It is impossible to get my eyes around early Autumn. Try as I may, I can’t sink the beauty of it in me. It remains buoyant and bobbing and gold. Blatant. But the trees are undressing. I am voyeur. October is busy at prayer and wants me to know it. I can’t afford its light. I stand at the window saying someday. I’m all for the black stick sky and the grey. Weeks of whirling clocks and filing papers and dust. Weeks of air. And now for the grave and awkward mask again, the absurd flippers. Our Sudden Museum is out at presses. I’m taking stock of Severance. And I’m only just down the road of Man Carrying a Corpse. Winter and Spring I’m into the currents and will forget if I’m lucky: how to breathe. I will bloom late spring with two new books-to-be. Twice this month I’ll step into poems before an audience. As into an old boat. Into current and throat. To wear the worn song. Day into day now to tighten eyes and tongue. To breathe. To pin myself spread winged to the hours. I’ve been too much in the world and the light and it hurts. Time to hang a sign in my eyes. No visitors. Now to take to the stairs with a lamp. To do what I am here for. As always good night.
You step out your door for a moment to go to the mailbox, and boom. Your sturdy house that one moment ago was right there, is gone in a poof, as if zapped by a miles-high, space invader somewhere above the clouds.
So it feels sometimes for the poet whose manuscript has been rejected by a press.
And maybe a week later, zapped again. And then again.
But it’s not only the zap! that stuns. It’s the note in the mailbox, which, in most cases, is impersonal, if not a form rejection slip. There you stand amidst the rubble, beginning to pick up the pieces (if you’re insanely dogged and haven’t gone fetal) and you have no clue why, other than that you just purely suck and have no artistic future.
It’s got to be the order of the thing. Maybe I should move the last 5 poems to the beginning.
I bet that opening poem is just too new.
I haven’t published enough individual poems in journals. I knew it.
The cover letter must be off-putting.
I bet the judge knows the contest winner well. Or wants to.
This editor just doesn’t like poets with names like mine.
The manuscript shouldn’t be 51 pages. I should make it 52 pages. Even numbers are better. And 5 + 2 = 7, and that’s my lucky number.
Maybe My Funky Pajamas is the wrong title.
Fact is, we just don’t know, in most cases. We’re left to wonder (okay, obsess) about what is obviously so GodAwfulWrong with our poems, with our manuscript, with us. And if we’re not careful, these initial frustrations may lead to deeper emotional traumas, a crushing lack of confidence, even conspiracy theories of every imaginable kind about the cruelty of editors, the incestuous poetry publishing world. (Or so I’ve heard. Of course I would never sink to such levels of irrational postulating.)
Well, if you’re standing on a pile of rubble scratching your head, allow me to recommend the Colrain Manuscript Conference. Started and facilitated by poet, editor and teacher Joan Houlihan, this conference meets multiple times a year in varying (but always beautiful) locations. The goal in these brief but busy conferences is, of course, to help poets tighten the screws of their hopeful books-to-be.
Having a manuscript that I felt confident in but that been zapped a few too many times, I was excited to attend, and having just returned, I must tell you: it was well worth it. I knew the conference featured top-notch editors; I knew we’d be working on making our manuscripts better. But I wasn’t sure just how. Well, let me tell you—the work began a few weeks prior to the conference. I’d already been in deep with my manuscript, cutting and slashing, moving poems around, re-ordering. Then came the “pre-conference assignments,” that involved getting in much deeper by isolating what were, in my mind, the best and worst poems in the collection, considering the order, listing titles, writing in prose about the aims of the collection, and more. By the time the day of the conference came around, I was already exhausted, and holding a far better manuscript in my hands.
Then came the conference (!)—where for two days on gorgeous Whidbey Island, north of Seattle, my manuscript was scrutinized by the brilliant faculty, and the other poet-participants, and yes—by me, watching as new good holes opened in clumped-up sections, as poems I thought were less-than-great rose higher due to better placement, as weak poems fell away. The environment was good-edgy, everyone eager to get their money’s-worth, to trim and cut and slash and rattle their manuscripts into collections en route to publications. The participants were an exciting range of styles and experience, some newer to the art and/or publishing, others who had a book under their belt and were trying to publish a second, others who were veterans of the conference, but all of whom were passionate, hard-working poets engaged and persistent, hoping for a boost on the long road to publication.
And as for conspiracy theories about wizards behind the curtain or cruel editors with flamethrowers torching piles of manuscripts and laughing? Pure bunk. Here were editors and poets, in the case of my conference faculty (it changes conference to conference), who, prominent as they are, were some of the friendliest, most down-to-earth and most passionate readers of poetry I’ve ever witnessed, offering us a rare and pure transparent glimpse into their editorial process and the thinking they do—while reading our manuscripts aloud to the group—a process poets aren’t often privy to. They could be tough on the poems, on the manuscripts, yes, and thank goodness(!), but their insight was so staggeringly dead-on, their critical connections so complex and instantaneous, that, frankly, I caught myself gasping a few times. I gained a great deal as a teacher, too, and can’t wait to bring some of these new skills back to my students.
