This Little Light; or, A Wish for the New Year

On the figurative eve of this new year I had two dazzling experiences of listening. One took place in my town’s venerable coffeehouse: a concert by Amy Helm, who sings with a body full of rhythm and heart and shining eyes like some kind of earth-bound angel. Her father too, Levon Helm, shone this way. And the second was the Netflix film of Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show. It was all I could do not to get up from my chair in order to fall to my knees.

I felt as if some central core had been split open and the inner flame of humanity was revealed, and I needed to respond with my body, needed to prostrate myself to this fire. You know the old Jewish myth that the deity dropped vessels of light and we humans are its shards. I saw in these performances the great glitter of us, what is the best of us, we members of this odd and difficult species, broken and sparkling.

Yuval Noah Hariri defines intelligence as the ability to solve problems and consciousness as the ability to feel. These artists seem to wring out of themselves and into their work the essence of consciousness. They seem to be fearless in showing the edges and facets of themselves through their work. This is inspiring — remembering that inspire is an in-breath, a re-oxygenating of the cells of the body, an awakening.

I love words, poetry, but it’s music that wrenches me most deeply, often vocal music, often that magic of tune and word and beat that creates a live thing that enters me, skin and bone, gut and vein. Many things move me, but only music guts me. Well, with an exception: Hearing Ilya Kaminsky orate “Do not go gentle.” That was transformational.

I dabble in music but am no musician. Still I can hope and strive to create in my own written work this kind of reaching and opening, this level of capturing light. If I could write a poem that could even slightly glitter like those performances, I will have done what I set out on this path to do.

So for this new year, I wish for all of us that we find some light to let loose from our jagged edges, that we find our shine.

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Open Mic, Insert Pen; or, Notes on the Editing Experience

As I shifted uncomfortably in my hard chair the other evening, it occurred to me that sometimes my experience of attending an open mic is not dissimilar from my experience, at times, of the editing process.
I approach with a mixture of anticipation and dread.
The lights go down. I can’t see clearly.
I eat a cookie.
Poems are going on and on.
I feel like a small ogre in the dark, thinking things to myself like: “No, no, no.” “Cut that line. That one two.” “Stop there. Stop. Stop.” “What are you going on about now?” “Nooo.” “What on earth are you talking about??” “Too long! Too long!” “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
I feel uncharitable. Can’t I be more open-minded to these poems?
One cookie is not enough. I eat a second cookie.
Sometimes I think things like: “Hm, that wasn’t half bad.” “Hey, something really interesting is going on in this one.” “Oh, wow, now THAT is a poem.” “That was interesting. I could learn from that.”
Sometimes I laugh out loud.
Two cookies is too much.
Often I forget a moment later what I thought was interesting.
I forget what I had thought I learned. I forget the idea I had. I become confused and overstimulated.
After a while, I get physically uncomfortable, my body stiffening in the chair, my feet shuffling around underneath me in an excess of unexpended energy and cookie sugar.
I feel lonely in the dim light, the cacaphony of words.
It’s a relief to finally just go home and go to bed.

A Festivus Airing of Grievances

In keeping with the season, we shall now commence with the Festivus Airing of Grievances. You people have pissed me off, and now you’re going to hear about it:

I wish when people said “at the end of the day” they really meant when this actual day actually ends.

Why does it seem like everyone is participating in some staged reading of a new play such that everyone is very concerned about “being on the same page”?

When did “gift” become a verb and why is it currently so ubiquitous?

We seem to have become so self-absorbed and self-conscious that “myself” has come to mean “me” or “I” or people were so traumatized by their grammar teachers that they are incapable of deciding whether to use “me” or “I” so “myself” is a panicked default. I am tired of correcting you in my head.

The shortening vegetables to “veggies” irritates the shit out of me.

“Nestled” is a word that should be outlawed from travel and culinary writing. Actually, let’s just oust it all together.

Who uses the verb “stoked”? Who ARE these people? Make it stop.

It troubles me that tear and tear appear the same on the page, when one can be the cause or effect of the other.

Wound and wound also make me uneasy, as if something has prepared itself to come at me and I can’t see it.

It disturbs me that cleave can mean its opposite, and even the context may not reveal which the writer means.

I keep mixing up the pronunciations of the French words for country and peace. This concerns me. I must also watch how I say love and death. Oh, those French and their charmant.

Abandon Hope; or, Grappling with Critique

A poetry teacher of mine told me once that she thought (“at first,” she graciously added) that I was “not open to criticism” of my poems. I felt the sting of injustice in that, as I could think of nothing I did or said that would lead her to think that — I took copious notes of what was said of my poems, did not, as far as I recall, argue or defend.
Was it my resting bitch face?
Or was it that I rarely turned in edited poems?

