Portals: My Newest Book!

portals cover

An amazing thing happened.

Last fall I sent a pile of newer poems to Middle Creek Press, hoping I might salvage something out of what little I wrote during our ongoing pandemic misery. Turns out that collection, titled Portals, won the 2020 Halcyon Poetry Prize. Wild, right?

What an honor to have Middle Creek publisher David Anthony Martin select my manuscript. This collection is packed with poems about sycamore leaves, gut bacteria, quicksand, protests, yeast, talking peonies, insects, inflation, and consequential strangers. Here’s a sample: 

portals open like hands

People seem to think a writer writes in isolation, pulled only by some invisible drive to assemble words into form. For years I felt that isolation acutely. Heck, I didn’t even admit I was writing and publishing poems until my first collection, Tending, was accepted by a small poetry press. All that time the work of other poets pulled me onward. Their poems nourished me and helped me recognize poetry is in us all.

When the publisher of my first collection told me to solicit blurbs by reaching out to poets I admired, the task seemed unimaginable. Approach a busy stranger, someone I’d deeply respected from a distance, then ask for a favor? A distinctly time-consuming favor? I was appalled. Maybe my book could be published with a blank back cover. Maybe I could pretend the blankness was some kind of artistic choice. Turns out that wasn’t necessary. Every poet I contacted was gracious, even the poets who turned me down. Their kindness introduced me to the kindness of the writing community. (There are unkind pockets too, but I’m too small potatoes to be affected.)

My next collection, Blackbird, continued to teach me just how beautiful the writing community can be. Writers go out of their way to amplify the work of other writers. They mentor, they share, they podcast, they teach.  Many dedicate their time to make literary journals, literary organizations, and literary events possible.

I am the recipient of these kindnesses and more. I am endlessly grateful for Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s bountiful forward and for generous blurbs by James Crews, Donna Hilbert, and Phyllis Cole-Dai. Many thanks to Middle Creek publisher David Anthony Martin; it is a delight to work with a press dedicated to growing a “mycelial network of artists and readers.” Thank you to the poetry editors who published many of these poems in print and online journals. Much appreciation to the poets from our 811s poetry critique group who helped reshape these poems: Laurie Kincer, Diane Kendig, Roberta Jupin, Geoff Polk, and Richard Ferris. Appreciation to my longstanding writers’ group: Connie Gunn, Sarah Vradenburg, and Margaret Swift.  Endless thanks to poetry readers who share my work – you truly light the way for every poet. Most of all, thank you to my family who have held it all together during these surreal and humbling times.

Portals is now available from the publisher. You can also request it at your local library, favorite indie bookstore, or indie-bookstore based Bookshop.org. And you can also get it via Amazon

Clichés

“Story is an affirmation of our ties to one another.” 
~Terry Tempest Williams

My spouse and I are listening to a not-so-great audiobook as our long drive’s entertainment. After an hour or so I turn it off for a much-needed break. Mark is surprised I don’t like it. (Apparently he hasn’t heard my sighs.) I suggest the problem is not the plot but the clichéd writing. That’s when my marriage comes into question.

This man, with whom I have made children and to whom I have pledged lifelong fidelity, claims clichés are expected. He sees my expression but unwisely goes on to say he believe clichés are actually necessary.

It’s lazy writing, I tell him. As an editor I excise clichés with a fierce pen. (Although we editors no longer edit with pens.) 

Because we’re stuck in the car, I give him a bit of the cliché talk I share with writing classes. I say thanks to imaging studies, we know what writers have long understood. Sensory-rich language, particularly when embedded in stories, makes writing come alive for the reader.

When we take in straight-up information like a lecture or textbook, our brains show activity largely in the language-processing area. This indicates we are doing the basic work of decoding sounds or symbols into recognizable meaning. In contrast, a well-told story activates not only our language processing areas but also other areas of the brain – putting us inside the story. Say we read about walking into a much loved rib joint where smokers are finishing up bbq pork, greens and onions are frying, a milkshake is being poured from one of those chilled stainless steel malt cups. Our sensory cortex is activated as if we smell the smoker, hear the greens frying, see the thick milkshake slump into the glass. We may even salivate in anticipation.

Consider the way news comes to us. During a quick televised report we might hear brief facts about a suspected break-in on the west side of town, no one hurt, police investigating. We process the information along with the day’s avalanche of facts, unlikely to pay much attention unless we live on the west side or have our own troubling break-in memory. But if we’re told the story differently, we experience the story’s events. Say the homeowner is interviewed. She describes sitting on the couch late at night, snuggled up in her pajamas watching a movie. She thinks she hears something on the back porch. She mutes the volume, listens, gulping back her fear. When the doorknob rattles she grabs her phone. Suddenly broken glass is scattering across the kitchen floor. She leaps from the couch and runs to the front door, her fear-moistened hand scrabbling to turn the knob, and then she’s running barefoot across the snow to her neighbor’s house. She pounds on the door, almost collapsing in relief when she’s welcomed inside. As she tells the story, you react.. Emotional areas of your brain for fear and relief light up. Your motor cortex lights up in the area controlling your hand as if you too are scrabbling at the doorknob, then lights up in your legs and feet as if you too are running down the steps and across the snow.

