The Work of Building Fences

It was quite a weekend.

Otto and friend

Otto and friend

On Saturday, I attended an “energetic boundaries” workshop up in Sebastopol, a beautiful little town about an hour north of here. Now, I know what you East-coast types are thinking: a what? 

I must admit that when my friend An Honest Mom invited me, I had to pause. I’m capable of all kinds of “woo-woo,” but on the other hand, it sounded a little nutty. But when I looked back over some of the events of this past year, some stickiness that’s been troubling me in my life and relationships, I realized that my boundaries could use some work. There’s the way I say yes to everything, and the way I worry all the time about what other people are thinking and doing and feeling (sound familiar, anyone?). And there’s the way I let other people’s opinions and thoughts invade my space and my psyche to the point that I kind of lose myself. These are patterns I’ve been in for years and years; many of us are in these patterns. I hoped that an energetic boundaries workshop might help me shift some of this, so I signed up and went.

I’m always hoping for miracles, and yet, it turns out, miracles are for other people.* Nonetheless it was a great day of experimenting with ways to get really clear about who I am and who other people are— and not to confuse the two.

Bubble. Thank you, Wikimedia Commons

Bubble. Thank you, Wikimedia Commons

Most significantly, I realized, on the drive up to Sebastopol, that the boundary between my writing and what other people think about my writing is so thin it’s like the membrane of a bubble. A few days earlier, I’d found myself in a conversation about my writing that I did not have any desire to be in. A friend was, in essence, giving me advice I had never asked for and frankly did not want. It filled me with a kind of slow-burning and quiet rage—and later, disappointment in myself for letting that happen. But these kinds of interactions have been happening to me for years. It’s a little too easy for me to hear a question like “what’s going on with your memoir?” and start equivocating and rationalizing and dealing with a whole cadre of internal feelings to the effect of you, Susie, suck, you suck, you suck. And so, en route to the workshop (I like to get started early!), it occurred to me in a fit of nascent practicality: I do not have to talk about my memoir if I do not want to. And it is okay to say that!

(Hey, friends! Yeah, don’t ask me about my memoir right now. Some stuff is in the works; I’ll let you know when it gets published. Thanks.)

And yet, and yet—somehow I’ve been believing all these years that it’s not okay to say no. Not just to obligations, but to sharing information. Private people? They mystify me. I seem to think that when someone asks me a personal question that I have to answer it. That when I reveal something, I have to reveal everything. My writing, it turns out, despite being personal in nature, is also deeply personal TO ME, and there are very few people with whom I’m comfortable sharing the heartache and joys of that enterprise. And yet, when someone asks, there I go, blurting out the whole shebang, then wondering why people feel like it’s okay to give me unsolicited advice. Wondering why I feel so damn violated and angry.

The workshop did not solve all these problems, of course (see above, on miracles), but it did help me to articulate some of this. And it helped me to see, at least, the ways that I worry all the time about other people at the expense of myself. Not just my kid, but also B, whom I was tracking the entire day in Sebastopol: what’s he doing? Is he mad that I’m gone all day? Is L okay? Has he located the hot dogs I told him were in the fridge? And in the midst of the workshop, in what felt like the most uncomfortable and intense moment of the day: am I invading the other participants’ energetic space? Do they like me? Am I totally annoying? Should I change my behavior in some way? It reminded me of the friend who had made me uncomfortable the week before with her questions about my work: was I so worried about her safety and comfort that I ventured into territory I did not want to be in?

I think I did.

And so, reader, resolved: not to do that anymore. Or at least, to notice, to remember that I am allowed—no, required!—to protect myself from other people and to be autonomous. And to say no. How liberating!

But here’s the funny irony of last weekend. We got a tortoise. 

He arrived on Friday night, and our initial excitement was palpable. L was in heaven; B called him “Buddy,” as in, “Oh hi, Buddy, hi Otto,” in a cute voice you’d use for a kid, proving once again that my husband has the world’s greatest capacity to love of anyone I’ve ever known (Otto is a reptile with a brain the size of a peanut; he is the least cuddly creature on earth). But when I got home from my workshop on Saturday afternoon, I learned that Otto had spent most of the day roaming the yard, eating chard, pooping, and stressing out the neighbors, because he’d broken through his makeshift barrier.

And so whereas on Saturday I worked on my metaphorical fence, on Sunday, in the sweltering heat, I worked on a physical fence to contain the newest member of our family.

