Friday, December 06, 2013

Ecstatic Statuses & Failures & Sympathetic Joy

I even sewed on buttons. That’s how productive I was this week. I wrote a ton, I worked a ton, I ran a ton, and I even sewed on some damn buttons. But last night, just when I was feeling pretty proud of myself for being so "Rosie the Riveter" about everything, and looking to take a break from the busy week and meet up with some of my good friends, they all cancelled, one by one. They all had very good reasons, and it was completely understandable, but still it meant another night where I committed myself to more work, more getting it done, more of the me, me, me. 

Between projects, I’d take a break and check my Facebook and Twitter accounts and see how the world was doing. I am friends with a lot of poets and writers on Facebook. In fact, the majority of my Facebook friends aren’t just writers, they’re successful, talented, good looking writers. And this particular week, while I’ve been on my self-imposed (and sometimes not so self-imposed) isolation, my Facebook feed has been full of very good news.

Every time I checked it, there were ecstatic statuses like “My book just got picked up!” “My children’s book just won a big award!” “I just got a giant grant!” etc. And I was really happy for everyone. Really happy. Happy. Really. Until, as the night wore on and I wore out, all of the success started feeling like constant tiny pinpricks. And, to make it worse, if it wasn’t good news about writing or publishing it was pictures of their super stylish, cozy fireplaces. And suddenly I didn’t feel like writing anymore, I felt like feeling sorry for myself. I felt like I should get a full time job being the Director of Feeling Sorry for Myself. 

I felt like stomping my boots and crying and saying, “I want my novel to be published! I want to win and award! I want a goddamn real fireplace!” I felt selfish and stupid and super envious of everyone, even the dog (who looked really comfortable and not worried one bit).

(You should know that, really, 99.9% of the time I feel incredibly lucky. Like really, really, incredibly, heart-exploding-bright-lights-and-glitter-and moonbeams lucky. But, this isn’t about that. This is about the other .1% of the time when I feel like a failure.)

I tried to remember my old meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg, at the Tibet House in New York City—where I first learned how to be more myself—and what she said about “sympathetic joy.” She writes: “The term is unusual; sympathy is commonly used in the sense of feeling bad for others. Learning to share their joy revolutionizes our thinking about where we can find happiness. Usually we rejoice in what we get, not in what others have. But sympathetic joy is a practice of generosity." 

It’s one of the four brahmavihāras (Buddhist virtues). And apparently, I’m bad at it. Something that happens to me when I am faced with a barrage of other people’s good news is, I make a list of all my failures. Here's where I take a deep breath and admit this: The novel that I've been working on for three years--that has so much life in it, so many great characters, small powerful moments, well-crafted rants--doesn't work. And I guess I’m finally ready to say that out loud. It’s hard to admit that something you’ve focused on for 3 years is a failure. But it’s true and I’m better at other things—like poetry, like walking the dog.

Today, I was thinking about my novel and how it's in the closet in an orange box and I believe it's going to stay there until some day I toss it out all together, and I began to sew on buttons. I was overwhelmed with the urge to fix things that I could fix. And fast. I even sewed up a pocket in my blue vest (the dog had ripped it once looking for treats since that's the treat pocket). After I had sewed, and fixed, and written some things, I took the time to read something that was sent to me from two different friends: a poem and a short play. And you know what? They were brilliant. Really, amazingly brilliant. So good I didn't even feel bad about my own sorry self. I just felt grateful to be surrounded by so much talent. 

I started feeling better. I put on my long brown winter coat (that I had just sewn two buttons on) and went for a walk. The dog and I walked in the hail and I felt good. When I came back in, I took off the coat and a button cracked in half. It was sewn on perfectly, I had fixed it just right, but even still the button just cracked in half. Just like that. After I pulled the cracked half of the button out of the dog's mouth, I sat on the floor and nodded. Okay, universe, I thought. I get you. Fix, break, fix, break, fix, break...and on and on and on we go doing the hard work and sewing the buttons back on. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

From Black Tie to Pajama Time: Dispatch from the National Book Awards

I am in my pajamas. They are flannel and red and cozy. It’s a wintry chilly evening, and Lucas is way too far away in Hong Kong, so pajamas aren't too unusual. Except that I’ve been in my pj’s since 6pm. Perhaps I should feel guilty about this, but for some reason I do not. Actually, I know the reason. The reason is, for the past two months (since the last blog post, perhaps?), I’ve been a machine of on the go, a motoring tornado of doing. But the going and the doing was good and it was in the name of poetry service.

