mimsy and outgrabe //

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


Mountains of Laundry, End-of-Week Minutia

At first I thought I hadn't really accomplished much with this week, but when I look back, I've done a little bit of everything except exercise. Well, once, I dragged my ass onto the treadmill. But I walked, because I was reading at the same time (I'm REALLY not coordinated enough to read and run at the same time), so it didn't feel like much of a workout.

I'm looking forward to all of this snow melting so I can run outside again. 

Anyway, I managed to read more of the mad Russian lady (Tsvetayeva) -- who isn't really mad, but brilliant -- I love the way you see her working out her arguments, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, in her essays (I'm on "The Poet and Time," currently).

I've also been working on the review of Paper Doll Fetus (by Cynthia Marie Hoffman), which I'll submit to Calyx later today or tomorrow for their Summer Issue (hopefully it meets their needs/specs and they like it).

And I managed to write an entire student rec (big deal, I have two more to go!) and also bang away at that poem I began two weeks ago  . . . which I suspect might be a big load of crap, so I'm going to put it away (I think) for a little while in the hopes of gaining some perspective. (It's about trying to drown out the noise of social media -- or rather, pick through the detritus of social media in hopes of finding something salvageable -- and I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the references to contemporary  . . . people. But it's supposed to be good for you to work outside your comfort zone, right? Yeah, I still don't know if it's a good idea. Anyway.)

I have so much grading to do that I haven't been able to do when I'm physically, actually-at-work, that it's ridiculous, but I'm trying to keep my morning writing time sacred! As it was, I cheated and wrote that student rec one morning (it was writing, not grading, so I felt like I could justify it).

It's kind of amazing how much my own mind betrays me. While I'm in the midst of all this busyness, I started to think about promotion (it's difficult not to do so -- A.P. was just promoted to Full Professor) and then I realized I should probably present at a conference within the next two years, so I began to brainstorm possible conference presentation topics. BECAUSE I HAVE SO MUCH TIME AT MY DISPOSAL FOR EXTRACURRICULAR CRAP. 

So, that's my life in a stream of nonsense. You envy me, yes?

p.s. My basement has mountains -- literal mountains to Vampire Toddler -- of laundry in it. So household matters have not really been addressed this week. (It's amazing this place hasn't been condemned. Yet.)


Please Do Not Buy or Eat the Death Cumin (Or Feed it to My Baby)

This week a virus in our household kind of blew up everyone's schedules. So: no poems worked on, a little tiny bit of reading done, some really annoying online "course" requirements tackled because they were the only thing I could do with a houseful of sick kids (i.e. I didn't really have to pay attention very closely nor do anything that would result in an actual product).

AND we had a weird near-miss with Vampire Toddler last night, who is allergic to peanuts and ate some store-bought hummus with peanut-contaminated cumin in it. She had a minor reaction, just hives, but -- it was a reaction! Scary, and a reminder that we really have to go less-processed-food in consideration of Vampire Toddler's very real, very dangerous food allergy. This is going to be difficult for me, as I'm not super into organic-everything and also, sometimes, prepackaged food is a working mother's best friend.

Anyway. We'll work it out. I'm going to put a call into the store where we bought the hummus (Simply Enjoy brand, fyi) and see about reporting it to the FDA, because I'd hate for some child with a really severe allergy to eat this stuff and go into anaphylactic shock.  

I'm trying to keep from being super grumpy lately. So many people want so many things. I want them all to shut up and I want to bury myself somewhere, like in a snowdrift. Actually, that's a lie, I hate being cold. I really kinda wanna bury myself in my bed and sleep for days. My blankets and pups are warmy and lovely . . . as is sleep. And not answering work emails.

I actually received two lovely letters via email from S.P. and C.C., both of which arrived at just-the-right time and made me less inclined to seek that snowdrift/pile of blankets. Letters, actual LETTERS, and not stupid fucking texts or brief, cursory, hey-do-you-have-this-I-want/need-this-right-now emails. They made my day. Hey S.P.! Hey C.C.! I'll be writing you back . . . maybe not soonish, but I'll be writing you back.

Later, gators.


Every Outside Purpose is the Work's Ruin

A quick note today. This week has been a little nightmarish at work; possibly because it's been the only complete week of classes in the semester so far. Next week we have President's Day off, however, so we'll be back to the three-day work week, thank goodness.

