This past summer, in advance of anticipated autumn travel, before Delta fully unfurled and the Covid numbers painted the U.S. map almost entirely red, I had optimistically ordered copies of my book to have on hand during the trip. I was vaxxed, maybe more people would get vaxxed, maybe things would actually be better/safer/more accessible. I thought I might hit some open mics, some readings. There were a couple of series where I knew folks and which might be up and running.
I don’t remember more than the fuzziest contours of that small, sweet, brief optimism I permitted myself — to maybe read poems aloud in person to strangers, to hear the poems of others read aloud, in person. To travel in the ways I have traveled in the past. Along with eating inside restaurants and, well, doing anything maskless in a public indoor space, giving readings in person is a thing that did not happen during my travels, and that has not happened since March 2020. Other things happened on the road, good things, interesting and strange and profoundly uncomfortable things. I’m very grateful to have been able to travel at all, even within limitations I have tried not to resent too deeply.
At one point, outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, we happened to encounter one of those little free libraries, and I ended up leaving one of the copies of my book there. I signed it “Passing through Santa Fe,” and included the date.
Later on this trip, I decided I’d make it a point to find more Little Free Libraries where I’d leave a copy of my book and pick up anything that I was interested in reading, as is the spirit of the enterprise. In Chicago, visiting a friend, a fellow poet, I asked for a copy of each of her books so that I could leave them in the Little Free Libraries along with my own as I made my way home.
I visited a total of five more Little Free Libraries after Santa Fe — Boise, Idaho (#23842), Ogden, Utah (#32414), Cheyenne, Wyoming (#125480), Erie, PA (#53892) and the “Little Pink Library” in Corning, New York (#81419). Here are some photos. That first one is an image from Google Maps of the Boise LFL — I like the shadow. The rest are by me.
It felt satisfying to leave copies of my book in places where nobody (or okay, maybe one person?) knows me, where my book would probably never enter the book ecosystem more organically. I signed the books, always indicated that I was “passing through,” and included the date. It helped me get rid of some books, got me off the interstates briefly, and was another kinda-social-but-at-a-distance experience to add to the growing list of such experiences. There was something mildly therapeutic about this small ritual — something about me dealing with having dared to allow myself even a small optimism, feeling stupid for having done so.
I might make this a new road trip tradition moving forward, to make it a point to visit Little Free Libraries when I travel. Not necessarily with my own book, but because they are interesting, such a great project overall, and sometimes so freakin’ adorable.
Well, maybe the truly last thing I need is more canvas tote bags – but mugs may come in a close second. I do have a lot of books also, but . . . I will always need more books, let’s be real. A mug is such a frequent prize or souvenir, a popular, inexpensive and easily brand-able giveaway in a goodie-bag. In spite of the fact that our cabinet is overfull of mugs (in further spite of my having done a couple of significant mug-purges in my mug-owning life), I still welcome mugs into my world. I don’t actively seek them out, though. I may pick one up from time to time, from the display shelf of the artist co-op, but I have trained myself to put them back again and walk away. I don’t buy mugs anymore. My partner doesn’t buy mugs anymore. They find their way to me, to us. Over this past pandemic year, three new mugs joined the exclusive collection in our kitchen cabinet.
This first mug arrived in August 2020, with no indication as to who’d sent it. No note. Right from the brewery, which is in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was someone who knows that our home is called “Surly Acres.” Surly Brewing had to close their Beer Hall at the end of October, due to revenues being down 82% (compared with the same period the previous year) since the pandemic’s start.
There was some speculation that they closed the Hall as a union busting move in response to their employees announcing an effort to unionize. The vote to unionize failed in early October, by one vote. The company is still brewing and selling beer, and the Beer Hall is still closed. I’m not sure what the status of the unionizing effort is at present. A more recent vote to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama also failed. I have served as a member of our university’s Faculty Union negotiating team this year – and it has been pretty strange and sometimes not so great trying to renegotiate a fair and transparent contract over Zoom during a pandemic, on top of the ongoing dismantlement and defunding of higher education, on top of everything else.
The very notion of “working conditions” (“learning conditions!” “living conditions!”) has taken on new textures and urgencies — for our faculty, staff and students, as well as residents of the small New England town where our university has existed for 150 years. Since March 2020, the “work” many of us are doing — to learn, to live — has shifted profoundly, to varying ends. Much has been written by people smarter than I about all that has been revealed by both the pandemic and by responses to the pandemic. And of course the financial “conditions” within which public higher education, especially in New Hampshire, has struggled to survive, already desperate in pre-COVID years, were further revealed, amplified, and, by some, leveraged as reasons to, oddly, cut even more deeply, as the pandemic’s conditions were added to the mix.
When I received that Surly Brewing mug, I reached out on Facebook to see if I could get the secret gifter to identify themselves, but nobody ever claimed credit – so I still don’t know who sent it. It’s a good, solid mug. Decent size. You could see drinking beer from it, as it’s got a mild “tankard” vibe, though so far I’ve only had coffee.
The second mug, sporting the text “YOU’RE ON MUTE,” arrived right around Christmas – again, anonymously. Again, I posted a photo on Facebook, with the caption, “I feel seen. (But not heard.)” Under the caption, I wrote, “THANK YOU to whoever sent this to me, possibly someone with whom I spent a lot of time in Zoom these last months, someone who has witnessed and can attest to my ongoing struggle with the un/mute function.”
