JC’s Confessions #23

In the first few seasons of The Late Show, Stephen Colbert did a recurring skit, then a best-selling book, called Midnight Confessions, in which he “confesses” to his audience with the disclaimer that he isn’t sure these things are really sins but that he does “feel bad about them.” While Stephen and his writers are famously funny, I am not, so my JC’s Confessions will be somewhat more serious reflections, but they will be things that I feel bad about. Stephen’s audience always forgives him at the end of the segment; I’m not expecting that – and these aren’t really sins – but comments are always welcome.

JC

National Poetry Month Edition:

I’ve been struggling to regain my sense of myself as a poet.

This is ironic because, when I first turned to poetry as a means of self-expression ten or so years ago, I didn’t have any problem calling myself a poet. I was writing poems, so I was a poet. I remember early on reading a short essay from a person who had an MFA in poetry, had published at least one book, and was editing a poetry journal, but couldn’t bring himself to say that he was a poet because he wasn’t suffering for his art. I was perplexed.

I managed to still think of myself as a poet through the labyrinth of dealing with years of family health and caretaking issues. I was still writing and workshopping and doing residencies with the Boiler House Poets Collective and doing sessions with the Binghamton Poetry Project and Broome County Arts Council. I wasn’t submitting to journals as much as I should have, but I did put together two manuscripts, one chapbook and one full-length collection, which I started submitting to contests and publishers. In recent months, I have also been submitting individual poems to journals more often.

Perhaps I had forgotten the level of rejection that is inherent in the submission process. Some of the recent rejections I have received with manuscripts have chosen one for publication from a field of 800-900. I mean, do the math. Somehow, though, even knowing that the odds are not remotely in my favor has not shielded me from questioning whether I am a publishable poet, or even a poet at all.

Meanwhile, several of my poet-friends have published or are in the process of publishing their first books. I’m very happy for them and buy and help promote their work but it makes me wonder what is wrong with me that I’m only garnering a long list of rejections. What does it say about me that, when I see publication credits for other poets, I can often mentally tick off which of their presses have rejected me?

Things are better these past few weeks. The publications of my work for an Ekphrastic Review challenge and in Wilderness House Literary Review buoyed me through the latest round of journal and manuscript rejections that the spring has brought. I’ve participated in National Poetry Month projects with the Broome County and Tioga Arts Councils. Binghamton Poetry Project has been having their spring workshops, so I’ve been working on craft and writing from their prompts, once or twice a week. I’ve even gotten several unsolicited comments from my blog posts, saying that I am a good writer, which is somehow still encouraging of my sense as a poet. Writing is writing, whatever the form.

The question is whether I can keep my re-discovered sense of my identity as a poet from being buried by the avalanche of rejections that are sure to come. When I first set a goal of publishing a book by the time I was sixty, a goal that I failed to meet, I told myself that it didn’t matter if I ever published a book. After all, it’s not that I write for a living.

It would be best if I can get back to concentrating on reaching people with my work within my community sphere. I do consider myself to be an accessible, community poet. If I can do that, then I could look at publishing in a broader context as a bonus if it happens, not as a measure of my worth as a poet.

Please remind me when I am in doubt again.

Binghamton Poetry Project Fall 2021

So, I haven’t been posting as much as I intended these last few weeks, but (for once) I have a writing-related excuse.

I’ve been spending a lot of my creative time on poetry.

The most vital piece of that has been connected to my full-length poetry collection. I was finally able to hold a long-delayed workshop session with the Grapevine Group, my local poetry circle, and do revisions. On Friday, I sent out the newly revised manuscript to a publisher for the first time. I hope to send more submissions for both the collection and my chapbook over the next couple of weeks. Given the necessary slowdown of my writing activities during my father’s final months, I haven’t submitted much for a long time, but the rejections have been rolling in, leaving me with very few active submissions. Besides manuscript submissions, I hope to put in some individual poem ones, too. Fingers crossed…

Meanwhile, the Binghamton Poetry Project has been holding its fall sessions. I chose to attend a workshop called Poetic Yearnings: Desire, Place, and the Placeless with Nicholas Kanaar. I write a lot of poetry of place, so it was a good fit for me. Due to the pandemic, we are still meeting online instead of in person. Our fall 2021 online anthology includes three poems I wrote in response to prompts from the workshop along with the work of other BPP poets. Yesterday, we also held a reading via Zoom. I chose to read three poems of place from my manuscript, which revolves around the area from which I and several generations of my family hail.

