I’m deeply grateful to Finishing Line Press for publishing my second full-length collection, a decade in the making. I’m also humbled by the generous reviews of Ringing the Changes from poets David Graham and Frannie Lindsay. Here’s a brief taste, the poem “Grace”:
That recurring dream where you pour yourself a paper cup of arsenic
thinking it is water but pause to question before drinking and
watch the cup melt before your eyes can blink. — Kathleen McCoy, Ringing the Changes (publication date May 3, 2019)
If thinking about your writing goals for the new year evokes feelings as distinct as squirreliness and torpor, if you approach new work with excitement and review old work with a tinge of disappointment or self-doubt, if thrill and dread are vying for your heart, this post is for you.
As I begin a deeply appreciated and long awaited sabbatical, I find myself swinging from ice-glazed branches, happily surveying the fresh white of land and soul and blank pages. I write, read, clean, catch up with friends virtual and real. I contemplate creating a schedule with its challenges and threats of internal resistance. I dread the planned mini-separations from the beloved spouse to do my research and writing. I also look forward to them. I sigh and reach for a chunk of dark chocolate.
I’ve decided my strategy for accomplishing my multiple goals will rely upon my old three-legged stool: the sacred space-time of writing, the support of my family and writing group, and a newly revised set of ideals. Not just goals, but ideals.
To create an ideals chart to guide your life this year without tearing out too much of your own hair, grab a pen and a fresh journal page, sheet of paper, or make a chart or spreadsheet. Create a column for each main area of your life (I have five categories: Mental, Spiritual, Physical, Poetic, and Homey.) Then write a word or phrase to guide your activities in that area of your life. Some words may cross categories: for me, cultivating “love” and “patience” applies in every area, from dealing with demands on my time to my own relationship with the literary world. I can challenge myself and support deeper thoughts, new approaches, new psychic and literal material for writing when supported by a rededication to my own ideals.
Doing this relatively quick but meaningful reflective activity saves me a lot of angst. Emphasis on ideals keeps my focus on being more than on doing. My own drive and life will provide activities and goals. It’s through ideals that I can look forward to taking the inevitable rejections and challenges of the year along with the quandaries and joys in stride. It’s all progress. As Maggie Smith reminds us daily on Twitter, keep moving–to which I add, be still and centered, my soul.
At a recent retreat with my intrepid writers’ group, I was advised that my prime directive in writing for the remainder of the year would be to “Play.” (This was uttered by the beloved poet to whom I’d given identical advice a few years ago when she was the one stressing over a precipitous deadline, so I had to admit the advice fit me this time.)
How do I “play,” I’ve been wondering, when preparing a poetry book on a publisher’s deadline (which for me involves completely rethinking and swapping as well as rearranging and rewriting) while toying with a full-length play and committing to several other significant and true-to-my-purpose initiatives in the next couple of months?
And did I mention there’s one month of summer left in which to reacquaint myself with my mercifully independent-yet-loving family and rewrite my courses? (Sorry, stressing again.)
If my quandary resonates with you, look at your cat. Or dog. Or horse. I can’t speak for birds or reptiles, but most any domesticated mammal will do, including kids (the kind that bleat or the kind that throw fits with pudding fingers; I’m not picky here). If you have none of the above, entertain or visit one for a few minutes.
It’s not a big commitment to witness another sentient being’s hilarious commitment to playing. No material proves inadequate. Anything is ripe to be pounced, bounced, ruffled, tousled, nibbled, crunched, mulched, munched, spat out, sat upon, twirled, scribbled, scrambled, or served. As luck would have it, this was precisely what I needed to do with my poems—taste them with and without epigraphs, with deeper embodiment here and more stripping-away there, with a new point of view in this case and tighter or looser form in that case. And, of course, with the kind of rearrangement play that involves scooting actual sheets of paper all around the floor, though it’s a more involved and engaging game than 52 Pick-up. The enticement is irresistible.
The world is, after all, a playground. Or so Zack the Cat says.
