Gratitude Friday

It’s Friday again!  Five things I am grateful for:

  1. Week four and four posts on time. It hasn’t felt like a burden yet.  Getting close, but not yet.
  2. It’s National Poetry Month in the United States. What that means for me is in our little town there are more readings and events than I can go to.  I read some poems for two reading events this week to full rooms.
  3. It’s April 12th and we had a snow and ice storm last night. Though that’s curtailed my recent attempts at getting vigorous outdoor exercise, I’m grateful to have a guaranteed conversation starter.
  4. My students are persistent and understanding across the board this semester.
  5. The writing muse has been kind to me the last two weeks.  I’m still stuck in other areas, but being able to write calms the mind down overall. Readings tend to help with that.
Title page, Poems Upon Several Occasions (1748...

I have never heard of this poet, but it looks poetry-ish.

The Blues Experiment Part 3: Celtic Twilight meets Leadbelly

Today I finished my visit to classrooms at a local elementary school.  I played guitar and sang blues for them, and we listened to blues and spoken-word poetry recordings to learn about poetry and sound.  I had a lot of fun, but had a lot of anxiety leading up to it.

In my previous posts (here and here) I wrote about the premise of this experiment—I’ve never played guitar and sang for an audience.  I’ve played music in some form or another since I was seven, but have always had anxiety about playing for an audience.  Something I’ve practiced over a hundred times can suddenly seem unfamiliar and wrong, and my fingers seem to have a mind of their own.  A forgetful mind.

I played for my college classroom last week and had strange mood swings afterwards.  My wife, a cellist who is far more experienced than I at this told me that it’s normal for her to feel strange for a couple days after a big performance.  She recently had a solo with the university chamber orchestra with a guest conductor and they were making changes until the last minute.  It turned out well, but was worrisome, and she experienced “aftershocks” for a day or so.

And that’s what I experienced after my debut: periods of relief and calm followed by sudden waves of anxiety: sweating, elevated heart rate, dizziness. It seemed odd to experience that after the performance.   Anytime, though, that I replayed the moments leading up to my song, I had that automatic response.  Likewise, when I thought about having to go do this for school kids, I got nervous all over again.

On Easter, I subjected my family to my rendition of the blues as well.   I had not sung in front of them at that point either.  In fact, that was the first time I would say I “performed” a song in front of my wife, if you don’t count singing songs to the kids or singing karaoke with the kids.  She said it would be the same for her if she wrote a bunch of poems for me to read.

I sang for and talked to two classrooms of 6th graders yesterday and two classes of 4th graders today, and I had a lot of fun.  It was much easier to sing for them after the practice with my college students and my family, although my pick hand wouldn’t stay in rhythm for some reason on the very last performance.  It was even more fun to talk to them about poetry.  We talked about sound and repetition in poems and in songs, and they had some great ideas about the meanings of lyrics.

For instance, we talked about Leadbelly’s song “Good Morning Blues”—and the 6th graders really liked that name, Leadbelly.  I’m pretty sure that became part of their lexicon later that day.  Hurry up, Leadbelly! Anyway, there’s a verse about the singer not being able to sleep because “the blues was walking’ all ’round my bed.”  We got off on a fun tangent imagining Blue Man Group skulking around the bedroom at night.

Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly), half-length por...

But the experience really shined when we got to Robert Johnson’s “Cross Roads Blues.”  The school has “Crossroads” in its name, which got them thinking. There’s a verse:

Standin’ at the cross roads, I tried to flag a ride.

Standin’ at the cross roads, I tried to flag a ride.

Didn’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by.

I led them through a line of questions that had them thinking about what a cross roads represents and why it might be a good name for a school, and how singing the blues about waiting at a cross roads with no one to help might be a metaphor.  (I even had the teachers and administrators nodding at that one!)

The most telling moments for me, though, were the hours before hand.  I expected to be really nervous before my first class.  I had put the dates and times in my calendar for the visits on Wednesday and Thursday.  On Monday night, right before I went to bed, I checked my email one more time, because I couldn’t remember whether the 4th graders or 6th graders were first.  I just about passed out when I realized I had put the wrong dates on my calendar and the first class was the next  morning instead of two days away!  After singing my own blues (okay, cursing at myself repeatedly) I sat down to finalize my plan.