That’s why I expound on this with my writing students, I tell Mark. So they know to let the reader’s arms feel their strain as they try to lift Grandma out of bed, preserving her dignity though they feel like weeping. So they help readers feel enraged at their high school math teacher’s expression when he suggested they drop out of calculus. So the reader’s skin prickles when they write about an unfair workplace. Mark is nonplussed. This man, who tears up at animal reunion videos, says maybe people don’t feel things as intensely as I do.

These are fighting words, but I’m still in explain-mode.

I’m talking brain imaging, I say. Our brains mirror other brains; that’s how we understand one another. He’s still got his patient listener face on, so I continue. This explains how clichés impair writing. Because when we hear a cliché like put the cart before the horse our brains don’t evidence any interest. That saying was originally a clever use of language the first 1,000 or 100,000 times it was said but our brains react minimally to clichés. Brain imaging shows we take them in only at the most basic level. Phrases like “scared out of my wits” or “made of money” were original once, but now they deaden our responses.  Besides, many clichés in common usage come to us from generations ago, when everyone knew how foolhardy it was to put the actual cart before the actual horse. Take the cliché “caught red-handed.” This likely came from centuries back, when serfs worked the land of some lord or another. There were strict rules against poaching. Even if one’s family was starving on what little they could grow, it was illegal to hunt on the lord’s land. Caught red-handed meant you had blood on your hands and would be severely punished.         

Mark alleges he still likes clichés and gleefully adds the cliché, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”* It’s a game now. We continue to toss out ever more ridiculous clichés until we weary of them and put the audiobook back on.

Listening to it, we finally we reach a cliché-related accord. I agree with him that a book’s character can and perhaps should use clichés if it’s in keeping with that character. In this pop mystery, I can see why a character or two would talk this way. Mark agrees with me that the book we’re listening to also uses clichés in description and plot development outside of character narration, and it’s off-putting. We listen a few more miles and he says. “Now I can’t help but hear all the clichés. Thanks.” We give up on the book.

Yes, we’re still married. And yes, I still give that cliché talk but have learned to keep it in the classroom.

*The expression, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” first appeared in a book of husbandry back in 1523.  It’s also not true. Studies show you can teach old dogs new tricks, in fact senior dogs do better than young dogs when learning tasks that require inference or reasoning.

First published in The Blue Nib Literary Magazine.

Yellow Dress Woman

“Enter each day with the expectation that the happenings of the day may contain a clandestine message addressed to you personally. Expect omens, epiphanies, casual blessings, and teachers who unknowingly speak to your condition.” ~ Sam Keen

I never forgot her. The young woman wore a yellow dress and her smile seemed to glow in the sunshine. I’m pretty sure she was with a young man, but as a child that didn’t interest me. I was on another of our family’s summer trips. These were starkly frugal, multi-week affairs meant to educate us at every free historical site possible. Our days were spent in a hot car, our nights in our tiny travel trailer. Much of the time I was carsick or asthmatic, or both. I longed for my library books, my pink bike, and all the other comforts of home.

On this day I stood in a crowd of tourists watching a demonstration of colonial candle-dipping or blacksmithing. Trapped at armpit height behind people holding cameras, I couldn’t see a thing. That’s when I noticed Yellow Dress Woman strolling on the grass nearby. I squinted at the aliveness she radiated.

It occurred to me that she wanted to be there and I realized with a sudden full-body shiver that growing up wasn’t an abstraction. This was a revelation — that a time would come when I too could make my own choices. Her image stayed with me like a beacon through the rest of my growing up years.

I shared that story with my regular Wednesday class as I asked them to think of an image that made a deep impression on them, then write about it. A lengthy pause. No pens hit paper, no fingers tapped keys. Oh no, I thought. I came up with a writing exercise that’s not working. This has happened a few other times over the years. I usually jump in to expand the concept. But heads began to bend over their stories and I relaxed.

It’s strange how fleeting images manage to plug into a waiting receptor. A man stopping to help an elder or a woman unselfconsciously nursing her baby may expand your awareness, give you new resolve, or offer clarity. We gather and hold these moments, none of us knowing what moments from our lives are carried by others.

Fifteen minutes later it was time for class members to read aloud. As always, powerful original stories were shared to rapt attention. Then on to discussion, finding insight in each other’s words. I’ve seen stories connect and uplift us so many times that I’m convinced listening to one another’s stories is the most healing thing we can do for each other, and for the times we live in.