Ha! If only having a three-day work week was good! For a while I was like, "I don't know what my colleagues are complaining about. I do NOT mind snow days. BRING ON THE SNOW." And yet, it really is putting a huge crimp in my productivity. I accomplish far more at the office than I accomplish at home, and I've been home A LOT since the semester began. On the one hand, I AM really grateful for the time and attention I've been able to give my family and my mess of a home. On the other hand, I keep getting all of these emails asking for things I haven't even BEGUN to consider.


It's also a "Mommy and Me" day because Saintly Babysitter actually took time for herself and HER family and couldn't watch Vampire Toddler today. So we're hanging out at home. My goal is to finish writing a recommendation that's due today and then, perhaps, tidy the house a little. Oh, and take a turn on the treadmill during V.T.'s nap time. BECAUSE RUNNING MAKES MOMMY LESS CRAZY.

As regards writing, I've actually begun working (slowly, slowly) on a poem this week -- a line or two at a time. And I've been digging into more Tsvetayeva, whose "The Poet and the Critic" is really, really good. I love her assertiveness in general, her deep and unabiding sense of self, but in this essay she's particularly fearless. She's so honest and unapologetic and vehemently supportive of the poets she loves (and so righteously dismissive of the critics she despises).

In early paragraphs of the essay she speaks of the critic as "an investigator and a lover," claiming that "no one has the right to judge a poet who has not read every line that poet has written." "Creation takes place gradually and successively," she writes. "What I was in 1915 explains what I am in 1925. Chronology is the key to understanding." 

I think the best reviews being written today agree, more or less, with this -- a good critic is one who understands the poet in the context of contemporary poetry and in the context of The Canon and outside The Canon and also in the context of the poet's own development -- what he or she has written already and what he and she is preparing to write next.

Tsvetayeva also writes convincingly and thoughtfully of political poetry (poetry viewed as political, but not necessarily created from a political place), and of money:
Money is the possibility of writing more. Money is tomorrow's poems. Money is . . . my freedom and my writing-desk . . . Money is my possibility of writing not merely more, but better, of not taking advances, not hurrying events, not plugging gaps in the poetry with random words . . .  Money is my possibility of writing less. Not three pages a day, but thirty lines.
Of course, in her day people actually paid for poetry. Nonetheless, what she says still rings true: Money purchases time and the room to breathe. This is, and was, and will still be, particularly true for women (and men) who both write and must bread-win (as Tsvetayeva needed to with an invalid husband) and for whom the writing doesn't always win the bread, in a manner of speaking (and for whom the writing isn't intended to win the bread, too).

And speaking of bread-winning, I must return to it now. Those recommendations aren't going to write themselves. I'll leave off on THIS thought from Tsvetayeva:
Whether it's fame, or money, or the triumph of some idea or other, every outside purpose is the work's ruin. The work, while it is being written, is its own purpose.


Business as Usual (Business Sucks)

I have four letters of recommendation I have to write today. And a slew of "to-do list" items to tackle, things that make me break out in a sweat when I look at them, realizing the extent to which I'm behind. And not a hell of a lot of time in which to do them.

Bright spots in my semester continue to be the moments in teaching that prove truly engaging and rewarding -- like, for instance, the two independent studies I'm doing this semester. One of my students is writing a nonfiction novel/memoir piece about his experience with childhood cancer, and another of my students is creating a full-length musical, replete with songs. It's been amazingly fun, so far, in the two meetings I've had with both, to talk about their work with enthusiasm because 1) the work shows so much promise but also 2) because they show so much investment in their own work. It's just sad that students who give a shit are the exception, not the norm. But that's how it is with most people you meet, right?

Boo, cynacism. I should be more upbeat.

I should make a special, emphatic note, too, I suppose, that my family isn't the thing that gets in the way of my writing life. Maybe it has, in the past, but not currently. I feel as if work is sucking away my attention from BOTH my writing and family life.

At the Pen Parentis Literary Salon last month, I said that last semester I made a special, concerted effort to spend more time with my family and make sure I was home with my children more . . . and it ended up being my worst semester, possibly ever. And yet. I don't regret that decision. I just wish I'd figured out how to make it all work.

I'm still trying to figure out how to make this all work. My goal for this semester, a kind of best-I-can-hope-for, is to keep this spring from being an extension of the fall. If this semester could be even a degree better in terms of organization and efficient use of time, I'll be . . . well, not exactly happy, but satisfied to a degree. It will be a small win, but a win nonetheless.

So to end this weird, patchwork post, here's a picture of Mosey, my current morning writing/reading partner, whom Vampire Toddler calls "More Puppy." (Sober hasn't been demoted, but chooses to sleep out in the kitchen in the vain hope I'll feed them earlier than usual.)

His sleepy/disgruntled face says what I feel.



"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/