After (I swear!) careful consideration (and swearing) of the comments and suggestions, trying things, putting things in, taking them out, writing more, heading in different directions, I not infrequently concluded either that the poem just could not serve the intention, or that I did not have the ability to make that particular poem do the thing the critique asked it to do, so decided to move on and write something new. In most circumstances, I think that is a perfectly reasonable response. (Or am I being defensive? I don’t think so! Listen:)

Sometimes the originating impulse behind a poem is just not clear enough or stable enough or grounded enough. So no matter how much tinkering, I still have a poem that’s shallow, merely decorative, or without deep sense. Or frankly that I lost the sense of somewhere along the way and can no longer recall.

Sometimes the critique offered is not something I can figure out how to make my own, or how to grapple with it in the given poem. Especially if I’m unclear about the problem the critique suggestions are meant to solve, I can’t comfortably settle into the solution. I can try things but have no ability to gauge the success or failure of the attempt.
Or sometimes I understand and agree with the critique, but just can’t make the given poem hold up. When I turn one screw, the whole thing gees or haws to one side or another. The center cannot hold. (Maybe a revolution should be at hand…)

At any rate, receiving and using critique is very tricky. First, I have to have sufficient distance from the piece to be able to see it NOT through the rose-colored-glasses of first-love and also NOT through the who-wrote-THIS-hopeless-piece-of-crap smeared window. I gotta be cool, man, real cool.

Then I have to be willing to play around, try anything, mess things up, break things open, dismantle and remantle. That can be hard. know what I wanted the poem to do. Sometimes a critique wants to take the poem in a different direction. It can be very hard, sometimes impossible, to allow that process. That doesn’t mean the critique isn’t right on; it just means that I don’t have enough distance yet, or as a writer I’m not yet skilled enough to figure out how to follow through, or I just don’t want to go in that direction, for whatever misguided (or guided) reasons.

Sometimes a critique is off base. Sometimes a critique is not well grounded itself. You have to be open enough to both consider a critique, and to discard it. That takes a level of self-confidence that to some borders on hubris. Own it. You might be wrong in the long run, but at least you can be honest about the fact you considered an idea but then turned it away.

As I’ve noted before in this space, one of the most important editing tools is time. Sometimes I just have to put it all away, poem and critique and notes and versions. Move on, at least for the moment.

I have a folder labeled “B level” that contains about 50 things that I thought were poems at one point but finally concluded over time that they just weren’t worth the moniker, but might have something in them worth saving. I have a document called “drafts and notes” that is 108 pages of abandoned work and multiple versions of things. That doesn’t include the teetering pile of notebooks on the pages of which, amid the whining, freaking out, counting of blessings, screed, screams, squeals, and snarls, fodder for what I had hoped were poems but on review just were not. Nor the old computer with old folders with old poems I no longer believe in so didn’t bother to transfer into my new computers.

Only time can tell me ultimately if a poem is going to “have legs,” as the saying goes. I think of skittering spiders of poems heading for the corners of the room. Or if the critique finally makes sense and is something I can act on.

That’s why I keep all these old poems in the folders, a sort of Island of Misfit Poems. I periodically visit them, test them for some magic inside that I could now, with the capacity and perspective I have as the writer I am now, make use of.

I must admit, rarely do the poor things get out of there.

But you never know.

skitter skitter

Postcards from the Edge; or, On Reading Wiman’s My Bright Abyss

I have been making my way slowly through Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Slowly because it is tough stuff, both the — what should I call it? theology? the study of his own faith/God/self-in-God?, and the intensity of it: a dying man sending dispatches from the edge.

Diagnosed with a rare and fitful disease, Wiman has been dragging himself through years of treatment sometimes as ravaging as the disease, approaching death only to have death pull away, only to catch up to it again, like some long drag race in the desert. Throughout much of it he has been trying to make sense of his call toward God or Christ or some ineffable -ness that is not captured by the wan word “religion,” with its weight of institutions and hierarchies.

I am interested in ideas of god, in the faith that seems something innate in our species, though long though a nonbeliever myself. Is it this lack of a religious upbringing that makes me struggle so to understand what he’s saying?

The writing itself also requires me to untangle sentences, to consider asides, to parse the meanings of words. He does have a tendency toward long sentences that take some effort to track. He also speaks at times in koans. For example, he used the word “contingency” several times, including in one gnomic statement early on that God is contingency. Which made me have to look up the word, as I’ve only used it with regard to plans-made-just-in-case, also known as Plan B. Which made me think of W.C. Fields — isn’t he the one who took up religion on his deathbed just to hedge his bets? But it turns out I had misunderstood contingency as meaning the plan itself, when in fact it’s the stuff that transpires such that Plan B is called for.

Contingency is a possible future event or circumstance, unpredictable, chancy, possibly fortuitous. It’s also, philosophically, “the absence of necessity; the fact of being so, without having to be so.” (That’s Random House Dictionary’s wording.)

Oh. Well, no wonder I’m confused. But of course I’m confused.

