Then build your house right on top of it

manuscriptFor a month I’ve been living with my manuscript-in-progress. I hung the pages on my bookshelves and every day, I tinkered. I revised individual poems, some of which had been revised many times before but whose flaws stood out so much clearer on the printed page at a discreet distance (as if they were no longer my own). I revised the order, grouping them one way, then another, then looking at the story arc, the seasonal arc, the form.

Yesterday, I spent a full hour reading them, one after another. At last it felt like a book, not a random smattering of poems or a family story of sadness and compassion. There are still two poems left to be written. I feel their absence clearly. And though I don’t know the exact words that will create them, I know they are needed and will come soon. I feel them like friends, far off, packing their bags and heading my way.

When I was done yesterday, I lay down on the floor and looked up at it. The manuscript-in-progress had grown and spanned all of the shelves, several years of work gathered and ordered. I put one arm beneath my head and admitted to myself that I had set out to do something and now it was coming to a close. I had kept my promise to myself. Even though last year ended up more topsy-turvy and sorrowful than any year of my life, I kept my promise to myself. And for those few moments, I felt solid and even at peace. I’m sure that in the future, I’ll fret over publication, more revisions, even the last few poems. But for those few moments on a sunny, cold February afternoon, I was home.

“I will always be safe from the random hurricanes of outcome as long as I never forget where I rightfully live…. The only trick is that you’ve got to identify the best, worthiest thing that you love most, and then build your house right on top of it and don’t budge from it. And if you should someday, somehow get vaulted out of your home by either great failure or great success, then your job is to fight your way back to that home the only way that it has ever been done, by putting your head down and performing with diligence and devotion and respect and reverence whatever the task is that love is calling forth from you next. You just do that, and keep doing that again and again and again, and I can absolutely promise you, from long personal experience in every direction, I can assure you that it’s all going to be okay.”

-Elizabeth Gilbert – TED talk March 2014

What the old year knows

branchI take stock of the year that has passed. 2014 in the rear-view mirror getting smaller and smaller. A difficult year. A year of loss and upheaval. I try to find the treasures. I cast my mind back into the places that felt right, felt closest to the way I want to feel all the time, that pure expansiveness of doing what I am meant to do.

It had snowed all the night before and the Gihon River was under ice and now a white muffler. No one was out on the streets, but wrapped in my gigantic scarf and wool coat, I was venturing forth for my daily break to the bookstore. The studio growing smaller behind me, the sun glared off the snow that lay deep on the roofs, in hummocks beside the sidewalks. My head was filled with words. Each morning I would leave the sunny drowse of the breakfast dining room and hit the studio, sit and begin to let the words sift through me. If the flow was impeded, I reached for one of the poetry collections or books of criticism I had brought along.

Long around 11:30 each day, I’d walk to the bookstore to browse the shelves, talk with the bookseller, perhaps purchase a card by a local artist. It was the quiet industry of it all that thrilled me. That each morning I was writing a new draft of a poem, and then tromping about in the early afternoon only to return to the studio before dinner (and most nights after dinner) to revise, to begin on something new. The rhythm of each day was spacious. Creativity not crammed in, or relegated to “after.”

Two weeks at the Vermont Studio Center last February and a new draft each day. Some days more than one draft. And the time to read. And the time around time to wander with my camera, to listen to the story of the woman in the maple syrup store, to walk to the cemetery to look at graves two centuries old. I remember that time as a glowing coal in the dark year.

I can’t remember when I felt as much at peace as I did last year at the writer’s residencies I attended. Part of it was the infrastructure – I didn’t have to purchase food, cook, clean, or consider my laundry. I also didn’t have to worry about juggling multiple jobs, competing tasks, or conflicting meetings/appointments/duties. For three weeks, all I had to do was write, bolstered by the knowledge that at least one major foundation (thank you Rasmuson Foundation) and two residency programs (thank you Vermont Studio Center and Willapa Bay AiR) had found my work worthy enough to invest in.

And so we reach the conundrum — how do I recreate the same focus on my writing without the benefit of a fellowship and writing residency?

I think that the answer is focus. Not necessarily just on the writing, although it is a big part of it. Focus on the way I want to spend my life. Do I want to purchase those new shoes or do I want to save that money so I can afford to work less and write more? Do I want to spend an hour on Facebook or do I want to spend an hour reading poetry? Focus — almost every decision has an impact on the time, attention, and ability to devote my life to whatever it is that make me feel most alive, most at home, most in my own skin.

