mimsy and outgrabe //

a record of panic, parenting, teaching and art-making


"I Write Not Because I Know, But in Order to Know"

This week's acclimation to the new semester was interrupted by "The Blizzard!!" which was not so much a blizzard as it was a really healthy amount of snow . . . enough that we'll probably be seeing it still in March, until temperatures turn somewhat warmish. 

This meant my children and I were trapped inside the house with each other for two full days. (A. was trapped at work for one night and two days, so we haven't seen him much this week.) Days home with my children are lovely in some ways (baking! board games! playing in snow!) and torturous in others (fighting! rough-housing! and noise! noise! noise!). 

I've still been using my mornings to read, and some of it has been applicable not just to my writing but to my teaching as well. I'm teaching "Effective Thinking" this semester (horrible title, I know; and it doesn't sound like something *I* would be an expert in, does it?) and I found this passage from Marina Tsvetayeva to Boris Pasternak in Letters: Summer 1926 that correlates with much of what we'll be studying this semester:
Don't misunderstand me: I live not to write poems, I write poems in order to live. (Who would make writing poems an end in itself?) I write not because I know, but in order to know. Until I've written about a thing (have looked at it), it doesn't exist. My way of knowing is through expression -- there's the knowledge, right from under the pen. Until I've written a thing,  I don't think about it.
 And a few sentences later, she says: 
I need you, Boris, like an abyss, a bottomless pit, so that there's some place to throw and not hear the depths.
Yesterday in class, I asked them to write the passage down into their notebooks and to reflect on it -- to question the passage, to dissect its clauses and sentences, to think about the opposite of her claims, what she's NOT saying ("I live to write poems") in order to better understand what she IS claiming. And we spoke (briefly) about that last sentence, which I love: about how our friends, our truest kindred spirits, are the receptacles of our thoughts and attempts and never impose limits, and never remind us of our limits; in a true friend/contemporary, there's never an end where our attempts pile up and remind us of our little failures. 

Of course, I'm adding the word failure. But I think Tsvetayeva might agree.

Another reading of the line: Our true contemporaries remind us of infinite possibilities, infinite attempts to test the depths.

Anyway. I think (I hope) it generated some good, useful discussion. 

In my morning reading, I like what I've been doing lately, which is to read poetry alongside prose. I read a few poems and then move to the prose, and this division of my attention, or rather, this "two sides of the same coin" approach is working really well where Rilke/Tsvetayeva and Letters: Summer 1926 is concerned. I feel like reading just one long poem at a time, or just a few short ones, allows me to internalize the poems more thoroughly -- they stay with me more, they resonate with me. When I read poems straight through in someone's collection (because I do that; I'm not one of those enviable people who can just pop into a book of poetry at any point -- I suppose I'm too caught up in narrative, in finding or constructing a narrative through the order of poems) I feel like I lose individual poems. And that seems kind of akin to sacrilege. 

So, more attention on a smaller, more intimate scale. And I feel like the prose and the poems kind of engage in a conversation, speak to one another -- and that conversation may exist solely in my head (!!) but it makes connections between all of this reading, which I'm not really doing with much direction or purpose; but it turns out to be really useful to me in my life, in the life of my mind. (I know, a phrase like "life of the mind" seems kind of laughable for someone as scattered as me, but there you go.)

I'm reading the selected poems of Tsvetayeva (trans. Elaine Feinstein) right now, as I finish her two essays about Rilke in the back of Letters, and next I think I'll read her Art in the Light of Conscience: Eight Essays on Poetry. And then, in a complete turn/departure, I'd like to read Glyn Maxwell's "On Poetry" alongside his verse plays (some of which will be rereads), and perhaps that will move me into picking up my own verse play again. 

If I haven't sunk into the mire of the semester by that point, that is! I wish this semester would be more relaxed than the fall, but I don't think that's going to be the case. I've got too much going on again and I've got to ease up somehow. A lot of it means actively seeking people who can help me shoulder some of the responsibility I've taken on -- especially with my work with the union, but also with the creative writing festival -- and yet I don't see how I'll find time to have those conversations while trying to stay on top of the work I need the help with! 

Anyway. I'll work it out somehow. Or not. Either way, I'll try not to fill up the blog too much with that boring stress stuff this spring. I know I tagged this blog as "a record of panic, parenting, teaching and art-making," but I'd really rather have it filled mostly with the last three items, and far less of the first, you know?

And, as I wrap this up, I look out the window and, um, it's snowing again. Yay!


