Writers often commiserate over being faced with a blank page and not being able to think of something to write on it.
Or maybe now-a-days a blank screen?
I don’t usually run into that problem, most likely because my brain almost never shuts off. There are actually reasons for this that I will go into when I’m not writing stream of consciousness….
Of course, just because I can always fill a page with thoughts doesn’t mean that the writing is worth sharing.
My natural mode when writing poetry, though, is to slosh things around in my head for days/weeks before writing them down. It’s good, though, that through the Binghamton Poetry Project, Heather Dorn, and Sappho’s Circle, I learned to write poetry quickly from prompts.
It usually works like this: The leader of the workshop gives a few choices for prompts to get you started on a poem and there is a time limit, which can be as short as ten minutes, in which to write. This plays to one of my strengths, which is writing relatively short poems, but definitely challenges me in that there isn’t time to ruminate. You really only have about a minute to decide which prompt you want to respond to and the direction you want to take before starting to draft your poem on the page.
Through practice over the last several years, I’ve gotten pretty decent at writing a poem quickly from a prompt. Obviously, there needs to be revision time later but a number of poems that were in response to prompts have made their way into my manuscripts.
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…
is something I have been saying to myself off and on for years.
The truth is that most of my adult life has been spent as a caregiver, some of it in very challenging situations dealing with long-term illnesses.
Not the kind of life that lends itself to following a daily schedule. If you ever think you know what is happening on a given day, chances are the phone will ring in the morning and you will be off dealing with some need that has arisen.
Let me be clear that none of this is a complaint. Rather it’s just a statement of fact – and evidence that I was privileged enough to be able to choose a life of unpaid caregiving instead of needing to take paid work and cramming in the caregiving around my employer’s schedule.
The day after Paco’s death, the hospice social worker said to me that now I could figure out what I wanted to do. We had first met during my mother’s illness, so she had some idea of what my life has been like over at least the last few years, if not decades.
While it’s true that I have spouse B and daughter T at home, we are able to collaborate on taking care of the house and each other, so the years of intensive caregiving are probably over for a while, as long as we all remain reasonably healthy.
So, I’m starting to piece together how I want to spend my time in the coming months. Admittedly, right now I am necessarily busy with settling Paco’s estate and final bills and insurance claims and such, which takes a lot more time and energy than you might think if you have never had to do this for a loved one.
I’m trying to keep from jumping back into everything I have put on hold in the past because I think there is a danger of over-committing and exhaustion. I do know that I want to spend more time with writing, so, perhaps, finally regularly posting here again.
I also need to return to spending serious amounts of time with my poetry. During the recent Boiler House Poets Collective residency, I was able to re-connect with my full-length manuscript that revolves around that area and my family’s connections with it. I am going to do a review of it with the Grapevine Group, my local poetry circle, later this month and then do revisions and look for submissions opportunities. I also need to look for more opportunities for my chapbook, as the rejections have been rolling in over these last months so it is only out at a few places at the moment.
I am considering auditioning for a local chorus, although that might not be until after the holidays. I expect that, for the first time in many years, we may travel for both Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I am staying in the loop but not spending a ton of time on environmental and political issues. I still send letters and do public comment on social justice and environmental causes and send emails to my elected representatives but I am trying not to spend hours every day on it, as I did for years during the height of the anti-fracking fight in New York. I admire the energy and commitment of today’s younger activists and support their efforts as best I can.
Church volunteering is still on hold. Eventually, the book study I facilitate may return but only if we can meet safely indoors unmasked. We aren’t there yet.
So, can I do this? Can I re-organize my life and have it stick?
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.
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.
Things have been pretty quiet here at Top of JC’s Mind for the past few days because I was back in North Adams on a solo writing retreat to work on my poetry collection.
I’m happy to report that I have the bulk of the manuscript assembled, including a few pieces that I wrote this week. There is only one blank page with just a title; I’m hoping to get that poem written and integrated into the manuscript over the holiday weekend. I also need to write a foreword and a notes and acknowledgements section at the end. When I have the draft complete, I will ask my local poetry circle, the Grapevine Group, to do a group review/critique for me, with the goal of having it ready to submit by mid-July.
This collection has been in development for a looooong time. In November, 2015, I took a leap of faith and applied to attend a week-long workshop/residency at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, a collaboration between The Studios at MASS MoCA, which had, at the time, only been in operation for a few weeks, and Tupelo Press under the direction of Jeffrey Levine. I was accepted, even though I was a relatively new poet at that point. Had it not been in that particular place, I would not have even applied, but I grew up in the North Adams area and had hopes that a chapbook might grow out of the experience, given the intersection of my personal and family history with the current, very different reality there. Case in point: MASS MoCA occupies the complex that housed Sprague Electric when I was growing up but that started out as Arnold Print Works that made textiles. (If you are interested in how the week went, you can check my blog archive for Nov. 2015, as I blogged every day of the residency.)
Short version of the story is that I was in way over my head, but was saved from going under by my fellow poets. We all bonded so well that we have returned to MASS MoCA every year (except for 2020 due to the pandemic) for a reunion residency as the Boiler House Poets Collective.
So, two things happened to my initial idea of writing a chapbook about my family and the North Adams area. I realized pretty quickly that a chapbook would be too short, so it would need to be a collection. Also, life intervened in the form of a long and ongoing period of inter-generational caregiving, which made the time required to devote myself to the project scarce.