What images do you carry that have changed you?

How Not To Make Book Swag

Jeannine Hall Gailey’s terrifyingly useful PR For Poets is packed with ideas completely new to me, even though this is my third book. (Or fifth, depending on how such things are counted.)

Notice how many pages I dog-eared.

Like nearly every other writer I know, I’m a friendly hermit with a serious allergy* to self-promotion. So I didn’t follow most of Jeannine’s good advice, like developing a PR kit or getting a headshot. But her book did foster another idea. “Hide in the house,” I said to myself. “Make something fun to help sell the new book.”

Book swag can include postcards, magnets, bookmarks, t-shirts, mugs, tote bags, pens, custom-decorated cookies, toys, and more. All the stuff most writers, let alone most publishers, can’t possibly afford. Jeannine calmly explains postcards and business cards are the most useful, and how to produce them at a reasonable cost. Of course I wanted to do something complicated.

I am particularly fortunate, because my wonderful publisher, Ginny Connors, of Grayson Books, commissioned artist Bethany Bash to create a simple, evocative cover.  I figured if I rummaged around the web for ideas I’d come up with a neat give-away as a perk for folks who bought two or more books at a reading.

Initially I hoped to create tiny replica book necklaces that could open to a poetry sample, somewhat like this project on Buttons & Paint. The time required, however, was too daunting, especially with time constraints like my actual editing job.

Then I decided to make book pendants that could be worn or used to mark one’s place. It seemed simple. Reproduce the cover image in tiny rectangles to fit pendant tray blanks. Adhere them to the trays. Cover with a layer of clear epoxy or glaze, let dry, and thread with a sheer ribbon. I got the images made at Staples. I read comparisons of adhesives and glazes, finding out more about Judikins Diamond Glaze and Mod Podge Dimensional Magic than I ever imagined. And with my husband’s help, got started.

It did not work out well. I got so frustrated that my more patient spouse took over the project. He tried adhering the images with glaze, applying a layer over the top when it dried. The paper buckled and colors bled. He tried spraying clear coat on both sides of the image to seal it before adhering to the tray. It didn’t buckle, but the colors bled with the top coat of glaze. No matter what he tried, the image bled or the top layer (of glaze or Mod Podge) turned cloudy. (Actual photos of the cover probably would have worked better, but we had tiny images copied at Staples.)

So, with readings coming up, he gave up on the dimensional top layer. Instead he used white glue to adhere the image to the tray, then sprayed it with several layers of clear coat, letting it dry well each time. It’s not as professional as I’d imagined, but still cute enough to be my main swag.

Despite my hermit-y ways, I have four events lined up, three readings and an Epic Art Sale!
May 4th and 5th from 10 am to 5 pm. This weekend I get to hang out with actual artists for two days.
Friday, May 10th at 7:30.  Lara Lillibridge is launching her sparkling new memoir Mama, Mama, Only Mama at Visible Voice Books in Cleveland. Marsha McGregor and I get to open for Lara.
Sunday, May 19th at 1 pm. I’ve got a shared reading at Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights with Kim Langley whose book, Send My Roots Rain,  uses poetry and reflection to address grief.
Sunday, June 2nd at 2 pm. My solo reading at the Wm. Skirball Writing Center at South Euclid’s CCPL.
And I have the incredible good fortune to have received two amazing book reviews.
Michelle Wilbert writes in Mom Egg Review, “There is nothing static in these poems–they move with a dynamism that holds the center of each poem without shaking the structure and or offering a summation…”
Kathleen Mickelson writes in Gyroscope Review,  “This is the very glue of this book. Oneness with everything – our families, our neighbors, the prisoners and children and battered women, the cow who lays down to die after 17 years of offerings, the coyotes and birds and beech trees, the oracles that come to us through everyday objects, the bee that leaves her stinger in the bottom of our foot. These poems draw an ever-expanding circle of life that includes even the smallest organisms.”

*Talk about a mindbody connection. You know that “serious allergy” to self-promotion I mentioned? I was in the ER for sudden food allergies just days before my first book promotion… I am going to be fine.

My New Book!

The container of my life has been extra full these last few years — some startling lows but also some immense joys. As I said to a friend during these zigzags, I am practically a parasite on hope.

Still, I am downright startled when something amazing happens to me. And something amazing has indeed happened.

Last autumn I pulled together a manuscript of poems written since my first collection was published. I know it takes a long time to find a home for a book of poetry. And since I can’t afford to submit it to publishing houses that charge reading fees or contest entry fees, the list of publishing houses I might approach is smaller. But I pulled up my optimism socks and sent it to my first choice, Grayson Books. This is the publishing house that included one of my poems in their beautiful Poetry of Presence anthology last year.

Their submission guidelines warn they only publish a few books each year, so I expected to send the manuscript along to another publisher after I got the inevitable rejection. I didn’t even open their emailed response right away in order to postpone the disappointment.

