We Lived There, Expectant
Ten years ago I spent a month writing at Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondacks, where they provide creative residencies to writers, artists, and activists, and serve as a meeting point for culturally-based progressive movement building by expanding and encouraging conversations among cultural workers and others, as we create work that touches on themes of social justice, the environment, militarism, race and other issues facing our world.
I wrote a lot of material during that time, and some of if gradually made it into the public space. Last week one of my poems from that time was published online. It took ten years for this one to feel complete and I am happy that it has a home out in the world.
At Blue Mountain
by Holly Wren Spaulding
Two loons on a lake
in the evening fog,
air thick with it,
pale water barely moving.
I’m like a days-old fawn
setting out for the grasses—
I’m nimble again,
I smell like the hollows.
Once, I wanted only sounds
and scents of another human—
(continue reading the poem.)
This morning I received a note from a talented student whose first manuscript was just rejected from a chapbook contest. She wanted to know if it’s normal to feel such crushing disappointment.
Of course it is. At least for many writers. I take another view, however, and that is this: I honestly don’t expect anything when I send out my work, which I don’t actually do that often. I don’t expect readers or editors to be more interested in what I’m doing than any of the thousands of other submissions that cross their desk. I certainly write with the goal to do the best work that I possibly can, but I have never invested in the idea that its receipt, or even its celebration by someone else, was the reason or the goal.
As my friend Ken, a long-time journalist, pointed out to me last weekend, once you have some bylines it’s just about doing your job. Not a big deal, in other words. I realize this is different than not actually having the option of publication, and he over 5,000 bylines at this point, so Ken’s in a different position than my student is. But I resonate with the idea that we have to do our work and not expect much in the way of recognition. In my own case, even when you do have something published, it’s rare to ever hear anything from a reader. In other words, the real satisfaction is internal and has to come from the work itself, by which I mean the process of making it.
We have to write to please ourselves, and more than that, I write as a way of becoming intimate and even wise to my own experiences and thoughts and feelings. And I write to achieve that rare single-pointed mind wherein nothing else matters, and I’m doing just one thing at a time: shaping words and images. To Make music and maybe even make some kind of sense of what I think and feel: that is my reason for writing.
On Tuesday I attended a Q & A, followed by a reading, with the poets Jamaal May and Tarfia Faizullah. During the conversation at the Poetry Center at Smith College, May said many things that resonated with me, and at one point he mentioned that Natalie Diaz had received 40 or more rejections on most of the poems that appeared in her stunning debut collection, When My Brother Was an Aztek, which I saw her read from last year. It’s some of the most affecting work I’ve come across in a long time and I’m so glad she persisted in sending it out. May suggested that she was teaching editors to read her work and eventually they came along. They got it—but not immediately.
In response to a young poet of color who is struggling with being misunderstood in her work because her experiences and lexicon and points of reference are different from her peers in workshop, May said that anything that gets in the way, whether resistance or interruption, and certainly, rejection, is still the path, and you have to follow it: “Follow your life.” He encouraged everyone to become their own bodyguard.
This was such a rich and stimulating way to spend the afternoon and I’m glad these two are making work and getting it out there, so that the rest of us can find it and read it.
At one point Faizullah referenced a Sufi prayer: “Lord, increase my bewilderment.” If we can embrace this ethos, we won’t be dissuaded when the path becomes difficult.
I wish you could have been there.