Monday, September 12, 2016

There Will Be a Series of Doors: Catching Up on the Year

I’ve always kept diaries. When I was very little they were velvet with keys and special pens. Now they’re just black books I keep by my bed. Sometimes I still wish they came with a key. I’d start out strong at the beginning of the year, writing every night and obsessing about all the details— the part I wanted in the school play, the part I didn’t get in a school play, the gap-toothed boy named Adrian who I can’t remember, but clearly I crushed on pretty hard. Then, the inevitable fade away would occur. I’d go two months and write, “Dear Diary, SO MUCH HAS HAPPENED.” And, then I’d try desperately to sum up things like the pet mouse that died, my parents divorce, or the new crush I had on someone else I’ve since forgotten, all in a quick two paragraphs. Things like “Dad’s wedding was GREAT. I liked it!” Nothing quite got the attention it deserved and by the end of the year, my diary was just some drawings I’d do now and again when I was bored. Friends, I think this is what’s happened to my poor blog. My poor blog has been with me for ten years now. And I haven’t given up. I still keep the key. I’m using it now.

I was thinking of how nuts it is that the National Book Award Long Lists are coming out this week. It makes me nervous even though I have no horse in the race. There are so many good books that I’d like to see on the list that I can’t help but feel a little fluttery when I think about it. This all means of course, it’s been a year since I had that honor. Since I was reading the long list in the kitchen to Lucas and I just stopped reading, dumbstruck, when I saw my name. Since that day I’ve done over 60 readings from Bright Dead Things. We made it to the National Book Awards with my entire family.

My father, stepfather, and dear friend Jeff, and dear friend Jason Schneiderman, and Lucas all wore tuxes and the girls were stunning. I held my breath for the first part of the night. My vertigo wasn’t bad at all. (It was a bit bad during the night of the National Book Award reading at the New School.) Trish and Heather gave me a lucky horseshoe and I put in on top of my speech. Then, they called Robin Coste Lewis’s name. I wasn’t surprised at all. It’s a powerful and flawless first book and she deserves all the goodness. My family, however, took it hard. Lucas, who is never flustered, was visibly pissed. And Trish and Heather were in tears. I stood up after Robin’s speech and hugged each one of them. It felt so good to touch them and think, "Look at us alive and getting to go through this together." It makes me tear up to think of it now. All the kindness and support they gave me that night.

After the hug, the spell was broken, the champagne was opened and we danced until 2am. I woke up the next day, and said to Lucas “Remember the time I lost the National Book Award?” He said, “You mean last night?” There was still a bag of chips on the bed from the night before. An almost full beer by the nightstand. And it was just the night before, but it already felt like ages. That night we ordered thai food and stayed in the hotel room. It might have seemed anti-climatic, but in some ways I was glad the whole thing was over. The next morning at 6am I flew to Miami for the Book Festival. We read again, but the highlight was spending a long evening with Dawn Lundy Martin and Robin Coste Lewis (should I start using my middle name?) high-fiving in the Mandarin Hotel overlooking the water. A boat came up in the bay we overlooked and started a shower of fireworks, “Those are for us” Robin said. And it felt like they were.

Then, it was back to work, to Kentucky, and to “normal life” for a few months. Then, the National Book Critics Circle Award nomination came at the end of January. My friend Michael Robins texted me and I had no idea what he was talking about. Then, life picked up again. In March I went back to New York. This time I went alone and didn’t sport a fancy gown. I was more ready or prepared I guess. For some reason though, uncertainty kicked in big time. I didn’t like the reading I gave at the New School and I felt somehow like all the air had gone out of me. The next day, Trish came with me to the awards. I hugged Ross and Terrance hello and I kept my speech in my pocket just in case. When they said Ross’s name I was delighted, but also, surprisingly stung. I know I’m not supposed to admit this, but I was. And it’s dishonest of me to say otherwise. Ross is a dear friend and I love that book so much. But I hadn’t realized how much I wanted to win something. It was like the 15 year old me that was on the debate team was really getting competitive all the sudden and I wanted a plastic gold trophy that said WINNER. Then Ross spoke and gave a marvelous speech and I was so glad he’d won because his speech was way better than mine. Afterwards, I couldn’t hang at the party for some reason. I felt skinless. Trish and I retreated to a dark corner restaurant where they let me go in my stocking feet because my heels were hurting me. The next morning at 4am, I caught a cab to the airport to go read in Texas. I felt more deflated than I wanted to feel. My whole being was tired. I was tired of smiling. The girl in my chest wanted to nap and cry a bit.

