Thursday, February 04, 2010

I am trying to compile a simple list of poems published in the last seven years plus the magazines and dates and serial numbers of the magazines where they were published. Simple clerical work for the NEA application which a dear friend is helping me with. I am procrastinating doing this task by blogging about it.

I've got a pile of colorful journals which no one ever reads except the people who publish in them, at my elbow, balanced between a mug of hot water, stray pens, address books, post-its, small spiral notebooks, dental floss and vitamins. It doesn't matter much to me whether I published this little poem or that little poem in 2006 or 2007, in Kalliope or in Hanging Loose. The artful little journals, which occupy their own shelf in the wooden bookcase in the hallway, are beginning to overflow a little now from the long accumulation of publishing cred, poem by poem, essay by essay. It's necessary to building an identity as a writer, but does not do much towards building a life.

I paid for and got a rigorous critique of my play The Recruiter (yes, another one.) My critique-r had good specific things to say which made me hungry to go back into the work. Meanwhile, I need to apply for this grant and think about jobs. The problem is this: I already have work. I have bunches of little poetry gigs and teaching-writing gigs, and a few weekend workshops, and-- And they don't add up to enough money to live on or adopt a child on or anything, but they took a long time to get and build and cultivate and they require administrative energy to keep going.

And I really enjoy, for instance, my Monday evening essay class at The Writing Salon in Berkeley. Those students are delightful, we're having a great time and learning a lot. So what am I complaining about? Well, not complaining exactly--alright, kind of complaining--but it's like I'm the monkey with his hand caught in the jar of peanuts that is this ring of the teaching-creative-writing world. I don't want to let go of what I have, and yet it's not really sustaining me either.

In my alternate-life fantasies I have a Master's of Public Health and work for Doctors Without Borders. I do something truly useful, something which demands all of myself. In another alternate life I am a truly successful playwright (is there such a thing?) who gets to play in rehearsals with brilliant actors and directors.

I mentioned in an earlier blog how impressed I am with Lynn Nottage's work. I haven't seen it on stage yet, but I am good at reading a play and seeing and hearing it in my imagination the way some people I know can look at blueprints and imagine the finished building.

Nottage is the best I've ever read--and that's saying a lot. I went to her web site and saw the schedule there and she has things opening everywhere, here a new play, there a revival of something older. And of course her newest play involved visiting women of the Congo and hearing their stories and writing them which seems like it has some social benefit as well, not just creative narcissism.

Anyway, yesterday I got my copy of Tony Hoagland's latest book of poetry Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, and he's another one whose social commentary is worth the trees that were chopped down to make his books. (Incidentally, I have no idea what the title means. I combed all through the book, read every poem, laughed, cried, grunted, chuckled, and sighed--and never saw any mention of a Honda Dynasty at all. As someone who struggles with titles myself, I wonder: was it part of a poem which didn't make the final cut? Is it a reference to those of us who drive Hondas? What's the deal with the mysterious title, Tony??)

But the poems are wonderful. He deals very explicitly in this book with the bloatedness and loneliness and selfishness and privilege and irony and pathos of being American in the twenty-first century, and he mostly does it with compassion and a gentle fury in which he implicates himself first. In his earlier books I felt he was the best poet of the contemporary male experience I had ever read. He still is, but in this book it's more explicitly about his and our Americanness. There's less sexual seeking in this book, and more about Nature which I really love. I think he might be my favorite poet.

Here's one from an earlier book:

Wasteful Gesture Only Not

Ruth visits her mother’s grave in the California hills.
She knows her mother isn’t there but the rectangle of grass
marks off the place where the memories are kept,

like a library book named Dorothy.
Some of the chapters might be: Dorothy:
Better Bird-Watcher Than Cook;

Dorothy, Wife and Atheist;
Passionate Recycler Dorothy, Here Lies But Not.
In the summer hills, where the tall tough grass

reminds you of persistence
and the endless wind
reminds you of indifference,

Ruth brings batches of white roses,
extravagant gesture not entirely wasteful
because as soon as she is gone she knows
the deer come out of the woods to eat them.

