Friday, June 15, 2007

A Bit of a Dickensian Duality

The morning has already slipped, somehow, away from me. Archie is on the mend, aching to play again, to chase Dixie, the mighty Jack Russell, across the shaded grass. Archie and I are sitting outside, surveying the yard with our distinctly different gazes. His head swivels toward each unusual sound until he explodes from his haunches and runs to the fence to bark a warning at a passerby.

My muscles ache slightly, and my eyes feel a bit bleary. I'm regretting, ever so slightly, having jumped from bed at 7 in the morning, when Archie, having jumped down from bed for a quick sip of water was whining at the foot of the bed, unable yet to make the leap.

Yesterday, I let myself get immensely distracted by a bit of good news in the mail: an acceptance to one of the 40 submissions I mailed out. When I saw the tell-tale self-addressed stamped envelope, I simply assumed it was another speedy rejection. When I tore open the envelope, however, I didn't find my returned manuscripts. I didn't find a thin strip of colored notepaper. Instead, there was only a single sheet of colored letterhead. I opened the letter, glanced over its contents and started shivering with adrenaline. They took two poems. I phoned my wife to tell her the news, and sat outside on the front porch smoking until the dogs yelped for my attention. Even though I'm not earning a penny from that publication, my body must have felt as it would feel if I won the Kentucky Powerball and never had to work another day of my life. After taking a few moments to settle myself down and sharing the news with Michelle, I had to share it with more people. I emailed a friend in New York. I emailed a former professor.

Then, after trying, futilely, to return to the short story I had been working on, I gave up and phoned my parents. I reasoned that I would have to tell them soon, and what kind of call would it be if I waited until this Sunday, when I'm planning to phone on Father's Day? So I talked with my father and step-mother for a while, letting the conversation go where it would, letting the tingling from my scalp settle into something more sedate, letting the sudden rush dissipate back into the nothingness from which it had come.

Then, I drove down to visit my wife at her office downtown. By the time I got back, I realized I'd neglected to eat, so I stuffed myself on leftover Sloppy Joes before settling into a long nap with the puppies on the living room sofa.

Today, in contrast, the mail brought a different sort of news. Again, one of the Star Wars stamps I used for the last batch of submissions graced the exterior of an envelope. It was another SASE bearing another answer. Darth Vader's helmeted face gazed up from the corner of the envelope. The envelope, like the one from yesterday, was too thin. Could this be, I wondered, yet more surprisingly good news?


My manuscripts weren't returned, but the envelope contained nothing more than a typed rejection slip and an envelope soliciting both subscriptions and donations. Nothing was handwritten on the note. There were no glimmers of hope to ease my maudlin mood. My work simply did not meet their editorial needs at this time. At a future time, or at some time 20 years ago, when I was on the precipice of puberty, the slip implies that my poems might have been appropriate. Of course, this is a falsehood. As an occasional editor, I've fantasized about what a wholly honest rejection slip would look like. I've imagined reading such notes: I've read this before, handled more competently; I can tell you have an MFA, but no thanks; You haven't read our magazine, have you? Please cross us off your list of future submissions; We strongly advise that you read anything other than your own work, written in the last 100 years; What? And of course, the simple, elegant, No.

I do not doubt that if conventions of politeness were not vital to the continued existence of a society as complex as ours, I would have received almost all of those rejections at least once in my life, and I expect to get far more in the future.

After spending far too much energy thinking about it, I'm taking today's rejection as a simple No. Yet, despite clear expectations that the simple No's will far outweigh those surprisingly exciting moments like yesterday, this one still stung. Perhaps, in retrospect, it stung because of the rapidity with which the response came. My wife even suggested that they hadn't read my poems. While possible, I seriously doubt that any literary magazine that takes a semblance of pride in what it does would ever make that mistake. As I've written elsewhere, there are any number of reasons why that No might have arrived in my mailbox today. But an explanation doesn't take away the fact of rejection or the vaguely disturbing notion that after almost 12 years of trying, my ego and my hopes are intimately tied to the response of an editor (or a reader) who may or may not know more about poetry than I do.

I'd like to tell you that over the years, it becomes easier. I don't know if this is true. More, I'd like to tell you that the percentage of rejections plummets as you become more and more successful, that soon enough you'll be sending out all of your poems to fulfill solicitations, and rejections will be a thing of the past. I think this is true for a tiny portion of poets. Even poets who have been nominated for the National Book Award will receive notes back from friends telling them that a particular poem isn't right for the readers of a particular journal.

