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.

What My First Week at Rockvale Has Taught Me

A painting of the RWC farmhouse, in the front room

Way back when I was studying for my comprehensive exam in contemporary women’s poetry for my PhD, I remember sitting on my bed with all my books spread around me—opened hither and thither, bookmarks and stickies shoved in higgedly-piggedly everywhere. My love of note cards began here—so much easier for memorizing passages from poems. I could riffle through them constantly.

At any given moment, I was also reading five or six or sixteen books, and I went through so many mechanical pencils underlining important poetic passages, Bic should have given me stock in the company.  The method was decidedly chaotic, but somehow I felt like a true scholar.  This is what I imagined that the life of the mind would lead to:  being holed up with dozens of books around me, taking notes, and writing.

A view from the front porch

Real life, not so much.  But this week at Rockvale has reminded me a little bit of that crazy time.  I have been reading a wide variety of books (from Greek myth to poetry by Katherine Smith and Sandy Coomer [the doyenne and proprietor of Rockvale] to YA fiction by Melissa Marr and Ibi Zoboi to books about immigration) and journaling and taking notes and hand-writing poem-ish things.

I’ve tried sitting down at the computer directly and writing, but that hasn’t worked so well for me.  Instead, I have had some good luck writing messily, not even my best handwriting, just scribbles and scratches and erasures.  And while the poem-ish things aren’t yet poems, I have found that when I go to type them up, they’re not nearly as bad as I fear they might have been.  For sure, they are drafty as an old robe, but there are many potential kernels, waiting to be popped.

I did not come here thinking that I would be transformed (for all the experience is proving transformative)—I am wise enough to know that you take your emotional shit with you everywhere you go—but I have felt open in a way that I’ve not felt in a long time.  How can I explain?  It’s like I’m only responsible to myself.

It’s downright amazing to be cut off from the penny-ante minutia of day-to-day work.  I am still working—probably 12-15 hours a day since I’ve been here—but because it’s “professional development” time, because I am working solely on my creative growth, I feel remarkable.  Awake.  Like I’m not sleeping through my life, filling it up with things that don’t matter.  And I don’t feel guilty about it either.  I can’t check my email?  Oh well.  They’ll have to figure it all out without me.  And that’s totally ok. (It’s fan-fucking-tastic.)

Horse paddock…check out that Tennessee sky!

Of course, the goal is to produce a number of poems that can go in my new manuscript—but maybe part of the problem of the last year is that by not having a break (either a vacation or teaching in Scotland as was planned two summers in a row), I’ve kind of forgotten what my own company is like. I’ve forgotten how to be just “JC the Poet” instead of “JC the Administrator/ Managing Editor/ Teacher/ Cat Lady/ Wife/ who writes poems in her puny spare time” person.

How many poems I’ll have by this time next week, I’m not sure.  But midway through, I’m feeling motivated, expansive, and ready to see what the next seven days will bring.  If Rockvale has taught me anything, it’s that a different setting doesn’t change everything, doesn’t make you any more of a scholar than you are already, but it changes things enough to give you some useful perspective.

Yes, Virginia, I Do Need a Room of One’s Own

Ah, to be outside one’s typical milieu for the first time in 16 months!

I think about how it is when I am at home, trying to write—the cats are constantly jumping up on me, getting in the way of my computer, sitting on the books I’m using for research, whatever.  There are endless things to clean (not that I get up and clean them, but whatevs, they taunt me).  The phone rings constantly.  The emails and work fires intervene.  Someone in the cul-de-sac invariably manicures on his lawn, the incessant whine and growl of lawnmowers and weed-whackers destroying my concentration. It is hard to find a creative “zone” when too many things make demands on your attention.

Scout, with Sandy petting him

Since I have been here at Rockvale (in Tennessee, 35-ish miles south of Nashville as the crow flies) I have reveled in the almost uninterrupted quiet.  I read here in my “cell” (a beautifully appointed room with a cozy chair and desk and bed with a quilt on it from 1925) or in the fireplace room (which smells of a century of winter fires), and write in a little pool of sunlight on the enclosed porch.  It is almost like I alone have run of the place.  But there are other women here too, working on their own writing, finding their own paths.  Except for a little chitchat in the kitchen when preparing meals, the only noise is the AC turning on and off.  What must it be like to have this kind of quiet all the time?  I think I didn’t realize how exhausted and depleted I’ve been feeling until I rediscovered my own being here in this writer’s colony.  I am truly decompressing.

