mimsy and outgrabe //

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


On Illness, Anxiety, and Mourning

This is the end of a very long two weeks. The micro-sabbatical I'd planned for spring break did not go at all the way I'd intended, but at this point, it's difficult to care. 

The Friday before the break my father went into the hospital for an infection and spent the week bouncing in and out of intensive care, since the infection severely dehydrated him, fucked up his organs, and sent his heart off-kilter. 

He's okay now (fingers crossed, knock wood, god-willing, whatever), but I spent most of the recess close to my phone, twitching, not wanting to bother my mother, who sent regular updates but was overwhelmed with a host of responsibilities once my dad fell ill. I tried not to be overly dramatic or pessimistic, but for a while, without a lot of information or even the possibility of traveling south (because no one who arrives with three kids, which I would have to do, is helpful to someone in intensive care OR the person looking after him), I imagined the worst and vacillated between frantic busyness (hey guys! I have a writing desk once more!) and that stasis where you kind of pace or stand in one place and fixate on some focal point in the distance while your mind is a whorl of worry and dark thoughts and panic. 

Midsummer & White Egrets: Not as fashionable, but my favorites.
Then, at the end of the week, death twofold. Not my father (again, he's okay), but one of my professors and mentors from NYU, Derek Walcott, who was not only the teacher and poet who had the most influence over my development as a writer during (and since) graduate school, but is also, by grace of his kindness, empathy, and encouragement, probably the reason I'm still writing anything at all. Also, my husband's great aunt, one of a trio of Norwegian sisters who emigrated here in the last century and who have been the matriarchs of a large, complex family that stretches up and down the Eastern seaboard and beyond.

This poem. This book! (From Midsummer)
So the weekend was filled with a different kind of worry, or rather, preoccupation: with those most affected by these deaths: in particular those who knew Walcott far better and more intimately than myself, and who lost not only a mentor but someone like a father, like a family member, and with my husband, who lost his aunt but is now having to reconcile himself to the great changes in his grandmother -- she didn't recognize him at first at the wake, and that was painful. 

He used to visit her every day while growing up -- she lived across the road, in a house she and her husband built on land gifted from her father (he won the street in a hand of poker -- that's a kind of tale particular to the 20th century and centuries previous, one that I fear is disappearing, and will never return . . . so, another thing to mourn). His aunt lived next door to her sister, and the two were regular fixtures in his childhood and adolescence. It's been difficult for A. to get his head around this loss; not that it was a surprise (neither, actually, was W.'s, since he'd been ill for quite some time), but his grief is a surprise to him, I think. Much like my dad was surprised when my mother insisted he go to the ER. Why do we all think we should withstand so much pain, physical and emotional? Why do we imagine we must be so stoic, so strong, so resilient? What do we lose if we're not? (How much do we lose when we are?)

My writing desk. Crowded, but decluttered.
I was NOT stoic, strong, or resilient over spring break and neither was I any of those things this week. Originally, I was supposed to write during all of the spring recess and then spend the weekend catching up on grading. But I didn't do my writing projects and I didn't do any of my grading, and the grading was the thing that fucked me up for this week. I've spent most of it explaining to students why I don't have all of their long-overdue assignments graded, and then attempting to grade any essential pieces that they needed in order for, you know, learning and course curriculum to actually occur as planned.

And then, of course, the students showed up to class just as unprepared, if not more so. We're a sorry, sorry bunch.

It's been consuming, this kind of anxiety of the past two weeks, and while I'm certainly okay and very lucky to have my father in (relatively) good health now, and while there's nothing materially or tangibly wrong with my life at the moment, everything feels skewed. I feel alternately overwhelmed by all of the tasks I've ignored in the face of grief and anxiety, and then restless and completely ambivalent about it all -- like it's a bunch of silly nonsense anyway. My hope for this weekend is to restore a little bit of habit, a little bit of routine, to make life feel less tweaked. 

And I'll do some reading. Revisiting Walcott's work seems appropriate for tomorrow, considering it's the day he'll be buried on St. Lucia, in a state funeral -- the pomp and circumstance of which is marvelous and appropriate and also terribly sad. He's gone. 

