COVID-19, rumination

Without Words

green spring shoots coming up through brown leaf mulch and twigs

Blake, from the pest control service, stands several feet back from the front door of my house, after having knocked and waited, holding a mask in one hand, a box of rodenticide in the other. It’s Good Friday, 2022, and the mask says one thing, and the box another, and I tell him I’m fully vaxxed and ask if he is, too. He says yes, and I tell him he doesn’t have to wear the mask if he doesn’t want to, but if he’d prefer to wear the mask, I want him to wear the mask. Blake stuffs the mask into his pocket.

His first question is whether I want the rodenticide. That question comes first because it seems many of us do not want the rodenticide, and I don’t want the rodenticide. I’m making my first foray into professional pest control because of carpenter ants, not mice. The ants are so much smaller and tidier than mice, but mice I can at least capture. These ants, though: the obsidian armored, some winged, we see exploring our floors, are part of a larger, unimaginable, un-trappable thing, a nest or maybe a colony, an organism like a vast underground mushroom, a network, an idea, a virus.

In the basement, the attic, the main rooms, Blake attends to the windowsills, the corners, the baseboards, the doorjambs, with a flashlight and a big syringe of something he injects into cracks, in some pattern I can’t discern but which I assume is strategic. Then he does the outside, a slow, precise perimeter of the entire house, even beneath the deck, stuffing up some holes, ministering again to the sills, this time also wearing eye goggles as he applies a spray to finish it off. At the beginning, in the basement, curious and awkward, I watch him, but after that, I just listen, imagining, from another room, from inside, through a window.

Meanwhile, in town, a friend messages to confirm she has COVID, after all this—a suspected cold unmasked itself on the fourth day’s test, and, at risk, she’s already off to get infused with antibodies, to shield the cells, to stave off what wants to go further and further inside. To make a vast and expansive network of itself. A colony. A nest. Or at the least, a place to live and thrive for a while. For as long as it can last.

The carpenter ants, Blake warns me as he prepares to leave, will probably surge back, baited now by the delicious poison he has set out for them, drawn anew from any secret hideouts they’ve chewed through water-softened spots in this collection of boards we call our house. He has found one such spot beneath the deck where he crawled–because his job was to touch every part of this house that he possibly could—one spot we need to have taken care of, added to a growing list of tasks we don’t know how to accomplish ourselves.

That a thing as solid as a house could have such spots, could harbor such tender, slowly festering wounds you could push your thumb through, but had better not—isn’t news, yet feels sudden as a bombshell when Blake confirms in words what the last month’s daily reconnaissance of tiny, seeking scouts trickling across the hardwood floor was making plain as day.

I usually can’t recall my dreams at all; whatever fragments or sensations linger when I wake tend to dissolve very quickly. But recently I’ve remembered a few in which I forget to wear my mask somewhere, usually a restaurant.  In the dreams, I’ve stopped in, unplanned, with friends, and am seated and suddenly realize, panicked, that I’m not wearing a mask, that I need to leave, and I do, I just get up and leave. In my waking life, I haven’t returned to public indoor dining yet, haven’t returned to spending more than a few minutes indoors anywhere public without a mask. It helps that I still mostly don’t go to public indoor spaces besides the post office, the doctor’s office, the pharmacy, and, a handful of times over two years, my office on campus. After a year of remote teaching (2020-2021), I’ve been on sabbatical leave for 2021-2022. During this leave I have done some writing, some editing, a lot of reading, and a lot of driving. I have tried to take care, as pandemic has permitted, of some home-related tasks and maintenance, since I can usually be at home for those hours-long service provider “arrival windows.”  

I feel taken care of by Blake. He’s very good at the part of his job where he must explain things to people, like me, who think they understand more than they actually do. He has a good way of helping me understand, a way, not unlike that of nurses who have cared for me, of calibrating my attention, tuning me to just the right spot on a spectrum that stretches from blissful ignorance on one pole to full panic mode on the other. I am inclined to trust him, to believe the things he says, the tone with which he paints this situation, which is real, but not yet dire. And so for a moment, I feel competent enough, glad I called before it got out of hand. I called, they set up the appointment, and sent Blake, who stood a few feet back from the door I opened, holding a box rodenticide in one hand and a mask in the other.

