Guest Post, Lisa Biggar: Inviting the Muse

I am convinced that our best writing comes from outside ourselves, which is the opposite of what I used to think when I first started penning poetry and short stories. I used to think that my writing was sacred in a sense that it was a part of me, my inner being, my ego. And because of this, it was difficult to revise, to tear down anything that I had built. But over the years I have completely reversed this notion. My best writing seems to come when I let myself fall away or dissolve, and I am able to tap into a universal consciousness, the source, the muse. It is more like channeling than thinking; In fact, thinking just gets in the way. Sena Naslund claims to have channeled her entire brilliant novel, Ahab’s Wife. And when I wrote “Reenactment” all of Sir Parker’s dialogue came from this ‘other’ place. I didn’t write his voice; I heard his voice. Now, not to get too woo-woo on you—I don’t really know where this voice comes from, but I think it’s something we, as writers, need to cultivate in order to work on a higher, deeper level. Writing is not easy; we can use all the help we can get.

So here is how I go about inviting the muse into my writing studio:  I read somewhere a while ago that we should visualize our muse, personify him/her. I visualize my muse as a flamboyant red-headed lady decked out in silk scarves and bangles, stretched out on a chaise lounge in her flowing brightly-colored skirt and blouse. I make her a cup of tea and serve it in a fancy china cup with matching saucer. She has discerning taste and is used to being pampered and surrounded by the finest things in life. She is not a snob; but she expects the best from me, and is willing to help if I am open and accepting. There are days, of course, that she doesn’t show up. Perhaps she is busy helping others, or is not convinced that I am serious about writing that day. Our material presence is not enough. We must be fully present; not splitting our attention with social media, or Amazon, or Pinterest. . . Not an easy thing to do in these times that cater to the cultivation of short attention span. But if we expect to get help from the universe, the source, the muse we must give her our full attention. And, go ahead, give her a name. I call my muse Frida and have, at times, had lively conversations with her (in my head).

One such conversation:

Me:  Frida, thank you so much for being here.

Frida: Think nothing of it, darling.

Me: I’ll try my best.

Frida (waving her hand): Dream away. I’ll orchestrate today.

Me:  Then who will sing the song?

Frida: The song is already sung.

She can be maddening at times, evasive, and elusive, but patience and commitment are key. And once you have both settled in, the magic will begin. You will come to love her; and she, despite her seemingly indifference at times, will come to be fond of you. As Beethoven wrote, “Music from my fourth year began to be the first of my youthful occupations. Thus early acquainted with the gracious muse who tuned my soul to pure harmonies, I became fond of her, and, as it often seemed to me, she of me.”

Guest Post, Emily Banks: Writing the Chaos: A Portrait of the Poet as a Total Mess

Guest Post, Emily Banks: Writing the Chaos: A Portrait of the Poet as a Total Mess

When the cold water soaks through my hair to ice my scalp I think this is your punishment. I neglected to pay my gas bill last month, for no reason beyond carelessness. I thought I’d set it to auto-pay like I had the rest of my bills. Now that I’ve put everything I can on a subscription service—tampons, razor blades, toothbrush head refills—I feel indignant when anyone expects me to remember to pay for something by a specific date. The maintenance guy from my apartment complex looked slightly sheepish, slightly amused when he explained why my hot water was off. There are books strewn all over my floor, some piled atop the long cardboard boxes containing Ikea bookshelves I have yet to assemble. I get it. I’m a mess. And when I tell this story to my friends I’ll make a joke of it, but as I lower my head into the cold stream I ask myself, as I so often have, why are you unable to function in the world?

Incompetent. It’s what my ex called me, shouting through the morning’s peace on a Charleston beach when he didn’t like how I was walking the dog. Swimming away from him, salt water stinging my tear-raw cheeks, I knew I had to do it, finally—leave the solid comforts of the life he’d built around me for the vast unknown which beckoned, beautifully, as the mist cleared and the sun began to reassert itself. All summer I’d be caught between the sad task of nursing a doomed long term relationship into periods of stability and falling in love with a friend who made me feel like I was in college again. I’d been going out dancing every weekend, taking pickleback shots and writing like I hadn’t since senior year, when I felt fancy drinking bottles of Barefoot Moscato, when the dresser I’d put together incorrectly was falling apart and my clothes were strewn across the floor, when I was sleeping with athletes and fretting over nerdy boys who didn’t want to commit and starting fights about feminism at bars with my poet friends with whom I’d roll into class the next morning sporting neon wristbands and last night’s eye makeup. That year, the poems just flowed. Something about the messiness of life, the highs and lows, the devastation giving way to excitement giving way to floods of drunken tears—

