It keeps the fire going

In 2018, I attended a local writing conference and heard one of the speakers say she had set a goal of submitting 100 pieces of writing a year. With that many submissions out there, she said, she was bound to score some publications.

I was floored. Here was this amazing poet, someone with books published, telling me that she aims for this large number and is happy if a small part of it is fulfilled. But it was a good nudge, and later that year, after a few years of not submitting much creative work, I dusted off the Submittable account and got busy submitting poetry and hybrid pieces. I did not hit the 100 subs mark (nor had I set mine that high), and I got more rejection notices than acceptance letters. But I landed three pubs, and the momentum pushed me into 2019.

Last year was such a blur that when, over Christmas, I got an acceptance letter from Lethe, an international journal in Istanbul, I didn’t remember submitting work! But a hybrid piece flash piece about my mixed heritage is out in print and will be online soon.

And just last week, another acceptance letter came in, this one from Graphite Interdisciplinary Journal of the Arts, a journal sponsored by UCLA/ TheHammer Museum. 

I don’t typically submit to themed calls for submission, but this one put forth by Graphite, on the topic of “fruit,” inspired me. I was teaching 100 Year of Solitude when I read the call for subs, and we had just entered the banana massacre timeline. Bananas are fruit, I thought, and my research for class led me to some interesting telegrams between the U.S. and Colombian government. So I spun them into a poem. It was one that got accepted, and I’m excited to share it with the world.

Writing is hard work. Finding time to write is hard. And then writing something that’s good enough one wants to submit it? Also difficult. These small pubs are not Poetry Magazine or The New Yorker.  But they still reach people. And because my poetry is almost exclusively about social justice, the publication of my work makes me feel like perhaps some distant reader might be spurred to find a cause of their own, make time for it, and run with it.

Separation

Each morning this week I’ve peered out the window to see a world pricked white with ice and wrapped in heavy fog. Frozen shards of moisture cover the trees, the buildings, the tractors and everything else in my view. Suspended in air, not-quite-frozen moisture thickens the spaces between things.

It’s beautiful, this tinsel and wrap, but I can tell it is heavy.

***

Yesterday, I went snowshoeing through the orchard,  following the small confetti trail of rabbit tracks. I often head out into the world randomly, so having this path to follow is a way to stay grounded. This farm does that for me, sometimes; it provides an anchor, a true north. Lately thought, I’ve been questioning this particular compass.

***

On my way back through the trees, I noticed a few of them had begin to splinter, limbs bending off from body. The weight of all this beauty, the fine, natural form of all those wet molecules has become too much for them after a week — or a lifetime of such weeks. This splitting open of wood and membrane is beautiful in its own way, but painful to observe. This kind of split grows with weight and time and pressure, and soon the limb will pull from the trunk, be torn in two.

***

Life on the farm, for its beauties and wonders, is heavy this time of year. The rabbits are slow and skinny; sometimes ripped apart by predators more assertive than them.

There are apple trees standing dead and brown from last year’s hard winter. The whole world seems to reflect a frozen pond reality of earthy and sky, high and low, beauty and horror.

***

I’ve been thinking about separation a lot lately, and what it means to be close, to share a bond. Two years ago I grafted some of the trees in our nursery with my partner. After a second winter, many are dead. The graft was too weak, or the force of nature too strong. In some cases, the root stock lived, firmly planted in its new home. All grafts have this potential; all transfers run the risk of not taking to their new home.

***

Trampling through the snow,  through powder and across drifts hard with midnight cold, I am a my own world of paradox. I am molecules and atoms swirling in a void of separation and disconnect. And I sometimes want to pull apart, freely, away from this center of gravity and drift on. This is as natural as existence, as harsh and beautiful and cold.

The creative process

One of my biggest struggles as a writer is sitting down to do the work. These days, it seems like I need a reason to write, a reason that goes beyond just scribbling some ideas to play around with. I think this is because having a kid and a farm and a husband means my time for just “playing around” with words feels harder to come by and maybe more selfish than it used to.

But I can get going if I have a reason to write and a deadline. And this month, because South Dakota Poet Laureate Christine Stewart has put forth a call for submissions for a new collection of poetry, I have both.

Stewart’s anthology seeks to highlight life in South Dakota, and I’ve decided to cobble together three poems prior to the March 1 deadline. I’m hoping to highlight life in what South Dakotans call West River, or the area of the state that’s west of the Missouri River. I grew up just south of the South Dakota border out in West River, spent a lot of time fishing on the Missouri River around Pierre, and then moved to Sioux Falls for college. So although I know both ends of the state, and I love Sioux Falls, I’m working on material that highlights the quieter side of the state.