Something about this felt like a delightful kismet—and a reminder. Because Otto the Tortoise is testing both the physical boundaries of our yard and also my energetic ones. From my studio I have a clear view of his pen, and it’s all but impossible not to look out the window every five seconds to see whether he’s moved from his nighttime hibernation spot yet, or whether he’s still pacing against the walls of the enclosure trying desperately to get out. I’m not sure what the lesson is, here, but I know it’s something about letting go. About remembering the circle of rocks I drew around myself on Saturday as a physical representation of the space I’m allowed to take up on this earth. About not worrying so much about other people/reptiles.

Because there, I suspect, is where miracles happen.

SOON THEN

But miracles are for other people.

Here things right themselves and it grows humid again

and though we’ve stopped watering the garden—

earth crumbles at the base of an eggplant—

still, it feeds us. Who declared a weed a weed? What if God

is a criminal? You say: if God made hands, God made ghosts.

Hands would run right through ghosts.

Ghost speared by hand, hand surrounded by ghost,

both feeling just a slight warmth, a gentle rocking,

like a love poem, or a sense of soon, then.

© Susie Meserve, 2016

 

Hey! If you love this post, please click “like” below! And thanks, as ever, for sharing via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or anywhere else you think it should live. If you’d like to learn about the energetic boundaries workshop, message me over on the Contact page and I’ll put you in touch with Aimee M. Thanks.

News and Upcoming Events!

Hi friends,

Ghazals for Foley, ed. Yago S. Cura, 2016 Hinchas Press

Ghazals for Foley, ed. Yago S. Cura, 2016 Hinchas Press

Yesterday I received my copy of Ghazals for Foley, a book of poems written to commemorate the life of writer and slain journalist Jim Foley, who was a classmate of mine at UMass Amherst. I have a poem in the collection, along with poems by Martin Espada, CS Carrier, Shauna Seliy, my buddy and writing partner Mike Dockins, and many more. There is also a short story by Jim that was previously published by Hinchas Press.

I hope you’ll pick up a copy here and spread the word. Ghazals for Foley is a beautiful tribute to a beautiful person, and I’m grateful to Yago Cura and Hinchas Press for including me in the project.

ALSO: I’m reading this Friday night at the Madness Radio Book Launch! Feb 26, 2016 w/ Bonfire Madigan, Will Hall, Jacks McNamara, Mandala Project, Susie Meserve, book contributors and more…1017 Ashmount St 7pm Oakland California (make sure to park carefully and leave room on street). The essay I’ll be reading, called “A Little Crazy,” is forthcoming in an anthology by In Fact Books called Show Me All Your Scars: True Stories of Overcoming Mental Illness. 

I would love to see you there, if you’re local!

Finally, mark your calendars! My friend Sandra Stringer and I will be teaching a three-hour writing and movement workshop called “Releasing Your Body, Revealing Your Story” at Flying Studios in Oakland on Saturday, March 19, from 1:00-3:45 p.m. Cost: $75. If you know of anyone who might be interested, please spread the word. I’ll post again about it here, closer, of course.

All done with shameless self-promotion, now.

xo

Susie

 

 

Who Am I, Anyway?

I’ve been ruminating on identity a lot lately.

Me.

Me.

At the San Francisco Writers Conference this past weekend, there were so many opportunities to tell someone who I was—in ten seconds or less. The first time someone asked “And what do you write?” I botched my answer, stumbling with some “Ums” and “wells” and “kind-ofs.” Then, I agonized over how I would introduce myself at my panel on revision on the second day, the one I was doing with two experienced editors in a room I suspected would be packed (it was). In my notebook I nervously jotted down phrases like “I write about the darkness in everyday experience” and “I write about the light and the dark of being a woman” and other horrendous, lofty mouthfuls I absolutely could not see myself pulling off in public.

Then one of the other editors from the panel, who is also a new friend and a lovely person with whom I’d just had a delicious lunch in Chinatown, said: “Just say it all—you’re a poet, you also write personal narrative, you write about your experiences with anxiety, motherhood, and infertility, and then mention your memoir.” Wow—that was easier. And when it came time to introduce myself at the panel, I said exactly that, switching the pronouns, and was amazed at how easily it rolled off the tongue and how comfortable I felt not stumbling with some catchy catch phrase. Later, two people came up to me to tell me they couldn’t wait for my memoir to get published, that it just sounded wonderful. Isn’t that nice?

And, perhaps because I wasn’t saddled to a catch phrase all weekend, I was able to let go and be a poet for a few days, too, speaking on a couple of poetry panels, workshopping, and reading at the Friday night poetry reading. A poem that’s been just sitting in my computer for two years was enthusiastically received—a poetry press editor insisted that I send her my manuscript, provided that poem is in it.

So I came away from the conference feeling pretty good.