Mama… a.k.a. Little Mexico

From my window, I can see a paddock, and usually there’s a mama and her foal far out on the other side, nipping the grass.  Today they were over by the fence nearest me, so I went out there and got to pet Scout.  His mama (whose real name is Little Mexico (?)) didn’t come too close, but Scout seemed pretty interested in me, and in debonair Finn and chonky Ollie, the two cats who came running when they saw me.  (I can’t escape cats!)  Scout was so interested that he gave me a big chomp on my forearm—which hurts a bit, but didn’t break the skin.  Still, I’d pet him again if he came to this side of the fence.

Finn

Ollie (who is really Oliver)

I feel grateful to be here.  I think after a year and a half-ish of being shut in the house, I just needed…another house. 😊 I needed a place of clutter-free, basically cat-free peace.  (And wifi and cell service are spotty, so I’m even hard to reach, which actually, I love.) I am hoping to get some good writing done.  I’ve already brainstormed a number of ideas of where to go on my next project, I’ve organized a list of what I have, I’ve done some journaling (I know, what a shocker!) and I’ve read two whole books for research already.

Tomorrow, I’m writing two poems if it kills me.  And maybe I’ll go visit Scout again.

Daughter of the Wheel and Moon Released!

My second print chapbook, Daughter of the Wheel and Moon, has been released as part of the artisanal Red Mare Chapbook Series (#21).  I got copies in the mail yesterday!

The Red Mare Chapbook Series produces a limited print run of hand-numbered, handmade books, with fancy papers, ink-block-printed covers, and hand-stitching.  These are beautiful books that feel decadent in your hands, books that you appreciate for their ephemerality, quality, and uniqueness.  Poets who have been published in the series include Maxine Chernoff, Alfred Corn, Lorraine Caputo, and others.

The press specializes in works with an ecofeminist bent, and Daughter of the Wheel and Moon combines poetry about nature and the environment with a focus on the magickal Wheel of the Year to tell about the life of a solitary practitioner witch.  It may—or may not—be a companion piece to What Magick May Not Alter… you can decide for yourself.

Daughter of the Wheel and Moon is available for $15 + shipping. If you buy a copy, you are supporting a woman-owned, non-profit, small press.  And, of course, you’re supporting poetry—so it’s win-win!

Saintly Visions & a Writing Mania Miracle

Quick Note:  It’s been a while since I’ve written (obvs.)—but in my defense, I was having problems with WordPress’ posting/editing interface, and it took me a while to figure out the sitch. Turns out I’m an airhead.  Anyway, it’s squared for the time being.  Now, onto the post!

So, a few months ago I was lamenting my writing.  Or rather, my lack of writing.

This seems to be a typical thing with me.  I suppose it is for many writers, though—you just go through phases, some of which are productive, some of which suck ass.  And of course, my ever-present and generally intolerable BFF, “Deppie,” has made a real nuisance of herself in my life:  that is to say, the dysthymia and anxiety pretty much kick my ass every day. (Sometimes, I tell myself:  just get through the next hour—and that’s the best I can manage.) But this isn’t a post about effed-up brain chemistry, this is a post about writing.

–from makeameme.org

As I was saying:  in February (technically, two posts prior), writer’s block (you know I hate that term, and try not to use it because it always feels like a crutch) was a thing.  I mean, THE STRUGGLE WAS REAL. 

(–from Lucasfilm/Disney)

Poetry and I repelled each other, although there was always kind of a Rey/Kylo (Reylo?) thing going on between us. And while it upset me (not just the least of which had to do with thinking about my writing in terms of the most recent Star Wars trilogy), other more pressing things on my mind (like staying alive) took precedence.  So, I just added “writer’s block” to the list of THINGS THAT MAKE MY LIFE MEANINGLESS O WOES ME. And carried on.