Notes, and a rough poem

I’ve been playing around with some ideas in a Word doc, and others in a notebook. The handwritten stuff is better and more focused. But I’m leading a workshop in revision in a couple of weeks, so today I’m also thinking about what it means to be able to write and revise and save a record of it.  Below, a record of my ideas:

There’s lots going on there. Ideas from an essay I wrote in grad school about dust, and how it differs in rural areas and the city; a quote about rain and maybe physics; the idea that we return to dust; a jotting of words and images. I like this idea of returning to dust not just because its something many are familiar with but because I’ve come back to the country, from the city. I’ve returned to the dust…and if you’ve ever been in my house you know I mean this in a real way.

Despite the vision and the ideas that are sort of swirling around here, I haven’t quite figured out what I want to say in the poem I’m trying to put together. Usually my poetry is driven by social justice issues, and writing about the dust isn’t that.

So for now, I put the idea away. I’ll come back to it tomorrow or the next day, or both. I’ve got that deadline, after all, and now that I’ve adopted it, I’ll have to come up with something.

Yikes!

Oh, dear, reader! Today I updated my list of publications, and I realized it’s been months since I last updated my blog. Surely you don’t care (clearly I don’t either), but oh, my! What a crazy few months it has been since May, when I last made an effort to write. The submission I wrote about then, to Yoko Ono’s project, got accepted, and as far as I know, it is traveling around with the rest of the installation. I had hoped to make it to Chicago to see it at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but that just didn’t happen.

My son turned one in May, which means he’s 20 months now, and all atoms and molecules whizzing around at uncontrollable rates! He’s a jabberbox as well, and I expect nothing short of a complete collection of written insights and fragments by age 5.

My partner and I grew hemp, joined the Minnesota Department of Ag. for a task force on hemp in the state, learned a lot and have been planning for next year’s crop already. Will it be hemp, or won’t it? I make no promises regarding the crop, nor that I’ll be back soon with an update.

I digress, but it’s been so long since I took a moment to update this dusty old space that it seems only proper to catch one up fully with this note!

Back to writerly news, I attended the 33rd annual Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa in July. I submitted my stroke manuscript to be considered for a two-week revisions workshop, and I got in! Along with 9 other writers, I spent two weeks workshopping and revising with Sandra Scofield. It was fantastic, but I’ve only just now started working in earnest on my revisions.

When I came back from Iowa, I put in order a class on “The Literature of Revolution” for my alma mater, Augustana University. We touched on literature from/about Russia, Iran, South Africa, Greece, Mexico, the US and Colombia. I enjoyed being back among my former professors, but teaching face-to-face was a lot of work! Perhaps it’s because at the same time that the fall semester started, a freelance gig I had interest in came through. More on that when I can share!

In the nine months I’ve been away from this blog, I certainly feel like I birthed a child, and perhaps I’ll do no better at writing regularly now than in the year (years) past. What is different now, however, is that I don’t really feel all that bad about neglecting my blog. I’d love to have the free time to write, daily, but if I am too busy to do so, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it’s simply because I’ve got other writing calling my name.

Seeing each other

Photo cred to my honey, Sean.

May 1. Finally.

After a tough semester, wherein I started out with 122 students in four composition I and II classes, I am finally done grading. I am done with submitting grades. I am done with students…at least until May 6, when my next term starts. It is a small break, but a good one, and it will allow me to send out some submissions I’d neglected in April.

I had hoped to do more writing last month but had to put my goals aside to focus on my students. One of the things I DID accomplish for myself last month was submitting a poem and a picture of my eyes to a project put together by Yoko Ono.

The exhibition is part of a project called “Growing Freedom, the art of John and Yoko.” It features music, written word, images, and I think even more interactive events like yoga and talks. It’s been featured in Iceland and Germany so far, and went up in Montreal on April 25. According to Yoko’s call for submissions, it will continue to make its way around the world.


THE INSTALLATION ARISING WILL CONTINUE TO GROW
AND WILL BE EXHIBITED IN MANY COUNTRIES.

I VERY MUCH HOPE FOR YOUR PARTICIPATION.

– Yoko Ono


Focused on giving women a chance to share “a testament of harm done to you for being a woman,” it sounds like such an interesting way to draw audience participation and raise awareness about a current topic in a new way.

My understanding is that anyone who submits material will have their writing and photo added to the installation. Today I received an email confirming they’d received my work and thanking me for “participating” in the exhibition. I think that means I’m in, but I replied and asked if they could confirm that my submission had been added and maybe even take a picture for me.