His gift was far from withered, but I've always loved these lines from poem/strophe 32 in White Egrets, where Walcott responds to criticism about his work, about his reputation:

If it is true 
that my gift has withered, that there's little left of it,
if this man is right then there's nothing else to do
but abandon poetry like a woman because you love it
and would not see her hurt, least of all by me;
so walk to the cliff's edge and soar above it,
the jealousy, the spite, the nastiness, with the grace
of a frigate over Barrel of Beef, its rock;
be grateful that you wrote well in this place,
let the torn poems sail from you like a flock
of white egrets in a long last sigh of release.


Interruptions and Asides and Welcome Distractions

You know what's awesome? I'm now eligible for old-lady poetry awards. That's right. Not that there are a ton of over-40 awards, but when they come around, I could totally throw my purple hat in the ring.

A quick internet search has corrected me. I would throw my RED hat in the ring. Also, I don't recommend doing that internet search. The results are so saccharine you'll have to bleach your eyes. I took one for the team, ya'll.


Anyway, I'm still working on submitting my full-length to lots of places (i.e. just throwing my hard-earned money at the universe, essentially) AND today is the last day of classes/office hours before Spring Break, so I'm looking forward to my micro-sabbatical next week.


If it happens. My dad's health is a little precarious at the moment, and we might have to take a quick trip south to help out.


I plan on working on "Accountability Partners" -- my play that is not my verse play -- and sending out submissions and maybe working on an article. In the mornings. The afternoons will be spent doing errands I've avoided this far into the semester and also grading. Because there is SO MUCH GRADING.


One last thing I might work on next week is the beginning of a collaborative project on the site New Hive with artists Ryan Seslow and Meredith Starr. Ryan came into the humanities class I team-teach with M.S. at Stuffolk, and he taught our students about using the site to create art & design portfolios or even individual pieces of art that can employ gifs and hyperlinks and all sorts of stuff that's out of my wheelhouse. But it'll be fun and (hopefully) low-pressure and something challenging and different. And that sounds refreshing.


Lastly, today I'm celebrating my fourth year since re-entering "the baby cave," and I believe that year-four means I'm also officially LEAVING the baby cave. (For good, fingers crossed.) It's been a weird, unexpected, challenging experience having kids, particularly having THREE kids, and of course it's far from over, but it's strange to be consciously (again, knock wood) leaving the having-babies part of my life behind. 


Of course, my sisters are still having babies. And I'm helping look after one of them (The Bun) during the week, which means I'm not really leaving the baby cave, am I?


Vampire Toddler (now . . . Vampire  . . . Kid?) has had a good birthday morning so far. She's popped her mylar balloon already after running across the living room with it 60+ times, and requested (and sung to) the following song, which I'll leave you with (you're welcome!):


I Wrote A Poem! I Cleaned My House! Kind of!

Today I'm coming off that glow that arrives during, and just after, working on something you're obsessing over for about 24 hours straight. It's amazing how empty I can feel of ideas and music and language for so long and then, thankfully, they all come back in a flood and I create something that makes me excited, happy, and that I read and feel like, "yeah, that's a poem." 

In one of my graduate classes, back when I was a fucking baby with stars in my eyes, Derek Walcott said that most of what we write, if we're lucky, is just good verse. Every once in a while (for him), or once in a lifetime (me), we write a poem.

So currently I feel like I wrote a poem, but knowing myself fairly well at this point, I'm conscious of the fact that a few months from now I'll probably look back at the piece and regard it as merely good verse. And that's okay. Because there are fewer stars in my eyes and I'm not quite so young (although maybe I act like a baby), I'm less concerned about the product and more jazzed by the process -- i.e. still flying kinda high off the act of writing/creating. I'm gonna ride it into the weekend if I can.

