Sunday, February 22, 2015

What I'm Reading: The River Won't Hold You by Karin Gottshall

37º ~ warming to 40º under white skies, the cloud cover solid but not gray ~ we await the snow predicted to fall this evening

While Karin Gottshall's book, The River Won't Hold You, is not necessarily a "project" book, the poems within it do follow something of a chronological trajectory. In the early poems, the speaker recalls moments of girlhood and adolescence, coming of age, the onset of menstruation, the first sexual encounters. Later, the poems transition to those of a young adult, a woman making her way into later, older poems, all the while with key moments from her formative years peeking through. If there are "project" themes in the book, they are the speaker's parents, the desire for companionship at the deepest levels, and the presence of water, sometimes as a river, sometimes as rain or snow, in a few poems, the ocean. Overall, the book emits the weightiness of longing and loss, momentarily alleviated with joy. In other words: life.

The thing I most admire about Gottshall's work is her ability to be straightforward, plainspoken, but to still make poetry that is alive with sound and image. For example, when introducing the father figure that will show up periodically through the book, Gottshall writes that he "was a kind of Noah--all resolve and solitude, / cabinetry and salt" (from "Forecast," the first poem in the book). Listen to those ohs. First, the "oh" made soft by the "ah" in Noah; then, the mournful, repeated "ol" in resolve and solitude; and finally, the snapping consonants in cabinetry and salt. So the nature of the speaker's relationship to her father is subtly conveyed to the attentive reader through sound. In image, the father is akin to Noah, a patriarchal savior associated with water; however, that image becomes much more nuanced later in the book.

The River Won't Hold You is a book filled with the speaker's longing, a longing caused in part by the false constructions of fairy tales and female myths. In "Eve," Gottshall begins, "All I had was the doe's rib bone-- / ... // but I talked to her like she was whole, / could hear. I was seventeen. It was a way I had / of praying, I think." Following right on the heels of "Eve" is "Once." It begins:

I won't start with once
upon a time. Because that's the whole

story isn't it, lovely as she was
with her hair like honey? She bled

alone on the bed when he'd left
and the queen set her to work threading

needles in the dark.

Shakespeare's female characters also make an appearance. In the poem "Pretty Stories," Gottshall reimagines it this way: "Ophelia, in her flip-flops, writes her paramour's name / against the dusk with the spitting tip of a sparkler wand." As these images add up throughout the book, the reader understands the speaker as searching for a way to move through the world as a woman. That searching is deepened by explorations of grief. As the speaker struggles to understand what it is she wants out of the world, she must also deal with the facts of death, as we all must.

Yet, with these themes woven through every poem, The River Won't Hold You is not a book that left me heavy with sadness. Rather, the poems take a matter of fact stance, often including brief snips of wry humor to offset the weight of opening oneself to the full human experience of love and loss. Even now, the poems are calling to me to revisit them for the hard-earned wisdom they contain.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

I Have Made Excuses

59º ~ sweet sun, tiny breezes, a lull before an oncoming winter blast, everyone giddy with the chance of an ice day on Monday

Reader, I continue to try and practice my new mantra: "We schedule what we value." In that vein, I've tried to make better use of my time, especially when I get home "after school" as we say around here, both of us being teachers. In the past, I've generally spent my later afternoons and early evenings grading, working on piddly emails, and sitting in my recliner with re-runs of Law & Order as background noise. For the most part, I'd get a few small things accomplished and convince myself my day was over. I'd make excuses for not heading back to the desk of the Kangaroo.

This week, in an attempt to break this pattern, and because my writing time on Tuesday and Thursday morning didn't seem all that productive, I've refused the lure of my recliner and headed instead to my writing space. While I didn't write, I am proud of what I did accomplish.

This week, I applied to two writing residencies for this summer. I think I've only ever applied to a residency one other time. Mostly, I've made excuses. They sound like this.

1. I don't have time to do the applications since they are mostly due during hectic times of the academic year, and I have a 5/5 load with half of that as composition.  [Can't you just hear the pity-party violins?!]

2. I don't have kids so I can't justify the expense of doing a residency when I have oodles and oodles of quiet time at home in the summer.

3. You have to "know someone" to get into a residency, and I don't, so why bother.

4. My job doesn't require this kind of "career building," so why bother.

It may seem silly, but I had to convince myself that I still deserved the chance to steep myself in writing for a few weeks and shut out all my home responsibilities.

So, I took a deep breath and applied to two residencies, using my time in the late afternoons. I have to say that being able to apply electronically might be what finally tipped the scale. I was able to "finish" each application in an afternoon, although I didn't submit in the first sitting. I went back to proof and polish before hitting "submit."