I am determined to get more submissions in soon and will try to update you on my progress. If I get anything accepted, I will certainly let you all know ASAP. The only way that will happen soon, though, is if I manage to get accepted in a publication that has a very quick turnaround time. Most journals take a few weeks or months to reply and book submissions are several months to a year. Odds are very much against acceptance, especially with books. One recent book submission pool I was in chose four books out of 1,400 to publish, so…

digging out

In late May, I spent a few days on a private writing retreat back in North Adams, Massachusetts. I grew up in the area and it is the subject of my poetry collection work-in-progress, so it is helpful to me to be back there to work on it. (I wrote about it here for Stream of Consciousness Saturday, so even more rambling than I am when I have the luxury of editing myself.)

Part of the reason it is helpful to be back there is that I’m relieved of most of the caretaking/errands/planning/phoning/corresponding that take up a lot of my brain when I am at home. As if to make up for my being away for a bit, my return was greeted with an avalanche of problems that I may, finally, be at the point of seeing light at the end of the tunnel.

It’s exhausting.

I will not bore you with any details other than to say that anyone who has ever had to deal with a complex issue with a US insurance company has some inkling of what it has been like times three.

The update on the manuscript is that it is in the hands of my poet-friends with an eye toward doing a full review sometime in the next few weeks. I was fortunate that I had returned from North Adams with the poems basically done and ordered. I powered through writing the foreword and end notes before June hit so I was able to pivot to dealing with bureaucracy.

Fingers crossed that personal life will calm down in time for the manuscript review and for a couple of weeks for revision time so that I can send the manuscript out for July submission calls. Tupelo Press just helpfully reminded me that they will be having an open submission period for manuscripts in July. After attending the inaugural Tupelo Press/Studios at MASS MoCA residency week in 2015, I promised that I would send them work. I didn’t think it would be this many years before I would have the manuscript completed, but I am looking forward to finally keeping that promise. I feel especially obligated to send this to them because so many of the poems intersect with MASS MoCA, my time there, and the art.

I will, of course, be sending the manuscript to other publishers and contests because one needs to cast as wide a net as possible to find the right fit between the press and the poet.

One hopes.

Fingers crossed.

Another reading!

It’s been quite a poetry reading week for me! I shared the link for my reading with the Broome County Arts Council here and now I will be sharing an event that happened on Tuesday evening which is now available for viewing through Facebook.

The University Professors Press hosted a book launch and reading for Lullabies and Confessions: Poetic Explorations of Parenting Across the Lifespan. It is the eleventh volume in their Poetry, Healing, and Growth series. I was honored to have my poem “Hydro Superintendent” chosen for inclusion in this anthology.

The event began with an interview of Dr. Louis Hoffman and Dr. Lisa Xochitl Vallejos, both of whom are psychologist/counselors and poets. They are the anthology editors, as well as contributors of poems and authors of the introduction and response activities. I was fascinated to hear them speaking about how they use poetry in and as therapy. The discussion resonated with me as a poet who recognizes the power of poetry to evoke deeper truths and who often uses writing to work through my reactions to real-life events.

Following the interview, over a dozen of the poets read their work from the anthology, including me. The range of work is wide and, as you might expect, some of the topics of the poems are difficult. A poem that dealt with racism was especially searing as we had learned the verdict in the George Floyd case just hours before the event.

The links in the second paragraph will take you to the reading and to University Professors Press if you wish to order your own copy of the anthology. You can also navigate to other volumes in the series, which I’m sure are all equally illuminating about the human experience.

chapbook update

In a too-rare burst of energy in the late-winter/early spring, I finished, workshopped, edited, and submitted to contests an expanded version of the chapbook that had been a finalist in a 2017/18 contest with QuillsEdge Press. By the way, part of being a finalist was inclusion in an anthology, IN TRANSITION, which was published in conjunction with the winning chapbook, Skin Gin, which is available here.

The rejections from that batch of submissions have started to roll in. I’ve received two so far, although I did make semi-finalist in the CutBank/University of Montana contest. While being named a finalist or semi-finalist is still a loss in real terms, it is encouraging to know that your entry has been well-received by some part of the reading team. I have six contests from which I am awaiting notification, but, the odds are that they will be rejections, so I am gearing up for another batch of submissions.

A dear and generous poet-friend recently did a close reading of the manuscript and I have done another round of revisions. There is one poem that has changed significantly enough that I’m workshopping it with my local poetry circle. After those revisions, I’ll be looking for more contests and open reading periods for the next batch of submissions.

Back when I was starting to think about the possibility of publishing a book, I set the age of sixty as a goal. I will turn sixty in October, so I’m definitely not going to have a book in print by my sixtieth birthday.

