written in community during renee long’s write for joy challenge
I always admire poets who paint a vivid, compelling picture of a setting or situation that seems, on its surface, to be “about” one thing– but through the smallest inflections and details, suggests something deeper. Carey Taylor is one of these poets, and her new collection The Lure of Impermanence is full of poems like this.
In “Pomology,” we have only one line to anchor us in the unmentioned story– “morphine drips”– while the rest of the poem gives us a tender portrait of the speaker’s father’s passionate knowledge of a certain kind of apple. He is telling the nurse, in detail, about the apples’ “low disease susceptibility,/ how they are foolproof really,/ reliable, well balanced,/ and sweet,” while his wife lies in a hospital bed. He has just asked the nurse “how long before his wife can go home,” and the unanswered question hangs in the space between the lines of the poem, telling us all we need to know.
Impermanence– what is brief, mortal, transient, uncertain– is like that. Tricky in its hidden obviousness. There at the end of a life, a sentence, a moment, anything really. Expected– and yet always wholly unexpected.
“Arrivals and Departures” is a lament of the world continuing, cruelly, after the death of a loved one. The poem accuses “the cottonwoods in the ravine” of continuing to blossom right in the face of a friend’s quiet grief. Outrageously, “the ferry in the harbor moaned/arrivals and departures,” a loud reminder of what is both ever-changing and constant. Yet there are also markers of mortality that don’t hurt– “hope on a stem/ in the name of trillium and iris.”
This double-possibility, this tension, is the thread weaving this collection together. The poem of lament stands beside the poem of celebration and gratitude. The natural and the man-made world are full of reminders of impermanence, and they are both luminous and terrible. These are strong poems, rich in color and imagery, peopled with both the familiar– the faces of neighbors, tea kettles, socks– as well as the mysterious: gemstones, airborne observatories, earthquakes.
I loved this book for the way it offers language for holding the confusion of life’s experiences together in cupped hands, not trying to explain or deny, but not giving in to despair either.
I met Carey last summer when we both read at the Lents Farmer’s Market here in Portland, and we read together again this past January. She’s a talented reader, full of warmth and humor, and it’s wonderful to hear these poems aloud. You can hear her read from The Lure of Impermanence this Saturday at the Inland Poetry Festival in Washington, and follow her here for more of her writing and events.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last fall, I received the enormous gift of an extended conversation with poet Julie L. Moore, facilitated by Ruminate Magazine.
Here is Part 1 of the series “Creative Lives,” a slightly edited version of our email exchange in which we discuss the highs and lows of pursuing a life in poetry.
In Part 2, we discuss writing community and the poets and writers who have shaped us. And in Parts 3 and 4, we talk about the process of building a collection of poems, and how we respond as poets to the aching, changing world around us.
I hope you enjoy this conversation on poetry and the creative process.
Photo via Unsplash
Here’s my latest short introduction for Image Journal‘s Poetry Friday column. Marjorie Stelmach’s poem “After” is a tender and nuanced meditation on grief.
I love this weekly showcase of beautiful poems from the Image archives, and I especially love the challenge of writing the briefest of reflections on a poem. It’s getting me back into the habit of close, sustained reading that I cultivated during graduate school. Writing these intros on deadline is like making mini-annotations. I’m grateful for the invitation into the worlds of these poems.
My daughter was almost one before I began writing again. Her early months were all-consuming, and I simply didn’t have the spare energy to either write or worry about not writing. It was late May when I decided it was time to jump back in and figure out where I had left off. Staring at the haphazard pile of drafts and notebooks in my closet, I swallowed a nervous lump in my throat.
Where do I start?
I want to share some of what I’ve learned as I’ve stepped back into a regular habit of writing. Please note: this is not a how-to. I read so many how-tos during the anxious months of pregnancy and early motherhood, I now recoil at the very sight of a how-to infographic. The last thing any of us needs, parent or not, is another way to feel anxious, or another list of things to do.