At one stage, in the lobby of the hotel, a group of women somehow converged—we’re all mothers, and we all live relatively close to one another in the same town, and there was talk of us getting together to write or commiserate or workshop. A trading of email addresses and a “where do your kids go to school?”s. And somehow, in that moment, my identity shifted from “writer” to “mom who writes.”

“How old are your kids?” one asked another.

“Ten and eight. You?”

“Seven and five. You?”

Then it was my turn: “Six,” I said. “Just six.”

And while I felt a part of this, because we all know what it’s like to try to pull off a writing career when you’re also raising children, because we’ve all given birth and nursed and been up all night losing our minds with exhaustion, I felt again that other identity of which I’ve been so conscious in recent years: that I’m the mother of an only child. If you don’t have kids, you might think, what’s the difference? Either you’re a mom, or you’re not. But I tell you, it’s different, really; having one kid means when you have a playdate your house is still pretty manageably noisy, and your plane ticket bills are cheaper. And two bedrooms don’t feel cramped at all, and it’s not too hard to get a babysitter.

But it also means smarting when, at a babysitting co-op meeting, someone says casually, “Oh, it’s so crazy once you have your second!” and every woman in the room except you groans and nods in some kind of humble brag, lamenting and loving their full, full, and more full lives. This happened recently, and I sat there feeling utterly apart because I couldn’t say whether it’s crazy when you have two. Because I have not been able to have two. Because I may never know.

But while this was so hard for so many years, this feeling of wanting something I couldn’t have, lately I’ve been wondering if I really wanted it as badly as I thought I did. I’ve been wondering if maybe my life is just perfect as it is.

“God, it’s so nice to have adult conversations for a change,” one of the moms at the conference said, and I thought, but I have adult conversations all the time. My life is very manageable with one kid who’s in school or childcare 36 hours a week or more; I see friends, I work, and I spend many hours alone, writing. Besides, conversations with L have rarely been a chore. Maybe this is something about my kid, or my parenting, or something else, but I have realized lately how, when I’ve been so busy wanting something else, my nice life has been here all along with me.

And again, it’s kind of like writing. At a recent meeting of my Creative Women’s Cocktail Hour, my friend Ascha had us choose lines from a book of poetry and write them on an envelope. Then we shared the lines.

IMG_2811Mine—”like someone trying to walk through a fire,” “What I would do with the rest of my life,” and “your old soft body fallen against me”—all from The Gold Cell, by Sharon Olds—seemed to speak to how you have this relationship with something and it lasts your whole life. My writing and I, we’re like old lovers; we fight, we make up, we get on with it, we fight, we make up. We walk through fire together, and we’ll be together forever. And this is a comforting thought, because when my writing and I are not connecting, it doesn’t mean we’re breaking up; it’s all just part of the journey.

And I guess that’s a bit like parenting, too, like me parenting my one beautiful child: his young soft body fallen against me, for the rest of my life.

Like walking through a fire.

—-

Sharon Olds’s poem “After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for my Childhood”

**Nota Bene! Susie will be reading on Friday, 2/26 at the Madness Radio Book Launch! With Bonfire Madigan, Will Hall, Jacks McNamara, Mandala Project, book contributors and more…1017 Ashmount St, Oakland, California 7pm. Hope to see you!** 

Making a Big Mess of Things

This morning, meditating on the back deck, I noticed California’s subtle signs of fall. As a New England transplant who grew up with dramatic fall weather and the trees in flames, the signs here are a little too subtle for me, but today was pretty good: a gorgeous late sunrise (we all piled into L’s bed to watch it through his windows at 7:15), walnut-tree leaves littering the deck, crisp air, and that slightly maudlin fall light that seems to strike diagonally. This weekend I’m planning to spend a lot of time in the woods, watching fall, clearing my head.

Image046

Fall’s diagonal light

Last night at my writing group I asked a few veteran fiction writers how to approach writing a novel. When I wrote my memoir, the plot was laid out in front of me; I didn’t have the blessing or the curse of having to make things up. (Sometimes, I wish I had, since many traditional publishers have been calling the story “too quiet.” What can I say? That’s my life. Quiet.) Given all this freedom, I have no idea what to do with it. I have 100 pages from last year’s NaNoWriMo, and then about 25 of a “new draft.” I have my main plot points. But deciding what happens in between—what should go on in, say, chapter 2—is beyond me. I stare at the laptop, longing for someone to tell me what to write.

Of course, I suppose the character could do that. In this terrific podcast, writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about having a conversation with your book, and while I haven’t quite done that yet, I’m open to the idea that my main character, Hilly, could somehow tell me what’s next. Is that ludicrous? Yes, and no. Maybe I’m just not listening right.