Teaching remotely for the first time over the last year, not by choice, to students who are learning remotely, some for the first time, some not by choice, has troubled assumptions or habits of my own teaching in productive, fascinating, frustrating, helpful and sometimes paralyzing ways. It has stirred up old insecurities and nurtured new ones. Some of what is being troubled by teaching online was already shifting in my third decade of teaching. Much of what is being troubled has needed troubling.
I have been thinking about the myth (it feels like a myth) of “synchronicity” embedded in ubiquitous questions about “asynchronous versus synchronous online courses.” I have, perhaps more importantly, been reflecting on how that myth or set of assumptions has infused so much of my teaching in the physical classroom. I have been thinking about (a)synchronicity with respect to important (to me) pedagogical notions such as accident and improvisation and surprise and planning and emergence. I have also been wading a little further, if still gracelessly, into “ungrading.”
The use of Zoom as the main way of connecting with students, advisees, colleagues, and friends, is exhausting. Zoom takes energy from me that it does not give back the way I have found that being in a live classroom gives back. The “option” (is it really an option if the conditions of the pandemic forced the choice?) to learn from a distance has been a real boon to some of my students, or so they tell me, and a real burden for others and, I think, a mixed bag for many. I’m guessing the same is true for some of my colleagues, but am curious to know more.
One Zoom boon for me has been a new degree of access to talks, seminars, workshops, and especially readings and Q&A’s with poets I’d not otherwise be able to hear “live” because of geographic distance. For readings I haven’t been able to attend, there are often (not always) recordings I can view later. I do occasionally feel strange guilt (?) for not taking even more advantage of the bounty that is available via Zoom, especially with regard to poetry readings — but I am spending so much time on the screen, I feel like I need extra or different “rest.” The bounty can be exhausting.
An old, dear friend (also a colleague) did confess to having sent me this mug. It was a much needed and appreciated gesture and moment of levity. I haven’t used this mug as much as the Surly one. I should bring it into the rotation.
In the mid-Fall of 2020, I stopped making the trip onto campus to be Covid-tested – because – why bother? I was teaching remotely. True, it meant I wasn’t allowed on campus or in campus buildings at all, but I started to feel, as winter crept in, that it might actually be more risky to go in to get tested than to stay home and not be tested. For the most part, I wasn’t going anywhere besides the Rite-Aid drive through and the Local Foods Plymouth curbside pickup. The only time I entered another building besides our house was to go to my regular required blood tests at the health clinic, and a few times to the post office. Both of those experiences masked and very brief, in the five to ten minute zone. The thought of going to stand in line for a possibly longer time than that, and among a possibly bigger number of folks, many of whom were spending time in residence halls and classrooms together, just didn’t make sense. Also, I think it was making me increasingly sad and anxious to go onto the quiet pandemic campus, the masked and socially distant campus, the once-familiar-now-strange campus where I was only a visitor. Of course it was also making me sad and anxious not to go onto campus. It has been a sad and anxious time. Maybe mugs — with their attendant connotations of cozy warm beverages, steam rising, or maybe a mug of soup — symbolize for me a kind of comfort or deep, common familiarity.
At the end of February, 2021, a box arrived in the mail from a friend and colleague, Amanda. I opened up the box to find a blue #PanthersUnited wristband – which was how they were tracking which students had gotten a particular week’s Covid test on my college campus; a set of “honey spoons” (solid honey on the end of a stick so you can stir it into your tea); and a “First Fire” mug. And a very kind and loving note, so needed. I wrote at the time, “I have not once ever been so moved by the gift of a mug.”
Amanda, who was being COVID-tested on campus, knew I would be especially happy to get one of the 2020 First Fire mugs they were handing out that day. On our campus, “First Fire” is a recent tradition, but already a well-loved one, during which the first fire of the fall is lit in the fireplace in our student union building. Folks come and enjoy donuts and coffee or hot cider in that year’s commemorative mug. And, most years, I write and recite a poem for the occasion. The poem is, I’m afraid, what you have to endure to get your free mug and donut. I try to keep it short.
There was an attempt to hold a kind of socially distanced pandemic version of First Fire for this past fall, but it never quite came together. But they’d ordered the mugs already. Maybe far in advance? Ordering the mugs seems like an optimistic move. I did not start drafting a poem ahead of time for the occasion; I pretty much didn’t write a poem from May until December. Had I been pressed, I’m afraid I couldn’t have summoned the lightness or cheer such an occasion seems, reasonably, to ask for. But I was not pressed.
I haven’t had a drink from the 2020 First Fire mug yet. I need to remedy that. I’m more of a coffee drinker, but I should have at least one cup of tea in this mug, so I can swirl the honey stick in it, for the full effect.
I have collected, not entirely intentionally, a number of souvenirs from this year, though to call some of them souvenirs feels a little strange. But also right. A small collection of cotton masks made by a local acquaintance, from different fun fabrics. The playlists of recorded Zoom poetry readings, many of which I’ve attended “live” through the screen. A year’s worth of the town’s weekly newspaper. A good deal of student writing about their pandemic experiences. The stash of letters and postcards I’ve accumulated since last summer, when I posted online that if anybody wanted me to write to them, they should message me their mailing address. I wrote and am still writing a lot of letters and postcards – and so many folks wrote (and still write!) back.
With my students in Composition and Advanced Composition this semester, I did some brief in-class writing, discussion, peer feedback and assignment-prompting around totems, artifacts, and other significant objects. This was inspired in large part by the commemorative exhibition at my university, marking its 150th birthday with 150 objects. When I was thinking about how to spark conversation about how common, familiar objects might be made strange and powerful because of our own experiences and imaginations, I wanted to bring my own examples as a way of sharing a little bit of myself across the physical (and other) distances between me and my students.
