How the Moon Became a Poem

Storm Moon photo

In Tuesday’s mail came the May 2017 issue of POEM.  POEM is a journal of the Huntsville Literary Association, and has been continuously published since 1967—fifty years. They publish perfect little poems—the journal itself is not quite 5”x7”—and I had submitted a pack of poems to them just to say I tried.

So when I got the acceptance last year, I was thrilled—especially because it was one of the Moon Poems from my narrative manuscript (you know, the one I’ve submitted like 50 places).  The Moon Poems, with maybe two exceptions, are “perfect little” 15-line lyrics, that appear throughout the manuscript and (at least in my mind anyway), represent the poetic output of one of the main characters, thought the voice in this particular poem is Vidalia’s, not Tallulah’s.

I’ve been trying to remember what initiated my interest in writing the Moon Poems.  While it may be true that I wanted to demonstrate a range of my writing ability (that I can write something other than narrative), it seemed important to incorporate the moon almost as a character in the manuscript, especially as it is about witches and women who harness energy and strength from the moon in order to enact their spells.

The poems each take as their title one of the (many) colloquial/ northern Algonquin names for each month’s full moon—though the February full moon is technically the “Snow Moon”—but of course, there’s no such thing as snow storms in February in Louisiana, but there is rain, so I fudged a little, and made the poem “Storm.” (Actually, this poem could also represent July—which is the month of  the “Thunder Moon” as well as “Buck Moon” but I believe I meant it for February.  But the word “thunder” appears in the poem itself…maybe the connection to February is wrong?)  As I think about it, February actually has two poems in the manuscript, this one and “Hunger Moon.” Anyway, writing about the moon felt authentic to me, and authentic to the experience of all the women characters in the manuscript.  (Not surprising—as Marge Piercy reminds us, “The Moon Is Always Female.”)

With this publication, the total number of poems in the manuscript that have been published in journals comes to 11—when the manuscript is 83 poems, my publication rate looks feeble, a mere 13%.  But it has been difficult to publish poems from this collection because it’s narrative (the Moon Poems not withstanding), and they are interdependent, and how do you take individual poems which all contribute to a story out of their milieu and make them make sense as stand-alones?

I’d very much like to have at least 20 poems from this collection published—that seems like a reasonable goal—then I would feel like maybe the manuscript would finally have a chance.  And getting the rest of the Moon Poems published might be the way to accomplish that goal.

On the other hand, there is still the other idea I have been kicking around in my head…taking out the line breaks in nearly all of the manuscript poems (except the Moon Poems), and trying to get it published as a hybrid flash fiction/poetry work.  So far I’m not that desperate—I mean, I conceived the book as poetry, and would hate to lose the beauty of well-wrought-lines, so I’m going to hold out the hope until I get the next batch of manuscript rejections that it will get published as the verse novel it is.

But the line break removal thing is still a possibility… because it has worked for me before, transforming what I thought were poems into flash fiction and flash nonfiction—or rather, perhaps the conversion process only revealed what their true form meant them to be.  And in many cases, these erstwhile poems found homes in journals like right away.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy “Storm Moon.”  Let me know what you think.

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.

Writing and Dithering

The second Hecate Applebough book (sans title, at the mo), grueling though it was to write, is completed, and I feel a sense of accomplishment about that.  It took longer to write, probably because I wasn’t on the high of NaNoWriMo, and of course, Christmas and New Year’s and the beginning of a new semester intervened, and there’s just a lot of things you have to get done at the end of the year, making writing another novel difficult.  (That sounds so pretentious right, “another novel.”  Gag me.)  I still have to tweak a couple of scenes before I will be satisfied with it as a first draft.  (Although of course no one is satisfied with first drafts, but you know what I mean.).  And I might have to seriously reconsider some other scenes which I know why I wrote them the way I did, but I don’t love them, and they need fixing.

But I knew I had to get Hecate Applebough 2 done so I could start the third one, which I’ve done in the last few days—and somehow I have a good feeling about this one.  Like I’m going to try to make it much more lighthearted, more comic.  I think that was my problem with the second one—it was like a goddamned angstfest—NOBODY was happy in the entire book.  I kept just making everyone miserable—like, it was a contest with myself:  how much can I screw with Cate’s life?  Just how twisted can I make her relationships?  Can I make some of the minor characters sad?  Yes?  Great!  And kind of what I wound up doing was making myself miserable in the process.