I don’t mean to romanticize it. I’ve been working in the Plath archives at Emory, and the letters from the months before her death, when she was caring for her children by day and writing Ariel by night, read as a warning. As Patric Dickinson wrote in a letter to Harriet Rosenstein about his friendship with Plath, “you can’t go without sleep.” You can’t forget to pay your bills, to take out your trash, to stop at CVS for toilet paper, to fill your gas tank. But for me, like many creative spirits, those mundane tasks take on a crushing weight. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, graduating from college terrified me. While I welcomed the bright horizon of starting an MFA program in a new city, I struggled to imagine myself living like a real adult. Doing my taxes, changing my license, paying for car insurance, and making dental appointments all felt like remote possibilities I would never be mature enough to master. I entered a relationship I knew I shouldn’t, with a guy who worked in finance and knew how to fix things. He didn’t read, his friends used racial slurs as jokes, and he told me he wanted a woman to have dinner waiting for him when he got home, but I stubbornly ignored these signs in my quest for stability. Over the next seven years, I floated numbly through adult decisions I couldn’t muster real excitement for, feeling like a supporting character in my own life. I sat beside him struggling to focus at the realtor’s office as he deliberated over mortgage options. I scrolled through my phone in Target as he calculated the most cost-effective choice of paper towels. I cooked beautiful dinners and cried when he’d complain about the mess they left. I wrote poems, but they never came easily. My mind was cluttered with too many rules and lists. I channeled my frustrated creativity into tasks like gardening and making jam with muscadines from the farmers market, but these quickly turned compulsive, feeling more like chores than leisure as I clung to my vision of domestic happiness.

And then one day I left. Freed from the monotonous routine of my former life, I felt my thoughts becoming poetic again. Chaotic, unwieldly, but charged with an insatiable energy. A poem can’t be overdetermined, we know, but neither can a poet. The unstable period that followed coincided with the feminist poetry section of the “Poetry and Politics” course I was teaching. Talking through “Daddy” with an eager roomful of students in my state of sleepless delirium, I was my most animated teacher-self, feeling so intensely the poem’s urgency. Seven years, if you want to know. I thought about Plath up writing Ariel all night, wild with the sting of betrayal, intoxicated by the righteousness of her anger. In the archives, what chills me most is her handwriting, the bubbly script of an ambitious, happy girl. I’m her age now and she isn’t the ethereal madwoman I once took her for. Like so many women poets, I find myself constantly orbiting a fearful desire for and resistance of identification with her. Can you write Ariel and survive? I locked my keys in my car last Friday. It’s happened so many times I immediately felt the nauseous pit swell in my gut—the door’s cheerful beep unaccompanied by the reassuring clank of metal between my fingers. Chaos is hardly glamorous, most days. Having grown up with two artist parents, some part of me has always craved the order of a freshly-made bed, a planned week of dinners, a sorted cabinet. But the unruliness inside me pulling towards disorder is, I have to accept, what lets me write. I don’t have the answers. Even as I’ve acquired some basic life skills, I’ll always be absentminded, always get myself into fixes. I have a partner and friends and family willing to help me out of every mess, and all I can offer in return is the promise of some dedicated poems, maybe. I know I can’t survive forever on charm and art alone, but, equally, I can’t survive without writing, and I can’t write when my inner voice is drowned out by tedious litanies. And every time I fail in some extravagant way, it brings me back to the page; if nothing else, I know I’d better produce something powerful enough to justify my shortcomings.

Guest Post, Cameron Barnett: Write the Poem You Can Write

Pen on Paper

The shower has long held the title of “Place Where the Best Ideas Come To You,” but I would humbly submit that a close contender for this title would be the treadmill. I would also humbly admit that the idea that came to me weeks ago on my last treadmill run was not wholly my own, but inspired by that most august of 21st century muses: an audio guide on my running app.

After writing, running is my second love, but for many of the same reasons that writing is my first: the tendency for it to be a solo activity, the flexibility for it to be a community activity, the simplicity of tools/gear needed to do it, the need for persistence, focus, and self-determination, the way in which fundamentally your biggest rival is really yourself. I only started running the year I graduated from college, and since then I’ve logged thousands of miles and completed dozens of races, some of them half marathons.

And then I became a teacher. And suddenly running time was in shorter supply than I had ever known. The runs themselves grew shorter than the list of reasons why I couldn’t go for one. Races—deadlines of a sort—became goals to cram for, sometimes at the risk of injury and occasionally at the expense of the same. Now in my 4th year as a teacher my second love has become more acquaintance than partner; my first love has fared much the same.

