Thursday, September 03, 2015

Starting with A: On Art & Anxiety

Starting with A: On Art & Anxiety

A little while back I had the idea that I’d write some essays for myself that were autobiographical and in some ways dealt with writing or at least creating. It wasn’t hard to come up with this idea, as it’s basically what my blog has been since 2006. However, I wanted to give myself a construct, something that would keep me going, push me in the right or wrong direction, or at least keep it interesting. So, I figured it could be alphabetical. Right off the bat I couldn’t figure out what the “A” essay should be about. “Art” I thought. Easy. I could write about growing up around painters and ceramicists and sculptures, or that time I was feeling pretty alright and went to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (god, I love Van Gogh). But then, the way most things happen when trying to create something, I couldn’t control it. The “A” essay subject reared its ugly head without warning: Anxiety.

On Friday of last week, my fourth book arrived into our rusty mailbox here in Kentucky. I had just had breakfast with two writer pals up the street and on a hunch ran to the mailbox before even unlocking our front door. I sat at the kitchen table, and opened the neatly packaged bundle. There was a nice note from the publisher and…the book. I grabbed the top one, already determined that this would be the one I carried and read from forever, because I’m insane and overly attached in this way. It’s gorgeous. The cover (which features a painting by my mother) is soft with a mat finish and it has cover flaps so it feels substantial and weighty. (The fact that it’s a bit over 100 pages always makes it feel weighty.)

I sat there, alone at the table, for a few minutes. I wanted to savor this. I kept trying to think of all the work it took to get here to this minute, to this book. I wanted to feel out of my skin happy. I wanted to feel as if something had broken open and I was finally coming into my own.  And then, what I thought was originally excitement, turned quickly and perhaps inevitably into a full-blown panic attack. Now, I am familiar with panic. If my own particular messy issues were to sit around the table vying for attention, anxiety would take the queen’s seat. Luckily, I know enough to identify it and sometimes quell it before it grows into some tortuous tornado that leaves me crawling into bed and numbing out. Instead of giving into it, I sat looking out at the trees, took some deep breaths and tried to figure out why I felt like my heart was going to burst out of my body.

After I calmed down a bit, walked the dog, meditated in the living room, and posted my books on Facebook—thank you fellow writers and fellow readers for being there, I needed you—I realized what I think it was that was causing all the commotion inside the blood.

I wasn’t just anxious. I was white-knuckling-for-the-take-off scared. For me, this book is the most personal book of poems yet. It’s raw in a way that I’m not used to; I don’t mean unfinished, I mean, “open.” Though the previous books of poems are certainly me, and expose all parts of me within them, this one doesn’t hide under anything. For starters, the poems never (or very rarely) change tense—the “I” in these poems is “ME.” I remember, while I was writing some of these poems, saying to myself, “Okay, what’s the poem you are scared to write?” and then trying to write it. I did this over and over again. So, this book holds a lot of the things I might not say in person to a good friend, and yet here it is in the world where anyone could pick it up. The poet, Mark Wunderlich once said to me, “Isn’t poetry strange? We write down all our deepest darkest secrets and then slip them under the door because we don’t want to be in the room while someone reads it.” This is an odd art we’ve chosen to love.

The second thing is, this book contains my first real love poems. Writing love poems is something that I find terribly hard to do. Oh, I’m good at desire poems, want poems, but love is harder. I’m good at wanting, not so good at having. The fear here is that when you write a love poem there’s the moment when you think it has ruined everything. Like saying “I love you,” the words hold an awesome and terrifying power. What are those great lines from the Alex Lemon poem, “Boundless”?

Soon, no one will want unlimited

Texts because it will be known—
This here right now, this,
Exactly what you mean—

The last thing, and this might sound strange, but this is the first book that I did not write for poets. I love poets, don’t get me wrong; they are my tribe. But I wrote this book for myself, for Lucas, for my friends, and family, and for people who don’t always read poetry let alone a single poem. Which is perhaps another reason why I felt like there was a bald eagle on my sternum when I first held it in my hands. This is a book that is less concerned with artifice and obfuscation and more concerned with saying it as truthfully as I can. This wasn’t easy for me. I like to sing my way out of a poem, I like the dream bird to come in and muddle up the meaning. Not this time. It’s as if every time I went to write a poem for this book, I was asking myself if I was hiding. I didn’t want to hide. I wanted to say something that mattered and that I wanted to say. I did not want to write poems to write poems, I wanted to write poems to reach out and to connect. I wanted them to feel alive. I hope they do. Like Frank O’hara said, “I don’t like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your gut.”

But in doing that, going on my gut, there’s another thing I was scared of: not seeming intelligent. This is a big one for me. And I’d say, I think it’s a big one for a lot of women in particular. If you are writing about what matters, does that mean you are writing about the “F word?” Yep. Feelings. I had a boyfriend once who said that there were “thinkers” and “feelers” and I was a feeler. (Clearly this has stuck with me, look ma, no damage!) Inherently the word “feeling” makes me think “naïve” or “dumb.” It makes me want to say, “Listen, I’m not good at math, alright?” And yes, I do think society views it differently for men or male writers. I think it might be harder for men to talk about their feelings, but when they do, we think they are being brave (And they are! Yes! Nick Flynn’s great new book of poems is called “My Feelings”!), but when women talk about their feelings we are being overly emotional, needy, whiny, and it’s, get this….easy. I’m not saying any of this is true. I’m saying this is what my brain tells me. Writing it out here is already helping.  These are my fears. These are, actually, my feelings.