And then I had a vision of Mary Magdalene.

I know this sounds hokey.  Just go with me on this.

Digging through some old files on my computer, I came across a poem I had written years ago about Mary Magdalene—it had been nominated for an AWP Intro Award (which it didn’t win—big shock there)—and it got me thinking.  What could I do with this poem?  Would it just continue to sit in the file in perpetuity?  Or could it be part of a sequence?

The only way to see if a poem will be part of a sequence is by writing another one.  And then another one.  And so on. To help myself focus, I looked at image after image of Mary Magdalene through the ages, remembering the bond I used to have with her (as well as other women from the Bible).  I read hagiographic blogs and articles. I wrote a dozen poems or so, of varying qualities.

The Penitent Magdalene

Caravaggio, The Penitent Magdalene, ca. 1594-95

Some poems were ekphrastic because I believe in THE DREAM (writing a good art poem one day—and I do love me some Italian Renaissance/Baroque paintings), some were my typical narrative poems-with-a-wry-bent, some were just fragments (the Caravaggio poem is in limbo…for my sins). While I still need to revise and complete the sequence, it feels like I’ve accomplished something, and that takes a bit of the edge off.

And then (!!!)—I started another sequence of poems.  I mean, I wrote (and revised!!! OMFG!!) 25 poems in the span of 6 weeks.

I was like HamiltonI worked nonstop.

Or to put it another way, it was as if I had a visitation from The Madonna and she told me to me to get into the groove.  So I did.  And I’ve even started sending them off into the world.  Two of the poems will be published in Soul-Lit: a Journal of Spiritual Poetry in the near future.  Maybe more acceptances will be forthcoming.  (I can hope.)

If I sound amazed, I truly am.  But I don’t want to sound like I’m all, “look at me, look at me, I’m so fricken awesome.”  This is not me espousing a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps approach to writing. (Barf. I would never.) This is not me trying to lure you to my Patreon (which I don’t have—but maybe I should?) or to broadcast an infomercial at 3 a.m. promising that “You too can conquer writer’s block! For six equal installments of $29.99, you can download my step-by-step method…” It’s just me being surprised at how inspiration (another word I hate when it’s applied to writing) works sometimes.

I have slowed my roll somewhat since the middle of April, but I haven’t rolled to a stop.  So that’s a win.

My to-be-read pile                       (from NYPL Digital Collections)

A lot of work is coming my way though—I’m plodding (slowly) through a ton of reading to do for Atlanta Review (now that we’re down to basically only me as the reader/typesetter/social media maintainer), and a pile of research I need to for my next major WIP is accumulating on my bedside table. (Every time I look at it, there’s another book on the pile.) And of course, the new Fall teaching schedule dangles before my eyes, even if it’s still a couple of months away. Not sure I can maintain much rolling at all, with all this going on.  But slow and steady wins the race, or something like that?  I just need to keep trying  (Which is difficult with that beyotch Deppie albatross hanging around, but I’ll try.)

The middle one is “Deppie.”
(from NYPL Digital Collections)

***

Anyway…enough blathering. I hope your writing is going well.  And I hope you, my beloved 5 readers, are staying safe and healthy, even as the world opens back up.

Enter a Giveaway for Leah Angstman’s New Novel!

I’m am always happy to help out a fellow writer. So check out the cover reveal for
Leah Angstman’s debut novel, OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA, coming January 2022 from Regal House Publishing.



OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA:

A Novel of King William’s War in 17th-Century New England

BY LEAH ANGSTMAN

Publication Date: January 11, 2022

Regal House Publishing

Hardcover, Paperback, eBook, Audiobook; 334 pages

Genre: Historical / Literary / Epic

**Shortlisted for the Chaucer Book Award**


OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA is a historical epic of one woman’s survival in a
time when the wilderness is still wild, heresy is publicly punishable, and
being independent is worse than scorned—it is a death sentence.