If you’d like to submit to the exhibition, you’ll find instructions in the link I shared to the exhibition.

If I hear back, I’ll post an update with the picture. If not, I’ll post an update about the project. Or, if you’d like to learn more, check it out!

The decline of critical thinking

If I say “composition,” what do you think of?

If you’re an artist or photographer, perhaps you think of the way a piece comes together– its composition. That’s a pretty nice association to have with that word. But for many people, I think the word brings up the dreaded high school or college composition class. In my line of work, as a college writing instructor, that’s what I’m talking about, nine times out of ten.

And believe me, that word is just about as cringe-worthy for me as it is for many of my students.

If course, the class is not a struggle for me in the way it is for them; I’ve already figured out what a thesis statement is and I can * mostly * write in an organized manner. What is a challenge for me, however, is grading the papers that my students labor to churn out.

Because I teach online and have truncated semesters (8 weeks for one school, 10 for the other), I have grading deadlines, respectively, of one week and three days. It’s tough to turn around student papers in such a short amount of time and give them adequate feedback, but it is where I spend most of my hours. Pointing out their errors and explaining why they are errors is the only way for them to learn how to do something correctly. That’s kind of a “duh,” statement, I know. But one of the greatest values of a comp class is the way it models and molds critical thought, and I don’t think a lot of people see it that way.

Not only am I teaching my students how to discover, outline, write and support an argument through research, I’m teaching them the importance of thinking critically about the world around them. And especially with persuasive writing, they’re learning the importance of using facts and data to back up a claim, not just stating an opinion and calling it good.

Again, more “duh” statements, I know. But I was just reading a paper about the benefits of getting a technical degree over a four-year liberal arts degree, and I got sidetracked. On the one hand, I completely agree with my student: not all people should pursue a liberal arts degree and the debt that comes with it. (Diving into that issue is a whole ‘nother post.) But on the other hand, this student, who works in a trade industry currently, had written a whole paper full of opinion statements. There weren’t any facts, there was no data to back up claims, and the general assumptions peppering the document could easily be shot down by someone in the know.

And there’s the problem. I’m seeing so many students come into class totally ignorant of how to back up a claim with fact. Yes, yes, they are students and I can’t expect them to know everything, or else what good would I be? I agree. But I’m seeing this more and more in those who’ve grown up on social media, or, in the case of this student, those who don’t come from a background that encourages education. I don’t want this to be a political post, but as I see our government champion more cuts to education while also issuing statements that are not backed in fact, at a time when soundbites reign supreme, I worry about the collective intellect and our society’s ability to spot, source and understand the truth.

We already know high school doesn’t prepare kids for adult life. Now, it seems like they’re not even prepared to navigate the mistruths of our world because they don’t know how to think critically about it.

I went back to my student’s paper halfway through writing this post, and I felt a renewed sense of importance regarding the work. I still don’t like grading virtual stacks of papers, but I’m not one for marching in the streets, either. It seems like grading papers and stressing the importance of critical thinking to my students could become, for me, a form of activism. It’s sort of a nice thought; I’d like to hang on to it when the grading load is heavy and the deadlines are tight.

The nonet

I’ve been buried by rough drafts of persuasive essays this week, so I’m behind in the poetry writing challenge I’ve been writing about. I’m working to get caught up because I really like the idea of ending the month with 30 new poems.

Bam! That is some serious productivity for me!

One of the recent posts I missed featured the nonet, and the word of inspiration was “cousins.” The form itself gave me a fun idea to play around with, but cousins…meh.

Instead, I wrote about a spontaneous trip with a hostel-mate to Buenaventura, Colombia.

Buenaventura

I took a leap and rode off with him
to the coast, where fish still had eyes
on our dinner plates. It was
brash and risky, but I
felt so free, like I
was diving in
without fear
and no
net

It was fun to incorporate the form name into the poem while playing around with coastal/water-related themes, but perhaps it’s just too cute?

Does it matter?

Not a part of Chicago’s subway system, but fitting. Credit to Fancycrave.com on Pexels.com

When I lived in Chicago and would tell people at a party that I was writing a memoir, there would always be one person who’d ask, “What makes you think your life is so special that anyone would want to read about it?” It was almost always a guy, and although this person wasn’t trying to be a dick, it was clear that he really believed that a random person’s story probably wasn’t that special.

I’d tell my inquisitor that I had survived a stroke just a few years before; learning to walk again, do math, drive, FUNCTION, had been a challenge. I wanted to offer hope to anyone who had gone through some similar setback, I’d say. A “Whoa,” or a “Hmm, I’d probably read about that,” would often follow.

