, iPhone, Kindle, receipts, my own hand — and in different ways – jotting down notes, typing, writing it all out long-hand.  That probably sounds like it isn’t a big thing, but it was major for me.  I have a lot of trouble with fine motor skills some days, and this helped me to figure out ways around that.  It also introduced new possibilities into my writing – in fact, Kindle’s predictive text feature helped me to write the poem that became my second full-length collection.

Sometimes Rest Is The Most Important Thing To Do, And Also Quiet Is Very Important: I’m usually doing something all of the time I’m awake, from writing to Swiffering to crocheting to grading, and this year, I learned that sometimes resting is every bit as important as – if not more important than – doing.  Some ideas need incubation, and some things need a lot of still and quiet time.

No Is Sometimes A Better Answer Than Yes: I realized this year that I’m kind of bad at saying no, or at least not saying yes.  I try to do everything all of the time for everyone forever, and a lot of times, I just run myself into the ground and sometimes, I make a mess.  I realized that saying no to doing all of the things means that I do a better job with some of the things.

Never Underestimate The Power Of Beyoncé: She sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker.

Be A Little Kinder Than You Need To Be: I know, I know.  That’s a total cliché.  It is such a total cliché that it was actually painful to type.  My scarf tried to stop it.  But it’s true, and especially true of the Internet: as the year progressed, the online world seemed to become an angrier and angrier place to me.  Then I realized that I was the biggest part of that problem, because I kept looking at things that made me angry and reacting in an angry way.  I realized that if I just shut down the computer, I felt better.  So much better that I started limiting my time online and stopped responding angrily.  I started asking myself how I would feel if I was the other person in the situation.  And I realized that this life thing is very difficult, and we are all doing our best with it.  We are all, all the time, fighting so very much that the last thing we (I’m saying “we” but including – actually, mostly meaning – “I” here) need to do is fight each other, especially over something as small as a Facebook post.  Kindness is the only thing we owe each other.

And that seemed right – so right that I’ll end this entry with that thought, and with the hope that it’ll carry me through 2014.

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Are We Après The Avant?*

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately — like, a lot — like, an AWP-followed-by-Spring-Break a lot.  A lot of what I’ve been reading circles around one of my continual curiosities: the avant-garde, and what we consider to be the avant-garde.  This week, I delved into page after page of avant-garde poetry and prose.  It was very exciting.  And then it was, well, a little boring.

I was shocked at my own boredom, but, at the same time, I couldn’t help it.  I also couldn’t help realizing that I was reading, well, the same thing.  Over and over again.  The same kind of poem, prancing across and down the page in the same kind of way, breaking its lines at the same kinds of places.**  The same kind of realist-turned-surrealist story, with the same kind of title (“And A Gathering Of Words Which When Gathered Together Sound Ominous And/Or Biblical”).  The same kind of essay, twisting through hybridity, moving from lyric to narrative to back within the same kind of fragmentation.****  Yes, the turns each author made within the form were very often electrifyingly brilliant — but I couldn’t help but think that they were that, exactly, turns within a form rather than complete formal innovation and experiment.  And I couldn’t help but think that the fact that each piece inhabited a similar form meant, de facto, that they weren’t avant-garde.

Perhaps the issue is that, at the same time, I have been reading authors who are very definitely doing their own thing, making their own forms, creating their own shapes for their own thoughts and working them out on the page, sometimes over the course of multiple texts.  I’m thinking of Anne Carson, who has a mind unlike any other mind at work today, and who makes that mind work on the page through a dizzying, unclassifiable, inimitable collision of form and genre.  I’m thinking of the piece she read at AWP, a collaboration with a California artist, in which she explored the idea of sleep through a searingly brilliant academic critique of the character of Albertine in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.  This piece s both a brilliantly constructed essay and an immaculately built poem — a true innovation in form which might be unique to Carson’s work, starting with “The Glass Essay” ******in her 1992 Glass, Irony, and God, a text which is itself a mind-blending blur of genre and form and forms of thought.  Perhaps the most striking quality of the Albertine piece, to me at least, is that her reading revealed something truly shocking: it’s funny.  Like, actually, legitimately funny.  As in the audience couldn’t help but laugh out loud from time to time.  I now wonder if this — combining poetry, legitimate scholarship, literary analysis, and humor — is what puts the avant in the garde of Carson’s work.

Of course, we can’t all be Anne Carson — which is precisely the point.  A mind like Carson’s, with its ability to shatter form both in terms of structure and of content in order to do something that’s really, truly new, comes along only once in a little while.  Emily Dickinson’s mind was another such mind, which is another point.  Though even elementary school students know Dickinson now, she published fewer than a dozen poems in her own lifetime — which is, I think, yet another point.  Good doesn’t necessarily mean publishedBrilliant means published even less, and truly innovative and new?  Rarely does that mean published.