I am not special. The teaching/writing life is a well-worn one that has made or broken many a writer, or for most of us it’s made us want to break something. The underlying assumption driving this maddening symbiosis is that writing time is valuable and so should be the fruits of any such time. When this isn’t the case, it’s hard not to think that the time could have been better used on work. Likewise, a run that gets off to a bad start makes you think “Maybe I should have just gotten straight to my grading,” or “Now I have even less time to plan that lesson.”

For a while now I’ve been thinking on and grappling with this reality. Last year at AWP in Portland, OR, I presented on a panel about maintaining a beginner’s mindset in the classroom. Panelists wrote, shared, and discussed poems inspired by the work in the classroom around writing novices and amateurs, stressing the point that putting yourself in the mindset of someone writing for the first time—all the risks and mistakes and clichés included—is a liberating and rejuvenating activity vital to the writing lives of teachers and other professionals. I didn’t know it at the time, but this experience would be the first key advice shouted trying to bore its way past the writing impasse and into my ear.

Then came through the other ear (quite literally) this running advice from my audio guide: focus on running the run you can rather than the run you want to (paraphrased, but shout out to Coach Bennett). It’s a corny image, isn’t it? A writer on a treadmill nearly knocked over by a prerecorded, linguistically basic piece of advice that ought to make any beginner think “Well, duh.” But that’s the whole point: the fundamentals. It reminded me of the start of my karate classes as a high schooler, watching highly ranked black belts spend several minutes practicing simple punches on a punching bag when they were capable of high flying kicks. The kicks aren’t the goal and the bag isn’t your adversary—the perfect punch is both.

Sometimes experienced writers can be quick to forget or even snub the wisdom of those early, foundational years. Count me among those who have strayed down that path. Count me, too, as the hypocrite who has told students glibly that writer’s block is a myth and that what the sensation really means is that you need to push through your bad writing to get to the good writing, then turns around and throws up his hands as his own inability to get started on a writing project.

Humble pie is bitter but nutritious, and the slice served up by my audio guide has been fueling me ever since. The crappy draft poem writing is all the same as the flashy and deft poem writing; the smattering of blasé lines scrabbled together on a piece of looseleaf but containing one solid image, one beautiful sentence, is valuable in its own way; the one or two mile run you’re capable of right now is more valuable than the six or eight mile run you want to do but, for now, is out of reach; keep it as a goal, something that you aspire to much as a beginner might.

I’m lucky. I have an MFA, a book published, and a few awards to speak of. Rather than finding myself in a false position of grandeur, I’m finding myself back in that beginner’s mindset. I find myself asking “How can I write another good poem?” while simultaneously thinking “Shouldn’t all your poems be good?” And yet, I’m finding myself lacing up for a half marathon knowing I haven’t so much as run a 5k in months. I’m finding myself pushed, externally and internally, for a specific set of writerly goals: “Write this often,” “Write this way,” “Write at this level all the time.”

Writers must learn to replace these impostor mantras with simpler affirmations. A good poem and a bad poem both have in common that they are poems; good and bad runs share the same stride that can get you a few feet or a mile; the same twist of the hips lands weak and strong punches alike. Ignoring where you started is as flawed as assuming you know where you’re going. So for me, my starting and finishing point going forward is one and the same: write the poem you can write. That’s it. Sometimes you get lucky and write a stellar draft, or run miles at your best pace; sometimes each mile feels like a ball and chain around your ankle, or the poetry refuses to come clean out of the pen no matter how much you drag it across the page. But no matter your level of experience, the path of progress is that of a beginner. Keep punching out works on the page. Keep punching the bag—the only thing standing between you and that perfect strike is yourself.

Guest Post, Nancy Mitchell: Musing on Reverie, End of 2019

Guest Post, Nancy Mitchell: Musing on Reverie, End of 2019

Recently I came across notes for a paper I presented in 2010 for the Geo-Aesthetics in the Anthropocene conference in Salisbury, Maryland. Nine years ago. The term “anthropocene” had not yet been assimilated into the collective vocabulary beyond the academic culture. Spell check still doesn’t recognize it. Although many of our waking hours were increasingly spent behind the computer screen, social media had not yet exploded, and what my colleagues and I had heard of it we scorned as the height of hubris and vanity: Facebook-how aptly named. We were artists, individualists-we did not join! 