Instead I got an acceptance! (I’m pretty sure I heard trumpets.)

I am strange about my own good news, suddenly more shy, and have only told a few people since signing the book contract back in October. Each step of the process —- editing, choosing a title, approving art commissioned for the cover — has been a testament to the professionalism and patience of Grayson Books publisher Ginny Connors. I still cannot believe my good fortune.

My good fortune doesn’t stop there. Four wonderful poets agreed to write back cover blurbs. Here they are, overflowing with the kindest words imaginable.

I admire and learn from Laura Grace Weldon’s writing. Her poems blossom from an inherent curiosity and grow strong under her compassionate treatment of the subject matter. Such fresh images and heartfelt insights move me to be a better writer.

Susan F. Glassmeyer, author of Invisible Fish and 2018 Ohio Poet of the Year

These poems touch me so deeply because they bring me home to the marvelous sacraments of the ordinary: a coyote howl at midnight, a bean in its fuzzy pod, water in a forest stream that “moves in patterns more ancient than philosophy.” When I take a few moments to read a Laura Grace Weldon poem, the sun comes out in my heart, and I know that the earth, for all its pain, is bathed in goodness.

Alfred K. LaMotte, author of Wounded Bud and Savor Eternity One Moment at a Time

Laura Grace Weldon invites us to engage our third eye, to truly examine “light in a window/ laundry flapping defiantly on the line.” Her words so intimate and lush, she guides us to spaces we pass by, take for granted, overlook in our super-charged lives. Without reprimand or judgment, Laura Grace ever so deftly reveals the secret: “it’s a matter of walking/ inside to out with someone capable of truly seeing… wakening skin and gut, summoning/ the long kinship we share with everything.”

Kari Gunter-Seymour, author of Serving and Poet Laureate of Athens, Ohio

On each surface our fingerprints linger.

They are too light to pack

too heavy to carry.

These lines from Laura Grace Weldon’s “Moving Day” remind us that the miraculous, the heartbreaking, the beautiful are always right in front of us, disguised as the daily messiness of our lives. I finished Blackbird and took a long winter walk through the park, seeing the world with fresher, keener eyes, and a feeling of gratitude.

George Bilgere, author of Blood Pages, Imperial, and The White Museum

I am endlessly grateful to these gracious poets, to my wonderful publisher, and to the dear writer friends who helped me workshop these poems: Laurie Kincer, Diane Kendig, Connie Gunn, Sarah Vradenburg, Margaret Swift, Patrick Davis, Roberta Jupin, Geoff Polk, and Virginia Douglas.

My book will be available at Cleveland’s Loganberry Books this spring or ask your local independent bookstore to order it. It can also be pre-ordered on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Or you can get a copy from me at one of my upcoming readings (so far, Loganberry Books on 5/19 at one pm and the Wm. N. Skirball Writer’s Center on 6/2 at two pm).

A portion of all book royalties will be donated to the Medina Raptor Center, a non-profit center in Spencer, Ohio which rescues, rehabilitates, and releases injured and orphaned birds.

 

Poets & Sages Behind Closed Doors

Sunlight flashes across the nursing home lobby when I enter. By degrees the brightness dims as the door swings shut. My eyes adjust to a line of wheelchairs, their occupants so still they might be in deep meditation. One woman rouses, her brown eyes searching me out. “Feet don’t work a’tall,” she says politely. “Not a lick of good.”

I walk down the hall past living koans. A man is held in a chair with padded restraints resembling a life jacket. His arms extend forward as if he is about to swim, but he doesn’t move. He repeats over and over, “I, I, I, I.”

An aide explains in a loud, cheerful tones to a woman hunched over a walker, “There is no upstairs, Dorothy. See? No elevator. We only have one floor.”

Dorothy ignores her and pushes the walker ahead. “Let’s go upstairs now,” she says.

“Show me how to get there.”

When I get to the room where my husband’s grandmother lives, she says, “There you are!” She knows me even if she can’t remember my name. Today I get her talking about childhood memories. She recalls that as the youngest of an immigrant family she had to be tough even as a little girl. “They’d beat you like they wanted salt,” she says, “but I wouldn’t cry.”

“Who beat you Grandma?”

“I’m never hungry,” she answers. “Never.”

Her roommate, who leaves the television on all day, calls out over the noise of a game show, “Ned, come over here.”

There’s no one by that name in the room. Not that I can see.

This whole nursing home feels like a living poem. But I don’t want to write about the people here. I want to write with them.