As I write this scene, I remember that I opened my door to him maskless, as he stood safely distant, holding his mask so I could see it, as if to say something to me without words: I know there’s a pandemic. I know it’s real. I expect you might want me to wear this and I’m ready to do that. You’re not crazy. That’s the nature of what I heard, anyhow, the nature of what I read in that sign. I wish I’d been holding a mask, too, as my wordless answer. Or wearing one. I wish I had said something different in my wordless reply, though I suppose only Blake gets to say what I said, even if it’s not what I meant. Had my masklessness said something I didn’t mean to say? It’s over. Why do you have a mask? You don’t need that. I don’t care about your health. I think I might have been wearing my house — the luxury of its solitude and therefore perceived safety — like a mask, even as ants were maybe slowly destroying it from the inside out. The actual masks were right there, where they’ve been stationed for over two years now, right by the door, hanging on a peg meant for a coat you’d grab without thinking on your way out into the cold.

creativity

The Thousand

Black and white close up of a man's hands folding an origami crane with white paper
the fingers / of my brother, folding

In memory, cranes have wings –
but in the now, this one’s flightless,
its wings somehow folded safe
inside the wrinkled body.

Some folds seem familiar
like streets I’ve driven twice,
but with the inevitable wrong
turn, the incorrect fold.

My brother taught me to fold them
with a trained patience,
talked me through and showed
my fingers what his already knew.

I thought I’d fold a crane a day
until I hit the thousand –
transcendence, wishes granted,
the number of will and desire.

Like other plans, this one
never took shape, never fleshed
out past the mere bones
of an idea. Today, though,

I’m suddenly needy for it,
wanting to do it, or just
to know I know how to do it –
but I can’t call it back.

I forget so much: the wristed
trick of cat’s cradle, the folds
for hats, boats, and the squared-off
finger fortune tellers from school.

I learn. I forget. I remember how
my brother gave me a gift
of one winter afternoon when I asked
and he agreed and he was my teacher.

The thousand cranes I never
folded? The wish never asked for
or even imagined? Maybe today
they call to me, try to remind me

how to gather and fold –
this crease a beak, that fold
a wing – an envelope
that’s closed and open, containing

and becoming the wonderful news
of itself. The paper-thin whispers
of the not-yet-cranes, and the fingers
of my brother, folding.

(first published in Prairie Schooner, 2003)

About Writing, creativity, Poetry, rumination

Poems in hand

A poem sometimes comes, a draft

(a thin breath of air through a faulty window seal? a sip of ale drawn from a cask? a conscription of the unwilling? the distance from waterline to keel?)

and language itself is maybe the first transformation, and already it is wrong, the poem, it can never be right—and the body changes, and the world, and the understanding wrought between them, and I come to the poem a draft from a different direction, I change, I change, the language

is insufficient, a reaching, a lie, and so I change it, and I change it again, and then I change, and so I change it, and it changes me, and I change, I’m conscripted, poised always to dodge, eye on the northern border, and how did war come to the page where I meant nothing of the kind? my mean-ing wages itself, weaponized, against an impervious breeze—

I spent most of January at a very rural, isolated retreat, a place I love and have visited before. I brought with me some printed drafts I’d forced myself to write during three month-long daily “grinds” in 2021. I’d completed my commitments to write a poem or poem-like thing every day for those three months; then, for the most part, wrote nothing in between the three grinds; with a few exceptions I didn’t even glance at those drafts again until I printed them, didn’t give them any kind of deeper look until the retreat.

When I was finished with each printed forced poem draft, finished writing on it, crossing out, circling, adding – after I’d typed it into a word doc or given it up to the unfinished, the forgettable – I found myself folding the paper copies into cranes. My brother taught me how to do this years ago. This didn’t mean I was “finished” working on the poem, only that my work with that particular paper copy was over.

When I was on “work study” at the Vermont Studio Center, a dozen years ago, for a month-long writing residency, my job was to work breakfast and lunch prep – I can’t remember how many days a week, but not all of them. It was a very early morning shift, in the small dining hall/kitchen, and that early dark work shift was a boon that particular July, given the smothering heat wave that had settled over northern Vermont. My job included setting up/making the coffee and hot water for tea, putting out the coffee/tea fixings, topping off and putting out the cereals, setting up the breads at the toasters. The other piece of my job was prepping the salad bar for lunch, which meant that I had to duck into the walk-in cooler, frequently, respite from both heat wave and, as the other morning-duty worker got the hot entrees going, the blazing griddle and burners. I liked also that the work shift got me up and going so early in the day, because even if I had a totally unproductive, stuck, distracted failure of a writing day, I could console myself with the fact that I had helped feed us. I had made something. With my hands, a physical thing.

I spent some of the past pandemic year and a half folding and tearing and gluing and sewing paper. I was taught some new techniques. While I was doing it, it often felt more real or meaningful or grounded than writing poems did. Most of the poems I drafted felt forced because they were forced. But/and, that work sometimes seems all of a piece – the folding and tearing, the writing and even the not-writing. The threads, the glue. Even the forcing.

