Self Syllabus

Whenever I announce a new plan for improving some aspect of my life, my shrink smiles and points out my love of systems. I can’t just do a thing: I have to have a plan. Often my plans are so ambitious, I never get further than the planning stage. But here’s the thing: I suck at time, and without a plan, I just end up drinking coffee in my PJs and playing Facebook. So I need a plan.

I urgently need a plan because this is the first week of a semester in which I’ve been granted a course release. My chair was kind enough to schedule me for back-to-back Tuesday-Thursday classes in the afternoon so that all my mornings are free–free in as much as in addition to prepping and grading the classes I’m teaching, I have the ambitious goal of making serious progress toward a book manuscript–and I have no teaching on Mondays, Wednesdays, or Fridays. Those are whole long stretches of opportunity I’m terrified of squandering.

Looking back at what’s worked for me in the past, I think the most success I ever had with making a plan and working on it independently was when I made reading schedules for myself as I studied for my PhD exams. As I recall, I ended up pushing my exams back by a couple of months, but it still got done, and I passed, hallelujah, amen. Even when I thought I didn’t always live up to the schedule 100%, I still did more in those months than I ever had before and possibly since. So having that schedule worked. The schedule was a table made up of three columns, one for each of my exam areas, and sections of rows marking off each week and my reading goals for each day. In other words, it looked an awful lot like a mashed up syllabus for three courses. A syllabus that had me aiming to read two books a day, but a syllabus nonetheless.

And that’s what I want for myself now: a syllabus working toward some kind of goal, counting down toward that goal over the next 16 weeks.

I think my instinct to document my planning process here is also a call back to using a private blog to take notes on my readings as I went. I was terrified a house fire would burn my books and notes, and computer, so above all, I wanted some way to safeguard my work outside of my house. This was before I knew about Dropbox. My system was simple. I’d read, noting important passages as I went, and then review my notes deciding which passages were particularly salient and quotable, and finally type up those passages with parenthetical citations–all ready to be used in my exams themselves.

So I’m going to make this block private again. Or something like it. Not searchable via Google. And I’m going be accountable to myself here on my activity.

Let’s begin again.

I have two main things I want to work on in the syllabus: reading poetry productively and writing. By “writing,” I mean writing new poems, revising old poems, and thinking about some kind of way to pull it all together in a manuscript, which is problematic because I’ve felt myself drawn in a few different directions in my writing, and I’m not sure if I can tie all these directions together. So before I can get too deep into my plan, I need to figure out where I am and what I’m heading towards. So for now my assignment is to review what I have–the poems from my diss that I want to carry on with and the poems I’ve written in the last five years.

So my next post will be an embarrassing inventory or reflection on what I have written and what ideas this review gives me for moving forward.

Until then.


I wake up before I’m done sleeping and go back to sleep.

I wake up before I’m done sleeping and go back to sleep.

Somehow too late and too early to put into the Coosa and paddle.

So I do what I’ve been doing most summer mornings: read poetry.

And then the poems make my head spin, so I look up articles about the poems to ground me.

And then the articles make my head spin, and I go to Facebook, the comforting solidity of its ephemeral nonsense and muchsense.

And then I think I must document this process of waking and sleeping and reading and reading about reading and reading to not have to read.

And this is called writing. Somehow well into afternoon, the thunder of afternoon showers like a distant booming clock, and yet morning.

Because the brain is new from sleep.

As if each day were a life and each morning spent learning how to live again. Ah, yes. This is how I feed myself. 

Last night, full of wine tears, I wanted to write an essay about how there is no suitable prophylactic to avoid the memory of trauma.

Because I file that trauma under “rape” obviously, but also “lavender shower gel” and “aphasia” and snatches of dialogue like “I promise I’ll be a good boy” and how I learned the hard way that when someone feels the need to reassure you that he’s a good guy, he’s probably not.

What I mean is that an index of triggers would include every detail from every iteration of every possible trauma and that, my friends, is like writing a scene description for the whole earth’s autopsy, a list of contents of the whole earth’s pockets, like the wise comedian’s 1:1 scale map of the earth, impossible to fold.

This is the mind of morning, the amnesia of dream consolidation, the mind’s braiding of synaptic routes to last.

I think I am awake now. The dream of whatever I was writing, forgotten.

Hi, there!

