The Story Behind “The Damage”

Today, one of my dreams came true, and I say that without exaggeration: a piece of mine, from Inch magazine, is featured today on Poetry Daily.  I found out about this a while ago but didn’t really believe it was actually happening until I saw it today, and I’ve had to look at it again and again to make sure that I’m not just dreaming.  I mean, I’m not, right?  You can see it too?

Here's a picture of the beheaded cherub.  I miss it, still.

Here’s a picture of the beheaded cherub. I miss it, still.

I thought I’d write a short blog entry about the piece, since I’m always curious about the poems that pop up on Poetry Daily and, well, like, everywhere that poems tend to pop up.  I won’t tell the whole story behind it because a.) I already did that, and b.) then where will the mystery be?  Suffice it to say that the story behind this involves a huge move, which is a new beginning, and a huge break-up, which is, of course, an ending.  Besides the relationship, a few things were broken during or missing after the move: a couch cushion, my bicycle, and the head of a cherub on this terrible and beautiful planter my grandmother had used as storage for cotton balls.  It was a strange time, a time when beginnings were muddled with endings, and I could hardly tell the difference between the two anymore.

Flash to September of 2012, over a year later.  A friend and I had just finished a stint on The Grind (explained beautifully here by Grind founder Ross White) and were following it up with a submissions grind.  We promised each other that we’d send out at least one piece a day.  One Saturday, I was poking around for places to submit short essays and I came across Press 53, (which, as it turns out, published a remarkable collection by fellow Grinder and all-around amazing poet and person, Shivani Mehta — Useful Information for the Soon-to-be- Beheaded) and then Press 53’s Tumblr, with their weekly 53-word story prompt.  The prompt for that week was to write a 53-word story about moving.  I read the prompt and the rules and then promptly shut down my computer and headed to Hobby Lobby for some emergency crafting supplies (the emergency, as always with Hobby Lobby, was just that it was Saturday, and they’re closed on Sundays, which always sends me into a crafting/quilting/crocheting tail-spin — what if I need very fine glitters on a Sunday?  It happens more often than one would think).  As I wandered around trying to figure out why there were so giant zebra-striped flowers, I found that my mind was working on a poem.  When I got home, I wrote it: and word count showed me that it was, miraculously, 55 words.  I cut two, and submitted it.  Boom.

Of course, the micro-essay (though I guess now I should probably call it a prose poem) was rejected.  I revised and sent to another magazine.  Rejected.  Repeat.  Rejected.  Then, I saw a call-for-work for an all-micro-essay issue of Inch, one of my favorite magazines, and I sent to that.  Miraculously, it was accepted — and so began the road to Poetry Daily.  I’m especially happy that this is the poem that made it, since Inch is a journal I really love and a journal that shines light on oft-ignored micro-forms, and since they were willing to give this triply-rejected piece a fourth chance.

Sometimes, I’ll end up with a poem or essay that just feels like a gift.  It feels like a well-made thing, though I don’t feel like its maker.  This poem/essay was just such a thing: I hadn’t intended to write about this part of my move — ever, really — and I didn’t set out to focus on the beheaded cherub.  But there it was, and then it was on the page, called into being by forces which didn’t seem entirely under my control.

I suppose, when I think about it, it does make sense that I wrote this poem at this time.  It was a time when everything seemed to be changing, again.  My relationships changed, my friendships changed, my health changed and therefore my body changed, and therefore my world and the way I lived in it changed.  I didn’t make a move, but the world around me moved.  It was a time of muddled beginnings and endings, and I again couldn’t tell which was which.  It was the beginning of a moment of great change, from which I am only now starting to emerge, to look around, and to assess what was damaged beyond repair and what remains.

And this, I suppose, is the greater gift, the greater dream come true: to have a poem that acts like a lens and focuses on what damage is, and what beginning and ending, for me at least, really means.

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Are There Things That Are Important Beyond All This Fiddle? Or NaPoWriMo and You

People, here’s the thing: it’s April.  That means it’s National Poetry Month.  That means it’s National Poetry Writing Month.  That means I’m writing a poem a day.  That means I’m participating in a poem-a-day writing challenge.

NaPoWriMo FTW!

NaPoWriMo FTW!

And that means I’m writing a poem a day along with my fellow writers on campus.

Publicly.

As in, where everyone can see.