I look at these notes in wonder and cringe at how earnest, clueless and naive I was about what was coming and what we were to become. I include them below:

“As a writer, primarily of poetry, I can testify to the veracity of Gaston Bachelard’s assertion in The Poetics of Reverie that solitary contemplation of the natural world is the transcendent vehicle to poetic reverie, the wellspring of the poetic impulse, which will give birth to a new born poetic image-a simple image, with will be the seed of a new poem. I know so well of how all the senses awaken and fall into harmony with poetic reverie and how my writing depends on this harmony. Yet, at this moment, the crisp, sea-scented breeze clicking the lacquered leaves of a magnolia like castanets vies with the petty dramas unfolding in e-mail on the flat screen of my computer. Will I respond to this invitation and take twenty minutes before my next class to sit, bundled against the bracing fresh air, on a bench in the sunny courtyard, or will I, as I seem to do with more frequency, use the time to respond to this e-mail, or add my two cents to a blog? Will I choose the cold glare of the computer screen instead of the sun’s warm glow on my face? Will I miss the opportunity to wonder at how the bare, slender branches of a familiar tree could have supported the profusion of leaves that swayed in the summer breeze as gracefully as furled silk, how the tree is like a seemingly voluptuous woman who, in shedding the ruffles of her bell-skirted ball gown, reveals her slight frame?  I see my colleagues hunched over their computers and wonder and if I’m alone in this struggle. I know very well the deadlines, committee meetings etc., which suffice to explain why a committed relationship with natural world is so difficult to sustain; yet I’m beginning to think these are not reasons but rather excuses.

Rilke writes… beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror. Why terror and terror of what? There are reveries so deep, Bachelard writes, that help us to descend so deeply within ourselves that they rid us of our histories. They liberate us from our name. In reverie we are situated in the present, the now, in which we are not defined by our past or are pulled to the imagined trajectory of the future. We are liberated from our name, from what “we do,” what we have “done,” and what “we will do,” and must dwell instead in what we are in that moment, without the mirrors that constantly reflect our importance, our identity. Without these affirmations, we do not know who we are, and nameless, we are terrified, terrified that we will lose our selves rather than find ourselves within ourselves.”

Who could have imagined that nine years later, a century of selfies, so many of us would be caught in the vortex of social media, designed to be endlessly self referential, a meta-loop propelled by the centrifugal force of the most powerful of all addiction— intermittent reinforcement. Never have we been so far from being liberated from our names, of being rid of our histories. But look what we get—all these hundreds, thousands of friends!

Friends Here

All we are now
is floating text
next to a thumbnail
of the body
we left. We reminisce
on all the ways a warm
body feels against
another body, how
voices sound
so differently in fog
than in the dark
and day and everything
the smell of rain
changes. We try
not to complain
about the constant
ache of the phantom
body and to be grateful:
we like each other;
we have emojis.

–from The Out-of-Body Shop

There is growing evidence that use of our personal electronic devices is becoming a major contributor to climate change.

If we could save the planet by giving up our cell phones, our tablets, our PCs—would we do it?

We talk the talk with such passionate intensity, but can we walk the walk?

Is that Rome I smell burning, again?

Guest Post, Emma DePanise: Poeming the Poetry Book

Guest Post, Emma DePanise: Poeming the Poetry Book

Recently, while chatting with an author about their book of poems, I asked them about the ordering of their collection. I was particularly curious about the placing of a few poems about half-way through the book that focused on personal experience.

Reading these personal poems in the context of the prior poems, which were primarily concerned with the world outside the self, was incredibly striking. The author responded by first noting that he is always unsure how people will engage his books—whether they will pick up the book and read one or two poems and set it down, or if they will read the book in larger chunks or even in one sitting.

Poems are individual units of possibility. They enchant us and surprise us. We delight in their layers upon layers of meaning. But poems do not only contain layers of meaning—they contain layers of experiencing.

We can experience a poem through its visual appearance on the page, through its sounds and rhythms, through the way it feels leaving our mouths. We feel and come to understand all at once the tensions and releases found in reading both lines and sentences and seeing a poem as well as hearing it. These multiplicities are at the core of the lyric poem—they allow us to engage with the poem in a present moment and to return to its music often.

While we can experience the many facets of a poem all at once, often to gain a deeper understanding of the poem or an understanding of the ways in which the poem is crafted, we must isolate its particular components—such as solely examining a poem’s use of sound or whitespace. We often engage a poem not only in multiple readings, but in different readings.

I think this concept of engaging in multiple and different readings can apply to the poetry book. I also like the idea of applying some of Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric to poetry books. These books are rather different from other books we often read, such as novels. A poem within a poetry book is self-sufficient, yet is always altered by its existence within the larger text. And the text, the whole, exists as its own entity that at the same time cannot exist without the individual poems in their particular form and order. And in addition to the poem, there are other units within the poetry book that create complexity, such as series of poems and larger sections.

The complex dynamic between parts and wholes allows some poetry books to function much like poems. Through reading a poetry book, the reader is creating a web of connections and tensions that can be experienced in a present moment. This ‘web’ separates narrative forms, like the novel, from other forms, like the poetry book, which can be much more lyric.