At the onset of King William’s War between French and English settlers in 1689
New England, Ruth Miner is accused of witchcraft for the murder of her parents
and must flee the brutality of her town. She stows away on the ship of the
only other person who knows her innocence: an audacious sailor — Owen — bound
to her by years of attraction, friendship, and shared secrets. But when Owen’s
French ancestry finds him at odds with a violent English commander, the
turmoil becomes life-or-death for the sailor, the headstrong Ruth, and the
cast of Quakers, Pequot Indians, soldiers, highwaymen, and townsfolk dragged
into the fray. Now Ruth must choose between sending Owen to the gallows or
keeping her own neck from the noose.

Steeped in historical events and culminating in a little-known war on
pre-American soil, OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA is a story of early feminism,
misogyny, arbitrary rulings, persecution, and the treatment of outcasts, with
parallels still mirrored and echoed in today’s society. The debut novel will
appeal to readers of Paulette Jiles, Alexander Chee, Hilary Mantel, James
Clavell, Bernard Cornwell, TaraShea Nesbit, Geraldine Brooks, Stephanie Dray,
Patrick O’Brian, and E. L. Doctorow.

AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER

REGAL HOUSE PRINT
|
AMAZON KINDLE

AVAILABLE FOR ARC REQUEST

TNBBC PUBLICITY

Praise

“With OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA, Leah Angstman reveals herself as a brave
new voice in historical fiction. With staggering authenticity, Angstman gives
us a story of America before it was America — an era rife with witch hunts and
colonial intrigue and New World battles all but forgotten in our history books
and popular culture. This is historical fiction that speaks to the present,
recalling the bold spirits and cultural upheavals of a nation yet to be born.”

—Taylor Brown, author of PRIDE OF EDEN, GODS OF HOWL MOUNTAIN, and THE RIVER
OF KINGS

“Steeped in lush prose, authentic period detail, and edge-of-your-seat action,
OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA is a rollicking good read. Leah Angstman keeps the
story moving at a breathtaking pace, and she knows more 17th-century seafaring
language and items of everyday use than you can shake a stick at. The result
is a compelling work of romance, adventure, and historical illumination that
pulls the reader straight in.”

—Rilla Askew, author of FIRE IN BEULAH, THE MERCY SEAT, and KIND OF KIN

“Lapidary in its research and lively in its voice, OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA
by Leah Angstman is a rollicking story, racing along with wind in its sails.
Though her tale unfolds hundreds of years in America’s past, Ruth Miner is the
kind of high-spirited heroine whose high adventures haul you in and hold you
fast.”

—Kathleen Rooney, author of LILLIAN BOXFISH TAKES A WALK and CHER AMI AND
MAJOR WHITTLESEY

“Leah Angstman has written the historical novel that I didn’t know I needed to
read. OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA is set in an oft-forgotten time in the
brutal wilds of pre-America that is so vividly and authentically drawn, with
characters that are so alive and relevant, and a narrative so masterfully
paced and plotted, that Angstman has performed the miracle of layering the
tumultuous past over our troubled present to gift us a sparkling new reality.”

—Kevin Catalano, author of WHERE THE SUN SHINES OUT and DELETED SCENES AND
OTHER STORIES

“OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA is a fascinating book, the kind of historical
novel that evokes its time and place so vividly that the effect is just shy of
hallucinogenic. I enjoyed it immensely.”

—Scott Phillips, author of THE ICE HARVEST, THE WALKAWAY, COTTONWOOD, and HOP
ALLEY

“OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA is a meticulously researched novel that mixes
history, love story, and suspense. Watching Angstman’s willful protagonist,
Ruth Miner, openly challenge the brutal world of 17th-century New England,
with its limiting ideas about gender, race, and science, was a delight.”

—Aline Ohanesian, author of ORHAN’S INHERITANCE

“Leah Angstman is a gifted storyteller with a poet’s sense of both beauty and
darkness, and her stunning historical novel, OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA,
establishes her as one of the most exciting young novelists in the country.
Angstman plunges the reader into a brilliantly realized historical milieu
peopled by characters real enough to touch. And in Ruth Miner, we are
introduced to one of the most compelling protagonists in contemporary
literature, a penetratingly intelligent, headstrong woman who is trying to
survive on her wits alone in a Colonial America that you won’t find in the
history books. A compulsive, vivid read that will change the way you look at
the origins of our country, Leah Angstman’s OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA
announces the arrival of a preternatural talent.”

