In Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett says, “Sick of the either, try the other.” To write, or to live and to love is to exist in the either. When is it time to try something else? How long must we wait? How many others are there?
When we write, if we scrawl a story, scribble a poem, even if we use a keyboard, we bring something to life, we invite others (do these others include the other I seek) to love as we have loved, to live as we have lived, to rethink our thoughts. Should I say imagination? Should I remind us that the root of the word imagination is image? The images we live are the real sensory experiences the world offers. The images we write create another possibility, a sensory experience made of words. Nothing works harder than words, but when we look closer, they are only words. Is this the other?
Something written is not a lived experience, but it is a version. It may be something that has never happened, and as we write, it happens. Anything we write, it happens. Maybe the other arrives.
Twelve years ago, I found my best friend dead. I have tried to write about it. I lived it, and many times, I have tried to write about it. Version after version, it doesn’t hold together. It is all either. Not enough other.
I knock. No answer.
I stand on the porch of my friend Tom’s trailer house, the trailer where I lived when I was in grad school. Tom let me live there for four years in his spare bedroom, rent free.
I knock again. No answer.
I turn the key, walk in. I say his name. I walk through the kitchen. He is in the hallway on his back on the floor. His eyes are open. He wears a dirty, old t-shirt and boxer shorts. The soles of his feet are toward me. His genitals spill from the right leg of his shorts. I look away. I suppose he was walking to the kitchen, got light-headed, and sat down on the floor. Then, he laid back. Maybe he knew he was dying. Maybe he just wanted to rest.
I say his name again. I bend down, take his cold wrist. I feel his neck. No pulse. I stand. I walk back out the door.
I enter again. He is still on the floor, still dead.
The evening before, I begged him to let me take him back to the doctor. He’d been there earlier in the week. They’d said he had a sinus infection. Does it matter? Do you need to know what his death certificate said? Now, as a metaphor, does he live again? If I had stayed with him that night, if I had refused to leave until he went to the doctor, would I be telling a different story? Where is the other when you need it?
Should I tell a different story now? I call his name, and Tom sits up, adjusts his boxers, and says, “Weldon Kees’ death wasn’t a suicide.” An angel breaks through the floor with a crowbar, climbs up into the room, and takes us all out to get ice cream.
Ok. Fine. People die, but what happens to our writing? Is it either or other? How many drafts have I let go too soon? Do I diminish my old friend by using his death as a figure? Am I grieving? Where is the other now?
I sit and wait. Will something worth saving appear on this page?
When the quarantine started, I felt ashamed of my initial reaction – which was relief. I’d been commuting every other month between home in San Antonio and work in DC. I’d ridden so many planes; I was out of Synthroid but too busy to make the doctor’s appointment, my taxes were overdue, I owed just about every friend I had a phone call. Like everyone, I was terrified, but for the first time in a couple of years I was also “at home.” I found myself waking hours before dawn – to watch the morning, and the sunflowers in my backyard- volunteers all—grow, grow taller. Never had the spring seemed so green and full of life to me. Not for years had I been constrained to observe it this way—the whir of cardinals in the wisteria, the fierce-looking grackles hovered protectively around the fig tree, even the pregnant skunk who had taken residence under my deck. Why had I not seen these things?
Ostensibly, I was waking early to write poems, but no poems came. Instead, I stared out at the yard, brooding about now and before. It occurred to me one thing about now is that we are living through a terrible trauma nested in a larger still vaguely inconceivable trauma. We have the pandemic and beneath that we have global warming. I said to an old friend that this was what made these times different, but he said even back in the forties, when he was a boy, people were talking about just this. They weren’t using phrases like “climate change,” but they were speaking and writing about the trauma of industrialization, this new way of life that was not in tune, not sustainable. He said “We have never lived outside that anxiety.” And I thought about my own anxieties – losing my job, playing for healthcare, credit card debt, and beneath that the truer more generalized anxieties — how there be so many cars on every road, how can we all have cell phones we throw away after a couple of years–what does it mean that people in China poison themselves mining “rare earth” so I can hold a new cellphone in my hand?