With my Composition students, I shared a twist-tie — you know, the kind that holds the plastic bag of a loaf of bread closed. By shared, I mean, I dug it out of the travel toiletries kit where it has lived for years, biding its time. By shared, I mean, I held it up to the Zoom camera and told them how when we scattered my dad’s ashes into the Hood Canal five years ago, they were in a plastic bag, tied with this twist-tie, which, when I opened the bag, I stashed thoughtlessly in my pocket. Later, at home, getting ready for bed I guess, I rediscovered the twist-tie, and it was as if I was pulling from my pocket a different object than I had tucked in there hours before. Before scattering dad’s ashes with my mom and brother. Before coming home again to the house without him. Instead of tossing the twist-tie in the trash, I tucked it into my toiletries kit.
In Advanced Composition, for one class session, I asked us all to check out the online “150 objects” exhibition and to bring to class at least one object of our own that held special personal significance. An object with a story, one we’d be comfortable sharing. I set up a Google document called “Museum of YOU” and invited students to share photos of their object(s) there. The Surly Brewing mug at the start of this essay was one of three objects I brought to our collective museum that day. I have since shared this essay (in earlier draft form, and now in this later draft) with my students. The insightful feedback I got from my Advanced Composition students in particular has really helped me continue to develop this draft, though it also still feels unfinished. As I type this, slogging towards the end of April, the semester is unfinished, the pandemic is unfinished, the essay is unfinished.
Many folks will have souvenirs from this time — and not just physical objects. Some of the souvenirs may feel like wounds, may be wounds. Some will carry and endure for the rest of their lives the deeply embodied and long-term physical and emotional consequences of “surviving” COVID-19. So many have died. So many have lost loved ones. Can an absence be a souvenir? Can a wound? I worry that it’s not the right word. Souvenirs not to “have” like one “has” snow globes or commemorative coins. Souvenirs not sought out but received nonetheless. There are probably souvenirs of my experience of this time that I will hardly, if ever, be able or willing to fully comprehend or claim as such. There are unfinished essays, unfinishable essays, essays unwritten.
In terms of the physical objects that are named and kept as mementoes, there must be such variety out there. What are your souvenirs? What will you carry, willingly or otherwise, from this time? It is maybe too soon, maybe even too cruel, to ask. But I think there will be the obvious ones, the masks and hospital bracelets, but also the more personal and idiosyncratic and totemic ones – the pandemic souvenir that’s only decipherable as such to one person, but which, to the rest of us, is just a book of poems, or a single knitted sock, or a particular song, or a houseplant, or a twist-tie, or a sturdy coffee mug, one among many, waiting its turn in the cabinet above the coffee pot.
NOTE: I had thought I was going to write more, or revise further, or, I don’t know, have some kind of deeper insight or epiphany, before sharing this more broadly. But yesterday I came upon the photo of me reading at the 2015 First Fire, which reminded me that I had drafted this essay with my students, and that I had wanted to return to it/share it. I added that photo to the essay and changed two words, but otherwise, this draft is as it was in April. It still feels unfinished, but something about the photo made me want to share this essay here. So. Here.
I don’t remember how I got introduced to Bob Dylan’s music, but I think it was probably by my dad. The first time I saw Dylan perform live was in July of 1987, at JFK stadium in Philadelphia, as part of that summer’s tour with the Grateful Dead. My friend Derek and his parents invited me along. I was seventeen. I remember fragments — it was very hot, and there were so many people. I wasn’t a particular fan of the Dead, but it was a big, intense show. It was thrilling to hear Dylan. A few years later, I saw him perform again, on his own, in Boston where I was in college. I think that show was at the Boston Opera House — obviously a much different venue and vibe than JFK in July.
Years after that, I saw the documentary (I cannot for the life of me remember the title — MAYBE it was this one?) that inspired me to write this poem:
Dylan Plugs In At Newport
“Maybe he didn’t put it in the best way. Maybe he was rude. But he shook us.” — Jim Roony
The crackle of the amp, the whine. The thunk of the pickup sliding home. The unthinkable. The first pluck sounded like a big fuck you to Pete Seeger, who cowered, hands clapped to his ears, rocking back and forth in disbelief.
The flat electric guitar body looked soulless, and the crowd thought they were getting flipped the bird by that long, skinny neck he fingered to Maggie’s Farm. And who were these friends of Dylan, these black men backing him up with music and bodies that didn’t fit? What did he think he was doing?
It is said the crowd booed him, but the evening sounded more like a wail, a noise of panic and confusion. The sound the rabbit makes only when it’s dying in the jaws of the murderous dog.
The decade snapped open like a cracked skull. What poured out looked like a bad marriage — the folkie soul and the rock and roll moves. Joan Baez and Ike Turner. That bad.
Later we would love him more for pushing us over, for the elbow in the guts, the unrelenting riff and jangle, but that night we couldn’t say what we saw and heard; that long ago night when possibility bled once more from an artist’s fingers, slid from his throat. When, once more, we groaned against it, we threw up our hands, we resisted.
This poem was first published in 2003 in the literary journal 5AM. In 2019, it appeared in the anthology, Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan. It was (still is!) a thrill to be included in that anthology alongside work from Patti Smith, Johnny Cash, Charles Bukowski, Anne Waldman, Robert Bly, Dorianne Laux, Yusef Komunyakaa, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Eileen Myles, and others whose work I really admire.
