Sunday, July 31, 2016

Today I become a poet ... again

I woke today with the best of intentions.

I’m on a writing retreat at the moment—just three nights at a local hotel, a good place for sleeping and swimming and eating reconstituted eggs and spongy sausage precisely from 6 to 10 a.m.

It’s also a great place to get work done—to catch up on grading and editing projects and to reacquaint myself with my own writing, including my poor, neglected blog.

My relationship with writing isn’t always a comfortable one. It’s almost like I forget how sometimes, and I could no more pick up a blue pen and write a poem with it than I could sprout tiny wings and breathe fire.

In fact, writing this very essay is part of my path back to poetry after a few weeks’ absence. This is my windup. I hope to follow it up with a pitch, hot and fast, right down the center of the plate.

I’m fine, by the way. I’m not anxious or depressed; if I’m a little overworked, that’s kind of normal for me, and it doesn’t keep me from finding a few hours in most days to write. I can’t cite a reason I’m struggling to write poems at the moment; I just am—and that’s a familiar place for me.

Some poets function in the way that I see fiction writers operate: They sit down in front of the page and see what kind of trouble they can get into, what kind of fun they can have. I’m just not that kind of writer. Poetry, for me, is a process of turning inward and drawing out what I’m thinking and feeling on the deepest level. Even when I do try fooling around—noodling, my instrumentalist friends might call it, running through scales and arpeggios, trying some finger studies—the process quickly takes me inward and becomes one of focused self-study.

Because I’m fairly contented, self-study should be a comfortable enough process—shouldn’t it? But the prospect of “going there” sometimes feels like too much for me to take on. It’s like a switch goes off and suddenly I can’t seem to do what I’ve done every single day for a month or more. I can’t write a poem. I have the paper, I hold the pen, but no marks hit the page.

During the course of a writer’s life, we get to know our own peculiarities. One of my own is this occasional exile from words. I feel as though I’m standing outside the village walls and no one will let me back in. I temporarily forget that there’s a wide-open gate. Of course no one is going to wave me through; it’s not even a real village, and at any rate, I’m the mayor of my own simile. But the feeling of exclusion—it’s awfully hard to shake that, even when it comes from no clear source.

Some people call this writer’s block. I don’t necessarily believe in the concept. What I’m going to do today is sit myself down in front of paper or screen and plunk down some words. They will very likely be terrible words, hardly-worth-reading words. They will not play nicely together; they will not express anything worth saying; they will not even sound particularly mellifluous, no matter how I rearrange them.

And I’ll add more words to the mix, and these words won’t be any better. But stacking up so many words—the raw material of poetry—will allow me to see where a few from up there and a few from down here might be ratcheted together in a surprising way, possibly even a pleasing way. More and more words will result in more and more possibilities, and maybe when I’m done, I’ll have a poem to show for it. At least I’ll know I’m doing the work, and I’ll be able to reasonably refer to myself as a poet. When we stop writing poetry, isn’t it more precise to refer to ourselves as former poets?

I went through a long period—about seven years—of not writing at all. That was different; that was the result of trauma and the need to heal. The thing about the long fallow period, though, is that I came back with so much to say and with true excitement for saying it. When I ultimately did sit down to write, I knew no hesitation, and the words came nearly effortlessly to mind, or maybe they bypassed my mind, troublesome lump that it is, and went straight to my fingers. I was shocked that returning to writing wasn’t hard; it was like falling drunkenly into a swimming pool—beyond easy. Unavoidable, even.

But today I’m entering that pool stone-cold sober. I don’t have the luxury of seven years. My life, by any reasonable measure, is half-over. My mind is possibly just past its peak, if measured in terms of difficulty remembering what I entered a room for. I have some things to say, and the time is now.

I’m going in.

Thursday, July 28, 2016


It started with a Facebook post from my friend Lauryl Wagoner.

            #MyNextPresident has had blood-stained underwear.”
It’s seemingly a throwaway line, but when I reflected on it for a moment, I found that it just about knocked me over. No other president has experienced a menstrual period, month in, month out, sometimes frighteningly late, and sometimes, near the end, wildly sporadic.

And there is so much more that no president has ever experienced. This realization is not, actually, a partisan moment; it’s a deeply human one. We’re all along for the ride at this important—and ridiculously tardy—moment in history. 

At any rate, I started a thread and encouraged my friends to join in. My first offering:

#MyNextPresident has peeled her shin like a carrot while shaving her legs.