For now, I’ll hold out hope for the book while I’m sixty, although maybe I should make the mental move to in my sixties, so there is less chance of being disappointed.

If I do get an acceptance, you can read all about it here, although it’s possible that you may hear my excited screams first!

SoCS: calendar

Maybe I should toss out my calendar.

One of my least favorite tasks at the end of the year is transferring dates from my calendar for year X to my new calendar for year X+1. I still use paper calendars, a large one in a central location in the house and a pocket one that I carry in my purse. I diligently try to keep them coordinated and updated, but now there have been so many crossouts and changes that it gets daunting to deal with them.

The latest long-time calendar entry that needs to be corrected is the annual Boiler House Poets Collective residency week at MASS MoCA. It is scheduled for early fall, so we had hoped that at least some of us would be able to gather, but we got the news that we are cancelled for this year. MASS MoCA will re-open next week, but many of its programs will be running at reduced capacity, if at all. Residencies will be cut way back because the artists are generally housed in four-bedroom apartments with only one bathroom and relatively small kitchen/common area, which wouldn’t allow for social distancing.

I know that this is the responsible path at this point, but I’m still sad. I only see all but one of the Boiler House poets during our residency, so I’m bummed knowing I won’t see them for two years instead of one.

Selfishly, I’m also sad about losing the opportunity to sequester myself in my studio in building 13 and work on my collection that centers around the North Adams area and its history, which is entwined with my family history. In 2015, when I first went to a MASS MoCA residency through a program with Tupelo Press, I had hoped that I might be able to craft a chapbook around my own relationship with the area. Over the years, it has morphed into a collection, which has been torn apart and re-configured more times than I care to admit to already. I was looking forward to having concentrated time to work on the manuscript during residency this year, hoping that I would be able to find the mental space and creativity and energy to make major progress while I was there with the support and feedback of my poet-friends.

Theoretically, I could try to shut myself in my bedroom for a week and try to hash it out on my own, but it’s hard to imagine managing it. There are enough chores and responsibilities here that it’s difficult to see how I could block out that much time. Even if I could, would I be able to do it effectively without being in that place and with the generous advice of my fellow poets?

We are able to schedule a residency for early fall 2021, but I know that is too long to put off my manuscript work. I’m going to have to get my brain in gear to work on a plan to work on the manuscript.

Maybe, I need to put it on my calendar.
*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “toss.” Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2020/07/03/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-july-4-2020/

2019-2020 SoCS Badge by Shelley

Boiler House Poets Collective Live!

While I wish I was saying that the Boiler House Poets Collective is together in person and giving a reading somewhere, this announcement is that we now have a public website.

There are three pages on the site: a standard “About Us” for a bit of history and general information; a page with projects we have done together, including videos which are embedded; and a page with links to books, blogs, websites, and videopoems that individual members of the Boiler House Poets Collective have been involved with as writers, editors, or creators.

I have frequently posted here about being in residence at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts with the Boiler House Poets Collective. If you search for MASS MoCA or Boiler House, you’ll get lots of posts about the residency and the poets who have taken part – and a fair amount of soul-searching, discovery, and wonder on my part. Because I am from the North Adams area and graduated from the high school there, there is another level of experience and memory that I bring to the residency. It heightens my sense of being there as a learner, surrounded as I am with more experienced poets and with art. My formal education in visual arts and poetry is sparse and I am forever grateful to my poet-friends for their patience and generosity in helping me grow as a poet.

Sorry for the digression. Back to the website and the Boiler House Poets Collective!

We began in 2015 as part of a collaboration between Tupelo Press and the newly formed Studios at MASS MoCA, which brought together a group of nine poets, most of whom had never met, for a week of poetry and art. The poets bonded so well that we have returned for a reunion residency every year. Because of the housing and studio set-up, we return as a group of eight. Because not all the original poets have been able to return, we have, over the years, brought in poet-friends to fill spaces, so we have become a larger collective and hope to continue as a group far into the future.

This pandemic year is complicated for us. We had reserved our usual week in early fall for our reunion, but we have no idea if MASS MoCA and The Studios will be open and if Massachusetts will be allowing out-of-state visitors without a long quarantine required. Still, I know that we poets will stay in touch and support each other remotely until we can be together physically again.

If you have any comments about the site, you may leave them here or email them to boilerhousepc@gmail.com. Either way, I will respond as best I can. Even though I am, by no means, qualified enough to deserve the title “webmaster,” I did set up the site and am responsible for maintenance. If you want to compliment any of the individual poets or find out more about their work, I will make sure that your message is forwarded to them.