I then got surprisingly calm.  Having less time than I thought to prep forced me to make decisions.  I had, as usual, way more ideas than I could use, but the sudden urgency made the plan coalesce.  The “Cross Roads Blues” occurred to me in a flash and the plan wrote itself.

In the morning, I was nervous about the day, but not about the singing and the talk—I was nervous about finding the right place to park and knowing where to go when I got there.  This morning, I wasn’t really nervous at all, and looked forward to meeting some more kids.  I said to my wife, “I never thought it would be possible to plan to go sing and talk to fourth graders about poetry and not be terrified.”

My last great piece of fun was making a William Butler Yeats poem into a blues song.  Yeats probably didn’t know anything about the blues, but he wrote in English and knew folk songs, so there’s a lot of commonality.  Here the first half his poem, “Down By The Salley Gardens”:

Down by the salley gardens

my love and I did meet;

She passed the salley gardens

with little snow-white feet.

She bid me take love easy,

as the leaves grow on the tree;

But I, being young and foolish,

with her would not agree.

Change the order of the lines and add the word “baby,” and you’ve got a blues song:

Down by the salley gardens my baby and I did meet.

Down by the salley gardens my baby and I did meet.

She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.

She told me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree.

She told me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree.

But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.


Lightnin' Butler Yeats

The Blues Experiment, Part II

I woke up this mornin’ . . .

. . .with a pretty good headache.  An hour later, filled with Concerta and Excedrin, I sat down to ponder what to do for my class today.  We had an assigned reading, but today is the day before Easter break, so I was sure students’ minds would be elsewhere, as mine was.  Being all full of stimulants, I decided to make my singing debut in class today, as part of my plan for next week.

I have never played the guitar for an audience, and neither have I sang and played guitar for an audience.  My performances were always with the rock band in college (keyboards with occasional backing vocals, usually consisting of “Aaaah” or “Oooh.”), or classical piano or trumpet in high school.  I sang a solo in church once in 5th grade and muffed that up pretty well.

I gathered up all my stuff (acoustic guitar, laptop with backing tracks) and headed to work.  I had conferences all morning with the class at noon.  I sneaked into my office suite with my guitar so no one would notice.  I didn’t want to say that I was going to sing today because I wasn’t sure I was going to go through with it.  During breaks in the conferences, I listened to the song on headphones.  But I still wasn’t sure if I was going to go through with it.  I tuned my guitar as quietly as possible with my door shut so no one would hear it.

Ten minutes before class my hands were shaking. I did some diaphragmatic breathing and calmed down and headed out to class.  I met my office neighbor in the hall who said “Where are you off to?” meaning why did I have a guitar with me.  It was in the case so I said very  noncommittally, “to teach” and marched down the hall.  I still wasn’t sure if I was going through with it.  I still had a backup story (well, I’m headed out to play with a friend after class, so I’ve got to carry this with me . . . .)  I tried to hide the guitar behind the instructor’s station when I walked in, but a student spotted it and said, “Are we getting a lesson by song today?”  I smiled and said “maybe.”  That was the truth; I was still wavering.

We did our reading discussion.  I was distracted and disorganized.   I told myself that at 12:30 I was going to either do it or not.  At 12:25 I still wasn’t sure.

When my watch said 12:29, there was a lull in the conversation, an obvious stopping point.  I said this is it and explained that I was doing a workshop with elementary kids next week about blues and poetry and I needed to practice singing.  I also explained that this was an historic moment:  I had never done this before.

I set up my laptop and hit play for the backing track.  It turns out the plug for the room’s PA doesn’t work.  So I just used my laptop’s tinny speakers and started the backing loop.  I started to plink along on the guitar and after the first turnaround, I started to sing . . .

It was pinched and forced at first, but eventually I loosened up.  I got through the whole song but was too nervous to try the guitar solo section.

Oh, and I recorded it.  It has all sorts of problems.  My guitar’s a little out of tune.  I messed up the lyric on the second verse, then missed a chord change.  But I got through it, and they applauded.  They teased me about putting it on YouTube, but I don’t know if they were serious.  I figured I would beat them to the punch and put the recording out myself.

So, world, here’s my guitar/singing debut.  If you have some stray dogs to scare off, I recommend playing this:

Music guitar

The Blues Experiment, Part I

Oh what a mess I created!

