After two weeks in the Finger Lakes region of central New York, tonight was a literary love-fest at The Waypost in North Portland. Six women reading their work with or without hipster-fresh-squeezed margaritas. The beat does, indeed, go on even when it's 71 degrees outside...
My (some might say experimental) poem, “Up in the Old Hotel” — initial inspiration from Gertrude Stein and her Tender Buttons, epigraph from the infamous Leonard Cohen song about the Chelsea Hotel, and title from Joseph Mitchell — will be published in an upcoming issue of Posit, a New York City-based journal of art and literature, in early 2014. It is another one of the “book title” poems in my manuscript, Miss Scarlet in the Library with a Rope, still making the rounds, desperately seeking some kind of publishing house home. Coincidentally, we stayed in that part of Manhattan this past November; the Chelsea is currently closed for renovations. Scaffolding is involved.
We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. —E. M. Forster
A few years ago, a graduate school friend who now teaches in a low-residency writing program was working on a panel about “Late Bloomers” for the Associated Writing Program’s annual conference. As I understood it, the idea was to gather a group of writers and/or teachers and lead a discussion about people who come to their writing careers and/or get published and recognized after they are forty years old. At the time, our back-and-forth e-mails got me thinking about what such a term means, and whether or not it really is applicable to the many of us who embrace writing and the writing life—whether for the first time or after a long hiatus—when we are “middle-aged.”
To me, the word “late” itself implies time passing—as does the word blooming—as if there is a before-and-after, an inevitable progression, almost a prescription as to how something—an event, an activity, a life—is expected to unfold. A flower follows a cycle, buds then blooms and, in time, the blossom drops and dies. Beginning and end. Start then finish. Early versus late.
In a 2008 essay in the New Yorker called “Late Bloomers,” Malcolm Gladwell, wrote: “Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth.” He goes on to offer a few familiar examples—Mozart, Picasso, Orson Welles. But the story doesn’t stop there.
These days, it certainly seems that, for the most part, contemporary literary culture celebrates the precocious achievements of gifted youth more often than seasoned later-in-life talents. I wonder, instead, if it isn’t a better idea to see creativity and art as part of the flow of life and our lives, something we inhabit and do, a continuous, unfolding arc of possibility rather than an arrival at a destination bound and determined solely by our subjective notions of time.
For a host of reasons, many of us take longer to do what we want or feel we are meant to do in life. I returned to a focus on writing at in 1988 when I was in my early 30s; that seems young now, looking back. I moved on from extramural classes to the master’s program at SUNY/Binghamton, getting my degree in 1994. But only in my 40s, after other life priorities shifted and changed, was I able to make writing my daily focus. And still that journey has included more workshops, classes, and writing teachers and mentors. Surely, life intervenes time and again and circumstances and artistic preoccupations change, even for those writers who start out of the gate running, showing flash and dazzle when they are 25 years old.
Are the potholes any different for a late-blooming writer than a youngster? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes I think there are more potholes the farther away you live from New York City or if you are outside the college and university writing scene, as I have chosen to be. Still, I think an increasing number of writers (not just later-in-life ones) are doing their work outside of academia. Many can’t afford to plunk down the tuition money for MFA/MA programs. Or they aren’t willing to go into debt for a degree that won’t necessarily get them very much in terms of practical, wage-earning skills in the end. This may make it even harder to market oneself, or to break into the journals especially the ones associated with colleges and universities—we all know connections are the name of the game in that corner of the writing world.
I also wonder if publication a good way to measure who is and isn’t arriving to the writer’s life late. Publishing is a major crapshoot. I have had success in my “late-blooming period” (a fellowship, over sixty publications, two chapbooks.) Still, these successes, while encouraging, are a reminder that the competition to be “discovered” let alone successfully published—and read by more than your friends and relatives, books not immediately remaindered, etc.—is fierce. Some of this is a direct result of the industry the AWP itself has worked to create—so many writing programs which has led to many more writers at a time when fewer and fewer people are reading and buying books. The longer I work at this (and possibly the older I get) I find I am writing more for myself and less for any hope of recognition or the attentive eyes of the world. I know young writers who’ve come to this same conclusion. We do it for the love or because we can’t not write. And hope to find a few readers along the way who like and appreciate our work. After that it was all gravy, every minute of it, as Raymond Carver once wrote in a poem.
(Carver died at the age of 50 in 1988. Most of his writing success came to him after he was 40 years old.)
More and more, I suspect blooming only happens when we stop talking about whether it’s early or late. When we stop comparing our idiosyncratic creative trajectories tit for tat. When we simply sit down and do the work, our work. In the end, isn’t that all that really matters?
For all you horticulture nerds, the photo is a Night-blooming Cereus, a member of the cactus family that blossoms only once with its heady and fragrant petals closing by the following morning. It’s also known (with good reason) as Queen of the Night, the lunar flower, the moon flower, and luna flower.