I'd like to tell you that, as the rejections have piled up, my emotions have been galvanized like steel beams, that I'm no longer affected by the opinions of others, that I trust in the quality of my own work, the potential for my own genius, the certitude of my own peculiar poetic vision. Of course, like so many of those rejection notes we're all bound to see, that would be a lie.

More, I don't think you've come here for unctuous platitudes or Hallmark-inspired missives from some imagined front. You've come here, I hope, for the smallest sampling of truth.

And the truth is, sometimes, I still ask my wife to coddle me when a rejection slip arrives. Sometimes, my ambitions falter, and I let myself spiral into unwarranted negativity. The truth is we all suffer sometimes. Sometimes we are the roots of our own suffering. The world may well be an illusion.

Still, sometimes, I let myself suffer. Sometimes, I know that these infinitesimally small wounds are part of the life I've freely chosen.

Sometimes, it's good to remember that, yes, I still care and that someday is still out there, waiting for me to arrive.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007


Last weekend, I stumbled across a notion for a chapbook collection. Despite the myriad other tasks I could be undertaking, like working on a collection of Texas stories, continuing research into one of the two papers I'd planned to write by summer's end, or submitting the handful of polished poems that haven't already been sent to magazines, I let myself inhabit the imagined life of poor Sandra Edwards. I contemplated the arc of minor and major tragedies that shaped her fictive life. More, I "recovered" a few poems I felt certain would best be left to rot in a cardboard box in the basement. Poems, once soaked in what seemed to me the stench of youth, became, to me at least, far more poignant after the notions they contained had been stripped of the burdensome "I" that strolled through my college and grad school years. I actually liked some of these poems again.

Of course, you should know by now not to trust a poet's thoughts on his most recent work—particularly when the work has yet to be tested by the submission process, but perhaps one day you'll be able to gauge the worth of those poems for yourself.

This morning, with strange dreams, which I'm attributing to reading Foucault before bedtime, rustling in the crevices of my mind, I thought momentarily of returning to those poems and writing a brief narrative of a childhood illness during the late 60s, but my Internet connection is down.

Think about that for a moment.

In high school, when I first started writing something that resembled a poem (think very loose trimeter with an aaaaa rhyme scheme), I had no idea that the Internet even existed. It did, of course, but I'd never seen it. HTML, if it existed, was nothing more than a language for organizing law books, not the ubiquitous and largely invisible grammar that underpins so much of how we now encounter our world.

I wrote those poems on an electric typewriter—one complete with corrective ribbon. Thankfully, not even a single line of those attempts remains.

When I reached college and decided to study Creative Writing, the poems got better, and for reasons I can't completely detail, I started composing all first drafts (and sometimes many more than that) in longhand. Then, when I liked a poem enough, or when one was due for class, I'd type it up in one of the many computer clusters on campus. I didn't own a computer until I reached graduate school when my uncle sent me an archaic PS/1, and even then, I only composed a handful of poems, which were more experimental than my usual fare, onscreen.

Now, by contrast, I write everything on my laptop—from simple missives to friends to notes about poems or stories I plan to write. Hardly a word leaves the recesses of my imagination without the assistance of this computer. This computer is my quill.

I often think, fleetingly, of the way technology intersects with our lives—technologies like the pencil or even language itself. I wander at how so many of us, particularly in the "Western" world are so utterly divorced from what was once, for thousands of years, our only means of survival. We do not reap what we sow. We reap what has been sown for us, sometimes thousands upon thousands of miles away. The complexity of such arrangements, given how our ancestors lived a scant 200 years ago, is utterly mind boggling.

How many hundreds of people must work to ensure that I can savor a single Chilean grape on a December day?

So many technologies have been, I suppose, absorbed by our flexible natures. Our minds, I suspect, work differently (not necessarily better) than those of our ancestors. How does my life, here under the shade of a sweet gum tree, differ from the lives lived by John Clare, Leigh Hunt, or Letitia Elizabeth Landon?

How do the lives of my readers differ from the readers they sought?

For a moment, my Internet connection was up again. I could look up, in seconds, representative poems of the Romantics above. I felt, in a peculiar way, properly connected to the world. I could have done, in a few minutes time, research enough to make write a believable account of a childhood illness when we had fewer vaccinations. I could have figured out the title of a brilliant book by Walter Ong, S.J. that discusses differences in the way oral, typographic, and secondary oral cultures use language.