After months and months of reading truly amazing books, the poetry judges chose the winner of the National Book Award—the amazing Mary Szybist book Incarnadine—and oh how we celebrated. Lucas even wore a tux. Phil Levine was at our table. Lucas and he talked horses and he told the story about the first time he won the National Book Award. (He didn't go, but his son had to accept for him. He had no idea Phil was going to win, as Phil had assured him Stanley Kunitz would win. When he got up to accept the award all he said was, "Pop said Stanley would win.") 

But the night was so full of bonbons of pleasure, that I cannot convey them all. But I can say, we met all the writers, and we met many drinks, and when we finally met the bed it was 3am.

Then, it was the blurry starry glory of New York City—we ran the Brooklyn Bridge, we dined with our favorite celebrities, and authors, and playwrights, and the best people that were put on this earth. Of course I missed a few of my favorites. A trip to New York without Nicole Callihan or Lizzy McGlynn or Jason Schneiderman is absurd. But alas the trip was so fast that there was only one of me and I have short legs so it take me so long to get anywhere. Like my dear friend Joel said once, I have such small feet it must be “like walking around on fists.”

We left New York literally carrying a box of pizza. Then, it was upstate to Lucas’s family and so much food and laughter. I ran in a snow storm, I disappeared into myself and then came out again.

But what’s the news, what’s the news! The National Book Awards are over and I actually miss the heavy metal bang in my mailbox when the mailman used to throw the packages of books inside its rusty mouth. But now, as we begin again, we are preparing for our California trip and for my online class at 24 Pearl Street Online Writing Program. We still have slots available, so join us. It really is a wonderful class—and I’m not just saying that because I am teaching it—I’m  saying it because our experience last year was truly powerful. Apply if you wish!

In other news, I’ve joined the amazing Field Office Speaker Agency, which means I get to say the absolute insane sentence, “I’m on the same team as Nikky Finney.”

And the biggest news of all, my new book, Bright Dead Things is going to be published by Milkweed Editions (somewhere around 2015). (This poem in the new book just got nominated for a Pushcart!) I’m so pleased to be with Milkweed Editions once again and now I get to tinker and tinker with the book until it’s good enough to hand over to the world.

So, yes, I am in my pj’s. And I might be in my pj’s tomorrow night by 6pm as well. And maybe even the next. And the next….

It's back to the quiet life, the hours of good desk time, the flurry of words and deadlines I must meet, but it will all be done behind the scenes in my red flannel pants, breathing in the cold air, listening to the fake fireplace roar. 

Sending a flannel kind of love.


Wednesday, October 02, 2013

On Believing

Somewhere in the thick of it all, I forgot to share the news that I had a poem chosen by Ted Kooser (Poet Laureate from 2004-2006) for his column, American Life in Poetry. The poem is called, "What It Looks Like to Us and the Words We Use" and recounts a conversation between a dear friend and I about the belief in God. To me, this is an exploration of belief, but also of naming. It's also a poem that I hope provides a common ground between my beliefs as an atheist and other people's religious beliefs. It's also about barns. Out here in the countryside of Lexington, KY these old tobacco barns sit on the soft rolling hills like forgotten statues. Many of them are still in use.
The poem also takes place in the Sonoma Valley Regional Park (one of my all time favorite places to hike). The Spanish Moss, the obsidian shards, all of that comes from the place where I grew up. I wrote this poem when I was living full-time in Sonoma in 2011. I used to hike there as a child with our dog, Dusty. A yellow lab who didn't think about God. Though sometimes we thought she was an old man who had been reincarnated in her body. We'd say, "Hey Lou, are you in there?"  

