I'm happy to hide out at Virginia Center for Creative Arts in these waning days of summer. The first thing I noticed upon arrival was how green it smells--I love DC, but you don't get layers of flower, grass, and pine, nor so many butterflies. A frog that lurks outside my studio. There's a magnificent spider that I'm pretty sure is a brown widow, not a black one. I'm staying clear just in case.
Because this is my fourth time here, it's easier to slip into a rhythm: I enjoy being social at breakfast or at lunch but not both. I knew to bring my own orange juice, my own blanket, and a bottle of scotch. I'm trying to spend only an hour a day on email, isolated to the leather couch in the living room. I've got a stack of books and lit mags to devour, and W8 has a comfy reclining chair. I'm happy to see a number of friends listed as past occupants.
The first night I arrived (9 PM, after stopping off for dinner in Charlottesville), everything was absolutely dead quiet. I worried I'd be the only night-owl. Turned out everyone was just over at the Amherst County Fair, the first time they've had one here in over forty years. The next night, we adventured to the lake on Sweet Briar's campus to see a fellow's installation art (a prototype); another fellow read a story he'd written while here, and a third opened up her studio for an impromptu look at her paintings.
This, I thought. I've missed this. Although I've traveled quite a bit for poetry since I was last at VCCA, there's nothing like being here. Then, last night, I headed over to the fair.
I wish I could say this time is all about recharging creative energy. I have over 1,500 pages to evaluate (literally) of work not mine, some of which requires line edits. Yet this is also my chance to push-pin the pages of the fourth collection to the walls, and live amongst them. There's a distinct type of edit that gets done when I look at pages casually, skipping around, and compare adjacent shapes of poems. I catch redundancies of phrase I did not see before.
I'm still deciding three sections or four, and which poem will close the manuscript. But my resolve holds: this book is a book. I'm excited to tell you more about it soon.
I wrote a book this past week. Okay, to be precise, I finished it--what felt like a somewhat Herculean act of confronting every "TK" page in the collection (is it weird that I can sense, rhythmically, where poems will need to land? perhaps that is another discussion). I put the rest of my life on hold. I edited a handful. I rescued a poem from the abandoned archives via some drastic edits, wrote a prose-poem based on a field trip into the city, wrote a long one after a day's worth of immersive research, then wrote another short one, a kind of early-morning grace note.
This doesn't mean that much, in the overall scheme of things. Now I second-guess myself. Now I send to a few trusted readers to second-guess for me. Three sections, fifteen poems per section, 68 pages total; all of this is negotiable, of course, though it's comforting to find measures equal to Count the Waves and I Was the Jukebox, my previous two collections. I'll want to place a few more poems in journals, and I'll need to draft a precis--a 1-2 paragraph introduction that distill's the book's thematic focus and makes a case for why people might want to read it.
At the end of the month, I'm fortunate enough to head to Virginia Center for Creative Arts, push-pin pages to the walls, and live within the book's geometries. The time will feel stolen--departing the morning after my workshop for The Writer's Center ends, returning to DC the day before my American University class begins, and with University of Tampa work on my desk while I'm down there. But I'm going to make the best of things: hacking away on the page, reading voraciously, sleeping at odd hours, talking with other artists in the muck, wolfing down food without having to worry about the dishes (!), poeting. All that before I even think of sending to my editor in September. Who, in all honesty, might reject it.
This book's arcs are particularly interesting to me. I knew I'd be engaging history in the American sense, but I hadn't anticipated the significant passages of personal time within the text. I wrote my own poems about Southern food traditions, not knowing I would get to edit Vinegar and Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance. I have poems that celebrate being constantly on the road, but I also have poems that embrace hunkering down in Washington, D.C. I wrote poems that reference a grandmother in her life, then in elegy. I've included two golden shovels--both of substantial length, because I use the entirety of a Gwendolyn Brooks text--substantially different in tone, because I've witnessed a conversation evolving around what a "golden shovel" is defined as, and how it is used.
Am I writing poems with the political awareness I had in 2015? 2016? 2017? No. That awareness is always changing. So I think about an interlinear conversation between neighboring poems, between past and present. Usually I prioritize magazine placement, and I found a wonderful, generous showcase in Waxwing (with a few others queued up), but a third of these pages haven't been published and it might stay that way; they need context. They make me nervous. They should.
Still: I wrote a book. If there's poets out there who get deals in advance--with the comfort of meeting the deadline as a makeshift victory--I don't know them. My bank account was at $5.27 earlier this week, after rent and health insurance and groceries, and poetry probably won't change that. We venture forward based only on our inner drive, our treasured absurdity. I wrote the book I needed to write.