I’ve been working on being more present in the world and less closed off.  I love music and playing the guitar.  Some of my fondest memories from college were playing rock bands.  I played keyboards and sang in a prog-rock cover band and summers played in a classic rock cover band.

Since then, I have never played in public. Only in basements with friends.  I’ve switched instruments too, and taught myself guitar over the last fifteen years or so.  I would love to be able to play and sing in public, but the prospect terrifies me.

AND SO, a friend got me hooked up to do a poetry workshop later next week in an elementary school.  When he asked me, my first thought was no way.  Elementary kids are out of my comfort zone.  With my own son being autistic, I don’t have much practice relating to that age of kids (though I did do a summer as a camp counsellor for five to seven year olds, but that was twenty years ago).  But my friend asked me at our poetry group meeting, and said meeting takes place at Szot’s Bar, and I was on my second beverage, so I said sure!

I’ve been racking my brain for a couple of weeks trying to figure out what to do.  Everything I imagine saying or doing comes out aimed at college students; they’ve been my audience for the last seventeen years.  Suddenly, I had a vision: I imagined plopping down and playing the guitar for them, and that would get some attention.  And then the connections sprang: I could do poetry and the blues as the workshop!  AND THEN, I got the bright idea to not only play, but sing.

These things are way outside my comfort zone.  I have never played guitar for an audience, just with friends in the basement.  I have not sung for an audience since college, and then only as little backup lines.  But I want to get over it.  The idea of performing excites me.  We’ll see.

I went back and forth a couple of times (you can do this/you’re awful and this is a bad idea).  What made me decide for sure yesterday was my six-year-old son.  He kept looking at me funny when I was singing, and then suddenly improvised his own blues song, “Baby, baby, baby, cry, cry, cry, la, la, la . . .  blues.”  Then he got overwhelmed and insisted I stop.  When I didn’t listen, he stole my iPod and made this picture for me:

He even took the picture. Despite all this resistance, it brought out his creative side, so I’m going forward. GAHHHH!

It won’t be different this time

A comment from ellisinwonderland on a previous post got me to thinking.

‘When the going gets tough, I go on to something else.’

Ah, how familiar this whole process (culminating in the above) is to me.

I always hold out for it being ‘different this time’ but it never is.

One of my symptoms (or habits, depending on how you think about it) is my cyclical interests.  I have several hobbies or interests (again, depending on whether I get paid for them or not).

My hobbies include guitar, woodworking, photography, computers, blogging, yoga, meditation, bicycling, running, hiking.  My (professional) interests include teaching with technology, poetry, contemplative pedagogy, faculty development.  I would include Buddhism as a hobby too, because I fall in and out of practice.

Within each hobby or interest, I have cyclical motivation.  When it comes to creative writing, for example, I move between working on poetry, blogging, creative non-fiction, and a novel.  Even within poetry, I vacillate from writing to criticism and book reviewing.

Unfortunately, one of my habits is not finishing what I start.  I don’t publish much poetry, for example, because I don’t often enough get my act together and submit my work.  Likewise, I renovated the kitchen myself and only have to finish the trim, but I haven’t finished the trim, and I haven’t worked on finishing the trim in about four years, even though most days when I go into the kitchen I think “I need to finish the trim.”

To live in modern society, you have to finish things, unless you have someone to finish them for you.  It was a big step for me to admit that I can’t keep up with the mowing and snow shoveling and that we have to hire someone to do it.  It was also a big relief.

So, finishing things, following through, is definitely something I need to work on.

However, I wonder if there is a way to live in the world I live in and make this cyclical interest work for me?

In many ways, my job as a professor caters to this cyclical interest.  I work at a teaching institution, so publishing is not a required part of my job (but it helps me get promoted).  Also, publishing is broadly defined, so I’m free to pursue my interests.  If I chose to become a hard-core scholar, publishing only heavy-duty peer-reviewed journal articles and scholarly books, that would be recognized (although some might question how much time I’m investing in teaching).

So, I can do quick little works here and there (I’m doing a presentation at a local conference on Friday for example). I can also change my teaching from semester to semester.  I can change readings, assignments, textbooks, etc.  If you follow my blog, you know that I’m cyclical.  I’ll have a super productive period for a few weeks, and think this is my thing, it will be different this time.  And then, my interest takes a new track, and suddenly I’m really into playing the guitar and blogging seems like the old me.