What was made for the eye
goes into the mouth,
thinks Ruth to herself as she drives away,
and in bed when she tries to remember her mother,

she drifts instead to the roses,
and when she thinks about the roses she
sees instead the deer chewing them—

pale petals of the roses in the dark
warm bellies of the sleeping deer—
that’s what going to sleep is like.

--Tony Hoagland


Caitlin said...

your writing is beautiful and makes me hungry to work. Thanks for turning me onto another poet.

I read the other day, "Art is useful as bread."

good luck with everything.


Brent Winter said...

Hi, Allison! Sounds like you're in a kind of tough in-between place. Hang in there. I hope you cross some sort of line soon and can extricate your hand from that peanut jar.

Your MPH fantasy reminded me of my current situation: I have an MFA in creative writing and I'm copyediting articles written by people with MPHs, for a public-health journal. It's right livelihood, as far as it goes, but it's not feeding my soul. Hence the writing.

Thanks so much for the wonderful Tony Hoagland poem. And good luck with the NEA application!


Alison said...

Thanks, both of you. Brent, how nice to hear from you! Angela has been my Libra-sister angel in the ever-elusive quest for balance. I hope you get a chance to do your own writing. What projects are you working on now?


Anonymous said...

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Brent Winter said...

Hi, Allison. I've got a number of irons in the fire right now: I'm co-writing a screenplay with a friend of mine who's a filmmaker; I just wrote the first draft of a short-short memoir piece that I intend to submit to the fine online mag Brevity; and I've started a blog about writing, creativity, and the unconscious, called Nine Long Nights ( The blog is really intended to kick-start all my other writing and to build an online community of sorts, composed of people who care about writing and creativity. Come check it out sometime.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post you got here. I'd like to read something more about that topic. Thanx for posting that information.

Alison said...

Thanks for telling me, Brent, I will check it out!

And I LOVED the piece Angela wrote about going to Genie's memorial--both aesthetically, as a piece of writing, but most of all emotionally, because there was so much heart and honesty in it--and narcissistically too, of course, since she said some nice things about me and my sister...


Caitlin said...

Libra solidarity!

Alison said...

That's funny, did you know that my friend Angela is also a Libra?

Caitlin said...

I did not, seems I'm running into more of us lately. And it's as though we're all fighting for balance more forcefully now.

Anonymous said...

I am intrigued by your yearning for something different in your life, Alison. Maybe there is a writing direction to be discerned in that yearning? Or maybe more stillness?

Maybe there is something within you that you have not yet, not quite, embraced, a piece in the puzzle that is already present but you have not yet discerned it.

About your Monday writing class . . . is that a typical writing salon class, where people come together for eight or ten weeks and then disperse? For me, I would find teaching such classes a bit more draining than the compensation would warrant -- just for me. As a writer, more and more, I see that I have to hold my self very carefully and when I do give of myself, I need to also be receiving. . . I think it possible, even probably, that the writers who sign up for that class cannot feed you (other than the income). Is that work feeding you? (please, if you can, overlook the money aspect . . ). I ask you this because, again, just for me, working with newbie baby writers, which is perfectly good work, would subtly take something away from me that I cannot afford.

I wonder if what you are yearning for is just a better ability to have what you have. Do you need the writing class income? Does the class feed you?

There have been huge changes in your life in the past year. It might be time to shed some old skin. and maybe doing so will reveal new choices.

Alison said...

Actually I love teaching beginner writers, because they often have interesting lives outside of writing. They have been paying attention to real-world things. I once had a student at the Writing Salon who was a bus driver--I had another student who was an early pornographer, and I've had students ranging from PhDs, MDs, and lawyers to secretaries, housewives, students and circus performers. I love the diversity. No, what I'm tired of is the isolation of being a writer. I want colleagues. I want to be Dick Van Dyke on the Dick Van Dyke show, or Tina Fey, and go in and improvise and brainstorm with other creative people and create something collaboratively. That's why I'm struggling to write a play. I want out of my solitary study and into someplace more communal. I have no problem teaching though. In fact, some of the best writers I have ever encountered were in the third grade.