April’s None So Cruel

Earlier in the month, my Mom asked me if I had ever heard the expression “April is the cruellest month” and of course I had to laugh.  Any poet (or student of poetry) worth her salt recognizes that is the first line of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, and it’s the first thing I think of when it turns April.

I’ve also been thinking it every day, since this is the first Poetry Month that I’ve chosen to participate in National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo).  I’ve been struggling to write a new poem every day—some days it’s been easier, and I’ve even written one or two poems that I think are pretty good.  The majority of them though are, at best, exercises in the practice of writing poetry.  Which is to say, they are poems, but not very good ones!

Still, having the discipline to write every day (or nearly every day…I missed a few days which I swear I went back and made them up!) has been illuminating.  For one thing, even if the quality of the output has not impressed me much, the habit of writing has been a kind of comfort to me.  It’s as if I can’t say I’ve forgotten how to write a poem (which sometimes I think when it’s been a while between poems), because this time I know I wrote a poem the day before.  For another thing, I’ll have 30 poems on the 30th that I can maybe go back to and work on revising.  That feels like an accomplishment.  Whether some of them are worth going back to is debatable, but the opportunity is there, should I choose to take it.

A few times I have stared at the computer and written “I have nothing I want to say.”  Then I write something down anyway, and remove that line.  It’s been liberating, especially the last few days which have been hard for me to come up with something new.  A few people on Twitter suggested I write poems about not knowing what to write, and so I sort of amended that idea to admit on the page that I didn’t have anything to say—then forced myself to write something anyway.  Again, not great art for sure, but I satisfied the NaPoWriMo requirement of a written poem.

You would think with all that’s going on right now—the continuation of Covid, the horrible and escalating war in Ukraine, the worsening climate change, I’d have a lot to write about.  But it’s hard to write good political poetry.  I can’t do it well, because such writing should be subtle so it remains art.  When I write on such things it comes out screed-like and dismal—too tell-y and not show-y enough.  It’s something I’d like to get better at though—and I suppose to get better at it, you have to practice.  And you need to read political poets.  I should do an investigation and find some contemporary political poets to read.

For the time being though, I will continue writing poems for April, just so I can say I did it. And at some point I’ll have fresh eyes to look at the work and see if some of these “exercises” are better than I remember.  Revising can be a fun part of writing, although as we all know, it’s hard work.

Anyway, all this is by way of saying April isn’t that cruel at all—at least not in my little corner of it.  I’m writing poems, looking forward to the end of the semester, and maybe even have a trip to Scotland in the offing.

And I still have plenty of copies of Amo e Canto which I’d love to sell you and donate the proceeds to the Ukraine war effort.  CashApp:  $Aishatonu or PayPal:  paypal.me/aishatonu.

Help Ukraine–And Get My Book for Free!

As I mentioned several days ago, my new chapbook Amo e Canto was released. I posted about it on Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In, thinking that I could encourage some sales and share this book I’m so proud of with friends and peers.  (And I was going to pay the postage for anyone who purchased a copy.)  And like the last two “pandemic books” I published (What Magick May Not Alter and Daughter of the Wheel and Moon), nothing but crickets.  (That was my little pity party moment.)

Then I thought, I know what I’ll do:  I will give the proceeds from book sales to Ukrainian charities to help citizens fight the Russian invasion.  Surely that will drum up sales. (It didn’t.) Still when the world is burning, that’s when we need poetry the most—because it offers solace and empathy, and the world is sadly missing those things.

Right now Ukraine needs our empathy, and it needs our help.

So if you don’t want to buy my book, that’s fine!  I know there are more important things going on than my chapbook release at this moment.  But  please give all you can to these legitimate charities which you can read about on the USA Today website (along with several more charities than are listed here):

Please help.  And you know what?  If you give at least $20 to any of these charities and email a copy of your receipt and your address to aishatonu[at]gmail[dot]com, I’ll even send you a copy of Amo e Canto for free!

Amo e Canto is Out in the World!

