Friday, March 13, 2015

A book response (not a review)

I hesitated to check that mammoth prize-winning novel out of the library for a year despite professional reviews that said such things as, “The novel is … eloquent and assured, with memorable characters…,” despite the rave reviews several of my friends gave it, despite my curiosity. It’s just so long at nearly 800 pages, and I’m getting old enough to fear feeling obliged to finish a long, long book when life is too short and so many other books call to me. “Eeliizaabeeth!!! You want me. You need me. Come, open me up like I’m an innocent flower.”

During one of my frequent trips to our public library, I finally approached this book’s fat spine, timidly tipped it off the shelf, shrugged my shoulders and said, “It’s time, boo, it’s time to read this.”

And the first 250 pages or so were electric, magic, a reality built with a meticulous and beautiful attention to the kinds of details that sing a character to life (especially the dead one). Even the initial heartbreak and horror was composed with stunning beauty, and I was proud of myself for sticking with the lengthy descriptions and what could be considered excessive internal monologue. Maybe, I thought, I’m not too stupid for this book after all.

But another 100 pages in, and I felt trapped and claustrophobic, felt like someone was holding me hostage. Too much neglect, drug use, violence against “innocents,” the same scenes over and over, the drinking, the bad food, dirty clothes, the threats, the exploitation. I also started finding editing errors: a spot where “she” should have been “he,” where an exact line of dialogue appeared twice in a row as though a copyeditor had forgotten to delete a line after she moved it, a grammar error here and there, an inconsistency in the color of a bad guy’s sunglasses or eyes, something amiss with a plot point.

Because I’m trained as a copyeditor, and am attempting to make a bit of a living doing this wonderful work, I always find errors in the books I read. If the story is working for me, I read around or through the errors. In this case, I used the errors as an excuse to give myself permission to quit nearly halfway through the book. I just couldn’t do it.

I’m not going to name names because I’m not a book reviewer and don’t feel like giving even the vaguest negative press to an author who spent a decade writing this incredibly intricate and often beautiful tale. It just wasn’t for me, and I suppose this entry is a way for me to forgive myself for giving up, for being too shallow or too dumb to keep going.

I’ve already started reading another novel (lighter, shorter), and I’m reading Mary Oliver’s The Leaf and the Cloud, so I’m keeping my hungry reading brain sated.




Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Unsolicited Advice to One's Melancholy Self on a Rainy Day before the next Snowy Day in Ohio

1. Only leave the house to run errands meant to prevent fines or late fees.

2. Remember to pull up the hood on your coat so that your fat, gray braid doesn't soak up too much water and drench the back of your sweater later when you're in from the cold.

3. Avoid stepping in the puddles that are more like ponds or swamps with your right foot since that boot has sprung a leak, and you'll find your right sock drenched and your right toes cold when you remove said boot later after you're in from the cold.

4. Enter and exit the detached garage through the side door instead of through the main garage door to avoid drowning in the deep, deep sea the sidewalk between the walkway and the driveway has become.

7. Don't worry about convoluted sentences when the world is this wet. The rain will wash away all the excess.

8. Stop chipping away at the ice at the end of your driveway. It's defeated you. And that's okay. It's going to snow again tomorrow, anyway, and you'll have to start all over.

9. Go ahead and bury your face in the cat's fur, listen to him purr, forgive him for barfing on the carpet after he got into something on top of the refrigerator not designed for middle-aged kitties' bellies.

10. Change your wet sock, if you didn't manage to avoid the puddles that are more like ponds with that right boot; your foot is cold.



Monday, March 2, 2015

I am not a poet

The essay I read today that my former mentor wrote partly about her creative nonfiction student who keeps claiming not to be a poet broke me down today.

I am not a poet.

I am a writer, and I'm doing the work that proves I'm a working writer by writing every day, putting some of the work out into the world, revising, working as an editor, which improves my own writing.

But I am not a poet.

I'm a prose writer who likes the structure of poetry, likes the line and image and push of metaphor. I like tropes and caesura, couplets and persona.

I like point of view and leaping and frogs and lizards and black house spiders and my father's skunk hair and my brother's use of the word "dolt."

But I am not a poet.

I'm a prose writer, a story writer, who likes to use elements of poetry.

This is perfectly all right, you know, that I'm not really a poet. And if someday I get poems published or even a chapbook or full-length manuscript published, well, that's peachy.

But I am not a poet.

I am, simply, a writer.

I'll continue to read poems and study poems and write poems, but I think I'll feel much freer if I stop thinking of myself as a poet.

What a relief!

What a relief.

I tried to conquer the ice on my driveway, but my body wore out and hurt for the second day in a row of an entire winter of not hurting while shoveling snow.

Ice is different. It requires violence and a pissed-offness that I feel lately but can't translate into my muscles and skeleton.

I like the skeleton of poems, like the way they look on the page even when the lines are long or the poem is a prose poem.

I like looping back through a stanza and revisiting an earlier stanza but secretly so no one but me knows what I'm doing.

I like my personal symbols and my memories that I pretend are metaphors.

The chalk house in "Marching Band Lullaby" is not a metaphor. It's a memory.

Or can memories be metaphors? Is that what memories are?

When I remember a conversation I had once with my mother telling me I was a garrulous 5 year old, is that a metaphor for a sparrow who won't stop chirping?

When I remember a conversation I had with my mother telling me she feared her outgoing nature perhaps silenced me and she regretted that, is that a metaphor for a mute, badly paved driveway?