I use a “we” in this poem that might imply that I personally witnessed Dylan perform at Newport in ’65, but I wasn’t actually there. I wasn’t anywhere yet, not having been born. In retrospect (it’s nearly 20 years since I drafted this poem!) I think I’m “borrowing” the “we” from the Roony epigraph, and/or maybe just presumptuously elbowing my way into it (?) and using it less to claim attendance at the literal event, but more to admit that I, too, have resisted or willfully misunderstood art I wasn’t ready for — art that troubled lines or borders I’d drawn or which had been drawn for me, so invisible they seemed natural.
Maybe that’s part of the gift of an artist in a moment like that — offering us (even those of us who weren’t there) a chance to see those lines for what they are, to imagine more expansively the possibilities for art and for culture and for living.
Also, maybe he just wanted to fuck with us a little bit.
Sort of on a lark, feeling a Venn diagram of urges (to do something with my hands, to make something in the space where I’d normally be making poems, to calm and (re)focus myself) I signed up for an online workshop — Non-Linear Books — through the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. I’d also add to that diagram the arrival of birthday mad money from my mom — I used it to pay for the class — and the fact that we’d be making volvelles. I had just recently learned that word, though I have long loved and been fascinated by volvelles. So that word in the description may have sealed the deal.
To prepare for the course, I did some rummaging and scavenging to get the tools and materials I’d need, according to the list I’d been sent. I wasn’t going to be making any unnecessary pandemic trip to an art or craft supply store — I would make do with what I had, and what I could borrow. I already had most of what I’d need — cover papers, regular papers, linen thread, needles, x-acto blade, cutting mat, bone folder, PVA, a compass, etc., etc. I didn’t have any brads (needed for volvelles!), but my friend Sally, unsurprisingly, had a box she brought over for me. (Sal — I owe you a volvelle!)
I have all this stuff because of an on-again off-again practice of book arts. Most of what I know (or what I knew and have since largely forgotten) I learned in graduate school, where I did what they called a “collateral field” (like a “minor,” kind of?) as part of my PhD program. It was a collateral field in “book arts.” My particular aim was to learn how to set type and do letterpress printing, but I also learned quite a bit about paper, about folding it, cutting it, sewing it, etc. Later, through a couple of different workshops and classes over ten years or so, I got more letterpress printing practice, but also learned more book binding/stitching techniques. Sewing is still my favorite piece, I think. This particular class involved minimal sewing — some basic pamphlet-stitching as part of the dos a dos and French door books.
Because the class was hosted by MCAB, it ran on Central time — which meant that the 7-9:30 class actually ran 8-10:30 for me, which is definitely later than I’m accustomed to being capable of doing any kind of sustained work. But it was just once a week, so I figured I could handle it. It was great to put my hands to that work those nights, even if the lighting could have been better and I was a little sleepy. I love folding paper. Our instructor taught us how to score paper properly, which is so great to know! Folding, creasing, unfolding, folding in another direction, creasing, unfolding — I guess there’s a meditative quality to it. The instructor talked us through everything, and the videoconferencing screen was set up with a birds-eye view of her workspace, so we could see her demos. And she also provided printed materials for each week’s style of book. The class was small, and we didn’t really get social with each other. We’d occasionally share work, but mostly we tuned in, asked questions as necessary, and did our work in some kind of tandem.
The most challenging book form for me was definitely the hard-cover flag book. The smaller, “beginner” flag book was challenging, too, but when we bring adhesive and boards (hardcovers) into the picture — my tendencies to be impatient with precise measuring (and other things I need to be more patient about) catch up with me. Here’s the first flag book:
Below is a slideshow of (some of) the process of making the second flag book. If you do some googling of flag books, you can see some really interesting uses of the form — unlike my super-basic first go of it here.
Here’s a link to a video I made, showing how the flag book moves/”works.” It has “pages,” but also it has those flags which fan open into….something like pages but also something else entirely!
The final class was focused on the volvelle, and we spent time using templates to get a feel for the basics of the form, before attempting to explore it a little bit on our own. I’m overwhelmed by the multiple dimensions of the volvelle — very unsure as to how I’d make one, how to conceive of those layers of image, or text, or both. I don’t know how to “plan” it. I don’t know what to expect. I don’t even know, really, what to want to make. This is partly because of my own habits of thinking/making, but also because I haven’t had enough practice just playing around with the basic forms yet. The materials, the parameters, the movements, are still new enough to my hands and mind that I don’t yet have a sense of what I might make of them.
If I keep playing, I feel pretty sure the materials themselves, or rather the the dynamic/action of (mis)handling them over time (cutting, combining, trying, messing up, trying to fix, fixing or not fixing, happy accident) will create conditions wherein I might expand my imagination of what’s possible in the volvelle. Partly this is just what many call “practice.” I feel comfortable sewing bindings largely because I have enough practice (time) sewing to feel a familiarity with thread, wax, needles. What they are capable of, what they might ask for or resist.
Rummaging through my stash of materials — papers in particular — was a fun part of the experience of taking this class. I found papers I didn’t remember I still had — ordered for past book arts workshops or independent projects and not quite used up, or acquired for projects I never got to or finished. Handling that material again, and handling the tools, cleaning out and re-organizing my art supply box, reminded me of specific projects, specific people I’ve collaborated with and learned from in making broadsides, chapbooks, stationery, etc. It also sparked some muscle memory around this work — around the activities of folding, measuring, tearing, and sewing — those pleasures in and of themselves, the “practice” which is not a means, but which is its own end.
You have until the end of April to snag this great discount (30% off!) on all poetry from Hobblebush Books, including titles in their Granite State Poetry Series. These beautiful books unite New Hampshire writers with a New Hampshire book designer and publisher, and I’m grateful that Beating the Bounds is in such good company.