While we can read narrative forms like the novel from beginning to end, we often read poetry books circularly—constantly referring to previous poems and ideas to consider the relationships between the many parts and wholes. When reading the last poem in a collection, we often return to prior poems in thought—the context of experiencing the whole changes the parts we have already experienced. We are continuously re-experiencing units of the poetry book in a ritualistic way, similarly to how we return to reconsider lines or stanzas or the title of a poem after reaching its end.

Just as there are multiple ways of reading a poem to yield new understandings or experiences, there are multiple ways of reading a poetry book. Sometimes, when poems expect a lot of us as readers, we must absorb them in smaller chunks. Other times, we may be able to read a collection straight through. After reading a poetry book in smaller chunks, we might consider re- reading it continuously. I think a continuous reading sensitizes us to the ebb and flow of a poetry book—to the various turns or climaxes within series or sections or the larger whole.

We can have a different experience through reading the last poem of a book back into the first poem. We could also isolate poems written about a particular subject or in a particular form and read them continuously rather than reading them in the order they appear within the collection. We could read a poem specifically in the context of another poem within the collection. These different readings will illuminate new aspects of both the poems and the book, providing us a way to experience the complexities of the poetry book as a form.

I am not advocating for a particular way we should be reading poetry books, but rather that many readings exist as possibilities for us to explore. Just as we delight in whole poems as well as in their lines, stanzas, sounds and rhythms, we can delight in whole books as well as in their individual poems, series and sections. We not only delight in these parts, but in the various tensions and connections present—the spaces that exist between these parts and their larger wholes. Regardless of how we read a poetry book, we should consider more often these spaces between—the wondrous web of meanings and experiences that draws us to encounter a poetry book again and again.

Contributor Update, Sarah Vap

Join us in congratulating past SR poetry contributor, Sarah Vap, on the recent publication of her newest book, Winter: Effulgences and Devotions, a work of literary nonfiction.

Within the book, Sarah contemplates her work on a single poem over a twelve year period and the obstacles she faced on the creative journey. As the author of seven books, she is an experienced, award-winning writer.

Winter vap

To learn more about Sarah and her work you can visit her website. You can also read an interview with her, featured in Issue 13 of Superstition Review.

Congratulations, Sarah!

Guest Post, Clinton Crockett Peters: Rejection as Sustenance

Guest Post, Clinton Crockett Peters: Rejection as Sustenance

Yesterday I concluded a workshop by discussing publication and its always maligned cousin, rejection. My students were stupefied when I told them I had an average of nineteen rejections per submission and that at least one essay had 71 before it was finally picked up. A short story racked up 79. Which is nothing compared to the 107 that my friend amassed for her book or the 80 or 90 rejections many of my poet friends get per poem.

I was caught off guard by their surprise because I forgot how fond I’ve gotten of those confirming notes of No. The same ones I deliver by the dozens when I sign onto the journal I work for, Pleiades. But it’s not that I have a thick skin. I bristle when someone argues more cleverly than I or skips over my baked goods at a potluck. But I’ve grown to see how vital and invigorating rejection can be to one’s ego.

Acceptance is fickle and uncertain. It’s undependable, can change. Once, I won a literary journal contest, judged by a guest of the journal, only to have the never-been-published grad student shred the essay and demand obedience before publication. Rejection is a trusty cohort. It’s dependable, a firm shelter. A yes can turn into a no (as my poet friend went through at The New Yorker when her publisher first displayed the accepted poem on the book’s website). Rejection will always be around. Rejection stays by your side and says you are doing your job.

To be honest, I didn’t have rejection ardor until a handful of writers and I formed a so-so friendly game. Whichever one of us got stymied, spurned, scrubbed, or rebuffed more than the others—this person got plied with food and booze at the grad student dive bar the end of a year. I came in second. But how good it felt to be in the running, to be the near-rejection reigning champ.

To be sure, “no” means nothing if you don’t revise, rinse. If you don’t listen to criticism, the writer’s own included. But surely it is the most dependable element of the writing process? And let us thank rejection for its role as a weeder-outer of the less serious, of the tourists and
stockbrokers and dermatologists who think they can write because they’ve mastered success and people tell them they’re brilliant and their teeth gleam like cut diamonds. Or the half-witty sophomores who believe themselves to be savants. Or the racists and misogynists (my record for quickest rejection given opened thus: “She was a leggy Jew”).