When I graduated from college I found no openings in my field. Instead I eventually found a job as a nursing home activities director. There I read the newspaper aloud every morning to a lively group of elders, soliciting their opinions and making sure to find the articles they loved to cluck over — tales of human failings. I played songs on the piano like “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” for sing-alongs. I got a group of rabble-rousers together each month, named them the Residents’ Council, and helped them advocate for positive change with the administration. And I developed a local network of activity directors. We shared closely guarded secrets such as contact information for puppeteers, barbershop quartets, amateur magicians, and others willing to perform in nursing homes.

My fellow activity directors and I had the best jobs in these places. We had time to listen to the people who lived there. When I listened, really listened, I knew myself to be in the presence of poets and sages. I developed a writing program to let others hear them too. When I took the job, the facility’s monthly newsletter contained only a schedule of events, a list of birthdays, and generic health tips. But the building was home to 100 people with voices of their own. I needed to expand that publication.

I started with a column called “Tip of the Month.” Some residents didn’t know what day of the week it was or where they were, but if asked for suggestions on getting a child to behave or living within one’s means, they bubbled with advice. That column usually featured comments by dozens of residents. Many times their opinions contradicted each other, making for a livelier feature. Better yet, staff members and families implemented some of the suggestions in their own lives. When they came back and told the residents about ways they had benefited, it helped put these seniors back in their rightful position as elders with wisdom to offer.

For example:

Home Cold Remedies

“My mother used to put dry onions on my chest like a poultice. She browned them in a frying pan and put them on hot as I could take.” — Harry Pierce

“We took hot milk with ginger.” — Carmen Morales

  “My mother would rub goose grease and turpentine on our chests and put us to bed after a drink of whiskey, hot water, and sugar. Boy did we smell after that!” — Lillian Edwards

 Once I got beyond the typical “how are you feeling today?” conversational dead-end so common in nursing homes, I discovered residents whose suggestions were too long and complex to fit in Tip of the Month.” If asked to give advice for high school graduates their answers covered psychology, religion, and culture. If the question dealt with handling bullies, some people brought up international affairs, others disclosed wild personal incidents.

So I added another section to the periodical. This one centered on a different theme each month. Harvest time, first day of school, best friends, what made a good neighbor, lifelong dreams, a mother’s touch, fatherly advice, vacations. Some people brought up fragments of memories, others shared powerful insights. Nearly all of their answers illuminated a bygone era.

Preparing for Winter

“My grandfather from Hungary never drank water…Hungary had been at war and both sides poisoned the water. He never took up drinking the water again… Each year he bought a truckload of grapes and had them dumped through the basement window. We helped him make barrels of wine.” — Bill Dobscha

“Back in Ireland we’d dig up the potatoes, pick the apples, and store them away…Close to winter the pig was butchered and the meat smoked. The wheat was ground for bread and we made sure there was enough oatmeal to feed us 21 kids all winter.”  — Catherine Monally

“Only rich kids had skates, but you could slide on ice by smashing tin cans on your heels and use garbage can lids for sleds. We had fun in any weather.”  — Freda Tesar

Sometimes new staff members had difficulty telling residents apart, frustrated that stooped posture and thin white hair made the very old look alike. But stories in print gave unique perspectives on residents who spent day after day in nearly identical rooms. It also gave us more to talk about with them.

Although some people understandably found it difficult to adjust when they had to move to a nursing home, many adapted with astonishing ease to the losses represented by institutionalization—loss of identity, health, possessions, and freedom. Their contributions to the newsletter made it apparent they did so because they’d already endured great difficulty in their lives, hard lessons in impermanence.

Residents also blasted apart the sweet oldster stereotype. Some were eager to talk about their indulgences, shenanigans, even crimes. Oftentimes pain or dementia loosened the sense of propriety that had a greater lock on their generation, other times mischievousness seemed to linger right under the surface. Their willingness to reveal an edgier side accorded them new respect from the youngest people on staff.

As residents talked of the past I was struck by how dispassionate many of their accounts were. It seemed they no longer suffered over prejudice, judgment, and injustice imposed on them or that they had imposed on others. They talked with a distant tone, as if simply telling parables.

Soon I added a “Resident of the Month” feature. This gave me the luxury of listening to much lengthier oral histories. Some people told me details they didn’t want in print and we worked together to craft the material they did want published. I usually had to corroborate the facts with their files and was often surprised to find significant information they didn’t bother to mention, further evidence that stories aren’t in the data of where one lived and worked. They are in the details. Union busters coming to rough up a little girl’s coal-mining daddy and her pride in hiding his supper dishes that were on the table so no one would suspect he’d taken refuge under the front porch. A sibling dying in the night of diphtheria, and later honoring the lost child by giving one’s firstborn baby the same name. There were also tales of accomplishments, hardships, and sacrifices dismissed with the wave of a hand–“No, I never saw Mama again after I left the Old Country. That’s how it was.”

