Wallace Stevens: Poem-ing outside of the field

How does a creative sustain herself outside of a creative industry?

At this juncture, outside of academia and apart from writerly collaboration, Creeley’s “Thinking of Wallace Stevens” is tucked in my pocket.

The joy was always to know it was the joy, to make all acquiesce to one’s preeminent premise.

On the outside—more accurately—inside the cubicle, I count time in and time out. I count emails, count cash, count and count and count. The size of a paper clip starts to matter.

After counting and clipping, the field opens. Differently. Not as Duncan’s continuity,

 a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.

Surprisingly opposite: I don’t have permission. So much out of my own control, so much outside that needs to get done, and Avery looks up to ask for more bunny-shaped crackers. The field opens because it is, as Duncan says, what is. Most probably the real. But it opens after debt is paid, owed is due, and clothes are ironed.

I am looking to Stevens, to his work-a-day life balanced by writing, poems, beauty, and joy. Already, after less than a week, the whole pursuit is a refuge, is more glittery than it was when there was time to write, permission to write, and a field always around.

As a creative outside of a creative industry, Wordsworth is right, “[t]he world is too much with us,” but I wonder how that world, since I cannot push it away anymore, can freshen my own writing?

Daily count might change the meter, the structure, the form. I sentence different after all numbers are done.
Daily count might change the meter, the structure, the form. I sentence different after all numbers are done.

 

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In this moment, my heart bruised. I pull whole night skies over my toes, but one foot still falls out. And though you might think this dramatic, it’s the moment the real world knocked me over:

First,

Before Roger died, he grabbed my mother’s hand and said, “I love you desperately.” There isn’t, Peabody, any time machine, but he tried to get back a little of the past. Did he? Can we?

Then,

Teaching from 2007-20015, I have decided—rather, circumstances decided—that I need benefits, I need to be invested in, and I need to find a career path that will assist my continued education instead of insisting that I continue (re: fund) my own education.

When I say this in my head, I cry outside of my head.

When I write this, it is more real and I think about deleting, but it is public, very public, to leave a profession you desperately love because there are bills to be paid and a sweet two year old wants, so badly, to eat strawberries. “All the strawberries,” he says.

For an instant, I re-noun myself and go by “she” or “Crouse,” or “Orser,” or even “Orser-Crouse.” But first person settles in the bones.

I want to write about the naming problem, the marriage problem, the identity loss: new names, new cities, new jobs…

FullSizeRender-17About teaching, I will miss everything, but mostly the uncertainty. Moments when my students and myself switched places and had to accept that our roles, our “facts,” and our very ability to “solve” a problem required a certain acceptance of uncertainty. When the group settled into this, gave up the doe-eyed adoration of “objectivity,” we collaborated and experimented. There are sentences, in my classroom, so outrageously pushed to the edge(s). How long can we make our sentences? How short? How many commas can we use? And what of the em dash? Are the margins opening? Are there margins to begin with? I will miss the push to see how we can sound like ourselves, together.

Everything. All of it. I will miss all of it for the sake of sustainability, which never seemed to open even though I pulled 14-15 hour days and then went home to grade. My good heart stays with academia, my bruised heart moves outward.

What is a poem?: Reflections on teaching Reznikoff

Once, I gave students Reznikoff.

I wanted to discuss documentation. I wanted to walk in the world; to write what we saw; to stir conversations about “authenticity” and what it means to be in the world, with the world, of the world.

From Keri Smith's The Guerrilla Art Kit
From Keri Smith’s The Guerrilla Art Kit
After reading Reznikoff’s work, we tried to “testify” to concrete and particular details. One student found a strangely placed leaf—alone on a branch when other branches were full, facing slightly upward in comparison to other leaves, and sunlit. She enticed us to see the leaf and recognize that it “deserved” attention. [I should note that we read Basho and practiced Keri Smith’s “notice” activities the week prior to set us up for “observing” the world and helping each other see small things.] We all wrote about the found leaf for 5 minutes. From my experiment with them:

belly up until

downed light

knits in one

ear, a vertical man

who names bees

folded in striped center

To see the world, to only say what you see, was hard. I added a bee. Would Reznikoff have added? I associated the leaf’s stem with a “vertical man.” Is that addition descriptive, clear, precise, found? We rewrote/revised our observations for 10 minutes, trying to be more descriptive and restricted to just what we saw:

Upward, turned leaf,

covered in light. Eyes

think sound—

a bee in stem.

And this still suffers from abstraction (but a 15 minute poem isn’t easy).

We compared our created works, discussed what a “poetic” voice might mean, and assessed (in small groups) our individual “poem value systems” based on which versions we preferred of our own work and our collaborators works.

Surprisingly, they didn’t like Reznikoff or their more descriptive poems. Describing the work as boring, difficult to identify with, and too detailed. Abstraction, symbolism, personal representation, and expressions that might only mean something to the writer were deemed “more poetic.”

