Recently, my body wants to paint and write poetry and creative non-fiction. It does not want to play nicely with books and classes and teaching. It wants to spend late nights agonizing over words and words that come from me and nowhere else.
My biggest struggle this Spring semester has been to come to grips with the fact that it is okay to not “produce” in the way that is the most economically expedient to me. I do not have the energy to spend all of my time with my students and nineteenth century books and that is okay. I am dealing with marrying what I refer to as “the two selves.” For me, that is the “academic” self and the “creative” self. The reality is that these two selves are not really all that different. I cannot do one without the other. And so, feeding the self that is hungry (that is, my creative self) is the best thing that I can do for me right now.
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Although I am eschewing New Year’s resolutions on principle, I have been making an effort to be a more engaged member of the contemporary literary community. So, to that end, I have been trying to make it a point to read more poets and authors that are publishing today. So, here is a short list of some of the collections, blogs, and magazines that have really moved me this month. As a disclaimer, the blurbs are really my uninformed opinions. As I generally work with novels, I experience a poverty of language around poetry, so I can really only tell you what I feel.
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (2018) by Terrance Hayes, Penguin Poets, $12
You know when you grab hold of a book or collection of poetry and you just have to carry it everywhere? That’s how I feel about Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.It has literally been in my backpack since I received it in the mail and won’t be going anywhere soon. Hayes’s poetry grabs you with its obvious music and attention to both classical and contemporary ways of knowing. It is gripping, visceral, and important in ways that are elusive at first. I love Hayes’s urgency and authenticity and think you definitely will too.
Chapbooks! Everyone should be buying chapbooks. Especially from fabulous presses like Glass Poetry. Amanda Meister’s collection was my most recent acquisition and I read it all in one sitting. Meister’s work is simultaneously intimate and profoundly measured, balanced between precise couplets and devastatingly raw language like:
Best case scenario I wake to find no one tried// to hold my hand and no one died.
Meister’s work is the kind of polished that most poets (like me) aspire to be.
In the spirit of full disclosure, Barren is one of my favorite new literary magazines. It is also one that has recently accepted some of my work (Hooray!). The editors tend to favor raw, devastating reflections on life, its traumas, and its triumphs. In particular, I recommend taking a look at Aaron Householder’s creative non-fiction entitled “Mud Crusted,” which is a heart-wrenching reflection on the loss of a child. I also suggest taking a look at Anindita Sengupta’s “Coriolis” and Christopher Nielsen’s photography. These are just a few suggestions from an issue that is rife with literature worth diving into.
I love Split Lip Magazine in general. The editors take on a lot of experimental forms of writing that I generally love. This shout out goes to one piece from their January issue in particular, though. I am so taken with Kat Moore’s “When god is a man inside my mouth.” Moore’s use of the unusual form of a list perfectly mixes poetic convention with prose that truly expands the perimeters for what Creative Non-Fiction can be.
I have been really enthused and impressed by the breadth of coverage on Olivia Epley’s Blog, Millenial Girl, Interrupted. Epley examines the many armed monster that is dealing with mental illness and the institutions associated with mental health care and its many forms. The posts are derived both from Epley’s personal experience and external research and really delve into both the visceral and intellectual experience of mental illness and neurodivergence. For anyone interested in contributing to a public dialogue around mental illness, this blog is a must-read and must-follow.
I was at a conference recently and one of the presenters pointed out that one of the ways to identify the presence of trauma or, more specifically, sexual trauma in a personal narrative is by looking for the moments where the narrative freezes. Where the voice goes cold or omits. Where the details become vague when they once had been deep. That’s where you see trauma rearing its controlling head.
This observation struck me for its poignancy and I also realized that the same could be said for me. Discovering that I have great difficulty writing about my own traumas was a hard pill for me to swallow. Writing is my process of stress release and to suddenly hit such a huge block around experiences that are such an enormous cause of stress made me feel like my outlet had failed me. And maybe, in many ways, the writing that I was doing had.
I am a poet at heart and even when I sit down to write out my experiences in prose, I find myself employing the same structures that I use in poetry to a paragraph form. I wanted to be able to write my trauma like a linear narrative– a reporting– a linear narrative that will help me pick through the dry rot the trauma has created in me.
Finally, I realized that I can’t write a linear narrative because there isn’t one. That is not how my traumas appear to me. They appear in movie clips and words and smells and feelings. They are dreams of a past life and sensations in the present me. I can’t force them to exist as anything other than they are. And if I am going to release them I have to do it on their terms.
So, I started writing my trauma in sensation and color rather than reportage. I am not a journalist of my own life, so I can talk about the way that the air tastes and the grease in my hair. And I don’t have to lie and say that I remember this face or that. I can just release it from my chest as it is and then I can rest.
