Blog That’s All, “What’s Your Favorite Tree?” And I’m Like, “Poetry!”

Three years ago, I made an appointment to see a therapist to fix myself. While the list of brokenness is long and would no doubt require a chorus line of therapists, each with a different specialty (much like one of those home makeover shows, with each tile and plumbing and duct specialist exclaiming that this shit needs to be torn out and down and built back up), I felt compelled to seek help because of two specific areas: 1. Post-postpartum depression-depression, and 2. Anxiety attacks related to writing, or more specifically, sharing my poetry.

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Is it possible to have Seasonal Affective Disorder but with summer because the place you live in is trying to kill you? Because I have that I think.

I had seen a therapist twice before: the first was at 12, when I was experiencing crippling migraines. After seeing a physician, it was determined there was no physical cause to my pain, so my mom drove me to Albuquerque from our small town to see a counselor (I regularly saw my middle school counselor because of frequent bullying, but now that my body had begun to show the effects, it was time to call in the A-Team). The verdict was that I was a pretty sad, stressed out little kid (thanks squad of girls who’ve made it difficult for me to form relationships with women!). He recommended a strategy to deal with my migraines that involved imagining the headaches as a physical presence to battle–I did, sending out tiny, white bean cowboys on floating space horses to blast the gray, pulsing, fanged menace. It worked, and while I wouldn’t develop mechanisms to handle the bullying for years (spoiler alert–it was humor and overeating), the migraines dissipated.

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My adolescent migraine, gentlepeople! I’ve named it after all the bitches who were mean to me.

The second time I saw a therapist was in college and it was about some other stuff, largely related to issues of abandonment resulting from assorted sources including the decade of bullying (seriously–y’all fucked me up, Belen). The woman was a doctoral student who was kind and warm and liked me as a person, and though we met only for about three months, working with her became a source of tremendous solace and important realizations.

That was in 1997, and it wouldn’t be until 2013 that I reached out again. To be clear–that is not because I was doing super well. It’s because for most of that time, I didn’t have health insurance. It’s a good thing I’m the only one whose need for mental health assistance was thwarted by lack of resources, huh? Wouldn’t it be terrible if people were prevented from accessing needed care because of a lack of, or having crappy, health insurance? Shudder.

I was able to make an appointment this last time through an employee assistance program at my work that makes a handful of sessions available through a contracted organization and was set up with a woman on a hot summer morning. I should have known upon entering her office, though, that this was not going to work: the diploma from Liberty University (aka The Jerry Falwell School of Reading the Bible in Ways That Render Intolerance Righteous); the penholder emblazoned with “Focus on the Family” (a similarly evangelical organization that uses the term “family” to mean “a man and a woman who follows that man and hot dinners with plenty of red meat, hold the critical thinking, thank you”; and lastly the Navy memorabilia blanketing the small room. Now, don’t think that just because I’m an atheist peacenik that I, in turn, am intolerant of those who live their lives differently just because I was super sarcastic about those choices several lines earlier. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church, and I come from a long line of military folk, not to mention all the students I’ve had and really liked despite our significant philosophical differences. I’ve been privileged to get to know and care for many different kinds of people in my life, but that’s not the same as opening your brain and asking them to peek around inside.

As we talked, my anxiety attacks came up as the focus, and I described the sensation of physical panic any time I even thought about sending work out. At that point, I’d been writing again for about seven months or so, invited into a writers group of fellow moms by the wife of a colleague (both of whom became friends). The experience had been largely positive, and I found myself pushing my work in ways I had never done before: getting weirder, showing greater control. The years of reading and teaching (but not writing) poetry seemed to have serve as some kind of poetic Crock-Pot. (Hey Erin–if you’re a poet, why are you so terrible with metaphors, you ask? I don’t disagree.) For the first time ever, I was producing work that, if not exactly what I wanted to do, was close. It was exciting, and it prompted my writers group friends to suggest I send out my work, to which I responded by crying and hiding in the bathroom. Just the idea of doing that caused an intense physical reaction of pure panic, unlike any other kind of anxiety I’d experienced (and I am a bit of a connoisseur of the varying flavors of freaking out). This reaction made me feel ashamed, like a failure–if this was what I wanted to do, and I couldn’t even bring myself to fully pursue it, what kind of failed life does that speak to? This ensured that I spent a good deal of time in a spiral of anxiety and despondency, thus, the outsourcing of my mental wellness.