Then I started regular poetry workshops. I read poems aloud, passed around objects with relevant smells and textures, shared observations. (And served cookies. Sweets inspired many a reluctant participant.) Then I scribbled rapidly as they talked. Later I combined their words into a group poem crediting each author with his or her own line. Residents and their families seemed to prefer traditional verse so I encouraged workshop participants to work with rhyming phrases whenever possible. Some were diagnosed with dementia or suffered speech impairment due to a stroke. Though they couldn’t make coherent contributions to our other writing projects, their abilities shone in poetry.

Phrases from a resident who said the same thing over and over took on a new tenor when made into a refrain. The man who dryly commented on a topic with only three words in an hour had his contribution included. So did the woman who kept interrupting with more ideas. After our workshops I would visit other residents’ rooms to seek their input, searching out those who couldn’t attend the poetry sessions but whose impressions could make a difference. Occasionally I transcribed the words of a single resident to create an entire poem.

When residents’ words were invited, taken seriously, and written down, when I nodded and looked them in the eye, they had more to say. A lingering silence, in fact, seemed to bring ideas from a place of deep contemplation. Many times I watched someone’s gaze turn to the window, past the ubiquitous geranium. I waited. When it seemed that they’d forgotten completely they would speak gracefully, forcefully, in ways that juxtaposed symbols with objects, meaning with abstraction. Poetry.

“I’ll see you next week Grandma,” I say, leaning down to give her a hug. She seems present yet detached, like so many of my greatest teachers. I brush the hair away from her face, pat her hand, adjust her lap robe. She smiles distantly. I stand for a moment. She rouses briefly, looks at me. “Listen,” she says urgently, “the wind! The wind!”

There are no open windows, no breeze on the soundtrack of the blaring TV. So often she speaks from a place beyond logic. I want to know if it’s possible to trace her words back to meaning, but her eyes are already closed.

As I walk outside the sunlight is intense. I fumble for my sunglasses. Only then does my attention turn to my breath. The wind. The wind.

 

Originally published by The MOON Magazine and DailyGood.org

Ask For Rejection Letters

ask for rejection letters

As a writer, I get my share of rejection letters. (As an editor, I write my share of rejection letters too.) I’m occasionally heartened by a kind word or two, indicating a publication would like to see more of my work or letting me know a piece of mine made it to the final round. It’s not the same as an acceptance, but it helps.

There’s actually a bit of relief in rejection. It usually comes after waiting months, when likelihood of acceptance already seems nil, and I can say to myself, Okay, I no longer have to pin my hopes in this direction. This frees a little unpopped kernel of aspiration to go back on another burner. (Because you must always, always try again.)

Sometimes, however, it takes much longer than a publication claims is necessary for them to review queries or submissions.  When there’s no response I assume their editors are working long hours for low pay and preoccupied by other pressing matters. (At least that’s what being an editor is like for me.)  But over a year? That’s ghosting. So I ask for a rejection letter. At this stage there’s not much to lose. I simply want to know. And maybe have some fun asking.

Here’s one such message I sent a while back.

Greetings *unnamed little literary print magazine,*

I can take rejection, really. But it’s nice to finally get rejected. I sent a creative non-fiction piece titled _____ on _____. I know, I know, I should have given up by now but hope is a feisty creature, not easily strangled by silence.

In case the clarity and understated wit of my piece knocked an editor to the floor, unintentionally hurtling my submission under a desk, I’ve included my cover letter and submission again.  Less dusty this way.

ever optimistically,
Laura Weldon

Turns out they were in the process of going out of business and wouldn’t even be publishing  previously accepted pieces. Their website said nary a word about this.

Here’s another such message, sent after a longer wait.

Ahem, Under the Slush Pile, You There!

Enclosed are copies of a cover letter and book proposal sent to you over 16 months ago. I received acknowledgement that you were in receipt of these materials on ________.

I am a busy writer and editor involved in a number of projects and only recently noticed just how long the interval has been. Now I’m concerned. Even at the rate of a single word per day, surely you would have completed reading my one-page book proposal quite some time ago. Something must be amiss.

Should I offer my editing services, as it’s apparent _______ Press is completely bogged down by unread manuscripts?

Should I consider a rescue effort, breaking down the doors blocked by stacks of paper in order to liberate your staff?

Or am I to assume that you are in the business of collecting SASEs while never intending to use them? I’m enclosing yet another in hopes of getting a response. This time, do tell.

most sincerely,   Laura Weldon

They sent me a form rejection.

My absolutely favorite rejection letter was one I got after applying for a job around the time I graduated from college. I had volunteered and interned, doing my best to enter the professional world with relevant experience, and it appeared I met the job requirements. The rejection letter I got back was so short and to-the-point that I still remember it verbatim:

We do not now, nor do we ever anticipate, having a position for which you are qualified. 

I wish I’d framed it!

But the best rejection letter I’ve ever seen is one sent to a New Zealand writer nearly 90 years ago. It was shared recently by Letters of Note.