Nearly two years after the announcement that it had won the 2020 Sow’s Ear Poetry Chapbook Prize, my collection Amo e Canto (Italian for I Love and I Sing) has been released.  Because it came out as Issue 30.1 of the Sow’s Ear Poetry Review (and was sent to all subscribers of the Review), it’s not conventionally available for purchase.  However, I am selling extra copies, postage paid, for $13.50 via my CashApp, $Aishatonu.  Hit me up if you would like to buy a copy.  (Put your address in the “For” line so I’ll know where to send your book!)

Amo e Canto is a collection of “poemoirs”—half poems, half memoirs about a trip I took to Venice in 2014. The poemoirs focus on typical Venetian sights, like churches, canals, pigeons, and art, and tangentially examine a relationship with a missing love.  It’s a really different kind of writing from what I normally do (which tends to be mostly narrative, women-centered writing), so if you’re interested in Italy and hybrid forms (or you just love me), this collection is for you.

I’m really proud of this work, and it’s a beautiful collection.  The cover includes an absolutely lovely painting by Alex Ghizea-Ciobanu called I Will Take Venice with Me that as soon as I saw it, I wanted it for the cover.  (Actually, I’d love to own the actual painting!)  The ecru paper is smooth and silky and not insubstantial.

It may have taken longer than I hoped for Amo e Canto to manifest, but it’s wonderful that it exists now. (Patience is a virtue, and all of that.)  I’m so grateful to Sarah Kohrs and Kristen Zimet at Sow’s Ear Poetry Review for all they’ve done to bring this collection into being, and I’m grateful to Sam Rasnake for choosing it as the winner.  I’m also thankful to the journals who originally published some of these poems, especially Rowan Glassworks, which nominated five of them for Pushcart Prize in 2015.

I have many to sell and would love to get one into your hands!

The Submission Game

from NYPL Digital Collections

I’ve been getting many rejections lately.  Last week alone I had 8.  This week it’s a “measly” 2.  And 2 of those 10 weren’t even at the journals I sent them to for longer than a day.

Rejections don’t get me down, per se (well, not usually), but they do always make me question if I’m still a good writer, or if I was ever a good writer (were all those other acceptances over the years flukes?).  We shouldn’t estimate our worth based on the capricious nature of the Submission Game—that goes without saying.  And yet. It’s hard not to equate acceptances (either to journals or residencies) with JC = GOOD, and rejections with JC = BAD.  As writers, we all probably think that to some extent some of the time.

I belong to a Facebook (pardon me, Meta) group that advocates trying to get 100 rejections in a year.  On the plus side, if you get 100 rejections, it means you spent the time to send out at least 100 submissions—which is a laudable pursuit, because it demonstrates that you take your writing seriously enough to inflict it share it with 100 journals.

But I wonder if that scattershot goal isn’t a bit misguided. If you just send work to lot of places, that doesn’t mean you’re actually reading the journals you’re sending work to, and so you might be wasting your time.  I know Poetry will never, ever, ever (EVER) accept anything I send them.  So if I send them work again, well, great, I can make a notch on my rejection list, but perhaps my time is better spent researching journals that are more inclined to like the kind of work that I write.

On the other hand, gamifying rejections does remove some of the sting.  After 100 rejections you’ll probably anesthetize yourself almost completely from the disappointment.  And, the rationale goes, statistically there’s no way all of your submissions are going to be rejections.  So, the more you send work out, the more you increase your chances of someone liking and wanting to publish it.  It does make sense, totally.

For me, it’s really hard to send out 100 submissions in a year.  A few years ago, I think I got to 70, and believe me, I was impressed with myself.  So far this year, I’ve sent out 21 subs.  You may say, “Hey, that’s pretty good for it only being February!”  But one always has enthusiasm for a project at the beginning of the year.  I doubt I’ll be sending out 10 a month by the time we hit July.  I mean, it could happen.  I could be a submitting machine this year.  I just know myself a little better than that.