On behalf of the Boiler House Poets Collective, thank you!

a new chapbook from Merrill Oliver Douglas

I wanted to share the news that a local poet-friend Merrill Oliver Douglas has a new chapbook available for pre-order at Finishing Line Press. You can order here: https://www.finishinglinepress.com/product/parking-meters-into-mermaids-by-merrill-oliver-douglas/

It was my privilege to participate in a manuscript review with Merrill and want to share that her work is both accessible for the general public and nuanced for those who enjoy the craft of poetry. You can read samples of her work at these links:
http://south85journal.com/issues/fall-winter-2016/fall-winter-2016-poetry/bereft/
http://baltimorereview.org/index.php/spring_2016/contributor/merrill-oliver-douglas
https://www.connotationpress.com/poetry/2370-merrill-oliver-douglas-poetry

And, seriously, who wouldn’t want to own a chapbook entitled Parking Meters into Mermaids?

Broome County Arts Council collaborative chapbook

As those of you who know me personally or who have been reading Top of JC’s Mind for a while are aware, I consider myself to be a community poet. I have next-to-no academic training in literary analysis and creative writing. I sometimes tell people that I write by instinct, but, like this blog, it is more another manifestation of the way my mind works, influenced by what I’ve read and my fortunate affiliation with groups of wonderful poets who share their work, critiques, and knowledge with me.

One of these groups in the last few years has been the Broome County (NY) Arts Council. They have sponsored several series of poetry workshops, led by Dr. Joshua Lewis. This has led to our first ever foray into publishing, a collaborative chapbook, Transformations. (The link takes you to a page with several options for download, priced at either $1 or $1.99 depending on platform.)

There are six poets represented: Pamela Olivia Brown, who also designed our cover, Joanne Corey (me), the aforementioned Joshua Lewis, who also acted as editor, Anita Alkinburg Shipway, Tony Villecco, and Harrison Young. We each submitted three poems without regard to a specific theme, but some commonalities emerged. We met to deal with ordering the poems, which is always a fraught process. I am pleased – and still somewhat shocked – that my ordering emerged as the favorite, with a couple of tweaks from the group.

In re-reading the book, I am struck by how the different styles and voices of the poets reflect common life experiences and deepen our understanding by approaching from various perspectives. Although there are only six poets, we represent different generations, races, ethnicities, genders, and places of origin. (I am endlessly fascinated by the influence of place, especially the rural/urban/suburban dynamic.)

I hope you will consider giving Transformations a read. I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments here or at the Top of JC’s Mind Facebook page.

[A note: It’s possible that your download will have an issue with pagination and layout. For example, I lost the stanza breaks in my Apple copy. I’m not sure if it is because I am using an older device or if there is some other reason. I can assure you, though, that all the words will come through to you, which is the most important consideration.]

 

“The Time Is Now”

Shortly before the spirituality class that I facilitate went on indefinite hiatus due to the pandemic, we finished our study of The Time Is Now:  A Call to Uncommon Courage by Joan Chittister, OSB. It was published in March, 2019 in response to the signs of the times.

The book deals with the characteristics of prophets, using examples from biblical times up through the present. While some think of prophets as people who tell us our future, prophets are not fortune-tellers. They are more often those who speak hard truths to draw the community back to its original ideals when it has strayed or who call for growth and positive change in times of selfishness or apathy.

As we studied the book week after week, we often drew parallels between the text and things we were experiencing in the present. These parallels have become even more evident now that the world is dealing with the pandemic.

We see examples of prophetic voice and action, such as Doctor Li Wenliang of China, who in early December alerted colleagues to cases of what appeared to be a new virus, only to be detained by police for several days for “spreading false rumors.” After his release, he went back to work at the hospital. He contracted COVID-19, sent out another medical alert online, and died from his illness in early February. He acted as a prophet in giving warning of danger and was maligned by authorities and ignored, as often happens with prophets. As sometimes happens, he also became a martyr, with his death serving as stark testament to the truth of his message.

Sister Joan calls us to look at what is happening around us and to stand up for truth, whether that means being a prophetic voice ourselves or standing in solidarity with those who are prophets, speaking truths that are considered threatening by the powers that be. We have seen this recently in the United States where some of the governors have been belittled by the president for their science-based and prophetic public statements about the present and likely future effects of COVID-19 in their states. New York State, where I live, is the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States and our governor, Andrew Cuomo, gives daily public briefings. He is very straightforward and makes it clear what is evidence-based and what is his opinion. It is very upsetting to have the president disparage him – and even more upsetting that the president contradicts the science and facts because he thinks it makes him look weak or bad personally.

It is time for all of us to have the courage to follow the prophetic voices or, if so called, to be a prophetic voice ourselves.

 

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