As a parent and as a writer, I like learning from others and feel grateful for the people and resources that have helped me along the way. Friends texted us when we were struggling with our daughter’s sleep. Eula Biss’s On Immunity and a big fat history of vaccines helped me grapple with all the fear out there about immunizations. The moms and babies in my breastfeeding support group have shared snacks and hugs and recipes and tips with me as we each made our own way through our little ones’ first year.
So what I want to share here is, like so much of my parenting style, a big collage of trial and error and learning from others. It’s what is working now, but I know I will need to stay attentive and active so that I can respond to the changes in my writing and my family. That’s probably the biggest take-home here:
For me, reviving my writing practice has meant tuning into what works today, and taking one step at a time. It has meant being fierce—I will find time to write today because it’s important. And flexible—I will accept the amount and quality of time I have today, even if it’s five minutes, and trust that both will grow and deepen with time.
My goal is to finish a collection of poems, and write prose for paying markets, while continuing to be the primary caregiver for our daughter. Here are five things that are helping me as I reach for those goals.
1) I’m reading more, especially about writing.
It’s really, really easy to collapse on the couch when my girl naps and zone out on the Internet. This is what Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art, calls resistance. It’s easier to fritter away my time on Pinterest, in the name of researching dinner recipes or garden hacks, than it is to feel my fear about creating. That fear is currently tuned into my sense of time having accelerated since becoming a mom. I’m afraid I won’t ever have enough time to complete the projects I really care about, so I don’t even begin. You know what? It’s true. I don’t have enough time. I have slivers and bits and scribbled-on margins of time, littered all over the day. But I feel way more inspired and motivated when I use those margins of time purposefully. Now I try to sit down and write, or I read– especially about creativity and career. These are the books I’ve found most helpful so far:
Next step is learning how to be kind to myself when I choose Pinterest or Facebook or some stupid slide-show (Kid Stars of the 1980s! Where Are They Now?!) instead. Your tips requested!
2) I map out the weeks and months.
This spring, I signed up for an 8-week Fit4Mom class. Every Monday and Wednesday night for eight weeks, I worked out at 7:30. Period. When I finished those eight weeks, I felt great and saw a difference. I thought, Why not do this with writing?
Now I put writing time and deadlines into my schedule. To keep track, I use the free Monday Calendar app. I also have two whiteboard calendars: one on the fridge for family life, and one above my desk for writing deadlines.
3) I joyfully hitch my wagon to other wagons.
If you are a new parent, and especially what they (so unimaginatively) call a “stay at home mom,” you’re probably well-acquainted with loneliness. Writing can feel lonely, too. I love being able to connect with others about our writing goals and projects– sometimes while we push our kids in swings or pack them into the backpack for a hike.
From time to time, I connect over Skype with a couple of incredible women from my MFA program. We exchange work and critique via group video chat. The technology is hit-or-miss, so I am on the lookout for ways to improve that side of things. But I love the magic of suddenly being reunited with these powerful, compassionate writers. It still feels like sci-fi or Charlie’s Angels to me.
In the spring, a friend included me in a 40-day accountability email exchange. She had a goal and she just wanted a handful of people she was close to to “listen in” on her progress. I was so deeply impressed with her vulnerability and her courage. I read every one of her emails and rooted her on to success. What I learned was that it wasn’t about completing a task perfectly– it was about discovering more about herself and what she valued. So in August, I asked her to join me in a 30-day poetry challenge. I wanted to do something that scared me, like she had. It was scary. Some days I hated it. But I ended up with about ten poems I think I might actually be able to do something with– and that’s more than I’d written in the past two years combined. Holy sh**.
I’m super, duper excited about this next one: a monthly critique group that meets in the evenings. I just started this last month with a handful of friends. I really hope it becomes a long-term thing, because I love it. We plan to rotate houses, exchange work by email a week before each meeting, and keep the snack thing simple.