Did this poet give up? No.  The fervent F. C. Meyer went on to publish this volume.

It’s a testament to his ambition that he persisted, since his poetry appears to have been as bad as that rejection letter indicated. His verse was quoted in a Scoop article about candidates for“Poet Nauseate.”

I think – I understand thee well,
Rub my nose now for a spell!

couplet from”Maori Maiden”

 

Pluto! come here my dearest little dog,
Don’t get mixed up with every rogue,
And do not run into a fog…

from “My Pet Dog”

If you’re a writer, keep pressing on. The publications rejecting you aren’t where you’re meant to be right now. Let each rejection motivate you to send out three more submissions. To inspire you, here are some authors who kept going despite rejection.

 “[Your poems] are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”   Rejection received by Emily Dickinson.

“An irresponsible holiday story that will never sell.” Rejection of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In The Willows, which went  on to sell 25 million copies.

“Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”  Rejection letter sent to Theodor Geisel, whose rhyming books went on to sell 300 million copies under the pen name Dr. Seuss.

“We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”  Stephen King ignored this rejection letter and found another publisher for Carrie, which sold 1 million copies the first year.

“Hopelessly bogged down and unreadable.” Rejection letter to Ursula K. Le Guin. That book, The Left Hand of Darkness , went on to become the first of her many award-winning books.

“We suggest you get rid of all that Indian stuff.” Rejection letter advice to Tony Hillerman, about work that later became his series of best-selling Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels.

“Too radical of a departure from traditional juvenile literature.”  Rejection sent to L. Frank Baum. The author persisted,  finally getting a publishing house to take on the book only when the Chicago Grand Opera House manager committed to making The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into a musical stage play to publicize the novel.

“He hasn’t got any future.” Rejection of the first novel by David Cornwell, retired spy from the British Security Service, MI5.  Yet, the author kept submitting. Publication of that novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, under the pen name John le Carré, launched his second career as writer of international best-sellers.

“I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” One of 21 rejections for Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which is said to have gotten its title at a “yes” by the 22nd publisher. The book has sold over 10 million copies.

“Stick to teaching.” Louise May Alcott was told by a dismissive publisher, who said she should give up writing. She went on to see Little Women published. It is still in print 150 years later.

“The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”   One of the 15 publishers who didn’t think The Diary of Anne Frank had literary merit.

 

Catalysts

Sometimes in my memoir classes I ask participants to write about catalysts in their lives — small occurrences or choices that, upon reflection, we realize actually fostered a big change in our outlook or circumstances. Often I start out with a poem by Carl Dennis, who is a master at exploring parallel realities. Something like “Candles” or, if the class has been meeting a long time and can withstand it, “The God Who Loves You.”

Some catalysts exist on a large social scale, such as prejudice, rural isolation, poor schools, or economic change. They have all sorts of effects on individual lives. Like the government grant I was awarded to get my masters degree. Before I attended my first class, a newly elected conservative administration didn’t believe the country needed more social workers, so they cancelled the grants. This, coupled with a recession that made it hard for me to get a job with my freshly awarded undergrad degree, led directly to my husband and me having our first child when I was 22.

Some occurrences exist only as possibilities. For example, on a recent weekend I headed toward the highway after teaching a class for Literary Cleveland only to remember I’d left behind my new water bottle. I turned around, parked in the lot, walked back in, searched for the bottle, then realized I’d had it with me the whole time. I’d tucked it in my tote because this new one didn’t leak. I felt silly having gone through all those steps for a memory lapse, only to drive back to the highway entrance ramp where rescue vehicles were just then getting to the scene of a car accident. I have no idea if mine might have been one of those cars had I been there a few minutes earlier.

Some results stem from what seem like, at the time, poor choices. Like the time my friend Kathy and I went to Westgate Mall. We were both 14 years old. We didn’t buy soda or food, but we loved music desperately and considered spending the last of our babysitting money on records. We told ourselves we’d walk the nearly six miles home rather than take the bus. We figured it was good exercise. We were still in the record store when Kathy ran into two guys, Bruce and Mark, who were friends of her older brother. They seemed vastly older, both being 16. They offered us a ride home. I definitely wasn’t allowed to get in cars with boys my parents didn’t know. We shouldn’t have accepted, but we did. I asked to be dropped off at Kathy’s house so I could walk the rest of the way home. That way my parents wouldn’t know I’d broken a rule. I dated Mark all through school and I’m still married to him today.

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the idea that small changes can lead to significant results. Theoretically, the flapping wings of a butterfly in Brazil can have an effect on weather patterns thousands of miles away.  Nothing we do is without effect either. That’s true in every moment, in every generation. If your grandfather hadn’t lost his job and moved to another town to take a new one, he wouldn’t have bumped into that smart girl who lived the next street over, the girl who later became your grandmother. If your mother’s high school crush hadn’t broken her heart, she never would have gone on to fall in love with your father. If these and thousands of other circumstances hadn’t unfolded exactly as they did, you wouldn’t be here now.

