Drafting, Submitting, Keeping Up with Journals

75º ~ an unusually cool & rainy summer, lovely but darkened by the knowledge that this is climate change in action

I can’t believe it’s been a full three weeks since I’ve posted. Those three weeks were consumed with the ramp-up of a new semester. However, I did protect my writing time, although I used it for getting drafts in order, some minor revising, and sending out work. I did not protect my blog time, it seems.

Today, I can report a new draft! Wahoooooooza. This is a draft that began by walking. You may remember a post not long ago with practical advice on how to draft while walking. Today’s draft followed much of this; however, it began on Monday’s walk, which wasn’t a conscious drafting walk. Instead, I was using my walk to begin my memorization of “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché. Each semester, I require my students to memorize and recite, and I play along. “The Colonel” has been interesting because it is a prose poem, so I don’t have line breaks to help me remember. Instead, I’m linking images, sentence by sentence to keep me going. Anyway, on Monday, I was reciting as I walked (with the printed poem in my hand), but I also wanted to be present on the walk, so once I’d added a few sentences to my memorization, I stopped working it and let myself walk and observe. In a very short time, my own lines began emerging. I scooped my phone from my pocket, opened an email draft to myself, and used the voice dictation function to capture the lines. Autocorrect produced some fickle interpretations, but it was close enough that when I returned to the email this morning during my drafting time, I had something with which to begin. This new poem is “Rhytidome.” I credit its presence with having taught ecopoetics last year at this time and with my current teaching of political poetry. I can’t say enough how thrilled I am to have this job that inspires my creative work while I’m actually doing the job I get paid to do. I know there are many people out there still searching for this combination. I’m proof that patience and persistence sometimes work.

So, I have this new draft, and as of this morning, it is the only poem in my “new drafts” folder. I spent some of the last three weeks going through all the lingering drafts, those that were in my “ready to submit” folder and those that had lingered in the “new drafts” folder for several years. The good news is that many of them had been sitting, untouched, for 6 months to 2 years. With this distance, I had a much clearer sense of which were viable and which I needed to set aside. I also found that many of the poems in the “ready to submit” folder no longer held my interest. I could see that they were poetically sound, but I no longer had the energy, the spark to keep submitting them. I moved all of the poems I was no longer interested in over to my “out of commission” folder. They still exist, and in the future, I may return there and see what’s germinated.

With that done, I shifted to all the drafts I have that hold my interest. I grouped all of the unpublished, interest-holding drafts and sat down to revise. It turns out that I had 32 poems, plus 9 hybrid poem-collage pieces in that stack. The numbers stunned me. I worked through each poem, making mostly minor revisions (even if they were out for consideration), but sometimes more major changes. In some cases, changing the title did wonders. With the poems tidied up, I started sending out to those journals that read year-round and those that were open in August. As I learned of some journals shifting their submission period opening into September, I made notes on my Google calendar and updated my spreadsheet. In fact, when I finish this post, I’ll go through and make my 9/1 list so I can work through it when I have small chunks of time to spare.

Writing Journal, Joy Harjo Book, Pampas Grass

Writing Journal, Joy Harjo Book, Pampas Grass

All of this is a vast improvement over last year when I let my priorities get out of balance, to the detriment of my writing life and my mental health! In celebration, here is a picture of how I set the stage for success this morning  with my journal, a book by Joy Harjo, and a strand of pampas grass that I picked on my walk. Then, there’s a picture of George destroying my little cairn by trying to eat the pampas grass. Ah, my muse!

George Eats Pampas Grass

George Eats Pampas Grass

 

Posted by Sandy Longhorn, 0 comments

The Hardest Part is Letting Go … of Unpublished Poems

86º feels like 95º ~ after a solid week of below-normal temps and delightful air, we return to the bayou-esque weight, bright sun in between giant white cloud-islands, building toward storms over the weekend

While I’ve been away from the blog re-focusing on the upcoming semester, I have not abandoned all poetic endeavors. I have not drafted anything new, but I’ve been busy submitting work, recording rejections, making small revisions, and sending out work again. This year, I’ve noticed that more and more of the journals that used to open on August 1 have pushed back to the 15th or even September 1. I also ran across one journal that only accepts the first 300 submissions per genre each month of their reading period, citing the volume of submissions and not charging a reading fee. I love this. It means that my submission will get a good look rather than the cursory ones that sometimes happen when editors and screeners are overburdened.

