Quantity, Quality, Dubious Dichotomy

About six months ago I joined a writing workshop. I’m still not sure whether it was a good decision or a bad decision. One the one hand, there’s the whole “make me a better writer” argument. On the other hand, I find myself cringing from imagined criticism before I write a single word.

Maybe I was better off posting mediocre haiku after mediocre haiku and getting random praise of dubious sincerity from strangers I met on the Internets.

I’ve written and rewritten this third paragraph three times now, not sure exactly how to say what it is I want to say. Did Emily Dickinson agonize over her verse like this? Do I really want to be Emily Dickinson? Her life kind of sucked.

I leave the workshops variously energized, exhausted, and frustrated. For a while I was sure I wasn’t coming back. But then I was accepted for publication somewhere, and asked to read somewhere. I felt like I’d broken through some kind of barrier, one composed mainly of my own hang-ups.

The workshop leader herself is expansive, creative, extravagant. She has lived the kind of life I thought I wanted to live: professorships at this university and that university; poet in the schools; workshops in France, in Maine, in Taos NM. She has written books of beautiful poetry. I want very badly what she has, but I’m not sure what that is.

After the first class, she said, “Wonderful! You are a wonderful poet, a wonderful critic!” At the beginning of the new term, she said “Welcome home,” and gave me a hug.

And then proceeded to rip into my poem when it came around the table. Is it just me? Am I being too much of a sensitive poet? Finding a reason not to walk the road I’d fantasized about for so long? Even after reality-checking with a friend, who agreed that she does seem harsher toward me than the other students, I don’t know. Can’t articulate it. Can barely articulate it in this post. Have no idea how to ask for things to be different — or if it’s even possible.

30 Days of Thanks Starts on Day Nine

Forget April. November is the cruelest month for me, mashing rust-colored leaves in the raw days of no-sun clouds. A good month for a long slog, and long slogs are always easier in the company of others.

This year, I’ll be slogging on the gratitude train, with 30 days of thanks. Which starts on Day Nine for me, apparently, since this is the first I’ve heard of it. I’ll spare you the story of what I was doing for the first eight days of the month.

Gratitude opens new holes in the swiss-cheese brain of possibility. So here’s some gratitude for today:

  1. Star moss peeking out from beneath snow-patches, over rust-colored leaves
  2. The prodigal sun returns from in absentia
  3. Tom Robbins’s books led me enchanted through jungles of wordplay when I was 15 years old
  4. How extra glad I am to be the protagonist in my own novel, and not one written by Tom Robbins
  5. My thumbs work
  6. It is Friday.

30 Days of Thanks

Polishing the Stone, Perfecting the Craft

I was quite regular with my posts but have gotten rather shy of late. In September I signed up for some sessions at this workshop. It’s the largest commitment of time and resources I’ve dedicated to a writing workshop of any kind since I was an undergraduate. I had a lot of trepidation about doing so. My disillusionment with the whole workshop-academia-publishing machine can probably best be summed up by a meme that was going around the Tubes a while back: Emily Dickinson attends a writing workshop.

On the other side of disillusionment, of course, is truth. On the other side is the way things are. And on the other side of it, I still care about writing. I still do it in spite of the paltry rewards because it’s a reward in itself, because writing — especially writing poetry — lets me see the world more clearly. After some years of healing in various venues, I’m ready to ever-so-gently consider how best to polish the stones I picked from the riverbed.

Rest in Peace Adrienne Rich: Fellow Poet, Feminist, Queer Woman, Trail-Blazer

Last week, I was about to board a plan to San Francisco when I saw Adrienne Rich’s obituary on the front page of the New York Times.

It’s hard to describe Adrienne Rich’s impact on my life with grace and brevity. That’s because my relationship to her work mirrors my relationship to the literary establishment as a whole. I first heard of her when I was a junior in high school, young poet full of promise and bereft of friends after the class of 1989 graduated and scattered off to college. A precocious freshman named Deborah, with reddish hair and presumptuous mannerisms, was shocked to learn I hadn’t already read and loved her work. What Deborah didn’t know (and neither did I) was that I’d been raised on the literary canon, comprised then as it is now almost exclusively of men. Five years later I wrote my senior thesis at Vassar on her work and the arc of her life. Seventeen years later, Margalit Fox‘s obituary said it better than I ever could.

Reading Rich’s obituary in the Times last Thursday, I had two startling and humbling realizations: first, that Rich’s life paralleled and sometimes intersected with my own in odd and surprising ways; second, that she too was deeply troubled and even embittered by the literary establishment. From her New York Times obituary:

For Ms. Rich, the getting of literary awards was itself a political act to be reckoned with. On sharing the National Book Award for poetry in 1974 (the other recipient that year was Allen Ginsberg), she declined to accept it on her own behalf. Instead, she appeared onstage with two of that year’s finalists, the poets Audre Lorde and Alice Walker; the three of them accepted the award on behalf of all women.

In 1997, in a widely reported act, Ms. Rich declined the National Medal of Arts, the United States government’s highest award bestowed upon artists. In a letter […] she expressed her dismay, amid the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice,” that the government had chosen to honor “a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

Art, Ms. Rich added, “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”

In addition to our avocations, the odd parallels between her life and my own have to do with geography and also with love. In college, folks used to refer to me and my girlfriend as Adrienne and Audre. Quick used to go to parties in Boston with Audre Lorde, Rich’s girlfriend. Both Rich and I traveled between the coasts. We both railed against facts of American society that most people seem to take for granted.