Yes, those were the sounds of panic you just heard.

Here’s the thing: sometimes, you hear people say that those who can’t do, teach.  Here’s the other thing: that’s totally wrong.  I mean, sure, maybe some people who can’t do teach, but I think there’s a qualifier there: they may teach, but they probably don’t teach well.  And I’m not saying that as a teacher, really — I’m saying that as a student.  I’m saying that as someone who learns, which I will, God willing, always be, teaching or no teaching.

Here, I guess, is the thing I really mean: I learned how to teach from those who taught me, and I praise everything out there that those who taught me taught very, very well.  They taught very, very well because, well, they did.  And they weren’t afraid to let me watch them doing.  My writing teachers wrote with us: if they gave us an exercise in class, their pens were always moving, and they read their drafts when we read our drafts, no matter how terrible or wonderful any of our drafts were.  They read poems and puzzled through poems and thought through problems and they did it all out loud, in front of me.  And from their thinking, I learned how to think.  From their writing, I learned how to write.  And I learned, about writing, about everything, the most important thing: keep doing.  Do and do and do.  Yoda was right: there is no try, there is only do — because trying is its own form of doing.

If there’s one thing I have learned as a teacher, though, it’s that that?  That’s not easy.  Writing along with my students means that I could write something that’s terrible, and reading along with them means letting them know I wrote something terrible, right then and there, before their very eyes.  Sometimes, it’s easier to hide behind the screen, like Oz trapped in a cinderblock room.  Sometimes, it’s easier to pretend like I’m the expert, the all-knowing, and they should listen to me just because I’m in the front of the room.

Easier doesn’t mean better when it comes to most things, teaching included.  When I first started teaching, I was so terrified of doing and failing that I came into class every day with a full script, sometimes one that I’d rehearsed in the bathroom mirror beforehand.  I even wrote out jokes, which, of course, failed, as the classes themselves tended to fail.  I told myself that perhaps my humor was just too awesome for my students to get, but eventually, I had to realize that they just weren’t funny.  They weren’t spontaneous.  They were fake, and rehearsed, as was everything that happened on my end of the classroom — I wasn’t doing anything except reading lines, and when unexpected things (like, say, questions) came from the other

This is how I know my writing's going well.

This is how I know my writing’s going well.

side of the room, I hadn’t rehearsed a response.  I didn’t know what to do.

All right, I’ll say it: my classes sucked.

And I wasn’t the only one who thought so.  Within three weeks of my first semester teaching, my name popped up on The Website That Shall Not Be Named, and there was a nauseously green frowny face next to it.  One student wrote that she would rather jump out of a building than be in the same room with me.  I drove to the gas station up the street, bought a bottle of cheap red wine, and sat on my couch and cried.

Looking back, that comment still has its sting, but most of the sting comes from the fact that I don’t blame her.  I wouldn’t want to be in a room with me either, especially a classroom.  Not long after that, I realized that I couldn’t keep up being a robot in class, even if being a robot was far more comfortable.  I realized that in order to teach, I had to do.  I had to show my students how I think, how I work, how I write.  I had to get comfortable with acting out that process instead of some lame script, and I had to get comfortable with the fact that sometimes, I would falter.  I’d be wrong.  I’d fail.  And I’d recover.  I had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable — because what else would I ever want to teach?

Now, I’ve reached the final frontier of discomfort: writing a poem every day and posting it for my students and colleagues — and, well, the Interwebs — to see.  Sometimes, I will falter.  The poems will go wrong.  They’ll fail.  I’ll recover.  And in doing, I’ll do the most important thing: I’ll learn myself and let the language teach me, which is, after all, all I could ever want to teach.

There’s Gonna Be Some Changes Around Here

If you’re looking at the online-at-Wordpress-on-your-computer-through-the-Intertubes-and-stuff version of this blog, you’ve probably already noticed that there have been some major changes.  If you’re looking at the on-the-emails-digest of the blog, allow me to explain: every once in a while I remember/realize that something major has just happened, like, say, oh, my first book was published (it’s called Maleficae!  From GenPop Books!  You can get it here!).  Then, I’ll think to myself, There are probably things I need to do because this major thing has happened.  And then, a few days (let’s be honest: weeks) (okay, months) down the road, I’ll think to myself, Oh!  That’s the thing I need to do because this major thing happened!