In December 2014, six years ago, an old friend, also a writer, invited me to participate in a writing accountability group/experience called “the Grind.” Well, actually, he had invited me months before, invited me more than once, but I resisted — it was a month-long commitment to draft and share a new poem every day, via email, with a confidential group of readers, most of whom I would not know. No feedback, just daily accountability and practice. I don’t remember what finally enabled/forced me to say “yes” for that first December. This year, signing up for my first Grind in two years, it was a long dry spell that finally nudged me into making the commitment, the longest & driest I can remember, not only a not-writing but some kind of not-wanting-to-write, I think.
I just looked back through my emails to examine the archive of my poem drafts from that first experience. I see that I was assigned to a group with a poet whose amazing book (not published yet in 2014) I read and was blown away by in 2020. When I look at the list of participants in my first “welcome to this month’s Grind” email, I see a few familiar names of writer friends of mine who’d been participating already — poets and prose writers.
In December 2014, there were 9 groups (poem-focused groups and “manic mixture” to accommodate genre variations) with 63 participants signed up. This December: 174 signed up in 25 groups including new and revised poetry, new and revised prose, and mixed-genre). Some of the same names from 2014. When I look at the poems I drafted that first time — all new ones — I see that four of them have since been published, in a chapbook and then a full-length collection of poetry, my first. Another poem from that month was revised into the title poem of a forthcoming chapbook (hopefully out in 2021). Another poem from that month was published in an anthology in 2020, and I actually revisited/revised one of those 2014 poem drafts this month in my current Grind (I was in one of the “new and revised” poems groups, so revision was allowed!). I suppose I could look through all my monthly Grinds — I think I’ve done something like eighteen months total over six years — and inventory those “success stories,” poems that found a life outside the Grind. But of course the “success” of the Grind is daily, monthly, and mostly private. The success of the Grind is to show up with your poem, and to be there so others can show up with their poems. (or prose or whatever).
I always complain my way through the Grind. I kind of hate it. Hate having to write a new poem draft every day (I have done almost exclusively “New Poetry” during my time on the Grind), having to send it to people whose drafts always seem so much more finished and interesting than mine. Once I was randomly placed into a group with a VERY WELL-KNOWN writer whose work I have long admired, and with whom I would NOT have been inclined to share my shitty poem drafts (or even, frankly, poems I thought were decent) — it was disconcerting at first, but then just….lovely. Not having to give feedback — indeed, feedback of any kind is not only not required, it’s sort of frowned-upon — turns out to be an important element of doing a Grind.
On very rare occasions there have been folks who (habitually, repeatedly) did not show up daily, and that not showing up sometimes added (disproportionately, for sure) to my Grind grumpiness. You signed up, (I shouted to the empty room) voluntarily, to do ONE THING — to be accountable, alongside others, in this one daily thing — if you can’t do it — that’s OKAY! Just don’t sign up! God, who would even WANT to do this? My anger was mostly blooming and booming from insecurity about the roughness of my own drafts, and was (I cannot emphasize enough) DISPROPORTIONATE to the actual “offenses,” and probably not useful in any way. And for the most part, I have found that those who sign up come through on that commitment, and I am grateful for it, because it is HARD.
Why did I even sign up to do it? Different reasons or combinations of reasons each time, I think. Different contexts, imperatives. Grind founder (The Grindfather?) Ross White articulates so well the “whys” of the Grind in a two-part post (here and here). So many of the reasons he describes resonate with me – again, maybe different ones at different times over the last few years.
I thought briefly about signing up to do January as well, but I didn’t, for a number of reasons. I think I will, without benefit of the Grind’s specific pressure, try to do some revision of a few of these drafts in January. I’ve got a bunch of work stuff looming – specific tasks but also general conditions – that occupies so much of my head and heart recently. I will have to get back to it in January. And I am still not feeling the impulses to write poems that I have historically felt, that I have relied upon, that have been clear and strong enough to see me through other, different, shorter stretches of not writing, or writing struggle.
My December 2020 Grind poem titles are: My Love & Other Things, Pandemic Garden, Strangers, People You May Know, Fathom/Father, Prepared, The Book, Arecibo, 2020, Endearments, Mosh, Wind in Trees, Why I Woke at 3AM, My Mother Doesn’t Miss The Christmas Tree, Binding, Accumulations, Monhegan (revision), The College Bar, Ghazal to Remind the Rain, Dimensions, Conjunction Weather, Conjunctions, 2020, Walk of Shame, Salt, Not Even Now, We Learned, We Learned (revision), Certain Premises, Here, A Year in the Woods Behind the House, Tired, Therapy
I did a revision of “Conjunctions, 2020” and on a lark sent it to Transitions: Poems in the Afterglow, part of an ongoing project of Indolent Books, and they selected and posted it, like, the next day. That was a speedy turnaround. And a little queasy-feeling in the speed of it, from my end. Most of the rest of these drafts will never see the light of day beyond the Grind, and that’s okay – that’s as it has been. But some of them may make it out into the world a bit – that’s also as it has been.
In any case, as grumpy and whiny as I can be in the middle of it, I am grateful to my friend for inviting me to participate in the Grind, grateful to those many writers who showed up for themselves & each other, and grateful to Grindfather (surely I am not the first one to use this phrase??) Ross White for making so much so possible through his community-minded generosity.