Also, I'm going to attribute the poem-making to the act of showing up -- making a ritual of waking, sitting at the table half-awake and bleary with sleep, opening a notebook and picking up a pen. Scribbling whatever comes to mind and then, as the coffee kicks in, shaping that into something resembling poetry. Sometimes, the result is just a resemblance. And those scraps stay in the notebook. But sometimes, they become something better, more clear. Actual thought, images, music.

Also also, my boy was sick and stayed home from school yesterday, which is not a reason for celebration, BUT while I stayed home with him I managed to make some headway on the clutter in my living room. He even helped organize some things! (He's a good little dude.) I might have something resembling a writing desk come spring break! Which is good, because I have another micro-sabbatical planned for those five days (the college spring recess does not match up with the grade school spring recess, so I'll have the house to myself for a few hours everyday), and it would be awesome and so grown-up of me if I could work at a desk that isn't covered in old graded papers, documents from 2012 that need to be shredded, dusty and scratched CDs (yeah, I need to chuck those), and random kid ephemera.

It's probably a pipe-dream, but it's MY pipe-dream, man.


On Writing, AWP 2017, and, Once Again, Over-Obligation

The writing is slow-going but it's chugging along. Since the new year I've written maybe two or three things I consider poems and generated a lot of scribbling in my notebook, which is kind of a big deal for a girl who hasn't worked on much of anything for the past few months. It feels even more strange and auspicious because those poems are something separate and apart from my verse play project, which -- as readers of this blog well know -- has kind of consumed my attention for the past few years.

I'm not putting aside the play, either -- I'm still working on it. I'm just being flexible with my writing schedule, allowing that some mornings I'm moved to write about things other than these characters and this conflict and this particular time period. And at least I've been consistent and, well, persistent -- so far, I've kept up my writing routine of approximately 45 brief minutes every morning, in the wee hours before anyone else in the house stirs.

AWP took place in Washington, D.C. from Feb. 8-Feb. 12, and I participated in a reading for Menacing Hedge that was lovely and fun and good for the soul -- simply to be with a group of people who are doing the same kind of work. We read dark and twisted pieces and ate tacos and had drinks and it was edifying in more ways than one. And yet a friend approached me after I read one of my new poems and he asked about the new work -- he works for a journal out of Pittsburgh -- and I had to tell him that, well, you'll receive a submission from me but it's going to be a while because I share the snail's pace when it comes to writing. Sadly, one poem does not equal a submission packet, you know?
At Johnny Pistolas in Adams Morgan, a kind of homecoming

I'm not one of those writers who likes to campaign against AWP and all of its practices. I know it's a kind of monster, one that particularly represents a kind of privilege, but on a practical level I don't know how it could be otherwise and still manage to do the good things (it does do good things) that are inherent to its mission. That said -- I was disappointed in the selection of panels and readings this year, and I wonder about what that means. I'm one of the dorks who actually enjoy going to panel discussions and hearing about other writers' creative processes or research and writing projects, and I didn't find as much that sparked my interest. Or, if it did (and this happened with more readings than panels), everything I wanted to go to was scheduled at the same time instead of being spread out.

If AWP could just tailor its schedule to my tastes, I'd like, REALLY appreciate it. *snort*

The semester and teaching and grading has been going *knock wood* relatively smoothly, but today promises to be a clusterfuck of sorts. I have two meetings, one that begins at 9 a.m. and one that begins at 9:30 a.m. (I'm going to be that asshole who leaves one meeting early and arrives very late at another); a presentation and discussion that I'm hosting/moderating for the college at 11 a.m.; and a faculty writers' group to facilitate from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. Then at 4:30 p.m. a kids' birthday party. Last night I came home from work feeling really depressed -- at the end of the day I'd received multiple signs that overall, there's a lot of shit I'm still not getting done. And I suppose the part that depresses me is that I just feel like giving up, to some extent. I am so tired of being pulled in seventeen directions. I'd like to just be for a while. 

And yet. I really abhor the idea of becoming one of those professors who earns a final promotion and says fuck you to the world and especially the rest of the college.

And yet. If I don't say that, if I don't tell all these other obligations to fuck off (many of which are good and purposeful and necessary), how the hell am I supposed to have any kind of life with my family, or any kind of interior life, the one that's necessary for a writer?