***

A friend called me on Wednesday, just to check up on me because she thought the number of rejections I’ve received lately was getting me down (based on the fact that every time I get one I announce it on Twitter—it’s like a weird and obsessive confession thing).  She wanted to assure me that my writing is “special” because it’s woman-centered a lot of the time, and many publishers who are men are easily turned off by that.  She has a point—I really don’t write typically lyric work at all and narrative is not many people’s favorite mode.  I do appreciate her support—she has been amazing to me (and in an aside, she’s one of the best letter-writers I know) and her words certainly buoyed my spirits.

But worse than people of any persuasion not understanding (and publishing) my work is just my constant inner critic who secretly can’t help worrying that the reason I’m not getting published is because I’m a lousy poet. Or I don’t “have it” like I used to. (Whatever “it” is.)  What would it be like, if I could bind, gag, and toss that inner critic bitch right over the cliff?  What would it be like not to constantly doubt myself?  For all of us, what would that be like?  What could we do if we didn’t have an inner voice sabotaging us all the damn time?

***

Do you play the Submission Game, or some version of it with your writing and submission process?  If you (my five dear readers) do, let me know.  I’m curious about your approach.

Writing the Red Flags

from dreamstime.com

This past weekend at Tybee Island was the first time I’ve set foot on the beach since I was caught in the rip current in Southampton, NY in 2018.  I thought I would feel fear, but when my sister and I went out last Friday night, it was low tide, the water warm, and the waves almost gentle.  In other words, the ocean felt safe to me.  It was a different story the following morning—the wind was crazy, the waves at high tide so rough that I just couldn’t make myself go in.  There was also a red flag warning—and can you get any more obvious than a red flag literally warning you there’s danger?  Three years ago I ignored the warning, and we all know how that turned out. I learned my lesson.

I think writing is the same way—there are times when writing feels easy and safe (and of course we love those times!), but there’s also those red flags that tell us that maybe we need to reconsider, or even back away.  That’s not to say we shouldn’t “write what we’re afraid to write”—we should, absolutely, write our lives, our stories, our poems that challenge us to be our most authentic selves.  Sometimes that means we write about difficult or painful memories.  Sometimes that means we share what we’re afraid will make us look ridiculous, or damaged, or imperfect.  Some danger is good.  Too much danger and we risk losing ourselves.

What do I mean?  I think there’s a chance that we can give too much of ourselves away when we write.  After all, we are “baring our souls” in one way or another—and when we write about unprocessed trauma that’s when the red flags go up.  We can unintentionally re-traumatize ourselves when we really mean to heal.  Of course, writing about the things that have shaped us is necessary, but I wonder how much good we accomplish if writing about an experience that was painful, terrifying, or devastating makes us revisit those dark places?

What boundaries do we have in place that will protect us?  Have we gone through counseling to process our trauma?  How do we know that what we write won’t revisit trauma on someone else?  If we don’t have boundaries, and we haven’t had the benefit of therapy, we are putting ourselves in danger of revealing too much and re-opening old wounds.

That’s always a danger with writing, I suppose, because to write and share something means you risk exposure—you invite the audience in, and once an audience is involved, you’re not entirely in charge of your work or the interpretation of experience anymore. There’s danger to the writer in the act of audience consumption of work.  How will the audience react?  Will they judge the person you were when you experienced what you experienced?  Will they discount your interpretation of events?  Will they harass you?  Will they reject you?

I think about my own experience trying to publish poems about past trauma in my life.  It never goes well.  I’m not afraid so much about sharing my life—I’ve had plenty of therapy, so I’m well and truly “processed.”  I just think I’m really bad at it.  (And honestly, does the world need more poems or a memoir about child abuse?  I doubt it.)

Not every experience that’s happened to us (or we were involved in) needs to be written about and shared.  Maybe that’s the difference.  Maybe, now that I think about it, we should always write the red flags—what scares us, what seems dangerous.  That’s what journaling is for—it’s a controlled environment:  we are both writer and audience, and there’s little chance of discovery and judgment.

But sharing traumatic experiences in published writing can be as dangerous as a rip current, where even the strongest swimmers can drown.  Are we prepared for the fall-out, to ourselves and to others?  If we’re not ready, then the work should probably stay private.  At least for now.  When the waves are less rough, we can always venture back out.