Last thing in terms of community: taking online courses. I tried one with Poetry Barn and wasn’t able to get through all of the assignments, but I did my best. This month I’m trying a class called Literary Boot Camp with Mothers Always Write and a Personal Essay Intensive course with Ariel Gore, in which we will somehow write the drafts of six essays in twelve days. Both of these just about scare the pants off me. But supposedly that’s how you know you should do something, right? Right…
4) I found a great babysitter, and I stay home and write.
There is no way–no way— I would take on the “6-essays-in-twelve-days” thing without a solid plan. That plan is called childcare. I feel like I struck gold with our babysitter. She works in early childhood education, lives in our neighborhood, and has a gentle personality that my daughter loves. My husband and I pay her well and give her presents because we want her to be our babysitter forever. In the past, I used the time to get out of the house or nap. Now I hunker down at my desk and write.
This automatically saves money on coffee and gas or lunch or whatever I used to do instead of staying home to write. It also has meant combing through our family budget to cut expenses and be able to afford childcare. I say “no” to a lot of small things so that I can say “yes” to one thing that matters a lot to me. Which leads me to my last point…
5) I’ve let go of a lot of other things.
I’m an American mom in the 21st century, so there are oh, I don’t know, 82 things I think I need to perfect. Tell me I’m not alone when I say I have somehow got it into my head, as a woman in the United States, that after having a baby I need to focus on having a great body, stylish clothes, an amazing sex life, homemade homegrown vegan meals, a spotless and stylish house cleaned with homemade natural cleaners, and spend all of my time engineering crafty sensory-play activities for baby. Good grief.
Thankfully, there aren’t enough hours in the day. Thankfully, I believe in a God who loves me as I am and covers me with grace, because not only do I fall so very short of perfection, I also believe the lies of this culture and keep wandering down their hall-of-mirror detours. Writing is prayer for me, because I also really suck at praying. But when I write, I feel like I get in touch with who God made me to be, and everything else starts showing up the way it ought to. The important things look important again, and the silly things look really, really silly.
Caring for our daughter is in.
Writing is in.
Connecting with my family is in.
Basic self-care is in.
Everything else is bonus.
I am learning to simplify my exercise routine (… sometimes that means I don’t exercise, but progress not perfection, right?) and keep our weeknight meals really simple. This summer I got fed up with keeping house and kind of just quit. Turns out that isn’t sustainable for any of us, so last night my husband and I sat down over a glass or two of wine and made our very first chore chart. In five years of marriage and twelve years of living life together. I hope we survive this. (Just kidding– like everything I’ve written here, the chore chart is an experiment designed to help us figure out what works for us. I’ll let you know how it goes.)
The best part about writing again— writing even though I’m scared, writing instead of procrastinating, writing myself toward a career I have wanted since I was a little girl— the best part is that the more I write, the more I feel like… me.
I feel motivated to write. Ideas find me. I wake up with lines for a new poem or one in revision. I have more energy. I’m a lot happier and that means I am more focused when I’m with my daughter and family.
I don’t have this nagging sense of work left undone, of missing out on a life I want to live, because I’m living it.
Are you returning to a writing practice after becoming a parent? Please share your ideas in the comments. I’d love to learn from you.
Here’s a poem I wrote in response to a photo prompt on Vox Poetica, a photo called Alberta Bound by photographer Michael Lee Johnson.
Stopped by the gate, you pace the place old
wheels have smoothed, tracks so worn
that’s all you see, never mind the fact
they cross over, go on. You believe
in the gate, though your lips shape
other words. Your hands trace the rubbed
wood, paint peeled—listen, you may as well
leave it here. There’s a way out that’s everywhere—
see how the sky goes around and through? Despite
the signs, forgiveness is the usual procedure: an inch
per century pushing up through plates.
The pace isn’t what’s important here. Out
in the estuary the same light grows, seeds
ripen and shake: little fists opening.
