Gun Violence, Academic Poetry, & Who Cares About White Pain?

I started writing the post about poetry below (after the horizontal line) a few days ago.  It’s still worth sharing, because it’s about writing meaningfully when all of this tragedy is happening.  But I have to have to say that now, with the death of the African American man hanging from a tree in Piedmont Park (Atlanta’s “back yard”), which the Atlanta Police Department called a “suicide,” I’m at such a loss—I don’t even know that I could write any poetry about the insanity of death and violence that are perpetrated against American citizens because they’re black and brown.  (Does anything I’d have to say even matter?)

If calling this particular death a “suicide” is not an example of institutional racism, if that’s not racist “criminal justice” and a racist “law enforcement” system at work, I don’t what is.  What African American would choose to hang himself from a tree?  What African American would choose to commit “suicide” through a method that clearly smacks of historical racism and slavery?  The answer:  no one.  The night before the murdered man was found, Klan members were seen hanging fliers in Piedmont Park.  I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  Thank heavens, the FBI is now investigating this death—but only because Atlanta’s African American mayor Kasim Reed referred the case to them, not because the police did—and let’s not forget that the FBI is also part of a racist criminal justice system.  If they agree with the Atlanta coroner and the APD that this man’s death was indeed “suicide,” I wouldn’t be remotely surprised. Devastated yes, but not surprised.

And let’s talk about Dallas.  Yes, it’s awful and horrifying that five Dallas officers were shot and killed at an anti-violence rally.  No, these officers didn’t “deserve” to die.  But let me tell you, I can sympathize with the shooters’ anger and frustration.  Maybe these five particular cops didn’t deserve to die.  Maybe these five particular cops were upstanding citizens who would never use their power against African Americans to harass and murder them.  But other police officers every day act on their racism and abuse and kill African Americans with impunity.

The fact is, the attack on these cops is an emblematic strike—it’s the way these suspects felt that they had to deal with constant, racist murders of other African Americans by police departments.  It’s fighting the system, when no one else will.  President Obama has said that there is no possible justification for the attack, but it’s hard to deny that “law enforcement” doesn’t profile and target and harass and murder black and brown suspects just because they can get away with it.  When our lawmakers and President can’t seem to get a hold on the police department’s institutionalized illegal acts perpetrated against African American citizens (and other minority groups, such as Latinx, who are also targets of racism), it doesn’t surprise me that African Americans turn to vigilantism for justice.

In an earlier interview about the slaying of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile the President said, “’All of us as Americans should be troubled by these shootings,” he continued. “These are not isolated incidents, they are symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.’”  Yeah?  Then do something about the shootings.  Our society has never been less civil.  Mr. Obama, you’re the President.  You have Executive Power.  Do something.  Demilitarize the police.  Take down the NRA.  Take guns away from people.  Please, I beg you.

If you’re like me and feeling especially helpless and sick right now about all this violence, here are some things worth reading/ doing: writer Justin C. Cohen’s Advice for White Folks in the Wake of the Police Murder of a Black Person, former police officer Reddit Hudson’s I’m a Black Ex-Cop, and This Is the Real Truth about Race and Policing, faith-based consultant Joshua Dubois’ letter to police chiefs (in .docx form, so you can cut and paste when you download it), and psychologist Karyn Hall’s suggestions for self-soothing (because we need to take care of ourselves in the midst of all this tragedy).

Anyway, with these latest murders in mind, like anything I say is worth a damn, here is the original post…


I am struggling lately with poetry.  Call it a genuine crisis of faith—or aesthetics.

I am trying to reconcile what I think art should do—which is comment on our time, take a stand, reflect reality and emotions and rage—with what my art is doing—or rather not doing.  That is to say, in the light of the constant stream of mass shootings, and shooting violence in domestic relationships, and officer involved shootings (so many of which our white justice system just gives a pass to), how can I write poetry that is meaningful and worthwhile?  How can I make art that responds to the insanity of murder and the American adoration of and addiction to gun-enhanced power that we see every day reported in the media?  How do I respond to that?

When I consider the writing I have done lately, it seems vacuous and crass that I have not responded to these constant shootings.  It seems so much the purview of academic poets (a group I belong to) wrapped in their laurels of white privilege to ignore what is happening around us.  Do we white academic poets need to be shot or to see someone we love shot before we are galvanized to action?  Do we have to live through the horror (if we’re lucky) of gun violence before we use our art for good?  What is art for if not to rally people around a cause, if not to comment on and critique the way we are living our lives?  What is art, if it doesn’t challenge us to change?

I think academic poets are averse to risk and to reaching out in their poetry, and they take a dim view of political poetry as a genre.  Maybe it’s something to do with the perceived sanctity and safety of the ivory tower that we are privileged to write little lyrics about our families or the natural world or trips we’ve taken oversees—but where’s the risk in that?  Where is the connection to the greater world? I see plenty of poet friends on Twitter tweeting their outrage at every example of injustice and murder perpetrated by cops against minorities—but what are they writing?  What are they doing to stop this?  How are they using their art to say no more?  How am I?

Maybe it’s a class issue—maybe academic poets think political poetry is the work of the laboring classes, or the work of oppressed groups, or maybe the work of spoken word and hip hop artists.  Maybe those of us in the ivory tower are just closing our eyes and pretending we don’t see what is happening around us—because we don’t have to.  Because we believe in the myth of NIMBY.  But even in the ivory tower, we can still be taken out by a sniper or a bomb.  So why are we silent?  Why am I?

Which brings me back to my struggle with poetry.  I can’t think I was ever taught in any of my writing classes about how to write political poetry—I think, maybe, while it was never stated overtly, it was certainly implied, that art was “above the fray.” I barely even read any political poetry—at best, the political poetry I read was women’s poetry, and just reading women’s writing, by virtue of writing the very fact of their lives was theoretically a political act (i.e. the personal is political), maybe I thought that was good enough.