Now my city is slowly opening, though there is no particular evidence that the virus numbers are going down. The governor of my state, Texas, sees more danger in letting the economy fail, and the Lieutenant Governor has actually threatened to sue my city if it tries to delay. When I go to my local HEB, I see crowds—even more people than usual–but everyone is wearing a mask. When you go through the checkout line, there are new flimsy Plexiglas shields erected between you and the cashiers, but all around, up and down the aisles, the workers are moving—stacking cans, helping customers. Just as the mining of rare earth in China supports my cell phone, I would not be able to quarantine without the work of these people, our so-called essential workers; who do the jobs that are the least well paid; yet are the ones most exposed, expected to bear the burden of risk. Some of these people will die so I can stay home. Recognizing this is yet another nested trauma inside the trauma of the pandemic, the trauma of global warming.
In a recent Financial Times article, Arundhati Roy said we must see the pandemic moment “as a portal.” At 4 am when I wake up, I go outside, because, for some reason, going out into the yard has become my new routine. I don’t pretend I’m going to write a poem anymore but I still brood about poems and poetry. Can a poem ask the questions to unlock the terrible gap between our immediate need and how we want to live? Part of me fears the depression that is coming, has come, will only lead to further racism and economic inequality, more of the brutality already endemic in the US, the world; part of me thinks we might make some correction—in what we use, in the contracts we make with each other and even with the planet. Part of me thinks we still have time.
Watching the yard, I realize another feeling now that I have finally stopped moving – an almost jilted sadness. After all we have done to the planet. the planet has finally turned against us—the virus, the outside, grown hostile through extremes of weather; except that it does not feel that way, not at all, when I sit in my garden—tender buds on branches, small pockets of silence that fill endlessly with birds. This is one of the most beautiful springs here in Texas I can ever remember, and the beauty is as real and palpable as the grief and isolation all around. I hear of a friend’s husband in the hospital with Covid-19; another poet friend, who lost her mother, quickly, unexpectedly, unable to say goodbye. I am not sure what language we will find to describe our new precariousness expect that I think it will relate to our old precariousness. Perhaps out of this pause, this collapse of what we know, we will be better able to see and articulate where we were before or confess that where we were had the quality of dystopian fever-dream long before the pandemic arrived.
Of all the poems I have turned to in this time, the one that has most resonated with me is a poem W.S. Merwin wrote back in 2005 – called “Thanks.” It is officially a poem about “Thanksgiving,” and if there was ever a subject that would seem to lend itself to lies or empty sentiment, it would be that one, but Merwin skirts this. His is a poem for desperate times, of desperate times, and yet he delivers a vision that is not despair.
Listen with the night falling we are saying thank you we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings we are running out of the glass rooms with our mouths full of food to look at the sky and say thank you
Their mouths full of food, these people race out to give thanks. These nameless people, who seem helpless in the face of their actions to maim the planet, nevertheless to go out to speak their gratitude. Merwin seems almost to argue that our rapacious hunger is the other side of the coin of our potential wild generosity, imagination; in short, that we must face what is the worst in us in order to bring out what is the most capacious, transcendent. The poem ends:
with the forests falling faster than the minutes of our lives we are saying thank you with the words going out like cells of a brain with the cities growing over us we are saying thank you faster and faster with nobody listening we are saying thank you thank you we are saying and waving dark though it is
One would expect a poem about the potential end of us in the planet to make one feel desolate or dead inside, but Merwin’s poem does the opposite. Once you read it you may feel a little weepy, but you will also—if you are like me—feel gripped by a strange energy, a kind of exhilaration. In this radical juxtaposition of apparently contradictory thoughts and feelings– the joy of the world in the midst of dread of/for the world – I think we arrive at what Arundhati Roy means by portal—we cannot discard or lie about what brought us here; but we can look at it nakedly and, in that naked regard, we can perhaps begin to imagine or reimagine our world on the other side of this trauma, which is not small, which is not something that can be explained away or dismissed or mediated but is the mystery of how we live now— of how we keep living.
In between working on remote classes for his freshmen year in college, my son has spent a little time installing whimsical signage in unexpected places around our scrap of land in the Ozarks. On a walk not long ago, I came across a sign on a tree in the middle of a field. Painted by hand was the Beckett directive to “Fail Better.”
In the time we’ve been staying home, the field around the tree has passed from early spring to early summer—the field is too overgrown and hazardous to walk through now.
While I was writing this, an email arrived. It brought news of a magazine rejecting a submission of poems. When I came back to this piece later and read the previous sentence, I had already forgotten that happened. Rejections are swift blows, quickly absorbed and leaving no lingering pain. It’s the same approach many of us take to writing: take risks, cast aside failure, forge ahead.
“…cast aside failure, forge ahead.”