But anyway, back to the writing group. We talked about writing exercises and introducing conflict and what the characters want and pushing myself to be more outrageous and maybe losing a major thread that’s not interesting me after all. But mainly what I took away from the conversation was to just make a big mess of things, for now. You can’t know what a character will do until you’ve written her, and then written her some more, and then written her some more. And maybe none of those scenes will make it into the book, but maybe they will. And maybe, as I write, keeping notes, starting new files, disorganizing everything and trying new things and then sticking it all back together again, I’ll learn what’s supposed to happen, what’s important to me, what’s important to Hilly and her friend V.

Making a mess terrifies me. As you know from posts like this, in my old age, much to the shock of my parents and brothers, I’m sure, I have actually become a hyper-organized individual. One of the beautiful things about writing, for eight years, a memoir with the plot laid out for me, was that I spent much of that time tinkering. Polishing. Moving things around. It felt joyful and straightforward (or maybe I’m misremembering all the hours I spent pulling my hair out, freaking out—probably). There is nothing straightforward about writing a novel, not when I’m in what we might call the ideation phase. Not when I have so little time to actually write these days. And especially not when I’m hoping against hope to finish this book before another decade has passed.

Nonetheless, I am resolved to try: to see what happens, to make a mess, to not know what’s coming next. Maybe there’s a metaphor here? (There always is.)

And, lest I leave you on that dubious note, here’s an old poem about fall.

OCTOBER

It’s raining colored paper.

No, birds—cardinals, orioles, and canaries,

swooping, dipping towards the hard surface

of the road, then gone. It’s the cornfields

have turned to paper, and a pumpkin

spills its guts on a front stoop.

A boy discovers it and starts to cry.

Who would do such a thing,

bring down the jagged grin, hard, on the steps?

Something in him falters.

He imagines his house on fire: water boiling

in the goldfish bowl, floating, weightless fish.

He thinks about God and Judas

and seventeen-year locusts, how they ruin things,

wringing his hands, worrying his fingernails

to splinters. He stares out at the fields,

counts minutes till schooltime, his breath

a neat circle on the window,

because it’s cold this October, already—

and there in the road is the flock of leaves,

swooping, dipping into the hard surface,

then gone. They touch down, and then they’re gone.

The cornfields have turned to paper,

and behind them the sky.

© Susie Meserve. This poem originally appeared in Indiana Review, Fall, 2001

Interview with, well, Me

Me.

Me.

Earlier this spring, a young woman named Terra Ojeda, from Whitworth University, contacted me. She’d read my poem in Rock & Sling and, as a part of a class assignment, wanted to interview me. I of course said sure. I liked the questions Terra asked, and I thought I’d post her interview here.

Thank you, Terra!

Terra: Do you have a writing routine? If so, what does it look like? (I’m sure in the midst of life, it is difficult to find and time and place every day to simply sit down and write).

Susie: I do have a writing routine—of sorts. My mantra is, “write first, before everything else.” If I try to start my paid work first, or start with paying bills or anything else, I never get to the writing. Currently, I write at my kitchen table or at the library or at a coffee shop nearby (though I just had the very exciting news that I may be renting a small studio adjacent to my house as a writing space. I can barely contain myself at the thought of it). I can’t write every day, since I’m a college writing instructor and I have to teach, but I manage three days a week during the semester and four or more when I’m on break. Every so often I block out a Saturday or a weekend to work, too. I also set very specific goals and deadlines. I’ll aim to finish a chapter, a poem, a section of a book by a certain date—this motivates me and helps me not feel lost and depressed about how much there is to do and how little time I have to do it.

T: I have noticed that you are a vocalist in a band, Hotel Borealis. Do you contribute to the songwriting for this band? If so, how is it different from other modes of writing? If not, how does this band influence your creative writing process?

S: This is a great question. While I wrote the lyrics for one song on our upcoming album, and have tweaked Dave Mar’s lyrics here and there, the truth is I’m not much of a lyricist. I keep thinking this will come with time, but so far, it hasn’t. In terms of the music project influencing my writing life, it has and it hasn’t. Writing is very solitary. The music is much more collaborative. But playing and writing music has made me much more comfortable being spontaneous and taking risks—things that have been hard for me, historically. I’m hoping that riskiness translates into my writing at some point.

T: The same question goes for your role as a wife, mother, teacher, etc. How do these play into your creative process?