The question is whether to fight it or work with it?  Buddhists who practice mindfulness say to accept it.  From that perspective, a sudden compelling interest, a minor obsession, is a way of distracting oneself from the present moment.  A hobby can be seen as a form of clinging, either to a future image of oneself (as a star blogger, for example) or to objects (such as a guitar or a set of bookshelves that I might build).  Both cases are a sort of fantasy, and a fantasy is about the future, not the here and now.

A more mundane interpretation is that I don’t want to do things that aren’t fun, so I absorb myself with things that are fun.  One thing that’s fun is this fantasy world where I am a novelist, an accomplished musician, or a star teacher.  It a long journey to get to this realization.  I spent years in talk therapy trying to figure out why I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, like pay bills and grade papers and answer email, why there is a fundamental resistance in my soul to doing some simple things sometimes.  I spent years exploring what these things represent, and how my experiences contributed to this resistance.  I never found a truly satisfying answer then.  My diagnosis was Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  That explained the results of this fundamental problem, but never satisfactorily explained the underlying cause.

The cause is much simpler.  I have AD(H)D.  One of my symptoms, simply because of my brain wiring, is that I have trouble getting motivated to do things that I don’t want to do, more so than the average person.  Sitting down alone and grading papers isn’t fun, so I don’t do it.  Anxiety enters the picture.  I have to grade papers. It’s my job.  The whole thing gets complicated then, by my long history of anxiety over grading papers (I’ve had to grade more than 23,000 in my life).  The longer I put off something, the harder it is to get started.  And so on.

My short experience with medication, just since last November, underscores this model of my experience.  With the right Ritalin level in my system, I can just do things that were terribly difficult before.  It has been tricky trying to get it right, and I’m still not there, and it’s not medication alone, but medication in combination with good body habits and working conditions, but when it’s on, the experience shows me what’s possible.  For example, going to professional gatherings is much easier now, as is talking to people I don’t know that well.

With every interest, every hobby, something happens to complicate it, and I move on.  With the kitchen, for example, I don’t know how some of the trim is going to work, so I put it off.  Now the garage is full of stuff, and I can’t get to my table saw and miter saw, so the kitchen project is now a clean-the-garge and work on the kitchen project.  More often than not, though, the complicating factor is guilt.  I have trouble putting down the new toy to do my work.  Last night, for example, I worked on my guitar instead of doing email that I felt I should be doing, so this morning I feel guilty about the time I invested in that hobby. Add up enough of those experiences in a row, and the new toy doesn’t feel fun anymore.  In fact I rarely feel when I’m doing something fun, that I should be doing it.  I almost always feel as though I should be doing something else, my “real” work.  That’s why I like work that involves meetings.  After a long meeting, I feel focused, because I was doing what I was supposed to be doing for  a good stretch of time.

Anyway, back to the question at hand.  How to work with this changing interest?

I think there are a more poets with AD(H)D than any other genre.  Poetry lends itself more to short bursts of creative effort.  Writing novels, not so much.  Each time I work on a new poem, its a new world.  I’m reinventing my idea of a poem, and my idea of what one of my poems is.  With the novel, you’re stuck with what you’ve already built, unless you’re starting over.  There has to be regular work.  You have to write through the dreadful periods.  With poetry, you can go silent and come back much more easily.

I’ve read a number of books that say one has to either make peace with the impulse toward silence (make it an active silence) or find a way to work through it anyway.  Both of those are laudable goals.  The third option, berating oneself for once again being a screw up is crazy making.

I don’t know the answer.  If I did, I would be more at peace.

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written i...

Reading on the go

I read voraciously.  I read as if I need it to get through the day.  Because of my reading habits, I never thought that I had an attention problem, until I learned about hyperfocus.  If anything, I have attention to spare,  at least when it comes to reading. (Being able to direct focus is a different story.)

In any given day, I’ll read political blogs, surf Wikipedia, read poems,  work through one of the three or four books I’m usually reading, and none of that includes the reading I have to do for my job.  I estimate that I read and comment on about 2,500 student papers a year.  (Grading is my scourge.)