As I’ve been in “po-biz” mode, I’ve been confronted with a rather large pile of poems that have accumulated since 2014. These are things that began as drafts and made their way into the “ready to submit” folder. In other words, once upon a time, I had faith in these poems. They’ve now been out into the world and have been rejected a few times. I confess, over the past two years I have not been as diligent at keeping them circulating, so they’ve only been rejected a few times instead of my usual 20+ times. Now, however, I find that I have moved well past these poems. I’ve worked on the collage-poetry hybrid project and moved on to writing about my dad and am now sussing out some political poems. Here I am today facing that question that all poets get to eventually.

Is it okay to abandon previously written poems that haven’t found a home in a lit mag?

Yes, of course it is, but it is hard. I feel responsible for these poems, yet I no longer have the kind of faith in them I once did. This is in part because they were written during a foundering time and in part because my own writing has evolved in the meantime. This afternoon, I will move these poems from the “ready to submit” folder and place them in the “out of commission” folder, and their future will become even more uncertain. Perhaps there will come a time when I’m asked to curate a “selected & new” book and I’ll go back and revise them again; perhaps decades hence some grad student will unearth them and they will go viral, stronger than I knew they were; perhaps they will simply fade away in the ether and in the paper recycler.

I find this emotional connection to the work fascinating. It is a separate feeling than the one that goes with getting an acceptance or being able to share a link to a published piece. I don’t subscribe to the parental metaphor of the the writer and her “babies,” but I do know that I feel this weight of having created these poems and consciously removing them from the possibility of an audience. However, the other option doesn’t work for me. It seems I have only so much poetry energy to spare, and I can only manage the “po-biz” of a certain set of poems at a time.

This has me wondering: how do you all make these decisions, or do you continue to submit poems that have begun to feel quite distant?

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

How to Write a Poem While Walking

81º  ~ this air a comfort, showers hovering just a few miles to the north, taunting us, a pattern repeated all summer, the birds, chipmunks, & squirrels go about their business as usual

How to Write a Poem While Walking (for those able)

  1. This is not about speed, not about exercise, not about burning calories (the last two are side benefits, of course).
  2. Choose a safe path, free from obstacles, threats, dangers*.
  3. A treadmill may work, if free from distractions.
  4. Leave your earbuds at home.
  5. Walk at an even and steady pace, one set by your body rather than by music or an attempt to reach your target heart rate (attempts to regulate your pace are a distraction to the mind).
  6. Carry a smart phone (on silent) or a small notepad and pen.
  7. Divest yourself of the notion that anyone is watching.
  8. Walk and observe. Breathe. Be open to wonder.
  9. Let your mind wander.
  10. Be patient and alert.

Eventually, the words will come, perhaps first as a phrase. Repeat the phrase. Speak out loud, letting the words unfurl (see #5). Do not force yourself to compose; instead, keep walking, mulling over this phrase or idea. There are better than even odds that with your body in motion under its own power (and your inability to be distracted by other looming tasks), lines will begin to suggest themselves. Again, say them out loud and feel the rhythm of the language in the motion of your body.

When several lines have strung themselves together, you have some choices.

The old school method would be to keep memorizing lines as they come, repeating the whole draft out loud as you walk. Most of us, however, no longer have the memorization skills that our writer predecessors possessed. Luckily, technology fills that gap.

One way of recording your lines is to pull out that notepad and pen and jot them down. Since the purpose of this walking is not to exercise (see #1), there is no harm in stopping mid-stride to capture your thoughts.

Another choice at this moment is to use a smart phone to help capture the lines. I’m a fan of this method because I use the voice dictation function, reinforcing my speaking of the lines out loud, and I can continue to walk as I do this, keeping the natural rhythm alive. Voice dictation can be used in almost any text function on a smart phone and is usually indicated by an icon of a microphone within a program. You could text yourself, compose and send an email to yourself, or create a note. Of course, you could also use the voice memo function. I stay away from this because I don’t like to listen to the sound of my own voice.

Once done with the walk, you can sit down to compose the draft in your habitual way. While it would be easy to copy and paste if you’ve used a smart phone to record your lines in text, I do advocate for re-typing (while speaking the lines aloud), as another way of revisiting and revising as you go.

