November 29, 2016

Variations on Self-Care

When I saw the advertisement for a "soup subscription," I thought Yes! Soup. This is the right time of year for that. After the elections, a local poet-friend sent a note to all in which our need to gather, vex, and rally was entirely summed up in the statement: "I want to make soup for you." We gathered together at her place on a Friday night, drinking wine and eating eggplant soup; and when the eggplant soup was gone, she made lentils. 

So I signed up--happy to support a local businessNot until yesterday did I realize this is a soup cleanse. Twenty containers, cued sequentially right down to time of day. 

Not gonna happen. But the good new is, soup! Fresh, handmade, vegan, meticulously labeled. Well, except for that one container...which by process of elimination contains either 1) Brazilian Black Bean, or 2) an elaborate assassination attempt. 

Option #2 would be a waste of the side of rice I cooked in shallots and garlic.

Writers are a vocal group on social media, and I've seen many pronouncements in which radio silence is equated to "self-care." On one hand, you have to get the oxygen mask on yourself before you can help those around you. On the other hand, taking care of yourself can't be your excuse to opt out of painful dialogues. You're doing nothing to complicate your privilege if you think of worrying as something you can put aside for a day, versus having it be an involuntary part of your existence. A lot of people are eyeballing panicky white liberals and thinking, Oh, now you're upset?

Soup. Sleep. A vase of $5 tulips that stand ramrod straight one day, and swerve like drunkards the next. 43-minute workouts whenever I can (which is exactly the length of one Chopped episode.) Petting my cat in the morning, when she curls up beside my pillow and stares out the window. The cranes are erecting a building in the adjacent lot, one beam at a time. They're the strangest birds she has ever seen. 

I read the manuscript for a neighbor's brilliant nonfiction book, which will be published in 2017. I renewed my Politics & Prose membership. I subscribed for another year to three different literary journals. In defiance of all practical logistics, I will be hosting thirty women writers for lunch at the Arts Club of Washington this Friday. I worked for few days straight on a soon-to-be-revealed creative project in celebration of Count the Waves' paperback release on December 13.

I made a few donations. I made a few phone calls. But there is so much more to do. I can do so much more. All of these gestures of self-care are important, but the truth is that I feel strongest--no, I am strongest--when acting out of concern for others rather than myself. 

I've never been very good at half-measures. I'm a perfectionist, drawn to dramatic outcomes and absolutes. If I have three hours' worth of work to do, I'll wait until I've got three hours free. That means letting a lot of free hours go to waste in the meantime, rather than logically doing an hour here and an hour there until the work is done. 

But that's not how advocacy gains a foothold. You show up, even when no one is there to witness it. You chip away. You pester. You celebrate the two steps forward even as you're taking one step back. You don't aim to be perfect, you aim to be present. 

Much of the past few years, for me, has been about articulating the particular political and social concerns I have in the world. (Not that "liberty and justice for all" isn't a good start, but you have to get specific.) If I want to look back on this life with any kind of pride, I have to shelve my distaste for half-measures for the privilege it is, and center advocacy part of my daily practice. 

At the very least, I have the time to spare that it would have taken to make soup. 

October 26, 2016

A Tale of Two Octobers

"I usually love October," I said, "but this one is really kicking my ass." 

She laughed. "...And it's only the first week of October, right?"

Oh, man. She was right. 

This is a tale of two Octobers. There is an awesome version of this October. I am thrilled to learn I've received an artist fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which will support work in the coming year. I confirmed that I'll serve as a Distinguished Visiting Writer in tandem with an early 2017 residency in Florida. I got to travel to Michigan and St. Louis for readings.

The trip to Central Michigan University, in particular, was amazing. I had two sets of home-hosts: first in Akron, Ohio, and then in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. I live in a one-bedroom apartment in DC, and I'm conceivably looking at a lifetime of apartments. So the novelty of an actual home is not lost on me, complete with front steps for pumpkins and porches on which to leave your wet umbrella. In Akron, we went out for spicy Thai food and stayed up to watch baseball, the wildcard playoff game; in Mount Pleasant, we home-cooked a dinner of chicken thighs, potatoes, and kale, and stayed up late drinking red wine and discussing regional identity, accents, and the variable "South."
There was a cage of finches living outside office I was using as a guest room, and I quickly came to love the white noise of their chatter. 

Jeffrey Bean (who everyone calls "Bean") is one of those poets who I immediately felt like I'd known forever. He's a passionate and beloved teacher, who trusted me with his undergraduate workshop for an hour-plus seminar on persona poems. The students were utterly on point with their ideas and interpretations. I spent an hour fielding nuanced, researched questions during an interview for a literary magazine. I got to read to a packed library. I read a few new poems. I signed copies of every book I've written; the bookstore sold out of I Was the Jukebox. Afterwards, we went out for cocktails and had some frank talk about poetry politics, conferences, and getting out there in the world. A woman who had attended the reading joined us, quietly picked up the tab for the table, and slipped out before we could even say thank-you.

The cider, coffee, and apples at this farm stand were so good that I stopped off twice. I bought spicy Michigan salsa and corn chips made in Detroit.

This is what I think of as prime October energy. 

But that's only one of two Octobers. In the other October, I got so behind on feedback for my own students that I wrote them letters of apology. In the other October, I've been waking up at 3:30 AM to do a round of emails, then grabbing 2-3 more hours of sleep after my husband leaves for work at 7 AM.  Half the time that then necessitates an afternoon nap. I missed an Arts Club members meeting, because I overslept. I missed an award ceremony, because I overslept.

I put together a 55-page application for a teaching fellowship that create some huge professional and creative opportunities. But if I get it, it would mean living in two places for nine months. So I'm both excited and terrified by the prospect. 