I didn’t always love reading in and of itself.  In middle school and high school, English was my least favorite subject. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, what was the point of all that nonsense?  To me, reading was instrumental, something I did to learn something useful or satisfy curiosity, and it only seemed, based on the way many of my teachers taught, that the point of reading dusty old literary stuff was to answer questions on quizzes, like this:

Ophelia is to Hamlet as
A) Peanut butter is to jelly
B) Peanut butter is to tuna
C) Peanut butter is to anaphylaxis
D) MacGyver is to bubble gum

That kind of read reading you did to get the right answer from a poem or whatever so you could learn something that somehow was supposed to be good for you.  I’ve written more poems than anything else since high school, but did not learn to love them until later.

The reading I liked then was the JC Penny Christmas catalog, model railroading magazines, computer magazines, photography books, and strange tales/science fiction writing.  For example, when I visited my grandmother in her drafty old farmhouse in rural Wisconsin, I would terrify myself by reading a book she had,  Haunted Wisconsin.  I would stay up all night hearing all the creaks in the house and the animals outside and imagining the worst.  I’d hear the twang of the frogs in the marsh and the clunk of cowbells and imagine whatever the rural Wisconsin version of the ghost of Christmas yet to come might be.  It didn’t help that my great uncle kept a pelt from his favorite deceased goat in my room, stuffed head and all.

I read that book every time I visited and would not sleep and go back home exhausted.  I couldn’t help myself.  I loved getting freaked out by the book during the day.  If I had some sort of interest in something, I could read it all day, damn the consequences.

I had always read easily.  Like my sons have today, I taught myself to read even before kindergarten.  In the first grade, a teacher thought I was just looking at pictures because I would page through the books so fast, but she quizzed me and found out that I indeed read them.  Through most of my primary and secondary education, I breezed through anything, unless I thought it wasn’t all that important, in which case I just listened to the class lecture.

When I first got to college, however, I had trouble reading.  I would have trouble sitting down long enough to focus to get through a chapter of a textbook.  There was so much fun to be had instead.  If I had to read something difficult, I would read the words much faster than I would comprehend them.  The reading was markedly more difficult than high school, and I couldn’t just skim stuff and retain it like before, and I didn’t have the patience or focus to slog through it.

After a couple of years of struggling, I learned to read with a highlighter or pencil in my hand.  I underline important concepts, sometimes write questions and comments in the margin.  I still do that for difficult reading.  The pen in my hand sliding across the page helps me slow down and stick with something difficult.  I focus, temporarily, on making really straight lines when I mark, and then the words stay clear to me.  That’s why I love the Kindle today, you can highlight as you read, and it stores all the highlights together.  And the lines are perfectly straight!

I got serious about reading after my first year of college.  After a disastrous start at the university, I took a writing class at a community college, having changed my major to English.  I told the professor, a calm fellow with small glasses and a big beard, that I wanted to be a writer.  He asked me what I read.  Mostly I read a lot of Reader’s Digest, because they were lying around my parents’ house as I was lying around my parents’ house at the time.  He told me I needed to get more serious about reading if I was serious about writing.

From then on, I’ve always read like a writer, focusing on how something is written in addition to what it says.  I can’t separate the two.  And always I read for comparison: could I write like this?  Should I?

This habit has led to some difficulties.  First, if I read a novel or something that’s in an genre that I might be interested in writing, I get angry if I feel it’s not written well.  Second, I often get seduced by what I read.  I read a science fiction novel; I want to write science fiction novels. I read a good poem, then I want to write poems.  I read Edward Abbey; I want to go live in the woods.  It’s frustrating that I know I could write a similar book only if I could sustain the interest long enough.

I often don’t have a strong sense of self and lose perspective once I’m “in” to some new book (the same goes for new hobbies).  There’s an overall pattern of inconsistency in my life.  That pattern appears in the piles of papers, tools, boxes, and other stuff I leave sitting around to take care of later.  That pattern is in my whims and fancies: Pen turning! Kayak building! Photography! Kitchen remodeling! Seventeen different writing projects! Or in scholarship: Literacy studies! Critical pedagogy! Faculty development! Contemplative education!

I’m always molding myself to the present, seeing how I can fit in to what’s going on around me.  It’s only very recently I’ve learned to start saying “no” at work to new projects and committee invitations unless they are core to my vision of what I do.  Only recently I am able to stick to that original vision of my professional self: I teach and write.