—Ashley Shelby, author of MURI and SOUTH POLE STATION

“Rich, lyrical, and atmospheric, with a poet’s hand and a historian’s
attention to detail. In OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA, Leah Angstman creates an
immersive world for readers to get lost in and a fascinating story to propel
them through it. A thoroughly engaging and compelling tale.”

—Steph Post, author of HOLDING SMOKE, MIRACULUM, and WALK IN THE FIRE

“It’s a rare story that makes you thankful for having read and experienced it.
It’s rarer still for a story to evoke so wholly, so powerfully, another place
and time as to make you thankful for the gifts that exist around you, which
you take for granted. OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA is a book rich with misery,
yet its characters are indefatigable; they yearn, despite their troubles, for
victories personal and societal. Leah Angstman’s eye is keen, and her ability
to transport you into America’s beginnings is powerful. With the raw
ingredients of history, she creates a story both dashing and pensive, robust
yet believable. From an unforgiving time, Angstman draws out a tale of all
things inhuman, but one that reminds us of that which is best in all of us.”

—Eric Shonkwiler, author of ABOVE ALL MEN and 8TH STREET POWER AND LIGHT

About the Author

Leah Angstman author photo

Leah Angstman is a historian and transplanted Michigander living in Boulder.
OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA, her debut novel of King William’s War in
17th-century New England, is forthcoming from Regal House in January 2022. Her
writing has been a finalist for the Saluda River Prize, Cowles Book Prize,
Able Muse Book Award, Bevel Summers Fiction Prize, and Chaucer Book Award, and
has appeared in Publishers Weekly, L.A. Review of Books, Nashville Review,
Slice, and elsewhere. She serves as editor-in-chief for Alternating Current
and The Coil magazine and copyeditor for Underscore News, which has included
editing partnerships with ProPublica. She is an appointed vice chair of a
Colorado historical commission and liaison to a Colorado historic preservation
committee.

Basketcase

from the NYPL Digital Collections

CW:  Depression, myopia, navel-gazing

The pandemic is almost a year old (in the US, anyway), and it’s been a horrible year for so many people, including the half-a-million folks who’ve died from Covid, and their families.  Then there was the bizarre and unbelievable insurrection on Jan. 6th (Epiphany!), and now the Texas power grid disaster and the below freezing temperatures across the country—with people dying, in their houses, without heat or water.  It seems that we are beset with tragedy everywhere.  I don’t want to sound dismissive, though I fear it might, if I say that the year has been hard on me, because I haven’t been able to write like I’ve wanted to. 

Of course I was saying that five months ago, too.  And in the intervening months, there were Halloween, and Thanksgiving, and Christmas, which are always bright spots, if momentary. But my depression persists—made worse, of course, by the tragedies that surround this country, the inability to see family and friends (oh my goddess, do I miss my Mom), the loss of a friend to suicide last October, the incessant stay-at-home-ism—the endless, endless darkness (not to be a drama queen or anything) that has just taken the spirit out of me.

I can’t seem to do anything. I don’t want to get out of bed. I don’t want to do much more than read books (to take me away from myself) or sleep. I’m irritable, sad, lonely, hating myself, and suffering migraines all the time.  Sure, those are all garden variety symptoms of depression (well, maybe not the migraines), and I’m still relatively high functioning (though I can’t manage household cleaning chores), but I am exhausted all the time. Weary. Unmotivated to the point of laziness.  And so very, very heartbroken about my writing.

Yes, I know there are thousands of people who have it worse.  I know that. I loathe that I’m sounding like a whiny little bitch, when relatively, there is so much decent (if not good) in my life.  But part of the depression sphere is that knowing something objectively doesn’t mean anything if you can’t feel it.