And maybe because it’s white privilege that tells us art should be beautiful, and art is “universal,” that I didn’t ever think I needed to use poetry to discuss politics.  As if you could ever divorce art from politics.  The very choice in deciding what to write about reveals our politics, aesthetics, and values. 

I find that my own writing—which honestly, I generally think is pretty good—strikes me now as deliberately obtuse, privileged, and empty.  As I said in my last blog post, people are dying—we do nothing.  Poets have power—so why haven’t I written about this constant barrage of death?  Why haven’t I used my anguish and anger to write poetry that matters, that speaks to these atrocities?  Poetry that pleads for change?

Part of it is, I don’t know how to write it.  I don’t know how to express my fear and distrust with our “justice” system, I don’t know how to say “these deaths are wrong” and “guns are killing us” and “fuck tha police” (N.W.A. said that first, to be fair) and that “racism is evil”…in an artful, meaningful way.  I don’t know how to write about those things so that it won’t come across as facile or false or like I’m an ignorant white liberal who is trying to write Meaningful Poetry So We Can All Learn a Lesson at best—or at worst, write poetry that somehow appropriates the experiences of oppressed groups, a type of colonizing act, making their pain all about me.  I don’t know how to express these things.

Part of me feels that maybe I don’t have a right to write about these things.  Who am I, but a privileged woman with a Ph.D., an academic poet whose life in every way is impacted by and benefits from my whiteness?  If I get pulled over, I don’t fear for my life.  So how can any poetry I write even speak to the horror that is everyday experience for African Americans who get stopped because they’re missing a license plate?  They know one “wrong” word, one quick movement, and the cop who is stopping them will escalate this moment to death. I can never know this.

And maybe I really don’t have the right to write about these things like racism—because I don’t suffer its effects, though I sure as hell benefit from white privilege.  Still, every day there’s another murder (euphemistically called an “officer involved shooting”).  Every day someone dies; Alton Sterling died on Tuesday, Philando Castile died on Wednesday.  And every day I feel sick.  I feel like I have to express my pain about these deaths.  I want to use my art to do so.

And I know these deaths are not about me.  And nobody wants to hear about a white person’s pain—because it can never compare to the pain of racism and its effects on society.  It can never compare to the quotidian fear for one’s life that African Americans suffer.  And yet here I am, poor me-ing about my feelings of artistic impotence, anyway…when people are dying because they are people of color.  Dying every day because of the color of their skin.  I can’t wrap my head around that.  I can never wrap my head around that.

Maybe it’s white privilege again that makes me think I should use my art “for good”—maybe it’s the white savior complex rearing its ugly head that lets me believe that if I wrote a political poem about gun violence—gun violence on a large scale, and this incessant disgusting racism that is killing African Americans in “routine traffic stops”—that anyone would care.

Not writing about it seems wrong.  But I come back to those voices of recrimination in my head that say, Who am I to think any poem I’d write about this subject matter is worthwhile or right?  Who am I to speak about this?  What right does any white person have to express her pain about these murders?

My pain can never compare.  It’s just so much white noise.

How High Does the Body Count Have to Climb Before We Say “Enough”?

Another day, another mass shooting, another cry for gun control, another example of Washington doing absolutely nothing but mouthing platitudes.

Sunday’s horrifying LGBTQIA hate crime at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the utter inability (or disinclination) for our government to enact any kind of sensible, pervasive, and strict legislation in the face of the gun lobby that bribes, bullies, and subdues our Representatives, Senators, and President fills me with an inexpressible melancholy.  People are dying.  We do nothing.

Gun supporters will tell you that there are plenty of laws on the books that regulate guns.  Gun supporters will tell you that it’s not the guns that kill people, it’s people who kill people.  Gun supporters will tell you that there’s no way you can predict who will use a gun unlawfully, that the majority of gun owners are lawful citizens who would never think to kill anyone.  Gun supporters will tell you that the Second Amendment provides for their lawful right to own, collect, brandish, and use weapons, and that anyone who wants additional gun laws are in fact impeding their Constitutional rights.

I’m not a Constitutional lawyer.  I don’t know the ins-and-outs of law and the history behind it—and I recognize that it’s a complicated issue that harkens back to pre-Revolutionary times.  So you might say, what right do I have to interpret the Constitution?  I’ll tell you.  The same right to interpret it as all the gun-addicted, death-and-violence-loving, NRA supporters have, who twist the Constitution to suit their purposes.

I can’t see how the Second Amendment (to wit:  “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”) which clearly refers to militia (which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as a “military force raised from the civilian population of a country or region, esp. to supplement a regular army in an emergency, freq. as distinguished from mercenaries or professional soldiers”) can possibly mean the average American citizen, sitting in his (or her) home, who is not a member of a military force (such as the police, the Army, or the National Guard) hired to defend the country.

I can understand about owning a gun for “personal protection” or owning a rifle for hunting, though I would not personally own a firearm for either purpose.  I don’t understand why the average American citizen needs to buy a military-style AR-15 (or any other assault weapon that can shoot numerous, gratuitous rounds of ammunition in a matter of seconds), or why the average American citizen needs to build a personal arsenal.  We are not expecting an imminent invasion from hostile forces.  No country is declaring war on the United States; there is no expectation of conscription to fight invaders, and thus no need to hoard assault weapons.  How can the average American citizen possibly justify owning one or more of these weapons for either personal protection or hunting purposes?  What purpose can such a weapon serve, other than to kill mass quantities of human beings in as little time as possible?  People are dying.  We do nothing.

To me, the slavish, almost masturbatory desire for guns and violence, the veneration of violence as entertainment, the irrational fears propagated by right-wing radio and television personalities (and people who unquestioningly accept what these warmongers and fearmongers are peddling), the prison industrial complex mentality, and our culture’s toxic masculinity, are literally killing us.

