So grateful to be living in the state with the highest per-capita arts funding in the country! Minnesota values the arts and artists.
I’m thrilled that my October is full of poetry events! On October 15, I will be the keynote speaker at the League of Minnesota Poets fall gathering at Arrowwood Lodge in Baxter, MN, 1:30 pm. (click for more info). Title of the talk TBA.
I also was honored to be asked to judge the Brainerd Writers’ Alliance annual poetry contest. I will be presenting the awards and saying a bit about the winning poems at the BWA Fall Festival at Northland Arboretum on October 29. Winners will be invited to read their poems.
Finally, after a two-year hiatus for graduate school, I am starting my online teaching for The Loft Literary Center again, and registration is now open for Writing the Short Poem, a 10-week intensive craft class for poets of any experience level who are serious about studying craft and improving their poetry writing. Click HERE for more info and/or to register. It’s a class I absolutely love teaching, and I’ve missed it! For previous members of this class, an advanced short poem class continuing our work together will be available (tentatively) in the spring. I’m working on the course proposal now, and I hope that The Loft will want to offer it. Watch for an email from me asking about interest from former Writing the Short Poem participants–if I can show that there’s real demand, I’m sure it will be offered.
A little further out, I’ll be reading at the Quatrefoil Library in Minneapolis on December 9 with fellow Minnesota poets Wendy Brown Baez and Michael Kiesow Moore. More details soon.
I’m about a quarter of the way through my semester-long poetry writing moratorium/recovery-period/fallow-time-in-anticipation-of-later-harvest, and I’m already getting an itch to start writing. I’ll resist it, because I want it to grow into an irresistible compulsion, and I’m not quite there yet. Meanwhile, I’m really happy to have these events on the schedule to tide me over.
I’m coming to the end of my month at the Vermont Studio Center. It’s been a month of revelation, frustration, breakthrough, and stagnancy. I’ve gotten both more and less done than I had imagined I would, and I’m figuring out how to be OK with that. I’ve finished less writing, but I’ve done lots more thinking and research that will lead to writing when I’m ready for it. I’ve made starts on poems that need to cook for awhile. I’ve written a few things that I like. I’ve met an incredible group of writers and visual artists who inspire me, challenge me, and just generally make me feel like the world is a lot better than it sometimes seems. I’ve revisited a part of my family and my family history that I haven’t seen for a long time. All of that is good.
The revelations have been many, and I can’t explain them all. Some are things I feel without words. A few that I can articulate are:
- A month is a really long time to sustain focused creative work.
- Putting pressure on yourself to write things that aren’t ready to be written is counterproductive.
- The above are really good rationalizations, but they are rationalizations. Getting the work done means getting the work done.
- I’m possibly past the point of communal, dorm-style living, but there are parts of it I love. I don’t need to experience those things again for a really long time.
- Writing is hard.
- The breakthrough is always just on the other side of the frustration (collaborative credit to Tiffany Besonen on that thought).
- I’m glad I was with these good thinkers and good hearts during the brutal news cycle July has been.
- I miss my regular good thinkers and good hearts.
- I write better in shorter spurts, and when totally alone and silent (a challenge here).
- I’ve been intensely focused on reading, writing, and poetry throughout the last 2 1/2 years in a way I never have before, due to my MFA program and this residency, and it might be OK to give myself a break after I graduate in a couple of weeks.
- I can’t let the end of this residency and the end of my MFA program let me get lazy about writing (after the aforementioned break).
- The past two years have been really, really hard on a personal level, and I’m not sure I’ve fully acknowledged that. Lots of losses. Lots of pain.
- The past two years have been full of joy, too.
- I really like driving my car, and miss it a lot.
OK, so that is a lot of revelations. But it’s still only a fraction.
Friday, I leave here, and Sunday I head to Tahoe, for the last residency of my MFA. I defend my thesis (oh yeah–I submitted my thesis, BTW), do a reading, and graduate, in addition to the usual residency stuff. Then I don’t go to school there there anymore. Which is hard to take. There will be tears. Lots of tears, I think. Happy ones, and emotional ones, and sad ones. Waterproof mascara has been purchased.
So I graduate, I go home, I do tons of laundry, and then what?