Alas, my Internet connection, for the moment, is as tenuous as the life of a secondary character in a murder mystery. Though, at some point today, I hope, it will be restored. The world as I experience it will be returned to order. I will feel connected again. I will allow myself to be, uniquely, a poet of the 21st century, leveraging myriad peculiar technologies to write poems in our own peculiar way.

Still, I doubt I'll ever lose this niggling desire to imitate, in my own small way, the poems of John Clare.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Actions Speaking

Dixie is sniffing around the edge of the yard, scavenging for a sweet gum twig or a fallen tulip, stalking stray moles or chipmunks who errantly wander into the open. I am sipping weak, caramel-flavored coffee from a black Disney mug. Archie is sitting at the edge of the patio, his tail crooked sideways. His creased ears flop across his tiny forehead like fallen leaves. He is in pain.

From somewhere beyond the grove of vine-like trees that line the edge of our backyard, a male voice echoes. Archie and Dixie spring to action. Hair bristles on the back of Dixie's neck. Archie waddles to the edge of the fence, stares toward the voice and begins barking a broken warning. Dixie howls, growls, and runs along the fence barking.

There is no other sound. The dogs quiet. Archie rests on his haunches staring out the side fence. Dixie stares out the front fence. A sparrow chirrups. The upstairs air conditioner rattles its filtering hum.

The voice sounds again. It is the gas man, making his rounds, calling out for entrance into an old garage, a chance to read the meter. He is circling the neighborhood, soon to arrive. Archie, resting again on his haunches, his tail still coiled like a broken slinky continues his barking, continues to do what he sees as his job, continues to protect his house, his pack, from anyone who might intrude, who might be unwelcome.

It doesn't matter that yesterday morning Archie was in a crate at the vet's office, waiting for minor surgery. It doesn’t matter whether or not the biopsy of the small lump that the veterinarian removed from the left side of Archie's trunk comes back negative. It doesn't matter if I've forced him into a tiny dog t-shirt that he seems to loathe, just to protect the stitches that have closed the incision. Archie has a job to do.

Yesterday, as I drove Archie to the vet, catching thick traffic on the sloping curves of Montana that stretched several miles along I-74, I quelled a storm of mounting imaginings about his upcoming surgery, by listening to NPR and a story, like this one about the differing expectations from workers from Generations X, Y, and Z. The commentator suggested that, unlike our parents, we choose to define ourselves in terms other than what we do for a living. According to the story, our "real" lives are lived during evenings and across the expanse of the weekend.

Even though I fall into late Generation X, and I imagine that my wife thinks of her work as an interruption from what matters to her, I still find the notion almost antithetical to the way I think. Of course, I never thought of myself, exclusively, as a copyeditor, an instructional designer, or even a teacher. Instead, I always maintained the notion (even if it may have been slightly delusional) that I was working dual careers, with poetry and fiction as the worst-paying second job imaginable. Nevertheless, those money-making jobs, to this day, play a massive role in my own self-definition. I am, alas, a copyeditor. More, from that simple description, I suspect you could envision pages upon pages of prose describing my character. You would not, of course, manage to capture the totality of my psychology with those pages, but I have no doubt that you could glean far more insight than you would from a brief conversation with me about motorsports.

More, like Archie, who knows instinctively that his job is to protect his yard and his house, I feel as though I know, instinctively that my job is to write, to manipulate language, to observe the state of the world, to consider what I see, and to communicate those thoughts.

I do not doubt that this is an illusion. After all, when I began my freshman year in college, I was certain I wanted to be a medical doctor. Then, after miserable results in freshman chemistry, I was certain I wanted to be a physicist. More, if a poker tournament happens to be on ESPN, it is not difficult, despite my limited knowledge of the game to imagine myself as professional poker player.

Even still, two weeks ago, I sent out 40 submissions to literary magazines. Amazingly, I've already gotten one rejection. Since I chose to send my work to some of the best literary magazines in the country, I don't know what to expect. Who knows, maybe all of the poems will get placed. Maybe none of them will.

For now, it doesn't matter. It's time to wait, to have patience. I'll keep working on the poems and stories at home. I'll keep coddling Archie as he tries to sleep through much of the pain that must radiate from the incision site. I've learned this much, at least. Without patience, which often seems in short supply these days, I'd never reach my goals. Without patience, I'd agonize over the results of Archie's biopsy, perhaps sacrificing the attention he needs now. And every once in a while, I wonder if that isn't everyone's job—to have patience, to know when we need to wait and when our waiting should be done.