S: I love teaching, but it doesn’t inspire my creative process except insofar as my students and I discuss artistic process (I teach at an art school). Mostly, teaching is an exercise in forcing me to be super organized with my time so I can write. Parenting has certainly been the source of material for essays (not so much for poems—not sure why). And having such a lovely kid in my life makes me feel centered when my writing career is not going as planned. My relationship with my husband has been the main topic of the memoir I’ve been writing for ten years, so that’s been central. So, yeah, it all plays in….

T: If you could be any animal, what animal would it be? Why? Is this the same animal that you identify with now?

S: My son is crazy about animals, and he asks me every day what my favorite animal is. I always says cheetah, but that’s not entirely true, though I would love to experience that furious running somehow. I would be interested in being a bear or another kind of powerful predator; a powerful bird; or….I’m not sure what else. I’d actually be fascinated to be a male human for an afternoon, too!

T: I love how you include a variety of connections in your poem, “Postcard from a Sailor.” You mention a fragmented mess of thoughts: “as if the parking tickets were scattered everywhere.” You compare this also with “all the marriages torn asunder — the children unborn.” Then you close the poem with “all the tools tossed into the sea — if there were a sea if there were any stars by which to navigate –” The universality of this poem is undeniable, yet there is a sense that you are speaking from a specific, individual experience. How do you balance the two?

S: I see “Postcard from a Sailor” as a kind of thread that came rushing off a spool at breakneck speed. So, in other words: I started with this very personal idea of having a “mess of thoughts” (I like that, thanks), which was something that I was indeed experiencing: my brain was running me ragged with small and big life questions that seemed to be unraveling everywhere, and one day it occurred to me that “pensive” didn’t even begin to describe it. But then as I riffed on that in the poem, the whole world started unraveling (and the list of what would happen if the world unraveled came very quickly). The list I came up with was how I imagine the post-apocalypse, I guess. I tend to use a lot of quasi-fantastical, end-of-the-worldish images in my poems. I don’t know whether the poem, especially the end, feels depressing or whimsical. For me, the last two lines feel much darker than the rest. [Note: You can read “Postcards from a Sailor” below.] Something else is going on in there that you didn’t ask about. If you look at contemporary poetry, you’ll notice that this phrase “as if” is totally overused. It’s like all of us poets can’t create an image without a comparison to something that might or might not happen. I wanted to play with that by pushing it: I started with one “as if” but the next five lines all have an implied “as if.” I thought being relentless about it would subvert it. But that may not be working; maybe I’m just another poet overusing the phrase “as if.”

T: Who do you write for? Does the audience change for every subject, or do you lean toward one type of audience?

S: This is a tough one. With the stuff I’ve been writing lately—personal essays, memoir, more commercially viable stuff—I definitely have audience in mind. In fact, I even spend time thinking about my “target audience” and my “brand.” (I picture a smart woman around my age, probably a mother but not necessarily, who also feels muddled by the choices she’s making and the difficulties and joys of her experience.) But when I write poetry, I don’t even think about audience, is the truth. I just write.

T: On writing for yourself: How does writing function for your own personal purpose? Do you write for yourself? Is it a healing process, like writing in a diary? Or does it take on a life of its own?

S: Writing is definitely healing. For example, when I got things off my chest after writing a couple of essays about my inability to have a second kid, I actually felt that I could cope better with that huge disappointment. But writing is definitely not like a diary for me. I’m pretty obsessed with making things polished and viewer-ready. And yes, I would say all of my writing takes on its own life. That’s a beautiful thing about writing: you start with an idea for A and end up at Q, at Z, or in a different language entirely.

T: I’ve read and watched excerpts from your memoir “Quiver.” How has traveling with your husband Ben (before you were married) shaped your life?

S: That year with Ben was probably the most difficult and the most amazing year of my life to date, if I’m being honest. I still think about it all the time, probably because I’ve been writing about it for nearly ten years (!). Mostly, I think it was an exercise in solidifying what has been the most formative and important relationship of my life. But I think it also shifted my perspective as a writer. Before we went, I was working a very demanding job and barely managing to put together a poem every couple of months. On that trip, I realized that I wanted to be a writer, to really put writing front and center in my life. It also signaled the shift from me being a poet to being something else…whatever I am now.

T: When you contemplate taking “next steps” in life, what does that look like? For example, the last couple lines of the excerpt from “Quiver” on your webpage read:

He had made up his mind: he was going to travel for a year. There was very little I could do about it.

Except go with him.”

The white space in between the two sentences seems essential, because it represents that space in your mind that says, “Why not?” Does this explain the kind of leap of faith you have on taking big steps into the next stage in your life? Or are they normally subtle, baby steps that ease their way onto your path?