And now I have said too much. But I wanted to tell you about the poem. Also, in the two days it's been out in the world I've received many sweet emails telling me how much they enjoyed the poem. The poem is part of the new book, Bright Dead Things, which is with my publisher, but may not be out for some time depending on the universe. If you'd like to hear the poem read, I recorded it this morning and it's over there ---> on the right hand column. Thank you for your kind notes and emails. That means the world to me.

Also, this week, we go live on buses in Atlanta. A new poem "Endings" will be featured and includes a story about a turtle. It's a true story. Those of you who know me, know that when I don't know what to say about a poem of mine, I just say, "That's true." Thank you, Atlanta! And now back to work.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Find a Way

All the leaves are falling in our front yard, the old sugar maple and its windmill seeds, and I just said to my friend Kristin, “Isn’t it weird that leaves actually fall? Look they are falling!” And they were. All over the picnic table like words on a page. Or maybe that’s too easy. They weren’t like words. Let’s not take that leap yet. They were just like leaves, simple and brown, and crumpled.

It’s easy to want the metaphor. It makes life easier. I was recently reading this book, The Happiness Hypothesis and the author Haidt says, “Human thinking depends on metaphor. We understand new or complex things in relation to things we already know.” And, “It’s also hard to think about the mind, but once you pick a metaphor it will guide your thinking.” This, I think, is a powerful argument for the necessity of reading, writing, listening to, and memorizing poetry. What if it can help us organize our weird life's journey better? What if what it accomplishes is simply that life can be more easily lived, can be made beautifully clearer, can be shrunk to a size more swallow-able?

When I was fifteen I understood loss by repeating the Bishop line, “I lost my mother’s watch once,” which meant that great loss was still to come. Heartbreak was to me the Robert Hass line, “Bees in the heart, then scorpions, maggots, and then ash.” Homesickness was the Yeats line, “ I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.” And so forth. If what Haidt says is true, then these lines are actually allowing me to understand my own life in a way that makes it more manageable. 

And that doesn’t even begin to tackle what might be the benefits of making your own metaphors to help you through the tougher topics. Those of us who write, know this to be true. What you cannot explain, you can at least explore. You can find a way through it. Or simply find a way through.

That made me think of the swimmer, the fabulous female powerhouse Diana Nyad who used the phrase, “Find a Way” to help her cross shark-infested waves (I know, I know, why?). “Find a Way” is so much easier than saying CROSS THIS ENTIRE FREAKIN’ GULF OF MEXICO.” Find a way. Find a way. Find a way. All the way across the gulf.

And some how we do. I've been saying that to myself. Find a way. This is new for me, as it used to be "Choose a way." I am finding a way to do this. 

In California, I read poems in my hometown bookstore. Oh the crowd! Oh my home town heart.

In Kentucky, I taught and read and mingled with the amazing minds of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference

And then Lucas and I got to play host to Dawn Lundy Martin, Stephanie Hopkins, and Kirstin Dombek. We sat around the fire pit and talked about the power of narrative, the possibility of language, and then it all got a little fuzzy. Oh bourbon in the bloodstream. 

And now, on Thursday I read for the young adults of Teen Howl and then fly to Brattleboro for the Literary Festival. And the poetry doesn’t stop. It finds a way. Find a way. Find a way. The leaves are actually falling and they are not like words at all. The words come from you. 

Monday, September 09, 2013

Reading Report: Oxford, MS & Memphis, TN

I got home last night after four days on the road and three readings with the human poetry-machine, Adam Clay. The first was in Oxford, MS where I had never been before. It was hot and humid and just about the most quintessential Southern town I'd ever been to. A cheer squad was preparing for the Ole Miss pep rally, the air smelled thick and sweet, and everyone around was in school colors. We ate at Ajax Diner (squash casserole & red beans and rice) and read at a house reading with an excellent and warm crowd that I felt very close to immediately. There was the most magical white dog recovering from a car accident named Atticus. I fell madly in love with him and wished I could have brought him home. Adam was brave enough to steal him for me, but we thought he was loved where he was. So hard to leave tender souls in the great unknown. 