The thing about adrenal fatigue is that it’s really fucking boring. You just feel tired, blah, and fuzzy. So that’s going to be my official excuse for not keeping up. Though, in reality, I’m back to where I was pre-adrenal fatigue, which is probably with cortisol function on the low side of normal. I don’t have hypoglycemic episodes if I go more than two hours without eating. I can get up and out and do stuff without caffeine (though I sure do miss it). I was able to finish my article, and I’m reviving my old manuscript of poems. All good.

Will I update more frequently? I’m making no promises since I’ve turned on the robots file to keep google from indexing this page. As I work in my library office (okay, officially “faculty research room”), I’ll try to post little notes about any neat historical finds I make (finds to me, history has been there for everyone all this time). And I might try to do that three positives things.

My positives for today:

+Reading all the poems in the latest issue of Poetry, and a few of the essays on the back deck with the dogs.
+Two days in a row (or is it three?) that I haven’t had mosquito bites. Nary a one. Lavender+Cedarwood+Peppermint is a winning combo.
+Making plans to visit a friend I’ve known for over half my life.
+Buying little gifts for my family in anticipation of a visit.

Ta. Da.

Imagining an Audience One Disaster at a Time.

Anyone who knows me  more than superficially knows that I struggle with writing. I am one of those pathetic souls who seems to thrive in a workshop setting but flounders almost immediately upon leaving it. It’s occurred to me recently that when I do write well, whether it’s poetry or not, it’s because I have a specific audience in mind. This makes sense: In the workshop, the workshop was the audience. As someone who hasn’t published shit-tons, it’s hard for me to envision a public audience for my poems. But, perhaps it’s sad to say, at times I’ve been quite fond of the the emails and status updates I’ve written in recent years, thinking always of who might read them, of course. And now that I’m blogging for Midtown Montgomery Living, that comes fairly easy too (save for my perpetual tendency to put things off to the last minute), even if my posts aren’t terribly literary. Why, I’m sharing with other citizens of Montgomery my explorations of our fair city.

I teach composition. I teach rhetorical analysis. I always stress how writing varies according to the situation and audience. And yet somehow it seems like a revelation that not having an audience in mind might be a part of my problem. Not that every writer needs to imagine a specific audience, but I think maybe I do. Back when I kept journals regularly, I always at least imagined me, older one day finding records of my past life.

So these days I’m thinking about whom I’m writing for, both what kind of public I hope to reach and also specific people. It seems to be helping. (Not that I want to jinx things by saying so, so tenuous is my return, my ever-return, no arrival final.)

Another aspect of writing that I’ve worried over is all the different kinds of writing and writing projects I want to do: the old collection of documentary poems, my old-school Jesseca-style personal lyric business, nature poems, film and television analysis, and lingeringly in the back of my mind but not yet attempted, speculative young adult fiction. Just deciding on what to focus on can be overwhelming and result in me doing anything but writing. I feel this urge to pick one project and see it through, perhaps keeping a list of other ideas but refusing to work on them until the One True Project is finished. But perhaps I should approach writing the way I do housework: I work according to whim without any kind of plan at all. I just look for the closest thing to do, do it, and then look for the next closest thing to do. This has me travelling all over the house: Take these hair clips to the bathroom. Straighten the vanity. Take mail to the living room. Fold my TV quilt. Take a glass to the kitchen. Straighten my medicine and vitamin area. Take a pen to my desk. Find hair doodads and take them to the bathroom. And so on. Instead of cleaning the house one room at a time, everything is cleaned in increments, one disaster at a time.

And so I think that’s what I need to do right now: cut myself some slack about having some kind of master plan, and just imagine an audience one writing disaster at a time.

Le sigh. And as an excuse for these crappy meta blogs about writing and not just writing a poem–I think this is a part of my process too. A part of imagining an audience. A part of saying to the world at large: this is what I’m doing. A part of holding myself accountable to the art.

New post at Midtown Montgomery Living: “Roads, Trails and Near-Death Experiences: Skating Montgomery”

Hello friends, I’m going to be writing a monthly blog post for Midtown Montgomery Living. Follow them on facebook, while you’re at it.

Here’s my inaugural entry: Roads, Trails and Near-Death Experiences: Skating Montgomery.

And here’s to resurrecting my writing in all its forms! As I return to the documentary poetry project this summer, I hope to resurrect this Difficult History as well.

