On December 10th I had the pleasure of reading at the National Museum of American Jewish History with a wonderful group of poets in honor of The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry. Below are some photos from the event taken by photographer Matthew Christopher for the Museum. It was particularly special to read with Hal Sirowitz, who lived for many years in the same neighborhood I grew up in (Fresh Meadows, Queens) and is a former Poet Laureate of Queens. I saw him read a number of times in New York when I was a “budding” young poet. It was a joy to read with this group, I hope to do it again in the future.
It’s what every poet eventually has to do if they’re putting together a manuscript. Spread the poems on the floor. Like the batter of a very rich cake, pour it in the pan, spread it evenly. Let it find its shape and settle. But the recipe is not as clear with poems (and you don’t get a delicious cake as a reward for your hard work).
Before today, I was very sure about the order of this manuscript. I had about 50 pages or so that I thought were done, and maybe 10 new pages I wanted to fit in somewhere. Once the poems were on the floor, a lot of moving around ensued. I circled the area like it was a crime scene, picking up poems, examining them, jotting down notes, putting them down. Before today, I knew what the first poem of the manuscript would be. Now I have some contenders.
The poems gathered together in clusters like continents floating on the ocean. Now I’m afraid to move them, lest the plates start shifting. I tiptoe around the room.
The process of ordering a manuscript provides some answers, but raises new questions. What is this poem doing here, among these other poems? What is this poem doing in this manuscript at all? Does this manuscript hold together? Are the poems too different in style, yet too similar in theme? Are these questions mere neurotic distractions from a much more intuitive process? If I gave the manuscript to a group of monkeys would any of them order it the same way?
The poems must stand on their own. Seeing them in a group helps me detect the finished ones from the unfinished or disposable ones. I see how poems fit together, but it’s tempting to view the manuscript as a jigsaw puzzle. You are putting together a puzzle whose final picture you can’t see, but which hopefully emerges. Not all the pieces are even there, you realize.
There is no right way to order a manuscript. You do what works.
I remind myself that poets didn’t always put together books of 64 or whatever pages. That there is some artifice to this whole process. So it seems like a formula I can work with, almost as arbitrary as a writing prompt. Nevertheless, I do think these poems share a sweeping something that means they belong together in a book. I have to trust that sense as I place the poems side by side, one at a time.
The news around the world is particularly grim lately, with the horrors of war and violence at the forefront of our minds. In the face of such senselessness, it seems fair to ask: Does poetry matter? Can it make a difference?
I think about this a lot in the context of my writing on climate change. And I keep returning to the same conclusion. That poetry opens up spaces in the human imagination that didn’t exist before. It is a way of processing and making sense of the incomprehensible. And when it can’t make sense, it complicates. Like a diamond, poetry is a many-sided, shining thing. It reflects, refracts, reveals, conceals. And it is necessary. When all we seem to have left is outrage, when we reach for words and none are to be found, when all is helpless… poetry sings, hums beneath the surface. Even before it gives us words, it offers its music. And that music can soothe and heal, even if only temporarily.
With that I invite you to a special event this Saturday night in Philly. I’ll be reading poems with a group of wonderful poets, some of whom contributed to the anthology The Lake Rises: poems to and for our bodies of water. Please come listen to these voices of imagination and reason as we share poems of and for the Earth. Because the Earth needs more poems. We need more poems.
Saturday, July 26, 7:00pm.
For the Love of This Blue Planet: an Evening of Eco-Poetry, featuring Hila Ratzabi, Anne-Adele Wight, MaryAnn Miller, and contributors to The Lake Rises: poems to and for our bodies of water: Elliott batTzedek, Lori Wilson, Sam Hall, and Lisa Wujnovich (co-editor).
Contemporary poets write on, in and through water to examine humans’ responsibility to this endangered resource. These poets calm, quench, transport, cleanse as they protest derogation and mourn drowning. Editors Lisa Wujnovich and Brandi Katherine Herrera achieve a fluid weave of innovative and contemplative poets to usher in climate change. The poems in The Lake Rises: poems to and for our bodies of water reach coast-to-coast, asking readers to drink a diversity of voices that resonate with each other in astounding ways. Some splash. Some sink. Simple narratives and experimental structures become meditative sieves readers can flow through to renew awareness.
Thank you to poet Ti Kendrick Hall for tagging me in the Next Big Thing! I realize now as I’m writing this that I was tagged once before, a year ago, but at that time I wrote about the story behind founding the Red Sofa Salon & Poetry Workshop. This time I could probably talk forever about my current poetry book project, and I’m excited to share!