Whether with dread or welcome, we find ourselves at Valentine’s Day yet again. It’s a challenging day to teach creative writing to undergraduates. In teaching my students to notice what works best in their own poems, they’ve started already (three weeks in) to recognize the lasting appeal of love poems that express complication without surrendering to despair.
This modern love poem doesn’t work well for white chocolate lovers. Too high a tolerance for sweetness. Permit me a moment of synesthesia when I say that if your tastes turn to a bit of bitterness, darkness, or chili with the chocolate, the sound of the taste resonates far longer and more pleasantly.
It seems to me that many poets have done this, though, arguably, none better than the late Seamus Heaney. Featured today on Poetry Daily is his poem “Scaffolding.” A friend and colleague commented that the “wall” in this poem resonates differently in the Trump era; however, despite the obvious temporal and situational contrasts, I challenged that idea. Consider how Heaney endured the Troubles in Belfast with its sectarian divides rendered in concrete “peace walls” before he defected to the Republic and eventually the States. The image of a wall is fraught with tension, yet in “Scaffolding” he appreciates the solidity, the creation, the relationship between the poem’s couple who set up the scaffolding in order to build the wall. Heaney’s metaphor celebrates letting the scaffolding go to show that a relationship builds something new, something that establishes boundaries and claims territory at the same time that it represents a mutual, hard-won peace. A peace wall carves out a space where people with their own differences can meet. Only then can love be realized. Enjoy.
Ever since I saw this tweet from Erin Adair-Hodges, I’ve kept an image of it on my desktop. I’m in love with how she shuts up the patriarchy and shouts that she got a starred review from Publishers Weekly. I keep it to remind myself that valuing ourselves can be an act of resistance.
Isn’t it just what we need? Bold writers standing on their desks shouting not only about the importance of making art but also about the importance of the tender things they themselves dared to create?
These winter Sundays, when snow mounds, temperatures plummet, and spirits sag a bit, I renew my appreciation of spirit lifters, chief among which are the Women of Mass Dissemination, my writers’ group of the past decade. We meet monthly, go on a weekend retreat twice a year to write, and hold each others’ multicolor sock-toed feet to the metaphorical (and this year, literal) fire. In the past decade the six of us have published more than I can count (books, poems, video poems, novels, reviews, and essays, with plays in the works), but only after months and years of drafting, rewriting, sharing, critiquing, debating, informing, and exploring. We write collaboratively, try out or create writing prompts, debate literary standards, test the water-worthiness of our rafts of words. We take two drafts forward and three drafts backwards. We mutter, we admonish, we ask, we suggest, we redirect, we inspire, we bless, we curse, we wonder, we wander, we read, we retreat, we return, we succor, we savor, we paint, we review, we write, we blog, we brand. We expand each other’s reading lists and hone each other’s literary taste. (Of course, chocolate and pot pie are often involved.) We worry, we plan, we learn, we teach, we share, we fuss, we fix, we applaud. But mostly, we write.
Here’s to the Women of Mass Dissemination,* without whom I’d be sitting in a barn somewhere wondering where all the poets are, wondering too what happened to the poet in the mirror. And here’s to you, writing at your desk, on your bed, on your train, in your barn. Here’s to your tribe, whether you’ve found them yet or not.
To smell damp leaves, feel the crisp cheek-brush of November breeze and enter a grand old hotel full of books–poetry, novels, children’s books, travel books, regional books, genre fiction and more–well, it’s difficult to think of a better way to spend a weekend day. Especially in a small town. This Sunday, November 5, join award-winning poets and novelists like Barbara Ungar and Mary Sanders Shartle between 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. at the Queensbury Hotel (did I mention I’ll be there too?). We’re reading 12:30-1:00 in the Saratoga Room, talking with folks and selling books all day, and your presence will make our day. It just might brighten yours as well. #Chronicle Book Fair on Twitter; Glens Falls Chronicle Book Fair on Facebook. Click here: Chronicle Book Fair.