- If I Cannot Bring You Comfort, Then At Least I Bring You Hope, January 1, 2019:
So, 2018 happened. I woke up in 2019 to a confusion of seasons: frost on the ground, puddles slicked with a thin skin of ice, but in the walnut tree in my backyard, three bright pink flowers and a verdant hummingbird still going about his business. I want to take this as a prediction for the year ahead–something vague but optimistic about every ending also being a beginning–but what those birds and blossoms tell me sounds more like an old truth, the one to which I’ve been waking for a long time. “Good morning,” they say. “Prepare to be bewildered.”
I won’t go into all the ways that the last year has baffled and confounded me. Dear Reader, I’m sure you can already name at least half of them. Suffice it to say, the first poem I published this year was about gun violence, and so was the last.
Lest I start sounding like doom and gloom were my only companions these last few months, here’s a reason for celebration: On my birthday, I heard that my new poetry manuscript, “Again,” was accepted for publication by Airlie Press! This is the book that arose from the Inauguries project, and it’s due out in Fall 2020, right in time for the next round of U.S. presidential elections.
What’s more, Airlie is a collective, so when my manuscript was selected, I also became part of the press’ editorial board. I’m delighted to be part of the collective, to have the opportunity to promote the work of other poets, and to select and edit future manuscripts. Airlie’s emphasis is on poets from the Pacific Northwest, so I’m also looking forward to becoming more deeply engaged in the literary community in Oregon through my work with the press. This is what I’m most excited about for the year ahead.
It wouldn’t be a proper New Year’s blog post without turning my gaze back toward what I read in 2018. I spent time with many good books this year, but if I had to choose a few favorites, these would be the ones:
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard
Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, Janet Mock
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, Ursula K. Le Guin
Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, John Hodgman
The Path Between Us: An Enneagram Journey to Healthy Relationships, Suzanne Stabile
Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
The Consuming Fire, John Scalzi
The Overstory, Richard Powers
Circe, Madeline Miller
There There, Tommy Orange
Friday Black, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
With that, I bid adieu to 2018, and welcome 2019, with all the wonder and weirdness, the splendor and stupefaction it will undoubtedly bring!
- In the Rot and the Rust, May 30, 2018: So, I meant to drop in at the beginning of May, to celebrate my second short story, “Grief Sequence,” being published, but then spring busted out and swept me up, and I stepped away from the interwebs a bit to enjoy it.
But life carries on, and now the weather’s cooled and the sun’s down and I’m only astounded by the neighborhood flora intermittently, so I thought I’d hop online to say hello and do what I meant to do, before May turns to June.
About that story: In March 2016, I woke up in a hotel room in Oregon with a first line in my head. “First the baby died, then the dog died.” It could have been the beginning of the worst country song ever, or it could have been my subconscious trying to make sense of a deep mourning that I had felt for months but couldn’t explain to anyone else, no matter how I approached it. That sentence snuck up on me at dawn, and I curled up in a chair, looked out over the Columbia River, and wrote a draft of the story mostly in one go, with that line repeating as a refrain. It felt like the first time I was attentive to form in a story the way I am in a poem, and although the story isn’t quite personal experience, it allowed me to speak to an emotion I couldn’t name in any other way. Now it’s out in the world. Thank you, Valparaiso Fiction Review, for giving it a home.
- She’s Not a Girl Who Misses Much, January 10, 2018: Happy New Year, folks! I’ve now been living on the West Coast for a full calendar year, and I can see the effect of my new residence all over my work. The new issue of Cream City Review includes four poems I wrote shortly after moving to Oregon, and reading them now, a year later, I can see how much I was trying to make sense of starting over in a new place. Two of the poems take the shape of origin stories, and one is called “Spell to Leave Behind a Life.” The fourth emerged from an experiment, in which I culled all the words spoken by Pearl in The Scarlet Letter and used only those words to write a poem. This might not seem all that significant, except that when I talk about my origin story as a writer, I often recall my junior year of high school, when a teacher assigned me the task of writing a poem from the perspective of a character in a book we read. I chose Pearl and discovered the power of persona. Revisiting Pearl now, twenty-plus years later, was a sort of homecoming.
This last year also saw the publication of my first short story, “Out of Order”, in Literal Latte. The story’s protagonist wakes from an elective process he undertook in his forties to find himself now ninety, lonely and disoriented by his new world. Again, I wasn’t conscious of the questions I was grappling with at the time I was writing–one month after I moved to Oregon–but rereading the story now, it’s clear I was, well, lonely and disoriented, even while I loved (and continue to love) this place.
Those initial feelings have dissipated, I’m happy to say. I’m finally starting to get a feel for the writing communities in the area, and I’ve got two readings coming up in the next two months, with a few more in the works. It feels good to get my work back in front of people, and even better to be with kindred spirits: one reading is for Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse, and the other is part of the Unchaste Readers series. Nasty and unchaste–that’s exactly the kind of company I want to keep.