I know what the answer is, people. I just need to figure out how to extricate myself with some modicum of grace and class (neither of which comes easily to me, as anyone who's seen me walk in heels can testify).


Gang Aft Agley: Micro-Sabbatical Wrap Up

So, the micro-sabbatical was a good idea and totally, wholly worth the planning, effort, work and (some) trouble, but like the best-laid plans, it didn't deliver everything it promised when it was being conceived in my head.

For one, you may have noticed -- and been grateful for -- a conspicuous absence of blog posts, right after I'd written something like, "lookout, I'm gonna blow up your feed," or whatever. It turned out that it took me far, far too long to write that first/only blog post of the micro-sabbatical -- like, about two hours -- and that's probably because I haven't written in the blog for a long time and it always takes me a while to get back into the rhythm of the thing, and writing prose. So, when I'd spent a good part of my precious kid-free, solitary-in-the-house time writing about writing the verse play but not actually working on the play itself, I decided that blog posts were not as beneficial when you're working with a hyper-constrained deadline. So, naturally, the first rule of micro-sabbaticals is:
  • Blog posts or journal entries should be kept to a minimum. Only write them if you think you need to clear your head/talk through a problem with the internet/universe. They're probably more useful as bookends to the whole experience.
Because, really, it WAS useful sitting down and writing about what I planned to do. Again, external accountability was a motivator, but having a chance to kind of summarize everything and take a big-picture look at the next four days was helpful before I dug in.

So. To begin the digging in, I read my play (the "complete" first act). Then I began a new treatment. The play has changed so drastically from when I wrote my first treatment, and for the better -- but the act of writing the new treatment made it clear that there's still lots of work to be done on the first act.

Old me would have found this depressing. (Well, old me is this me as I'm in year forty -- um, former me? Christ, it's early. Where's my coffee?) Anyway. Me-of-a-couple-of-months-ago may have found this a disheartening revelation. Me-of-the-beginning-of-the-month was actually kinda jazzed by it -- because even if the first act needs some fleshing out, it's a solid first act. It has a beginning-middle-end. Plot: check. There's one scene that's kind of expository and needs to be edited/reworked, but for the most part, the characters engage purposefully. Dialogue: check; character development: double check. And there are moments in the verse I kind of like, of which I'm fairly proud, where the poetry is doing the thing the poetry is supposed to do. Ultimate aim of this crazy project: Thank-the-fuckin-lord-check.

I ended the summary of each scene with bullet notes in red that caught my ideas, at this point, for revision. Sometimes I also inserted, with red text, sentences inside the summaries to indicate specific places where revision needed to take place. The big difference between old-Sarah-working-on-the-play and this-Sarah-working-on-the-play is that old-Sarah would have begun immediately reworking the first act once she saw all these red-light moments on the screen. Because, if I'm honest, old-Sarah didn't have much of a play to work with, so she worked with what she had. If there was anything good about 2016, (for me, where my writing is concerned), it's that even if I'm not totally sure about where the play will culminate, I am far more certain about where it's going to go in Act II. 

Moving from lyric to plot is hard, man. I didn't have as much trouble doing this when I wrote the fairy tale poem, and that's something I thought about during the micro-sabbatical. Which brings me to another rule:
  •  Thinking is part of writing, and thinking only happens when you give yourself space -- quiet, alone space. This is where the revelations and epiphanies about your work occur. So even if you're not generating material, time spent mulling over problems (even while, say, folding your family's laundry) is valuable time. Don't discount it. 
My revelation or epiphany about my play had to do with its progress, which I've lamented since, oh, maybe year two of this project. But something shifted during the tiny, cramped four days of this at-home writing residency, and I decided to stop beating myself up and expecting this to be finished anytime soon. 