S: I wish I could lie and say that I often take those kinds of leaps, but the truth is that I’m a total chicken about any big change and I have to worry it to death before I do anything. That excerpt from “Quiver” ends there, but in the actual book, about two pages of angst and second-guessing and miscommunication with Ben follow before we actually decide to travel together. So I would say, subtle baby steps, for sure. And research. And talking. I’m big on reading a lot of books and having a lot of discussions and generally gathering as much information as I can before I make any big life decision. I have always wanted to be different in this regard. Oh well.

T: Thank you so much Susie, I have enjoyed reading your work. You have already influenced me to download a meditation app on my phone (which I gladly used earlier this morning). Sometimes I forget that all I need to do is sit down, come as I am, accept myself for all that I am, and breathe. You have been a lovely reminder, nurturing me personally with your words and honest stories. 

S: That’s so great! Thanks for telling me that. And you’re very welcome.

POSTCARD FROM A SAILOR (#6)

Arriving in California

just before Thanksgiving,

I’d say I felt pensive

if pensive were the sensation

of one billion thoughts colliding

in the cerebral cortex,

not pinprick stars,

more like dark matter chaos,

more like an unweaving,

a de-constellating,

the loss of any sense of order,

of any sense of navigation,

as if the parking tickets were papered everywhere—

and the email had begun to explode—

and the cars all crashed into one another—

and all the marriages torn asunder—

the children unborn—

all the tools tossed into the sea—

if there were a sea—

if there were any stars by which to navigate—

(© Susie Meserve. This poem appeared in Rock & Sling issue 9.2)

I Have Wasted My Life

The view from my hammock

The view from my hammock

Lately, everything has felt busy. Sometimes I think this is the mantra of my generation, at this time in our lives: we’re working parents, we’re social beings, and we’re ambitious, and many of us feel like things are about as full as they could be. In the past year, my life has amped up in several ways, and it’s left me simultaneously dizzy from the excitement of it—I’ve felt, finally, like a real adult, a real breadwinner with a real career path—and overwhelmed by the day to day.

In general, I’ve been proud of the way my family has adjusted to me working more and L starting Kindergarten and all the other things we’ve added to our plate. B has become an extraordinary caretaker, making bread for us every week and planting the garden with veggies and folding all the laundry. L is a pain about doing anything to help out, but he’s five, after all. And I’ve loosened the reins on certain projects and I still manage to get a good dinner on the table most nights and keep us in groceries and a clean bathroom. Our life together has felt very manageable, and very happy, if at times a little too…full.

But something small can throw a huge wrench in the gears, and that’s what March was: this weird cold/flu I had that migrated to my ears and became a double ear infection. For the past month, I’ve had tinnitus (no fun) and this constant sensation like a valve in each ear is popping open, closed, open, closed. I missed a week of classes, which I had to make up, and once I felt a little better I found that my work ethic was shattered: it didn’t feel like much fun to sit at my computer and listen to the roaring in my ears, so I started to postpone grading and planning until the last possible second. And of course, when you get sick, you end up having doctor’s appointments, which means time away from work and writing, and then there are those bills to pay and meanwhile everything else continues unabated. I’m not complaining—it’s been an interesting reminder to me about the nature of life, and in particular the nature of my life, and now that’s it’s all getting a little better I’m much happier seeing it in a different light—but nonetheless, all the worry and sickness and anxiety and discomfort have been…disorienting.

And so, on the most practical level, I had a few days there where I felt quite firmly that my life was spinning totally out of control. I worked a lot over the weekend, just trying to get caught up with a book proposal and all the grading I’d been neglecting, all the while feeling like I was barely making a dent. Hardest were the liminal spaces, the hours and minutes in between classes or events, when I’d expect to accomplish small tasks or phone calls and for whatever reason, utterly fail. Finally, on Monday night after a full day, I spent a few hours catching up with travel plans and my son’s school activities (oh, how I had been neglecting the various appeals from the PTA) and filing bills and paying bills and generally trying to get my head to clear.

It was amazing how much better I felt once I’d done all that.

But one thing I still hadn’t managed to do was blog, here in National Poetry Month, of all times, when I always feel I should be blogging.

And then, a certain poem came barreling into my consciousness yesterday and I knew exactly what I wanted to blog about.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
© James Wright, from Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Vision (Random House, 1987)

When I read this poem in college, the professor asked us to interpret the last line. And I recall many of us, then on the cusp of becoming adults, saying that the last line meant that lying in the hammock, looking around, was a waste of life. I felt quite firmly that what Wright had meant when he wrote this poem was that he had been lazy in his life, that he should have been more ambitious.