1) What are you working on?
The short answer is that I am working on a book of poems that addresses climate change. The poems respond to recent news reports, speak in the voice of the Inuit goddess Sedna, imagine how humans might evolve to respond climate change, sound out a cry of grief and anger, and even occasionally engage in satire as a way of processing the psychological effects of knowledge of climate change. It’s a large, ambitious obsession of a project. It’s the first time I’ve ever written poems that actually have an identifiable theme.
2) How does your work differ from others’ in the same genre?
Since starting this project I became aware of the existence of the “ecopoetry” sub-genre. I started reading as much as I could find that fell into that category, and discovered amazing books, like Redstart: An Ecological Poetics, by Forrest Gander, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille Dungy, and Eco Language Reader, edited by Brenda Ijima, among many others. Much work that is considered “ecopoetry” is experimental in style and form. I was inspired to experiment formally in a few poems, but I know that much of the poems in the manuscript are fairly straightforward in terms of their shape and style. So my poems differ from other forms of ecopoetry in that they are not incredibly formally inventive. However, the use of Inuit mythology in this manuscript, specifically the story of Sedna the Arctic sea goddess, is different than other poetry I’ve come across. Sedna has taken on a life of her own in these poems, showing up all over the world, like a superhero, taking revenge on us humans for our folly in destroying the planet. I’m proud of that and excited to see where she will lead me next.
3) Why do you write what you do?
Hurricane Sandy broke open this well of poems for me. At the time I didn’t realize that’s what was happening, but as months passed after the hurricane, I realized my poems were taking on a strange and anxious tenor. It was also the first time in a long time that I was really writing a lot of poems and feeling motivated in my writing. I’ve always cared about the environment, but for some reason it was only after Hurricane Sandy (perhaps because it was so close to home, here in Philly and my hometown Queens, New York) that I really felt terrified about the imminence of climate change.
4) How does your process work?
It’s very interesting to me to be writing into a book of a poems that has a clear theme, as I’ve never done this before. Having a theme is quite helpful, because even when I’m stuck I have material to fall back on in which to go deeper. I’ve been collecting lots of sources for reading––books, articles, etc.––to educate myself about climate change. I scan news articles, follow climate change news on Twitter, and I look for stories that pique my interest. I’ve been reading all kinds of indigenous mythology and have been weaving that into the poetry. My goal as I continue is to push myself in terms of how poetic form can lead me to deeper psychological investigations of the topic and to more profound explorations of my own and our society’s fear of what is happening right now to our planet.
If you’d like to stay in touch and get updates on my most recent publications, readings, and Red Sofa workshop and reading series announcements, please subscribe to my e-newsletter.
Passing along the torch to the next few “Next Big Things”… Look out for Yasmin Belkhyr next week!
Yasmin Belkhyr is a writer in NYC. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in PANK, Word Riot, the Adroit Journal and SOFTBLOW. She is also the Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Winter Tangerine Review. She will soon move to South Africa and write poems about honeydew and heat. You can see more of her work at yasminbelkhyr.com and her blog is wildflowerveins.tumblr.com.
The writing process is notoriously mysterious and hard to describe, especially when one is in it. Writers are used to having to prove to people that they actually work, even though what they do doesn’t look a lot like work, or a lot like anything. Case in point: I’m coming up on the last week of my residency at the Vermont Studio Center. What did I do while I was here? It probably doesn’t look like much. The question reminds me of that Seinfeld scene where Elaine describes doing nothing.
JERRY: So what did you do last night?
JERRY: No, I know nothing, but what did you actually do?
ELAINE: Literally nothing. I sat in a chair and I stared.
JERRY: Wow, that really is nothing.
ELAINE: I told ya.
Most days of the residency involved walking from one building to another, eating food, talking to people, but most of the time just sitting and staring: out the window, at a book, at the computer, in my notebook. Today, for example, I wasn’t expecting much. Like every other day, I showed up at the writing studio really hoping I’d come up with something to write about. Then I decided to spend the morning avoiding writing, by doing some administrative work for my literary journal. This was a useful distraction––I got some things done, which felt good, but it had nothing to do with my writing.