A little note, no matter how formal, how ridiculous, how unnecessary (“Just in case you thought we could send out personalized rejections, we don’t”), rejection keeps me going because it’s a gauntlet each time. It is one that weeds out the would-bes, making the rest of us can-bes.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I find it near impossible to separate environment from creativity. Much of who I am, I think, traces back to childhood in West Texas. What you’ve heard about it is probably half right. I was an awkward bookish but sensitive nerd, prone to lashing out at minor infractions in a macho, gun-slinging, boys-don’t-weep culture. And my same-aged tormentors were not the prepubescent mobsters of G-rated movies, just angsty and broken-down by older brothers and dust. But they shaped me. It seemed that no matter what I tried, I still got rejected.

One of the things that galled at this age, other than the stray shin kicks and the two times I was stabbed with a pencil, was Valentine’s Day. As fellow students overturned their handmade, colorful piñatas of envelopes, we watched as the candies fell, from mine only the handful of mass-market cards from the students whose parents made them write to everybody.

I think there’s something to that kind of ostracism that creates a healthy slanted gaze and distrust of middle-America. I grew inside a ball of anxiety that set my energies to search mood. It was a desire to self-empower, to acquire a community on my terms, to express myself because no one, I thought, was listening. Luckily, in my adulthood, the beginnings of recognition and a remembrance of how I bullied too, even those weaker, would taper my coldness. To say I didn’t take my anxieties out on others, like my little brother and other kids in school, would be to self- exonerating and misinformation.

Flash forward to where I went all-in on writing when I was 25 and teaching English in Japan. I’d gotten the job straight out of college on a whim. My life until that point had prepared me for writing: lonely hours reading, scribbling, introversion. Because my job granted me self-directed moments, I began taking notes, penning essays. But I felt cut-off. I longed for conversations with voices enraptured by sentences. So an obvious choice was an MFA. But something happened I couldn’t have prepared for: at a words Mecca inside fly-over cornfields, I was shunned, the community I craved (I thought) standoffish. Looking back, I see how desperate I was, probably setting off healthy social alarms. If I’m honest, I was confronted by writers who were publishing, some who had agents and book deals, and I was simmering with envy.

I also didn’t have the language for workshop. I opined that writers I loved were “beautiful” and that certain sentences of my colleagues were “boring.” This was the extent I could analyze words as well as the extent of my tact. I was bewildered when colleagues disagreed, even critiqued my critiques. Unaccustomed to dissecting writing, I took this as personally as I could.

It was worse when it came to my own work, which, while it had moments, was jumbled and directionless. I didn’t know what it meant to “front-load” something, nor how to “unpack.” Honest to God, I didn’t know what an “essay” was. I wrote intuitively, with no analytical nor historical appreciation for what I was doing. When my work was cut down, I grew combative and was repaid in kind. My pieces were dismissed as “artless.” I was left off of party invites.

In Japan, I had been confronted by a culture that required me to study its mannerisms and language if I wanted to make any sense of it. The same was true for Iowa, though I was shocked by that fact and resented the effort. These were my people! But workshop, after all, has its own language. Like a lot of young writers, I had staked my identity on writing, fancying myself an untested protege, gearing up for a meteoric launch. That our culture prepares its young people for
unearned fame didn’t help.

Absurdly, a fellow MFA student began sending around Valentine’s cards. I found out only because she slipped one into my office box addressed to another colleague. It was a cute note, ironic, with a joke of encouragement and taped candy. I should have taken this nostalgically, but I couldn’t. I was on the outside looking in, as if I were ten-years-old.

But! As it was when I was a kid, this tumult of emotions kindled a small cigarette coil of anger, which is now simply a yearning to never be the same ignorant, jealous, plebeian dabbler.

I had thoughts of dropping out. But I’m lucky that West Texas sometimes instills in its males (along with a lot of macho crap) a stubbornness that can bode well. Or maybe that was genetics. TLDR: I was invested, tested, rejected, so I dove in. I don’t think I would have been so hungry to do well at Iowa had I been accepted like an old friend.

In my MFA’s second year, I began pouring through craft texts (which for prideful reasons I’d resisted), attending all the readings I could (which I’d also resisted for impostor syndrome reasons), plying my profs with questions (who’d I’d before left unbothered). I began to treat my colleagues like the luminaries that they were. Gradually, my writing began to cohere. I tabulated what an essay could be. I absorbed workshop-speak and the hints from my cohort (immersion,
they say, is the best way to learn a language). So much about workshop is about how the workshoppers know you and root for you, which I only slowly began to understand.

My MFA’s final year was more convivial, and I am now in contact with many of these towering figures. Perhaps, I might have had the same experience without that first year of utter stagnation, but I doubt it. Skating through, I wouldn’t have stored those memories of embarrassment and failure that follow me like a shadow. In trying to outrun them, I plowed harder into my work, into what humble successes I’ve had.