Resurrecting the Blog & Recapping the Pen Parentis Literary Salon

This week marks the beginning of the new semester. It may, also, mark a return to actual writing on this blog. And perhaps that writing will be ABOUT writing and about reading, and maybe/hopefully slightly less about stress and overcommitment and whatever other nonsense makes me sound (and act) like a crazy person.

We can hope, can't we?

Of course, part of what helps me navigate stress and overcommitment is being able to write about those problems here on the blog: putting them out into the ether and hoping that, if someone reads them, they find in my ramblings some kind of solidarity or kinship, a kind of hey-I-go-through-that-too recognition.

So, I'm working my way back into a regular early-morning reading/writing schedule, as well as a regular exercise/running schedule, both of which also go a long way toward making me more clear-headed and less, you know, anxious/obnoxious. Reading regularly always helps me find my way back into writing, even if it's something completely unlike my own (either in concerns or style). 

I'm finally, FINALLY, finishing Letters: Summer 1926, correspondence between Pasternak, Tsvetayeva, and Rilke, which was recommended to me years ago by S.P. (I've just reached the Epilogue) and also Gary Miranda's translation of Rilke's Duino Elegies, which are lovely (both, I think, Miranda's approach to translation and his versions of the Elegies. They do sound much like the voice present in Rilke's letters to Tsvetayeva, although those too are products of translation -- and someone else's translations, at that).

I find Tsvetayeva interesting, and identify with her, I think, much like I identify with Plath. There's a raw ambition and drive present in her voice, the voice of her letters, and you feel keenly that she really wishes she could spend more time on her writing, her calling, and less on the particulars of domesticity. And yet, she shoulders the responsibility of motherhood and its demands far better than it appears Plath did -- although that may not be fair, because Plath wrote about that quite openly in her journals (which she probably never intended for anyone to read) and what I know of Tsvetayeva's attitude to parenthood consists of what she wrote to Pasternak and Rilke, and I can't imagine she'd want to appear as a cold and reluctant mother to either of those men, whom she clearly adored. 

And it's funny -- just writing that paragraph above makes me want to write a longer piece, an essay, on the two women -- but when will I begin to do such a thing? I have a lot of ideas for essays. For poems. For projects involving poems and essays. I have a lot of ideas. I do not have a lot of poems or essays. There's the problem. I think of these things, but I don't act on them very often.

I should change that. 

Well, the day is about to begin and I have to do a number of things for work and the house -- cleaning up and sorting out in both areas of my life. I'll end this post by recapping last week's reading at the Pen Parentis literary salon, which was a really wonderful and lovely experience right up until the end. Then it kind of went to shit, which wasn't the fault of the organizers but rather the result of audience-member sabotage.

The reading and discussion featured my colleague and office mate Adam Penna, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Jared Harel, Diana Whitney, and myself. We read for around 8-10 minutes and then the  moderator, Christina Chiu, asked us each questions tailored specifically to our work and also more general questions about getting sh** done while parenting. Christina Chiu was really lovely and one of the best moderators I've ever had the pleasure of listening to, mostly because she did an amazing amount of homework before the reading and had really insightful, relevant, and probing questions for the poets.

This may have been the problem, however. She asked Jennifer Michael Hecht about her work as a historian, particularly her research and writing about important persons obscured historically because of their race and ethnicity; she also asked about her latest nonfiction book Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, and of course about her poems. One of the audience members, however, took exception to what she had to say about the first two items in that list, and proceeded to suck the air right out of the room at the end of the night with a series of rambling statements-cloaked-as-questions, and then outright insulted and badgered Hecht while we all, dumbfounded, looked on.

Hecht answered back marvelously at first, but one could tell that she's still quite close, emotionally, to the subject matter of Stay, and she admitted that she wasn't up to talking any more about that subject or the book. That wasn't good enough for the audience member, who clearly wasn't there to listen to anyone but herself, and her continued comments (insults, speculations) drove Hecht right from the room. 

It nearly eviscerated the entire evening -- I'm not sure anyone who attended actually remembers much other than that altercation. 

It was strange, to be sure. And depressing. It wasn't even that the audience member's argument was wildly invalid -- but it WAS wildly inelegant, certainly, and nearly unintelligible -- and without any genuine frame of reference, because it was clear she hadn't read Hecht's work. Rather, she'd heard one or two sentences about it, felt a kind of visceral, gut reaction, and then metaphorically threw up in front of us all. It was so inappropriate for the venue and so unthinking and unkind. I mean, who does that? 

I know the answer. It's not "a crazy person" -- because that's a cop-out. It's just a way of diminishing the situation, to dismiss the audience member as crazy. She was self-absorbed, sure. But not necessarily crazy and I think that's what's so upsetting.