It was a terrific experience: editors at the same table with poets and busy with a mutual task—doing the micro-work of the poetry workshop on a more macro-level, widening (and narrowing) the lens, helping us to get a clearer picture of the book inside the manuscript, while also offering their insights and wisdom about publishing trends and giving advice related to the highly competitive world of poetry publishing.
I returned home with a manuscript that had been twisted and jostled, cracked and tweaked, but whose spine is now much better aligned. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some more editing to do, so I can get this latest draft in the mail soon.
Last night I mulled with friends the question of psychic abilities, specifically if it might be possible for one to either transmit or receive, either consciously or accidentally, the thoughts of others. I loved the idea, but, as usual, leaned toward the Big No. We also discussed the experiment–that the molecular structure of water could be supposedly altered by one shouting mean things at it, or by cooing to it. I love this thought, too. But No.
And today, as my wife and I walked through the cemetery (because what better place to feel more alive in your jogging shoes) we considered this same question, along with the question of whether it is possible that there are fields of energy so to speak–that we, as human beans, may have the power, perceived or not, to enliven or enervate. She, as a dedicated yogi, believes this without a shred of doubt; in fact, the practice of yoga is, among other things, a way to cultivate that very energy, that invisible field beyond the body, that my wife says extends 9 feet. (Big No said to her, always the logician–well, so, on days when my “energy” is “bad,” just stand 9.1 feet away).
I was willing to offer that I do truly believe that we have tremendous effect on the so-called “energy” of a space–considering I, for one, can, and have, driven a fat black stake with my mopes straight through the light of another’s blissful moment with my cynicism, and (though very rarely) vice-versa. This, however, I chalk up to non-verbal cues, the emotional waves we cause with our glances, with our body language. I have even dubbed it “sitting in the middle of the trampoline,” when one brings their dark psychic weight into a space, causing others to tumble toward them. And conversely, it seems, or at least it would follow logically, that one can be a lifter–that one can, with a smile, a joke, a brightness, LIFT those around them. Perhaps. And again, I lean (maddeningly) toward the palpable, the concrete, the physical realm of explanation–that we can effect each other’s moods, outlooks, moments–by the physical, verbal or nonverbal expression of our emotions. About that I have no doubt.
But can we cause quivers in the “energy”–in some supposed field–of a space, with our mind, our spirit, our psyche, our own energy field?
Again, I lean toward the Big No. Which is something of an “I Don’t Know” in disguise. Deeper down, it’s a Big I Don’t Know, but sometimes it’s fun to wield the Big No, like a little caveman thumping the Earth with a big No drumstick. I even sometimes like to point my Big No at the sky and shake it around.
Wing’d Muse moving my artsy little pen? Big No.
Psychic Energy? Fun idea, but No.
Crystal emanating a quasi-divine Kryptonite? Big No.
God watching over us? Lord forgive my Big No, but maybe No, or No, Maybe.
But what about prayer? What about the millions around the earth, in meditation? Imagine (ssssshhhh, Big No) the luminous waves of millions in meditation, in prayer, in hopeful contemplation?
What about the breath of a child, speaking to a tree–as I often did as a child (um and OK, maybe did recently: little yes) and believing–NO–knowing that tree is a willing confidant. Or that flower or butterfly. Or those who speak their troubles to the Wind.
Who am I with my Big No to say that doesn’t work? Maybe I need to stuff my Big No into my mouth until it sprouts a Yes tree.
A few hours ago, I read a Facebook status by my dear friend Charlie Brice, who wrote that last night his wife Judy was in so much physical pain last night that he decided to share with her one of my poems. He said it helped her, that it made Judy–if only for that short while, feel better. I was deeply moved by that. (But deep down, what did my niggling little Big No say to that?–Well, that’s simple, said Big No: it distracted her from the pain. There was nothing spiritual happening.)
Maybe here is where I draw the line.
I’ve never gone to the blank page to be frivolous (though frivolity better be a major ingredient), to fling words around until they make a shape. To write a poem for the sake of writing a poem. No. I go to the page–I write a poem because I have been stirred by enough poems to know that they make shapes of the air, and that those shapes enter the ear and the heart of the listener and the reader, and that they alter what’s down there. I have felt the glow of poems, have felt them get into my blood. And I hope my poems do the same for others. I spend a long time making poems–knowing if I find the right notes they might just make a song that will stir another, soothe them, rouse them. After all, I’ve seen the hairs of my arms stand-on-end after reading a poem, or listening to a song. I’ve felt, perhaps, my own molecules change shape while standing before a painting. Maybe have even felt the Light Around My Body stir.
So YES. Big Yes (for a moment anyway) to this Light Around the Body, to this Field, and to US, to the way we stir each other’s energy, molecule by molecule, whether by a glance, or by our breath, or by, here’s a thought: (Why Not, Big No?) a thought.
It’s a pleasant idea, anyway. And you know what they say about ideas.