Barack hasn’t. Three different Georges didn’t. No Abe, no Bill. Hillary alone has pulled skin from her Daisy—just like me.
Look, I know it’s pretty personal and not necessarily appropriate to think about a candidate in such a personal way. But I feel a personal connection with Hillary Rodham Clinton. I suspect a lot of people who identify as a woman feel the exact same way.
So far, a Facebook post and a Twitter hashtag have resulted in very little trolling, but I expect it eventually. Some people don’t value women; some of those people are women. But I feel exuberant that the person I believe will win in November is someone who has fretted over things her body does, and has been sized up as a mom, and has worked to look something like society says she should look. And she’s taken some licks for it—the headbands, the pantsuits—even more than the rest of us.
Pardon me if I embrace and revel in sisterhood, even if it’s imagined sisterhood.

Some more observations:

#MyNextPresident has bought something she didn't need so she wouldn't seem like she was on a tampon run.

#MyNextPresident has ripped out a small clump of lashes because she got in a hurry with her eyelash curler.

#MyNextPresident has worn Spanx.

#MyNextPresident may occasionally pee a little when she laughs.

#MyNextPresident has self-administered the pencil test.

As a child, #MyNextPresident briefly experimented with dotting her I's with a heart, then quickly came to her senses.

#MyNextPresident has taken store-bought cookies to the bake sale, but in her defense, they were really nice cookies.

#MyNextPresident is glad she's old enough that she never had to worry about thigh gap.

#MyNextPresident has tried the cabbage soup diet.

#MyNextPresident perfected the art of typing one-handed with a baby in her other arm.

#MyNextPresident has had to wash a spot out of her good sheets.

Like me, #MyNextPresident prefers flats.

#MyNextPresident has perfected the art of removing her bra through her sleeve at the end of the day.

#MyNextPresident feels more at ease in a swimsuit with a skirt.

#MyNextPresident has gone to an event too dressy or too casual while Bill got away with wearing the same damned suit.

MyNextPresident has been badgered into attending a Pampered Chef/Tupperware/Decorama/lingerie party and bought the smallest thing.

Someone has had the nerve to tell #MyNextPresident she should smile more. She just looks so pretty when she smiles ...

#MyNextPresident has asked a friend to check the back of her pants.

A few hundred posts later, my friends and even strangers have contributed their own. A few of my favorites:

Karin Wraley Barbee:

#MyNextPresident has handed a rolled up ball of toilet paper to the stranded woman in the next stall.

#MyNextPresident sang R.E.S.P.E.C.T. at a stoplight.

#MyNextPresident popped open a can/egg of L'eggs pantyhose and very carefully pulled them over her toes, calves, and lower thighs before realizing there was no way those things were making it all the way up.

Dawn Hubbell-Staeble:

#MyNextPresident has coughed, sneezed, or laughed so hard she's peed herself a little.

#MyNextPresident has walked to her car with her keys between her knuckles … just in case

Christina Burgy Fisanick Greer:

#MyNextPresident  has covertly sniffed her underarm while riding in an elevator to a meeting.

Heidi Czerwiec:

#MyNextPresident has worried about panty lines.

#MyNextPresident has wondered if her nipples are weird.

Kelly Morse:

#MyNextPresident has stored cash in her bra because she didn't want to take a purse to the bar.

#MyNextPresident  wanted to show what she was capable of, but instead was tasked with organizing the annual Easter egg hunt.

#MyNextPresident has had her colors done by a friend selling Mary Kay products.

I have absolutely loved watching tweets come in at #MyNextPresident. Join us?

Monday, June 27, 2016

First book reflections: My book is here!

It came! My first full-length collection arrived, and I’ve held it in my hand.

To most readers, it would probably feel a lot like any other poetry book. But I can’t stop slipping my thumbs along its glossy cover, or flipping through its natural-colored pages, or weighing its heft in my palm. The poems inside are what they are—the very best in me, and I hope readers find them up to snuff—but beyond the work itself, I can attest that this little volume is perfect in every way.

My cover art is by an extremely talented artist named Gabrielle Montesanti. She specializes in photography and mixed media, and the cover art is a wonderful collage of the partial facial view of a cow. It’s so unusual that my reactions, in order, were, “What?” and then, “Well, maybe,” and finally, “SQUEE!” I have remained solidly on “squee” ever since.

The exterior was designed by a talented designer named Kristen Camille Ton, and the interior was designed by Erin Elizabeth Smith, the head honcho at Sundress Publications. I was given a voice in all aspects of the appearance, including art, layout, and font selection. Although I’ve published many issues of literary journals, it was really fun to look at design from the slightly different perspective that a book project requires.