To quote my talented friend (and former student) Maureen Foody, “my idea of a poem is a bit loose in the waist”—I hadn’t bothered much with defining a poem, but students were starting to ask how these descriptive works were, indeed, poems.

I didn’t have an answer, just an impulse to witness the world.

The total visibility Reznikoff rendered seemed, to me, like a project full of expansive connections: how do you translate what you see? How do you connect eye, ear, and word? How can you communicate when so much of what we are trying to say is caused, influenced, or touched by something that isn’t us? How can we use poetry to connect, to unearth layers, to look? Maybe, and this is only one suggestion, you document.

Maybe you document because you empathize, because you want to cultivate deep and expansive sympathies. From Reznikoff:

I do not like
my own face
in the little mirrors of the slot-machines
before the closed stores.

As a poetic practice, documentation makes me honest about what I’m adding/imagining and it makes me think about why I’m adding, embellishing, or associating. I feel more aware of the work, more researched.

Aaron Patrick Flanagan and Brian Mornar, poets I’m lucky to have known, both blow me away with researched and observant writing. I can’t tell you why it’s a poem, but I can tell you that what they do changes me when I read it, and makes me feel more connected to the world.

making time for writing: advice that didn’t work

Looking for Time to Write
Looking for Time to Write

Whatever you think about the MFA, my own feelings change hourly, the whole “event” was extended time. Like two years of summer in Alaska, the program lit up opportunities to write, read, and think about writing. And, maybe most important, to talk about writing.

A summer session with Lisa Fishman—spent reading diaries, letters, notes, and even “scratchings” (found handwriting)—made the whole project of finding time after the MFA appear possible. In this class, I fell deeply in love with what would become my personal scholarship: manicula and marginalia. Magically—and because of my own personal devotion to her work, scholarship, and teaching—I also sat next to Ames Hawkins. Hawkins’ nonfiction, memoir writing, and transgenre work pushed me and pushed me to tap into experience as part of the writing process, to recognize that a poem need not look like a poem at all.

But the program did end.

From my mentors: James Thomas Stevens, in undergrad, shared that he woke up early and dedicated an amount of time to writing. Practice. Stevens always emphasized reading, practice, and work. In my own teaching, I remind students that none of this (writing and reading) is particularly natural or innate; I use excerpts from Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid to talk about scholars who echo Steven Pinker’s claim that “Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on.” Lisa Fishman mentioned that there were whole days spent writing—her son stayed with Rick or Henry while she wrote. It was important that she shared this, important that she alleviated any guilt women might feel writing. Tony Trigilio shared research, the activities behind writing. Hours in the archives, hours with primary texts, hours compiling before composition. Trigilio poked at the myths that all poets are writing personal work or are divinely inspired. The work before a poem can be heavy,  can be academic, and can require just as much time (if not more) than the actual composition.

Yet, even with these three examples of writers making time and honoring time, most conversations tip toe around the “writing time” matter as if time appears in the dresser drawer while picking out clothes.

Because I loved teaching—the work, research, reflection, and performative act—I let my bursts of time become pedagogy building, student-centered, and invested in their work/words/wants. Mothering is the same and, for my type-A personality, requires as much research. I see myself dropping the morning hours Stevens suggested, feeling guilty about not playing with Avery, and forgetting to use my research for my own compositions. All the advice fell apart.

I didn’t hear the prior: it’s not easy.

So I’m looking for my own strategy. We’re moving into a new apartment today and I’m stomping around, looking for the right place to push a desk against a wall and claim time.

unnamed-2In the current frenzy—finding a house, finding a job, worrying and worrying—I’ve taken to reviving an old project with Chelsea Cossu: a series of notes about her experience while photographing light.

Finding the scribbles and notes, the way her experience required note taking to understand and compose something, makes me think about Heather’s suggestion to add, to my own work, footnotes or context a la Solnit or even Boully.

Mostly, the work confronts me with that old-familiar feeling of wanting to make or letting the making be enough. unnamed

Right now, in the current version, the work feels like a beginning conversation…a flirt. I’ve been thinking about how the Cossu’s photographs might better touch the myths she was tapping into and the “hunt” we both found in her own experience. Like a lot of my work and
my work worries, there’s the struggle to voice something clearly. I remember Arielle’s advice, which was hard to receive and has stayed with me longer than any other piece of advice: What is your most honest experience? How can you tell it without softening it?

or we

Think of this: When someone else’s decisions are close to your elbow, they are mostly your own seen as your own. It’s hard to leave them, to make louder decisions, to untangle yourself from their roots and shoots.

Weighing doesn’t do much: Ithaca was a little bit my decision; California wasn’t my decision at all; and Buffalo is a place that is my own decision, but the context is out of my hands. Whole days, I feel small footed and walking behind. 