There have been two other attempts at this collection, both of which failed miserably in review. I learned a lot from the failures – at least, I hope I have – and this new iteration of the manuscript has a (I hope) more compelling focus.
We’ll see how manuscript review goes…
There are over fifty poems in the collection and over seventy pages, so there is room for cuts if needed. Most publishers expect collections to be between fifty and one hundred pages, so there is some space for adjustment.
While members of the Grapevine Group have seen a lot of the individual poems, this will be the first time they have seen the manuscript. The two prior iterations of the collection were with Boiler House Poets Collective, back before Grapevine started doing manuscript reviews within the group. The exception is my friend Jessica, who is a member of both groups. It will be especially interesting to see her reaction to this newest iteration.
After Grapevine review and edits, I may see if any other BHPC poets want to weigh in – or maybe even before, if any of them are especially keen on the concept/subject to my begging/gluttons for punishment/very bored.
At any rate, come mid-summer, I’m hoping to start doing submissions with the collection. Then, in the fall and winter, the rejections will start rolling in, where they can join the growing list of rejections for my chapbook manuscript in my submission database.
Eventually, one of them may make it into print. The chapbook has been both a semi-finalist and finalist in contests. So, someday?
This version of the collection is definitely stronger than the two prior attempts. So, maybe, someday?
If it happens, you will definitely be able to read about it at Top of JC’s Mind, which will probably be around even though it is cheugy. I just learned that word…
Or, if the chapbook or collection gets accepted for publication, you may just be able to hear me scream, even if you are not close by. 😉
As I announced in this post, I am spending a few days back in North Adams to work on my poetry collection.
I went to MASS MoCA today and was pleased to be in a good poetry flow! I drafted three poems that will make their way into the manuscript and a fourth that will be a possibility for submission to journals.
I also ate ice cream twice – a dish of ginger ice cream from Lickety Split in MASS MoCA and a mocha sundae from Triple Scoop, a nearby ice cream shop. Mocha is very important here. There are two poems about it in the collection already.
Dashing off this post and then back to my poems from today, getting the drafts into my computer and editing a bit…
In fall of 2015, I took a frightening leap of faith and attended my first-ever poetry residency/workshop. It was a collaboration between Tupelo Press and The Studios at MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). As a relatively inexperienced poet, the only reason I was emboldened to apply was that it was in North Adams, the small city in the Berkshires where I had gone to high school. I grew up in the tiny town of Monroe Bridge, about twenty miles away, so North Adams had been a second hometown to me, with at least weekly visits to relatives and stores.
The residency was, well, complicated. It was daunting and terrifying at times and I was perpetually in over my head, but I learned a lot and met wonderful poets. I blogged about the experience and just re-read all the posts. This post contains links to the residency week’s posts, which convey things fairly well, except for downplaying the terror just a tad.
In those 2015 posts, I mentioned the possibility of a reunion residency and I’m pleased to say that the Boiler House Poets Collective has met every year since in early fall for a week at MASS MoCA.
Until this year.
Because of the pandemic protocols and travel restrictions, our 2020 reunion is cancelled. We are all sad, but we are on the schedule for fall 2021, so we know we will return.
In one of the 2015 posts, I mention my plan to put together a poetry collection about my personal and family ties to the North Adams area and that it might take a long time to put it together.
This turned out to be true.
While I have completed a different manuscript in the intervening years – and two major iterations of the North Adams collection, I am nowhere near finished with the collection I envisioned in 2015. I had planned to spend a major chunk of our 2020 residency hammering out more poems and a new version of the manuscript.
I get emails from MASS MoCA and The Studios, so I knew that a deadline was coming up to apply for individual residencies for winter/spring 2021 and I began pondering if that was something I should try to do. It’s a bit complicated because 1) it’s very competitive; 2) the minimum block is two weeks, which makes things trickier in terms of being away from home; 3) no one can project what kinds of virus levels, travel restrictions, closures, capacity limits, etc. may be in place in 2021, so cancellations could still occur; 4) the application would have been quite a chore, especially because I don’t have a cv prepared.
In discussing this with my spouse B and resident daughter T, an alternate solution came up – that I could go to North Adams on a self-styled writing retreat, staying in a local hotel/inn, visiting the museum with my membership pass, and writing in my room or some other socially distanced space that may present itself. If I do this, I could choose the dates myself and could wander about the area as I wished. Importantly, I could also go sooner rather than later, while both New York and Massachusetts have good control on virus levels and no travel restrictions between them. I would be able to maintain good social distancing, so my risks would not be any higher there than here.
So, I might make it to North Adams to write for a week after all. Of course, it won’t be as rich an experience as I am used to when being officially in residence with my inestimable Boiler House poet-friends, but the time away to work on the collection in the place where it is centered would still, I hope, be fruitful.
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.
So with the birth of a new collection of poems, I thought I might share the backstory, as the poems came together in an unusual way, for me.
The poems in this book began as a monthlong exercise in imitations. Each day I’d choose a poem from a literary magazine or book of poems I had lying around, and I’d try to do a word-for-word imitation, but trying often to use opposite words. That is, if the poem started “One early morning…” I might say “Every late night….” I tried to choose poems that seemed unlike anything I might write: longer lines, narrative rather than lyric.
I didn’t overthink the process, I just let words rise up as prompted by the original poem, and figured whatever subject matters were lurking in my brain would arise naturally from this process. So then I had thirty or so of these, and looking…