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.

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.

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.

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!***

Write About It? I Wish.

From the NYPL Public Domain Collection

Six months ago, back when quarantine was new and more frightening than annoying, I was advocating writing through the boredom like that would be easy.  But what I failed to think about—or even take into account at all—was that, far from having so much to write about that I’d be crazy prolific, churning out poems like a bakery turns out baguettes, I might actually find myself frozen, unable to write anything at all.  And yet, that is precisely what happened.  I’ve written maybe 5 poems altogether.  In six months.  Five poems is usually what I do in a single month.

Now, Writer Twitter is where I get a lot of my anecdotal evidence about writers, but it seems that I am not alone in my frozen state.  Many other writers have struggled to get words on a page, and I find myself taking comfort in that somewhat—like, at least I’m not the only one.  But I feel really quite miserable about it because I always believed that IF I had “unlimited” free time, I would have so much more to show for it.  Granted, I have been working, but I save a couple of hours not having to commute every day (or even getting dressed—heh), and that time adds up.  But when you can’t write, all that ends up as is two more interminable hours, making the days seem even longer, endless.

Of course, there are the nauseating writers who obnoxiously crow about how much they are accomplishing with this time—how they are writing more, submitting more, and publishing more.  Well, excuse me for being a jealous hag, but bully for them.  Take your accomplishments and stick them where the sun don’t shine.  Yes, I know, that’s mean.  I should be happy for them that they are feeling successful.  But mostly it just makes me sorrier for myself.  Why couldn’t that be my experience?

If I’m honest, part of my inability to write is lack of outside stimulation.  When you don’t go outside except once a week to the grocery, your life becomes insular and small.  I get pretty tired of my own company.  (Which, if you think about it, would be a GREAT reason to write fiction—you could make up a wonderful, interesting world and live there vicariously.) (But that would require my imagination to work, and sadly, it’s in the shop and looking like it’s D.O.A.)

The other, more compelling reason, is a depression that has just gotten out of control.  I don’t talk about it too much, because after all, what have I got to be depressed about?  I have a job, a wonderful home, and a loving family.  But when I don’t have my writing, I feel like an utter failure. I miss language.  I miss falling into a poem and feeling that transformation that poetry brings me.  My therapist, who is neither a reader nor a writer, doesn’t really understand this situation and tells me, not wrongly, that writers write, so get off my tuffet and write something.  Which is not especially helpful.

The problem with this depression is that in many ways, it’s quite compartmentalized.  Yay for high functioning! I am taking care of financial business, exercising, cleaning the house periodically, doing my job, teaching my class.  But it’s just so damn hard.  It’s exhausting.  Sometimes, the thought of getting out of bed defeats me.  Of course, I get up, because my cats would slay me if I didn’t feed them.  I don’t stop taking care of them just because I feel miserable.  Which is as it should be. But being compartmentalized like that means that there’s just not much left over to be me.  To be JC the Writer.  Like I can only manage so much, and that’s it.  Anything else doesn’t fit in the compartment.  It takes its toll.

Sometimes, though, I wish I could just fall apart.  Throw my hands in the air and just give up.  Stay in bed all day and cry.  Just be one fucked up mess.  Then, no one would expect anything from me.  And then I could feel justified in my not writing.  Well, I mean, how could I possibly write when I’m a total basket case?  Nobody expects anything from people like that.  Oh, so you’ve only written 5 poems in six months?  Well, you poor dear, of course not, not when you feel absolutely on death’s door.

But being responsible has always been a strength as well as a weakness.  And so I struggle valiantly, doing what I can when nearly every day feels like agony.  And maybe only once in a while admitting to my close friends that I’m not doing too well.  But after all, no one really wants to hear about my depression—can you blame them?—so I mostly just suffer in silence.

And instead of being genuine and honest about it, I make things worse by hiding it—proving to myself (at least) that I am responsible and taking care of things and don’t need to rely on others, who, after all, have their own problems and are struggling in unique ways as the pandemic wears on.

All of this is to say that I know I’m in a really bad place when I can’t write.  (And don’t think it hasn’t occurred to me how much of a fraud I feel, telling my students they need to write constantly, and then not following my own directive.)  I want desperately to write something—even this blog post is a big deal, and let’s be honest, it’s really just a navel-gazing poor-me—but every time I sit at the computer (or face a page of paper), it’s just blank, blank, blank.  Nothing comes to me.  At all.  And all the tricks I teach my students to do to fight off writer’s block seem to fail me.  It’s intolerable.

I really don’t know what to do.  If any of my five dedicated readers have any suggestions, I’d be happy to hear them.

Stay safe and Covid-free, y’all.  And keep me in your prayers, if you pray.  I need all the help I can get.

Poetry in the Time of Pandemic

Last night, Poetry Atlanta and Georgia Center for the Book, in cooperation with the Decatur Public Library, put on a virtual poetry reading featuring Mike James, Julie E. Bloemeke, and yours truly.  It was a really cool experience.  I actually didn’t suffer stage fright for once, so I count that as a win. Because I couldn’t see the audience it was like I was reading to myself.

I read poems from What Magick May Not Alter (gotta plug the book!), and kept my set short and sweet (only 13 minutes) so that I’d be leaving the audience wanting more.  And hopefully they wanted so much more they went to the Madville Publishing website or Amazon and ordered the book. 😉

Set list:

  • “Summer Portrait, 1912”
  • “They Say”
  • “Elegy for Cole”
  • “Bonham Ferry Comes to Call”
  • “Caddo Lake Elixir”
  • “Buck Moon”
  • “Harvest Moon”

If you missed the reading and would like to see it, please click on the link below.  My reading begins at 37:37, but of course you’d miss Mike’s and Julie’s readings, and you wouldn’t want to do that. (Julie is reading from her first full-length collection Slide to Unlock.)

Poetry Atlanta virtual reading

A Stop at Old Wives’ Oak (poem reading)

Today’s poem from What Magick May  Not Alter is about love, longing, and hope.  It centers on the dreams of the eldest Sibley daughter, Maggie, as she participates in the ritual of planting a daffodil at Old Wives’ Oak in the hopes her true love will be made known to her in Spring.  I like this poem because I love how both Maggie and Vidalia believe in romance and the magick of the process of planting a bulb, and Lulah could care less.

I hope you enjoy it!

Catfish Moon (poem reading)

from the NY Public Library Digital Collections

from the NY Public Library Digital Collections

Since all poetry readings are canceled for the foreseeable future, I thought I would take the opportunity to read a few poems over the next several days from my new book What Magick May Not Alter.

This poem called “Catfish Moon,” named after the full moon in August (which is technically the Sturgeon Moon, but this is poetry, and we take liberties).

(Also, the picture looked backwards when I was filming it, but it’s correct when you watch the video, so forget my little “backwards” comment.)

If you like the video, or this blog, please feel free to share it near and far!