I’ve also got a new poem, “Now Is Not the Time to Talk About Gun Control,” that will be released on the Broadsided website next week as part of their feature, “Bearing Arms: Responding to Guns in American Culture.” The poem is paired with Kristen Woodward’s startling, provocative “Female Target,” and includes the word Oregunian. (Yes, living here has added to my vocabulary, for better or worse.) I’m excited to see our broadside and those of the other writers and artists vectorized, and I hope that the broadsides spark some conversations, since–if the irony wasn’t clear–now is absolutely the time to talk about gun control. Let’s hope that’s one of the many changes 2018 brings.
As for 2017, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention all the amazing books I read. Without further ado, my favorite reads from 2017 were:
Spirit Boxing, Afaa Michael Weaver
When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, Chen Chen
Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing, Charif Shanahan
Lena: Poems, Cassie Pruyn
Magdalene, Marie Howe
3arabi Song, Zeina Hashem Beck
Hands that Break and Scar, Sarah A. Chavez
Transformations, Anne Sexton
The Whetting Stone, Taylor Mali
Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, Suzy Hansen
Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood’s Messy Years, Catherine Newman
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
Spoonbenders, Daryl Gregory
A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness
The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
Here’s to 2018–may the new year bring you clarity, community, and abundant good reads!
- Privacy Is My Middle Name, My Last Name Is Control, October 17, 2017: When I was little, my mother told me that in Chinese tradition, someone celebrating a birthday doesn’t receive gifts–they give presents to others. Perhaps there’s some element of truth to that concept; perhaps it was just something my mother told me to help me get over the fact that I wasn’t being fêted with wrapped packages every October. (We were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and watching the rounds of cards and cupcakes on my classmates’ birthdays left me wide-eyed and wanting.) Although I’ve never found any evidence of this supposed practice in the cursory internet searches I’ve conducted, the idea of gift-giving as a way to show gratitude for one more year on this planet has always felt like the right thing to do. Usually I find something shiny and/or delicious to offer to a close friend or to my partner, but this year, I tried something different. I became a book fairy.
I love the idea of finding books in unexpected spots, and in honor of the tenth anniversary of Goodreads, the Book Fairies invited people around the world to hide books in public places. Since it’s also been ten years since I joined that bookish online community, I chose ten books–five of my favorites, five of my partner’s favorites–to share with unsuspecting passersby. I spent my birthday walking around the greater Portland area, leaving books in my wake. Here, you can see a few in their not-at-all-natural habitat:
I was also celebrating something else that day. After a hundred days of intense writing, followed by another hundred and sixty days of hemming and hawing, rearranging and revising, I put the finishing touches on a new poetry manuscript! “Again” began as the Inauguries project–my attempt at coming to terms with the Trump presidency and at stealing the language back from his mouth. While I was in Vermont, other writers encouraged me to see if there might be a book in that project, and as it turns out, there is. (Well, a manuscript, anyway. It’ll be up to the fine folks who read for poetry presses to figure out if there’s actually a book there.) In any case, I felt relieved and triumphant to see all those poems stacked together, to read them out loud over and over and feel the heft of the words in my mouth. Sometimes it’s the mere making of the thing that matters.
And finally, one last celebration: Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse is in print! It arrived at my house a few days ago, and I spent hours absorbed in it. It’s been quite some time since an anthology has caught me up like that. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it includes some of my favorite poets (too many to name), but there were also many poets whose names I didn’t recognize, and their work floored me, too. Grace Bauer and Julie Kane did a marvelously nasty job of putting the anthology together, and their section titles’ nods to singers and songwriters take after my own heart. Thanks to all the nasty poets out there for the song and swagger, the rhythm and resistance. You’re a gift, too.
- Tomorrow’s Chances Feel Like a Singing God, July 30, 2017: Last Sunday, I went for a hike, as I do most weekends, and when I came back from my trek in the mountains, a message was waiting on my phone. Jenine Gordon Bockman, editor of Literal Latte , had called to let me know that my short story, “Out of Order,” had won the magazine’s fiction prize! I did a little dance right there at the trailhead, although the dance didn’t last too long, as I was pretty wobbly-legged by then.
This was (is!) big news for me. I’ve been writing fiction for a while, but I’ve only been sending it out to magazines for the last year or so. In that year, a few editors have written back some kind notes, but all of them passed on publishing my stories. I was beginning to think I ought to throw in the towel, especially with stories like “Out of Order.” It’s science fiction and nearly 8,000 words long, both of which put it outside the scope of most literary journals. So, it was a surprise, a delight, and a confidence-boost to hear not only that Literal Latte was interested in publishing “Out of Order” but also that they’d chosen it for their fiction award. The story is due to come out in their Fall issue, when I’m sure I will babble about it on the blog all over again.