The outlet adjacent to the table I use as a desk has pulled partway out of the wall, so my laptop is perpetually on the edge of running out of battery life. 

I maxed out my entire family's data plan by accidentally leaving my phone's mapping function on during the drive back from Michigan. 

We are six appointments in since August, and our A/C units are still not working. Technicians will be be back on Monday. And this rate, it is now about heating versus cooling.

My husband suggested a Saturday trip to Eastern Market would be a way to lift my spirits. I busted a brand-new tire circling to park the car off Pennsylvania Avenue. 

I thought I'd missed the date of my mom's birthday, so I left her an agonized phone message on her actual birthday. I have not seen her in all of October. I have not seen my best friend in all of October. 

The box of paperback books from my publisher arrived but they mistyped the address so it was delivered across the street. The box was already marked RETURN TO SENDER in black marker, and the woman was resolute. I had to show my ID and beg.

Last night a friend passed along a gag gift, a mug that says "What Deadline?" and it took all my reserve not to burst into tears. 

I'm not cataloguing this because I'm looking for sympathy. (Though maybe empathy? I know your fall is going full-throttle, too.) These overextension moments are all of my own making. By hook or by crook, I will get through the next six weeks. I'm fixating on the handful of ways I'm coming up short versus the ways that (I hope) I'm being a good writer, teacher, and person. 

But, man. October is kicking my ass. I thought, "Remember when there was a bunch of poet-bloggers, and we all had these spaces in which we confessed the downs as well as celebrating the ups?" And I kind of miss that, so here I am. 

September 29, 2016

Student, Meet Author! (On Assigning Q&As)

I learned a lot, as a student, from reaching out to authors. While at UVA I worked on the staff of 3.7, a literary magazine that regularly interviewed artists and musicians; our big "get" had been Ray Bradbury. As a sci-fi / fantasy lit fan, I waited for two hours in line in order to interview Orson Scott Card upon the publication of EnchantmentI soon realized Card was a touch eccentric, after he referred to James Joyce as the "Pied Piper of 20th Century Literature." (Later in life, I realized he was worse than eccentric, he was bigoted.) He was also super excited, in a hush-hush way, about the potential casting of Ender in the movie version: the "unknown" talent of Jake Lloyd, who was about to debut in the role of a young Anakin Skywalker. Though the Q&A did not go where I expected it to, I learned from the experience. 

When I sat down with the poet Henry Taylor at Michael's on the corner in Charlottesville, our meandering interview--which touched on everything from clerihews and sonnets, to cancer, to his own mentorship by George Garrett--turned out to be a path that led me to American University for graduate school. I still have the tapes of that session. We ordered sandwiches and french fries and stayed in that booth for three hours; he insisted picking up the check.

Once at AU, I used an editorship at Folio to interview one of my teachers from UVA days, Gregory Orr. We had hoped to meet in person, but couldn't get the schedule to work. He had been ill--he was running a literal fever when he replied, he explained--after what had to have been a night of writing. As I opened my email and parsed through the dense, freeform blocks of texts, I saw the stirrings of what would become Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved. Of all the people I've studied with, I probably refer to Greg's body of theory toward craft the most. In part, my loyalty was born of that experience of reading through his raw, unedited replies to my questions. 

By which I mean to say: The season of students emailing for Q&As is upon us. I love hearing from students who have been asked to read my poetry or nonfiction for a course. I'm happy to answer questions via email (or, depending on the context, a Skype session with the whole class). This is a big honor and has, on occasion, created long-lasting correspondences. 

  • Awesome thing, pt. 1: In this age of social media, and given the number of authors who also teach and therefore have public / academic email addresses, it is more possible than ever for students to directly interact with contemporary writers. 
  • Awesome thing, pt. 2: Students get a lot out of it. Books go from being static, sometimes resistant texts to organic expressions of a personality at work. Hearing the "back stories" behind poems, in particular, can illuminate what previously intimidated. 
  • Awesome thing, pt. 3: Writers love hearing that our work is being studied, and that reading our work has sparked curiosity about the creative process. 

That said...I've seen what I can only describe as Q&A fatigue among the writers I know. Email is a big part of that. You're swimming in email. We are, too. What I LOVE about using email as the medium for author Q&As is that it counteracts the privilege embedded in needing physical access to an author. What I struggle with is that it can make a precious opportunity seem casual or worse yet, perfunctory. No one dreams of being someone else's homework. So please make sure your students go into this process fully prepared, and that they respect the author's time and voluntary role in this exchange. That means....
  • Students should include an introduction that gives their full name, grade, the academic institution they're affiliated with, and the assigning teacher or professor's name. Specify what work by the author has been read.
  • Consider requiring students to quote from 1-2 interviews that the author has already done, as part of the narrative of their assignment. This emphasis on research is an important part of journalism (and would be key if the student should take up a career in freelance profiles or interviews). This step also encourages the student to come up with fresh questions versus ones that are general and familiar.
  • Remind your students that it takes a lot more time to answer a question than to ask one. I'd rather get a half-dozen questions that I can answer in full, thoughtfully, versus a dozen that have me scrambling for time. If the student's best expression of enthusiasm is asking a plethora of questions (that's a real thing, I get it), invite the author to only reply to those questions that inspire an equally passionate answer.
  • Be sure your students give the author at least a week to respond, and that they state both their "in-house" deadline and the official / external deadline for the assignment. Students are often primed toward last-minute emails and 48-hour turnarounds; those of us they are reaching out to may not be, even if we want to help. This information should be in the original query, not in a follow-up.
Also: be sure the student writes a thank-you note (er, email). It's weird that has to be stipulated, but it does.  

Thank you, anyone who sees this and puts it in action with their students. If you want to come a knockin' on my door, I will welcome the conversation.