And so when I look back to the shining moments in 2014 when I felt juiciest, productive, (oh dare I say it?) happy, I can discern a blueprint for how I can build a rewarding life. Of course, real life cannot be like a writer’s residency all year long; after all, someone has to do the laundry. But the ability to focus on my writing, that is entirely within my control. So if it means getting up at 5:30 in the morning so that I can write for two hours before I start my paying gigs, so be it. There is peace in that. If it means saying no to some things so that I can structure a day now and then to devote to writing and meandering and reading, so be it. If it means that I cannot do everything so that I have time and energy to do this one thing, so be it.

A Year in Poetry (or what did I read this year?)

This is the stack. This is not even including the books I bought at AWP. Naughty.

So, at the end of 2013, it occurred to me that the giant stack of poetry books on the top of my bookshelves awaiting their turn was getting slightly dangerous. In case of tectonic instability, one might possibly have an issue with an avalanche of poetry. So, I set myself a task. “Self,” I said, “You should read a poetry collection each week in 2014 and thereby deplete this stack.” Excellent idea! Except for this to work, I would have to not purchase any new poetry collections during the year. And we all know that idea is complete folly.

So, 2014 is drawing to a close, and yes, I have read a collection each week, but I have also purchased many a fetching new book. And so, I still have a stack of unread books on the top of my poetry bookshelves. Another year’s worth of reading undoubtedly. And because reading a collection each was invigorating, edifying, and just plain fun, I shall continue.

Here is 2014’s treasure (in alpha order):

  • Abide by Jake Adam York
  • Animal Eye by Paisley Rekdal
  • As Is by James Galvin
  • Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems by William Stafford
  • Blue Hour by Carolyn Forché
  • Bone Map by Sara Eliza Johnson
  • Bough Down by Karen Green
  • Break the Glass by Jean Valentine
  • Burn This House by Kelly Davio
  • Dangerous Goods by Sean Hill
  • Day Unto Day by Martha Collins
  • Debt to the Bone-Eating Snotflower by Sarah Lindsay
  • Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich
  • Elegy Owed by Bob Hicok
  • Eva-Mary by Linda McCarriston
  • Every Riven Thing by Christian Wiman
  • Fall Higher by Dean Young
  • Fireproofing the Woods by Katy McKinney
  • Gabriel by Edward Hirsch
  • Glass Armonica by Rebecca Dunham
  • Headwaters by Ellen Bryant Voigt
  • Heredities by J. Michael Martinez
  • Holy Heathen Rhapsody by Pattiann Rogers
  • Human Chain by Seamus Heaney
  • I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets by Tom Sexton
  • In Search of Small Gods by Jim Harrison
  • Incarnadine by Mary Syzbist
  • Interpretive Work by Elizabeth Bradfield
  • Lie Awake Lake by Beckian Frtiz Goldberg
  • Many Parishes by Adrian Koesters
  • On the Spectrum of All Possible Deaths by Lucia Perillo
  • Once in the West by Christian Wiman
  • One Above & One Below by Erin Belieu
  • Praise by Robert Hass
  • Sailing by Ravens by Holly Hughes
  • Spacecraft Voyager 1  by Alice Oswald
  • Stolen Air – Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam (translated by Christian Wiman)
  • The Boss by Victoria Chang
  • The Earth Avails by Mark Wunderlich
  • The Exchange by Sophie Cabot Black
  • The Game of Boxes by Catherine Barnett
  • The Infinitesimals by Laura Kasischke
  • The Kingdom of Ordinary Time by Marie Howe
  • The Miniature Room by Rebecca Dunham
  • The Moon Before Morning by WS Merwin
  • The Plum Flower Dance by Afaa Michael Weaver
  • The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems by Olena Kalytiak Davis
  • The Widening Spell of the Leaves by Larry Levis
  • Through the Second Skin by Derek Sheffield
  • To the Place of Trumpets by Brigit Pegeen Kelly
  • What the Living Do by Marie Howe
  • Without by Donald Hall

By the way, if you add in all of the fiction and non-fiction that I read this year, the tally is 101. I did spend an inordinate amount of time on cross-country plane flights, and since I don’t sleep well on planes (or overnight in airports), I plowed through quite a few more books this year than last.

Here’s to 2015, another year of magnificent poetry! Thank you, poets!