There’s nothing like the fact of one’s death to change perspective, I imagine, particularly from how one thought one would feel in the face of one’s death. The brief segments that make up the book were written over the course of years, at it has been years since he was diagnosed, years of treatment, years of the disease in abeyance, years of it breathing down his neck, years of a soul’s dark night, God as dark knight, as nothing like that at all. There is no arguing with a dying man, so if wants to speak confusingly about his wrestling with ideas and needs, saying the unsayable in the abstruse, well, there we are. Contingency is from a late Latin word meaning befall. Indeed.

He also has many interesting things about art and writing. And these I cleave to. About some poets and poems, he says they are: “…making a thing at once shine forth in its ‘thingness’ and ramify beyond its own dimensions…What happens is some mysterious resonance between thing and language, mind and matter, that reveals–and it does feel like revelation–a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see.”

He talks about the best art finding “multiple dimensions in a single perception.”

Regarding the amateur and the artist, he says this about photography: What the amateur offers, often poignantly, is “a chopped-off piece of life. An artist…makes you feel just how much missing life is contained within a given image: it is as if the image is surrounded with, enlivened and even created by, the invisible, the unknowable, the absent.”

But the final chapters and segments become more and more achingly, confoundingly, terrifyingly beautiful. I think of Rilke’s terrifying angels. In these passages Wiman is transcendant.

Here are some excerpts:

“It is not some meditative communion with God that I crave. What one wants during extreme crisis is not connection with God, but connection with people; not supernatural love, but human love. No, that is not quite right. What one craves is supernatural love, but one finds it only within human love.”

“To fling yourself into failure; to soar into the sadness by which you’ve lived; to die with neither defiance nor submission, but in some higher fusion of the two; to walk lost at the last into the arms of emptiness, crying the miracles of God.”

And this: “Word after word ekes out of me as if I were in some bare, wasted place scraping myself forward, as if there were a ‘forward,’ as if I did not end up every time on this same circle circumscribing all I do not know.”

I was enamored of his words about writing and poetry, and these beautiful sentences of his experience. I felt in some ways I have failed him in my obtuseness with regard to his meditations on “belief.” He has been working so hard to communicate his sense of God.

It wasn’t until I came to the very end of the book, ironically, that I began to begin to begin to understand what he was saying. And it was by way of a poem. That old unsaid saying it best, the great expanse beyond the punctuation opening out:
My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this:

 

An Accounting; or, Writing Submissions by the Numbers

The end of the year is closing in, as is my birthday, and I often do a year in review for myself. This year I also did a submissions review. What have I been up to? Well, apparently “up to” a lot of reading fee payments.

In 2018, I spent $350 on contest entry/publisher reading fees from which I received bupkus.

Clearly I did not spend enough money — more entries should equal more acceptances. No. Clearly I spent too much money — I got zero return on my investment, so it was a bad investment. No. Clearly I have no idea what is reasonable and how to think about entry fees.

One of those contest entries resulted in not a win but an offer to publish a poem in the publisher’s online magazine. So I guess that’s something.

I sent out 30 lit mag submissions from which I received 3 acceptances. In spite of the sturm und drang all those rejections caused, the big picture is somewhat cheering.

But I thought I had submitted more than that. There are a handful I haven’t counted because I haven’t gotten a response yet. So by the end of the year, I think I’ll be at 35 magazine submissions. Will I eke out another acceptance? Given my usual ROI, I doubt it.

Most of those were online submissions for which I paid nothing. One was a $2 fee that I now bitterly regret paying, as it was for nought and was against my better judgment and my general refusal to pay online submission fees. A couple were mail-in submissions, with postage well below the $2 fee many lit mags are charging, plus I can walk to the post office, so I get some exercise out of it.

I got one paid reading gig, and I sold some books out of my own store, so made a little money. I gave a couple of workshops. My little paid book review gig garnered me a tiny sum. Not that I’m in it for the money, but if I’ve got to lay out some dough, I want to get some back in once in a while.

And so it goes. This in no way addresses the qualitative pleasures (and pains) of being a writer — I enjoyed so many things, camaraderie, experiences, experimentation and play, am proud of the work I did, happy to have gotten my work into some venues. But sometimes I have to step back and just look at the numbers with an eye toward how to conduct the po biz in the coming year.

Intentions: Double my submissions next year.

Should I pay more in entry fees? I don’t think so. This amount made me gulp, but it supports a variety of publishers I want to support, and that feels supportive of my work, whether it got accepted or not.

Is it all worth it? Can’t I just be content making work?
No. I want it out there. I want it read or viewed. I want it appreciated. Or criticized, or whatever.

Yeah, I know, friends, that I get down at the mouth throughout the year. But I also feel buoyed sometimes, amused often, engaged in my work, and hopeful. Do I fail to mention that? Remind me to mention that.

I sometimes get the sense from people that they think I should be content just making the work, that there’s some kind of purity in that. That the search for publication success is somehow a sullied enterprise. Egotistical, perhaps. Or at best, a fool’s errand.
I say, it’s part of the artistic process — do the work, put it out into the world, take your shots and huzzahs as they come. Complain bitterly along the way; dance foolishly around with glee. It’s all part of the equation.