Upcoming Reading at Switzer Public Library

from the NYPL Digital Collections

I will of course be announcing this again closer to the time, but I have been invited as a Featured Reader at the Switzer Public Library The Poets Read series on Tuesday, Sept. 14th, 6:00-7:30.  The library is located at 266 Roswell Street, Marietta, GA  30060, which is a little bit behind Marietta Square, so not too far from here at all.

How did they find me?  I didn’t think to ask, but it’s certainly exciting to be asked out of the blue. (Maybe they found my Poets & Writers page, where I do mention I’m open to readings.)  I’m going to hope that Covid won’t ruin this for me…this will be my first in person reading in I’ve forgotten how long.

Anyway, I hope you’ll come—it’s free!  I’ll read some old favorites, but I’ll definitely be reading some new stuff too.  (Just don’t know what yet!)

A Little Bit About Rain, a Little Bit About Writing

It’s so rare to be enjoying a thunderstorm here in my part of Georgia (Marietta)—usually it rains for 10 minutes and then stops, and the humidity jacks up to 600%.  (To be fair, once this storm is over, the humidity will probably reach 600%, but that’s neither here nor there.)  The point is, I’m not being disturbed by neighbors working on their yards and stirring up a racket with power tools.  It’s tapering off a little now, but I don’t mind, as long as the sun doesn’t try to hack its arrogant way through the gray sky.  (Which is so rude!)

Why am I talking about the weather?  Shouldn’t I be talking about writing?  I think I am.

Writing, sometimes, is like a storm, and sometimes like a drizzle (not to be all binary in my thinking, but…).  Since I’ve returned home from Rockvale, it’s been bone dry.  I don’t say this with a “waaaahh, feel sorry for me” warble in my voice.  I have put the time to good use—supporting my writing by researching venues and submitting work to a number of places I’ve never heard of before but that look interesting.  I’ve also been working on a couple of applications for future residencies, which would be wonderful if at least one panned out. As I was telling myself the other day, publishing is a numbers game—you just gotta keep sending out work to places and hope it hits.

It takes stamina though to submit work.  I know several writers who only submit a few times a year, and then I know a guy on Twitter who bragged about having 266 active submissions in his Submittable queue.  (Not gonna lie, that’s definitely something worth bragging about.)  The highest number of active submissions in my queue ever was probably 75, but I was kind of a submitting machine in 2019, and since then I manage around 30-35.  Of course, logic says, if I believe publishing is a numbers game, I should be submitting more, and I do think that for sure, but I also know that you can’t do everything.  As much as I’d like to have 75 subs in the queue, I will be happy if I maintain a goal of 30-35, replenishing as needed as the rejections (and hopefully acceptances!) roll in.  I can do a lot of submitting over the next four months…you know, assuming those pesky job responsibilities don’t impede me too much.  😊

*****

Recently, I’ve been assisting a new-to-poetry writer.  She found me on Poets & Writers, and just cold-emailed me about helping her develop poems, talk about craft, and work on process and revision options.  It’s been so much fun.  We’ve been meeting via Zoom, and I’ve kind of based my work with her on the creative writing tutorials I’ve run for graduate students at Georgia Tech.  The difference is, she’s older, she has earned an MFA in fiction (so she’s not new to creative writing or the heavy-duty commitment it entails), and she seems really invested in poetry.  (She took poetry up during Covid; she said that coming up with long-form fiction was too difficult with the world so askew, and so she decided to try poetry instead.)  We’ve only been working together since the end of June, and I don’t know if this is a short-term gig or long-term project, but I’m really enjoying it. I bet all writers could use a coach at some point.  I’m sure I could have any number of times.  Hopefully, she’s finding our sessions productive, and the comments I make on her poems to be useful.  It’s definitely been useful to me…now, if I could just remember some of the “nuggets of wisdom” for myself that I’ve passed on to her!