A couple of months ago, I wrote a sequence on the anxiety of the impending threat. I have a screenshot on my phone from “Find My Friends,” my “friends” being my daughter and my son. There she is in Miami. There he is in New York. Here we are in Arkansas. There were many mitigating factors beyond mere geography, and writing a frantic, disjointed sequence that moved my terrors from my mind to the page was a balm. It was early March, and I embedded into the sequence the technique of counting backwards as a self-calming device while trying to fall asleep.
Since then, my social media feed is a veritable onslaught of pandemic-related special issues, calls for submissions, anthologies, and the like. Were my own two cents worth sharing? My two teenagers managed to get home in good time and good health, and I managed, through writing, counting backwards, and various other forms of self-medication, to survive with a strong sense of gratitude. It was worth writing. If it’s deemed worth sharing, who knows if anyone would ever have the time or desire to read it. And how much does that even matter?
“It was worth writing.”
Before I ever encountered the Beckett quote, (which is, in its entirety: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”) I always saw rejection as an opporrunity to improve a thing that, by sending it out somewhere, I had stamped as “done.” I’d been given a second chance. Any manner of creative pursuit, and any manner of being a parent, are prime environments for getting something wrong and trying to do better. I don’t know how many more books I’ll write, and I’m in the late stages of raising my kids. Right now, they would’ve been half home, half gone, pulling away in a getting-grown stage. Instead they are, for the moment, as present as they were before they even started kindergarten. It’s a second chance at being less imperfect, and all four of us have plenty of time to consider the question of what constitutes failure.
Social media is a source of entertainment for millions of people, but is there any benefit to it besides that entertainment value? Is it just a mindless way to pass time or is there something else that makes it so popular? I say there is much more to social media than what meets the eye.
Over half of my writer friends refuse to use at least one or more social media platforms and I have never understood why they are so strongly against it. Is it the presumed unprofessionalism or bland commentary? Or is it simply that they never knew what social media could do for them?
One of my favorite platforms is Twitter, and I am a firm believer that having a Twitter account can be beneficial to any writer. Here are 3 reasons why Twitter is such a great resource for writers.
1. Twitter gives you immediate access to what lit mags, journals, and publishers are promoting
If you want to get your work published, Twitter is one of the best places to find the opportunities, contests, and open submissions that get promoted by thousands of journals and publishers. Almost every publication has a Twitter account where they post about their submissions windows and contests immediately and continuously. With Twitter, you no longer have to wait on a newsletter or word of mouth to reach you and force you to frantically pull your submission together before the window closes. You will know as soon as your dream publication opens its submissions, and you’ll have the time to make sure that you send them your best.
2. Twitter is a great platform to promote yourself and your work
After getting published, one of the main problems writers face is finding people to read their work. Bad book sales can be one of the most disappointing parts of a writing career, but social media platforms like Twitter can help you avoid that. When you get something published, Twitter becomes another way for you to tell people about it, and because Twitter is so massive, you will reach far more people with one Tweet than you would by sending emails or asking people to read what you got published.
3. You get to be part of a fun and supportive international writing community
It is so easy to feel alone when you’re writing. It is often an independent craft, and no matter how many workshops or peer reviews you experience, there will be times when you feel like you are staring down this enormous project all on your own. Whether it’s been a long day and coming back to the page feels like a chore, my revisions aren’t turning out the way I want or anything else, feeling less alone as a writer always makes me feel better, and Twitter is a great reminder that you are not alone. Every time I scroll through my feed, I see hilarious and heartfelt tweets about writing and other writers’ struggles and triumphs. There is a strong writing community on Twitter where we constantly encourage and inspire each other, and I don’t think any writer should miss out on that.
Twitter is more than just fun and games; it’s a unique and effective tool, especially for writers. It has such potential to benefit us, and all we have to do is give it the chance. Happy Tweeting, and most importantly, happy writing!
Last night I read my poetry master’s thesis in my childhood bedroom on a Zoom call. The walls of my room are painted like the rainforest from third grade when I obsessed over jungles and canopies. In the background, my cohort and professors could probably make out the blue sky painted on the ceiling of the room and the closet in the background that still houses old dresses, short-shorts, and cosplay costumes from high school.
I haven’t lived at my parents’ house consistently for over six years. Part of that distance has to do with coming out as a queer transgender person. I have returned after my housemates and I were unable to make rent in our New York apartment due to COVID19 closures and uncertainty of future employment.