Now, my purpose for this meditation is not to suggest that my experience of trauma writing is ubiquitous. I just write it to say that it is okay to not have any words for the way you feel or experience. Sometimes our traumas exist in the gaps and we can only use the voice that we have to free them.
Treat yo’ self. Take some time for you. It’s self care! There is so much out there about the importance of self care. A quick Google search has you drowning in “ten easy self-care hacks,” “how to practice self care without spending a dime,” and “Taking time for you is important.” There’s also a billion and one think pieces on self care for people with mental illness. Particularly people with depression or anxiety, but as those of us who struggle with mental illness in vast and complex forms know, self-care is a project that can often seem daunting. It can even cause secondary guilt and anxieties around not practicing self care enough.
So, I am putting on my best Professor McGonagall voice and shouting, ENOUGH!. Instead, let’s come together and cast little spells, give ourselves what we need and not what we think we should need. Does that sound vague enough to you? Good. Casting self care spells is like a horoscope. These are simply skeletons. Words– lines, that you will fill with you and all of your beauty and all of your longing and all of your vast, complex, emotional variety. But it’s a secret, so keep it close. Hold it with you as you push through your days and just know that I, and others like me, are with you.
The “Taking on the Day” Spell: You did it. You opened your eyes, the day is here. You are in bed with yourself, your partners, your trusted pet. But you feel heavy and exhausted. You are unsure of how you are going to slog through another one, like there is some sort of anchor around your ankles. So, you cast a tiny spell. Sit up, sit up, sit up, you mumble to yourself or repeat in that dawning mind of yours and, like pulled by some ethereal string, you do. And then you make coffee, make coffee, make coffee or take a shower, take a shower, take a shower. And you listen to your body and you take on the day one step, one task, one little spell at a time.
The “Overwhelmed” Spell: If you are a student and a teacher like me, you get to work and realize that you have four seminar papers to write, an article to revise, and fifty papers to grade and you feel your chest start to tighten. It feels like there are mountains of paper piling on top of you, even if they’re not due for several weeks. And that’s okay. You just need to feel okay. So, again, you cast a tiny spell. You steal away to an office, a bathroom stall, a couch, someplace a little quieter. You hold a small object in your hands and, just for a moment, you let it borrow a piece of your heart. You let it tell you that you are going to take it one task at a time. That you can complete it. That the doors are not closing in. You stop telling yourself you are crazy and take a few moments to breathe. And then, when you are ready, you take back that piece of your heart and you walk back into your day.
The “Stuffing Food in Your Mouth” Spell: You get home at 6 p.m. and you are exhausted. You just want to sit on the couch and watch TV or maybe crawl underneath of your covers and go to sleep. But you haven’t eaten yet and you are not sure that you can. You don’t have the energy to make dinner and you don’t have the money to order out. So, again, you cast a little spell. You stand in your kitchen and try to remember all of the grains in your cabinets, the fruits, the vegetables, maybe meat if that is your thing. You catalog them and wait for one to sound right. Maybe its some cheese or an orange or a pile of rice. Whatever. You did it, you envisioned that thing and you pulled it into your hand. And you chop it, boil it, or eat it whole. Eat it cold or hot. Sit if you need to. Listen to your body singing or moaning, but knowing that each little bite is feeding it. And feeding your spirit too.
These are just a few of my little spells. The point is that self care is not this grand act of pampering yourself or some heroic feat of scheduling. It can also be quiet, careful, loving, nurturing. It is you taking a quick moment to celebrate your ability to do one task at a time. To inhabit the present moment. And that is a magical act too.
So, one of my favorite things to have with me when I am writing or feeling unwell is tea. I keep a glass jar filled with loose-leaf tea in my kitchen. You know, next to the all-important coffee and pasta. For those of you who need something calming, here is my favorite recipe:
Equal Parts of Each:
Peppermint: Dried peppermint is amazing. It settles your spirit and your stomach and it smells amazing.
Chamomile: This is actually a pretty classic combination for stomach upset, but as we all know, chamomile is the best floral for relaxing.
Now, here are some recommended additions (not all at once– just pick the ones you like):
Raspberry Leaf: Extremely earthy tasting and smelling, but great for period cramps, anxiety, pregnancy, and all-around uterine health
Ginger: Who doesn’t love a good spicy tea? Plus, ginger is a natural anti-inflammatory.
Passion Flower: Half floral/half earthy. Will help soothe an anxious mind and also lull you to sleep.
Of course, these are just suggestions, if you are interested. If you don’t want to deal with shopping loose leaf, I really enjoy Mighty Leaf teas. They are pre-packaged (although, admittedly, with too much packaging) and still whole-leaf.