In other—but somewhat related—writing news (related by coaching, that is), I recently became one of the inaugural members of the Georgia Tech Faculty Writing Fellows, a program through GT’s Office of Professional Development.  This honor comes with coaching sessions, writing retreats, and writing exchanges.  It will be a lot of work, but I’m really looking forward to the opportunity.  Of course, most of the writers in the program are tenure-track researchers—I’m probably the only creative writer—but hey, extra eyes on work are always a good thing.  And while I work on this next book I can use all the eyes I can get.  Plus, it’s nice to have a fellowship on the old CV, you know?  Even if it’s just something through work.

Ah well, the sky is getting lighter and I see sun reflections off cars and the cul-de-sac puddles.  And now a blaze of sun.  The storm was lovely while it lasted.

I hear a mourning dove somewhere outside cooing.  I think she liked the rain too.

New Poems in Hole in the Head Review

Well, sadly, I may be back in The ATL again, after my wonderful time at Rockvale, but some good things greeted me on the way back:  Jenny (of course!), and five new poems up in Hole in the Head Review.  So very grateful for their support of writers and their belief in my work!

The poems are kind of a mixed bag–they all belong to several different collections I have going on at the same time.  I was really surprised and delighted they took all of them, especially because they are basically unrelated to each other.  So anyway, if you want to see a range of new work, check out my new poems.

I hope you like them!

Redemption Sandwich

Today is my last full day at Rockvale.  It saddens me to be leaving—I’ve enjoyed unprecedented productivity in the last two weeks (22 different first drafts of poems), and it kind of shows me what my writing life would be like if I didn’t have a “day job” that takes up a lot of my creative energy and squanders it on quotidian crap.  Of course, that day job also pays the bills, so I can’t be too dismissive of it. I am grateful to have a job.  But I’ve been very grateful for these two weeks of “professional development” because I’ve really needed them.

Gerbera daisy in the garden

One of the best things that’s come from being here is meeting two new friends.  We were talking last night about how lonely being an adult is, and how difficult it is to make new friends.  But both Kelly and Rebecca have been a godsend.  We eat breakfast together and unwind at night with wine and tea, and becoming friends with them has been really remarkable—especially after the Year of Covid.  And sure, maybe friendship was born of proximity, but I feel like being around other writers, especially these two women—who are honest about themselves in a way that sometimes, surprisingly, writers are not—has been a real salve to my heart. Just this morning, Rebecca made me breakfast—a fried egg with cheese and kale on French bread—a “make-up” for the breakfast sandwich she made me the other day that was, to her mind, imperfect.  Today’s was delicious, for sure—it’s become a joke, her “Redemption Sandwich” (which she has been singing to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”).  But more delicious was her company!  I have felt too sequestered this past year (for good reason, to be sure), but I have missed human company.  Kelly and Rebecca, being writers—and kind, and funny, and goofy to boot—are my kind of people.

Mama (Little Mexico) in the mist

Another thing I’ve enjoyed about being here (besides the writing and my new friends) has been the wildlife.  I love the horses and the cows, and the flocks of goats on various farms.  But I love the other, unexpected, wildlife.  As I was driving a few days ago, I saw three wild turkeys, just hanging out in someone’s front yard, enjoying a colloquy.  I’ve seen deer everywhere.  When I was out at 6:30 a.m. one morning, I saw a whole herd of them, and the other night, when Kelly, Rebecca, and I drove to Publix at twilight, we saw families of deer along both sides of the road, eating dinner.  (So many deer!)

Gladiolus in the garden

Plus, I’ve seen hummingbirds, and butterflies, and even a turkey vulture, sitting on a post.  The rural life is really where I feel the most whole—it reminds me of Grandpa Reilly’s old farm in Pennsylvania, when we escaped the city and just could walk across his fields and take tractor rides and pet the animals in the barn.  That’s what being here has been like for me—a chance to reconnect with rural roots—and realize that in another life, I might have been a farmer poet, instead of an academic.  The trees and the hills and the fields feel like home.

I have always said I want to live in Tennessee, if the fates come together to permit it.  Every time I come to this state, something in my heart blooms. These last two weeks, my heart has blossomed from a year and a half of incubation, of being on hold.  I hope that I can keep blooming when I return to Atlanta—the idyll will be over, but the spirit of it doesn’t have to be.  That’s what imagination and poetry are for—to bring you back, to bring you back even when you only have memories to hold on to.