 

*Sometimes, you will need to walk a path on several occasions before any words will come. Sometimes, your body needs to learn the route so that your brain doesn’t have to make decisions.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Process Notes: The Dolorist Confesses

83º at almost noon ~ no heat index! window open, cicadas doing their thing, home construction noises in the background, the sun delightful & no threat

With lots of busy work under my belt, work for the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference mostly, but also some recording of rejections from recent poem submissions, followed by sending out the poems anew, I have turned back to a focus on writing new poems. Lately, I’ve gotten back into the habit of walking, perhaps the writer’s best physical support system. All through history, in both the West and the East, great writers have recorded the connection between walking and writing, and I’ve seen that connection at work in my own past many times. It’s great to be returning to an activity that sparks new poems. (I should note that the spark only works for me if I’m walking without listening to any kind of music, NPR, or audio books. It works when I simply walk and observe, listening to the world around me.)

Because of this recent return to walking, I’ve had several lines rattling around in my head. I knew these lines were the beginning of a political poem, one that, again, records just how exhausting it is to be woke. However, once I put the lines down in my journal and then in the computer, I knew the poem wasn’t finished. It hadn’t accrued that critical mass necessary for survival. This time, I turned to a trusted friend and sent the “wee draft” for a diagnosis. Said friend hit the nail on the head and gave me awesome advice for coming back to the poem in the future. Thanks, friend!

In the meantime, with those lines out of my head and off in the world, I started re-reading (Laynie Browne’s The Scented Fox) and word-gathering. Normally, this sparks lines to form. Instead, it sparked me to remember a thought I’d had while walking this morning. I was thinking about a letter that I needed to write and about how I went into a minor depression at the beginning of the summer, a depression I’m working myself out of thanks, in part, to walking. So, I set down the lines I’d imagined including in the letter.

It wasn’t a lack of funds that kept me
but a lack of fortitude, of fiber.

The poem evolved in couplets today (my native form), and at first the poem was titled after a phrase from Browne’s book. After the poem showed me where it needed to go, that title no longer fit. I cast about. I scrambled. I came up with “The Dolorist Confesses,” but I’m not super happy with it.

Also, I had the poem laid out in three parts with subheadings. However, with only three couplets per section, the headings quickly proved to be too heavy. Then, when I got to the last “section,” I realized that the real ending would need four couplets instead of three. The three sections announced the onset of the depression, described what happened to my body because of it, and then detailed how I started pulling myself up out of it. Now, they are simply one poem made up of ten couplets, still covering the same content. I did use several of the words I’d gathered from Browne’s book, but much of the energy of the poem came from the initial phrase I’d constructed while walking.

Here’s to breathable air and the time to stretch my legs (and mind) in it.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Braided Calculations: An Update on the 20 x 20 Project

92º feels like 102º ~ the sun will not quit, neither will the cicadas, no rain in over a week, heat advisory in place until the weekend, have been out walking in the evenings, body adapting

Just now, I met one of my major summer goals, and I am chair-dancing & singing Wahooooooooozas! Those familiar with this blog will know that I spent last summer working on a collage / poetry hybrid collection, which I called 20 x 20: A Self-Ekphrasis. In February, I reported that the project was complete. Over the past year, I sent out a handful of pieces to a few journals I thought would be receptive and able to handle the art-text duo. However, for this summer my goal was to organize the pieces into a manuscript and to send a complete book out. I was delighted to learn that Pleiades Press now has a Visual Poetry Series, and their reading period is in the summer. While I would have eventually completed the process of getting the manuscript together regardless, the extra motivation of having a target press in the middle of its reading period gave me the last boost of energy I needed to succeed right now.

Over the last few days, I returned to the work; I spent several days reading (and by reading, I include the “reading” of the collages alongside the text of the poems). Then, I had to struggle with ordering the collection. I was so lucky with Alchemy, with its built in narrative. With this collection, I was back to the mix-tape method. This required sitting with the pieces and listening to how they spoke to each other, then creating a first stab at the order to try and suss out what overall story it would tell. After letting that sit for a couple of days, I went back, listened some more and made some radical changes. I read again and this time, a better idea formed in my mind. The collection held together based on three threads: family debt, the delicacy and strength of specific parts of the body, and women’s issues (coming of age esp.).