Anyway. I'm still really grateful for having been invited to speak. Really. It was so much fun before  . . . that . . . happened. 

Here are a couple of photos from the event that I lifted off the Pen Parentis effbook page:

The beautiful and
--> über-prepared Christina Chiu!
See? It wasn't all bad! I'm smiling! I had fun!

This may be the only time my name touches the pages of The New Yorker. Enjoy it, people.


The lovely Milda DeVoe, founder and fearless leader of Pen Parentis. (And a superb hostess.)

A.P., wearing his listening face

We're all wearing our listening faces! Also, you can just barely make them out, but I have great shoes on here. Just thought you should know.

The incomparable Jennifer Michael Hecht.

Jared Harel. His chapbook, The Body Double, is wonderful.

Such a big audience! And so supportive, all but one.

 Diana Whitney: parent-HuffPost writer-poet extraordinaire.


Also, Happy Birthday, Derek!
(Walcott, of course.)


Arse Over Elbow . . . and Other Ways In Which I'm F****d

I need a personal assistant. Or a straight jacket.

I woke up with a headache. 

I'm in charge of a blog for our faculty union and I haven't posted to it since October. I'm teaching an online composition course and most of the students appear to have no idea how they're doing in the class -- and at this point, I can't tell if it's because they can't use Blackboard correctly or if I'm really THAT behind in grading. 

I'm meeting my creative writing students in conferences this week because I AM that behind with grading.

I'm writing here because I have the time because I feel like a little reflection and disclosure might help manage my guilt about how badly I mismanaged my responsibilities this semester, despite feeling, more times than not, like I was doing something that needed, absolutely, to be done.

One more week. One more week. One more week.

This is something I am looking forward to because it has to do with writing and the practice of writing and managing to write while all of this other stuff gets your attention:
Pen Parentis Literary Salon
featuring Jennifer Michael Hecht, Diana Whitney, Jared Harel, Adam Penna and Sarah Kain Gutowski
ANDAZ Wall Street Hotel at 75 Wall Street New York, New York
7 p.m. - 9 p.m. http://www.penparentis.org/calendar/


Not Waving But Drowning

Is this not the most apt phrase ever? Maybe Stevie Smith wrote the ultimate poem. I feel like this every time someone says hi to me in the hallway at this time of year . . . 
Other Person: Hey, how's it going?
Me: (Suuuper chipper) Oh, good! Fine! How are you? (Prolonged, tinny, nervous laughter)
I might be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Actually, I know that I'm not -- I don't think people who are about to have a nervous breakdown are conscious of the fact. I'm just in the weeds. Major f*****g weeds. 

Anyway, I received an acceptance for a poem from the fairy tale part of my manuscript this week, which marks the first time ANY poem from that part of the book will see the light of day, so I thought it worth posting here (and it gave me the excuse to take a break from the months-long backlog of grading I'm doing).

The poem will appear in So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art, Spring 2015. Yay!

I needed the good news. And I was all like, "this makes up for everything!" when I received the email while waiting for my kids to get off the bus. And then they got off the bus, and Little Miss Talkalot had a face like a thundercloud because of GIRL DRAMA and The Boy proceeded to spill his Pokemon cards all over the floor of the car which precipitated an epic melt down . . . and then I was all like, "NOPE! HAHAHAHAHAHA." And then I wept into the steering wheel while the children looked on in confusion.

Just kidding! Kind of. There was no weeping, but I do think I banged my head against the steering wheel in frustration. And I don't think the kids noticed, because . . . well, GIRL DRAMA and SPILT POKEMON CARDS.

Happy Wednesday, ya'll.


My Morning Reading: Kate Zambreno on Kathy Acker

I think I've posted about Kate Zambreno before -- she wrote the wonderful book Heroines, in which she writes about modernist women (wives, girlfriends, colleagues, friends of modernist males) and her complex relationship to them (how she idolizes them, empathizes with them, rejects them, lives like them and as a reaction to them) -- and now she's resurrected her blog to post an excerpt from an essay on Kathy Acker. I'm not sure how long it will remain up, because quite often she becomes exasperated with herself and the world and shuts down her blog -- which is frustrating for fans of her blog, but a really interesting exercise in, or exploration of, voice and the silencing of one's voice, a kind of editing or self-censorship.

I'm writing this blog post rather guiltily, myself. I have so much to do. I should be using every waking moment that's not spent in service to my family in service to work. I'm really, really behind for the fourth week of the semester. But I can't sacrifice sleep like some of my colleagues. And I'm determined to avoid sacrificing time with my kids this semester/academic year. Yet those choices are putting me into one of those dizzying spirals where I can't tell if I'm coming or going. I've begun so many projects/assignments and finished none of them. My verse play is gathering dust again.