Before we got to the design phase, Erin and Sara Henning both served as my editors to help me revise and order my work. I’m thick-skinned enough that I actually found it fun to drop a poem or two that weren’t as effective or that didn’t fit, and to work to fix problems with my endings or with loose language. As I’ve mentioned, I’m late to publishing a full-length collection, and I wonder what my reaction to criticism might have been twenty years ago—tears and anger, I expect. A few things do get better with age. For those few suggestions I didn’t agree with, I merely said a polite no. We all operated in good faith, and I love the results.

Clearly, this book means a lot to me—and that raises an obvious question, since I’m also the author of two chapbooks, Stone for an Eye (Kent State/Wick, 2004) and Someone Could Build Something Here (Winged City, 2013). Did those chapbooks, or small-sized collections, not count?

It’s a tricky issue. I really love chapbooks. They allow a writer to pay sustained attention to a narrow theme that would be too much for a full-length collection. I love to be obsessed with, say, a stone (the topic of my first chapbook) for twenty pages or so. Almost anyone would be tired of rocks, or anything else, by the end of seventy pages.

Chapbooks are unique and singular works of art. I’m very proud of the two I’ve published, and I know I’ll feel the same about two that are now forthcoming—one a collection of personal poems and the other a collection of daily sentences that I write about people lost to gun violence. But chapbooks simply don’t have the cachet of full-length books, and I haven’t really felt like a varsity player until today, when the coach finally put me in.

Whether I can put up the numbers remains to be seen, but it feels awfully good to be in the game.


If you would like to purchase my book, ordering information can be found at this link.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

First book reflections: I’m ready for my closeup

“Hi Karen, you have a package coming tomorrow.” That’s the text of an e-mail from UPS, informing me that by the end of day Monday I will be able to open a box containing copies of my very first full-length poetry collection.

I could not be more thrilled. It’s been a long poetic life with little to show for it—I’m nearly double the age of John Keats at the time of his death, for heaven’s sake, yet I’ve published only two (very beloved) chapbooks so far. Can a book that weighs five ounces be an anchor to secure my spot in the literary world? Because it feels that way. It really does.

One of my favorite things on social media is a genre of photograph that only people with lots of writer friends regularly encounter. This, of course, is a picture of the opening of the box and the first time seeing and holding the brand new book.

My press, Sundress Publications, and my editor, Erin Elizabeth Smith, gave me a lot of say over my cover—which is not always the case in literary publishing—and I love what Erin put together with artist Gabrielle Montesanti and cover designer Kristen Camille Ton. I don’t anticipate any surprises when I open my box, having approved a proof, but still, I can’t wait to see my book—to hold it in my hands.

And of course I’ll need a photographer at the ready to record the moment—my moment. Mike, my partner, is standing by to take the picture, and he may be even more excited than I am.

Have you ever planned an outfit for opening a box? Have you contemplated a manicure for the occasion? Well, that’s where I am. It’s a little like buying a pretty nightgown for the first pic with a new baby. That shit gets a lot of looks, and despite the pain and effort of pushing nine pounds out of the vague, feminine region my nine-year-old refers to as “your butt,” new moms are expected to be radiant. Strangely, it usually does work that way. Creation makes us glow.

As far as the idea of prettifying myself to receive a box goes, I’m resisting. I’m determined to greet my book as naturally as I produced it—over years, mostly still-dark mornings, of quiet focus and contemplation, and long stretches of frustrating revision.

Making poetry is not necessarily pretty. I spend many long minutes each day with my hands pressed over my eyes, or with my lips moving soundlessly as I go over a poem in an attempt to get it just right. I’ve caught myself digging my fingers into my hair and pulling, as if I could extract the right word out the top of my head if I just applied enough pressure.  I regularly scrunch up my face and grimace at the dumb stuff I come up with on the way to a finished poem. I produce a whole lot of stupid in my desire to serve truth and beauty.

In short, I suspect I look kind of crazed in the writing process. It’s ugly work. And I’d hate to think that my poems would arrive home and not recognize their own mom in the literary equivalent of a frilly new duster.

As in the delivery room, I suspect there will be two pics taken. One will remind us of the red-faced, sweaty astonishment of a mom awkwardly first-time holding a gooey screamer, and one will show all the composure of a Madonna cradling the nestling babe whose arrival might save us all. The second, of course, is the one I’ll approve for social media.

Either way, I could probably use a manicure.