I've been busy since spring, the last date I posted to this site.
No excuses needed but I have plenty. A new plot at a nearby community garden, re-seeding out front curb hell-strip garden, the endless house chores and laundry and cat tending, writing and reading and lots of neighborhood walking, volunteer work with Main Street Alberta and ladies lunches with friends. There have also been treks to Astoria, Seattle, Baker City, Wallowa, and Port Townsend. Lots of watering -- cucumbers, trombone squash, painted lady green beans, Japanese eggplants, heirloom sunflowers, chiogga beets, rainbow chard, lacinato kale, assorted lettuces and greens, arugula and, of course, tomatoes.
But now I'm settled in, staying put for a while, oven roasting tomatoes that will be part of sauces next winter, blanching beans that will also be available when the harvest is long gone. It also feels like time to revive this blog. To that end, I'm going to be posting some writing-related ditties I wrote a few years back for another project. Seems a shame to let them languise on the hard drive of this aging MacBook...
So stay tuned. Pillows and books and writing prompts are up first.
I've spent some time -- inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love I suppose -- trying to come up with my word for 2011. I meant to do this last year, and the year before, and never got around to it. Then today, this appeared in my e-mail as my Daily Peace Quote—words from a favorite poet no less.
Our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasure. - Rainier Maria Rilke
So I knew the time had come and I (of course) instantly knew my word: fearless.
And even though its definition is simply lacking fear and a number of its synonyms veer into the language of battle and war -- bold, brave, courageous, intrepid, valiant, valorous, gallant, plucky, lionhearted, heroic, daring, audacious, indomitable, doughty; unafraid, undaunted, unflinching; informal gutsy, spunky, ballsy, feisty -- I've decided I still want to keep it, for now, to try it on for size as I venture in the creative and West Coast Fitness waters of this my 56th year on earth.
Maybe it will inspire me (or at the very least remind me) to reclaim some of the derringdo and pluckiness I once exhibited (in spades) when I was younger, more optimistic, and, of course, thinner. Maybe it will simply help me have more confidence and know that there is nothing to fear even as my right knee shows signs of arthritis and my hands turn psoriasis-prone. Maybe it will give me the perspective I so often lack -- and truly need and want -- to be able to use my writing to tell my truths.
I've decided to spent the twelve days of leading up to Christmas reading a book of poetry each day. And then writing what I learn, observe, feel after reading the volume here on my blog. And seeing if I can find any of the objects in this famous holiday song in the poems I read, too. I may also try and write a poem a day that somehow uses these famous true-love gifts:
The twelfth day of Christmas, | My true love sent to me | Twelve lords a-leaping, | Eleven ladies dancing, | Ten pipers piping, | Nine drummers drumming, | Eight maids a-milking, | Seven swans a-swimming, | Six geese a-laying, | Five gold rings, | Four calling birds, | Three French hens, | Two turtle doves, and | A partridge in a pear tree.
I know, I know -- it's technically December 25 through Epiphany in January that count for the real twelve days but I know I'll be way too busy then to do all that reading so I'm starting now instead...first up, Drift and Pulse by Kathleen Halme.
Take a measly little pone of a poem written, oh, seven or eight months back. One that's been sitting, gathering moss, and that you're certain is nothing not something. When you wake up, fresh, read it over again, and maybe again. Seek the buzz, the energy, where the phrases seem to be the way your poetic voice speaks, in dreams, in dialogue, in double entendre. Pare, sculpt, hone, edit, shape. Float the latest and greatest by a few trusted reading friends. Ask them not to spare your feelings when they critique. And they do. Thumbs up, thumbs down, lose a "to" here, lose a "the" there.
And slowly, slowly, you start to recognize which ones are the keepers and which ones have to sit on the grill, frying a bit longer.
Not a bad process. An assembly line of words, marinating to their perfection.
Read, revise, read, repeat.
Potato pancakes on Yogi's Grill at the Plymouth, Pennsylvania Kielbasa Festival, August 2009.
Summer one second, Halloween the next. I have been revising like a fiend but promise I'll be back to bloggy reflections and ruminations one day soon. Maybe I'll do a NaBloWriMo and do a blog a day while the rest of the Western world works on novels no one will ever read...
It's been a while. I was roaming around the world, a Tour de France of sorts by car with detours into the Haut-Pyrenees and the Pyrenees Orientales. Feet dipped into the Mediterranean Sea, the Calabrian Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, and the English Channel. Writerly graves visited in the Parisian cemeteries of Pere-Lachaise and Montparnasse. Many bonjours, bonsoirs, and au revoirs later, it's home again to the edge of autumn in the Pacific Northwest, watching the maples drift to the flagstones in the garden, harvesting bucketloads of pole beans from our behind-schedule alley garden, trying to remember—what was it I said I wanted to be writing again?