Then when I was ready to really work, I picked up the photocopy of William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, which I had decided at some point was going to inspire me. I waded through some beautiful sections, some confusing parts, and then landed on something that made me stop. The sentence spoke to a difficulty I was having in moving forward and more deeply into my poetry collection. Something about the sentence made me put down the photocopy, pick up my notebook, and write. And then I wrote something that really surprised me––that felt new and exciting. It was probably the thing I’d hoped would happen, but not at all the words I would have expected to come out.
You can’t ever know what will happen.
And I know people say this a lot, but you really have to show up. And showing up is brave. I totally dread approaching my work sometimes cause I think I have nothing to say or it’s not going to be great. But I surprise myself over and over. I’ve seen that happen during the residency, where my job has been to show up. I’ve learned that if you sit and stare long enough nothing will become something. So what did I do on my residency? Nothing. And everything. And I even have some poems to prove it.
I’m on the other side of the Ides of March, post-Purim (the holiday of reversals), and inhabiting another side of myself. I am two weeks into my first writing residency, with two weeks to go. The first week here at the Vermont Studio Center was long and deep. I started writing immediately on the first day (even at the airport on the way from Philadelphia), and kept up a good pace for the first few days. The experience has been a big adjustment, an inversion of my everyday life at home, where there’s always something else to do other than focus on my poetry. Here poetry comes first, and that’s thrilling and frightening.
I enter my writing studio after breakfast and I expect to just walk straight into the deepest parts of myself. Eileen Myles was a visiting writer here the first week and talked about the writing process as similar to when a dog circles and circles trying to find the perfect position in which to get comfortable. That’s how I feel when I walk into the studio. I pace, move books around, fill my water bottle. Finally I sit down in the velvet green armchair by the window overlooking the frozen lake. I stare out the window and start to feel my mind move. Sometimes I fall asleep. Sometimes I pick up a book and read and a sentence injects itself in me and I grab my journal and start a new poem. I get up for lunch. I return. I go to yoga or to chop vegetables for my kitchen duty. I eat dinner, return to the studio at night.
I have moments where I’m worried I haven’t written enough each day––that old capitalist impulse toward mass production. But artistic production is much wider and deeper; poems don’t take shape on an assembly line. They inhabit the moments in between the actual writing of poems. It’s true that you have to show up for the muse. You have to treat the process as primary, as the first thing you’re responsible for. So that even when you’re not writing, the poems brew. You learn to be gentle with them. You learn to be okay with just sitting there for a while. The longer you do it the more normal it feels, and like animals, the poems begin to feel more comfortable emerging from the underground.
It’s kind of painful at first to transition to this way of working––you’re afraid you won’t make anything good, that you’re wasting time. You want to go home, be with your partner, go to a party, watch a movie. But the poems are spirit animals walking alongside you, sometimes going off on their own, but always returning. You have to feed them. You have to make it your full-time job.
I recently visited a dear poet friend who I hadn’t seen in a long time in Brooklyn. We drank tea, caught up, and then she showed me a new tarot deck. I’d never done a tarot reading before, and didn’t much believe in it, but I decided to give it a try. I shuffled the deck and asked my question: What do I need to move forward with my book project?
When my friend began to read the card, I saw a smile on her face. She knew the card I had chosen was exactly appropriate for the question I’d asked. I copied down what the card said:
The task ahead is a monumentous one. Usually related to your job or career, the three of pentacles suggests you must focus all of your efforts. Discipline, strategy, and hard work are needed more than ever. If you become weary or overwhelmed, rely on those around you. This is a card of teamwork, so you may need the strength of others to conquer the mountain.
This reading occurred just days after I’d completed a month-long fundraising campaign to support my forthcoming artist residency at the Vermont Studio Center in March 2014. While building support for the campaign I had compared the challenge to climbing a mountain. And now that mountain has been climbed: I raised the money and reached the goal, with the support of so many friends. Teamwork was essential. Even more than the financial support, the fact that people believe in the project gives me so much strength.
But the next mountain, of course, is the higher and more treacherous one: actually writing the book.
As an editor, I couldn’t help but notice the odd word “monumentous” in my tarot reading. Apparently, this is a word that has been in usage since at least 1896, though it doesn’t appear in standard dictionaries. I like the double connotation of the word: evoking both monumental and momentous. A monument is a statue or structure that commemorates an important event, and in a way all books are monuments to some degree, structures that stand for an event that happened––the event of writing the book. The word monument comes “via French from Latin monumentum, from monere ‘remind.’” A monument reminds us of something, as does a book. Momentous means “(of a decision, event, or change) of great importance or significance, esp. in its bearing on the future.”