Even More Faith

Even More Faith by Jeanie Tomanek

Even More Faith by Jeanie Tomanek

The Quest2015 Prompt today from Seth Godin: Who would miss you if you were gone? If you didn’t show up to work, didn’t send out that newsletter, didn’t make that sales call, didn’t tweet that tweet… who would miss it? How does your answer shape how you’ll live out 2015?

Who would miss me if I were gone? If I didn’t show up for work? Let’s talk about my true work, not my myriad shifting day gigs. My true work, the work with notebook and pen, from blank page to poem.

The muse would miss me, for if I have learned anything at all as a writer, it is that you must be faithful to the muse (whatever he, she, or it represents for you). Sit at the desk each day so that when inspiration hits, I am there, ready. Work on my craft so that when I have something important to say, I have the facility to do so. Read other poets, revise my work, stumble along with my drafts and my notebook and my love of this arcane discipline.

And who is the audience for these poems? Would they miss them if I didn’t write them? That is a darker question. More people read my blog than read my poems. But the poems… is it too much to hope that I might give to someone else the same satisfaction I feel when I read a good poem, that frisson of pleasure at just the right words chosen, the sound and meaning marrying? Is it too much to hope that a person might read one of my poems and feel the deep resonance that I often experience while reading – the sense of being known, of a shared experience, of connection?

Perhaps the truest answer is that I would miss myself if I did not do this work of writing each day. Writing is the way that I process the world, celebrate and mourn, observe and preserve. I listen to the siskins swirl through the alder grove. I get down on my hands and knees to look more closely at the patterns of rime on the grass, the ice in its concentric dream waves. I catch scent of the cold night air on my dog’s fur as she snuggles against me, frosted paws tattooing my arm. And then, in my notebook, I put it all down. As Diane Ackerman wrote, “Wonder is the heaviest element on the periodic table. Even a tiny fleck of it stops time.” Let me dip my pen in time.

Image credit: Even More Faith by Jeanie Tomanek

Be All In – Or The Story of 2015

Sunset on January 14th

Oh Todd Henry, this prompt for Quest2015 really froze me in my tracks. My whole body understood that this one isn’t hypothetical, this question is for real. If you knew that your life’s story will be written based upon your choices and actions in 2015, how will you live?

I am currently reading The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling  by Stephen Cope…. thank you Cindy Henson, it’s awesome. Cope is writing about embracing your dharma, the thing that you are uniquely suited to do in the world. One of his examples is the poet Robert Frost. Robert Frost made decisions to support his poetry with his life. He jumped all in. First with the farm, later with moving to England. I’m still reading it, but I think that part of what is holding me back is that I won’t jump all in. A few years ago, I jumped and committed to earning my MFA, and then I half-committed by not taking a full-time teaching gig here in Homer so that I could keep writing. But frankly, now I am stacking the deck against myself, spreading myself too thin, diluting my attention.

I have gotten lost again in the scarcity mindset. I have forgotten that the work is all. The Work, not the outcome. When I manage to remember that, and manage to do the work, everything lines up with no rigging. When I get lost in the oh my god, I’m almost fifty and I need to get the publishing thing and the teaching thing and this and that, I lose my way (i.e. my dharma in Stephen Cope vernacular).

My dharma = connecting to other people through words.
My dharma = writing poetry.
My dharma = sharing poetry.

So how shall I live in 2015 so that my dharma is in the center of my life, not relegated to scraps of time at the margins? Wait! The answer is right there – put my writing at the center of my life, not a half hour in the morning and whatever energy I have left after dinner. Otherwise the story of my life for 2015 will be the story of my life for 2014: wow, she had really great opportunities which she pissed away by running around like a deranged starving chicken. Otherwise, that manuscript which is sooooo close to be finished will never see completion. Those poems will never be submitted for publication. The incredible richness of the world, sea urchins and clouds and puppies and glaciers and rocking chairs, the beauty and sorrow, will pass me by and never reach the page which is altar and memory box and compost heap.

Resist the urge to hedge my bets – well, what if that poetry thing doesn’t work out, maybe you should try this *New Thing* which might be the answer to how you will earn money or fame or safety. Resist the suitcase by the door. Resist the urge for new over nuance. Commit. Be all in. So that the story of 2015 is the story of my life – she wrote poetry, she gave it to the world the best she could, she lived with her heart (and senses) open and shared what came in.