What do I know?

I studied and studied and read and emulated and reviewed and practiced and revised and critiqued and wrote new and rewrote completely and dissected and read some more and tried to understand but I'm not really that bright so that MFA? I don't think it really belongs to me. I think it belongs to my 20-year-old self who graduated with a bachelor's in English and German and should have gone on to study comparative literature.

If I'd stayed in the habit of literary criticism, I would probably be a better poet.

But maybe it doesn't matter if I'm a better poet. Maybe what matters is that I keep writing and shifting, growing into work that right now puzzles me because I don't know what it is, stories that whisper beginnings in my ear while I sleep but elude me when I wake up, hung over from watching too much Netflix or reading until 4 a.m., eyes small and cloudy when I look in my bathroom mirror in the morning.

All I am is writing and words. I'm commas, semicolons, parentheses; I'm image and wildness, but only on the page, never in life. No wild impulses except the one that hits me now and then and demands I strip off my clothes, reveal my flab and run barefoot and naked up the street at 4 a.m. just after I finish reading. I would run and run until I found a jungle, maybe crossed an ocean, which would mean I would have to swim naked in salt water, and the salt would exfoliate my skin. On the shore I would stand up naked, still full of blubber but not as much, hungry for pasta but limited to leaves and coconuts, which I despise. My blubber and muscles would shiver in the sand, and I would decide to find a freshwater pond on the land and risk some kind of poisoning because the thirst would enrage me so.

I once wrote about an enraged thirst in a poem that was a lyric poem before I had any ambition to write lyric poems or essays.

Do I need to define what I'm writing before I write it?

This is my current struggle.

I think the answer needs to be “no.”

It would be better if I went back to fiction, genre fiction where no one thinks about tropes and symbols and lyricism but maybe allows for the occasional metaphor.


I am thinking too much about what I am writing and not spending enough time writing it, though I write it all the time, every day, something new, even just a line or a scene or a stanza or a paragraph toward something. Or a journal entry.

Mini-ice boulders and a lack of the lyric

(note: this is not a blog post, nor is it an essay; it's a journal entry that I just feel like sharing due to my terrible habit of excessive self-disclosure when I'm feeling blue.)


The snow plow driver cocked his blade toward the curb, screeched down Verneva and – yes he did – added a few mini-ice boulders to the end of my short driveway. My body hurts from shoveling yesterday, the first snow pain of this long, ugly season. Sun shines, and eggs boil on my stove. I need the protein, and a half-cooked meatball that landed on an order of spaghetti last Friday when I went to dinner with a friend turned me away from any kind of meat again.

No, no, this is not how I want to play today’s game, writing about meatballs and snow plows. But listen, the eggs roiling in the pot sound like the mini-ice boulders at the end of my tiny driveway when I loosen them with my shovel and toss them into my beleaguered yard.

This is too fancy for me, using words like “beleaguered” and trying to compare boiling eggs to iced snow blobs. “Blobs” is a better word for me. I’m a blobby sort of person, especially lately, moody, still (as in sedentary), a bit shrill when I open my mouth to complain about things that don’t matter.

The boiling egg pot whistles almost as if I set the eggs in my whistling tea kettle, which I did use this morning to make coffee.

I’m not sorry my fancy, but old coffee maker died. It’s so much easier to clean my porcelain cone dripper, and I’m so lazy lately that the thought of washing even a spoon rest makes me need a nap.

I’m reading a Kathy Winograd essay (http://essaydaily.blogspot.com/2015/03/kathryn-winograd-on-lyric-impulse.html) that’s killing me because I suddenly feel like I didn’t learn anything during my MFA program. (She was one of my mentors, though only for a week, and she helped me think about shedding some bad habits born of being a journalist and an editor.)

This is nothing new, of course, this feeling of ignorance, this certainty that I am and always will be a fraud. I went into a program knowing nothing and came out knowing less because I realized how much I didn’t know about poetry, writing, process.

Is this why I feel the need for a nap when I contemplate washing even a spoon rest?

There was a point during the two years I was studying poetry for that MFA when I decided that I loved the process of making whatever it was I was making so much that I didn’t need to label it either prose or poetry; I just needed to write what needed writing. For a few weeks, I felt confident this was the way to go so I could get through the program with a book-length manuscript of something that didn’t reek.

I’m scrambling in my head to fight off this notion that because I love narrative I can’t also be a poet, worry that I don’t have enough lyric elements in my work.

If this were a real essay instead of a journal entry I’ve chosen to share semi-publicly, I’d do some research to help myself through this little glitch in my armor, but I’m too lazy (see spoon-rest-washing dilemma above) and have “real” work to do and no time or heart to read writing that will pound that nail in the coffin of my definition of Self as Poet.

(Despite time constraints and my nearly debilitating blues regarding my self-definition, I am reading a David Baker essay as I type and skip through this entry, and I just muttered, “Oh my God, this is awesome” (which means I have to plank for thirty seconds since I muttered the overused word “awesome”), which leads me to believe I’m not as inwardly depressed about this labeling dilemma as I might think.)

That’s it for now. No resolution. If this were a real blog, and this were meant to be a real blog post rather than a journal entry, I’d try harder for resolution or elucidation.

I will put on warmish clothes soon and go out to conquer the mini-ice boulders blocking the end of my driveway. Maybe sweating and pain will shake loose something lyric in my narrative soul.