As I said above, reading is seductive.  Great writers create a new state of mind and they take me along for the ride.  Even merely good writers draw me in.  And when I’m reading something great, I dwell in possibility.  A portion of experience opens up to me, even a new way of seeing myself and the world, which is exhilarating and uplifting.  Until I find the new best thing next week.

I have been reading like a writer for a long time now.  It’s been twenty years since that teacher told me to read more like a professional.  And, for that long, I have been living mostly in possibility.  That is, reading and thinking like a writer, but not so much writing as one.  Missing is the important step: publishing!

*   *   *

That seemed like a tidy place to end the post, but there is one more, um, experience I did not yet include.  I am a bathroom reader, and I don’t mean while soaking in the tub.

Upon the throne is a great place to read.  One is not supposed to be doing anything, uh, productive with one’s time. So there’s no I should be paying bills thinking going on.  I can’t quite remember when I started taking reading into the W.C., but I remember taking in magazines and catalogs when I was a kid. My parents keep stacks of Reader’s Digest and The New Yorker in their bathrooms.

I read somewhere (probably in the same room) that reading helps one, ah, relax in that situation, stimulates the limbic system or some such system.

It’s gotten to the point where I feel I have to read to go.  Yes, I take books or a newspaper with me into the men’s room at work.  If, for some reason, I have no reading when I need it, I’ll even read a shampoo bottle or toothpaste tube and analyze the sentence structure.  (Shampoo bottles love active voice and imperative mood: Lather. Rinse. Repeat.)   I’ll admit to hiding out in the bathroom once in awhile just for some reading.  And while my discovery that I’m gluten intolerant has made my digestion and overall health much better, I find that it seriously cuts into my reading time.

The other issue there is the safety of my Kindle.  I’ve had to try hard not to drop it in the toilet.  And while this piece of technology is wonderful, I have also admit that, yes, I have purchased a book wirelessly from the bathroom and yes, that does seem a little strange.

Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales share...

Image via Wikipedia

toilet wc

Image via Wikipedia

Why Doesn’t The Writing Cure Help Poets?

Here’s a fun study I came across today whilst not doing my real work.

The fundamental question: if expressive writing is supposed to be therapeutic, and if poets are some of the most expressive writers in the world, why are they so dang unhappy on the whole?

Here’s the direct link to a PDF file:

And here’s the abstract:

This paper examines the literature on creative writing and mental illness and relates it to the “writing cure” research that shows that expressive writing improves health. There is an abundance of evidence that professional poets have poorer health outcomes relative to both other writers and to the population at large. Why doesn’t the writing cure help them? The formation of a narrative, an element often missing in poetry, may provide the answer. Other possible explanations are that poets may be more depressed to begin with and may be even worse off if they did not write. For female poets, they may be subject to stereotypic expectations about writing themes, which may put them at further risk. Those seeking improvements in health through writing are advised to adopt a narrative style.

I fancy myself a poet, so I dunno.  I’ve always imagined myself happier as a “real” poet with publication credits, a couple of books, maybe a grant or other award.  Didn’t seem to help Sylvia, though.  Maybe she needed a more narrative style.

Maybe, as the article asserts, I would feel worse if I didn’t have any connection to expressive art, if I were, say, an accountant or a bricklayer or a farmer.  I think farmer would be the worst choice, given my propensity for killing plants.  Having to get up and do the same thing every day would not be me.  I come from a family of dairy farmers, but I did not inherit the dairy farm work ethic.  (Maybe that’s why no one in my family farms any more.)  Accountant I could do.  I love me a good spreadsheet.  An accountant who writes villanelles.  Maybe there’s an Excel template for that.

Or maybe—

<sigh> Back to grading papers . . .

Sylvia Plath

Image via Wikipedia

Shameless Self Promotion

I’ve been really happy with the feedback I’ve gotten from this blog.  In the effort to further puff up my vanity, I have started another new blog.

I’m an MFA graduate and frustrated poet.  I’ve been writing a lot the last twenty years without seeing much of it published.  Among the many drafts I have, I’ve written a number of poems about my son who has autism and I’m tired of sending them out to journals and book publishers to be mostly rejected.

So I will put them on my new blog.  Please check it out and comment.  I love comments.  They make my whole day better.  Even if your comment is how much I suck, at least someone is reading and reacting to my work, instead of just sending me the standard electronic rejection slip.

