First Book, First Reading

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Oh, hi. It’s me again. Surfacing after months of quiet here on the blog to say, I made a book, and now it’s a real and beautiful object in the world, and I’m thrilled.

Rupture, Light is a chapbook just published by Finishing Line Press. It’s a collection touching on themes of loss, faith, and identity, often through the lens of my experience as a mother. These are poems I wrote and revised beginning in 2011, and so they reflect life experiences from graduate school all the way up through the births of my two children. For about four years, I revised and submitted the manuscript again and again as time allowed, against the backdrop of bearing and raising my kids, healing from injury and chronic illness, returning to work and redefining my purpose and identity in the wake of the upheaval of motherhood.

When I was pregnant with Robin, I felt a powerful wave of energy coaxing me to just get this book out there, one way or another, before he was born. I knew that becoming a family with two kids would be a major transition, and I wanted to sort of clear the decks– creatively and logistically. On a practical level, having already come through the babyhood of one child, I knew the level of focus and energy needed to pursue publication wouldn’t be available to me for at least a year after Robin was born. And on a creative level, which was the more powerful motivating force, I felt that I would not be able to write new poems until these poems had arrived safely in the world, honored and amplified in the way only a “real” book can.

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Following Sky’s birth in 2015, I had abruptly stopped writing poems, and had begun instinctively to write long-form essays, something I’d never done with much confidence or inspiration prior to that. I’m still puzzling over the shift, which has remained. Firstly, at least for me, it that even though they are technically “shorter,” crafting poems requires a greater level of attention, presence, and quite frankly time than does crafting prose– and needless to say those things can be in short supply when you have young children. The same goes for reading poetry. Sure, you can whip through a collection of poems in a couple of hours, but it takes months, sometimes years, to really absorb a collection’s message and integrate it into what you currently think you know about the world. For me, the same is not usually true for reading and writing narrative nonfiction, and so I think I’ve naturally gravitated to a form that allows a little more flexibility during this busy season of motherhood.

All that to say, I needed to get these poems out into the world so that I could stay “current” with where the creative spirit seems to be leading me. Perhaps now that this book has arrived, and is offering me opportunities to read my poems aloud and be among Portland’s poetry community, poems will begin to come to me again.

I have dreamed of writing and publishing since I was about ten years old. This little book is a chapbook, not a full-length collection, which can be seen as a first step into publishing for an “emerging” writer, and can also be a beautiful way for an “established” writer to showcase a small group of thematic poems, or poems that don’t seem to “fit” anywhere else. This is all publishing-world stuff, and so at certain points in the process I’ve wrestled with feelings of being somehow less than a “real” writer, with this first book not being a real book. It’s a good wrestling that mirrors a theme in my personal growth these last few years, as I’ve learned to let go of old ways of thinking in order to become more fully alive.

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I want to share how this experience of fruition has and hasn’t lined up with how I thought I’d feel, and what I thought was significant about publication.

Finishing Line Press accepted my manuscript Rupture, Light in April of last year, right around Easter. A few weeks later, I had a major flare-up from a previous car accident that sent me spiraling into the worst pain of my life– constant, chronic neck and arm pain that didn’t relent until around mid-July and didn’t fully clear until late August. As I went to multiple appointments, managed medications, and struggled to keep up with my children, I was simultaneously putting together materials for producing the book, including trying to finalize cover art. I couldn’t read, write, or spend more than ten minutes at the computer without excruciating pain, so this was challenging and confusing. It was strange to be pulling the book toward reality at the same time that my body was pulling me toward a future I didn’t yet recognize– one I wasn’t sure would even include writing, which was terrifying. I lost my grant-writing clients and began to seriously consider other career options, as desk work was suddenly cast in a different light by the diagnosis of a bulging cervical disc and severe foramenal stenosis.

Minute by minute, day by day, I inched closer to healing and the book moved closer to completion and my old narratives about who I am continued to disintegrate. It was a surreal, disorienting time.

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Fast-forward to last week, January 17th, when a nondescript cardboard box arrived on my front porch. I had told my 3-year-old daughter that my books would be arriving soon. My daughter is just getting old enough to understand that I am a writer, and she is as curious and passionate as I am about books and learning. So she was as excited about the books’ arrival as she might have been about Christmas.

That day, I had just learned about the death of Mary Oliver when Sky raced into my room yelling, “Mama!!! Your books are here!!” Together we sat on the living room floor and opened the box, and there was my real book, my first book of poems, right there in my hands, and meanwhile Mary Oliver was dead. The poet of my childhood and adolescence– the poet who had inspired me at a young age to pursue poetry as a vocation– had slipped from the world. It was again a strange and surreal mix of emotion.

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Last Saturday, January 12, I had the great pleasure of reading from Rupture, Light, at Mother Foucault’s Bookshop here in Portland, alongside two talented and funny and warm women and poets: Kristin Berger (Echolocation, Cirque Press) and Carey Taylor (The Lure of Impermanence, Cirque Press.) I had read with Carey in the summer as part of the poetry series Kristin organizes at our local farmer’s market. It was fun to read with both of them on the opposite side of the year, to go from wide blue summer skies to the insular world of a bookshop on a dark winter’s night.

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Kristin’s work is stunning– it’s direct, urgent, unapologetic while also speaking the language of the body, weaving in strands of the everydayness of human experience, with the necessary dry humor that requires nowadays. Echolocation floored me. It’s one of the best collections I’ve read in a while. Granted, I’ve definitely not been reading nearly as much poetry lately as I used to, but I think that further emphasizes the success of this book: it was human enough to overcome my strange resistance to reading poetry (“I’m so tired. Can I focus enough to read poems right now?”) and passionate enough to sustain my interest from page one. It was a pleasure to hear Kristin read from her book.

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The Lure of Impermanence, Carey Taylor’s first book, is on my bedside table right now. I’m enjoying its irreverence and momentum. Carey does some really amazing things with imagery in her work, especially color, and I loved listening to her read. She’s a former teacher, and so she has an easy yet authoritative presence, a way of inviting listeners right into her poems that makes you feel like you’re there with the poem’s speaker. She is just as warm and welcoming in person, and meeting her has been one of the great gifts of this new experience of publication for me.

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I really loved getting to share my own poems with the people who showed up that night. The room was packed, and there was an energy of deep listening that really touched me. I met a fellow poet named Phil, who wore a broad-brimmed hat and sat listening in the front row with his eyes closed and a gentle smile on his face. My parents and my sister were in town for my son’s birthday, also the 12th, and my husband and four of my close writer friends were there. I’m not sure you could ask for a more affirming space to read. I felt relaxed and happy and like I could speak from my heart as I talked about the origins of each poem.

I’m deeply grateful for the chance to do this in my lifetime– to make poems, to make books, and to read with and for others. I hope I get to write many more poems (and essays and maybe even fiction) and bring many more books into the world.

Categories: Art in Community, Published Writing, Work I love, Writing While MommingTags: , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments

  1. Katie Brewster

    Melissa,
    Thank you for sharing your story of your journey to writing Rupture, Light.
    I found you through Callie Feyen’s post on TSP.
    Looking forward to reading your poetry.
    Katie

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