We think the only way to protect ourselves is through deadly force; we don’t care about reason and diplomacy and compromise.  We value property above human life, which is evident in so many states (23) adopting Stand Your Ground laws.  We normalize active shooter training in daycares and college campuses (I attended one last week as part of a day of professional development in academic advising)—as if it’s ok that we have to teach children how to avoid getting shot right alongside teaching them reading, writing, and arithmetic.  We listen to media organizations that constantly barrage us with a diet of threats and racist rhetoric, and so we begin to believe we really are under attack. We accept uncritically the language of these media and potential Presidents whose sole purpose is to make money and to accumulate power—they don’t care that they spew hate, misinformation, and racist ideologies.  They don’t care that they whip people into a frenzy of fear, as long as they get a big fat check in the process.  We don’t care that gun manufacturers come out every year with more powerful weapons that promise higher kill counts and sell them at gun shows…to the average American citizen.  The deaths of human beings mean nothing to the gun industry and gun supporters.  People are dying.  We do nothing.

In the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting (where 20 children at an elementary school died, as well as six adults) which should have been, but wasn’t, a watershed moment to overcome our American anathema against enacting the fiercest gun restrictions yet, a 2013 article on CNN Money reported that a ban on assault weapons could impact Smith & Wesson stock shares by 40 cents a share.  While Smith & Wesson expressed sadness at the deaths of these children, they nevertheless saw a spike in sales for assault weapons as gun enthusiasts purchased record numbers of these weapons merely on the threat of a ban; projected earnings for the company in 2013 was approximately $580M, by the way.

And it’s not just the gun manufacturers getting rich.  According to a 2015 Fortune Magazine article tracking the political lobbying and campaign contributions spent by the National Rifle Association, the NRA spent over $30M in funding government officials and campaigns, and an additional nearly $20M to “candidates who tweeted ‘thoughts and prayers’ after the San Bernardino shooting.’  Our politicians welcome these contributions and consequently continue to stymie any efforts to make gun laws more restrictive.  It’s quid pro quo.  The Center for Responsible Politics reports that among federal candidates in 2014, the NRA directly pledged nearly $1M among the Republican and Democrat House and Senate members.  Granted, the direct contributions are small, ranging from $250 to $9,900, but our government officials know what side their bread is buttered on.  If the NRA is willing to support our lawmakers, lawmakers are unlikely to vote against NRA interests.  It’s as simple as that.

Somewhere along the way, we decided that the lives of human beings were less important than our acquisition of money.  Somewhere along the way we decided that the deaths of our fellow citizens was an acceptable tradeoff in order to “protect” our property.  Somewhere along the way, we sacrificed the belief in a civil society to embrace the law of the jungle.  Kill or be killed.

And as much as it seems like I am tossing the blame at our political leaders and the NRA, the fact is, there are still more of us who believe in restrictive gun control than who don’t—and if we collaborated en masse, through letter campaigns, through lobbying of our own, through marches, through activist means, through voting in third and fourth parties who are not beholden to Super PACs and gun lobbies, maybe we could put a stop to this gun addiction.  People are dying.

But we do nothing.  We are all complicit in the deaths at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, at Sandy Hook, at San Bernardino, at Aurora, at Columbine—and all the other mass shootings.  Good, law-abiding people are complicit.  We have learned a kind of helplessness; we wring our hands and pray, but accept becoming inured to the horror of these daily mass shootings because it’s painful and wearying to think about them.  We have adopted a worldview that says nothing we do can matter.  That nothing we can do will change our cultural attitudes and beliefs.  That nothing we can do can stop the killings.  And so nothing changes.

But we have to combat that pessimism that keeps us immobilized.  We have to believe that we can change things.  We must.  Americans are dying.

There have been five additional mass shootings since the massacre in Orlando—five.  Five mass shootings since Sunday.  Five.  I can’t wrap my head around this.  Can you?  Five mass shootings in three days?  This is not war-torn Fallujah.  This is America.  In toto (again, according to the Center for Responsible Politics), there have been 16 mass shootings, 69 deaths, and 100 injuries from guns in June 2016 alone—and the month is only half over!  (Of course, this doesn’t even take into consideration any deaths by guns for “regular” property or drug-related crimes or things like domestic partner violence.  I’m sure the June body count is much higher when you put all the gun deaths together.)  In the face of these shootings, how do we sit back and do nothing?  How do I?

My family’s safety and right to life is more important than anyone’s need to own a gun.  Isn’t your family’s?

Write your Congressmen.  Write the President.  Tell them that the death of Americans by Americans with guns is not acceptable.  Tell them the cost-benefit ratio is too high.  Tell them the sacrifice is too much.  Tell them to embrace stricter gun laws especially for assault weapons, and if they don’t, you’ll support candidates who do.  This is not a Democrat/ Republican issue.  This is an issue of basic human rights.  Don’t we, as Americans, deserve to live, free from the persistent threat of imminent death when we go to nightclubs or daycares or movie theaters?

Writing letters not your thing?  Then volunteer with or donate money to gun control advocacy groups (such as the member organizations of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence or groups like the Violence Policy Center and Everytown for Gun Safety).  Don’t be complicit in the deaths of our fellow citizens any more.  Don’t stand by any more.

Writing a letter to our government officials or volunteering a few hours with advocacy groups may not seem like much, but it’s a start, and I am doing it.  We have to start somewhere.  Americans are dying.  We must, must, must do something.

In Which the Author of this Post Expresses Her Deep and Abiding Admiration for Alexander Hamilton and Broadway Musicals about Our First Secretary of the Treasury

A little more than a month has passed since my last blog.  I’d like to say I’ve been using the time in a worthwhile way—writing new work, perhaps, or reading a bunch of new books of poetry to shore me up in preparation for teaching creative writing this summer.  But the fact is, I’ve gone crazy for Hamilton (the Broadway musical that was just nominated for a record-breaking 162016-05-11 17.34.28 Tony Awards—for those of you living under a rock).