A few months ago, I wrote in this space:
“I am extremely grateful and surprised to have been offered a scholarship and a month-long residency at Vermont Studio Center, the largest international artists’ colony in the United States. That I have been offered this gift and that I am actually in a place in my life to be able to accept it seems miraculous to me. A couple more miracles will be required to actually make it happen, but then, what doesn’t require a miracle or two?”
Well, guess what? Miracles do happen! I am very happy to report that I am the recipient of a Region 2 Arts Council Individual Artist Grant, and that this grant will make my residency at Vermont Studio Center possible. I’m a little slack-jawed with the wonder of it.
I have the voters of Minnesota to thank for passing the Clean Water & Legacy Amendment in 2008, which provides a tiny fraction of our sales tax to continuing our Minnesota tradition of beautiful, clean waterways and our legacies of art and culture as well. So many fantastic artists and their work have benefited from this fund, me included, and I couldn’t be more proud and happy to live in a state that not only values the arts and artists, but puts its money where its mouth is in supporting them and us.
So now I come back to the questions I posed in that November post:
“With all excuses removed, how will I do? Will I rise to the occasion, or will I find out that all the things that I thought were obstacles were not the obstacles? Now that I’ve gotten what I thought I wanted (or a piece of it anyway), will it be what I’ve imagined it to be?”
I tell myself again (and again and again): Leap, and the net will appear.
So, I read this thing, and couldn’t believe that someone finally said it out loud:
“We think of creative people in a heroic manner, and we celebrate them, but the thing we celebrate is the after-effect,” says Barry Staw, a researcher at the University of California–Berkeley business school who specializes in creativity.
Staw says most people are risk-averse. He refers to them as satisfiers. “As much as we celebrate independence in Western cultures, there is an awful lot of pressure to conform,” he says. Satisfiers avoid stirring things up, even if it means forsaking the truth or rejecting a good idea.
(from “Inside the Box” by Jessica Olien on Slate.com)
Reading the article made me think about how much of a satisfier I am, and have been. Less and less as I’ve gotten older, I think, sometimes to good effect and sometimes not, but like most people, I’ve made far too many decisions based on what was expected of me, or what I perceived to be expected, or on what I thought would create the least conflict and rejection in my life. I’ve wanted to fit in, and to be liked, and to be smiled at, more than I’ve wanted to be original, and to be iconoclastic, and to be self-directed. I know some people probably see me as quite willing to go out on a limb for what I believe, or to reject the restrictions the outside world would like to impose, but that’s just it: only I know what a tamed-down version of my real self I show the world. Only I know how many times I hold myself back.
Don’t read this as a plea for reassurance. It’s not. Reassurance is what causes the problem in the first place. Or needing reassurance is. I’m not looking for that here. I’m not looking for anything, I think, except the clarification of my own thinking, which has always mostly happened for me through writing. Of course publishing the writing, even on a blog that few people read, is an act of communication, so I suppose I do have a purpose beyond self-examination. Maybe it’s to have an honest conversation with other creative people about all the ways we capitulate. Maybe it’s an attempt to own my individuality, however difficult, and to stop trying to fit into a world that keeps me smaller than I could be, and does so with my full permission and cooperation.
Part of this is fear of success. If I reach some of the goals that I have in my secret heart but that I would never talk about, will I still have the life I’ve grown comfortable in? Will the people around me be happy for my achievement? The simple truth is, sometimes they’re not. I’ve already seen that, even with the modest level of success I’ve had in my life. Everybody who has accomplished something has. It’s easy to say “just don’t worry about those people,” but I worry about people. It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve been taught to do. It’s what I’m expected to do. And you do it, too. It’s an integral part of the system in which I must live. Or the system in which I have lived. Whether I must continue to or not is the question. Whether I am willing to sustain the losses I will sustain is the question. Whether the gains will be enough to make up for the losses is the question.
That is what is revolutionary to me about the line of thought in this article: it tells me that it’s not just me; that the system is schizophrenic–saying it wants creativity and originality, but punishing those who take it at its word.
You will read this and you will think, the people who aren’t happy for your successes are not people you want in your life, anyway.