With the order in hand, I created a single Word file and created the table of contents; however, I was stymied by that one major necessity, a title. All year I’ve been calling the project 20 x 20: A Self-Exphrasis; however, once I gathered all the pieces together I realized that this title did not do justice to the major themes of the book. It makes sense that I used this title in the past because I was searching for new themes and new obsessions. Finding a title for the whole collection will be the end of that search. I shifted to future tense because for the sake of sending in the manuscript, I settled on the title Braided Calculations, which is a title from one of the poems in the book. I’m not 100% sold on this as a title, but it is close enough for putting the work in front of an editor. After all, many publishers ask for title changes along the way.

Finally, I had to learn some more about technology. The finished PDF was a huge file, and Pleiades had addressed this in their guidelines, asking submitters to use smaller files, even sacrificing quality of images, knowing that high resolution files would be requested for any accepted books. Seeing as I’m a learn-as-you-go kind of person, I had to figure out how to compress a PDF (without using a .zip file, which the submission program wouldn’t accept). Luckily, I have good friends with better skills than mine. Writer-colleague-friend, Jennie Case, came to the rescue to teach me about smallpdf.com, et voilà. Thanks, Jennie!

Moments before starting this post, I uploaded all the necessities and clicked “submit.” Wahoooooooooooooza!

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

On the Importance of Being Vulnerable

87º feels like 96º ~ removed from the excessive heat advisory b/c index won’t go over 100º, perhaps I’ll need my sweater

I’m thinking today about vulnerability and how I’ve been conditioned not to show it. When confronted with a problem, or a task at work, I’ve always put my shoulder to the boulder and persevered without question, without too much complaint, and definitely without asking for help. This behavior has been reinforced because I’m often praised for my results, which are largely based on sweat, stress, and unwavering persistence. I’ve been heard to say, “Failure is not an option,” a commonly heralded, proto-American trait. And, yes, it is good to succeed, but over and over, I’m learning that I need not bear all the weight in completing every project for work or home.

In fact, in my attempt to appear “practically perfect in every way,” à la Mary Poppins, I’m actually failing myself. Because I have feared being seen as weak and vulnerable, when a project has stymied me or has required more time than I actually have, I have refused to ask for help. I have, instead, sweated it out and found a way to solve the problem at hand, often doing work that would more easily be done by others. For example, I have been known to try to learn a whole new design program overnight rather than admit my flyer-making skills are, well, fledgling at best. Dare I claim that my gender contributes to this fear? I dare. Coming of age in the 80s, I was acutely aware that women who wanted to have it all must never admit vulnerability. (And who would not want to have it all?) I understood early that my job was to prove I could do everything a man could do, but, à la Ginger Rogers, “backwards and in high heels.”

What does this have to do with poetry? Time. Energy. A quiet mind. Writing takes all three; attempting to conquer every other task set before me by my job and my household consumes all three. Because I was determined to be seen as a success at work, this past academic year I gave nearly all of my being to completing work goals. I wrote only a few new drafts, sent out very few poems, and read very little poetry outside of course texts. By May, I knew this behavior was unsustainable, and I’ve spent much of the summer working on positive steps forward.

Recently, I woke up to the fact that I don’t have to do it all alone. I began asking for help. I began exposing what I saw as my own vulnerabilities, and no one blinked an eye. Instead, they answered, and they helped. I recovered some time, some energy, and glimpses of a quieter mind.

I learn, but slowly, that I will always be a student, even as I stand in the classroom as the professor. In the classroom, I ask my students to be vulnerable over and over; I remind them that there are no silly questions, that all rough drafts are messy, that I am there to help. I offer them handouts on campus resources for the problems they experience beyond creative writing. I encourage them to form support networks among themselves. I ask them to fail on the page over and over. Yet, I have refused to admit my own vulnerability so often in all the realms outside of my writing practice (there, I fail spectacularly and accept it). Let’s face it, I have been scared of being exposed as a fraud because the models of success held up by our society rarely admit to their own vulnerabilities.

All of this is to say that I feel a bit of a breakthrough, and I hope to continue to practice asking for help, to continue sharing the workload when appropriate, and to continue experiencing these benefits.

 

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

On Hiring Committees, Mentors, Revision, & Submissions

88º feels like 99º ~ likely heat index will top 110º today, opening the door to the deck is like opening an oven in which there is a water bath steaming around a quiche or cheesecake, the cicadas blend with a neighbor running a saw or power vac, how they stand the wet heat is beyond me

Dear Reader, I cannot believe it has been two full weeks since my last confession, ahem, posting. Lest you think me lazy, let me say that the week of 7/10 – 7/14 was consumed by my service on a hiring committee for a visiting assistant professor of creative writing at UCA. We conducted our on-campus interviews that week, and with most of our faculty out of town for the summer, the bulk of the work came down to myself and one of my colleagues. It was interesting work, and I felt completely invested in every minute, but it was a tad exhausting.