How wrong I was. Now, saddled with all the things I’m saddled with at 41, bills and obligations and worries, I see clearly that what Wright meant was that all the noise we fill our lives with is, truly, the waste. Now, this poem speaks to me in a way it never could have when I was twenty-one.

And so, yesterday, after I’d taught two three-hour classes back to back, and used all my liminal spaces for phone calls or emails, I came home to a quiet house. I calmly washed the dishes, changed my clothes, and sat quietly at the table filling out raffle-ticket stubs before picking up L at school. And when we came home, and he decided to run off to play with the neighbor, I sat in the hammock in my backyard for fifteen minutes, reading The Remains of the Day and listening to the birds and the sounds of the guys working on the house across the way.

I will not waste my life.

It’s National Poetry Month! And, two great books of poetry you gotta read

Eliot was wrong: April is not the cruelest month (I have a particular belief that February is, but actually, I think it’s different for everyone). For me, March was a bear, since I spent much of it sick and am still temporarily (we hope) deaf from a double ear infection that’s lingered. So it was not with great sadness that I said goodbye to March yesterday (but it was with great sadness that I said goodbye to my parents, who, visiting for three weeks, made the month somewhat bearable).

Because I’m still digging out from illness, I don’t know that I’ll be able to post a poem a day in April this year. But we can celebrate National Poetry Month nonetheless.

Today, I wanted to plug two beautiful books of poetry that found their way to me this winter.

The first is called Where’s Jukie? (Absurd Publications, 2013) by poet Andy Jones and essayist Kate Duren. I met Andy at the San Francisco Writers Conference in February. It’s interesting to meet someone as charismatic and upbeat as Andy. He’s something of a legend, with his own radio show and a reading series in Davis. But his book is about his family’s struggle to figure out life with a child with a rare disorder called Lemli-Opitz syndrome and regressive autism, to boot. It’s a really beautiful book. Kate Duren’s essays about her son feel controlled and confident and wise, but Andy’s poems attest to the incredible doubt and difficulty of parenting a special-needs child.

Here’s the poem “Dinner” from Where’s Jukie?

DINNER

When I get up from the table,

you cry.

Our relationship is the most honest.

 

Sometimes with the spoon,

sometimes with the napkin,

I wipe the applesauce from your chin.

 

The crow caws to us

from the backyard.

You crane your neck to see.

 

At dinnertime your fingers

are dull tools.

You swat at the spoon.

 

Feeling gravity too keenly,

you sink into the chair.

You must be strapped in.

 

You look at me as if to speak.

Your eyes refocus before

you chirp like a hyena.

 

The wasps thump against the screen.

How they wish the door

were thrown open.

 

Sometimes your mouth opens

so wide that I think you could roar.

 

The wind shifts the vertical blinds.

You look at them and cry.

How I wish I could understand you.

© Andy Jones

The second book is called Thunderbirds, by Christine Penko (Turning Point Press, 2015). This is an extraordinary book. It’s poetry, but the poems are linked so as to tell a story, so it feels as much like a memoir in verse. And the subject of the memoir is a family riddled with dysfunction and confusion, and a mother who’s both observer and orchestrator. I came away–having not been able to put the book down, I should add–with great respect for the writing and the characters in the book. Here is “Science Fiction” by Christine Penko:

SCIENCE FICTION

Dazed by your news, I pretend

it’s possible for us to take

that summer trip we’d planned,

possible to leave our alien selves

locked in the battered house

I’d once considered a fortress.

In Sedona, it’s monsoon season.

Clouds boil against mountains.

Buzzards reel.

Words pass between our mouths, melt

into lozenges of despair.

The future is impossible to imagine.

Inside my chest, something poisonous rips

open, spreads wings, gains speed.

© Christine Penko

 

 

Remembering Maya Angelou

I wanted to write about Maya Angelou today before I read this beautiful post on my friend and colleague Aya de Leon’s blog. Aya says it much better and more intimately than I could, and I hope you’ll pop over there and read “Rest in Power, Maya Angelou.”

And I’ll post this Ben Harper song, “I’ll Rise,” from his album Welcome to the Cruel World. It uses Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” as inspiration for the lyrics, and it was going through my head all day yesterday.

 

 

 

 

 

National Poetry Month, Day 30: Plugs!

Well, folks, it’s been a great month.

A living room. Where one could, say, sit in the sun and read poetry.

A living room. Where one could, say, sit in the sun and read poetry.