As my mother used to say, “Life is lived forwards, but understood backwards.”

Trace back changes in your life to some small precipitating factor — a pivotal conversation, a left instead of right turn, a friend’s comment, a lost opportunity, a new dream. Please, share the story of a catalyst. We’d love to hear it.

 

Poetry Writing Hacks: 7 Playful Ways To Create Poetry

Spine poetry

Spine poetry

I’m eager to liberate poetry from that stuffy good-for-you closet where it’s so often kept. That is, as long as I can do so playfully.

Each time I lead poetry-writing workshops I learn from students as young as eight years old. I see them write in a direct line from experience to meaning, use metaphor intuitively, and fiercely adore their own work. Our time together often looks like crafts or games, but it’s much more. We draw faces on peanut shells, glue them to cardboard, and write poems around them. We use bright permanent markers to adorn an old footstool or rocking chair with poems to make a classroom Inspiration Seat. We ask stones to tell us what they’ve seen over their long geologic history, then write down our impressions. We compose from the perspective of carrots as we bite, chew, and swallow them. We write on prayer flags to let poetry fly with the wind. We write and release poems in public places for others to find. It’s never, ever boring.

The following poetry writing hacks are fun to do with kids. But don’t forgot they’re great to do with anyone—your book group, at a family reunion, as a party game, even to liven up a meeting.

 

Stack up spine poetry

Ever noticed a stack of books with titles that, together, form unintentional wordplay? That’s spine poetry. Over 20 years ago, artist Nina Katchadourian started the Sorted Books Project,  creating clusters of books that display clever idiosyncrasies and themes. (Some images were published under the title Sorted Books.)

To create your own spine poetry start by looking through books you have on hand and pull out titles that appeal to you. Then arrange them spine out to form poems. Take a photo to preserve your literary remix. If you’d like, share your images on Twitter as #spinepoem or #spinepoetry.

 

Play Exquisite Corpse

This absurdly pleasing game was dreamed up during the Parisian Surrealist Movement. There are a variety of approaches. Basically you start with a good-sized piece of paper. Each person writes a phrase or sentence, folds the paper to conceal lines from previous contributors, and passes it on to the next player with only the newest passage revealed. Keep going around until the paper is used up, then read the whole construction aloud.

 

Encounter unexpected poetry

Collect a variety of everyday objects. You might come up with an apple, peanut butter jar, mitten, shoe, flashlight, toy dinosaur, and nightlight. Then label each object by taping a word where it can’t be readily seen, perhaps folding the word to the inside or hiding it underneath. You don’t want the labels to read “apple” or “peanut butter jar.” Instead use unrelated yet evocative words like “beast,” “messenger,” “neck,” “song,” “intention,” and so on.

Each person picks one of the objects and writes a poem fragment leaving a blank for the object. If someone gets stuck, encourage them to simply write two or three adjectives and a verb. You might study the apple, then write, “Red, round _____ crisp on my tongue.” When the apple is turned over, a label reading “silence” transforms the poem fragment into: “Red round silence, crisp on my tongue.”  Or you might pick up the flashlight, write, “High intensity _______ let’s me see where I’m going” only to find that it’s labeled “wrath.” Change word tense to fit the poem fragment as necessary. If inspired, turn the fragment into a longer poem.

 

 

Keep a perpetual poem going

There’s something freeing about adding to an evolving verse. There are no rules, only possibilities. Start it with a line stuck with magnets on a file cabinet or fridge door. Or paint a cupboard,  wall, even your car with chalkboard paint  — keeping chalk handy for anyone to use. Or cut strips of paper to leave out in a container next to a jar of markers and a box of poster tack, letting contributors stick the next line right on the wall. In my house we use dry erase markers on a laminated world map mounted in the kitchen.

 

Make collage poems

Collect words and phrases from all sorts of sources such as food containers, magazines, and junk mail. Provide heavy paper or mat board so each person can glue their word choices into a collage poem.

 

Write an erasure poem

Choose a page from a magazine, newspaper, or unwanted book, then blot out some of the words to reveal a new meaning. You can also make erasure poems digitally using the Erasures site via Wave Books. They provide classic texts and the e-tool for erasures. Check out Austin Kleon’s erasure poems in his book Newspaper Blackout.

 

 

Pull a poem from a bag

Romanian poet Tristan Tzara was denounced by his fellow Surrealists when he proposed making a poem by pulling words from a hat.   In 1920 he wrote “Dada Manifesto on Feeble & Bitter Love” which contains these instructions:

To Make a Dadaist Poem

Take a newspaper (or magazine or other printed resource)
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are – an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

 

This article was originally published in Poet’s Quarterly.