You will read this and you will think, change is hard, but a person will never move forward into the future unless they let go of the past.
You will read this and you will think, no one should make themselves smaller to fit in anywhere, ever.
And then you will go back to your comfortable life, to think your comfortable thoughts, to bite your tongue when you think it’s prudent, and to answer your “crazy” dreams with silent admonitions to be realistic and to focus on achievable goals.
You will do this.
Maybe I will, too.
Or maybe neither one of us will.
It’s been a long time since I’ve done a reading in my own town! I will be doing so next Saturday, 12/19, at my favorite indie bookstore, Beagle and Wolf Books and Bindery. I’ll be there from noon-2pm. The reading part will be from 1-1:30, during which I’ll read new work of my own (not the same old poems I’ve read before!), and a few poems from Mary Oliver’s new collection, Felicity.
This event is happening in part because I haven’t done an event in Park Rapids for a long time, and partly because the owner and manager of Beagle and Wolf, Sally Wizik Wills and Jen Geraedts, are incredibly supportive of me and my work, but also to celebrate the inclusion of a poem of mine in a new anthology from Blue Light Press, River of Earth and Sky: Poems for the Twenty-First Century. According to editor Diane Frank, “This anthology features more than 100 poets, mixing the best voices of our generation with the grass roots — poets who have won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, along with lesser known poets who also deserve to be read.”
There will be copies of the anthology available for purchase, as well as my own book, Mary Oliver’s Felicity, and various other books of poetry.
I hope you will stop by!
In this last quarter of what has been one of the most challenging years of my life, this.
I am extremely grateful and surprised to have been offered a scholarship and a month-long residency at Vermont Studio Center, the largest international artists’ colony in the United States. That I have been offered this gift and that I am actually in a place in my life to be able to accept it seems miraculous to me. A couple more miracles will be required to actually make it happen, but then, what doesn’t require a miracle or two?
Solitude, time to focus on my writing without the demands of home and other employment, and the company of other creative people in a creative environment have proven to be the exact formula needed for my best work to come forward. Never in my life have I had an entire month of those conditions. Now, I will, which is both thrilling and daunting. With all excuses removed, how will I do? Will I rise to the occasion, or will I find out that all the things that I thought were obstacles were not the obstacles? Now that I’ve gotten what I thought I wanted (or a piece of it anyway), will it be what I’ve imagined it to be?
Time to really believe what I often say: Leap, and the net will appear.
I worked at a bookstore this summer, and I’ve had a lot of conversations about this summer’s blockbuster, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. This is the “found” manuscript that pre-dates To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee wrote this version first, and it was rejected by an editor with the suggestion that she instead write the back story. She did, and that book is To Kill a Mockingbird. There is a lot of controversy about this “new” book–both about its content (Atticus is a racist? What?!?) and its publication (Lee may or may not be of sound enough mind to have given her true permission, and the timing is suspect coming just after the death of her sister/business manager. Lee was always adamant in the past that this book not be published.). Taking all of that into consideration, I read the book, as I have taught Mockingbird for 26 years and plan to continue. I must know all things Harper Lee. To assuage my conscience in supporting what is probably a money grab that exploits her, I did not purchase it, but read a borrowed copy. It almost worked.
Here are my thoughts after having read the book:
It is clearly a rough draft, and the editor was correct to reject it. I am not of the belief that has been expressed by some that this proves the rumor that Lee did not write Mockingbird (Truman Capote is the usually suggested ghost writer). The voice of the writer is exactly the same in both books. In Watchman, however, the structure is much weaker. Lee spends too much time “telling” and not enough time “showing.” She skims the surface of events that need to be fleshed out. For those who know Mockingbird well, it makes perfect sense when Scout is horrified that her heroic father falls from grace. But Mockingbird did not exist when this book was written. Without the back story, the reader simply would not believe that Atticus was such a hero, or at least would wonder why. Newsflash: writers of bestsellers usually have many failed manuscripts in their drawers and attics before the book that hits it big. To be a polished, competent, brilliant writer on the first try is pretty much unheard of. This is a first attempt. Like most first attempts, it is clumsy. Add to that the fact that Mockingbird came only after friends of Lee’s, the composer Michael Brown and his wife Joy, provided her with a year’s wages and the note, ““You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” This freedom from having to earn a living gave Lee the time and focus that all writers yearn for, but only a few find. Maybe that, plus the help of an astute editor and/or agent made the difference between Watchman and Mockingbird. Maybe Lee just got better with practice.