I’m going to say out loud something I have mostly only said in my head: poetry is a dying art. I don’t always believe that, but more and more, I do. In this world of blogs, tweets, and texts, we all have lost our attention spans. And poetry, usually, requires us to sit with things for a bit. It’s a hard task, and I wonder how many of us will still be sitting down to read poetry in ten or twenty or thirty or a hundred years.

Doing this blog all month, I have realized a couple of things about myself. I used to be a very dedicated poet. I inhabited that basement room where poets live: we were off the grid, into something a little off-kilter, part of what felt like a secret world, because so few others were in the room with us. And I loved it. I wrote many, many poems, some of which got published, many of which did not. I didn’t have to miss poetry because it was my entire existence.

Then, in 2004, when I cut out and went to travel around the world with my now-hubs, B., my relationship to poetry changed. When we got back to the States I decided I was going to write very seriously for a year, so we got a cheap apartment, I took a part-time job, and I wrote. The trouble was that I couldn’t fill the time. For me poetry happened in little fits and starts; I’d write all morning some days, and on others, I’d write for ten minutes. Or not at all. There was all that time. It was only natural that after a while, I started to write prose, which for me is something you can chip away at all day, all week (or for seven long years).

But I realized that I lost something when I stopped writing poetry: I had stopped slowing down and sitting with things in the same way. And I missed it. I still miss it.

I’m pleased to report that my long break from poetry officially ended when I started the postcard poem project with Mike Dockins. It ended because now I have an imperative to write a poem every couple of weeks. It’s not the same as it used to be, but it’s something. And it’s all coming back to me: that necessity of being slow, of being careful, even of being kind of frivolous and capturing a moment or an emotion without dogging it to death (as I do when I write, say, an essay). And I realized that the world really does need poetry, for that very reason. Because it slows us down, because it exists outside of our crazy world. It gives us a unique challenge. There’s nothing else like poetry.

Which is all to say that I hope I’m wrong that poetry is dying out, and I have resolved to help in that cause. Here’s how you can help, too.

Support Poetry Daily! It’s a great site, with a poem a day, and while I have not yet been featured there, I hope someday I will be. They’re in their spring membership campaign, and you can donate here.

faith-meserveBuy books of poetry! You can buy mine here.

Support your local literary magazine!

Support your local poetry in the schools effort. California’s can be found here.

Read poetry to your kids! Some of my favorite kids’ books include everything by Shel Silverstein and Judith Viorst’s If I Were in Charge of the World.

Read poetry yourself. In addition to the many fine poets I featured this month, check out T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, H.D., Lawrence Ferlinghetti, John Ashberry, Gary Snyder, Jorie Graham, Louise Glück, Adrienne Rich, Cathy Song, Carolyn Forche, Joy Harjo, Carolyn Kizer, Heather McHugh, Russel Edson, James Tate, Dara Wier, Ai, David Rivard, Tomaz Salamun, Wislawa Zymborska, Adam Zagajiewski, Margaret Atwood, Rita Dove, Tess Gallagher, Marie Howe, Deborah Digges, Mary Oliver, W.S. Merwin, Charles Olson, Cornelius Eady, Matthew Rohrer, Matthew Dickman, Michael Dickman, Joshua Beckman, Cate Marvin, Brenda Shaughnessy….the list goes on and on. Who are YOUR favorites?

Finally, good news for me! I got a poem accepted for publication recently. It’s forthcoming in the journal Rock & Sling. Stay tuned.

All warm poetic thoughts to you,

Susie

National Poetry Month, Day 29: Mike Dockins

Today on the penultimate day of NPM I feature my good friend Mike Dockins, author of Slouching in the Path of a Comet (Sage Hill Press, 2007) and the forthcoming “Letter to So-and-So from Wherever” (C&R Press, due out, we hope, in January). Mike and I studied together in school and have kept in touch for many years. He favors letter poems (there exists a seven-page poem called “Letter to Meserve from Orgeval”), and together we’re in the midst of a postcard poem project: he writes me a poem on a postcard and mails it off; I read it, write a response, and mail one back. It’s been great fun, and stay tuned because there will be more news on that tomorrow!

For today, please enjoy “Splitting the Atom for Dummies.”

Splitting the Atom for Dummies

America the plum blossoms are falling.
—Allen Ginsberg

The atom cannot remember its baby-
hood, when it was whole. At a state fair,

west of someplace, a muscled barker
whomped it with a rubber mallet.

This was the atom’s bildungsroman:
it traveled the world, splitting itself

over islands, atolls, & fishing villages.
The atom learned Japanese, composed

lucid odes to harbors, to wings, to light—
little flashes of genius piloting down

through bright mornings, alighting
on bookshelves as thin, papery Buddhas.

(© Mike Dockins)