Because it's not like any of the other animals I've worked with before. It's not a single lyric poem: the bulk of it isn't going to come to me in one sitting and then gradually be revised and refined over the course of days, weeks, or months. Neither is it a play in prose: again, dialogue between characters isn't going to come lightning-strike fast when I'm writing those conversations in meter. My first thought was that it was kind of like a novel -- and many authors take years to finish their first novels. Sometimes decades. Why not give myself the same kind of space? But then I remembered that A.P., my incredibly prolific office mate, finished his novel in a few months. Also, significantly, he did it while on a sabbatical.

I don't want to be dismissive of a regular writing practice. I think that the ritual of getting up early and writing a little bit each day IS incredibly valuable, not just for the creation of the work but for my psychological well-being. I need that time, alone and without anyone else in the house stirring, to write and think simply because it makes me feel better, less crazy and frenetic.

But also I realize more clearly that I need to regularly schedule these micro-sabbaticals or mini at-home writing residencies, whatever the fuck I need to call them, throughout each year. I need days, consecutive days, where my only goals have to do with writing the play, for several hours at a time, every day. That's what a project like this requires. Single poems or even single poems that are part of a larger sequence don't require this kind of time. I'm going to make some progress, sure, with my 45 minutes in the morning that I can regularly devote to writing. But the real work, the real progress, is going to come only when I have those larger spaces of time.

So. Spring Recess? That's the next section of time where the kids will be in school (our spring breaks do not align) and I'll have the house to myself. I won't schedule anything else, I won't make big elaborate plans for work-related projects or fixing up our house -- I'll just put kids on the bus and then sit down to write. And we'll see what happens. 

Maybe a finished Act II will be what happens. That would be nice, wouldn't it?
But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
          Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
          For promis’d joy! (Robert Burns, "To a Mouse," 1785)


Morning Reading/Mourning, Reading

"What happens to a person, however odd this may sound, also happens to a nation, a nation being, when it finally comes into existence, the achievement of the people who make it up; and the quality of the nation being absolutely at the mercy of, defined and dictated by, the nature and quality of its people." -- James Baldwin
I've been working on a blog post about my micro-sabbatical in bits and pieces, and I'd planned on publishing it today in an attempt to just ignore the Inauguration, and yet, I can't. 

I can't ignore the very real implications of Donald J. Trump's ascendancy to the highest political office in the nation. Or how much it bothers me that people I know, people I like, voted for Trump not because they are intrinsically racist or misogynist or ableist, but because they felt comfortable dismissing his racist comments, and his misogynist and ableist words and acts, in favor of casting a vote along party lines. It bothers me that they didn't see how their vote was, in itself, a misogynist, racist, ableist act.

I opened Baldwin's The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings this morning, at random, and ended up at the end of "The White Problem," one of the pieces he wrote around the time of the Birmingham crisis in the 60s. It's wholly and utterly depressing that the essay is as necessary and relevant as it was then; and yet, there is such a rampant, virulent anti-intellectual pulse in our country that very few people will read it. 

Still, the quote above: I feel low when I read the quote in the context of today, when Washington, D.C. is going to be inundated with the shit-show grandstanding of one of our great failures as a nation, Donald J. Trump. And I feel better, more hopeful, when I read Baldwin's quote in the context of tomorrow, when Washington, D.C., and so many other cities across the nation, will be inundated with women and men marching together to show strength, determination, and solidarity in the face of so much hate, collective narcissism, and celebrated, glorified ignorance.


Micro-Sabbatical Experiment, Day 2

Where did Day 1 go, you might ask? Read on. (If you're not asking, see you some other time!)

Last semester I managed to carve out time during the morning to read and write, and that was going swimmingly for about, oh, the month of September, until the inevitable grading and committee-work creep took over, and then I didn't write much at all. There were occasional two-hour spans of time during October, November and December as part of a program I organized at Stuffolk through our faculty union -- and these sessions were good and productive, but I spent most of that time sending out submissions or writing things for the college, and not doing any genuine creative work -- or creative work that I found, well, satisfying.

And, as you know, that's not great. Particularly if I would like to keep calling myself a writer.