Often in winter, the first stanza of Wallace Stevens’s terrific poem, “The Snow Man” pops into my head. “One must have a mind of winter / To regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow…”
So today I revisited the poem and it was wonderful to hold this perfectly packed ice-ball of a poem in my hands again. It is a brilliant piece and thrills me with each visit, with each re-reading.
Already this season has brought much snow and some brutal cold, and we have a long way to go. I hope, like Stevens’s snow man, I might find some way to be winter-minded, to merge enough with winter’s bare facts so as not to impose any of my cluttered etchings upon its blank canvases, in order to behold the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
Part of the perfect enigma of this poem is that Stevens seems to hint that we, not being Nothing enough as the snow man, may not be able to experience such an empty eye enough to see winter bare and true as it is, that we may not be able “not to think / Of any misery…”
But to be like the snow man, or to “have a mind of winter” suggests to me a slowing down, a stillness, a halt. I needed this reminder today, when I’ve been at such cross-purposes with winter’s quiet calm. I need to stand still and watch—to be a better listener in the snow.
THE SNOW MAN
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
-Wallace Stevens, 1921
Thanks to the packed house at Harmony Brewing Co. last evening in Grand Rapids who came out to hear the reading by Diane Wakoski, Patricia Clark and me. The beer was decent, but the poetry was better. It felt great to resurrect the Prophet, and to unleash his doomsaying over the crowd. Raucous and rollicking host Michael Sikkema runs a great show in that private upstairs room behind the bar–the Pints and Poetry Series, nearly a year old, is thriving.
Prior to the reading, I also thoroughly enjoyed some downtown record-hunting at Vertigo Records with my friend Jay. He scored some Fugazi and Cult. I bought some favorites, the debut albums of Okkervil River and The Rural Alberta Advantage, and decided to snag the new Bill Callahan, while I was at it. After Ye Olde Recorde Shoppe, Jay and I headed to Brewery Vivant, where we caught up with one of my favorite poets, the wonderful Linda Nemec Foster, and her husband, Tony. If you’ve never been to Brewery Vivant, make it your next dinner destination in GR, the beer is stunning, the food fantastic, and the atmosphere incredible; it’s in what looks like a mini abbey/cathedral, though I learned it is actually an old funeral home. The spirits are tasty, and the beer far from dead.
Grand Rapids: you Rock.
Here in mid-Michigan, it’s been the Autumn of Keats’s Ode: o’erladen, oozing, mellow-misted. On several occasions, running through Island Park, I’ve stopped because I’ve had to, just to take it in, the blaze of reds and golds, the swirling-down leaves, the leaves riding the back of the Chippewa River, so much deep blue sky, and of course those days of fall’s long dragging hem-trailing clouds. Everything feels a turning toward.
I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by so much poetry these recent days, and sometimes even of the written variety. My students continue to amaze me with their bravery to dive in and out of new territories, new forms. I’ve loved diving with them deep into the work of Vievee Francis, Matthew Olzmann, Catherine Wing, Dianne Seuss, Sean Thomas Dougherty. In recent days we were stunned by Sean Thomas Dougherty’s visit to the Wellspring Literary Series. Sean knocked us back into our bodies with his honest voice, his tough and sensual lyricism. After his reading, I had a great time with Sean and students at the Bird, shooting pool, then at home chatting with Sean and my wife late into the night.
A few evenings later, I was hugely fortunate to facilitate a reading by my mentor Thomas Lux, followed by a pilgrimage with Tom the next day to see Roethke’s museum and grave, then lunch in Saginaw, then dinner with my wife, Tom and Bill Knot back at the Fanning abode. Sitting with these two incredible American poets as they shared stories of other famous American poets from over the years, I had to keep picking up my jaw. It is an evening I will never forget.
Next, I look forward to a reading with Diane Wakoski and Patricia Clark in Grand Rapids on November 3 and a visit by Dianne Seuss to the Wellspring Literary Series on November 4.
It will be a busy fall and winter of writing new poems, of mining for some new work. In the meantime, I continue to send out my two manuscripts, hoping to secure a publisher for one or both of those. There have been a few tugs on the line and there are some silverfish out glinting in those currents.
I hope for you, whoever you are, and wherever you are, there has been such abundance, so much nectar in the hours.
Thanks to the great audience who came out for the first annual north45east reading last night, held at Art in the Loft, a beautiful wide-open gallery space in Downtown Alpena, with huge windows and a view of the lake. I was honored to read with such a lineup of poets, and lucky it was a book-buying crowd, especially as I drove the nearly 3 hours both to and from the reading. Though I didn’t need the confirmation of our state’s beauty, it was a gasp-inducing drive across the fields and forests of Northern Michigan. And I was lucky to not hit an elk or a deer on the way home, winding the back roads beneath the sprawling stars.
The event’s founders. Anne Bastow Heraghty and Joe Bastow, a brother and sister team, are Alpena natives who have returned to the town of their childhood and are working hard to stir up the poetry fire there. I hope to be fireside in that lakeshore town again as soon as possible. Thanks, Alpena!