Friday, August 20, 2010
I first discovered Wisconsin poet Mathias Nelson through the 2010 July/August issue of RATTLE. Before I could finish the last stanza of his poem "Dip My Pacifier in Whiskey," I was already flipping to the back of the magazine in search of his author profile. It should have come with a PSA.
Be warned kids. His poems are like crack.
Nelson's debut chapbook combines the effulgence of raging youth with the steadied craft of a mature, contemplative writer. His sense of voice, of self, is as constant as his subjects are variable. At once tender and terrifying, beautiful and brutal, nothing is spared from his acerbic observations. Consider these lines from his poem "Fish Food":
"I was pompous. Saw myself as special--
a suicide over an ice-fisherman's hole,
a stiff body floating beneath that ice
and clawing at it while growling bubbles
as the soles of big clown shoes
to where children made snowangels."
OR this passage describing the slow deterioration of a nursing home patient, in "Enamel Eyes":
"The faces of her family
don't know. Maybe she
doesn't completely know.
Maybe her mind is
like the photographs, gray
taken fifty years ago
The dentures won't go in
today. I begin to sweat,
'Ah,' I say, 'Ah'
and begin to weep.
My tears fall
into her mouth."
In my opinion, it is in instances like these where Nelson shows his potential to be more than just a post-Bukowskian shock jock or mere peddler of images, but rather, a great observer of the human condition.
Certainly, many readers will find amusement, laughter, bewilderment, anger--lots of anger--in several of his poems and be satisfied traversing everything from the cannibalism and near-necrophilia of literary icons to fishing with his nephews. But it is his ability to weave past and present, American history and personal history, and transfigure them into something larger that haunts the psyche, leaving you hungry for much, much more.
Synopsis: this book makes me excited about contemporary poetry. Get your money together and head to the post office, now. Consider it an investment. I have no doubt whatsoever that somewhere in the future we will include Nelson in the lineage of great counter-culture poets before him.
They May Try to Kill Me For This, by Mathias Nelson. Self-published. 36 pages. $5.00. Contact and ordering information at:
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
For my father, Lance Bradley Alcosiba. December 25, 1963-August 20, 2009.
Together always, at Bay Farm Island Bridge
It’s been a year since you left, and I heard
the earth crack open, swallowing you whole;
and though I knew, though I’d been given a schedule
of your departure, an express at noon—
I never knew how hard it would be to witness
the cars pull away, and me behind the caboose
to catch it, jump onboard before it was gone.
The steam beneath the wheels left me breathless, unable,
collapsing on the tracks.
But sometimes I lean my ears to the rails,
and I can feel the hum of an engine
chugging far away, speeding along the coast:
the dining car warm with brewing coffee and
shuffling newspapers or steadied crosswords
on the laps of bi-focaled women, and children stare
from windows, coloring vermillion
sunsets over smashing waves—
and I am happy.
for One Shot Wednesday
Monday, August 16, 2010
The other day I received an envelope in the mail with my own handwriting on the front.
I don't know why that fact didn't register, but I somehow glazed over this glitch in my thinking and went on to open the letter furiously, delighted that I should receive something in the mail other than a bill, and there it was: "We thank you for your interest in publishing with Autumn House Press, but..."
BUT. But. But. That evil little conjunction gets ya every time.
This is the third consecutive rejection slip I've gotten since I started to earnestly send my poetry out for publication. My favorite rejection slip came from The Paris Review a few years ago. I was so stoked to have anything mailed to me on PR stationary that I kept it. I wasn't mad at all that they'd rejected my meager little poems.
Admittedly, I had a minor pity party for myself after that last one though, because I'd gotten so idiotically excited hoping it was a letter, some good news, a how'ya'doin, and instead it was a 'thanks-but-no-thanks-loser.' The familiar cloud of self-doubt began to form over me until I was convinced that I was just some horrible little egotist who would die obscure, unknown, my writing the jumbled mess that I'd always feared it was. But then I remembered William Faulker, Nobel Laureate, who received a horrible rejection of his book Sanctuary: "Good God, I can't publish this!"
It made me wonder, who else got rejected? A short list of manuscripts/writers who were rejected SEVERAL times:
1) Animal Farm, George Orwell
2) On the Road, Jack Kerouac
3) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling
4) Twilight, Stephenie Meyer
5) Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
6) Lord of the Flies, William Golding
7) Dr. Seuss
8) Emily Dickinson, who was told "[your poems] are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are quite defect of poetical qualities."
9) Torrents of Spring, Ernest Hemingway
10) The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells
11) Catch 22, Joseph Heller
Publishing, may be a good-ol-boys club, but it is also a numbers game. I intend to keep playing, go for broke, because I don't have time for anything else.
I still believe in this glorious dream that is writing. Even if the rejections pile in, and they will. Even if my friends and coworkers and lookers-on think I am a nut-job without the luxury of a new car or a disciplined retirement savings.
Sunday, August 8, 2010
I'd never been in a cave before Sunday.
At the urging of a dear friend anxious to show us where he grew up, a group of six of us sojourned to Cave Spring and Rome, GA for a day of caving, lake swimming, and cemetery touring. I anticipated anecdotes about Joey's childhood while reapplying sunscreen, laughter over diarrhea-inducing Southern cooking, and daydreaming as our van lurched over stretches of bucolic hillside that made me want to leave Atlanta for some place simpler.
I got so much more than a sunburn, crappy lunch, and a Walden-pond moment. I was inspired by this little town in the middle of nowhere with it's little piece of Jurassic charm and Rome's historic hillside cemetery. They followed me home.
I didn't like the cave at first: it's incredibly cool and dank, the stalactites kept dripping on my bare shoulders and back (making me squeak in surprise), and I half-expected a Velociraptor to jump out of the darkness and snatch me by the throat it was so primordial looking because of the red light bulbs they had chosen to light certain angles. My friends decided to go down and explore a hole off of the path, and I stayed back deciding it was better left to those who had not been stupid enough to cave in a strapless sundress and flip flops.
Then I was left completely alone, in this ancient and smothering space--exhaling its cold minerally breath, curling into hellish plumes illuminated by the red bulbs, and the dark corners that stalked me, and the wet rock underfoot, and I started to feel a little woosey and freaked out and thought to myself hell is a big cave flooded with lava where all of us will go to burn and smack our bodies against stalagmites pushing up from the ground while bats nest in our hair, and then I saw carved into rock: Erin loves Michael.
Graffiti snapped me back into reality: someone's act of vandalism, an expression of love captured at one moment, hope ground into rock for posterity.
And I thought about people who lived in caves a million years ago and how fearful and urgent living was for them, and how a cave represented shelter and safety from the outside world. I thought about how even they made time to draw pictures of animals or daily life with blood or charcoal because there was this need for expression and beauty that was somehow essential and totally unnecessary, and therefore ultimately human.
I realized I was not alone any longer when I heard the peals of children echoing deep inside the cavern. And then my friends re-emerged from the ominous hole covered in mud and laughing about someone's butt being too close to their face in the dark, and I was happy. I sketched Cave Spring on the way home, and drafted poems about our graveyard walk in Rome.
And as we explored the rocks and took photos of molded tombstones, the time between generations and people seemed to meld together. Hope is a cave, too.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
"True genius shudders at incompleteness"--Edgar Allan Poe
Writers: ever written something that you thought was absolutely GENIUS until you saw it again the next day and then hated yourself and were subsequently humiliated by your poor lapse of judgment?
I call that having a one-night-stand with your first draft. It's just ugly.
But what if it's not your first draft, but more like, an entire book? I had a mini-meltdown the other day before emailing my first book, Little Earthquakes, off to a friend to read. I reread almost 70 pages and nearly decided to torch it, blot it out of my memory like a victim of incest. There were only a few redeeming lines in what seemed like endless pages of amateur, uneducated, undisciplined, prose-posing-as-poetry pieces of narcissistic garbage. I emailed them to her but went home that day feeling sad and depleted like a middle-aged actress who has realized that she will not be getting calls to play the ingenue any longer.
I shared this feeling with my spouse and he just shook his head: "But, you won a prize for that book. A PUH-RIZE!" He articulated loud and slow, as though I didn't understand what the word 'prize' meant.
Writers are notorious for this, or really, creative people are notorious for this. The work is never done. The finished product is always as scary as first draft.
I remember reading an article once where Nicole Kidman said it was painful for her to watch herself acting: she was constantly critiquing herself, judging her every move. I thought to myself, this dumb broad, I'd LOVE to be sitting in a theater somewhere in a couture gown watching myself act in some movie where I was paid millions of dollars to play pretend and kiss some hot actor, give-me-a-break! Now I have a lot more sympathy for the botoxed Aussie.I understand her pain completely.
Being creative publicly means willingly placing some part of your body on the chopping block for others to decide whether or not that appendage is worth saving. It's pulling up your sweater for others to see the breast cancer scars and mawed tissue and deciding if it is profound statement of truth or just grotesque. But its a beautiful thing, this truth, this grotesqueness. Writing and creation and carnage and love and first-draft or Pulitzer Prize book, it's all the same. It all has its place and function. So what if people can my writing?
It helps me to remember that I am learning, that I am still new to it all.
I would never judge my daughter for not running after barely learning to walk. I'd tell her to take it slow: steady her gait, plant her heels, try the stairs, master the stroll, running's bad for the joints.