I love the tagline for Vox Poetica: “It’s just poetry. It won’t bite.”
I wrote this poem as part of a 30 day poetry challenge I’ve undertaken this August with a friend and fellow poet, and it’s helping me reaffirm that creativity is there in abundance. I don’t have to ration it or fear there won’t be enough. There is plenty there, and plenty of places and people to share it with.
I just started writing short introductions for Image Journal‘s weekly online feature Poetry Friday.
I love these assignments because they introduce me to new work and new poets, they get me engaged with a journal I love, and they get me thinking– not just about my craft but about my faith.
Especially the poem I recently read and wrote about.
Kristin George Bagdanov’s poem “More Strange” is a compact powerhouse of emotion and complexity. I’ve been thinking about it a lot these past few weeks, moving through some heavy sadness over the brokenness of our world, while simultaneously beginning to wean my 14-month-old. I’ve been feeling weighed down by the violence in the news and grappling with my vulnerability, wanting to protect my child from what I have so little control over. It’s easy to forget God’s sovereignty and providence. It’s all too easy to imagine that grief and pain have the last word.
So this poem has helped, and I’m so grateful when poems help. To me, this too feels like a small sign of God’s living presence– that art heals, that humans can be conduits through which healing can flow. It makes me grateful that I write, that God planted the seeds of an abiding interest in poetry when I was very young. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!)
Bagdanov’s poem is about the most intense grief I can fathom– Mary’s loss of her son– which becomes so much more than human grief, through the mystery of God’s saving grace.
Read Kristin George Bagdanov’s poem at Image Journal here.
Image: By MarcusObal (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
In late June, I learned that my poem “Yellow” won the 2016 Janet McCabe Poetry Prize at Ruminate Magazine. The poem will be published in the September 2016 issue.
Ruminate is one of my favorite publications, and its arrival in my mailbox is one of the small but great pleasures in my life.
It’s beautiful. It’s print. It still comes in the mail. And it’s quarterly, which means several months of anticipation between issues– a novelty in an age when it seems we hardly have to wait to read anything anymore.
I love how each issue takes shape around themes in a life of faith that sometimes go under-explored. I love the visual art it has brought into my life. Though my sister is a talented visual artist, and I always feel enriched on a different level when I make space for it in my life, I confess that I just don’t make that space on my own. So the magazine is a good reminder to make the time.
Try writing a semi-glosa like Barbara Crooker’s poem, “A Woman is her Mother.” Crooker is the author, most recently, of Gold. Find out more about her work here. The semi-glosa is a “nonce” (or invented) form. You’ll need 4 short lines from favorite poems, stories, or songs.
I asked Barbara Crooker how she wrote the poem and this is what she replied. Thank you, Barbara!
“The glosa is a 15th c. Spanish form most commonly seen in English by Canadian poet P. K. Page. It uses a 4 line stanza from another poet. Each line appears at the end of a ten line stanza (4 stanzas to the poem). Lines 6, 9, and 10 are supposed to rhyme. \
So I was really messing around with the form in this one; first, I’m not using a 4 line stanza, but rather, 4 lines from 4 different writers, 4 different poems. And none of them end the line, nor do I follow the stanza length or rhyme pattern. Instead, I really “nonce it up,” creating my own pattern.
I’m doing something more like a pantoum, where line 2 of the first stanza becomes line 1 of the second; line 3 of the 1st stanza becomes line 2 of the second, line 4 in the 1st becomes line 3 in the second, etc. It’s loose, but I wanted the lines to be interwoven. I’m also using a muted rhyme scheme: other/air weather; other/everywhere/here; flowers/for us, branch/flesh; back/talk; forward/everywhere, telephone/alone. So, it’s both formal, and “not,” in that I’m doing something pattern-like, without actually following a pattern exactly, whether a “received form” or one I’ve made up. . . .