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.
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. 😉
- “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.)
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!
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!
Right now, with the Corona Virus going on, it’s hard to think about anything besides that people are dying and the only thing we can really do is socially isolate ourselves and wash our hands to the Alphabet Song (or Happy Birthday, twice). But while that is true, it’s also important that we don’t lose sight of what makes us us—whatever it is that makes us feel humanity, we should try to continue to do it, even as we make health and safety of ourselves and others a priority.
For me, that’s writing. The last few months at work, I was putting sometimes 50-60 hours a week trying to get everything done, and unfortunately, what had to give was my writing. I was just too tired to work on poems, after I had been in the salt mines, and I realize now that more than just what I thought I lost (some sanity and true connection to my inner world), I temporarily lost some of my humanity. Not surprising, when you become an automaton for work. But not writing—not connecting—contributed to my anxiety and worsened my already pretty heavy depression, and frankly, no job is worth that.
I am sorry that it’s come down to a pandemic to allow me to write again—but I also feel better for the first time in several months. I’ve been writing, revising, and sending out poems to journals, and it feels like me again, a re-centering. Usually, the nudge that AWP provides in the Spring also helps my productivity, but this year the Ed. decided (rightly) that we should probably forego AWP since both of us tend to be immunocompromised. (Everyone knows all you have to do is sneeze my way and I pick up a respiratory infection.) But it was hard, not getting to chat with writers I know as well as visiting with the people tabling in the Book Fair. The energy from that is so motivating. So, I’ve just been reading the journals that have stacked up around my house, and I’ve been combing Submittable’s Discover tab, looking for new journals to explore and possibly to submit to. And, I’m finally connecting to the project I’ve been batting around in my head for months, and that feels good too.
In related news, I’m looking forward to my official release date for What Magick May Not Alter, which is April 17th. So, that makes my book an Aries (and you know how Aries and Taurus don’t mix too well 😊). But I’m excited for my book to be out in the world. I’ve sent ARCs out to several people, with the hope that they would kindly write a review, no matter their opinion. I know for a fact that one person has written one—she’s just waiting to share it a little closer to its birthday. And another person is in the process of making a YouTube review and told me that he “damn near couldn’t put it down,” so that is great news. I’m still looking for some readers/ reviewers, so if anyone is interested, please let me know and let’s figure out how we can get a copy of What Magick May Not Alter in your hands!
I know this was a short post—I’ll try to do better than write one post a year! Maybe I’ll even get back to my Wednesday posts, who knows? Until then, be safe, sequester yourself, and wash your hands. And if you believe, pray.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Atlanta Review, and so we were thrilled to be in Portland to help celebrate this milestone with everyone and debut our 25th Anniversary Anthology. Not only was Atlanta Review one of AWP’s sponsors this year, but Karen Head, our fearless Ed., had gotten us a primo spot at the entrance of the Book Fair, and we expected to blow through our swag. Additionally we had a great 25th anniversary reading lined up with Ilya Kaminsky, Sholeh Wolpe, Marty Lammon, and former editor, Dan Veach, which we knew would be packed to the gills. We were expecting to take Portland by storm. Reality was a little less impressive.
If you want to skip the details, suffice it to say that I’m glad I went, and that I love spending five days surrounded by writers and books in a city I’ve never been to. If you want the low-down, read on…
OMGWTFBBQ! Wonderful news, everyone! After 45 rejections, give or take, my full-length collection of narrative poetry, What Magick May Not Alter, has found a home at Madville Publishing and will be released in 2020!
Being as you are one of my Five Loyal Readers, you might remember I wrote about the collection in a 2015 blog post, after my Mom had read it and was horrified. I had no idea that it would be a full three-and-a-half years later before it would get accepted at a reputable press. (Which is to admit, it got accepted at a couple of other presses, but I didn’t have a good feeling about them, not for this book, anyway, so I passed.) Considering that I wrote the earliest poems in 2012—the book will be 8 years old when it comes out next year. I’m so in a different head space now. (But I can slip back into that world, don’t worry.)
It has been an excruciating process, over all, submitting and submitting and submitting some more, only to have the rejections pile up (not to mention all the money I spent on contest and submission fees). Anyone who’s a writer is familiar with this repeated anguish of submission and rejection—I know this isn’t unique to me. A bright spot was the 2015 Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Prize, for which it was a finalist, but even that was a long time ago.
I really had gotten to the point of abandoning it—how many times did I hear, “It’s too long” or “No one wants to read a verse novel” or some version of “It’s unwieldy—weird—just a tough sell.” (Like anyone “sells” poetry anyway.)
Even after the divinely generous, brilliant poet Ilya Kaminsky (basically a living patron saint of poetry) read through it and offered suggestions, I was ready to hang it up. I just thought that nobody really understood what I was trying to do, and maybe I should try to publish a more conventional collection of poems first. Heaven knows I have poems enough to spare to create a couple of (oddball) collections. And, I thought, maybe in a few years, WMMNA would be of interest to someone. After I had “proved” myself with a traditional book of poems.