The Origins of “A Body by the Wayside Strange”

Over on Facebook, Jennifer Barber, who published my poem “A Body by the Wayside Strange” in the 16.2 issue of Salamander, asked me to write a paragraph about the poem’s origins. However, since I am only ever concise in poems, this paragraph has turned into several, and I thought I might as well also offer it up as a blog post.

As long-time readers of this blog might recall, I had planned to write a new collection of poems for my dissertation from the PhD program at the University of Cincinnati loosely based on Alabama history (and I now hope to get back to that project now that I’ve finished the PhD). In the course of things, I became obsessed with the murder—really the cold-blooded lynching—of a young black man, Michael Donald, in my hometown of Mobile in 1981, by the local klavern of the United Klans of America, then the most prominent KKK organization in the country. Donald was chosen at random to be murdered and hung from a tree in order to send the message that African Americans shouldn’t be allowed to serve on juries. At the time Josephus Anderson, an African American, was being tried in Mobile for the murder of a white Birmingham police officer, and the Klan worried that black members of the jury would acquit Anderson. In 1981, I was in first grade. I wasn’t aware of the lynching at the time, but have since been horrified to learn that such an act could happen in my lifetime, so close to where I grew up. And when I tote up the degrees of separation between me and the murderers, I find my mother temped briefly for the father of Henry Hays, one of the killers, and supposedly Hays had a high-school crush on my aunt. Too close. Too close.

I read court transcripts and autopsy reports. I returned to Mobile’s downtown from which Michael Donald was abducted to be taken across Mobile Bay where he was murdered and to which his body was returned to be hung from a tree.

Mobile has magnificent trees: Colossal and ancient live oaks scarfed with Spanish moss. Magnolias with fragrant white blooms the size of hands and their smaller, lavender cousins, Japanese magnolias. Dogwoods that my first-grade teacher taught us Christ had been crucified on and whose blooms resembled both his cross and crown of thorns (she also had us pray behind closed doors even after some lawsuit had squarely forbidden prayer in school). And camphor trees, the invasive Asian import that can sprawl as large as a live oak. It was from the branch of a camphor tree that Michael Donald’s body was tied. Almost any time of year, if the angle is right, you can catch the sparkle of Mardi Gras beads deep in the branches of the live oaks that line Government Boulevard and other parade routes. To think of what all these trees have seen in their hundreds of years . . .

I struggled—still struggle—with how to write about the case. I am white, and I don’t just want to be a voyeur who profits off of other people’s misery, and yet, of course, all writers profit from their subject matter. I’m also wary of misrepresenting the voices and stories of my subjects and the documents I’ve studied. For some poems, this anxiousness led me to make found poems of documentary material with clear citations of my sources. But there can be only so many found poems, only so many citations.

To counter such anxieties, friend and writer Molly Gaudry suggested I try writing morning pages (a practice outlined in Julia Cameron’s The Complete Artist’s Way). “A Body by the Wayside Strange” grew out of that. Writing first thing in the morning let me lose control. Gone were my old, stiff measured lines. Gone was any sense that I needed a poem to take on only a small but well-defined part of the larger story I wanted to tell. Instead, my mind wandered from details of the area’s habitat—an iridescent beetle impaled upon a barbed wire fence by a shrike, the creaking canebrakes on Mobile bay where it’s said the last boat of slaves illegally brought from Africa to America hid—to the accounts of Michael Donald’s family who knew something was wrong even before his body was found because he was not the kind of young man to stay out all night.

When I finished a messy draft, I sent it (as I do just about everything write) to my dear and trusted friend, the accomplished Cynthia Arrieu-King (poor Cindy!). Cindy worked magic to shape and tighten the lines and title, which was originally “What Makes a Body by the Wayside Strange Is How You Use It,” a sterile echo of my own anxieties about writing about a tragedy affecting real people, many of whom still live.

The poem is one I have mixed feelings about. I’m still anxious about its subject matter and whether or not I do it justice. Formally, the lines are dreamier and more sprawling than I usually go. In many ways, it still feels like an early morning draft, but perhaps its rawness is fitting.

I don’t know what kind of writing I want to do anymore.

I don’t know what kind of writing I want to do anymore, I decide while punching holes in a copy of my dissertation so I can put it in a 3-ring binder. This is a familiar ritual, where I first gather up work I’ve shunned and then revise it and submit it for publication. The poetry section of my dissertation is, itself, yet another incarnation of a manuscript I first submitted to contests three years ago before deciding I was only wasting reading fees. Following the poetry is a plus-sized article manuscript, which, even flipping through six pages at a time to hole punch, still causes my heartbeat to rise anxiously. (And let me acknowledge now, since it wasn’t really appropriate to fit into my actual dissertation acknowledgments, that there is no way I could have finished that unholy monster of an article without the gentle loving kindness of my dear friend clonazepam, aka generic Klonopin, the grad student’s little helper.)

In the months since I defended my dissertation, I haven’t looked at it save to upload a file to the graduate school or to send a copy to my mother who asked sweetly to read it or to a friend who was formatting her own diss. Instead, my job now relatively secure until I go up for tenure, I have plunged into the luxurious depths of downloading to my Kindle and gobbling up fantasy novels with surprising speed–or at least a speed I was never able to reach with my grad school readings. All five of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, devoured like so much scorched horse flesh by a black-scaled rebel of a dragon. The Hunger Games trilogy, raced through as if my life depended upon it. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, read awkwardly while feeling out of place (I’m a life-long awkward adolescent). The Long Walk—my first Steven King novel!—plodded through anxiously, to the delirious, unforgiving end. And now I’m neck-deep in the first book in the Sookie Stackhouse series, which tastes, I imagine, like the sugary fake blood favored in Hollywood.

Besides learning that Steven King is a better writer than I’d imagined (did my fancy creative writing schooling make me snobby? you betcha!), I’ve also been reminded why I first wanted to be a writer—because I love reading so doggone much—and the books that I first fell in love with weren’t the rarefied poetry books I’ve since aspired to write but rather speculative fiction and what is now called young adult fiction. As disappointed as I am with A Dance with Dragons*, I rather like George R.R. Martin’s argument that fantasy, science fiction, and horror are all cut from the same cloth, that they are “flavors, if you will, of imaginative fiction, romantic fiction—the great romantic tradition as opposed to realistic tradition in literature.” [And thus the writing of this post took a two-day hiatus so that I could scour all of Martin’s recent interviews on the web to find that exact quote—even if I’m no longer exactly sure why I needed to quote him in the first place. The grad student dies hard.]

And all that is preface to say that in the past few weeks, I’ve toyed with returning to blogging, but wondered what I should blog about—what I watch on TV, which I’ve come to love the way I also love books and find newly valuable? my efforts to teach myself to cook like an adult? My attempts to get to know the city I’ve lived in for a year but sequestered myself away from while working on the dreaded dissertation? the original project I founded this particular dissertation for, my explorations of Mobile and Alabama history?

I’ve also considered taking up fiction. I’ve had a couple of fiction workshops (as a product of the MFA and creative writing PhD system, I feel compelled to list my bona fides however unfide those bonas might be). I have a twinkling towards young adult fiction, and I’ve gone so far as to purchase a special notebook to put my ideas in. (So far, blank!)

On another screen, I have a half-written guest review of a film for the terrific feminist film blog Bitch Flicks. And by half-written, I only mean the scattered notes I jotted down immediately after viewing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button a whole week ago but have since neglected.

Ah, and I’ve just now taken an hour’s detour to write a comment on a post at The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s “On Hiring” blog. (An hour? For a comment? Seriously?) Which is to say, I’m mightily distracted by all the kinds of writing I’m interested in, and worry (always worry) about my ability to stick long enough with any one kind to produce anything at all. Other evidence being this very post, which began as a distraction from the poetry manuscript and from which I’ve been distracted by emails to writing groups and blog comments.

It’s a right royal mess, it is—both this this post and my larger predicament. Is it even a predicament? Am I troubled by having too many interests? Do I wander off to a new project as soon as the current one gets difficult? Is there some kind of attention disorder going on? It’s certainly a predicament in as much as I must publish to get tenure, and if I don’t get tenure, I must publish so I can be competitive for a new job. It’s not even publish or perish. It’s publish or publish!

I guess I’d best post this rambling mess before I take another two-day break and decide to double its structureless length for no apparent reason. It’s not like I’ve got any conclusions. (I should probably also unlink the blog from facebook because I shouldn’t subject facebook to every unaccountable thought I have, but I still need to commit to something, to write something, even if its random, messy blog posts.)

*That’s another post, surely, but perhaps I should say I’m disappointed with it in the way that only someone who’s been enthralled by the series and remains dedicated to it can be “disappointed,” which is to say, I can see Martin working hard here, where the early novels seemed effortlessly magical.