But -- in the moments in between papers, or driving from one campus to another for yet another meeting -- I thought back to the last two times I made any serious progress with my writing. One was in September, when I had a hard, intractable deadline (for the reading of the first scenes of "Accountability Partners" at the Amos Enos Gallery). The second was in May and June, when I had a few weeks between the spring semester and the beginning of the Last Graduate Summer Course I'll Ever Have to Take for Promotion. (And actually, when I think about it, those summer weeks involved a deadline as well, or TWO deadlines -- one for my initial submission to the Script Development lab, and the next for the final "staged" reading in the Script Development lab.)

Anyway, I came to the following conclusion: I really need to give myself two things if I'm going to finish these existing projects and/or start new ones. First, I need deadlines with external accountability. Like, I need someone outside of my own fucking crazypants head to know what I'm doing and when I'm doing it and when I anticipate finishing the thing. And two, I need to carve out space that is finally, fully, and in no uncertain terms inviolable when it comes to work and even social obligations. No emails, no phone calls, no work on projects I should have finished last month -- just work on my writing. Treat my writing like I treat my day job -- treat my writing like it is my day job. Last summer, when I dedicated a few weeks to such a plan, I called it a mini-sabbatical. Now, to kick off the New Year, I'm going to take a micro-sabbatical.

Because it's going to be just four days long. Because that's all I can afford to give it right now, in between semesters, and especially when I have a busy and obligation-filled semester coming up. I put an outgoing/away message on my work email account. I kept my calendar clear from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., when the kids come home from school. (I actually postponed and refused to schedule work meetings for this week -- that was a big step for me!) I'm ignoring certain household calamities and putting off room-rescues until the second week of the new year -- just so I can have four days that are devoted to this -- writing, writing, writing -- and writing in various forms, but writing nonetheless.

One of those forms of writing -- in addition to the plays -- will be this blog. Last time I took a true sabbatical, one paid for by the college, official and scary in its official-ness, I started this blog in earnest. I began at the suggestion of my colleague and friend A.P., who had done something similar during his own sabbatical in a previous semester, and it was really helpful in keeping a record of my progress during those many months. When the sabbatical ended, I had fodder for my official sabbatical report (hello, external accountability!) and also I had an archive I could return to when I had concerns about when or why I'd made particular choices in my writing (like my decision to hold off on the verse play and write a fairy tale in metrical verse first). 

So there's going to be a small influx of blog posts over the next few days. Here's your heads-up. I spent yesterday creating an actual micro-sabbatical plan, or outline, for what I hope to accomplish, so: Day One complete. (I came up with that idea last semester, too -- it's funny how stress over grading will make one think about almost anything else but grading.) Anyway, today is Day Two. Day Two involves recording yesterday's progress on the blog (as well as giving it context, otherwise ya'll would be like, what's this chick on about?) and also writing a new "treatment" for the verse play just like I did during the summer, which turned out to be immensely helpful and also another good idea of A.P.'s. (Thanks, dude!)

Day Three and Four, Thursday and Friday, will be to work on writing the first scene of Act I. If I get more than that, yay! But my goal -- modest, I think -- will be attained, and that's important -- really important -- if I'm going to maintain any kind of writing momentum into the next semester. 

Day Five is kind of extra -- Saturday I plan to write a quick wrap-up post to reflect on whether or not the whole venture was successful.

For the record, part of me looks at this mechanization of the writing process with a kind of horror and revulsion, as if writing should happen in a much more organic and inspired way. I wish my writing life could be like that most of the time, I really wish it could -- but I've got three children, a husband, and a career that helps keep us fed and sheltered. For years now I've been trying to make writing fit into my life the way I think it should, but not the way it can, realistically. People who are independently wealthy and/or not primary caregivers are the kinds of people who can devote, daily, hours and hours to writing (if the 20th century has shown us anything). (And as long as we're not Lucille Clifton, that superwoman.) I'm not gonna suddenly become rich, nor will I ditch my kids and career to write poems. But I'm not going to ditch the poem-making, either, and this, so far, is my answer.

Whether or not anyone actually cares that I'm writing poems (see: 2016 was The Year of Rejection) is a subject for a later (maybe never, 'cause wassup, self-pity?) blog post.