We wrapped up the last candidate dinner on Friday evening around 5:30 p.m. and I arrived home with just enough time to pack a suitcase and set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. the next morning. I had a 7 a.m. flight out of Little Rock bound for the airport at Cedar Rapids, IA. My weekend was a flash visit with family, and a trip to my alma mater, the College of St. Benedict, where my writing mentor, S. Mara Faulkner, celebrated her Golden Jubilee as a sister of the Order of St. Benedict. I loved being a part of honoring Mara’s life’s work. At the mass and reception, I was able to spend time with one of my college roommates, as well as touch base with three more of my undergraduate professors who were crucial in nurturing my poetic roots.

Mara Faulkner, OSB
Dr. Ozzie Mayers
Dr. Mike Opitz
Dr. Karen Erickson

I name them here because they matter. They matter, along with Dr. Madhu Mitra, Jon Hassler, and Eva Hooker, CSC. Each of these professors had some part  in setting me on the path to being the poet I am today, and I am in their debt, forever. I hope, each time I sit down with my BIC (a lesson learned from Jon), that I do them justice.

After another brief visit with Mom, I flew home late Monday evening, and spent most of Tuesday in recovery. As I woke on Wednesday, I was struck by that familiar panic that the summer was GONE, that I hadn’t accomplished all I wanted/needed to, and that school was going to start ANY MINUTE. OK, we don’t report back until the 21st, but there’s still so much to do to meet my goals.

Summer goals
*Write, revise, submit
*Read, write reviews for blog
*Preparations for the C. D. Wright Women Writers Conference
*Prep classes for fall in Illustrated Narrative and Political Poetry
*Collage (I have not met this goal at all, aside from one piece made when I had friends over)
*Organize and prepare to take on directing UCA’s undergraduate creative writing programs

Yesterday, the panic spurred me to turn to the po-biz side of things. Early in the summer, I’d made a push of sending out submissions. I was trying to be brave and sent to top tier magazines. I did this not because my tenure depends on it; no, UCA is not the type of place where a publication in the New Yorker is necessary. I did this for sheer vanity and pride. Now, most of these places take ages and ages to send out the rejections I will most likely receive. Given the sheer number of submissions the editors receive, the odds are not in my favor. However, just to bring me back down to earth, one of the submissions came back within three weeks with a rejection. Ouch. I let it linger in my inbox for almost a month before recording it yesterday.

With that unpleasantness over with, I turned to my stack of unpublished poems, some written recently, some several years old. I read, re-read, always aloud, and made a few tweaks here and there. I already had the poems sectioned into mini manuscripts, meeting the 4 – 6 poem limits for most magazines. Then, I turned to my spreadsheet on all the magazines I know about and I scanned the column for submission periods. And “whomp” I was struck again by the fact that the vast majority of lit mags do not read submissions in the summer. I certainly understand why this is, but it really inconveniences those of us who don’t have much time during the rest of the year for this po-biz work. Le sigh. I did send out a few packets, and made a list of which mags will be opening in August. I’ll enter the queue in a sweeping onrush of submissions along with all the other poets in the universe.

My poetry goal now is to get a few more new drafts in over the next two weeks. Stay tuned for lessons of success or failure. In the meantime, I wish you happy reading, happy writing.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Process Notes: The 14 Most Common Causes of Fatigue

95º feels like 108º ~ SCUBA weather out there

After two weeks of silence, two posts in one day. Wahoooza.

I’m happy to report that I did meet my goal of drafting a new poem today, as I stated earlier. I wasn’t sure I would, given the chaos of the last two weeks. And therein lies a problem of mine. I tend to convince myself of certain narratives about my own being. One of these narratives is that I must have calm and quiet, long periods of focus, to write. I hold the summer up as WRITING TIME. This summer, I have taken on many new roles at UCA which have meant extending my work off contract (that’s right…I don’t get paid for these hours). This has “cluttered” my life with tasks and problem-solving that have nothing to do with writing poetry (directly). So, I need to break out of my own narrative. Really, all I need to write is a small chunk of time amidst the busy-ness of the rest of life. I’m hoping this realization, this work against my own inner critic, will extend into the real chaos of the academic year. Fingers crossed.