Perhaps, then, there’s a reason why the avant-garde feels less like individual formal innovation and more like a group form.  Perhaps what we term as “avant-garde” isn’t necessarily the work of individuals quietly bulldozing and disposing of the boundaries on their own, but of groups of people who run the bulldozers together, for support.  I’ve been reading Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty this week.  Nelson herself, I think, is an interesting case — hers is a mind that blends and bends genre, but rarely inside the same text.  This is not to say that Nelson’s work isn’t absolutely brilliant, because it is — it’s just to say that her brilliance fits inside of forms that have become, well, forms.  I don’t mean this as a critique, in any way, because I think her work fits well there: her brilliant criticism is brilliant criticism, her brilliant lyric essays are brilliant lyric essays, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

It does, however, seem symptomatic of what Nelson describes in The Art of Cruelty, in which she explores the work of various performance artists.  After a while, all of their pieces began to blend together for me; they started to feel the same, as though each performance artist worked off of the form and content of other performance artists.  Though each of the performances Nelson describes is unmistakably avant-garde, they are also avant-garde in the same way.  These artists use the same forms to express their ideas.  They push the same boundaries, test the same limits, and in the same way.  This doesn’t make their work any less important or useful, but it does, I think, make their work part of a movement.

I guess what I’m arguing here — if I’m arguing anything, if there’s anything to be argued — is that what we typically think of as avant-garde or experimental writing is writing that is part of a movement.  It’s the work of a group who are facing the same limits in the same ways.  That’s not to denigrate this kind of writing at all, but to say that perhaps we need different definitions — and different ways to talk about the work of writers who are really, truly doing their own thing.  This isn’t to say that the former is better than the latter, or vice versa, but to say that there’s a difference, and it’s one of which we should be cognizant when we talk about experimental writing.

After all, I think there’s value in pushing one’s self as an artist, in testing limits and boundaries, no matter how that’s done.  The truth is that Emily Dickinson did only publish a handful of poems during her lifetime, and we have her work now through what seems to be essentially a series of accidents.  The truth is that there might be hundreds of Emily Dickinsons out there, whose work didn’t reach us through the same sort of happy accidents.  The truth is also that if there is a group of people working together to test boundaries, their work will be more likely to reach readers, as they will be more likely to publish each other.  And they may be more likely to continue their work: as a group, human beings love groups.  More and more it seems to me that we’re pack animals.  We need company.  We need the support of people who think the way that we do.  Every human institution — from kindergarten classes to University departments to corporations — splits, eventually, into groups of like-minded people who like to do the same things.  The literary world is no different.  And the existence of a group means freer communication, which means the development of ideas, and it’s difficult to argue that there’s anything wrong with that.

Still, I think of Anne Carson.  I think of Emily Dickinson.  I think of the writer and artist and thinker working, quietly, on their own, thinking and putting their thoughts on the page in ways which can be thrilling and terrifying all at once.  I think of the artist who eschews the group and walks out, alone, into what might be a field of flowers, what might be a minefield, and keeps going.  I can’t help but think that there must be a way to support this kind of writer, or, at least, to talk about their work more clearly, without classifying it out of existence.

Though, of course, that might be just the point: if we do classify it, if we do have names for it, then it no longer exists in the same mind-scorchingly brilliant way.

In that case, let the Carsons be Carsons.  We can, with them and through them, rejoice in their ability to let the unnameable go without name.

 

*That’s right, people.  I did that IN FRENCH.  Somewhere, Madame Lee is suddenly forgiving me for pronouncing English words in a French accent for years.
** I feel it’s only right for me to go ahead and say that I in no way excuse myself from this, as I’m as much a part of the sameness as anyone — I swoon over a couplet, I love a single-line stanza, I die for a transformational line break.  Mea culpa.  Mea maxima culpa.***
*** That was Latin, which is also another language.  THIS ENTRY IS HELLA DEEP, Y’ALL.
**** Here, too, I admit that I am complicit.  I hesitate to say guilty, because I don’t think that “guilt” is an applicable term.  “Prey to the zeitgeist,*****” maybe.  But then again, is “prey” the right term?  Or is this just the form thought is taking on the page, in the age of electronic information and publishing?
*****THAT WAS GERMAN.  BOOM.
******There’s a link right there to the poem, posted on The Poetry Foundation’s website, because if you haven’t read it, you need to.  Believe me.  Just fasten your seat-belt and get ready.