This hybrid word resonates so deeply with where I am right now in my writing process. I am creating a physical thing, a book of poems, that will represent a moment in the history of our planet and where we are going in the future. It’s a grand and ambitious project, to be sure, but why else write if you’re not willing to take that risk?
The importance of focus mentioned on the card also spoke to where I’m at right now. The ability to focus on the project with uninterrupted time and space is what my artist residencies next year (in March and September) will be for. But my challenge right now is to build in my own mini-residencies within each busy work week to make progress on this in my regular everyday life.
So right now, I’m instituting “Writing Sundays,” my day of the week to devote to this project. Some part of me, for whatever reason, has always rebelled against the disciplines I’d set out for myself, the idea of having a regular writing routine, etc… but discipline is necessary. Discipline is a form of trust. That I can show up to my work and trust that in that set time and space whatever is in me will find its way out. Giving myself a full day means I don’t have to be bound by a particular time of day, but that I still need to produce something that day. And the nice thing about this project is that I’m not waiting for inspiration. I’ve been collecting books and articles along the way that are there to spark my imagination.
It seems there are ways to make the creative process as easy as possible for yourself if you have the right set up. Back in college I bought a pair of black velvet pants and a black velvet cardigan as a “writing outfit.” The luxuriousness of it felt appropriate to the writing process. I’d forgotten about it, but found it in the closet today. I decided it was time to bring that back and make some sort of ritual out of my writing process.
So here’s what I’ve got: my handy tarot card for inspiration, three candles, and my velvet writing pants and cardigan. It seems ridiculous, but as John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction: “whatever works is good.”
So I’m putting it out there to hold myself accountable. Today is Sunday. I’m ensconced in velvet. I’m going to write.
I was struck by this line. Am I separable from my poetry? What does the assumption behind that statement mean? At first glance, the statement made perfect sense. To some extent my very well being depends on the health of my writing practice. This logic can apply to any type of artist, writer, musician, actor.
But on second thought, as artists and writers we are separate from our work. If we become too identified with the artistic process we may develop an unhealthy relationship to it that can hinder it. If my writing a poem is all about “me” it may never reach beyond “me.” And if I’m writing poems for egotistical reasons, they probably won’t turn out any good anyway.
My friend’s statement had further resonance. I recently created a fundraising campaign to help fund my poetry book-in-progress about climate change. I really hesitated before deciding to go ahead and create that campaign, as I’ve outlined here. No one likes to ask for money. No one wants to annoy their friends and family for money––let alone acquaintances and strangers.
It wasn’t just that I’d never done a fundraising campaign before, so had no experience to build on. What was much harder for me was the feeling that I was asking money for myself. You often see fundraising campaigns that support a worthy organization or charity or that help fund a start-up business or product in development. But for some reason the idea that artists and writers need money to support the production of their art and writing is seen differently. Society still tends to view art as a hobby. There is very little money in this country for the arts.
Who was I to presume that anyone would take me seriously enough to support my venturing out into the woods to write poems?
The assumption here was that my writing poems is intimately tied up with “me.” On a deep level, of course this is true. My writing comes from my experience of being in the world, and is inseparable from that. But so is everything. Every business, product, idea arises from a human being interacting with their environment. But poetry? Somehow it’s viewed as more interconnected to the poet’s personality and whims.
But poetry is work. All art is work.
It can be liberating when you’re stuck on a particularly difficult creative project to try to extricate your “self” from it. The poem is not me. It’s on the page. It’s something I’m making.
When I told my husband that I felt uncomfortable with the idea of asking for money for my project, he said something that changed my perspective. He said that people won’t be donating money to me, they’ll be donating money to help me create my book. Therefore, my campaign is really no different from investing in the development of a product––except that my product, like all poetry books, won’t yield tons of money as a reward. But it will yield poetry, which, of course, is priceless.
1. Start by actually writing poems. Find that you’re sneaking in writing time wherever you can get it to fit.
2. Realize you have a book inside you.
3. Get really excited you have a book inside you.
4. Apply for artist residencies so that you can have the uninterrupted time and space you need to get that book out.
5. Get accepted to said residencies (if you’re lucky).
6. Realize you need money to help fund residencies.
7. Get nervous. Consider not going to residencies if you can’t afford it.
8. Tell friends why you’re nervous. Listen as they encourage you to ask for money. Furrow brow. Frown. Smirk. Make awkward face.