The nice woman responded to all of this by asking why it was I wanted my work to be seen. Wasn’t it enough to write, to keep a journal, perhaps emblazoned with interspecies baby pairs frolicking in a meadow? When I responded that I wanted to be a part of a larger conversation, to listen and be listened to, she recommended starting a blog for my poems. I explained how poetry publishing worked, journals, etc., and how a blog would reach those I already knew but would fail to connect with new readers in the kind of way I hoped to someday accomplish. She smiled and wrote something down and played with her bowl haircut. It was a very bad first date.

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I’m gonna look at this all day and then write poetry about how each new life is a reminder that death comes for us all.

And while this nice lady did not get, and therefore could not help me through, my dilemma  in any way, some of her questions led to me to ask other questions of myself. What did I want my poetry to do, and why was I so certain that the next step had to be sending work out if I was, in fact, so petrified of that notion? Why did I think that poetry, after 15 years of flirting with and hiding from it, was the thing I had to do? Who did I think I was, and why did it matter if anyone else knew?

You’ll be happy to know that I have answered all of these, and in fact all possible, existential questions about my life and have become very wise and grounded so I don’t even know why I’m talking about this.

Sorry–misspelled that. Meant to say that I’m still working through those and other questions on a daily basis. Damn autocorrect.

Three years after the bad therapist date, I’m now a published poet with a nice list of acceptances and a roster of rejections that can be seen from the moon. (Google Earth has a spectacular view of them.) And while I don’t write about the rejection experience in specific detail, which is perhaps part of my WASP-side where we do not speak of such things, I feel like it relates to where I’m going with all of this. Nearly all of my rejections as of late (of individual poems, residencies, and my book manuscript) have been close. Finalist, semi-finalist, personal note about trying again soon. Ostensibly, that’s great, but it’s a bit like being told you were really seriously considered as a prom date but ultimately he’s gonna go with your friend, but if she and then two others get sick, he’ll call you. On a pure ego level, it is rough, but I’ve also been struggling with how to stay committed to this when I feel so stuck in almost. Why write if no one sees it? Why shit in the woods if the Pope’s not there?

So (and here is the where of the what we’ve been driving toward), in order to help me focus on writing not just as a nice hobby for my journal, and to encourage me to write through the rejection, I’ve signed up to be a part of Tupelo Press’ 30/30 fundraising project. Each month, Tupelo asks a small group of poets to write one poem a day for thirty days in order to raise money for this independent poetry press. I have committed to raise $500 in June, during which I will write and post on Tupelo’s site a new poem every day. Let me emphasize part of that insanity: I will write a new poem every day.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

Every day. Every day? Every. Day.

I will also blog about the process, though that won’t be every day because I will also be teaching and traveling and beginning a new reading series in June (every day? Every day!). But I do invite you, if you’ve made it this far, to check out my progress here and at Tupelo’s site, and if you’re able, consider contributing to the cause–the cause being my public humiliation.

I have a pretty strong feeling that this is going to be a real shitshow, a circus of new and exotic failure, but here’s the thing: I’m going to do it anyway. That’s not something I could have said even two years ago and so seems like a kind of success, Crock-Pot metaphors and all.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll come to gawk in June.

 

 

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Blog That’s So Sorry–Baby, Won’t You Take This Blog Back?

Blog That’s So Sorry–Baby, Won’t You Take This Blog Back?

It’s been two months since posting, a fact which has not gone unnoticed by a coterie of my fans who frequent the Valero gas station near my gym. They’re all like Hey baby! Nice shake! Also, I really enjoy your feminist take on the inevitable descent into middle age! Watchu think bout this male gaze? Etc.