AWP: Traditions, Revisions, Permissions (Or I’m Okay, You’re Okay, Let’s Skip The Dance Party)

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Annual Conference and Bookfair (henceforth known as AWP) has been over for, like, a while now, which means it’s time for the tradition of Very Belated Wrap-Ups of Events that Probably Don’t Really Need Wrap-Ups, Or at Least Wrap-Ups by Emma Bolden, Since There Are Far Better and More Timely Wrap-Ups Out There in the Intertubes, Let’s Be Honest to continue.  But first, a disclaimer.

DISCLAIMER: I hate AWP.

Okay, that’s a little extreme.  I usually hate AWP, but I also usually hate doing things like picking out fruit and vegetables at the grocery store (I mean,

This is the map of AWP I made while I was waiting for a panel.  I accidentally skipped a letter because apparently being a writer and working with the alphabet every day doesn't guarantee that you actually know the alphabet, at least not in order.

This is the map of AWP I made while I was waiting for a panel. I accidentally skipped a letter because apparently being a writer and working with the alphabet every day doesn’t guarantee that you actually know the alphabet, at least not in order.

really, why is this so difficult?  Why isn’t there a central method for testing for fruit and vegetable freshness?  Why must I smell mangoes and thump other fruit?  And why can’t I remember which fruits must be thumped?) that are ultimately very good for me.

Maybe the problem is that I came late to AWP.  I never went when I was in graduate school, and so I started attending AWPs when I already had a job in academia and enough rejection slips to Dementor-suck all the joy from my tender, hopeful heart.  Perhaps it’s for this reason that AWP has always left me feeling overly exhausted and inadequate and like I would never make it anywhere, ever, so much so that I wished I could just throw all the swag I got at the Bookfair out of the airplane window and then go back to school for something else, like gardening or slothology.

Or maybe it’s the kinds of panels I attended back in the day, when my mailbox regularly belched out rejection slips (that’s a disgusting image but it was totally necessary) and I stood and looked at them and despaired, knowing they meant that I would never, ever, ever get a job with more than a three-year contract and less than seventeen thousand classes.  Maybe I chose panels based on my desperation, based on my desire for someone, anyone, anywhere, to unfold in front of me the map with the pathways to “Acceptances Instead of Rejections!” and “Permanent Job with Insurance!” and “Not Endings Up in Someone’s Attic Dressed All in White with Ten Thousand Cats and Their Ten Quadrillion Fleas!” marked clearly.

At this point in my life, I know there is no such map (there is no such map, right? Right? And, um, if there is, can you get me a copy?) — or, at least, no universal map.  There’s just the path we each tread, in our own lives, in our own ways, to our own lives and ways.

At previous AWPs, though, I didn’t know that, and so I hung desperately on every word from every member of every panel, every writer I passed hustling from table to table in the Bookfair, every man and woman handing out business cards and manuscripts and cocktails and questions.  What I ended up with, what exhausted me so much, was a series of directions that I could never follow: you have to go to these parties, these conferences, these retreats; you have to get these residencies and publish in these magazines and get this kind of job at this kind of institution and wear this kind of Chucks while you’re doing it; don’t publish chapbooks, publish full-lengths; publish your full-length before you apply for a tenure-track; on Mondays you wear colored shoes, Tuesdays shirts with cute slogans, Wednesdays pink … It was overwhelming.  To say the least.

But this year, things just felt different.  There were a lot of writers, and all of the writers were — well, different.  From each other.  Sure, the majority of us were probably academics, but there were people with day jobs, people who wrote for money, people who did nothing that had anything to do with writing for work.  There were people who went straight to the full-length and others who started their writing careers through e-mail lists.  Suddenly, there were many, many maps, and many, many people being more honest about the maps they used, how they got where they are and how they earn the money they need to stay there.  At one panel, Steve Almond mentioned that the old adage that time is money is especially true when it comes to writing: you work to finance the time you need to write, and, as a writer, you have to do what you have to do.

I think, perhaps, that’s what made this AWP feel so different to me.  In the end, that’s the one thing about which everyone agreed: the writing is what’s important.  Not the press, not the position, not the invitations to attend secret and exclusive hotel room parties or to sit with The Plastics for a trial week.  It was all about the work, the real work we all come home to do, the real work in which we all find our homes — and, as I flew back to Georgia, I found myself smiling as I flipped through my notes.  And if I could make a cake made of rainbows and smiles, we could all eat a piece and be happy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUFT35S7Jb4

When Life Throws Lemons At Your Face, Smash Those Bastards Up And Make A Cocktail

This is a photograph of the massive mess I made in my home office.

This is a photograph of the massive mess I made in my home office.

Needless to say, I haven’t been blogging.