In the morning, Adam and I worked at a cafe, then visited Square Books and Rowan Oak where Faulkner lived, and Faulkner's grave where he does not live. The night before, driving home from the reading we saw a huge buck come out from the cemetery. It was massive and athletic and both of us were a little in awe. Animals in the moonbeams & headlights. If I had to choose a team to root for, it would be a team of deer in the wee hours offering secrets in the dark. I would wear those colors.

Then, we were off to Memphis, TN where I had also never been before. We played Aretha Franklin as we drove in, and bought an Elvis CD at Shangri-La Records. As per Adam's insistence we ate a the BBQ Shop, and I had maybe the best BBQ sandwich of my life. Then, off to the inaugural reading of Impossible Language hosted by Ashley Roach-Freiman. The reading was at a great gallery space called, Crossroads (and I traded books for an amazing painting by John Garland. It's now hanging in my office and I love it). A large crowd, free wine and beer, and good people. 

Those good people followed us to the Lamplighter Lounge where there was yet another reading and we all got to know one another and talk about art and life and music. 

On the way out of town I pushed Elvis's intercom button at Graceland, but he didn't answer. I saw Sun Records and Stax Records and... oh Memphis I shall return. 

And now I am home for one brief moment (a few short hours), before Sonoma, California calls and I settle in for a week in the West. 

I am lucky & I am working hard. As they say in Memphis, Work Hard & Be Nice.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Taking My Time

It was a marathon weekend and, I can only speak for this household, but we're going to ease back in slowly.

Monday, September 02, 2013

The Body & Brain & the Balance

Approximately six weeks ago I threw my back out. It was just about as bad as it's ever been. It was agonizing, and I hate not moving. You see, I'm a mover. I like to get things done. Every day I make a list on bright yellow paper that hangs next to my desk and every day I check almost everything off. It's a small not-so-super power, but it's mine. And I'll take all I can get.  

When my back was out, I had to rely on Lucas for everything. I had never been so happy that my "art form" was based on words, a computer, and reading. I spent time putting the new poetry book together, reading, and working on a new fiction project, but still, it felt so weird not to be able to move. Even though it was productive, and managed to keep a fairly good attitude (thanks to Lucas, real friends, and Facebook friends who kept offering advice and good healing thoughts), I still wanted this forced flat-on-my-back and face-to-face-with-words time to end.

Slowly and steadily, I got back on my feet. I was able to take the dog out and get back into my daily exercise routine. I made a pie from the neighbor's apples in honor of my stepmom who's no longer with us. I visited friends, I went out, I cleaned, I organized my desk, I moved, and moved, and moved, and watched old movies at night to calm down and reconnect with the slow down. In short, I've been back to my normal bouncy, busy self. 

Now, I have to admit, however, that after such an active few weeks, even though I'm not missing the pain or immobility, I am missing the forced downtime, the forced heady time that demands the written word.

Though the internet is full these days of funny articles on whether or not you're an introvert or an extrovert, I think the personality type that best suits me (and perhaps you), is that...I'm a writer. I need the right balance between moving and quiet, the rush and the hush. 

As Fall begins and everyone returns to school, and the mind's air smells like sharpened pencils and wool uniforms, I'm hoping I will remember what those weeks of quiet offered, and try to return often to the much-needed brain-time after the thrill of body-time.

In the meantime, this lovely article come out in the Lexington Herald-Leader and I feel very happy that Lily Bean made the cover. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Secrets in Public

It almost seems like there’s no reason to write blogs anymore. Our brief prosaic ramblings, lyrical and strange, and holding back little, seem to be a tad too much now, too extra. We have Facebook and Twitter and all the ways of speaking into the unearned conch. We embrace our typos and talk too much and say, Look! This happened! in so many different ways that it seems like it’s time to stop blogging all together. 

Still, I’m attached, if only because after weeks of the word output, the constant composing and the constant reading, the blog still seems like a safe place to hang my head and hum to myself.

This summer, I read more books than I ever have in one concentrated period of time. I told my dad that I thought I had earned, or should earn, a PhD. Then, later I had a dream that I got a PhD and I was so happy about being in school, except I didn’t do my math homework and my childhood friend, Sarah, had to help me cheat before class. This is the way the brain works overloaded in words. Every word is a trigger to tell more, or tell it again. Every ordinary bug is a new reason to stare and dream and make things fly off.