And now, behold!  The link:






Sonnet of Ipecac

The late great Herb Scott taught me a lot about poetry during my days at WMU.  Two things he said always stick with me.  “Everyone has their throwing-up poem,” and “I’m not interested in poems about not being able to write poems.”

The second bit of advice came to me about the first poem I wrote at the start of my MFA degree.  I wrote something about sitting at my table, staring down into the street and trying to get the wheels turning.  But it points to a tendency I notice about writers and what they say in interviews and such and how they are different in person.

Most writers are concerned with the difficulty of producing great writing.  Most writers therefore struggle with resistance and motivation.  Most writers I’ve met, especially the struggling poet sort, are interested in talking about the difficulty of finding time and energy to write.  But few of them are interested in writing about losing the battle.

If one starts talking about losing that battle, the conversation slows, eyebrows raise, and suddenly everyone needs a refill on their glass of Chianti.  Most such conversations take place at writing workshops and conferences and people go to such events to pump up their motivation and kiss up to the stars.  They are not interested in conversation about the real specter of failure and the hard questions one has to overcome to keep writing: What if you can’t finish?  What if you can’t publish your work? What if you produce your best work and no one cares?

In every group, there are the haves and have-nots, the cool people and those-who-eat-lunch-alone.  At writing workshops and conferences publication credits are the currency.  Everyone who attends believes they can attain such “riches.”  And if they don’t, they start blaming everyone else:  Editors are too fickle.  The reading public is too small.  Americans are dumb and don’t read any more.  Wall Street bankers killed the economy.

So Herb’s advice has troubled me.  Failure is not an option, especially as a subject for writing.  You can be self-deprecating and funny all you want, but don’t breach that subject of the pointlessness of most of writing endeavors (unless you are already a success and are complaining about how hard it is to be a bigger success; then you can have your essay published in Poetry).  If one views publication in the right journals and presses as the true measure of literary success, the odds are spectacularly against you, approximately equal to winning the lottery and being struck by lightning in the same moment.

Some get out of this predicament with the bohemian mentality, which tends to take the long view and ignore the present.  They point to examples such as Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka, who published almost nothing during their miserable lives and are now hailed as literary geniuses.  I say what’s the point of literary fame if you’re not around to enjoy it?

But I will write about failure because it is interesting.  By any measure of literary stock I am a failure.  I’ve published four poems in seventeen years.  I’ve published a handful of 250-word book reviews and one short article in a national magazine. I’ve written thousands of words on five different novels and abandoned all of them.

I think the reason for my failure is the lack of follow through, which should be no surprise to AD(H)D-ers.  I told a friend, a successful poet who has urged me to submit more work that my success rate for publications is about 30 rejections for every publication.  “That sounds about right,” he said.

The thing I’ve learned is that writing and marketing are two very different things.  Writing involves the whole creative self, the flow of ideas, the long view, the high ambition.  Marketing involves writing a lot of cover letters and keeping track of things you send out and deciding things are done enough to show to an editor and to expose oneself to the long wait which 97% of the time ends in rejection, and mostly indifferent rejection, the form letter: “Thank you for your submission, but it’s not right for us right now.  If you’d like to subscribe to our journal . . .”

Blogging has been exhilarating. I publish immediately after finishing a piece.  My standards for “finished” are lower because, well, it’s a blog.  In my world, academia, it has almost no sway.  Blogging is at best a curio, the literary market equivalent of meeting a writer you admire and discovering he has extraordinary halitosis or collects bottlecaps.  No one in academia really cares too much.

But I have readers!  I have my stats page.  Some people comment on my writing.  I need that kind of feedback, especially the positive sort, the little mental boost to keep going.  Mostly I despise that part of me: my vanity.  But here I will use it shamelessly.  It keeps me going.  There’s nothing like spending part of a day putting words and sentences together and then finding out someone likes you for it in the same day.

I have often introduced myself as a “recovering poet,”  which was my cover story for “failed poet.”  I tend to think now the failure is in the 10% of work that I haven’t done in the publishing process: sending my work out.  Relentlessly. And that’s due to the poor wiring in my head, rather than neurosis.

And now, a poem about throwing up:

Phil Levine by David Shankbone, New York City

Image via Wikipedia

(By Philip Levine, the current Poet Laureate of the United States, and one of Herb Scott’s teachers.  It’s the circle of life!)