And hitting "submit" was nerve-wracking. Teaching outside the "ivory tower" of MFA/PhD programs, or even at a 4-year with a strong BA/BFA in creative writing, I'm not "in the know" of what I'm supposed to say on these applications. I also don't have connections with those "top-tier" poets whose name as a recommender might ensure my entrance (and here are my excuses, raising their ugly heads again). Without knowing the "hip" thing to say, I went with the truth, in plain Midwestern language, and that feels a bit unsettling.

Yes, I've fallen prey to the "it's not what you do, it's who you know" gremlin, along with its sibling, "there's a secret handshake / code / clique and you don't know it or belong to it." I'm trying to shake those suckers loose and remind myself that each of my books was published without any "connection" setting it up for me (as is true for most poets), that my poems have mostly appeared in journals where I have no "connection" to the editors until after they've met my poems (as is true for most poets as well), and that I've accomplished quite a lot in my slow, plodding, perseverance.

Still, the uneasiness lingered through this morning's drafting session, so I've got about 5 pages of lines/words that never congealed in my journal. Oh well, that will be fodder for the next session.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Draft Notes: All Hail Molly Spencer

46º ~ gusting, sharp winds promising to bring a high in the mid-60s, the sun just now beating out the gray overcast and spilling in/over the desk

Dear reader, today, I drafted a poem. It may be a "shitty first draft" as Anne Lamott encourages us to allow in her book, Bird by Bird, but it's a draft. I am finely feeling well enough to sit at the desk and do more than read and scratch at lines. For that I am thankful. I am also thankful for my poet-friend, Molly Spencer. Without her, I wouldn't have the draft I have today.  (Here's a link to Molly's fine poem, "Aubade with Transverse Orientation," which appeared in Heron Tree.)

To explain: Even in this time of non-writing, I've been gathering inspiration. One place I gather such is from Molly's blog, The Stanza. On 16 January 2015, Molly wrote about her friend Deborah Keenan's book, From Tiger to Prayer, a collection of writing prompts, and I followed the little lightning zap in my gut that said "get that book, now!" I'm so happy to have it, not only for the prompts but also for the discovery of Keenan as a collage artist as well.

Then, on 23 January 2015, Molly wrote about the use (and strength of) images to convey meaning. She used a poem from Catherine Barnett's Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes are Pierced (Alice James, 2004) to illustrate. Again, I followed the zap in my gut and immediately requested a copy of Barnett's book via the Interlibrary Loan program at my local public library. (Huzzah for public libraries and librarians!)

This morning, I read Barnett's book and was blown away by the power of the images, just as Molly promised. After I finished, I did a quick word bank, flipping through the book haphazardly. Then, I started thumbing through From Tiger to Prayer, definitely skeptical that I would be able to get a poem drafted today. Skeptical, that is, until I came upon this prompt: "Write seven poems in a week. Each poem begins with the word 'today.'"

And there I went, to the daunting blank page of my journal, the blank page following the word bank. From the corner of my eye I caught the word "clock" from the word bank, and truth be told, that's the only word I needed to spark the draft. It begins:

Today, there is a clock
carving time into the branches
of the dead tree that threatens
to fall. By this I mean


We actually did have a huge dead tree threatening our house until last week when the tree cutters came to cut it down and feed it to the wood chipper. The tree (and the clock...yes, it's a real, functioning clock in the poem) come to stand for the work of home ownership. Oh, and my recent, nagging, bronchial illness manages to assert itself in the poem as well.

So, there's the messy, sausage- / law- / poem-making process for the day...and that's not even the half of it. Later, if the poem survives its infancy, there will be heaps of revision. Wahoooza.

Friday, February 6, 2015

North American Review's J.D. Schraffenberger's review of The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths

48º ~ bright sun, crisp winds, high/thin clouds

Today, I received the Winter 2015 issue of the North American Review, in which J.D. Schraffenberger reviewed The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths (Jacar Press). The rush of the book's release has been over for quite a while, so it was an awesome surprise to read Schraffenberger's generous words. I was even more delighted by the fact that poet-friend Martha Silano's book Reckless Lovely (Saturnalia Books) was reviewed alongside mine. I did not copy the entire page of reviews, as I hope you will grab a copy of the issue for it's fine poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. It's well worth the cover charge, regardless of the kind review.

*Personal Tidbit: NAR is housed at the University of Northern Iowa, the local university in the town where I grew up. The landscape of the poems in the book is the landscape surrounding UNI, so there's another layer to my joy at seeing the book reviewed in NAR's pages.

Thank you, NAR and J.D. Schraffenberger, in particular, for "getting it" and sharing what the book has to offer with your readership. I'm indebted.