***

Feeling anything has come hard to me as an adult. How many therapists have said to me that I live too much in my head?  Some of that, I’m sure, comes from feeling too much as a child and a teenager, when I was told over and over again that my feelings were invalid/ unreasonable/ ridiculous/ unwanted. So I learned to suppress so much of my humanity—just became a floating intellect. I was pretty good at school, so I did that.  Kept my emotions in check as best I could for as long as I could, till I didn’t seem to have them anymore.  (Like I intellectually love my family and friends—they are great, wonderful people—but I secretly wonder if I really feel that love?  Like, can I ever feel anything, authentically?  Or am I always processing everything on such an intellectual level that I’ve atrophied anything else that was real inside of me?) Everything on autopilot.

Or is this all just depression talking?

It’s not a lie to say that I have developed a true fear of writing (scriptophobia!) this past year.  Fear is a feeling—though I “feel” very intellectual about it. As in, I can compartmentalize it—and do the writing I need to for work without a thought.  But when it comes to my own writing, I’ve been terrified (again, intellectually speaking).  What do I say?  What does it matter? Who cares if I write or not (besides me)?  I’ve wondered if I’ve forgotten how even to write poetry.  Or if I’ve developed a fear of poetry (metrophobia).  This is beyond writer’s block (which I don’t actually believe in)—this is something fundamental, and deeper.  Like poetry is a mountain I can see across the forest, but forget about crossing the forest, I’m floating by in a river, trying not to drown.

And maybe it’ll just be temporary.  Like, maybe this past year is too much to process, and the only way to “cope” (not very effectively, of course) is depression and an “inability” to write.

***

Intellectually, I know I will write poems again, when I’m not so depressed and stuck.  But it’s hard to feel it.  But, even when I do write poems again, to be honest, I know they will be the intellectual exercises they have always been for me.  That’s why I’ll never be a great poet—because my poems don’t have an emotional core, they just don’t—but it will have to be good enough to be good enough as poet. Because if I’m not a person who writes poems, I’m not sure what my point for being is?

Thanks, always, to my five readers for reading this. I wish I had something better to share than just head garbage.

October and Greatness

from NYPL Public Domain Collection

The weather has changed, turning cool and windy, and that has infused a little life into this old carcass of mine.  I love October.  I love the sound of Canada geese flying overhead.  I love the way the sunlight deepens to sunflower yellow, and how the leaves fall in puffs, as if the trees have sneezed them away.  I love too when the year is coming to a close, and every month ends with a holiday. We need a holiday.  This year has been too burdensome, too excruciating for all of us—and for 208,000 of us in America (as of this writing) it has been our last year of life.

I can’t pretend, as much as October makes me happy, that I’m not cognizant of the real trauma people have experienced this year.  Of some friends getting cancer, and others seeing their depression worsen, and others catching Covid.  Of a country divided so intensely by fascist white supremacy and support for Black Lives Matter—and everything else that can divide us, especially this coming election.

I see more Trump signs than Biden around here where I live, and it makes me wonder about those people.  Has this country given them everything they wanted?  Are they content to watch their fellow citizens in less affluent zip codes struggle?  Or don’t the poorer among us even rate?  I think they must not—because if they did, we would all be doing a better job about caring for others—ending racism, ending the prison industrial complex, ending ICE, and uplifting the poor, ensuring equal civil rights for all, making health care free, relieving the shackles of student loan debt. (Not to beat a dead horse.)  There are so many things we could be doing—and expecting our “representatives” in Washington to be doing.  But many of us have become so afflicted with ennui and exhaustion that we feel helpless.

So the rallying cry is VOTE VOTE VOTE.  I see it everywhere on social media and in the news.  My phone is bombarded with texts asking me to send money to support Biden and other Democrats. And yet, I can’t say that voting has done much good so far. We have an Electoral College that exists to keep the oligarchs in power, even when they lose the popular vote.  And the people we’ve voted for bend over backwards to accommodate the Republicans, and move the Democrats to the right. 