A few hours later, it was time to smile again, big and bright and Texas style. But thankfully, I was surrounded by the good NBA people who took care of me and despite having lost my luggage and using a Sharpie for an eyeliner, I managed to have a great time before leaving for home the next day. I had a few days off at home before I was back on a plane to Cape Cod and before I turned 40. During this time, we were trying to buy a house. So one of these days off was spent in the IRS office (for 4 hours) so that I could get my taxes stamped and approved for our mortgage broker. Nothing felt easy. Everything felt big.

Lucas and the dog (Lily Bean) came with me to Provincetown and during a calm, foggy walk down Herring Cove where we were seemingly the only people on earth, he asked me to marry him. With a gorgeous antique-inspired emerald ring and all. That night, we went to dinner at a local seafood place and laughed and split a bottle of wine and didn’t tell anyone for a few hours. I saw my friend Greg Pardlo dining out as well and didn’t say anything because I knew I’d be tempted to tell him. Then, back in our hotel we called all our family and shared the news toasting with champagne in paper cups. And I didn’t need no award. Not one little bit. A few very close friends arrived the next day and we picnicked on a cold beach and dined at my favorite restaurant The Mews for my birthday. And all the sudden I was 40. Still feeling 15. 

From there it was AWP in LA and the largest reading I’ve given (opening for Ellen Bryant Voigt and Heather McHugh). Nicole Callihan and I went to a reading a loft space (where I read a new poem) and got a ride home from a movie star that felt sorry for us that we thought we could get a cab. We drank wine by the rooftop pool. My father and his wife came to see me, my brother came down. I drank in California. My vertigo came back a bit. I swam, I napped, I was grateful. From there it was Des Moines, Iowa for two readings and Ames, Iowa for one with the best one, Jennifer L. Knox. Then, on to an 8-day tour with Michael Robins and Adam Clay. There were crawfish and big porches, and late night beignets in New Orleans. There was a reading in Alabama where I had the best chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever tasted. All along there were people who I met that loved the book. That knew the book already. And because of that, knew me already. 

That whole tour lasted 21 days. I arrived home and the very next day we bought our first home. A home where I have a nice office overlooking a giant silver maple. Where I’m writing this from right now. I signed on the house and left two days later to see Lucas in Florida, then back to Cape Cod where Trish and I had a week to work out all the kinks of our lives. Then, Salem to read with Greg Pardlo and hang with Richard Blanco, Dan, and Heather. Where we decided we should make a show called “Boozy with Blanco.” 

The thing that struck me the most during this time, were the people who came up to me after the readings, the notes I received that talked about grief. It seems we all need to talk about grief. To really allow ourselves to grieve. I got a note just a few days ago from a woman who lost her father to a home death. I wrote her back with the little advice I had on how to get through the next few months. It's not just poems we write. It's bigger than that sometimes. Sometimes it's just being willing to say something someone needs to hear. It's not about me, but about the note someone found slipped under the door at the right time.

Then it was home again, then Minneapolis and my sweet home of all homes, Sonoma, California for school visits and a reading in a vineyard and then New York again and Jamaica for one of the most extraordinary festivals, Calabash. We came home sunburnt and planted tomatoes, and herbs, and fixed our house so that we have a real live guest room for real live guests. Then, before we settled in too long, it was off to Santiago, Chile for the Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency MFA- Latin America. In Chile I had the chance to see every single one of Pablo Neruda’s homes and suddenly felt grounded, even in a place with so many earthquakes. (Really, way too many earthquakes.) Lucas and I shared Peruvian meals and French fare and fell in love with Chilean wine. Next, it was Cape Cod again for the Fine Arts work center where Natalie Diaz, Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Richard Blanco made me laugh so hard I had to go to bed early the whole rest of the week. And then home. And somehow that was a year. Somehow all that happened and I’m still standing. 

And somehow I’m writing new poems and breathing and getting ready to be launched into the fall tour that take me to Ithaca, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Portland, Seattle, California, and home to Kentucky again. The vertigo isn't entirely gone, but it's lessening every month. Let's just say I am almost ready to think about packing again.

In New York once, Trish and were sneaking into a sold-out concert and the guy who was sneaking us in told us to go to the side of the building where we’d find “a series of doors.” We kept repeating that to ourselves until we did, indeed, find a series of doors. I feel like this now. There has been, are currently, and will be a series of doors. I just have to keep walking through. 

Now, it’s someone else’s turn in a few days. I hope they love every second of it. I hope someone gives them a lucky horseshoe and I hope no matter what happens, they realize that the love for this work and the people you meet along the way are the only real prize that matters. So, yeah, all this to say, "Dear Diary, so much has happened...."

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.