I have a penpal in Brooklyn who I’m bad at getting back to and so begin every email with a quick rendering of how busy I’ve been, which is really just a windy way of saying sorry, a word that flies out of my mouth with a kind of humiliating frequency and which I’m trying to eliminate, even when I am actually sorry. I have no doubt there are men, some of whom I’m related to, who have never said the word outside of quoting some Goodfellas scene where someone says it, and probably then only mocking someone they’re about to kill who’s all I’m sorry, Tony. I didn’t know she was your broad or whatever they say. I have, of course, seen Goodfellas, but only in the company of Men I Was Kind of Dating, such as one fellow who put it on nearly every night of our two-week relationship and then proceeded to put the moves on me. This is not the weirdest thing that, back in my roving days, men used to put on as the background to awkward seduction, a list which includes but is not limited to: Nine Inch Nails, Carl Sagan PBS specials, Eraserhead, covers of Bob Marley songs by white women, and Rain Man. Guh. Which is all to say I’m trying to embrace the obstinate cluelessness of the modern American male (straight Gen-X version, at least) and neither apologize nor explain what I’ve been up to instead of writing here.

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Man, this puts me in the mood.

Instead, what I want to talk about is how we find ways to keep doing what we love when no one we love gives a shit about it. For me, that is obviously both poetry and fast food worker cosplay. You can check out my work on the latter on the blog FrenchFryFetishist, so for this blog, I’ll talk about the former: poetry.

Wait! Come back! You won’t have to read any poetry, I swear.

I get it, the not getting it. I understand the panic induced in most Americans when someone brings up “poetry” in conversation. What I most often notice is a stiffening of the limbs and a total stoppage in blinking, as if by going camouflage and pretending to be a tree, they will have tricked the speaker into thinking Huh, I could have sworn Pedro was just here but all I see is this tree so I guess I’ll stop talking about poetry. This is what my mother does. She’ll ask what I’ve been doing and so I mention I’ve got some poems in a journal, and upon hearing the word poems, she goes catatonic, refusing to breathe or make eye contact until I change the subject.

Again–I get that poetry infuses many people with the feeling of having to take a pop quiz, probably because most of our exposure to poetry is in school and is usually taught in such a way as to make us hate poetry. As a college prof who has a lot of education majors in her literature class, I know now that one of the reasons for this is that a healthy number of those teaching English in middle/high schools are afraid of poetry, and they pass this on to their students, focusing on identifying rhyme schemes and teaching symbolism as an equation, wherein reading a poem becomes breaking a code, when if you do it right, everything clicks into place and there are no more questions. Of course, this is not all teachers, and maybe it’s changed since my generation was in school diagramming sentences and using a spell check called a fucking dictionary, but it does seem that, outside of poets, no one I know likes poetry.

I’m raising more questions than I will answer now because at this point I don’t want to talk about the nature of poetry or the American readership–I just want to talk about me. My first real exposure to poetry (outside of memorizing “Casey at the Bat” in the fifth grade) was decoding Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” in Mrs. Smith’s eighth grade honors English class. She used an overhead projector and spent two full class periods asking us to decipher the poem’s techniques, with no discussion of how we connected to or understood the poem’s themes of mortality and self-destruction which, given our age, we maybe didn’t have much to say about anyway. It was this experience, burned into my brain for almost 30 years, that made me realize poetry, with its rigid structures and refusal to say the thing it wants to say, was the fucking worst.

Years of high school and college did nothing to counter that conclusion. I did not grow up in a place or in a community where there were poetry readings or really just reading, and so unlike many poets who declare that they knew at age 11 what they were meant to do, it wasn’t until I was 21 that I understood poetry to be a thing that made life better. I was an English major and “got” poetry in the sense that I was assigned poems by dead people to write about and I did and got an “A,” but I did not get poetry. It wasn’t until, cliche though it may sound, I took a semester-long graduate seminar on Sylvia Plath that a poem crawled into my brain and whispered this is the thing you’ve been searching for how to say. Though it would be another 17 years until I could take myself seriously as a poet, that’s when the seed was planted: by the lyrical genius of Plath, one of the  greatest, and most misunderstood, American poets in history.