In the case of the book and the blog, I realized that I need to make the blog a little more website-y, so I can post information about the book (called Maleficae!  From GenPop Books!) and readings and appearances and publications and whatnot, so I used my awesome WordPress skills (let’s be honest: rudimentary WordPress skills) (okay, seriously rudimentary WordPress skills) to make that happen (okay, okay: sort of happen).  Now, on the static front page (see! I know what it’s called!  SKILLS, I tell you!), you’ll find links to information about the book (Maleficae!  GenPop!) and poems and essays and readings and so forth.  You’ll also, of course, find a link the ye olde blogge, which is still here and all.

And I’m going to try something new with ye olde blogge, too, which you might have noticed, when you saw, like, a post about how John Stossel terrifies me mixed in with a lot of long and rambling posts about avant-garde poetry and the like.

Here’s the thing: when I taught my Creative Writing and the Web course last semester, I went against my Sarah Lawrencian training and used a textbook about blogging.  The textbook said a lot of very interesting and useful things, but the two things that stuck with me most were these:

  1. You should blog a lot.  Like, a lot.  And you shouldn’t do things like, say, let your blog just totally vanish for days (weeks) (okay, months) while you’re busy putting together course proposals and attempting to correctly fill out increasingly mind-grinding travel reimbursement forms and writing poems about jellyfish and volcanoes.
  2. You should come up with a concept for your blog — a theme, if you will — and you should stick with it, all the time, in every single post.

The first thing makes a lot of sense to me.  More and more, I’ve come to see the blog as its own form of writing, a record of a life and mind at work as it works.  There is emphasis, of course, on a finished product, but more and more I’ve come to see the importance of the blog as a record of change, of a mind and a life at work as it works.  If you let your blog go quiet for forever, it doesn’t work as well in that light.  And the blog has an extra element of interestingness, which I’ve decided is a definitely a word, if only because it seems very much applicable to what this extra element is: it goes beyond the kind of record that one leaves in a journal because it’s a record of the part of the mind and the life that a person wants to/is willing to/can make public.  I’ve decided to see what happens if I keep up with the blog more often, if only to see what evolves and what that extra element is for me.  I realize this may at times bring out things that seem like total non sequiturs, which leads me to the second thing.

The second thing didn’t make as much sense to me.  The thing is, a Sarah Lawrencian can only let go of their Sarah Lawrencian training to a certain extent.  I mean, I was okay with using a textbook, but at this point it’s just a natural part of my thinking to question that textbook — and a healthy part, too, which I try to pass on to my students.  While I do understand the benefits of theming one’s blog (making up new words and verbing nouns, I should add, also seems part and parcel of Sarah Lawrencianess), that also feels contrary to everything I just wrote above about the blog being a record of a mind and a life at work.  And though I’m perfectly happy with contradictions and letting them just exist, I have to say that I’m more interested in watching them unfold.  It seems to me an odd thing to say that a blog has to be one thing only: just thoughts about bicycles and their repairs, for instance, or pictures of cats, or way-too-long rants about avant-garde poetry.  This seems to me an odd thing to say because it seems to say that people should be about one thing only, or they should try to be, or they should strive to only show that one thing to the world.  That’s definitely not me.  Some days, I feel like over-analyzing the history of the sonnet in contemporary poetics.  Some days, I feel like over-analyzing the Brandi Glanville/Adrienne Maloof battle on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.  Some days, the only thing I ever want the world to see from me are photographs of my cats being awesome.

So it goes.  And so my blog goes.

I could probably set up multiple blogs for these purposes, but let’s be honest, I’m too lazy for that, and also too easily-confused, and would probably follow a five-post series on the line break since Robert Creeley with a seven-post series on Kim Richards’ obsession with turtles.  So one blog it is, and that one blog shall contain multitudes, and hopefully shall contain more posts from here on out.*

*Of course, I’m writing this the day before NaPoWriMo starts and I therefore start writing a poem a day, and right before the last month of a semester, and on an Easter Sunday because it’s the only day I’m not up at the office (not because I don’t need to be in my office — I do — but because I decided to refuse to go up to the office on Easter Sunday), so we’ll have to see if how the blog goes is really how it will go …

Sometimes things are exciting …

… and when things are exciting, dear denizens of the Blogosphere, I like to share them with you.  One of the best things about the Internet, besides the seemingly endless and ever-regenerating number of photographs of cats wearing fruit on their heads and of sloths Photoshopped into the middle of the Crab Nebula, is that the Internet gives us the ability to share in IRL experiences we wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend IRL.  For people like

This is a photograph of me reading.  I'm taking off my reading glasses but it looks like I'm doing something dramatic and meaningful. In fact, forget the part about the reading glasses.  This is a picture of me doing something dramatic and meaningful.