My family lived in Cherry Hill for two years when my dad was stationed at the Naval shipyard in Philadelphia. It was difficult time for teenage me, a time of struggle and growth. I was caught shoplifting. I smoked pot for the first time. We were renting a house in a neighborhood that wasn’t really accustomed to welcoming “new folks,” and for most of my first months of school at Cherry Hill High School East, nobody at the bus stop would talk to me. And I was too shy to talk to them. I was used to living either on a Navy base or in a neighborhood near enough to a large enough Navy base that there were lots of new kids every year, and we just kind of knew how to be with one another.
But eventually, at this supremely well-resourced public school, I found teachers and peers who were “my people.” Miss Beck and Mr. LaVoie, in particular, and the students I met in their English and Creative Writing classes, were, finally, such a source of connection. I also found a weekend program, the New Jersey School of the Arts, hosted at the then Glassboro State College, where I connected pretty intensely with three other young writers.
That first Friday of the Festival was specifically organized for students and teachers, and free to attend — and that access to poetry and its communities has always been a part of the Festival’s ethos and mission. It continues this year — you can get a free all-access pass if you are a student or educator. They are also offering their standard all-access pass as “pay-what-you-can,” and a free version for live-streaming and discussion groups only. I’m hoping to encourage some of the writing students I’m currently working with to register and attend.
Looking at this year’s amazing Festival schedule, I see so many poets whose work I love and admire, I see old friends and acquaintances and teachers from various parts of my poetry life. I see necessary themes and conversations.
Access to programs and events like the Dodge Festival, the NJ School of the Arts, and others really shaped and helped me, especially during certain periods of my life. Now, in 2020, access online to an overwhelming variety of readings and talks has been, for me, another nourishing source of connection and hope and help. I am so grateful the Dodge Festival endures, and if you can, I encourage you to join me in financially supporting this work. If the financial support isn’t an option, consider spreading the word and, of course, participating in the Festival.
If it’s back in person next year for the 35th (contingent upon so many other urgent “ifs”), I might have to head down there, as I can imagine the Festival serving as a good emerging-from-pandemic-isolation (please please please) experience. A poet can dream.
So many things are so crappy right now. But watching Amanda Whitworth’s work here — appreciating the instrument or language (?) of her body, and also of the work of her collaborators, the cinematographer and composer — transports me not exactly “away” from all that’s crappy, but . . . I don’t know . . . into a dimension or a facet of possibility. I don’t even know what that means. Maybe only a body could say, wordlessly.
I often think of and describe my dad as a “poster child” for a conventional/idealized U.S. middle-to-upper-middle class vision of retirement for his cohort — the “silent generation.” After thirty years in the Navy, which included a tour in Vietnam, unaccompanied deployment with the Seabees, and running the Public Works Center at the Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines, he was able to retire. He and my mom moved back to Washington State, where he had worked to help build the Bangor Trident Submarine Base on the Hood Canal — we lived there for three years when I was in elementary school. They liked the area, and had retired Navy friends there, and so they made one last cross-country move and landed outside of Poulsbo, right up the Hood Canal from the sub base, on a piece of land where my dad designed and supervised the construction of the last house he’d ever live in, after a life of moving every one to three years, due not only to his own itinerant military career, but also to his father’s thirty years in the Navy.
My dad’s birthday is coming up in early October, and then, the fifth anniversary of his death at the very beginning of November. I have, in my adult life, resisted anniversaries of all kinds, have been skeptical and even cynical about them, not sure why, but a part of me also enjoys certain rituals and traditions. The approaching of the fifth year “mark” of my dad’s sudden and unexpected death is on my mind. I wonder if my urge to commemorate is related to the pandemic, to the way the pandemic has altered — is altering –my relationship to time, to the passing of it, the measuring and marking of it, its role in how I try to live and comprehend my life. Many usual markers — many having to do with work, but also having to do with the rhythms of social and personal life — are radically altered or gone. So maybe how I feel about the role of ritual, of the intentional marking of time, which used to seem to mark itself (?), is changed and changing.
I opened this piece by asserting that my dad was a retirement “poster child” because he was such a good hobbyist. He Kept Busy. He made artful, precise scratch- and kit-built model ships. He took up the Appalachian mountain dulcimer. And he took up watercolor painting. Or, more precisely, in retirement he was able to dedicate himself more fully to even deeper pursuit and practice of these avocations to which he had been called, to varying degrees, before he actually retired.
I am interested in this turn of phrase, to “take” something “up.” I picture a person gathering something into their arms, maybe lifting it a bit? To take something “on” is to “begin to do” something, according to etymonline.com. I can’t find an entry there for “take up” but it feels to me like a step past “taking on.” In this thread, “take on” is described as more “burdensome,” hinting at an obligation, a challenge, or maybe at something adversarial, whereas “take up” is more of a free choice, maybe a chance at pleasure?
Now that I think about it more, I’d say my dad took on “taking up” as a retiree, for sure. As if it was his obligation (his new “job?”) to “pursue interests.” His obligation to enjoy them deeply. To not squander his opportunity. He probably wouldn’t have called it privilege, but it sure seems like privilege, that leisure.
My dad was not a mere dabbler in any of these three major avocations. He took them on and up with a patient seriousness of purpose, such a long-game for learning. He was a faithful practitioner, a “practicer.” My dad believed, I think, in mastery, but also, I think, he was patient about not achieving it. Especially with the painting, he put in the process and practice work. I wonder if this is related at all to the fact that both his sister and his mother were accomplished, “professional” artists. When he died, I already had a framed painting of his — my favorite from among a half-dozen or so from which he asked me to choose — hanging in my house in New Hampshire. (Also on the wall, a painting by my grandmother, and one by my aunt.)