So, after finishing that last blog post, I turned to my journal. I let myself spew for two pages, jotting down all the inner dialogue, all the inner questioning. Then I wrote, “the truth is…” and recorded some more objective observations about my recent days. Finally, I turned to a new page, labeled it, as always, “Tell the Truth” and wrote 4 really horrible lines. I’m still thinking about political poetry, and at the same time, I’ve been struggling with some mild depression and fatigue (of all kinds) this summer. Today, I started writing about headline fatigue and the fact that no amount of “feel good” news can counteract the difficulties of this world today. These were the really horrible lines.

Then, I turned to my old friend, the Oxford English Dictionary, through our subscription at school, and I searched “fatigue.” As soon as the results popped up, I realized that I’d spent some time on these pages two and a half weeks ago when last I wrote. So, I opened another tab and thought I’d give Google a whirl. One of the first hits was from a pseudo-medical site, “The 14 Most Common Causes of Fatigue.” This was the typical info-article interspersed with a zillion ads. It listed things like sleep dysfunction, anemia, diabetes, heart disease, depression, etc. and gave very brief information about each.

It struck me that I’d used a headline to generate a poem earlier this month, so I copied down the title and started drafting a catalog poem. In my journal, I didn’t consider the order of my list. Instead, I focused on trying to generate images that would stand for the things that have been making me fatigued lately. One example is a bit about “grass that insists on growing” and the mower waiting there like a truancy officer. Of course, mowing a tiny lawn is no big deal, but I mean it to stand for all the everyday chores that must still be done, even as we try to make positive change in this world.

Once I turned to the computer to draft out the complete poem, I considered order. I actually only used about 3/4 of the list from my journal and created new “entries” once I was on the screen. The screen can reveal soft or clunky lines more easily than the handwritten page. While a catalog poem seems easy on first sight, there are many considerations. The order of the entries should create a kind of forward momentum, and since, in my case, there’s no narrative to the content, this has to be an emotional movement. Also, the poem must transcend the form of a list. In other words, I couldn’t “fill” any of the entries with fluff just to make the number. Yes, 14 was arbitrary based on the headline of the article and I could have cut myself some slack and changed that number, but for the draft I wanted to get there. As with all poetry, concision is the key, and every word counts, so adding more is a tricky business.

Finally, I was conscious the whole time that I wanted this poem to stretch beyond my own experience to encapsulate the fatigue I know so many people are feeling these days about the political environment. While some of the entries in my list are taken directly from my daily life, the others are plucked from headlines (e.g. the famine in South Sudan) to broaden the scope of the speaker. Like most of the political poems I’ve been writing, I’m hesitant about this one. I will set it aside for a few days and return with fresh eyes.

The whole process I just described reminded me, again, of John Keats and Negative Capability. For those unaware, Keats defined NC as when a person is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” It struck me again today that the whole process of drafting (of creating any kind of art, really) requires this of us. I had to find a way to set aside the inner critic and my own attempt to control the process. I had to “dwell in Possibility” as Emily Dickinson wrote. Today, I’ll mark my attempt down as a success, as a goal met, regardless of whether the poem makes it to publication or not.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Process Notes: Transplant

78º ~ rain-cooled, headed for a high of 90º ~ birdsong replacing the thunder

I preach to my students about the BIC method of writing, which would be the Butt-In-Chair method. There’s one sure thing in this world; if your butt isn’t in the chair (which also means switching off the noise of social media and actually giving your body & brain the time & space necessary to go deep), you won’t get anything written. Once again, practicing what I preach has made all the difference.

I did my duty this morning. I repeated my goal of drafting a poem and I sat BIC. I scribbled some ugly lines with no music. I read a few poems. I cast about. I let myself be in the stillness. I continued to think about my current obsession: how can I interrogate my whiteness? How can I make art that might make a difference in this difficult time?

Once again, the key was getting specific. Most of the horrible lines in my journal circle around generalizations, falling into cliché and propaganda. Suddenly, I remembered the feeling, the physical feeling of my white guilt (a sinking and burning in my gut) when I heard family members express their own racism in jokes. I wondered why I had such a reaction and didn’t believe what they believed. I thought of the specific experiences in my childhood that gave me empathy and understanding for those who looked differently than I did. Finally, all of this made me remember coming to the South around the turn of the century and realizing that many native southerners had no idea that outright racism existed in the North. And so the poem began:

In the South, everyone knows Iowa is a pretty
white state, but I have to explain, not
in my hometown

This opening lacks the specific imagery and sound play that I usually rely on, but it does have a kickass linebreak. Because I’m working with some narrative in this draft, I fear I’ve lost a lot of my lyric strengths, so I’ll definitely be going back and trying to up the images and figurative language. This is one of my concerns about writing overtly political poems. The process is very different for me, coming at the poem with some ideas, some philosophy already in place, and I worry about being capable enough as a poet to create that strange elixir that is my goal.