It’s really difficult to find something to say when everything feels so important. How do you write about the internal processes of working through the publishing industry when it feels as though the world around you is falling apart?
The truth is, it is all important. Literature and writing, in all of its forms, is still a primary means through which we share our humanity with each other– and I think we all need a little more humanity right now. So, in light of that, I want to share a major drawback that I face working through this process of pursuing my own writing.
I have only recently started to hit the ground running with publishing. I wrote a novella (fiction) and poetry chapbook this summer and have been working on getting individual pieces into the ether of online and print lit pubs. I have, thankfully, been pretty successful immediately– a feat, which, I must admit, feels a little like someone has shot me with the luck arrow. But there are still these core issues that I struggle with each time I send a child in to be judged by a magazine:
The feeling of inadequacy: No matter what. No matter how long I have worked on a poem or short story, no matter how many acceptances, I still feel as though I am a fraud. That this was all an accident. From perusing the internet, I understand that this is a normal phenom for writers. I hate it, would like to uninstall it, but *shrugs shoulders* oh, well. I am not sharing this because I have any particular solution. This isn’t an inspiration blog. More just to tell you that you are not alone and that the voice in your head that is telling you that you are not good enough is not real.
We are all just floating around in space, trying to find meaning. It’s easy to get weighed down thinking that you should be doing XYZ right now. You know, by that or by the massive typewriter that you’ve been carrying around to make yourself feel legit. You are legit. You did the thing. You are doing the thing! Keep going!
You are wanted. You are loved. You are worthy. Look at your friends and family and say that to them regularly. You are wanted. You are loved. You are worthy. Send your loved ones a text in the middle of the night. Give them a call and ask them to lunch. When they cross your mind, consider it a sign, and let them know that you are there, with them.
When a celebrity dies of suicide, there seems to be a traditional barrage of think pieces on the nature of suicide, the hotline numbers sufferers of depression might call, desperate pleas that loved ones might seek help if they need it. But seek help from who? From the stranger at the end of the 1-800-WE-CALL-THE-POLICE hotline number? From the psychiatrist that they cannot afford? At the appointment that they don’t have the energy to make?
What if, instead, it was you? What if, like someone adjacent to a person suffering from terminal disease, you brought them a basket of the things they needed, held them while they cried, or memorized a Jerry Seinfeld comedy routine and barged into their apartment with it like Kramer?
Emotional labor is hard. It is especially hard to perform for someone who does not have the capacity to reciprocate. But sometimes, instead of reciprocation, we need to assume that we are paying it forward— that when that person’s illness is in remission, they will be a soldier for you, that the radical vulnerability that you practice is mutually beneficial. Depression can be wild, all encompassing, and crushing. It can make a person feel sub-human. It can make them feel unworthy of your help, of your labor.
To that end, I suggest the “My 3” app, instead. It helps you set emergency numbers of people who are safe for you to call in crisis. People who will support and listen to you. People who will send you messages telling you that you are loved, you are wanted, and you are worthy. It can be found and downloaded here: http://my3app.org/. To those living with folks suffering from suicidal ideation, please try to just be a member of the community. Be a quiet, meditative listener. Witness your friends, do not surveil them. Validate their pain, acknowledge it as real and surmountable. Offer to help them get through it. Do it together. You are wanted. You are loved. You are worthy.
I chose to cover the tattoo I got for him with a poppy. A big, red, opium-producing poppy. Wikipedia told me that poppies were symbols of remembrance. I knew I could never forget. I saved up the $400 from my pay checks at the makeup store while I researched the best artist. When I made an appointment and came in for the consultation, he told me the cover-up would be difficult. The tattoo was all black and extremely well-done to boot. So, he would have to put it under a leaf. “No one else will be able to see it, but you will always know it was there,” he told me.
The artist was a big white man with full sleeves and gauged ear lobes. We smoked the same cigarettes and listened to the same, old-ish rock and roll. He printed photographs of poppies off of the internet and then free-handed an outline in highlighter onto my back. I gave him the go-ahead and he started to outline it in black. It would two more hours-long sessions to fill it in. It would take months for it to properly heal. But I would never forget— that underneath of that euphoria-producing poppy, underneath it’s thorns and bright green leaves, was his mark, his rings, his promises. When I look in the mirror, I can see them— dark and obscured, a turn of the light, but they are there nonetheless.
I find myself sitting down to write, much like I am now, and getting lost in the minutia of what I am trying to say. When there are so many tiny, beautiful things that I would prefer to write about, how do I put together a story?
In that way, I understand why I find poetry to be the vastly easier medium. It captures a moment so clearly and in a way that I could never do in prose. Although, I suppose my written voice may be getting a tad better.