But fortunately Madville came along—it’s absolutely been worth the wait. I’m so excited to be working with Kim Davis, the publisher. She’s been so positive and supportive and I have such a good feeling about this book coming out under her aegis. I’m just so happy.
And I can’t wait for you to read it in April next year…in the cruelest month that will no longer ever be the cruelest month for me!
P.S. I’m available for bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, and you know, just hanging-out-spontaneous-type readings… Just invite me!
P.S. #2 I still have to do a clean edit, and maybe rethink some organization, so it still needs some work, but OMG! So Awesome! Yay!
During these falling and ebbing tides, a riptide can carry a person far offshore. For example, the ebbing tide at Shinnecock Inlet in Southampton, New York, extends more than 300 metres (980 ft) offshore.
Now they tell me.
After I was swept out to sea on a rip current in Southampton, NY (yes, it was as scary as it sounds), the first thing anyone said to me at the writer’s conference (after “Oh My God!”) was “Write about it.”
I’m now two weeks past my fight with the ocean (where the ocean almost won), and I still don’t know what to say about the experience. Not really. I keep thinking I need to process it, but writers generally process things by writing about them. Perhaps language is stronger than a nine-foot wave?
But that nine-foot wave that began my ordeal is all I can focus on. I keep seeing it and remembering how instead of trying to swim through it, I turned around and tried to run from it, taking the full force of its power that knocked me over and began to drag me away from shore, filling my mouth and eyes with sand and salt and something viney, maybe kelp.
It’s that gray-green wave I keep seeing when I close my eyes, that creeps into my dreams and pulls me away from everything I know, making figures indistinct, small, if I can recognize them at all. I am looking for new language to describe this feeling, but it’s as if the gray-green wave is pulling me towards every cliché you’ve ever heard about drowning—drowning in self-pity, drowning one’s sorrows, this drowning woman grasping at straws, etc. Nothing seems real to me, but that gray-green wave.
And yet, the weird thing is, the fear and doom I feel now is all after-the-fact. When I was in the moment, gasping for air and feeling helpless but trying to fight my way out of that current, fear and doom were not what I was thinking about. I never thought, You’re going to die. Instead, I was angry.
Maybe that was adrenalin at work, my way of not losing my head—by focusing on my anger. Anger because misgivings about the waves had troubled me before I went in—I even wrote about them in my notebook while I watched the water. Anger that I didn’t listen to my gut which said, Don’t do this, don’t go in, even between the safety flags. Anger for knowing how to swim well, and yet not being able to right myself and break free from the tumbling surf. There is a kind clarity in anger, I suppose, and I was level-headed enough to quit struggling and to take the blessed hands that wound up hauling me to shore.
But now that wave haunts me, even four hours inland. I didn’t go back to the beach after that day—I couldn’t. I didn’t even want to see the water again—which is irrational and yet somehow petulant, as if the ocean betrayed me—who loves the ocean beyond most things (except cats, my mother, and Jesus)—when I’m the one who betrayed my own good sense to stay safe.
I am looking at Google Maps of Coopers Beach, and from overhead the beach looks like nothing special, and the crests on the waves hardly as imposing as an eyelash. Perhaps someday I will be able to view the experience through the transformative lens of art, and write the poems that I am meant to write about it. For now, I think I will just end this post here—without details, without a timeline, without anything beyond the memory of that nine-foot gray-green wave.
*Lyric from Robert Palmer’s song “Riptide”
It’s the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Sunset tonight is technically 8:51 p.m., but of course it will still be light out closer to 10 (for a total of 14 hours and 24 minutes of sunshine). It’s the kind of day I could imagine myself being out by the ocean for as long as possible—you know, if Atlanta was on the coast. Which alas, it is not.
I simultaneously love and hate this day—I love it because it’s high summer and there’s something interesting about the sun being out as I’m (supposed to be) readying myself for sleep. But I also hate it because it means the days will now get progressively shorter, creeping as they do towards the fall and a new school term. (I’ve had this love-hate thing with the day since I was little.)
Anyway, here is a poem I wrote several years ago commemorating the summer solstice. Initially I planned to write something New Agey and mystical—but then I defaulted to funny. This poem has always been one of my favorites, and it always makes me laugh.
Tonight is the shortest of the year,
not enough time to break into Mr. Next Door’s
shed and rearrange his tools,
hide the scotch he keeps on a ledge
beside the coiled snake of orange power cord,
let the air out of the tires of his ’87 Impala,
fray his collection of ropes,
steal the front wheel of his Schwinn
and replace it with a stale doughnut,
spill turpentine into his jug of marbles,
stuff his sleeping bag with twigs and old leaves,
or tangle his fishing wire into knots
not even the navy knows about.
Tomorrow, the night is two minutes longer.
If you like this poem, you might like the others in my collection, La Petite Mort.