The poem fell into four, five-line stanzas, and does go on to explore several specific, key moments from my childhood. It juxtaposes those moments with older relatives making what they considered “jokes” but were really moments of racist othering. In those instances, I’m afraid, I always remained silent, and I hope that by trying to tell the truth about where I come from, about my own silent complicity, I might be taking a step in the direction of interrogating my own skin, in making a tiny difference by (eventually) sharing the poem through publication.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Process Notes: Little of What We have Believed has been True

85º feels like 94º ~ dew point 75º (in other words, unless you’ve lived in the mid to deep south, you’ve never really felt humidity) ~ sunny but the trees are so fully leafed and green that I write in shade, the birds call out all day, the cat begs attention

This morning when I sat down to write, I was thinking about writing from headlines, as I did yesterday. Again, I’d checked into the world via my phone before even getting out of bed (I know, I know, this is not necessarily a good habit!). Sure enough, a friend had posted about an event at the White House yesterday, where four astronauts were present, but only the three men were thanked. Sounded like a good lead, so I went in search of information. Turns out the bigger news was what a weird press conference it was, and the woman astronaut, Sandy Magnus, presented a reasonable explanation of why she was not thanked (not there as an astronaut but as an executive director for another organization). So, that fizzled.

I turned then to my email inbox and read the poems there for the day (Poem-a-Day, Poetry Foundation, Writer’s Almanac), which then led me to reading my weekly dose of Brain Pickingswhich featured a refresher on Wallace Stevens’ The Necessary Angel, and seemed a moment of synchronicity as Stevens wrote about the role of the poet (his word for all artists) in troubled times. I fell headlong into the excerpts provided by Brain Pickings, having read Necessary Angel 15 years ago and having been stumped by much of it (I have trouble absorbing philosophy & theory). In any case, this time, I couldn’t stop taking notes and making connections. Two of the biggest lines for me were “events…have made the ordinary movement of life seem to be the movement of people in the intervals of a storm” (ellipses mine) and “Little of what we have believed has been true…” (ellipses Stevens).

With five pages of notes, I thought, yes! This is it for today’s draft. Come on: intervals of a storm? Yes! I even thought that I had so much energy for the draft that I didn’t need to start in longhand, so I turned directly to Word and started typing. Big mistake. I typed several really terrible lines and deleted them. Tried another tack and deleted those, too. It all sounded like propaganda, and none of it was based in my reality. So, I took a deep breath and went back to my handwritten lines in the journal, and I asked myself to “tell the truth.”

Stevens sees the artist as the “necessary angel” who can meld imagination and reality, that the artist should not turn away from reality, not escape it by going fully into the imagination. On the other hand, Stevens also notes that the imagination is necessary to the artist, and they can’t turn completely to reality either. In thinking about all of this and asking what my truth is, I discovered, again, my white, upper-middle class guilt about my ability to turn off the news, to move through the storm unafraid for my own life, afraid for the lives of many of my friends for sure, but not for my own. I started thinking about what causes me to avoid the truth, and I struck on this.

Body & brain are wired to walk away
from pain. Sharp & Hot among the first
lessons.

The poem goes on, in lines about this same length, to admit that I “evade the daily news,” but that I can’t completely escape the horrors going on all around me (in which I also include climate change). Obviously, Stevens is in the title, and I bring him back in the last third of the poem when I claim, “I never asked / to wear the wings of a necessary angel.” I confess that I’m exhausted and that I don’t know where to find the energy to resist. I think the ending needs work, but I’m happy with the draft, both content and form. In this case, I have another single-stanza poem (so unusual for me!) because the poem, while still lyric rather than narrative (as is my norm), works on a much more logic-based level than I have in the past. The syntax is normal, and the sentences all directly relate to the previous and the next. Who am I? Sonnets and villanelles in May/June, now column-like, single-stanza work? Through it all, the elements of sound and imagery hold me together and channel my voice.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn