The Fall of the Shelf of Myself

I had a sobering experience this evening. I had heard about a contest for previously published poems and thought it was right up my alley because it didn’t involve creating anything new and submitting it for judgment, but instead entering things that had already been given the stamp of approval. No problem! I have plenty of previous publications, right there on the Shelf of Myself, which is the silly, vainglorious name I gave to the shelf where I keep print publications with my poems in them.

Except.

There has been some serious attrition in the Shelf of Myself, with several things missing and apparently elsewhere in my home, which is really not a comforting thought, given how deeply lost things can be in this “elsewhere.” Instead, the Shelf of Myself is now mostly occupied by:

1) other people’s chapbooks (no offense, other people)
2) books I received in exchange for not winning prizes (sad trombone)
3) just straight-up, random crap

I managed to get together a contest entry based on what I could find, but it just made me sad. At least one of the publications has folded, and probably others, too, so they aren’t entirely replaceable. Besides, it represents disregard for my own work.

Other than just life moving forward and stuff accreting like coral, I think what happened is that in the years when I just kept losing one chapbook and book contest after another, and when I told myself that the first one was obvs a fluke that would never be repeated, I started to give less value to the individually published poems than I should have — because they weren’t what I wanted next, so what, etc., etc.

The ones that I did manage to find on the Shelf of Myself were good, honestly, and that’s sad, too — because in recent years, I quit putting myself out there. Here, in my own online “house,” sure — but not submitting anything so I could either not measure up (losing all those contests), or have a poem published and not feel good about it, and then feel bad about not feeling good.

I don’t know all the remedies to all of this sadness, but I think part of it is to submit a lot of things this year and then, if any of them get somewhere (whether online or print), enjoy them for what they are, enjoy the other poets I’m published alongside, and then not let these things just disappear.

And part of that is to allow myself to think any of this matters, despite everything else that’s going on currently — which feels as indulgent as naming something the Shelf of Myself.

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The Next One

Ginger, what I knew the other morning,
as if it were written on my closet door,
was that you were the next one after me.

One afternoon, sitting on a little hill
outside the church, I seethed as he
paid attention to you. I didn’t know

I had grievances other than
being passed over, discarded—
I couldn’t save either of us,

from what had ended,
world without end, amen
from what was beginning

I’m going to call you Ginger
, he said

on the hill

I’m sorry it took me a few years to tell—
a few years after you needed me to,

Virginia.

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Walking in My World While White

The man on the curb
with his socks pulled up high,
a Swisher Sweet parked in his mouth,

(no mask)

tells his friend in the car
that he wants to see this dog,
my dog, asks me what kind she is

then tells me

I don’t mean you no harm
I don’t mean you no harm

at least those two times, as if
I am making a silent calculation of risk
and whether I need to ruin his day

or end his life

by calling to say that I’m scared,
there’s just something off about him
my cellphone as weapon, deadlier

than anything he has
unless he has COVID
(but I only think of that

later)

this morning I step forward,
say I know you don’t, twice,
at least (through my mask),

so he can pet my dog
and we can move along,
that much closer to 2021

and all it might bring us.

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So

Why do I have to tell you this,
the surprising ways I failed myself,
failed all of us at 10 or 11 years old?

It’s like a picture of tiny waterfalls
where you can’t see the river system
just a twee little jigsaw puzzle of water
but you don’t know how it was crashing,
why I couldn’t save myself in time

I remember that green tile wall,
the prickly velvet of the bus seat
but not how old I was, or
where the bus was going (first
choir trip or second—?)


and when I tell the whole truth,
that’s when no one says

anything

silence again
because a girl who was
unacceptable

wanted attention,
and when it found her,
when she was found
kept it for a while

pondered these things in her heart

Do I make you feel dirty, too?

He’s dead
I’m here

I’m the only one left to tell it

So.

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Or if It Was a Thing for Telling

I still lived in Little World then
Garfield books and the cabbage patch
a room painted peach, a box of seashells
a shoebox in my closet with a robin’s egg in it
a small world of other small worlds of boxes

so when he trapped me in the church kitchen
against the green tile wall, facing the double ovens
as my mother arranged egg-shaped candles
all down the long table in the other room,
when he smeared my glasses with the grease
from his cheeks, and then thanked me
for a kiss I never gave

I was as shocked as you are now, reading it

I didn’t tell because I didn’t know what to tell
or if it was a thing for telling. Instead, I went outside
to the church playground, to the top of the jungle gym

Little World

and I thought, Now I have a secret.
Everything has changed.

At last.

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Games

The game is to be tossed into leaves at the Halloween party.
a Coca-Cola bottling plant jumpsuit, a wolfman mask
You see? He is a funny monster now. It only feels like

boyfriend-girlfriend stuff.

The game is to ride on shoulders in summer,
around and around in a kidney-shaped pool,
your legs around his neck. Because you are

favored.

It feels like maybe you are a woman
in your mom’s magazine, in an ad for Tab
or diet ice cream bars,
maybe,
skinny in a bathing suit.
You are in the sun, at last. Icarus.

Months go by, and something happens.