            Won’t you help to sing
            These songs of freedom?
            ‘Cause all I ever have
            Redemption songs
            Redemption songs
            Redemption songs

Looks Aren’t Everything

from NYPL Digital Collections, by William Blake

Do you ever think about how poems look on the page?  I confess I’m obsessed with this aspect of writing—how does it look?  Are the lines relatively even?  Or if the lines are irregular, are they regular in their irregularity?  (For instance, stairstep poems, with specific, deliberate indentions?)  If the poem is all over the page, why does it do that?  What stylistically is being communicated?

Sometimes (call it a personal failing), if words are sprinkled over a page like pepperoni on a pizza, it annoys TF out of me, because it feels like, to me, the poet’s arbitrariness serves no aesthetic purpose (that I can tell…please, understand that there are about 1000 qualifiers, and I am speaking only for myself).  (This anathema towards all-over-the-page poems has expanded the longer I’m Man. Ed. of AR—mainly because it’s so damn hard to typeset those poems…so I may be slightly biased for that reason.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about poems on the typed page compared to poems written in longhand. Yesterday, here at Rockvale, another poet and I were discussing this very topic—Kelly is a big believer in longhand. (She returned from the grocery with a pack of three yellow tablets too—which I know she’s going to fill probably just this week.) Other poets I know are Team Longhand as well—and it works for them.  (Sharon Olds also writes her poems in longhand—Katie Farris does too, so really, why have I been so hardheaded?)  As I mentioned the other day, I’ve been “getting messy” and only after I get a draft done longhand do I go back and type it into the computer.  I save these “transcriptions” as “[Poem Title]: raw from notebook” and it has really surprised me.

Far from the regularity that I pride myself on the poem written on the computer, my poem lines written longhand are a variety of lengths (once they’re typed).  It’s embarrassing how irregular the lines are.  Sometimes, of course, this has to do because my handwriting is big and I run out of space on the line, so I carry it down to the next one…which makes one transcribed line huge, and the next one might be half as long.  And it makes me realize that in typing a poem on the computer, I am constraining how the poem visually looks because of some arbitrary decision I have about how my poems should look. (God help a typed line that goes beyond 3.5”—I will butcher that bitch down to make sure I don’t pass that margin.)

To put it bluntly—my poems are constipated. They are uptight, overly controlled, and kind of anal. Typing, of course, I do for convenience’s sake—because I can type quickly, it’s not messy, and I can see what it will look like on the page. Immediately. But writing in longhand this week has really freed me.  Now, not gonna lie, as soon as I type up the second draft (the one after the transcription, where I begin to tinker with the language, music, and lines), I do come up against that 3.5” margin issue again.  I think I really just like poems to look like little blocks of regular text. (Sidenote, wombats poop in little square pellets—make of that what you will.  And yes, you needed to know this fact.)

In fairness, I have to ask myself the same question:  What stylistically is being communicated?  Why do poems have to look this certain way for me? What is it about the uniformity that appeals to me?  Am I trying to demonstrate that I’m an uptight person?  Why would I want to do that?  (To be honest, anyone who knows me, probably thinks that about me already—so I don’t really need to advertise that fact!)

But I really wonder, where did I learn that my poems need to look this certain way?  And how can I break through this rigid form I’ve imposed on myself?  Definitely writing longhand has shown me that when I’m not using the medium of the computer, my lines are more organic, more varied, more free-flowy.  I don’t think anyone ever taught me to make little blocky poems—I must have just picked that up over the years and codified that into what a JC poem looks like.

Or maybe it’s all kind of psychological—maybe I’ve gravitated to that kind of shape because most of my life has been chaotic and at least if I’m consistent on form in my writing I can establish some control.  Not sure where I’m going with this…kind of thinking out loud.  But it’s definitely worthwhile to limber myself up and try different approaches to writing poems.

It’s ok to be expressive, even playful, in the visual aesthetic of a poem.  That’s part of creativity too.  I just need to remember that being open-minded about a poem’s shape can actually provide an unexpected path.  And that can be exciting.