To say that a lot has been going on would be an understatement.  Lately, life has been — well, it’s basically like Life started throwing lemons at me, and then I was like, Awesome!  Lemons!  Hey, thanks, Life, and I made a ton of lemonade, which is delicious and, incidentally, prevents kidney stones.  Two birds, one citrus fruit.  But then Life was like, Oh hell no, and started lobbing grapefruit at me, and I was like, WTF Life? Grapefruit are never delicious, except with mounds of sugar or vodka, both of which would ruin my low-carb diet, and besides, even the OED doesn’t know the plural of the word “grapefruit,” so how I am even supposed to talk about this?  And then Life gave me this creepy Joker-esque grin and lobbed two grapefruit(s) directly at my face.

Thanks a lot, Life.

And so I have turned to what I always turn to in times like these: organizational projects that

This is a photograph of Gertrude Stein in the middle of freaking LOVING the massive mess in my home office, which is probably the first symptom of super-angry cat rabies.

This is a photograph of Gertrude Stein in the middle of freaking LOVING the massive mess in my home office, which is probably the first symptom of super-angry cat rabies.

are so obsessive that they probably show up somewhere in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, so I tend to not talk about them until they’re finished and people will say things like You are so organized! Good for you! instead of Hey, Emma, would you like to go get a cup of coffee and have a conversation, perhaps about how nice it would be to hang out for a while in a calming, white, padded room where someone comes in three times a day with a Dixie cup of pills?  

Now that my projects are nearly finished, I feel better about blogging and talking about them, though I admit that a padded room would probably be a

good idea because let’s face it, I’m really clumsy and walls are hard.  I separated the books I need for teaching from the books I need for home reading (and listen, there are a lot of both.  I’m pretty sure everyone in the world who works for a moving company regularly wakes up screaming after a nightmare about my books) and took them to my office, and organized the rest according to the spectrum (which I’m pretty sure shows up on page 46 of the DSM-IV).*  I built a cabinet for my sewing supplies and filed my fat quarters according to color (DSM-IV, page 72).  I developed a color-coded filing system in a series of binders, complete with plastic sleeves to hold spare items that can’t be hole-punched, like pattern pieces and receipts and all ten thousand of my cats’ rabies shot collars, which I’m pretty sure just gave both of my cats super-angry cases of rabies (for color-coding and plastic

This is an after photograph. Some of my fat quarters are now out of place. This makes me nervous.

This is an after photograph. Some of my fat quarters are now out of place. This makes me nervous.

sleeves, see DSM-IV page 52; for paranoia about super-angry cat rabies, see

page 12).

The organizational projects have helped a lot: not only am I now able to actually find that handout about Dean Young’s lecture on surrealism and quickly locate the perfect red calico to complete my current hexie quilt stripe**, I actually feel like I have some control over at least some part of my life.  Obsessive, hole-punched, color-coded, magnificent control.

As a writer and a teacher, I admit that I look for metaphors in everything, and hole-punching and color-coding is no exception.  It all goes back to the lemons, really.  Here’s the thing about Life: it’s going to lob lemons at your forehead, and grapefruit(s) and ugli fruit(s) and kumquats and tangelos and whatever else Life can find in its produce aisle.  The only thing you can do is put concealer over your bruises, pick up the

This is a photograph of actual lemons I actually made to make actual lemonade, FOR CONTEXT.

This is a photograph of actual lemons I actually made to make actual lemonade, FOR CONTEXT.

citrus fruit(s) fallen and themselves bruised by your feet, and make one helluva citrus punch.  And that’s going to be messy — you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves, get out the knives and the juicer, and pulverize a bunch of lemons.  But when you’re done, you’ll have a beautiful pitcher of a refreshing citrus cocktail — and sometimes, when Life seems unfaceble and no action seems possible, sitting back and sipping on a cool citrus beverage is the best action you can take.

Especially if you add mounds of sugar and vodka.

*NOTE: I have no actual knowledge about the DSM-IV, so if you do and you’re thinking to yourself Hmm, page 46 is actually the page about women who watch too much Dateline and think Britney Spears is a feminist icon, sort of like a contemporary version of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, that’s totally just a coincidence.

** NOTE THE SECOND: I also probably have no actual knowledge about actual quilting or actual quilting terminology, so this might not at all be what this is called.  For information about actual quilting and/or actual quilting terminology, I suggest that you refer to this book, WHICH ACTUALLY EXISTS:

No, seriously. THIS BOOK EXISTS. And you can BUY IT.  NOTE: there are still two days until Valentine's Day.  YOU'RE WELCOME.

No, seriously. THIS BOOK EXISTS. And you can BUY IT. NOTE: there are still two days until Valentine’s Day. YOU’RE WELCOME.