We have two days off at the end of the week for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. I'm hoping I can get some of my work done over that holiday, but holidays usually mean family time, which is lovely and good, but also serves to put me even further behind when it comes to work.

I'm having one of those exasperated when-the-hell-am-I-gonna-get-good-at-this?  moments.

I have lovely friends, though. C.C. will tell me that it never really gets any less crazy, but to focus on the good parts: friends, teaching, adventures during vacation time. L.C. will tell me to stop being so hard on myself and then she'll give me an account of HER crazy schedule that makes me laugh. S.P. will laugh at me gently from across the pond and offer solutions for my ridiculous technical problems in online teaching. And A.P. patiently listens to my ranting and/or puts up with my surly grumpy ass when I'm in the weeds.

These things mean a lot, friends. Thank you. You make me feel slightly less crazy. Now . . . any chance one of you wants to actually do my committee work and/or grading for me?

Har har har.


PowerPoint is The Devil's Plaything (or, How I Spent My Weekend)

I believe I've broken a record. After struggling all weekend with the demonic force that is Microsoft Office's PowerPoint, and failing to successfully record a sound track to my lectures -- the damn program keeps cutting off my narration abruptly on several slides --  I've taken a personal day.

Two weeks in and taking a personal day! That's gotta be a record, right? But it's necessary. My face to face classes can survive having their schedule bumped a day, particularly because it's so early in the semester, and that will give me approximately six no-kids-or-husband-in-the-house hours to concentrate wholly and fully on fixing the technical problems and then, perhaps, getting some grading done. I spent so much time fooling around with PowerPoint this weekend that I neglected to grade the quizzes and small assignments that have already begun to accumulate.

And I'm bone-tired, the result of staying up until 2 a.m. fiddling with my f*&*^%g files and then waking up at 6:30 a.m., when Little Miss Talkalot came downstairs, awake and full of conversation. I would have been incredibly underwhelming in my face to face classes, and that's like the kiss of death when you're teaching developmental students. If you don't want to lose them, you have to stay dynamic and energetic. I am neither of those things today.

But I am persistent. I WILL figure out this stupid PowerPoint/audio thing. I hate PowerPoint, too. If I wasn't teaching class online, and if it didn't seem like the best way to "lecture" to my class, I wouldn't have even opened the application on my laptop.

Anyway. Grumble, grumble, grumble -- just needed to vent and "out" myself. Sharing my technical and time-management failures, even in this weird kind-of anonymous blog form, is oddly comforting. It's my Catholic "we-like-to-confess-things" childhood floating to the surface, I guess.


38 is the New . . . Nope. It's Old. My Knees Creak, Y'all.

One week of school completed, and I'm all sorts of in-the-weeds again. Not panicking especially yet, but that's because I'm deluding myself into thinking I have control by paying attention to my little list-making phone app (Wunderlist) and occasionally running (three times last week!) and then also kind-of sort-of staying on top of the laundry situation in my household.

Yesterday I turned 38. I don't think this is especially significant except that it means I'm still eligible to have my manuscript rejected for the Yale Younger Poets Prize, because under 40 is still considered "younger," and I haven't had a book published yet. Also, they haven't published anything that looks or sounds remotely like my own work in  . . . maybe forever? . . . and yet I'll probably continue to send my MS in each year until I get the book published by someone else or I turn 40. 

I really, really hope it's not the latter, but  . . . you know.


Sorry. Had a rough night with the Vampire Toddler, whose fangs have been torturing her somewhat fierce for the past two weeks. Eventually I tried the let-her-cry approach for about thirty seconds, the space it took for me to leave her room and walk down the stairs, where I found my husband . . . who looked at me pitifully and said, "but she sounds so unhappy!"

The sound that was issuing from upstairs was more banshee-like than baby, so I'm going to assume he was still half-asleep. "Unhappy" doesn't quite describe the vitriolic demon-wail of Vampire Toddler being left to cry it out in her crib.

I went back upstairs and picked up V.T., who sniffed once and then promptly fell asleep on my shoulder. After that she stayed asleep. 

A.P. and I have a reading in Manhattan lined up for January -- at the Pen Parentis Literary Salon, a group of writers-who-are-also-parents. Some pretty cool writers, mostly fiction, have read there before, so it's kind of unusual and an honor that we poet-types are being showcased at all. 

In the meantime, I'm gearing up to send out my MS to another round of publishers and book contests. And by "gearing up" I mean "thinking about doing it and putting it off until some really inconvenient moment, like when I'm supposed to grade 30 papers for a 9:30 a.m. class."