I just don’t know what to think about Nancy Pelosi when she compliments the Republicans for doing so much for America or Joe Biden who refuses to consider Medicare for All.  These are the people who are supposed to have the best interests at heart for Americans who can’t obtain the American Dream (as well as those of us who have decent jobs that provide us with the means for housing, health care, and everyday comforts).  Yet these same Democrats who claim they champion the American worker support increases to the military and cut SNAP.  I don’t see how anyone can think they are on any side but their own.

Oh, but JC, you say, I thought you were going to be writing an homage to your favorite month?  Why are you being political?  I think it’s because my privilege weighs heavy on my heart sometimes.  As it should.  To those who have been given much, much is expected.  And maybe it’s just growing closer to the end of the year—especially such a contentious, traumatic year—that makes me feel a little thoughtful. 

I worry about the coming election. I fear it.  We have a month to go before America decides if it wants to be so “great” that it continues to screw over everyone in the 99% for another four years.  But if that’s “greatness,” I have to wonder how we moved so far right that the only people who matter anymore are the billionaires and corporations, when it was the workers and enslaved peoples who built the country the billionaires profit from.  That’s not greatness.  That’s theft, corruption, and exploitation.

I don’t know how to make America great for the majority of Americans. It was never great for a lot of people.  It works pretty well as is, for some of us—especially if you’re rich, white, able-bodied, educated, and male.  But I have some ideas about the changes we could make that would definitely improve life for everyone—here are 10:

  1. Redistributing some of those billions might help.
  2. Increasing the numbers of women, LGBTQ/nonbinary, and POC folks in positions of power would help.
  3. Getting rid of the rich septuagenarians in all levels of government would help.
  4. Dismantling the police and the prisons would help.
  5. Establishing term limits for Congressional, Senate, and SCOTUS seats would help.
  6. Medicare for all would help.
  7. Zeroing out student loan debt and making college free would help. 
  8. Increasing free lunch programs, SNAP benefits, and other unemployment benefits would help.
  9. Offering a universal basic income would help, of if not that, then…
  10. Giving $2,000 a month for the next 12 months to every resident of America to help offset the Covid disaster would help.

I think those ten ideas would help make America great for more people. We have a long way to go to even move the needle one point towards the left.  And no matter the outcome of the election next month, we all have to stay involved in making positive changes for all. This is especially true for Democrats, if Biden wins.  Liberals have a nasty habit of going to sleep about larger social justice issues when blue candidates are elected.  That’s not greatness either.

There’s a lot to do.  But hey, at least it’s October, my favorite month, beautiful and energizing and full of promise. A little gem on top of the turd of 2020.

Great Review in Midwest Book Review for What Magick May Not Alter!

MBR Bookwatch: September 2020
James A. Cox, Editor-in-Chief
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive, Oregon, WI 53575
 
 
Helen Dumont’s Bookshelf
 
What Magick May Not Alter: Poems of Tallulah & Vidalia
J. C. Reilly
Madville Publishing
9781948692304, $18.95, PB, 188pp
 
 
Synopsis: “What Magick May Not Alter: Poems of Tallulah & Vidalia” by J. C. Reilly is a layered Southern fantasy told in a series of narrative poems and is a unique literary event that includes such elements of ‘real world’ issues such as the prevalence of the KKK, sexual assault, manslaughter, alcoholism, and complex family dynamics. J. C. Reilly’s poetic narrative style deftly moves the plot into emotionally treacherous and painfully real places.
 
Twin sisters Lulah and Vi anchor this story of a magically gifted family and is set in early nineteen-hundreds Louisiana. The choice to tell this story in verse sets it apart, making it feel like a spell book or a manifesto at times. Emotion sings through it clear and strong.
 
Critique: Inherently fascinating and unique, “What Magick May Not Alter: Poems of Tallulah & Vidalia” is an extraordinary and memorable verse based novel and showcases author J. C. Reilly’s truly impressive poetic and narrative storytelling skills. While especially and unreservedly recommended for both community and college/university library Literary Fiction collections, it should be noted for personal reading lists that “What Magick May Not Alter: Poems of Tallulah & Vidalia” is also readily available in a digital book format (Kindle, $9.99).
 
Helen Dumont
Reviewer
 
***Note from JC:  Thanks Helen!  I appreciate it so much!***