I didn't earn a PhD, but I did learn something. A sort of cherishing. I’m not as scared as I once was of how the words come to me in different ways. I used to worry if what I thought was a poem, came out in prose or vice versa, but now as I get older (and seemingly simultaneously easier and harder on myself), I find myself just so pleased that they come at all. And come they did. As I was reading so many poems, more poems came. And as I took a break for fiction, more fiction came. And essays and tweets and tantrums.

After all of the deluge, the books and the dreams, I have a new manuscript of poems. We shall give it a bit a of time to simmer and see how the world unfolds, but for now I’ll just tell this secret place, this hidden old school whisper machine I call my blog. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

May is NOT National Poetry Month

Thank you for reading our drafts of April poems. I made 23 of them and now they all must be edited. Jason made 7 lovely little ditties. I shall write more things soon. If you are wondering how the tour wrapped up, here's a little recap.

Also, since I've been selected as a judge for the 2013 National Book Award, all I am doing (aside from freelance work) is reading. It's really wonderful, but also overwhelming. It requires a lot of space and time and quiet. But the the books are just a joy to spend time with. 

Also, I have joined the faculty for the 2014 Low-Residency MFA Latin America for the Queens University of Charlotte which means you should join us. 

Sending love from sunny California where life is nice and slow and we are doing our work and counting our blessings and eating too many popsicles. 

Monday, April 01, 2013

National Poetry Month, It Begins, It Beats, It Bellows

This year, we join the gang over at NaPoWriMo in yet another clumsy attempt at creating a draft of a poem every day for the month of April. Jennifer L. Knox will, very unfortunately, not be joining us, but Jason Schneiderman will! 

We ask only a few things from you:

1. Don't touch the wild poems. We ask that you kindly do not remove, copy, or share these baby poems on your own blog or website. (Even though it's awesome that you might want to!) Feel free to comment or share this link, but we take these drafts down after a bit in order to work on them, submit them to magazines, and put them in our books. 

2. Be gentle. These are drafts. We don't write a poem a day every month because it's really really hard. If you see something on here that you don't like or that isn't very good, both of those things are OK and we understand. Just don't judge us. 

Gulp. Here it goes.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

AWP Memories

From what I recall, the writers' conference went something like this....

We drove and luckily avoided all the storms. We stayed in a creepy hotel outside of Cleveland and we listened to audio books and the dog slept the whole time like 13 hours was nothing.

When we arrived, it was time for dinner and Lily Bean & Sophie were reunited. They cuddled. They didn't want to go to the writers' conference.

There was so much snow. It was hard to get out of bed and go. I went and then there was so many faces and names and blurs and beauties. I was overwhelmed and overjoyed...

The conference was insane and wonderful. So many panels. So much talent. So much love. Here's Nick Flynn reading an Alan Dugan poem (an amazing event). 

Milkweed Editions threw a special party with Manhattans. And we brought bourbon from Kentucky. Adam Clay was a king. 

I found some stolen time with Nicole Callihan and Dawn Lundy Martin and Kristin Dombek. We drank pink champagne and we were surprised that the whole thing was legal. 

This was my first AWP with Lucas and now he'll have to go every single year from now on. I just decided. 

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

AWP Keeping the Sanity

Later today, once we are all packed and our work projects are complete, we'll start our long drive to Boston. It's my first AWP (Association of Writers & Writers Programs) Conference since Denver in 2010.  It's also my first AWP where I'll have the great pleasure of being accompanied by my man. I keep trying to warn him, but he has no idea what he's in for. I'm posting my schedule here for 3 reasons. 1. For my mother so she can see all the things that I'm doing--this way when I call her exhausted later at the beginning of next week, she'll understand. 2. For those of you who are coming to Boston and would like to meet up with me, here's where I'll be, please come. 3. So that I can view my blog on my phone and see my  schedule in case I forget where I have to be while lounging too long with bloody mary's in some Boston bar with the people I love.  Okay, here it goes!

Ada’s AWP Events

Wednesday: Bob’s house to drop off dog.


check in to conference

Milkweed Editions Party 5:30-7:30pm (convention center, they serve manhattans) 
Sheraton, unconfirmed room as of now.