In other news… Rattle posted my poem, “I Tell Death, Eventually“, as their poem of the day back on June 23. Although I’ve been reading Rattle for years, it wasn’t until this last month that I realized what a supportive and extensive poetry community editor Tim Green has built, especially through the digital components of the journal. In the days following my poem’s posting, I received more kind emails from readers than I had in the previous ten years. People were generous with their own stories about loss and grief and mortality, and I appreciated their candor and vulnerability. Beyond that, it was also heartening just to know that so many people were out there reading poetry on any given day. At a time when literary and arts programs are so often disparaged and subject to budget cuts, knowing there are so many other poetry-lovers out there gives me hope.
And speaking of budget cuts, I wanted to give a shout out to the editors at Crab Orchard Review , which is in the process of converting from a print to an online-only journal in the wake of spending restrictions and staffing reductions. Allison Joseph, Jon Tribble, and Carolyn Alessio have been putting together one of the best journals out there for years, and I’m honored to have my poem, “The Gauntlet,” included in one of the final print issues. “The Gauntlet” is one of the few poems I’ve written where I directly address race–in particular, the unease I felt at being one of the few people of color in my old neighborhood in Iowa–and I’m grateful to the folks at Crab Orchard Review for publishing it. (I’m also grateful that now, for the first time in my life, I live in a racially and culturally diverse neighborhood. I still think a lot about race, and it would be foolish in the current political environment to say I feel unworried and entirely safe, but I don’t feel the same kind of fear I did in places where I was the only person of color around. There’s power–and peace–in numbers.)
- The Girl I Used To Love Lives In This Yellow House, May 17, 2017: And then it was May. The last few months have been quite the marathon, in no small part due to the Inauguries. After the leisurely wonderland of Vermont, I came back to Oregon and dizzied myself trying to squeeze a poem a day around the obligations of humdrum, ordinary life. I woke up in the wee hours to write before work, stayed up bleary-eyed in hotel rooms trying to compose poems after traveling all day, and faced more than a few occasions where I thought it might be best to throw in the towel altogether. If nothing else, the project reminded me that I am, at heart, a stubborn fool.
I still have a list of words I wanted to use–and Trump is picking up new favorite terms every day–but I’m happy that the 100 days are over. (If only the administration were as short-lived as this project was.) Maybe I’ll revisit some of those other words at a later date, but for now I’m taking a much needed rest from poem-writing and turning instead to seeing whether the Inauguries have the making of a manuscript in them. It feels strange to try to split up and rearrange the poems into a book, but folks keep encouraging me to get these babies out beyond the blog, so I’m giving it a shot.
In the months since my last post, I’ve amassed quite the list of shout-outs that have remained shut-in while I was engrossed with writing the Inauguries. So, at long last…
Cheers to Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar, and Patricia Smith, for editing The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks. The anthology riffs on the Golden Shovel form created by Terrance Hayes, which borrows a line from one of Brooks’ poems to form the final words in the lines of a new poem. The anthology is a great way to get acquainted with a wide range of contemporary poets or to revisit your favorite Gwendolyn Brooks poem. My poem in the anthology draws on a line from “Riders to the Blood-Red Wrath,” which is not my favorite Brooks poem, but how I could I resist the lure of a line like “the national anthem vampires at the blood”? (And what is my favorite Brooks poem, you ask? Depends on the day, but “The Mother” and “Beverly Hills, Chicago” are probably the top two contenders.)
Hurrah for Laura Madeline Wiseman for editing Bared: Contemporary Poetry and Art on Bras and Breasts. The anthology includes some of my favorite poets: Sarah A Chavez, Susanna Childress, Denise Duhamel, Leslie Adrienne Miller, Stacey Waite… Too many brilliant folks to name them all. I’ve got two poems in the anthology–about breasts, not bras. One’s an oldie but goodie from The Body Is No Machine, and the other, “No Jeremiad,” is brand new to the world.
Hosannas to Mary Ann Miller, editor of the new journal, Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry , and Jeremy Schraffenberger, who interviewed me for the journal. Mary Ann was the force behind St. Peter’s B-List: Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints, and she was kind enough to think of me for this first issue of Presence. Jeremy’s questions helped me to revisit the process of writing and revising No Confession, No Mass, and I suspect some of his questions about the efficacy of poetry as protest led me in the direction of the Inauguries.