But when my mom asked if I wanted any of the … dozens? hundreds? of stiff sheets of watercolor work he’d left behind, I didn’t look for another finished piece to hang on my wall. I was mostly drawn instead to the artifacts of his process, his practice.
There was even more of this stuff — and I took more than I’ve pictured here. His careful study documented. His practice, his learning, his trying, preserved here in these patches of color, these “tests.” And there were also a few starts or “drafts” I snagged. Though I guess I have no business saying what part of his process they represent or occupy.
Here’s my dad’s finished painting on my wall, the one I chose when he asked me to choose:
In the work he left behind, I found two versions — shall I call them sketches? attempts? perhaps rehearsals? — of the same scene. I am fascinated by them. I look and look at them.
It’s like seeing a little bit through his eyes, or so I tell myself, in this moment, trying that notion out in these words, this draft of an idea. A version. Not a commitment, even though putting the words into the white void sometimes can feel like signing a contract. Not so, not so. There are more words, different shades of the same idea, different ideas. Time passes through ideas/ideas pass through time.
Here are the two versions/drafts of the painting:
I look at these and I think: rehearsal. Practice. Getting to know the materials. Getting to know one’s own vision as enacted by brush strokes, color choices, quantity of water.
How do you rehearse for the “final version?” When do you know the final is the final? Is the version on my wall “finished” because it is framed, because it’s displayed? My dad is the one who decreed it finished, who had it framed as a gift for me. Also — he was finished — is forever finished — painting versions of the work. There will be no further work. So, in some literal sense, this is the “final” in a series. But I guess I’m asking, wondering, why even care about “finality?” I’m not sure.
These questions are ones I ask myself from time to time, and which I encourage my writing students to ask themselves and one another. They are sort of unanswerable. I try to talk with students sometimes about the difference between BEING finished WITH something (for now?) and a THING being FINISHED, though is that even a real distinction? And of course for writers I work with in university classes, the constraints of a “semester” which ENDS (and then a new one begins!) influence the pace and timing of composing, reflecting, and revising.
If to begin a thing is to “take it up,” might “finishing” be an act of “putting down?” (Sometimes we describe acts of writing as “putting (something) down” on paper. We also sometimes use the expression, “to write down,” not just “to write.” “Write down these instructions.” What is “up” in that figuring?)
What shall I do with these versions of revision? These versions of my dad’s vision? These transcripts of his trying? These archived attempts? What story of painting, of learning, of testing materials and gestures, do I want them to serve? What story of my father do I want them to serve?
It must be a kind of revision when I write about my dad in certain ways, certain genres, on certain days. Re-vision as I re-member him when he is dead and I am fifty, as opposed to when I was thirty and he was still living. Revision if I make it past the age he was when he died a few years ago to remember him again, remember him differently. I am thinking again, still, of time — how my thinking about my father recently is connected to the time of year, to the passage of time, to the commemorations of “birthday” and “day of death.” To my own aging. And so I think also of how re-vision feels connected to the passages of time, the duration and pace (of the poem, of the world swirling around the poem, of the before-poem and during-poem and after-poem), the shapes and textures we call time, those marks of it we make. Marks like clock numbers, like brush strokes, like words.
I wish he were here to ask; I’m sure he’d have things to say about the flaws of the versions of his painting — their failures, their incompleteness. And yet, the materials and technique — watercolor — he uses in this painting feel so….resistant to completeness. The painting edges up into what feels to me like a kind of minimalism when I imagine practicing what I see as a skilled kind of restraint. What I mean is, the few times I’ve tried seriously to draw or paint, I think my fatal flaw is not stopping soon enough. I was told this once (kindly, I think) by an art teacher. I look at the framed painting and wonder if the reason he framed it, named it finished, and not the others, is his feeling that he stopped painting at just the right moment? I don’t know. Probably if I’d found all three versions in the huge stack of his work, I wouldn’t be so certain which was the “final draft.” Which one I would have chosen to have professionally framed, which two relegate to the closet archives?
For the most part, I save no such archives myself — most of my versions disappear in the wake of revision — my rehearsals in the form of sequences of drafts are mostly ephemeral. There are exceptions, but most of the saved work is printed out and annotated, and is in a folder of “unfinished” stuff I mean to get back to.
Except that some poems I write are of course revisions/versions of poems I’ve already “finished,” or of “a poem” I keep writing and (re) writing and may never finish. And so maybe some poems are rehearsals only I don’t know they are rehearsals.
Or maybe many or maybe all my poems are rehearsals of some kind.
I make myself go outside. It is nice outside, not too hot, but sunny and robin’s egg blue sky. A light breeze to keep the bugs off. To have to “make” myself go out into such temperate loveliness is so absurd. I am glassy-eyed and dimwitted from hours, days, weeks of screen work punctuated by the social media work-distractions which also serve as my sole contact with most of my people these days, and it is a nice day and I have a book of poems to finish reading and it is August and I am sad and frustrated and the fall semester of teaching writing (online) is looming, and winter is coming and so out I go.
There’s some windfall from the remnants of tropical storm Isaias. Acorn-studded bouquets thrown down from the skyscraper oak. Last year’s paper wasp nest gust-scrubbed from the skylight frame.
(I have not been writing poems. These words about the nest and the oak have the vague feel of poetry, but don’t pull me into drafting a poem the way they might have in March. That next step, such a habit, ordinarily such an optimistic impulse for me once I’ve got some initial image/language down, escapes me these last pandemic months. Where I once stepped confidently, almost thoughtlessly, many times before — nothing. Or nothing solid. Air, or something else. Some place I don’t want to tread.)