FullSizeRender-15I do this to my mother—when she complains about my father, I tell her she chose him, chose this. And now I know it’s not entirely this way.

Jesse is opening his own business, and I am hoping to find work where I am less lone wolf and more teamed/allied/collaborative. His loan was approved and a building is in mind—and built, decorated, ready and waiting; his decisions become my own, and this isn’t necessarily part of marriage I was ready for. So much deeper now that Avery is here and our decisions not only mix, but land on top of his lemon colored head.

Our differences have been our strengths: Jesse is social and I am scared. Jesse takes risks and I tip toe. Jesse is confidence and I blush. As parents, it’s the same, Avery knows I’ll give him an extra cookie and Jesse will make sure he gets enough vegetables. It looks like, and usually feels like, balance.

But this moment feels tipped with my worry.

get by with a little help from my friends

After so many relocations, packing is an old trick. I can out pack anyone and I clean house in a way that would make Marie Kondo fall into an ashen faced surprise, maybe even a bow. For me, it’s party conversation—a move is lighthearted and casual, worth joking about.

Of this move, however, I remember three things:

(1) Avery was everywhere

(2) Avery was taking everything out of boxes and putting every other thing into boxes (or sometimes into our shoes)

(3) Moving without a job feels like getting stung by all the bees

The last isn’t really a memory so much as a sense, but sometimes memory is not exact. In the homecoming, which is a flurry of worry and doubt, I am so thankful for happy mail, all the good wishes from friends, and Avery’s new habit to say “how’s it going mama?”

Tomorrow, I’ll face a huge fear: a job fair. And I will be chanting Nicole’s can-can note the whole time. Thanks girlfriend; your support for this whirlwind change is what’s making me get through the day.

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Job applications and toast

The scene repeats: For breakfast, Avery eats toast starting at the center. He puts his finger in the jam, smears the jam on toast, and puts his mouth smack in the center. He comes away with jammy lips and jammy cheeks. He says, “yummy yummy” and asks, “Mama, you eat toast?”

I remember a similar scene with different characters. My grandfather, who could only “make” toast and canned spaghetti, let me butter my own toast. First thing, I licked the butter right off. My mother remembers a childhood spent eating buttered toast with sugar on top and staying out of the sun. Her toast-memory is less aligned with the moon and stars, her toast memory is trailing her mother’s ghost, is her brother and her self sent under the table with a humidifier right when they got home from school.

When we repeat the toast-eating, we hurl ourselves into day-to-day routines, and we are utterly surrounded by all the stuff we sweep under the bed.

8d17556_150pxMy father kept “Mrs. Thomas making toast,” an FSA photo, in a velvet lined box. The box also had broken watches, a picture of his mother on a bicycle, and class rings from college days. Maybe the tiles reminded him of his childhood home—his mother made pancakes every Sunday and casseroles almost every night; he expected this kind of domesticity, faced a “shock” when women (his wife and daughters) didn’t show interest in staying tile-bound. My father became a good feminist because he had daughters and he believed that his daughters were a little bit his sons, he couldn’t differentiate and he had, badly, wanted a boy. This isn’t to say his patriarchal dream didn’t sometimes find itself alive and crawling up his spine, but he played baseball with us, told us we were smart and deserving, and listened to us. My father listened to us so much that our ideas and words seemed to sew themselves into his freckled skin. He regarded us as smart, asked us what we thought, and took our thoughts seriously. He learned to be a feminist.

But nostalgia is deep and I know that he also sees me—as a mother now—and wonders something. Especially now that I’m resume sending, cover letter writing, and job searching. I’ve tried to explain to him that nobody questions men’s jobs or their time away from children, but he still falls into a deep memory that is more like a myth, a memory where his mom greets him with hot chocolate after sledding down a hill. A memory where toast is already buttered and jammed before you even sit at the table. Today, this deep myth flickered upward and, when he saw me feel failed and doubtful, he said, “You’re a good mother. You’re not a failure because you’re a good mother.” I see the nineteen year old version of me thinking this olive branch is somehow belittling, but I see the thirty-one year old version of me cry. When my father says this, the air gets lighter.

There’s part of the FSA photo I didn’t see until now: Mrs. Thomas is connected to the power cord, to the American interest in consumer goods and new technologies. She was never isolated in the kitchen, happily buttering toast, but she was immersed in the whole project of repetition. She was, before digital technology, connected.

Mrs. Thomas, and the dreams she represents, attach themselves to kitchens. When I married, I registered for a stand up mixer, a shiny object that showed me something about “settling.” And the dream renders the rest of it too: a house, a family, an ending. We get so adrift in the series of objects and things that represent these larger and handed-down goals.