It’s all I think about.  I stay up late watching YouTube videos about anything about the musical—I recommend Leslie Odom, Jr.’s video where he responds to comments and questions on Facebook, and Lin-Manuel Miranda on Jimmy Fallon for the Wheel of Freestyle bit, or any of the #HamforHam videos— just coast from video to video to your heart’s content.  (While I’m at it, I also suggest watching the video of “My Shot,” which was performed at the White House.)  I listen to the soundtrack constantly—I haven’t listened to NPR in my car since the beginning of April—I don’t have time, because I want to get in as many songs as I can on the trip back and forth to work (also, I don’t care to hear anything about stupid Donald Trump [or warmongering imperialist oligarch Hilary Clinton, while I’m at it], and I assume anything election-related will mention those worthies).  If I wake up in the middle of the night, some lines from somewhere in the musical are floating in my head.  Or, if someone says something to me, I can think of a perfect line from Hamilton in response—and I desperately want to sing it to them.  (Really, try me… post a comment below, and I’ll respond with the perfect line.) I also can’t help myself from thinking about writing Hamilton fanfic.  Not that I would… but sometimes I imagine writing it.  Like, I totally want to write some Hamilton/Laurens slash—I don’t know why.  I comb websites (especially tumblr) for anything Ham-related.  It’s insane.  Or, if I read anything in the “Hamiltome” (The Hamilton Revolution), I can’t just read the lyrics on the lyrics pages, I hear the songs sung in my brain… breaking only to read the notes on individual lines.

It’s also all I dream about.  Last night, for instance, I dreamed two separate Hamilton dreams.  In the first one, I dreamed that Lin-Manuel Miranda invited me to audition, and I was supposed to sing/rap any song from the second act.  While it’s true that I don’t know the words to the second act as well as I do to the first one, I know enough that I could totally have aced the audition—I would have chosen “Cabinet Battle #1” for the audition, by the way—which I know 100%.  Except when they gave me the list of songs from the second act to choose from, they weren’t anything I recognized.  (A variation on a “failing the test” dream, I guess?)  In the second dream, I was drawing fan art of Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson. (I want to include an image, but they’re all copyrighted—just Google “Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson”… if you see a man in a purple velvet/velour suit, you’ll know who I’m talking about).  I have never drawn a fan art of anything in my entire life.  (Mainly because I don’t draw.)  But it kind of makes me want to sit down and try.

Additionally, 2016-05-11 17.30.31-1I’ve been reading Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography; I’m on p. 580 (out of 738 pages + notes), and I go around reporting on what Hamilton has done “the night before”—i.e. what I read the night before in the biography, I report on.  “Did you know… blah blah Hamilton blah blah?”  (Did you know that Hamilton got Yellow Fever?  Did you know Hamilton was made a General under Washington, who came back from retirement at 66, when it seemed that the U.S. was going to go to war with France?  Did you know that everyone in President John Adams’ cabinet supported Hamilton, and John Adams had no idea?  Etc., etc.)  If I haven’t reported a “Hamilfact” to you, it’s probably because you and I haven’t crossed paths any time recently.  And, if you know me at all, you know two things:  1) I don’t read biographies; and 2) I don’t read anything longer than like 300 pages (Harry Potter notwithstanding).  But I’m making good progress in Chernow.  And one of these days soon, I plan to catch up with the Hamilcast, which is a podcast about the musical and Chernow’s biography.  It’s on my list.

So, maybe you wonder why I’ve become obsessed with Hamilton—besides that it’s just a great musical and there are so many great lines in it (and it’s great hiphop with so many great rhymes in it) (all written by Lin-Manuel Miranda)—it’s because Hamilton was a copious, obsessed writer.  These lines from “Non-Stop” describing Hamilton say it all:  “Why do you write like you’re running out of time/ Write day and night like you’re running out of time/ Every day you fight like you’re running out of time…”  One of the things that Chernow goes on and on about is how Hamilton just couldn’t stop writing—when he could write one essay, he’d write ten—or more.  The Federalist Papers (essays that defended the Constitution to the public) were supposed to be 25 essays, with him having written like eight.  But indeed, there were 85 essays, and Hamilton wrote 59 of them in six months.  (I can barely write 3 poems in six months, it seems.  Ok, I’m being disingenuous—I’m a little more dedicated than that, but you take my point.)

Even his essay, the Reynolds Pamphlet (a.k.a. Observations on Certain Documents Contained in No. V & VI of the “History of the United States for 1796,” in Which the Charge of Speculation Against Alexander Hamilton, Late Secretary of the Treasury, Is Fully Refuted.  Written by Himself.) where he falls on his sword to assure the public that he only slept around, he did NOT engage in illegal speculation with the banks (he was overly scrupulous with American money and wanted people to know he never abused his position as Secretary of the Treasury), was 95 pages long.  95 pages!  95 pages to basically explain that he’s very sorry that he was a sex addict who stepped out on his wife (while also responding to other things in the pamphlet History…for 1796 by James Thompson Callender, like American Jacobism—but still) (see Chernow p. 533).  It blows my mind.  He wrote poems, letters, reports, dispatches, plans, essays on everything—as well as created things like our banking system and the Treasury, and coming up with the idea for West Point and the Coast Guard and starting the New York Post…and, and, and…  Hamilton was a genius, and the musical celebrates that he was writer and that he wrote just as soon as breathe, and that is something I admire.  I wish I could be that prolific—or maybe even a quarter as prolific.  Or a tenth. (A hundredth?)