That I left college at all with a passion for poetry was a lucky confluence of scheduling and intellectual readiness, and I’m beginning to understand how much an appreciation of poetry has to do with privilege, particularly class, educational, and geographic privilege. How can you know if you’re supposed to be a poet if no one you’ve ever known talks about, reads, thinks about poetry? Certainly there are some rare geniuses who find a collection of Emily Dickinson in the school library and are thunderstruck into self-realization, but for most of us, it’s not possible to imagine a life if we haven’t seen it lived by someone else. At least, it wasn’t for me, and a life of poetry is not really imaginable to anyone I love, and I’m too early in my professional career as a poet (who just made a sweet $67 from publishing two poems in Boulevard, y’all!) to make it seem real to them.

What this means in a practical sense is that it’s often hard to keep pushing through all the rejections and hard work of writing (which often looks like staring out the window but is in fact me deleting scores of bad lines and images in my brain). I think it’s hard for any writer, but if you write fiction or nonfiction, there’s a good chance your loved ones understand what a novel or a memoir are. When someone asks you what your book’s about, you can give them an answer like It’s about a woman who finds a fish in her purse that turns out to be her husband in a former life and they open a detective agency and they will nod their heads and get it. But when a non-poetry reader asks a poet what her book is about and she says It’s a rumination on the development of a female/woman self in reaction and resistance to 20th century America’s enforcement of gender roles, exploring these ideas through narrative lyrics on childbirth, postpartum depression, abuse, and poverty then NO ONE WILL EVER ASK YOU AGAIN ABOUT ANY WRITING, EVER. So you say: poems.  And they say: oh.

Which, again, I get. I’m even a little grossed out by how to talk about poems. Poets can be a bit much.

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Gunter Grass’ School of Looking Like a Poet. C’est ne pas un pipe, naturellement.

I’m hoping this isn’t whinging (which is British for either whining or fucking a crumpet) but rather a way of asking a genuine question: what to do when the Venn circles of What You Love and Whom You Love don’t overlap? When What You Love isn’t just a hobby (see: middle-aged softball leagues) but one of the primary ways in which you identify yourself. So if how you see yourself is by being X, and the people who love you don’t want to talk about X, where do you go?

Traditionally people go to a community of like-minded souls outside of their families for this support. The sticky point here is that the small city where I live (rhymes with Schmalbuquerque) isn’t a big town for poets. No–let me refine that: it is a YUGE town for slam poets. If you are a slam poet, stop driving and pull up some dirt, cuz this here is your open mic oasis. But if you are a poet (and I’m using that to refer to someone who uses the limitations of the page and not performance to drive and develop meaning), then this is not such a great place. There are no reading serieses (series? seriei?), and most events feature approximately the same four slam poets, with no real demand to change that formula.

I’m truly glad there’s a place for these writers here, for those stories and perceptions and performances to be shared, but I want that for the rest of us, too. I want events that diversify and complicate people’s expectations and understanding of the power of poetry. I want a place to go to in order to hear kickass writers that’s worth getting a babysitter for the evening.

So, this is all a long way of saying that I, along with the fabulously talented poet Rebecca Aronson, am starting something we hope will do this: the Bad Mouth Reading Series, and I will tell you more about it later. But in our minds, there is wine and high quality literary shit and some music and it’s for grownups who have a bunch of shit to do and so will not fuck around with amateur hour. We’ll highlight women (yay!) and also whoever’s not a woman (that’s cool too!) and people from diverse backgrounds and outlooks. And maybe, because it’s Burque and this place makes everything hard, we’ll have to give up in six months, but GODDAMNIT LET’S TRY!

And maybe I will get my mom to go. Maybe I can get her to like it.

 

(Stay tuned for Bad Mouth–more info later in May!)