There has also been much hand-wringing over Atticus’s racism in the book. I maintain that this makes us uncomfortable in ways that we should be made uncomfortable. “Good white people” cling to Atticus Finch like a life raft saving us from the stormy seas of our own history (and present). But it is unrealistic to believe that a 75-year-old white man who had spent his entire life in rural Alabama would have embraced desegregation in the 50s. Lee is not promoting Atticus’s view that black people are “in their infancy as a culture” and not ready for the responsibilities of voting and self-determination. She is exposing it. Scout (Lee) is horrified by it, and so is the reader. That’s a thing Lee gets right in this rough draft–she makes us feel what her main character is feeling, and that’s no small feat. She also shows us that it is not impossible for a good-hearted person who loves law and equality above all else to be paternalistic and condescending to a culture that he sees as inferior to his own. In this book, Atticus is wrong, and that allows him to be human.
White America would like to forget our racist past and slap a “post-racial” banner over our present. Both are dishonest. Both cause harm. Lee’s book makes us confront the reality of a particular time in America, in a particular place. I hope that we can withstand that. If we can’t, then there is little hope that we can withstand the scrutiny we need to be giving the present state of race relations in America, and little hope for the change we must demand from ourselves as well as others.
I start out almost every post with a mention that it’s been a long time since I last posted anything. Why should this one be any different? As I am about to enter my 27th year in the classroom, I realize that calendar years mean nothing to me. August (or sometimes September) is my new year, my new start, my time to make resolutions. Even my daily planner is a school-year one, and I’m on the lookout for the perfect one for 2015-16. Such decisions are not made lightly. 2014-2015 has been a roughish year, as transformational years always are, and that daily planner is one I’m ready to put in a box in the attic. We lost my dad this spring, which was just one of a few significant though not entirely unexpected disappointments. But if you know me, you know I don’t stay down for long, and there have been some amazing things to keep me going, most of which you’ve read about (or can read about) here.
The Associated Writers’ Program Conference of my last post has been a highlight, mainly because I got to spend time with my graduate school compatriots from the Sierra Nevada College MFA Program. I met these people a year ago August, and I’ve only spent a little time with them over the year since then, yet they have become my lifeline, my tribe, my best readers, and my favorite writers. This week, I head out to meet up with them again, for another 10-day residency in Lake Tahoe. I’m thrilled to be working with Gailmarie Pahmeier as our workshop leader, and heartbroken that I can’t be in both her group and the one led by the amazing and transformational (and newly-minted Poet Laureate of Fresno, California) Lee Herrick. Alas, as Frost taught us, we cannot travel two paths and be one traveler. This residency will also start a much-anticipated semester with Patricia Smith as my mentor, and I feel like The Golden Child for having the opportunity.
I will head to Tahoe by way of Seattle, where my classmate, roommate and dear friend Suzanne and I will start our road trip, camping our way through Washington, Oregon (maybe California?) and Nevada to get to the residency that starts with the new month. I don’t know if I’m Thelma, or Louise, but there will be no slow motion swan dives. Brad Pitt…maybe.
This trip is a portal, as all trips are. I will start it as one person and end it as another, just as I started this sentence as one person, and end it as another. Change is the thing, always. Best to embrace it.
One way of doing that is to set intentions and watch for the opportunities to move closer to what you want. Twenty years ago, I wanted to write more poetry and have someone besides my mom read it. That has happened. Fifteen years ago, I wanted a chance to learn from some of the poets I’ve admired. That has happened and is happening. Ten years ago, I wanted to have a book published and maybe have some people like it. That has happened. Five years ago, I wanted to get an MFA from a school with top-notch teachers, though it seemed utterly impossible. That is happening. Time for some new intentions.
What I want now is to have the courage to go where the writing takes me, and maybe, sometime, to become a writer who occasionally teaches, instead of a teacher who occasionally writes.
There you go, Universe. Go wild.