Hello friends, and Happy New Year!
So much happens in a decade.
One day I received a call in my college office from my brothers in the hospital sitting beside my father, dying suddenly, offering me the chance to say goodbye to him through the cell phone they held up to his ear, even though he was likely dead already. I listened in the muffled background as a priest administered his last rites.
Another day, my mother moved to Mt. Pleasant, and I have been enjoyed the privilege of spending lots of time with her and serving as her caregiver—even with the challenges, as she has broken both hips and suffered, with tremendous courage and grace, the decline of the body.
I received tenure and teaching awards at Central Michigan University, where it has been an incredible joy to grow continually in my love for teaching. So many incredible students–what a joy to read their writing, to see their visions and their hearts opening up on the page. What a privilege to be witness to their growth, and to encourage their deeper study of the greatest craft.
The Wellspring Literary Series that I host featured dozens of great poets and musicians and made for some beautiful evenings of art in our community.
I traveled to hundreds of towns, many around my beautiful home state, giving readings with so many other wonderful poets. A deep pleasure, every time.
I traveled to Ireland, a personal dream, which also connected me with the amazing world of Salmon Poetry, which has published my last two books. Thanks to Tom Lynch for his tips about getting around the country, and for extending the hospitality of his home there.
I became the Executor for poet Bill Knott, a poet hero, who died early this decade—and have experienced the tremendous honor and challenges of that role.
I lost two great lights to cancer: my great poetry light, Tom Lux, my mentor and friend, without whom I wouldn’t have become who I am or made it this far, and my dear and oldest friend Patrick Mahoney, whose huge spirit I think of often.
Inspired by my wife and daughter, I started painting, and found that to be a thrilling new pursuit. A new love.
I spent so many basking hours in the glow of my wife and children, who feed me daily with their light. So many hours of walking through the woods, my wife pointing out the herons and the eagles and the hawks, my daughter constantly singing and laughing and lifting me off the earth, my son reminding me of the great solid and factual world, sharing with me his ever-expanding knowledge. The joys of hearing our house filled with their piano and viola playing, theatre practicing. So much incredible light.
So many comings and goings–of new friends into our life, and of close friends moving away–so many times my old stone heart has been smashed open.
This is only some of the great all of it. Sadly, and seemingly impossibly, my memory only worsens. But I’m thankful for all the bittersweet of it–for all the heart remembers.
Oh, and we got a couple of kittens. And I realized I really love cats. Like really love them. And it feels really weird saying that out loud. That has been the biggest surprise.
Looking back on this decade as a writer, I’m filled with gratitude to have published three collections of poetry: Sheet Music (2015), Our Sudden Museum (2017), and Severance (2019), and these came with lots of hard work, hours of crushing self-doubt, and great flashes of luck. I was inspired by my new-found love of collaborations with composers, who have set several of my poems to music, including Joanna and Kennen White, David Biedenbender, Jay Batzner, Andrew Spencer, Evan Ware and the Yara Ensemble. I’m glad for my new close friendship with composer David Biedenbender, and look forward to collaborating more in the future. For the last 7 years I have been working on a new manuscript—another stylistic departure, which nears completion, though I have decided to set it aside for now, and maybe even ultimately abandon it, sparked by a whole new burst of different work leading me into a new collection. I continue to grow my intuition as a poet, to listen for slight callings, little reverberations taking me down new paths and old paths, good paths, wrong paths. I have learned over the years, a great trust–and how to keep that one small flame lit and protected, somehow, from the tearing wind of rejection, and mostly self-doubt. I’m most grateful for–SOMEHOW–and I really mean this–somehow finding a way, and in times in-between, to make work, to write, as this has been, unbeknownst to most, in between all the incredible professional and familial joy of my life, a very trying time for me psychologically, requiring loads of soul work–and the constant amazing support of my wife, who is the real spine of my life. This decade, for me, saw a huge and at times rather terrifying upwelling of unresolved stuff, other superimposed faces from my childhood looking back at me, and of course, the clarifying face of mortality peeking in for visits through the mirror. I think it’s pretty common at this bend in the road to be tested so, and Severance, in its subscript, and beneath its guise, is about this, among other things. In fact, I’m not surprised, the psycho-spiritual current so intense, that that book leapt out of the ordinary and into an imaginative flight to try to confront the dissolution and shifting contours of my identity. Thanks to a deepening of my buddhist studies and meditation, therapy, exercise, sobriety, and my family, I’m looking to enter this new decade in the best shape I’ve been in in a long time, physically and mentally, and I’m using this new energy to elevate, to open wider, to find higher branches, better views.
As is customary some good years, though, God Bless the down-swooping dark that has lifted me into a burst of productivity this fall and so far this winter. As soon as the leaves hit the ground, I was up in my studio, banging away at some new ideas, reviving some old dead drafts. Following the leap of Severance away from the ground, away from the lyric-narrative realistic mode, I vowed that I wouldn’t return to writing poems inspired by and about my life directly. I wanted ether and other. I wanted poems less bound, less real, more night, less day. Well, I lied, I guess. In the last few months I’ve written somewhere around 20 new poems, building on a body of highly formal poems, and some new autobiographical realism that takes me into even riskier psychological territory, in search of where my truths meet the world’s. It’s a delight to see the way the work has grown, as I pull new stylistic threads forward, bind them with some old-school forms, and let some poems hit the page with minds more of their own. That’s something I never would’ve done a decade ago, to let the puppets dance, free of me. I’m doing lots of things I’d never have done a decade ago. And I guess that’s the measure of change, of growth.
Trust and calm. Work and courage. These are some of this decade’s (and this life’s enduring) personal lessons for me.
Of course this is all to say nothing of the momentous and hurtling political train wreck and the daily horrors in our nation and on our burning planet. But 2020 forward–I’m looking deeper down in that good nourishing dark. That’s where the light thrives. It takes raw and bloody work to lift the stones. Mine and yours. All our hands and hearts.
Thank you–if you’ve read this. Thank you for being in touch, for reaching out. For listening, this year, this decade. Thank you for your kind messages about my poems, on social media, in email, in person. It’s lonely work and with little reward for poets like me, working mostly alone in the dark. The reward for me is the work, finishing each poem. So your handshakes and hugs keep me believing it all means something, all these stones I skip into the sea.
Thanks for going on the creative journey with me, for reading my poems. And I hope you feel the surge forward, uplifting you, too. —R