I made a list, called “options” at the beginning of the January residency. I tacked it to the bulletin board over the desk. I didn’t want to spend time having to think of something new to do or work on when I was tired of doing or working on whatever I was working on. I made a list that included different kinds of things – a handful of revision and writing projects, sure, but also writing letters and postcards, or doing counted cross-stitch, or listening to a podcast, or reading a book or article or literary journal issue I’d brought with me. I didn’t want to get hung up in potentially paralyzing “productivity” imperatives, yet I didn’t want to squander the incredible time and space I had been granted to “do my work.” I think this list was trying to be generous about pace and scope and rhythm and what might constitute work, or conditions that might make work rich, rewarding, surprising, sustaining, sustainable.

After I had folded a lot of paper cranes, I found the feather. The feather from a bird, a real bird, some kind of brazen flicker. Enough feathers spread across a section of the grass near the fenced in garden that it seemed like there might have been a squabble or an attack.

Thread. Revision having to do with picking up threads, or following them, or discarding them. Thread of thinking – like a theme. Here – literal thread – borrowed from spare skeins from the cross stitch amusement that was Not Writing (an other thing, a thing to do with my hands) – links the one work with the other. Or suggests a set of linkages. Like a trail? Like a leash? Like an umbilicus? From the folded words to threads to wings.

My old cigarette-smoking hands, my idle hands, my hands that wanted something more than a poem at hand, wanted a poem in hand, for folding. Some occupation. No more smoke-breaks for this iteration/version/draft of myself. Folding, sewing, reading, listening, staring, taking the cranes out into the landscapes. Re-reading via crane-folds.

I finished my planned cross-stitch project – a bowling towel with The Dude from The Big Lebowski on it – and had a set of small patterns but no big project left, so I experimented a bit with using random “wrong” colors of thread in place of the suggested colors in those small patterns. This made me remember someone I knew — a poet, actually — who did paint-by-numbers but instead of following the instructions, wherein paint #1 would be added to the sections marked #1, he’d use #1 to paint all the #7 sections, and so on. 

Transform, re-form, re-figure the paper, fold, press the creases, then press them against themselves. Fold new lines against the old, printed ones. Fold with the grain, fold against it. Consider and reconsider the materials. Follow part of the pattern, ignore part of the pattern. Recombine. Recycle.

Bring an edge closer, push what’s at the center to an edge, reconsider here, and there, scope and relation and perspective – one window, another window, edge and ledge –

COVID-19, Readings/Events, rumination

Books on the Road

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.

This isn’t an “official” little free library, so you can’t search for it on the LFL website, but if you’re heading south from Santa Fe to Madrid, it’s on the right, just past the turn off to the horse hospital.

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.

COVID-19, Student writing, teaching

Pandemic Souvenirs

The last thing I ever need is more mugs. 

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. 

A brown coffee mug with a logo for Surly Brewing Company
Image by Liz Ahl

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. 

A white coffee mug with an orange handle, with the all caps text "YOU'RE ON MUTE" and a red microphone icon with a slash through it
Image by Liz Ahl

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.” 

A photograph of a white coffee mug for "First Fire 2020 Plymouth State University," a package of clover honey "spoons", a blue "Panthers United" wristband, and an envelope with the word "Hi" written on it
Image by Liz Ahl

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.

A woman with long brown hair and glasses, wearing a purple shirt, speaks at a podium displaying four coffee mugs
Me reading a poem at the 2015 Plymouth State University “First Fire”

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.

creativity, Poems, Uncategorized

(Re)Visiting Bob Dylan on his 80th Birthday

Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan

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.

creativity

Hand Work: Practice & Pleasure

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!)

Brads!

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.

Trying out the volvelle

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.

scraps worth saving

Poetry

Celebrate National Poetry Month with a Great Deal from Hobblebush Books

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.

If you are looking for more poetry sources to beef up your personal library stacks, these last months I’ve been reading and especially appreciating poetry collections from Milkweed Editions, Graywolf, Sibling Rivalry, and Headmistress Press. Buy directly from the presses, or from your favorite local bookstore, or your other favorite local bookstore, or from Powell’s or Bookshop.org.

About Writing, Poetry, rumination

Grinding Out Poem Drafts

A wordcloud (made with Wordle) of my most commonly used words
in my poem drafts of this most recent Grind month.

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.

Poetry, Readings/Events, teaching

“The Poet’s Dream:” The 2020 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival (October 22-November 1)

In October 1986, I was a high school student in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and attended the first Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in the village of Waterloo.

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.