The juxtaposition between my childhood bedroom, a place where I grappled for the first part of my life with gender, sexuality, and mental health, and the achievement of finishing an MFA as a queer trans poet, is, ironically, something I could see myself having written into a poem months ago before any of this began.
In my poetry, I often turn to the surreal, the fantastical, the paranormal, and the absurd to make sense of the fulcrums of my life and my place in society as a queer person. The deeper we wade into the pandemic and into the increasingly disturbing and violent American landscape, the weirder and weirder I have found my poetry becoming. Usually, before the pandemic, I would take notes to write poems daily but I have found myself waking up and leaning into whatever images are stalking my thoughts. I find comfort in my strangeness because the worlds that warp and distort time feel more real and true than the present.
This past week I have been reading a collection of poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, who I admittedly only stumbled upon because there’s a Frank O’Hara poem I love titled by his name. In his poems, I find the threads of my own tilting away from realism in order to grapple with injustice. There is a sad humor to his speakers similar to O’Hara’s. In, “An Extraordinary Adventure Which Befell Vladimir Mayakovsky in a Summer Cottage,” he writes:
And beyond that village yawned a hole, into that hole- and not just maybe – the sun for certain always rolled, slowly, surely, daily. At morn to flood the world again the sun rose up- and ruddied it. Day after day it happened this way, till I got fed up with it.
And one day I let out such a shout, that everything grew pale, point-blank at the sun I yelled: “Get out! Enough of loafing there in hell!”
This moment in the poem sticks with me because the idea the sun could retreat into a hole and then the speaker’s anger and address to the sun tells us something I think is incommunicable without turning away from “reality.” The earnestness of the speaker and the futility of yelling at the sun is much like how I feel right now. The bends in perception capture what we are experiencing as humans who also implicated and interpolated in complex systems of oppression in a time of great loss, grief, and injustice.
The speaker shouting “Get out!” embodies how I have been experiencing time. I forget what day it is. An afternoon takes eons and then a week is totally gone. The speaker wants the persistent cycles to stop and even chastises the sun for his role in this.
I wish I had more time to find endings. Instead, I have been brought back to a physical place full many of my ghosts.
In the absurd and surreal I find my contradictions survive together. There is healing in letting the worlds of my poems unravel in ways the physical word doesn’t allow for. I’ll leave you with the last lines of a poem I wrote today:
i hope the sky is eventually mauve. i hope the stone melts to magma & the mountains finally get to experience a real transformation. i too turned to liquid & cooled in the stream. pillow over my head. the sun is blinking or winking who can know which?
thinking about the world we will leave our children. In the wake of what is
happening with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many people mourning the
inability to return to a world as we knew it, yet this may be the only world
that today’s youth will have any memory of.
line; fissure; an inability to reason with the past.
The instinct of a
new writer might be to create drama in a piece—at least that was what I found
when teaching. Some teachers I had forbid us to kill anyone in a poem or story
because we felt the need to create stakes by doing so. To make people care. A
professor of mine once said that all poems must have conflict, but that
conflict might be as subtle as the way the light falls across the road. I want
to believe him, to value that, to be able to sit still, but, when I am called
to write, the ghosts ascend, the sky falls, and I can only see what is down the
dark tunnel in my mind.
written from a place of risk: what do I need to say? Why is that? Is the dramatic
situation complicated in an interesting way? Do I recognize the difference
between melodrama and drama? Why am I attracted to poems where the stakes are
high? Must every poem be about death, somehow, some way?
What I learned
through this crisis is that I have trouble writing a quietly complicated moment
because I have not had time to appreciate those moments in my life in a great
while. Right now, I swing between the inability to get out of bed (inertia) and
being overly productive as my two coping mechanisms. I’m not sure which is less
effective. Yet, crises have come in waves over the last few years, whether in
the form of catastrophic weather (hurricanes on the Gulf coast where I was
living), or gun control, or money problems, or health issues, or the deaths of
loved ones. How can anyone be expected to write about the light falling across
the road when all around us worlds are falling? On the other hand, I read
Tranströmer, for example, and understand that both are possible at once.
[The site of
resistance as the body]—
My father died when I was nine. I’ve written about that incident a lot. I’ve resisted calling it trauma. Yet, right now, children are experiencing trauma in a new way that feels much like that event: something that they won’t realize is traumatic until years from now. I’m trying to stay hopeful that the lives children dream of will one day be possible. I worry that, much like many of our ancestors, there will not be a place beyond struggle to reach for—which brings me back to my question: what world will we leave our children?