Almost a week later, my anxiety about the book is lessening and I’m feeling a rush of excitement every time someone tweets about it or shares a line from it on Facebook or Instagram, but I’m still aware that with this book, I went all in. And, I’m also aware that sometimes that means you lose big. All this said, I’m glad I did this. I’m glad I risked feeling like an emotional fuck up if all it means is that I know I pushed myself beyond my comfort zone. I wrote this book with the quote “Fear is only excitement without the breath” over my desk and it’s something I have to remember now.  This is what I wanted. This book. Now I just have to be brave enough to own it.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The "Gathering Time"

I'm back in Kentucky at last and the big barns are doing their thing and the rain's been making the grass grow so fast it's a jungle of new electric greens every day. This year has been, what to say of it, very lifey. This has been heightened by the fact that over the past 6-7 months I've been suffering from vertigo which I believe is finally getting better. It's been a strange illness. To be spinning. All. The. Time. I envy those walking around without the world threatening to bring them to their knees at any moment. I want to shout, "It must be nice just to walk around without someone holding you up!" But finally, I think, fingers crossed, birds wished upon, I am getting better. (And my MRI shows my brain is way cooler than I thought.)

Living in New York from January through May was wild and hard and wonderful. (Though
navigating the streets (even familiar streets) of New York while dizzy gives a whole new meaning to "feeling off kilter." I missed seeing many people I wanted to simply because I didn't have the balance or the energy to go much farther than my own small realm of Brooklyn bodegas. (It doesn't mean I didn't want to, I was lying in bed watching the world twist.) 

Teaching at NYU was marvelous. Teaching at Columbia University was a joy. And then I taught at the Queens University of Charlotte, then for the 24Pearl online for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and then at New Harmony (WOW, AMAZING) in Indiana, and now at last I have been home for a whole three weeks.  I haven't had a real summer in so long. The sort that allows you to breathe and travel and NOT travel and laugh and eat ice cream. This has been all I've been doing lately. I haven't written. Well, two poems. And I haven't worked (well, freelance work, but the fun stuff). And mainly I've been allowing myself 3-4 mile walks with audio books and no distractions. Finally my health and my balance seem to be returning. It's such a joy to just be in your body and let it move and not have any particular push in one direction or another. 

This I believe is the "gathering time." My ideas for new projects are coming together as Bright Dead Things arrives in a month or so. Waiting for a book to arrive is strange. I've never had a child, but I can imagine there is something of an anxious anticipation that might be similar. I want to hold it in my hands, but I'm also terrified. This book is very personal and a bit different for me. It's both more aware of joy and more aware of rage. But it will arrive when it arrives and in the meantime I walk and plan and think and meditate and listen to music and love and breathe.

I've been spending time with new books from friends: Rebecca Lindenburg's The Logan Notebooks (which contains this aphorism: "Sometimes the only way out of the rain is into the river."), Dawn Lundy Martin's Life Inside a Box is a Pretty Life (a poem here:, Jon Pineda's Little Anodynes whose poem "Umpteenth" is just such a quiet portrait of fatherhood and strength, "& I stupid me would not climb the stairs & hold her No I thought we didn't do that kind of thing anymore." And a fresh new arc of Gisele Firmino's first novel The Marble Army--set in Brazil during one of history's most unforgiving regimes. To spend your time with good writing from friends is such a good way to pass the time. 

Oh and not to mention the new play I just read from Trish Harnetiaux which damn near murdered me it was so good. It's called "Weren't You in My Science Class?" and can I tell you how refreshing it is to read great female characters in a play that's not--at all--about men? One scene in particular might rival any scene I've read in theater so far (including the toaster scene in True West.) And then there's Corey Stoll of course staring in Ant-Man (a thrilling performance). So even when I'm not reading work, I get to SEE the work of my nearest and dearest. This is what a summer break should be. A chance to indulge in READING and EXPERIENCING the works of the badasses you've chosen to walk beside (and behind). All this, and finally having read both The Fault of Our Stars and Paper Towns by John Green (as I work on--or at least think about--my YA book)...and no one told me he includes so much poetry! I loved them both.

The "gathering time" might be my favorite time. Less leaning forward and more sponging. I am imagining myself at the river's bottom. Letting it all just do its thing over me.

Is this a long way of saying I am not writing? Perhaps. But it's more of a long way of saying, I am loving not producing right now. I am just here to listen, to nod, to sway at the words of others and to stop by the farm stand and make potato salad. Let this be enough. My friend Stephanie Hopkins said once, "I don't want to be insatiable, how horrible, I want to be satiable." And that's what I want, too. To be, for the moment, satisfied.