I sit down to read but want to scoot the potted celery over so I can set down my notebook on the picnic table. As I shove the pot over, I reveal a toad. He is not amused. He was not expecting this turn of events.
I think about the metaphors I want to make from the toad. The contemplative distance between my wanting to and my doing it is nearly nonexistent. First I consider the sudden exposure, the moments of disorientation and maybe fear, and then the finding again of that cool, dark space. I think about all the time I have spent inside over the last months. Then I’m thinking about how the few times I go out now, masked and skittish, I feel exposed and worried and strange. E(strange)d. And I am lucky enough to have a long-term partner at home, someone with whom to talk and cry and laugh and eat and be. And maybe I should just let a toad be a toad. I do not have a good history of letting toads be toads, however:
I wrote that poem almost 15 years ago. Maybe longer? I was still teaching Introduction to Literature, which I think I only did my first few semesters on the faculty at my university, where I will start my 20th year in a couple of weeks.
It’s (e)strange to read this poem now, to revisit its long-ago March (or April?), and to think back to this year’s pandemic shut-down right after spring break. Hubris. Being on the lookout. Toad as soothsayer. Spring full of flood, earthquake, astronomical rarities, weather extremes, and my own casual imaginings about what “plague” might descend next.
Later, after reading some poems and pausing to stare at the sky and reading some more poems, I notice a caterpillar, on the picnic table, making its way somewhere. When I first see it, it is caterpillar-ing confidently forward, like it knows where it’s headed. But when it hits the edge of the picnic table, it seems fully unprepared for the sheer drop, the next steps suddenly gone, suddenly air. It reaches and reaches into the void where the path should be.
If I can’t let a toad be a toad, I also definitely can’t let a caterpillar be a caterpillar. I mean, they transform (!) into moths and butterflies (!!) for crying out loud. They can’t let themselves be caterpillars. They spin cocoons of self-generated silk around their bodies and mutate into a new form, often one dramatically different from their caterpillar embodiment in terms of color and texture.
Out on an errand last week, I wore a face mask as usual, but also happened to be wearing a hat and sunglasses, and I’m pretty sure someone who has known me for 15+ years did not recognize me — they are a brassy, call-to-you-across-the-crowded-restaurant extroverted person who always notices/sees me, says hello/engages in chat when we run into each other. They were oddly standoffish, and it wasn’t until I was back in the car that it occurred to me that maybe this person had not actually known it was me. Had not recognized me.
This didn’t make me mad or upset — instead, it reminded me of when I was new to the area all those years ago, how nobody knew me from Adam, and also about how much I enjoyed, for the first two thirds of my life, the opportunity, given and given again, of being a stranger, being unknown, being anonymous. Being new, and maybe transformed by that newness.
Was I enjoying the notion of (possible) rare anonymity in pretty much the same instant I was mourning spending 95% of my time physically — and emotionally — apart from the world beyond our front door? Was I remembering a more itinerant life, when I rarely lived anywhere for more than a few years? When I was somewhat regularly renewed by…..being new? By being the stranger?
What is my current relationship to estrangement, anyhow?
I make myself look at the sky. Then I take a photo of the sky. I am documenting and archiving, which feels like a thing I can do to disrupt the strange stillness of just looking at the unmediated sky. Or observing, without recording, a caterpillar.
I have never succeeded at meditation, as far as I know. (I have also perhaps not tried very hard.)
How long was I outside before I was putting all of it to metaphorical purposes? Did I bring the purposes with me out onto the deck, with my book and notebook and iPad, or were they only revealed to me (like a toad!) after I got out here?
I wonder if there can even be an unmediated sky or caterpillar if I am there looking at it, camera or no. Aren’t I just a camera? I’m not even sure I want to let the caterpillar just be a caterpillar, or a toad a toad, or if that’s even an option, given language, given my hungry, narrating gaze.
Two ways I think about ending this writing. First way — another video, with my foolish narrating voice calling a melodramatic play-by-play for an inchworm who, in “the end” (of my documenting/narrative framing) succeeds, survives, makes it across the gap, doesn’t get eaten by the toad, etc., etc.:
Second way — I consider how the caterpillar and the inchworm, in their reaching with the whole front ends of their bodies into the empty air, across the gap, remind me of the first card of the major arcana of the standard Tarot deck: The Fool.
On the left, the Rider-Waite (classic, popular tarot deck) rendition of the Fool; in the center, a more contemporary riff on the traditional Fool iconography in the “Light Seers” tarot deck, and on the right, the Fool from my own tarot deck, the Hanson Roberts. The significant common image: the cliff the Fool’s about to step (or fall) off of.
At Tarot.com (the Hanson-Roberts link above), this is part of their description of the Fool:
“Modern decks usually borrow from the Rider-Waite imagery. Most Fool cards copy the bucolic mountainside scene, the butterfly, and the potential misplaced step that will send The Fool tumbling into the unknown. Don’t forget, though, that the earlier versions of this card represented already-fallen humanity, over-identified with the material plane of existence, and beginning a pilgrimage toward self-knowledge and, eventually, wisdom.”
The gap. The fumble and reach. The unknown. Fools of all stripes, neither fully innocent nor irredeemably fallen, poised to take that tumble or leap or step.
That next step, such a habit, ordinarily such an optimistic impulse for me once I’ve got some initial image/language down, escapes me these last pandemic months. Where I once stepped confidently, almost thoughtlessly, many times before — nothing. Or nothing solid. Air, or something else.