When we moved back to Buffalo, after some wandering, people talked to us about buying a house. “You have to grow some roots.” “What I really want to see is you two getting settled.” We are renting, we are puckering our lips up to some pretty big dreams, and we are practicing awareness. Mrs. Thomas and her domestic nostalgia can make you pretty under-aware, can lay you under in an impossible appearance.

I think about toast, nostalgia, and routine. I think about this a lot because I am applying for jobs and I am trying to pay attention to the jobs and not to the condition of being unemployed and uncertain. There’s so much pressure to get “a” job and fall into the routine. But we moved here to be present.
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We went to Five Points Bakery today to fill out job applications and distract Avery. We ate a lot of delicious toast and tried to pay attention to meaningful things—like being good parents. Despite our frustration, application fatigue, and moments of sincere doubt, I can’t connect myself to cords and live next to the same tiles day-after-day if it means missing the opportunities to see change as entirely possible. Five Points was a really good place to think about something like this—the impetus to make changes—since it is in a part of Buffalo that is changing, needed changes, and deserved sincere work. It’s a good symbol for the work I’m trying to do/find.

Everyday, a new place

This time, Buffalo.

I didn’t know where to land—or maybe how to land. But Buffalo has always been softening my falls, which might be the “worry” about moving home—is it too easy? Is it motivated by fear? Is it a regression?

American culture devalues homecoming. The “return” is exile: isolated in your parent’s basement, overwhelmed by debt or immaturity, ridiculed for your failures or shortcomings. Take Wayne’s World as an example of the basement-dwelling-peter-pan-syndrome—there are countless movies that show delayed adolescence and the shifting definition of what it means to be an adult: Elf, Cyrus, Big Fan, Our Idiot Brother, and even The Royal Tenenbaums deal with our uncertainties about growing up.

I’m not sure the definitions of being an adult have changed as much as opportunities. The Great Recession is still influencing our careers and our job security, and some of the conversations about what will “bring” jobs seem precariously tied to what will also undermine public space, creativity, free time, and the environment. While I am moved by the “creative class” and conversations about work-place freedom, I am less certain this is a “revolt” and more curious about the contexts: I know so many people who interned with the “promise” of a job, took part time work because of a “carrot,” and had contracts that were ignored or changed. My own small family has dealt with false promises, handshake deals, and salaries that never made it to our paychecks. For more conversation about what motivates homecoming, “Boomerang Kids”, a series by Photographer Damon Casarez, hits a pretty personal note right now. Regarding the “creative class,” I am pro any arts endeavors and I hope we can continue the conversation to ensure that the arts do not always facilitate “hip” neighborhoods, but also work to encourage community, self awareness, and deeper connections to the environment. I think Buffalo is pioneering growth pretty intelligently with work that vales transferrable skills: urban farming and direct training programs.

I am back home. And it isn’t because of debt, immaturity, or laziness (all the stereotypes of our American homecoming), but it’s because we did pretty “okay” for ourselves and discovered that we still wanted community, family, and a sense of home. We were nostalgic for lakes and rivers, and we really needed values and connections. In Buffalo, I am reminded of Niedecker’s “Look around, dear head, you’ve never read / of the ground that takes you away.” Here, there is a reconciliation between my desire to root and still be able to move and grow. There’s room.11700802_10100533646380613_7104246418606528955_n

To Chicago to Say Goodbye

To get anywhere, sit down and remember.

We tell Avery Jim is dead. Not only him; Gary too. Whenever anyone dies, Walter dies again. In the otherworld, people come back, can be brought back. We meet Esther in a new way. Like Avery’s pencil drawings, where lines accidentally touch, and then pencil tips break. Yesterday, Avery ate pencil shavings and I pulled them out of his mouth only to recall when he ate dandelions, spit them out. Yellow tuffs like falling teeth. The tooth of the lion, the appetite to see everything new, to take everything in at once. 

We do not make our loss new. It’s new, too new, made new each time we think about it. We take it all in, which means we surrender. We move to the part of the map with dragons.

When Avery wakes in the night, he thinks we’re gone forever. It’s a cry so fierce and mighty that it’s a keening. We cut his nails back, stop him from scratching himself. It’s this way with our own losses too: Jim, Chicago, the younger and more reckless versions of ourselves.

There was a time in pines where we emptied sentences and drank too much. In the flatlands, we rode our bikes and played pool or darts. We did very young things that we recount with wonder and a tinge of fear. How did we make it through? A lot of that is over; Avery moved from the cradle to the crib, he seems ready for another time. Enough to think here, to be fatigued from so many endings.

I tell Jesse that wean comes from the Greek to ripen: the ending and the beginning are always closely matched. Always the same.

David tells me about a movie where we people look at another world and seek it out, seek to fall toward it. I tell him this is the same as Sophia, Inanna, Buddha, Lucifer. The story is lonely and we keep retelling it. The map is harder now that Jim isn’t on it; we renavigate straight through time, passing time. 

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