Being isolated in our homes gives us writers that sweet time we always crave to actually get some writing done. Personally, I’ve been reading through my old work, sprucing it up and sending it in to some of my favorite magazines. I might as well while I have the time, right?
One of the most helpful parts of being the Fiction Editor for Superstition Review this year has been learning what editors look for in writing. And since it’s been helpful for me, I thought it might be helpful for you! Here’s an insider’s look on the selection process here at Superstition Review.
The first thing I did as Fiction Editor was make a mistake. I linked my editor’s account on Submittable to my personal submissions account. That means, every time I opened Submittable to review submissions, the first thing I saw was all of my rejections for stories I’ve submitted over the years. For the first hundred stories, I felt like I owed it to every author to at least read their story all the way through, because that’s what I want for all of my stories. Soon enough, I was weeks behind on deadlines and extremely tired of reading every page of the stories that I didn’t enjoy. Thus, I learned my first lesson.
Lesson 1: It’s the first page or two that makes or breaks a story. If I’m bored early on, I will not read the rest. Make that first page captivating enough to make me read the second page, then make that page captivating enough to make me read the rest of the story. Otherwise, I do not have the time.
I started catching up, but I was still behind. Submissions poured in faster than I could read them. Our Founding Editor called me and gave me some new helpful advice. We are a magazine that does not read blind. That means we read your bio and cover letter before we read your story. Trust me, the bio and cover letter are more important than you may think.
Lesson 2: Don’t waste your editor’s time with your bio and cover letter. By all means, include a bio and cover letter, but this is a brief blurb about who you are, your degree if applicable, any major awards you’ve earned for your writing, and maybe where else you’re published. This is not your resume, your life story, or a list of your Boy Scout merit badges.
Finally, I had all my favorite stories picked out. I met with our Founding Editor and the Senior Fiction Editor, and we compared notes. Unsurprisingly, all three of us have different tastes in fiction, but none of us caved to the others. We fought for the fiction we liked, and, in the end, we all left happy. This lesson is a stretch, but bare with me.
Lesson 3: Your story doesn’t have to be universal. I feel I have to address this because lots of literature is praised for being universal. There are plenty of good niche stories out there, and they are all the better because they aren’t forced to appeal to everyone. We all fought for the stories we felt the strongest about, and we all had our absolute favorites published.
I’m really proud of the upcoming fiction section in Superstition Review. The authors who wrote the stories we’re publishing should be proud as well. The authors of the stories that didn’t make the cut but were counted among our favorites should be proud. Everyone who submitted should be proud that they put their work out there.
Lesson 4: Keep writing, keep submitting, keep aiming for publication in your favorite magazines. Every time I logged on to Submittable to review new fiction submissions, I saw all of my rejections from over the years. Honestly, I was proud of them. That’s how many times I’ve put myself out there with stories I was proud of.
Keep up the good work! And thanks for a fantastic submission season.
«bones that are my bones numbers that are my numbers words that are my words:
the bone of my bones the number of my numbers the word of my words»
I do not know much about numbers. In my life, I have just had the chance to count to four or ten or twenty several times, but this has not taught me much about them. I do not really know what they mean, when I do not count. Whether they are still somewhere, alive or dead, or where they sprout from when I need. Whether a huge box keeps them all within, a box full of ones and twos and threes, a heap of all numbers in all shapes and sizes. For people might need to count many bits of things all at once and one must never be short of numbers. Some say they altogether match the overall things to count and that they stay as words with meanings do. To be true, I do not believe that way either. No one counts the numbers for the numbers’ sake. For new numbers would be required to count the old ones and some trick should finally be devised to prove the existence of the new ones and that they do work. This procedure would actually be endless and pointless, a stiff chain of hopeless chances, of loops trapped into one another. Numbers stick out of a stack of algebra, figures and unknowns, a poor slang of fingers in a few hands, whether sand grains or red giants. There is no competition among numbers – this I have observed. It is like in a perfect, steady queue: each stands its own place and never tries to pass over that coming after or before, just for the sake of being the one, the first, the last at once. A murmur of conversation always rises as I count. They seem to be polished to the touch, polite, somehow glancing up as well, as I call the roll. The whole world gets a strange feeling as I count. The imprecision of feelings is rounded down to fingers. Big things crackle and crumble like frozen snow under feet. Again, in spite of that, the whole world is worth being counted – two ones from the same pair, for fear of loss and despair.