When I applied to PhD programs, I was surprised when, again, I was met with a cloud of rejections. Of the two schools that accepted me out of fourteen, the University of North Texas was the best but seemed like a step backward. Back to Texas, back to my roots, back to, I must admit vanity, a lower-ranking graduate program.

How could I have known that the missing piece was a move back to Texas, a chance to make me reflect on the me that I was? That after three years in Japan and three years at Iowa, moving to my home state allowed my anxious muscles to flex and build, my mind to fill out the space once occupied by isolation. I learned to appreciate, I guess, the space provided, to accept the “no” that had left me with at least one “yes.” To make a home in the backfield.

Surprisingly to me, the writers at the University of North Texas are a productive bunch. I would call them hardscrabble. They know no one cares about their pedigree. Many of them win contests, get book deals and agents, tour. The difference between them and Iowa, I think, is that theirs is not a rank they feel they have to measure up to.

Which is to say this is a “me” thing, not an Iowa thing. I had to rise with Iowa and fall with UNT to find that black pit of myself, my insecurities and weaknesses, from which emanates all my thoughts and creativity and drive. Also, the state politics drive me inward (I spent months in Iowa campaigning for Obama and seethed in Texas). Pampered again, I think I would wither.

And now in Georgia, rejection, mostly, is what fuels my process (and, again, the politics). Every time I get a rejection, this is my cue to send a submission (on good days, I send two—a submissions hydra). The tiny notes from journals, which I keep, remind me that what I was doing is right. I store them in a file like one of my mentors did. Sometimes I open the folder and scroll through them and feel a thrill. I stoke and kindle not a meteoric launch but a modest, modest, modest, more sustaining, more mudbound headspace where I can call myself a writer.

How was I to predict that rejection itself would be not an obstacle to writing, but the fuel itself, ensuring my commitment’s longevity? If I had known, I don’t think I would have taken the journey and change and the “no”s so personally.

paper ball

Guest Post, Ace Boggess: Time-Voice

During a recent literary festival at a nearby college, the usual discussion about finding one’s voice came up. All the familiar suggestions were made: figuring out a preferred medium, discovering whether to write chronologically or in segments, writing what you know versus following the elements of a story (Plato versus Aristotle, as I like to think of it), and so on. When my turn came to speak, I realized I had been giving the same advice for years but never written it down: experiment with writing at different times of day.

The human brain is a trickster god, and its greatest gag is its way of shifting its own perspective as the hours pass between waking and rest. A writer might have different voices during those different hours—a time-voice, say, or time-voices. By working at different times, a writer can figure out whether words come best at dawn or dusk, noon or 2 a.m.

That isn’t to say that any writing time isn’t valid, but that the author might have several different time-voices, as I do. Mastering them can help with creating the true big-V Voice.

Here’s how it works for me:

1) In the morning, my mind is blank. I often have no idea what will come out of my head when I start to write. The ideas come as simple epiphanies and build inside me, spilling out in an almost stream-of-consciousness style. These microbursts are often quite lovely and have their own momentum. As such, I’ve found that, for me, mornings are best spent writing poetry.

2) At night, my head is full. The day has worn on me. My anxieties have flared and exploded so many times that I wonder how I’ve survived. Throughout the day, I’ve observed, feared, been awed, and felt anger, desire, embarrassment, and dread. I’ve contemplated angles. I’ve lived and experienced everything from monotony to chaos. This is every day for me, and as night comes, my thoughts swirl around, waiting to be focused. At nighttime, therefore, I’m better equipped to take on short stories. I have to lasso these images and ideas, then herd them together. At that point, stories grow from the energetic hodgepodge of my thoughts.

3) In the afternoon, it’s easier for me to establish a routine. My head is full enough to know what I want to say, but empty enough that the process of saying it and figuring out what comes next is still interesting to me. The afternoons are often the best time for me to attempt longer works. In the past, these have been my novel-writing hours.

I know these things about myself and have been able to use them effectively in my writing. That’s not to suggest that writing at the same hours will lead to the same results for anyone else. I am saying only that there is value in testing different time-voices. My advice is the same as it would be when determining whether to write with a notebook, laptop, or voice recorder: try them all and figure out what works best for you.

road

Guest Post, Jill Talbot: Distance, A Compendium

When Superstition Review asked me to write a post for this blog, I wanted to write something related to my essay, “On Being (Lost),” which is about distance and direction and the longing to leave. I thought I’d write a craft essay about how to create distance in writing, and as a way to begin thinking through the idea, I performed a Find search in every essay I’ve written, looking for lines with one of these five words—road, distance, missing, highway, and longing—copying and pasting each one into a document. As a way to look even closer, I printed out the pages and grabbed the scissors, separating each line into a single strip of paper and then I sat down and arranged them into categories, but then, I wondered if they might turn into an essay of their own, so I started arranging again, bringing the lines into conversation, losing many of them along the way because they were redundant or weren’t engaging with the concepts in interesting—or syntactically compelling—ways. My intended craft essay gave way to this compendium, and each fragment here is a line from one of my essays. The exercise helped me to see my work from a distance, to think about how and why it’s a recurring theme in my work and to think about how I can push myself, in future essays, to find new ways to write the distance.