And bravi to Mary Vermillion and all the folks at Mount Mercy University, who gave me such a warm welcome when I visited in April. Mary live-tweeted the Q&A, during which I read the first drafts of a couple of poems from No Confession, No Mass. The drafts were awful, but that was the point, and it was the first time I’ve ever read a shaggy early draft aloud to a room full of strangers. (I highly recommend it for its humbling properties.) Mary’s colleague, Joe Sheller, wrote a generous blog post about the reading, as well as its aftermath, when I mistook Joe for a ghost. (It was a long day, and the students and I had been talking about paranormal investigators. Yes, let’s blame it on that.) I also got to chat with Mary a bit about the memoir she co-wrote with her husband, Ben, about his gender transition, and I am eagerly awaiting its publication. Best of all, the students at Mount Mercy were thoughtful and inquisitive and bold–it was a true pleasure to talk with them. A few asked questions that prompted me to reveal my fears and qualms about writing non-fiction. (It turns out I’m fond of the veil, however thin, that fiction and poetry allow me to draw over my life.) But because I find it hard to refuse a challenge, especially a self-issued one, while I’m on my post-Inauguries mini-hiatus from poetry, I’m trying my hand at some essays on race. Time will tell whether I can get over my unease enough to send these out into the world, but for now, at least, the writing feels necessary and surprising, so I’ll follow it where it takes me.
- Swingin’ on the Front Porch, Swingin’ on the Lawn, February 27, 2017: This is my last week in Johnson, Vermont, where the kind folks at the Vermont Studio Center have given me space to write and to be among other artists for the month of February. There’s been much furious scribbling, broadening of horizons, and exchanging of ideas. (Also, a wee bit of carousing, a lot of laughter, heaps of good food, and a mid-winter bonfire. This place is luscious.)
The residency has given me encouragement to be braver and less polished with my poems, including the Inauguries, which have definitely begun to absorb the influence of this place and the people I’ve met here. Being away from home has also offered some necessary distance from stories and poems that I should have abandoned long ago. Darlings have been murdered! Drafts have been trashed! Let the new language come flooding in!
While I’ve been here, Unsplendid put out a new double issue, which includes a villanelle and a sonnet I wrote. Editor Doug Basford’s preface is worth checking out for its thoughtful articulation of some of the relationships between politics and poetry.
Also, speaking of politics and poetry, the new issue of Rattle is out, and it features poems by civil servants–folks who’ve worked for the CIA, FDA, EPA, the Census Bureau–which just goes to show we poets are everywhere. I’ve got a poem in there, too, in the poets-not-affiliated-with-the-government section. I’ll have to wait until I’m home to read the rest of the issue, but I can tell you my poem was inspired by a dream in which Death tried to serve me a pie. No lie.
- The Friday Night Charades of Youth, February 7, 2017: I’m holed up at the Vermont Studio Center for a month, where I’m working on new poems, fiddling with some half-formed short stories, and marveling at the snow. (Much easier to marvel when I’ve got nowhere to go, when I’m just strolling through its glitter and waking to find how deep it’s grown overnight.) I’m still writing Inauguries, too, and have discovered that those poems might be less about reclaiming language than about documenting the emotional terrain of this strange moment in our history. The poems have often taken a surreal turn, which feels apt–if fact and truth are questionable, I suppose reality is, too. And, especially in recent poems, I can’t seem to get away from speaking from a collective voice. Who is this “we” that keeps appearing? As the Magic 8 Ball says, “Cannot predict now; Ask again later.”
This moment feels unpredictable, but as Sarah Einstein and Sandra Gail Lambert point out in the editorial note to their online anthology, Older Queer Voices: The Intimacy of Survival, this isn’t so much an unfamiliar world as “one we remembered well and had hoped was gone for good.” Einstein and Lambert assembled the collection of writing by older queerfolk “to recreate the edifices of care and activism that we once constructed for ourselves and then perhaps abandoned because they were no longer needed.” I’m grateful to have poems in the anthology; grateful to have made it to the age where I may be an “older” queer; grateful to have had friends, teachers, artists, and authors who gave me the strategies I needed to survive.
And speaking of survival, speaking of age: the folks at Silver Birch Press are running a poetry and prose series on their blog called “Me, At 17,” that precarious time on the cusp of adulthood when so many of us learn what it means to outlive our childhood selves. I’ve got a poem there, too, and I’m excited that the series represents such a wide variety of experiences of that particular time in life. (Happy, too, to see so many LGBTQ authors in the series. Represent!) If you decide to check out the poem, you’ll have the extra treat of getting to see what I looked like back in the ’90s: Long hair. Penciled eyebrows. Impish glint in the eyes.
- A Little More Before He Knows His Own, January 20, 2017: Today I began writing my way through the first 100 days of the Trump administration. For some time now, I’ve been collecting words that Trump uses too often, words that I once loved but now can hear only through his mouth, his voice. I want to feel the rich history of those words again. I want to remember what they used to mean. Today I began stealing that language back.
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