Creative writers, especially memoirists, can be labeled as navel-gazers for writing about themselves. Any one of us who writes about life’s experiences could be seen that way, I suppose, if we impart our own spin or understanding on the experiences we’re writing about.

But I’d argue that even if it is not as polished as it could be (like this blog!), writing about the human condition and one’s experience can shed light on something in a new way for a new reader.

Today is day 6 of the poetry challenge I’m participating in, and I’m thinking about all this because of the poem I wrote for our prompt. Descort was the form, and “downtown” was the word of inspiration.

Here’s my crack at it:

Downtown

My favorite schizophrenic
rode the Red line
with me Mondays and Wednesdays.
 The people around us,
the many voices,
added
 to the cacophony of the city.
Oh, how I loved that Chicago grit,
that
you could be
alone in togetherness with so many.


After writing this, I started thinking about “my favorite schizophrenic.” This man would often be on the train when I’d get on in the morning, and he’d ride downtown with me. Somehow, we frequently rode in the same car, and fascinated, I’d watch him have conversations with himself.

Today, I feel so naive whenever I think of him.

Until my time in Chicago, I didn’t understand the depths of mental illness and its correlation to the homeless population.

My only experiences with the homeless were in Bogota, where my mom would always yank me away from staring or trying to give a homeless person a few pesos. Even though she would become a mental health counselor, she never offered any lessons on why the person conducting an invisible orchestra might be homeless.

So as I think about the man, a character in real life, and a person in a poem now (I also wrote about him in grad school), I hope that anyone stumbling across this post takes a minute to learn more about mental health, homelessness and their connections.

These resources are a good place to start
National Alliance on Mental Illness
National Coalition for the Homeless
National Healthcare for the Homeless Council
Mental Illness Policy Org

Posting a few websites is not much, I know. And drawing on my memories to write a poem to fit this “purpose” of completing a challenge could probably be looked on as appropriation by some. But I believe that art can make a difference for others while also allowing the artist to gain something new.



Skeltonic verse

This fun image reminds me of something one might see in Cartagena, Colombia, around the new year. It was also a fun play on the form type I write about below. Credit to Bianca on Pexels.com

In today’s poetry challenge, participants had a couple of things to work with as inspiration. Joe, our “leader,” always gives us a word of inspiration and a poetic form to attempt. We can use one, or both, or neither. I LOVE challenging myself to write to a form, even if I often bastardize it.

Today’s form, however, was a rhyming one. I am not a rhyme-y writer.

So the idea of working with the Skeltonic verse was a little uninspiring. But I liked the idea of working with our word: “countryside.”  Because I’m further challenging myself to write a poem that could work in either of the collections I’m crafting, that word offered a lot of possibility.

I could write about Colombia and all of the landmines buried in the countryside, and/or all of the bodies also buried there.  Or I could focus on something else related to the Colombian countryside. Or I could write about living in rural Minnesota and how I’ve returned to a rural lifestyle despite hating farm life as an adolescent.

Rhyming about land mines didn’t really make sense, and I’m not feeling any wifely or motherly angst today (phew). So I decided to just write about Colombia in general and see what happened.

It rhymes, but I don’t think it works in the way it is “supposed to.” At least I squeezed out a few lines!

Colombia

It’s a foreign, far countryside
with scars that run deep and wide.
It’s a legend that never ends,
a home to Spanish villains
intent on their Dorado
and the gold runs they thought of
as theirs for their heirs
and their kingdoms to come.
But it’s more than a legend,
With its misconceptions.
Land of varied degrees,
It snows in the Andes
and blisters your skin
just to tease.

National Poetry Month

abstract black and white blur book

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

April is National Poetry Month, and the Academy of American Poets has a lot of tools available on their site to help you celebrate. One of those tools offers “30 ways to celebrate” poetry throughout the month.  Check it out!

There are some good options in the list;  numbers 3, 7, 8, 12, 15, 19 and 29 are my faves. Which ones interest you?

My own methods of celebrating include leading a poetry workshop later this month, attending a poetry night and open mic, and participating in a “write a poem a day” challenge with 100+ other poets. We’re on day 2, and so far I’ve cranked out two poems.

As I wrote in my previous post, I’m not a fan of “prompts” to help me write, but so far, the two prompts put forth in the group have spoken to me.  I’d share them here, but I actually think they could become something publishable, so I’ll refrain, at least for now.

I hope National Poetry Month treats you well and turns you on to some new words, forms and poets!