(I think Chernow mentioned that there are 27 volumes of collected works by Hamilton—and of course there’s probably more than that that didn’t survive.  The collection, The Complete Works of Alexander Hamilton: The Federalist, The Continentalist, A Full Vindication, The Adams Controversy, The Jefferson Controversy, Military … (26 Books With Active Table of Contents) is available for Kindle for $1.99.  I might have to get that.  Except I hate reading books of any quality on the Kindle—because I can’t take notes.) (Seems to me I remember that excerpts from The Federalist [a.k.a. The Federalist Papers] appeared in the Norton Anthology of American Literature—back then, when the Norton was practically surgically attached to my hand, the thought of reading any kind of writing from the Revolutionary era sounded about as dry as dirt.  Now I’m like, gimme gimme.  I’ll read it all.)

I liken my love for all things Hamilton to a kind of crush.  I sort of fall in love with things for a while—like anime, or manga, or zentangles, or TV shows like Murdoch Mysteries and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (remember when I burned through all of Kelly Greenwood’s Phryne books like I was in a race?), and then the interest doesn’t wane exactly, it just becomes more manageable.  I don’t see my Hamilton crush cooling any time soon, though.  I mean, I’m even considering watching the Tony Awards show… and I never watch Awards shows because they are full of bluster and balderdash…and commercials… but I will probably totally watch them on June 12th.  Anything for a glimpse of Hamilton… Since I won’t be going to New York any time soon.  (And even if I could, who can afford $756 for a shitty nosebleed seat?  Plus airfare and hotel and food for a weekend?  New York ain’t cheap.)

Anyway, join me in Hamilmania… Do not “throw away your shot” to download the soundtrack to the musical, watch some videos, and fall in love with Alexander Hamilton. (And then let’s hang out and we can wax effusive about Hamilton together!)

AWPost Mortems

It’s no secret I didn’t want to go to AWP.  In fact, when Karen Head announced to me that she had arranged it, fait accompli, that I was going to the conference, I pretty much decided to permanently take to my bed with the vapors.  My attitude wavered between considering how amputation of all my limbs or a lobotomy without anaesthesia would be preferable to flying out to Los Angeles (a city I was happy to be rid of the last time I left in 2002) and being thrust into a situation where I always have to be “on” and charming and cheerful, like a carnie, trying to tempt people to part with their cash.  (Although, of course, buying poetry is a better deal than any carnival game—and at least you don’t get snookered.)  But I’m always fine once I get to a place.  It’s the getting there, and the pre-anxiety (and the fact that I had a raging case of bronchitis—can I ever get through a Spring without it?  Geez!), that always cast a pall.

2016-03-31 08.53.04But I had a great time at AWP.  While I missed some interesting panels (being married to the booth for the entire time), I made up for it by being excellent at getting people to subscribe to the Atlanta Review.  Among the three of us—Dan Veach (now Editor Emeritus of AR), Karen (the new Editor), and me—we sold 42 or 43 subscriptions, sold out of all the journals that Dan brought with him (he brought 120 copies!), and met and encouraged lots of poets to send us their work.  I expect we’ll have quite the slush pile once Karen and I take over!  And that’s good because the more people who know about the Atlanta Review, the more we can spread our influence and get new readers and conquer the poetry world, Mwahahahah!  (Ah, sorry, I lost my head for a minute.  But you take my point.)  We want to continue Dan’s success with the journal, and between Karen and me, I think we waded into this new endeavor with aplomb.  And Collin Kelley was at the table off-and-on, and he is always one of my favorite people.

write buttonsOf course, what I always forget about AWP is how much fun the Book Fair is.  Especially when the swag is so good.  And it was pretty good this year.  The hot giveaway was buttons—everyone was giving away buttons, and so my AWP lanyard was bespangled with them from all manner of journals, the London Review of Books, PoetLore, Five Points, Sierra Nevada College’s “This Sh*t Is Lit,” “Poetry Changes Everything,” and nearly two dozen more. (I was all about the buttons—and even got several compliments from random peeps about my lanyard.  The best one sported a picture of a catalope (cat with antlers)—of course I can’t remember what journal I picked that one up at—I really wanted to buy a tee shirt from them, but they were out.)  (Also, we’re totally giving away buttons next year at the AR table—we totally need to swag it up.)

write poetry fresher

 

Other swag of note:  Poetry gave away car air fresheners.  I am totally mystified by this choice.  It smells vaguely piney, and also like antiseptic.  And ass.  Not really the smell your car longs for.  But on the back is the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer, published in Poetry in August 1913, which is kind of nice.  Permafrost gave away a squishy stress-ball in the shape of a polar bear (awesome) as well as free copies of their journal.  There was one booth that as I was leaving the Book Fair for the day had some earbuds lying around.  I’m pretty sure they were giving them away…they had several pairs sitting on the table… but if not—if I accidentally liberated them—then I can add kleptomania to my list of skills, along with poetry and sarcasm.  (It’s good to diversify, you know.)

write bear

 

Then there was the booth with this one woman who apparently is a self-publishing machine. (I’m withholding her name in case my ridicule gets out of hand—but she shares a name with a famous early 20th century woman poet.)  I mean, she was probably 80, wizened like the Southwest—she looked like New Mexico—and draped in scarves and flowing skirts, and had stacks of her books in front of her like a fortress—all published through Amazon.  No matter how I tried to extricate myself from her clutches, she would not let me leave—she kept wanting me to purchase her books.

As soon as I’d inch away, she’d thrust another of her books into my hands, telling me how her life had been changed and how these poems represent her experience.  She gave me one book to take with me—which I totally thought was a catalogue describing her various books, with a few poems in between ads for her other books—and when I got back to the hotel, it turns out she was actually selling that book—there was a price of $18.95 stamped on the back.  (I was like, dafuq?  Really? Who would buy that??) Anyway, when she saw she could not entice me to purchase her whole corpus of books, she foisted her most recent one on me—which actually, from a graphic design standpoint, seems really kind of nice—the cover is lovely, and it looks like a real book of poetry, not something from a vanity press.  But I mean, how good can these poems be?  The first line of copy on the back cover states, “These new poems were all written during the first two months of 2016…” and the pub date is March 5.  I guess I am being a poetry snob.  I haven’t read the book yet—it could be wonderful.  But I’m not holding my breath.