Don’t get me wrong, while I’m my own worst critic, and by the very nature of breathing, I assume everything I write is utter and total crap, there are “moments of possibility” in it, but the moments of pure dreck outweigh the possibilities of goodness.  I keep thinking, if I were Cate, and that was my life, I would probably swear off men forever and become a hermit.  The men in her life really are just fucked up—I wasn’t totally being funny when I joked about naming the second book Hecate Applebough and the Fucked Up Men in Her Life, because they are just such drama queens and so needy and complicated.  Honestly, I don’t know Cate stands me.  She must think I’m a total bitch to keep putting her in these stupid, angsty situations with men who don’t know what they want.

Which is why, as I said in a recent tweet, I need to let this book mellow.  Because it’s very raw, and it’s very overemotional—not like melodrama, but yeah, kind of sudsy at points.  I need that time away so I can come back to it fresh.  And maybe with some distance I can figure out what I really wanted to do with that second book and see if I can’t get it more there than it is right now.  (Of course, it will need substantial revision—I just want it to be a good first draft that will make revision be something hard but worthwhile instead of painful just to get to ok-ish-ness.)

And writing the third one will help me a lot because I am determined to make it fun.  Cate needs a break from constantly having her life explode in her face—and I need a break from that too.  I suppose, all fiction authors are either consciously or unconsciously trying to work out the crap of their own lives, and it manifests in the lives of their characters.  I know that I’m working through some issues—that sort of became obvious in the second book, because Cate is always thwarted, she always thinks things are settling down and then, hello, some tragedy or another happens and she’s back down in the sewer trying to dig her way out.  And that’s kind of how I feel my life is.  Of course, I don’t have two hot guys vying for my affections, so I can’t relate to her on that level (alas and alack—that might be a fun problem to have!), but that’s just a mask for the angsty things going on my life, I think. (So personal life spoiler alert:  I have problems and bad things are happening.  And who suffers?  Cate.)

Anyway, not to give away too much about the plot, but the third book already is starting with the comic premise that Cate, Val, and Lonny are all going to visit her Dad in Nebraska for Spring Break.  Book 3 starts on the airplane and I had a good time writing Val and Lonny sniping at each other and Cate just rolling her eyes, and now they’re in Nebraska and she’s dealing with her stepmother and her infant brother, and the change of scenery, away from Sunderson Academy and the Study Salon, is doing me a lot of good.  I’m really hoping that I can sustain the humor because Cate deserves a little happiness after what I’ve put her through.  But on the other hand, it wouldn’t be Cate’s life if it were charmed.  So I have to figure out how much I can torture her and still keep the majority of the book breezy.

In other news, I admit that I’m still vacillating back and forth whether to share Book 1 with Brilliant Fiction Writing Friend.  He’s super persuasive, with his metaphorical chisel that chips away at my protests (plus his company is awesome).  My insecurity, however, is equally persuasive—pugnacious, even (which means it usually wins out when I have these “what if” wars in my head).  But he said something to me the other day that—guilted isn’t the right word—tipped the balance in his favor a little more, let’s say—something about making editing a part of his professional development, and that my book would help him work on those skills.  And frankly, when he pitches it like that, and I can see letting him read HA1 not as an opportunity to deprive him of time he could be writing, were he so inclined, but as opportunity for him to grow in a way he’s interested in growing, well, how can I turn that down?  That would just be mean of me.  And of course, if he didn’t have my book to read, he has other people whom he could help, so it’s not like he’ll languish if I said no (and really meant it).  So, why not let him help me, right?  But…blah blah blah.  Shut up, JC. (Can’t you for once just accept good fortune?)  (Not easily.) (OMG OMG OMG, I realize, I write this blog the same way Cate writes her diary—I’m such a headcase.) (Please send help.)

Anyway, apropos of nothing, please enjoy a picture of sleepy TimToms, who has been keeping me company today as I’ve been writing.

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