The biggest difference, of course, between Ms. Rich’s life and my own is that she succeeded in storming the walls of the literary establishment — the same walls that have rebuffed my own advances.

Five days after her death I stood on the beach in Santa Cruz, the town she died in at the age of 82. I wonder what weird twists of fate wove our lives in parallel to one another, never quite intersecting, and called us both to journey from the placid waters of Long Island Sound to the crashing waves of the Pacific. I never even dared to hope to meet her in person. But that doesn’t stop her from being my ancestress, the one who dove into the wreck before me, found some way to navigate the murky waters, and held up a light for me to follow.

Chaucer’s Virtue, Dr. White’s Bathwater

“of switch vertu engender’d is the fleur” is one of the opening lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Even though I haven’t read Chaucer in years, I hold his work — and the Canterbury Tales in particular — very close to my heart, in part because it was probably some of the first college-level literature I ever read. In high school, AP English was famous for a few reasons. For an aspiring writer like me, it
represented the apex of academic achievement in high school. But it was also notorious because of the woman who taught it: Dr. White. No one got to be head of my high school’s English department without earning a PhD, and the head of the English Department was usually the only Doctor in the building. Dr. White was a towering inferno of a woman, lumpy, swarthy, with a mass of greying black hair spilling down over her bona fide hunchback.

My brother and his friends told stories about her, imitating her screeching voice and her derisive comments. I was entranced. I wanted to be her — I wanted to have a doctorate in English, head up the
English department of a fairly well funded public high school, and I wanted to teach other people about Chaucer. I wanted to bathe in poetry all day.

Perhaps it’s for the best that I didn’t get my wish. It might be sour grapes, but looking back over the course of my life and talking with other poets has helped me realize something I didn’t get when I was 17: that poetry is a rare, intense, sweet thing, like chocolate. And like chocolate, I find it best served in moderation.

Happy Birthday, Edna St. Vincent Millay

Happy Birthday, Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The last of the rock star poets, and my hero. She was the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize. Millay was one of the last of the formalists, who wrote in rhyme and meter. Some of her earliest poems date from around 1917, a time when women still did not have the right to vote in the United States.

The women’s movement of the late 1800s had made some gains for women; a certain class of young, professional women worked outside the home–at least until marriage. Even as late as the 1960s, it was generally expected that women who married would give up their public, professional lives in favor of the more “feminine”, interior duties of wifeing and mothering. The tailored look of the Gibson Girl, with her buttoned-up shirtwaists, long skirts, and corsets, might appear oppressive to modern women who gladly don all manner of jeans, pantsuits, miniskirts, and other clothing that allow great freedom of movement. For the time, however, the look was considered forward-thinking and, among certain circles, even radical and “unsexing.”

In this pre-flapper era, Millay pushed ahead of all social conventions. She was an unabashed bisexual and carried on affairs with men and women in Greenwich Village. She had at least one threesome. She also went to my school, Vassar College, where she chafed at the rules and fucked had affairs with lots of women. She went by Vincent.

There’s a legend that she once tried to jump off the top of Jewett, which at nine (or is it seven? Fifteen years plays hell on the memory) stories is the tallest building on campus, and that that’s why they have enclosed the tallest fire escapes in metal cages. I have no idea how true this is.

Nor do I know how true this story is, but I still like telling it:

Once at a party during her wild and crazy Greenwich Village days, she complained of headaches. In response, some amateur analyst asked her, “Have you considered the possibility that you might be attracted to women?”

She replied, “Of course I’m attracted to women. And to men too. But what does that have to do with my headaches?”

Alas, Vincent never learned about Alcoholics Anonymous. After her husband died, she descended deeper and deeper into addiction to alcohol and morphine. She died in 1950 at her home, Steepletop, in upstate New York.

Her most often-quoted poem:

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–
It gives a lovely light!

— First Fig, from A Few Figs From Thistles

Three Songs of Shattering

I.
The first rose on my rose-tree
Budded, bloomed, and shattered
During sad days when to me
Nothing mattered.

Grief of grief has drained me clean;
Still it seems a pity
No one saw,–it must have been
Very pretty.

II.
Let the little birds sing;
Let the little lambs play;
Spring is here; and so ’tis spring–
But not in the old way!

I recall a place
Where a plum-tree grew;
There you lifted up your face,
And blossoms covered you.

If the little birds sing,
And the little lambs play,
Spring is here; and so ’tis spring–
But not in the old way!

III.
All the dog-wood blossoms are underneath the tree!
Ere spring was going–ah, spring is gone!
And there comes no summer to the like of you and me,–
Blossom time is early, but no fruit sets on.

All the dog-wood blossoms are underneath the tree,
Browned at the edges, turned in a day;
And I would with all my heart they trimmed a mound for me,
And weeds were tall on all the paths that led that way!

“Renascence” was the poem that brought her her first fame and an education at Vassar — she was not a woman of means.

I screamed, and–lo!–Infinity
Came down and settled over me;
Forced back the scream into my chest;
Bent back my arm upon my breast;
And, pressing of the Undefined
The definition on my mind,
Held up before my eyes a glass
Through which my shrinking sight did pass
Until it seemed I must behold
Immensity made manifold;
Whispered to me a word whose sounds
Deafened the air for worlds around,
And brought unmuffled to my ears
The gossiping of friendly spheres,
The creaking of the tented sky,
The ticking of Eternity.

–From “Renascence,” fourth stanza

All excerpts from Edna St. Vincent Millay: Collected Lyrics. Harper & Row. New York: 1981.