Another book that was given to me for free was Jessie Carty’s Practicing Disaster (Kelsay Books/ Aldrich Press 2014).  I have a bit more faith in this book, although its title on the cover is written in shitty Comic Sans.  (Really?  Like who thought that was a good idea?)  The inside cover has the author’s name signed and the line “Not a joke—free poetry” with a smiley face.  And the acknowledgements list at the front of the book is quite impressive—among the places that Carty has published work include Eye Socket Journal, The Dead Mule, Blue Fifth Review, and Poet’s Market 2013.  So, I’ll try to read through it at some point.

write booksAs far as purchased books, I bought Parades by Sara Deniz Akant (OmniDawn 2014), and Hungry Moon by Henrietta Goodman (Colorado State 2013) (which kind of got banged up on the flight home—c’est la vie).  And the stack of journals I picked up is impressive—Moon City Review, New South, Southern Indiana Review, Rock and Sling, Michigan Quarterly Review, Sugar House Review (which has a beautiful cover), the Laurel Review, and several others—all of which will be seeing submissions from me in the near future—hahah.

write journalsOf course one of the things people flock to AWP for is all the famous people, as well as catching up with old friends.  I didn’t meet any famousy-famous people, though I did get to meet Kelli Russel Agodon, of Two Sylvias Press (a press that makes lovely little books), who is one of my heroes (I love her as a poet and as an editor), and who tweets great material always (follow her if you don’t:  @KelliAgodon).  So meeting her at the Two Sylvias table was so nice—I was fulsome enough in talking to her, I think she felt like she had to hug me.  But we had a nice little convo.  And I did get to see some old Nebraska alums—Liz Ahl, who I always forget how divine she is (we had drinks with her at Tom’s Urban, in L.A. Live, across from the Convention Center), and Darryl Farmer, who was here at Georgia Tech too for a little while, before moving off to the wilds of Alaska.  But overall, not as many Nebraska folks as I expected to see.  (I went over to the Prairie Schooner table, thinking there might be someone from the old days, but I didn’t know any of those people.)  I would have liked to see a few more, at least.  (I did see another UNL alum, who, as always, looked right through me, the putz.  I refuse to mention him by name, but a pox on his head.)

2016-04-01 16.41.19

View from the Santa Monica Pier

Not at the conference, I met up with my old best friend/ enemy/ boyfriend-ish/ not boyfriend-ish/  “I’m gay” “No kidding” “Why didn’t you tell me?” “I thought you knew” / best friend again from back in my USC Trojan days.  We spent late Friday afternoon and Friday evening walking all over Santa Monica—we walked from Wilshire Blvd. to the Pier, and up and down the Pier, and along the beach for a long stretch (geezus, the water was cold as fuck), and then up and down the Third Street Promenade about three or four times, tried finding a movie to watch (we went to the movies all the time when I lived out there), went out to dinner, ate liquid nitrogen ice cream at Creams & Dreams, and then hung out at his place in Venice to watch Brooklyn—a great (if slow-paced slice-of-lifey movie… about 10 minutes into it, I thought, “This is so my Mom’s kind of movie”).  I didn’t get back to the hotel till well after midnight.  But it was so good to see him… and fun to tool around L.A. like we did when we were younger.

Anyway, I’m glad to be back, I won’t lie.  I need to recharge my introvert batteries which were sadly depleted while I was away.  And mostly I need to…

write like a mofo          …And so do you.

Oh,Venice, Mi Manchi

Underneath day’s azure eyes,
Ocean’s nursling, Venice, lies—
A peopled labyrinth of walls,
Amphitrite’s destined halls,
Which her hoary sire now paves
With his blue and beaming waves.

—from P.B. Shelley’s “View from the Euganean Hills”

I’ve been dreaming about Venice off and on for the last several weeks (in between dreams about houses missing an outside wall, pun-offs with Bob Wood—not as funny as it sounds, btw—or reading books with weird languages in them).  It’s almost strange how Venice has crystallized into this mythic place in my mind—and I want so much to go back there, and enjoy it in a way I didn’t enjoy it two years ago.  Like I really want to get lost there for maybe 3 weeks—but this time, I’d have my phone and a good map and I’d be on my own time table, and so it would be a controlled “lost”—I could explore at my will, and learn the city at my own pace, and see all the art (that I didn’t see before), and find interesting little alleys (that I didn’t have to map in my notebook so I could find my way back out of them), and visit the churches and the gardens and the other islands and the shopping districts (that I had to skip).  I just didn’t have that time before.

(To wit:  think about how the first day I was there was a complete wash, stranded as I was in the airport; the second day, I stayed in bed trying to recover from the emotional trauma of first day as well as from jet lag, and I was completely money-less except for maybe like €3 [which I spent on 2 cans of ambrosia of the gods Lemon Fanta] because I needed to find a bank—so that was 2 days out of 6 down.  And then of course I was there for work, and I was on someone else’s schedule.)

By the end of that week, I was finally getting a feel for the city, and could make my way around with some autonomy—and then, hello, I had to leave.  But it was in those last couple of days that I fell in love with Venice and realized that there’s a Venice book in me (right?  all the writers who’ve been to Venice—Shakespeare, Henry James, the Romantics, plus gobs of others—fall in love with the city and thinks there’s a book in them about it), but I really need to get back in that milieu and absorb the rhythms and sounds and textures of the place to be able to write it.  Or at least to write it with some authenticity, with the flavor of presence, and not just the hazy taste of memory.