I.

Out here, the triple train tracks run alongside the road.

I pulled up to the hotel sun-tired and road-weary, thirsty for the booze I needed to put at least a hundred more miles between me and that brick two-lane out of Lubbock.

Deeper Into Texas, deeper into distance, deeper into the trouble I was dragging through the desert like a carcass.

Maybe I needed to know what I would choose if another reality came into view, like a gas station on a long, empty road.

Back then, a bottle of Barefoot Chardonnay cost me around ten bucks.

He was from down south, a town called Marathon, dust and tumbleweeds, rust and empty roads, store-front signs that whine in the grit of the wind.

We watched the mountains in the distance, counting the headlights of cars blurring
the curves. Those lights reminded me of something, but I couldn’t name it.

It was like sitting inside the missing.

II.

I don’t think it’s ever been about missing him at all.

I was like those tumbleweeds in Marathon, always tossing myself toward some rusty-
edged road.

Maybe it’s dust from another summer, the one when he and I stood in a Colorado river, sand swirling into a cloud before setting into us so that we would always carry each other across the distance. Maybe what I carry is the distance.

Empty
downtown buildings, train tracks, Highway 82 out of Lubbock—a road
I wore out in my twenties
every time I tried to unravel myself from that town.

It’s all thunderstorms in the distance.

I don’t want to lose my capacity for longing, for missing, for wondering what might be, for yearning for what has come and gone before I had the chance to save it. I want a window to stare out of or a dark bar where I can buy my dissatisfaction another drink.

I write because I used to be someone I miss.

III.

Sometimes a direction calls us from the distance, and for me it’s always been west.

When I think of October, I think of deep ochre, a south Texas highway that traces the Davis Mountains, a fire’s shadow undulating against the limestone laccoliths of Big Bend at night.

Leaves bring back a lost season, and I keep writing, building a map so that I can spread out the pages and point to a phone call, a room, or even a breeze, and say, here.

IV.

Give me distance, and I’ll give you an essay. Here:

She once drove that truck all the way to some New Mexico road and pulled over at a gas station to wonder why the pay phone she once called him from had been ripped out, holes where there had once been bolts rusted dark.
Wind in the distance.

She had a flat highway inside her, a sign that told her she was 381 miles from some no-account town.

Her missing him was like an oversized map spread out across the floor.

V.

I understood that, understood that driving hard down one dust-soaked road after another will never make a difference.

Days and nights almost seem wasted, at least borrowed, when you’re counting down to leaving. Not knowing where you’re leaving for makes those days and nights a map of creases that have worn away entire cities.

There’s a small bus center off the highway, where a Greyhound could take me back to all the cities I’ve pulled away from so that I could climb the steps of a post office or duck into a wood-floored diner or stop by to see if the same clerk’s behind the counter.

I like these nights, when the Chardonnay climbs the rungs of memory to the roof of the building, and I can see the city the way it was then.

In my mind, those moments shimmer the way hot air on roads bends light.

The road I keep trying to lose is in South Fork, where I once stood in front of a house willing the man I had known there—the one who had long ago moved away—to step out to the front porch.

I have empty streets inside me. Streets that have built cities, maps of trouble.

I imagine pushing the pedal all the way down that flat road, the horizon a razor, the pump of oil jacks a steady lulling of the landscape.

The pull of the wrong direction, so I took off and drove west into New Mexico until my Jeep rumbled a dusty road toward a bottomless lake.

I do remember leaving town the next day, chasing the distance, the space I couldn’t see, the grit in the wind. And I can admit it now, I’ve always stayed gone.

Intern Update: Dustin Diehl

Today’s Intern Update features Dustin Diehl, who worked as a nonfiction editor on Issue 4 of Superstition Review.

With a BA in English Literature, a minor in Religious Studies, and a Certificate in LGBTQ Studies, Diehl recently started working as the Director of Strategy and Performance at Digital Current.

He has also worked as a freelance writer for both Here Media publications (including OUT Magazine) for 5 years and East Valley Tribune for 9 years, delivering both editorials, travel writing, and pop culture content.

We are so proud of you Dustin!

If you’d like to learn more, you can visit Dustin’s LinkedIn page here.