9. Fret for a few months about the prospects of asking for money.
10. Realize this project means more to you than any other before. ASK FOR THE DAMN MONEY.
P.S. Thanks in advance.
In my last post I talked about taking myself on as a client, trying to schedule my own writing time while working as a busy freelance editor––which is easier said than done. In the mean time, I had been wanting to visit The Head and the Hand Press, a local small press that also functions as a writing space. I am already a member of the awesome co-working space Indy Hall, but the buzzing atmosphere there tends to inspire me to hustle and bustle with my freelancing business and not to sit quietly and write. I liked the idea that I could go to this other place where I could spend the day only working on my own writing.
Last Wednesday I found myself with a rare day off. I wasn’t expecting a new project to arrive until Thursday and I just completed another one. No more excuses, I told myself: make it your writing day. So here’s my account of how it went down.
11:00am: Leave the house. Yes, my day sometimes starts this late. Though I recently challenged myself to start waking up much earlier to get to the gym, last week I was on my waking-up-late schedule.
11:00–11:45am: Flier for the Red Sofa. Since I’d just had postcards printed for my poetry workshop, I went around my neighborhood in West Philly distributing them to advertise. Writing day has yet to actually begin.
11:45am–12:00pm: Drive to The Head and the Hand, which is located in Fishtown. This involves getting on the I-95 North, which as a native New Yorker I find amazing and bizarre: I can take the highway to get from one neighborhood to another in Philly.
12:00pm: Arrive at The Head and the Hand. Off a raggedy looking street, I see the icon on the door.
12:05pm: I enter up a staircase. The place is very quiet. This is alarming at first, but then I remember that this is a good thing. This is what I came here for.
12:10pm: I am greeted by Claire, the creative manager. I immediately get into a conversation with her and ask for a tour of the place. There’s no way I’m about to start writing yet.
12:30pm: After the tour and more chatting, I decide that I have procrastinated enough. I set up my laptop at one of the adorable, hand-made writing desks. I take a moment to let it all sink in, just looking at my writing space: the light, clean wood, the little yellow flower in a jar. I smile to myself and inhale deeply. This is what having time and space to write feels like.
12:40pm: I take out the book I brought with me for poetry inspiration: Northern Tales: Traditional Stories of Eskimo and Indian Peoples. I have been reading books of indigenous mythology as a way to help me write poems that address climate change (more on that in future posts).
2:00pm: I have read and read and read story after story just waiting for a spark, and it finally comes. I land on a striking image and decide it’s time to follow its lead. I set the timer for 30 minutes and begin to write.
2:30pm: I have written a poem.
2:35pm: And it’s damn good.
2:40pm: I keep writing past the timer.
2:45pm: I finish up my hand-written draft and type it into a Word doc.
2:50pm: Bask in the glow of a really solid first draft.
2:55pm: Revise that draft a bit.
3:00pm: Notice someone else has entered the room, a fellow writer and editor who is also a member of Indy Hall.
4:00pm: Get “lunch” with said writer/editor at Soup Kitchen. Yum. We chat about our former publishing jobs in New York, about what we’re writing and what we’ve been editing.
5:00pm: Head back to Head and the Hand for more reading. No more writing happens today, but that one poem took a lot out of me. This is hard for people who don’t write poems to understand, I think.
6:00pm: I see a tweet from Twitter-and-now-real-life friend Trina, saying that she is at Head and the Hand. I turn around and she’s right behind me at the desk across the room. We giggle and take a picture together that later surfaces on Instagram. I marvel at the Internet.
6:10pm: Now the space is starting to fill up with writers. I feel cool cause I’ve been writing ALL DAY. But of course by writing I mean mostly reading all day, with 45 minutes of actual writing.
8:00pm: Everyone gathers for Workshop Wednesday. We snack on Oreo cookies and red wine. We chat about the latest Woody Allen film, which is awesome by the way. We chat about the whole history of Woody Allen films. I somehow start preaching about my love for creative non-fiction. Head and the Hand editor Linda Gallant passionately explains why the narrative arc of Breaking Bad is brilliant. I tell myself I need to get back into that show, even though it scares me. I talk about how Maria Popova is going to speak at Kelly Writers House next week and that she has the best website ever. Claire agrees. We gush.
10:45pm: I get in the car to go home. The feeling that comes after having written––not unlike the feeling after exercise––settles into my brain, a sweet and quiet buzz. I have spent more time reading and talking today than writing. But that’s all a part of the writing process. And I wrote. A damn good poem, I’d say.