I want to experience some of the touristy things—like take a gondola ride or visit the Peggy Guggenheim museum—and drink Aperol in every bar, and walk until I’m so tired all I can do is stumble upon little out-of-the way cafes and write for a couple of hours before I’m ready to walk back home.  That would be my dream:  to go back there (not in high summer—maybe, February, when it’s cold and rainy, the off-season for cruise ships—such weather would not deter my enthusiasm at all) and write and write and write and eat and drink and write.  There’s a reason that staying in Venice was an expected stop on the Grand Tour for like centuries—because it’s a capital of culture (yes, yes, dead, white, male, upper class, Eurocentric culture—spare me the lecture), and putting yourself in that space, away from your home space, gives you a different perspective on the world.  Maybe not a big difference in perspective—it’s still Western, it still has wi-fi—but it certainly influences your thought patterns.  It’s certainly also influenced my writing—and I keep coming back to writing those little prose poem/ memoir hybrid pieces (like the one I was nominated for a Pushcart for).  I have a number of them.  I think there are more inside me though.  Another trip to Venice would coax them out, I bet… (Haha.)

Speaking of things (roundabout) Venetian, I have to go to AWP’s annual chaos of a conference at the end of the month in Los Angeles as part of my new duties for The Atlanta Review.  I do not look forward to the conference; it’s gargantuan, spread out over multiple hotels, full of 50,000 writers (and that’s not my usual hyperbole) rushing to panels and readings (and apparently, I’m reading too—so great, now I have to figure out what the hell to read)—but I hope that I can get out to Venice Beach (or Santa Monica) for a little bit of time.  I need to see the ocean up close and personal, because it’s been a while (at least 14 years since I’ve seen the Pacific).  And Venice Beach, for all the times I’ve visited, always amuses me.  It’s quirky and endearing and strange, and I dig that.  Again, like so much of my time in L.A. in past, I will be sans auto, so not sure how I’ll get out there.  And a $60 taxi ride wouldn’t be my first choice for transportation, much as I’d like to go… But I’ll figure that out when I get there.  Who knows, maybe I’ll write a few Venice Beach poems.  That could be interesting.

As for Venice, Italy, I’ll get back there some day.  My book will still be waiting for me to write it.

grand canal image 06.24.14

A picture I took, maybe of the Grand Canal (I can’t remember), June 24, 2014.

Contests, & Waiting, & Rejections, Oh My

What does it take to get a book of poetry published in this country?  I wish I could write a blog where I list out all the steps a person needs to follow to help ensure success in this process.  These are the things I would mention:

  1. Write a book of poetry.
  2. Get friends to read it and make suggestions for revision.
  3. Edit and polish the hell out of it.
  4. Send it out to publishers.
  5. Get published.
  6. Become the latest darling of the poetry world.
  7. Repeat for Books 2, 3, 4…

Except, it hasn’t worked that way.  Well, I mean, I’ve got Steps 1-4 down pat.  I’ve sent out my manuscript (at this point) 42 times (which as you know is the answer to life, the universe, and everything), so you would think that perhaps the universe will come calling for me pretty soon.  (And to be fair, after a hiatus of several blues-ridden months where all I was getting was rejections, I’ve sent it out 10 places in the last month, 5 of which are contests. I guess you could say I’m feeling hopeful again—so technically speaking, it’s only received 32 rejections.)

And I get rejection is part of the gig.  Your manuscript has to find the right person who loves, loves, loves your writing, someone who will pass it along to the next reader, who also needs to love, love, love it.  And so on.  And contests aren’t the best way to ensure that your manuscript finds a loving audience, because readers simply don’t have the time to invest—particularly if your book is a little odd. (Which I fully admit mine is.)  Readers barely have time to invest even if the poetry they read is something they expect and understand. I know this.  On an intellectual level, I know this.  Everyone is getting rejected (well, except for one person).  Most contests report that they’ve had anywhere from 600-1000 entries.  Lots of people are getting told to take their manuscript and go bite the big wienie.  I get it.  I just wish that the process didn’t suck so hard.

I have a writer friend who told me that he knew someone for whom it took 70 times before her book won a contest and got published.  70 times.  Considering that most contests only award $1000 and run $25 a pop to submit, that times 70 contests comes out to $1750, meaning the contest cycle put her $750 into the hole.  (I don’t even want to think about how much into the hole I am.)  (Not that anyone goes into poetry to earn a living.)  (Honestly, what kind of business model is this, where the poet has to take it on the chin, nose, or other body part to get her work into the world?)

Of course, railing about it here is not going to change the status quo.  For whatever reason (because hardly anyone reads poetry anymore and contests are one of the only ways that publishers can make any money), this is how the process goes if one wants to be published by a reputable press and hopefully receive accolades for it.  And I buy into the system (literally and figuratively), which makes me complicit, and I have to be ok with that.   I am ok with that. Because, hey, who doesn’t want to win the Academy of American Poets Walt Whitman Award and spend 6 weeks lounging around and poeming in Italy plus get their book published and sent out to everyone who is on the rolls of the AAP?  If you won that, the $35 fee you invested (for me $70, since this is my second time around) when you submitted your manuscript would be hella worth it.

I could just wish I knew what the magic number of submission times for my book  to get published would be.  Because that would so alleviate my anxiety.  Like, let’s say the Goddess of Publication were to come down from On High and whisper one night when I’m asleep:  64 times, JC!   Then I would know that I only have 22 more rejections to go.  That would be great.  I could send them out all on one day and get it all done, knowing that soon I’d hear the good news.  Ah well.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

I haven’t been working on Hecate Applebough.  I was thinking about why this is, and it’s a combination of factors—the weirdo exhaustion, a preponderance of tennis matches in the evening when I would normally write, and a renewed vigor about writing poems.  But actually, those aren’t the biggest reasons.  I think the biggest reason is because I’m waiting to get notes back about the first book…and so I’m kind of feeling like I don’t want to write any more on the 3rd book in case there are repeated mistakes in the 1st one that I could prevent myself from writing in the 3rd book if I just knew to avoid them.