The game is that if you don’t want to be just in the chorus
in the Christmas pageant—if you want a part, like always—
you talk to him and he talks to his wife, and you are a camel.

By then, you are out of favor
but you can still ask for things
and get them

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Ginger

The world created limes,
and I didn’t know what to do with them.

I limn a whole other space
between spinal fluid
and sparks,

the candles everywhere
flickering.

The Denver of my mind, or
a road, a hill, horses in snow,
Christmas lights on other houses,

but we’re not going home.

My mind is such a choir—Oh, Ginger,
Ginger, where are you now?

Where and how.






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Does Found Poetry Count?

I spent a lot of time in the past week sifting through the project that I abandoned this past July — the one that’s referenced under my ridiculously cheerful photo here. It was good … I think. Or maybe it was all just a fun parlor game.

My concerns about what I wrote as part of that project are not regarding plagiarism; the phrases that I cut out (not literally, though I know that’s a whole thing) and then stitched together in new ways were so tiny that they don’t represent entire thoughts of any other writer.

My concern is this: Does a poem that is assembled from bits of stuff rather than — oh, I don’t know — either wafting in through an open window, perfect and entire, or being labored over for hours … I’m losing my train of thought, but anyway, does it count?

If I see interesting leaps where the poem becomes something dazzling that I would never have come up with on my own, is that enough for it to be a real poem? And if I have reason to believe that someone else using the same technique with the same material would come up with something completely different, was my mind present enough to say that this is my poem?

These questions are not meant to knock found poetry: I’ve read some great examples of it, and maybe you have, too — maybe without even realizing it. When it’s done well, I think the device often disappears, or it is just one clever aspect of a poem that also works in other ways. I know this about other people’s found poetry, but when I write it, I hold it suspect.

Do I need to get over this?

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Here I Am Again, Again, Again (Part 2)

During the years that I have not been writing much poetry, I have found many ways (some better than others) to sublimate that yearning: tending a huge pollinator garden and raising butterflies, compulsive jigsaw puzzling, “Hey, why shouldn’t I binge-watch high-quality TV shows? Everyone else does.” Facebook.

One of the best, most enriching ways I’ve skated away from confronting my real creative self, and the way it most needs to speak, is by becoming involved with my local community theater group. Talk about ventriloquism! If I can feel some of that same satisfaction by delivering words that other people wrote, or by (my favorite — seriously, I love it) adapting a book into a script and helping it come to life, then maybe I never have to write another poem.

And if I don’t, then I never have to try to rub those sticks together again and find that they’re still just as damp, and confirm — again — that I just had that one spark, and that’s it.

This work has been satisfying, and real, even though it’s been a bit of a dodge. It has sustained me creatively and has also meant that I have a whole new community of good friends I would never have met otherwise, even though most of us live in the same neighborhood. I first came into it because my chapbook (my only one, remember) was made up of persona poems that lent themselves well to a dramatic reading. I intended to just direct that and then disappear, pretty much. But I didn’t — because I was fully welcomed into the group — and I’m so glad.

Most recently, I directed a staged reading (on Zoom, of course) of a very odd book of poetry, prose, and music. (I’m not going to mention it by name, for reasons, though the book has been out of print for quite a while.) My husband brought this book home for me this fall from one of the many Little Free Libraries near us because he thought it looked like something I would like. Indeed, this late writer shares a lot of my sensibilities and interests, and I thoroughly enjoyed the month or so that I spent adapting his book and directing others in how best to present the ideas that he no longer can on his own.

On the night of the reading itself, all of us (well, almost all — there’s always a crab or two) enjoyed this strange work and found ways that it connected with us, spoke to our own experiences, and enlarged our view of the world. Not once did I think that this writer didn’t deserve for his work to be presented because, while he achieved a decent measure of fame in his lifetime, he’s not as timelessly lauded as, say, Robert Frost.

Because it’s not a contest.

The theme of this writer’s whole book is the importance of being fully alive while one is alive, and that there is significance and dignity in even the smallest things that help us in that daily effort. If his words helped me feel that way for the month-plus that I worked on this project, if the actors and others I worked with felt some of that same vitality, and if all of us (including, or even especially the writer) gave our audience an hour of warmth, laughter, and contemplation on a December evening … isn’t that enough?

I was thinking about this while walking the dog this morning. What if, in a sense, I “adapted” my own work — meaning that I looked at my own writing as charitably as I do other people’s, sifted through to find what is the strongest and seems to work as some kind of whole, and presented it in a different form?

What different form? Ohhhh, a book is the most logical, and that way lies contests. But I promise, contests and prizes will not be the main point this time (a point — I am what I am). Instead, I hope to give my own work some of the same respect that I give to others’, to enjoy and admire some of it again, and to say that while it will always fall short of the goal — perfection! — it is also somehow enough. And real.

What’s next for this blog? I’m going to commit to one new post each week, whether it’s a poem, something like this, or a recap of any of my various dodges (for example, I finished a puzzle last night and am stalled out on Season Two of The Crown). It helps me to write like this, and if you’ve ever felt blocked in your writing or in whatever matters to you, maybe it helps you to read it. If it does, that would definitely be enough.

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