Offsite Event: New America Anthology
Date: Thursday, March 7
Time: 8PM
Locaiton: Outpost 186
186 1/2 Hampshire St., Inman Square

With: Connie Clegg Hales
John Hodgen
Burt Kimmelman
Ada Limón
Sheryl St. Germain
Evie Shockley
Hal Sirowitz
Patricia Smith
James Tolan
Sandy Tseng
Estha Weiner


Event: FAWC keeping it real
Date: Friday, March 8
Time: 9:00 AM to 10:00 AM
Location: Room 201


Mark Wunderlich
Daisy Fried
A.J. Verdelle
Jill McDonough

Event: Book Fair Signing, Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine 
Date: Friday, March 8
Time:  12-1pm
Location: at the University of Iowa Press tables (E1 and E2) at the AWP Bookfair

Event: Teaching (and Learning!) with First Books of Poetry 

Date: Friday, March 8

Time:  4:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. 

Location: Room 201, Hynes Convention Center

Event: Reading Gulf Coast/Bat City Review
Date: Friday, March 8
Time: 8:30pm
Location: David Friend Recital Hall


Jeffrey McDaniel
Ada Limón
Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz
Jamaal May
Matt Hart
Darcie Dennigan
Timothy Donnelly


Event Title: Against Veils -- A Tribute to Alan Dugan

Date: Saturday, March 9

Time: 10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.

Location: Room 202, Hynes Convention Center
(Reading Love Song I & Thou)


“Love Song: I and Thou”
Ada Limón
John Skoyles
“On a Seven-Day Diary”
Gail Mazur
“Last Statement For a Last Oracle”
David Wojahn
“Note: The Sea Grinds Things Up”
Michael Morse
“Takeoff on Armageddon
—For Ronald Reagan”
Nick Flynn
“On a Desolation of the Animals at Night”
Adrienne Su

Ada Limón
“On Flowers. On Negative Evolution”
Matthew Lippman
“On a Desolation of the Animals at Night”
Adrienne Su
“Suburban Exorcism”
David Rivard
“Spring Song for Symplocarpus
Foetida and Me”
Jill McDonough
“On a Myth. On a Conventional Wisdom”
Victoria Redel
“In Favor of a Free Public Library System”
Michael Collier
“Closing Time at the Second Avenue Deli”
Alan Dugan

Event: PBQ at 40, An Anniversary Reading
Date: Saturday, March 9
Time: 3:00 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.
Location: Room 309, Hynes Convention Center

Jason Schneiderman
Gregory Pardlo
Keetje Kuipers

Leave Boston. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Small-Hour Love

Last night, after a lovely Valentine's Day (and my mother's birthday as I've noted before), I woke up at 4:30am and couldn't get back to sleep. I tried my meditation, I read a poem on my Poetry Daily app (this one, it's great), I checked my email (thank you, Jason Schneiderman for giving me a great email to read at 4:30 in the morning), but nothing seemed to lull me back into the sweet black of sleep. So I thought. And I thought. 

I thought about the future, and what it is going to be like, I thought about money (because that's what we do at that hour), I thought about the dog's little rash on her chin, I thought about moving to California, I thought about staying in Kentucky, I thought about Lucas and his career, I thought about Cynthia, I thought about my grandparents, I thought about my brothers, and my nephew, I thought about my parents, I thought about my friends, I thought about the animals of my friends, I thought about my body, my health, my weight, my eyes, my teeth. I thought about the weather and the earth, I thought about the moon and the ocean, I thought about my novel, and I thought about poems,  and I thought about this new idea that I have which could be a play or maybe a young adult novel, or maybe nothing at all, and that's how I let the 2 hours pass. In the dark. With all those thoughts. This morning, a little worse for wear, I realized maybe I needed that. It was Valentine's Day after all, maybe what I was doing was just giving a little bit of love to all those things.Today, I don't want to call it "worry." I want it to be more like "attention." Maybe those things just needed attention. Maybe they needed a little early morning, small-hour love. And if you woke up from a dream wondering if someone was thinking of you, someone was. It was me.