That’s certainly a true enough statement.  Avoiding mistakes if they’re preventable is always preferable to making a bunch more and having to go back and fix them.  But if I’m honest, another thing making writing the 3rd one a pain right now is I’ve dug myself into plot hole and I really don’t know how to get Cate out of it.  When I sit down at the computer and see that last chapter., I’m like, “Bleah” and then I get up and do something else.  It’s the first time since starting to write this series that I’ve just felt like I’ve lost control over the story and over Cate’s life.

And so in your endless wisdom, you might say, just throw out that chapter and start fresh.  And that’s really good, practical advice.  But the thing is, I don’t know what to replace it with.  I don’t know how I can make it better.  I have a blind spot right now.  So I kind of thought it might be ok to just set Hecate aside for a little while, and focus on writing poems and sending them out.  Maybe when I get the notes on the 1st book, it will help me see the 3rd one with a fresh eye too.  (There is no pressure on the person reading the book right now to hurry up and make those notes… I need some down time from Cate, so it’s totally ok.  Take as long as you need.  Srsly.)

And maybe this weekend, I’ll get a bee in my bonnet and suddenly figure out how to proceed with Hecate.  Or maybe I’ll write three more poems.  When it comes to my writing, it’s always just a mystery what will happen.  I kind of like it that way.

And, as a total non sequitur, please enjoy a photo of Jenny, who has been keeping me company:

2016-03-09 20.05.25

Big News in My Writing World (But Not a Manuscript Acceptance, Let’s Not Get Crazy)

It’s chilly—44 degrees out, and blustery.  There are few leaves on the trees, but they rattle as the wind blows, and somehow the weather is fooling me into believing it’s October.  I want to believe Halloween is right around the corner…because it would mean that November was right around the corner too, and that would mean it’s time for another NaNoWriMo.

I’ve been missing the energy of NaNoWriMo.  I’m still in the early stages of Hecate Applebough 3 (still untitled), and part of my lack of progress has to do with a weirdo persistent migrainey exhaustion I’ve been suffering for the last month (and which my Mom has nagged me about going to see a doctor for—ugh), and also not feeling that compulsion to write every day those 1,667 words because I have nowhere to chart the progress, no pep-talk e-mails from the NaNo people coming every few days encouraging me.  It’s just me now, and it’s harder to write, without the community.

But, a couple of days ago, a fortuitous tweet put me on to an app called Writeometer, which exists only for Android (sorry iPhone folks) and which gamifies the writing process, kind of the way NaNo does—you can set a daily/ monthly/ word goal, use its timer, enter your daily word count, and get reminders about writing, and you can earn “guavas.”  I don’t know all tricks of the app yet, so I’m not sure what earning the guavas can do for you, but I’m sure I’ll find out as I become more familiar with the app.  I’m looking forward to using it—I need the motivation.  So I’ll let you know how it goes.  (If any of my Five Readers have tried the app, I’d be curious to know what you think about it—but I suspect most of you are Apple users.)

Other than working on Hecate, I’ve produced a few short pieces lately—a few honest-and-for-true prose poems—one of them came out so well that I’ve “given” it to Hecate, and shoehorned it into the second book…although if I can get it published on its own, I will—and a few bits of flash that I want desperately to be prose poems, but I knew they aren’t.

Prose poems have a certain surreal quality—and so does my flash, except that the surrealism of prose poems is its own little thing.  When I try to do surreal flash, it just comes out as nutty.  Like maybe I’m trying too hard.  But hey, two pieces of just such flash were accepted by a journal on Monday, so I guess nutty works too.  In general, I just have a little “heart on” for prose poems, because they’re hard to do well, and because I think, in my mind, I still privilege poetry over prose as being Important and Worthwhile… while fiction just seems like something you do for cash.  (Not that I have received any cash for ANY bit of fiction I’ve produced—not ever—but you take my meaning, I’m sure.)  And of course, even as I write that, I know that’s a false dichotomy—but there it is.  The poet’s bias against fiction writers.  Hmm.

How’s this for burying the lede?  In other news, now that Dan Veach is passing the editorial reigns of The Atlanta Review over to Karen Head, she has asked me (WHAT????) to serve as the managing editor.  OMG OMG OMG.  This is an amazing opportunity, and I can’t wait to sit down with her and discuss all the ins-and-outs, and really sink my teeth into this project.  Reading some brand-new poems (that aren’t mine—haha) that are searching for a home is exciting.  It’s been a long time since I did any work on a literary journal, and The Atlanta Review is a Big Deal—this isn’t any dinky fly-by-night online journal, this is prize-winning print journal with an international following.  The work that Dan Veach has done on the journal (founding it and running it) is amazing and impressive, and I’m so thrilled that I get to be involved…and so grateful to Karen for asking me to assist her.  Read Collin Kelley’s article in Atlanta INtown, about the transition of editorship to Karen, because it’s interesting and offers some history about the journal.  (As my first order of business as managing editor, I propose we update the website!)

What else is there to share?  I’m still working on reading those three books of poems I mentioned in my last blog post—I got a little distracted by my manga habit, and my weirdo exhaustion that makes me want to fall asleep at 6 p.m.—but I hope to finish them this weekend (in and around the 85,000 tennis matches I’ve scheduled).  And, I’ve gotten yet another rejection on my poetry manuscript, but I sent it out to two more places, and I’m crossing my fingers. At some point, SOMEONE is going to want it, right?  Maybe I need to “attach a few more zeros” onto the contest fees I send off… maybe bribery would work?  (You never know!)