This is a photograph of me reading. I’m taking off my reading glasses but it looks like I’m doing something dramatic and meaningful. In fact, forget the part about the reading glasses. This is a picture of me doing something dramatic and meaningful.

myself, whose bodies periodically refuse to work and who are, let’s face it, always like two and a half at the most seconds away from dressing all in white and living in somebody’s attic (because really, what’s the fun if it’s your own attic?), this is the definition of a blessing, a word that can so often feel insincere and general gives me a queasy case of agita, but which, in this case, absolutely applies.

Another part of The Great Blessing of the Internets (ugh, there’s the agita again) is that it allows people whose bodies periodically refuse to work, perhaps because they’re never much more than two and a half seconds away from Emily Dickinsoning up some unsuspecting nuclear family’s attic, to share with others the times they make appearances In Real Life.  Such is the case with my reading in the Indian Springs School Visiting Writers Series, which you can hear here.

The first reading in the recording isn’t mine, it’s Kate Greenstreet‘s.  If you listen to it, you’ll see why my knees were positively shaking because, seriously, how do you follow that?  You’ll also see why I’d ordered a copy of Young Tambling, her newest collection from Ahsahta Press, before I’d even left the building that evening.  I’ve been hungrily devouring the poems and people, this is one of Those Books — by that, I mean this is a life-changing book, the kind of book that leaves a reader wowed and restless and with a completely new way to look at poetry, books, art, life, everything.  That’s because, in many ways, the book isn’t really a book.  I mean, yes, it is a series of pages with words printed on them sewn together and bound.  But it doesn’t solely exist in that form, in that bound structure.  Greenstreet’s reading shows this: she re-orders the text and the text slips seamlessly into a new narrative, a new sequence of development.  Each re-ordering creates a new story, a new series of images, a new work of art.  Like she writes in the end of the collection, next to an insanely amazing oh my God seriously photograph of this book in a different incarnation, as pages of

This is a photograph of Kate Greenstreet's Young Tambling. It's been Instagrammed because its unfiltered awesomeness would make the Interwebs EXPLODE, and then where would Al Gore, astronaut sloths, and fruit-hatted cats be?

This is a photograph of Kate Greenstreet’s Young Tambling. It’s been Instagrammed because its unfiltered awesomeness would make the Interwebs EXPLODE, and then where would Al Gore, astronaut sloths, and fruit-hatted cats be?

typeset and photographs arranged (and, presumably, re-arranged) on the wall:

Although I was thinking in two-page spreads, at some point I realized that I wasn’t actually (physically) making a book.  I was making a

big rectangular piece of temporary art.

Which is SO RIDICULOUSLY INSANELY AMAZING OH MY GOD I CANNOT EVEN TALK ABOUT IT.  It’s like she’s created a work of code-based electronic poetry without the code.  Which, seriously.  AMAZING.

And there are MORE EXCITING THINGS, the first of which has to do with my actually leaving the house and going to another location, specifically Boston, where I will be talking about writing and working and how those things go together at AWP 2013 (HOLLAH).  I’ll be moderating a panel on the academic job market with three lovely friends and colleagues, Hannah De La Cruz Abrams (you should totally read her book, The Man Who Danced with Dolls, which is so beautiful I can’t even talk about it and is one of the few books I immediately read again after finishing), Sarah Domet (author of 90 Days to Your Novel) and Jared Yates Sexton (author of An End to All Things).  The panel’s called Navigating the Track: The Writer and the Nontenured Position.  It’s at noon on Saturday in Room 104 and should be pretty awesome.  You can find more information about it on the AWP Website, here.  Keep scrolling ’til you find it.  I’ll also be a’signing books at the Toadlily Press Table in the Bookfair on Friday at 11:30 am.  Come and find me and say hello!  I will probably desperately need some coffee too, so if you’d like to bring some my way, that would be great.

See?  EXCITING THINGS.  And God bless Al Gore for inventing the Interwebs so we can all share in them.