I wrote a thing about my aunt, Sue, who passed away last summer.... I still don't know what to do with this, really, but sharing it feels right today, especially as my grading slows at the end of the term, and I have some time to reorient my life, to find my way back to creating a life I love.
I know, we can all agree that George Saunders is THE MAN. In fact, his book, Lincoln in the Bardo, just won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction.
While I know this is an esteemed award, there are two things George Saunders has done that I count as cooler:
He read as the Irene Blair Honeycutt Distinguished Speaker at CPCC's Sensoria (I'm obviously biased because I'm the co-chair of the committee who brought him.)
He went to Italy to Hear his own work--about Lincoln sitting in the tomb of his son--being performed in Italian while sitting in a tomb in Milan (so meta and So Italy)
What do the kids say now? #squadgoals
Because of his insistent presence on my Facebook NewsFeed, I've been thinking about Saunders and his work lately. And, thus, I turned back to my notes from his lectures and readings in Charlotte.
Therein, I found obvious wisdom, which is the sort we already know, but of which we need someone to remind us. And we need someone like George Saunders reminding us if we're actually going to listen.
Please know that these are not exact quotes, but scribbles from my notes, which were obviously accompanied by doodles.
1. What are your actual habits? Accept them.
Good God, no! I am always trying to improve my habits. But fine, Saunders, I hear you.
2. Watch yourself without judgement.
3. Game yourself.
This one might need a little explaining. I think Saunders was talking about how we have this need to "win the game." We shouldn't try to play ourselves or cheat ourselves, but we--our lives, ourselves, our souls--should be the game we set out to win. Win at being you. Game yourself.
4. No one can guarantee that you’re going to succeed as an artist, but it’s up to you to give yourself that chance.
5. Obstructions are what we are. Acknowledge them. They might be your strength.
6. Take 15 minutes a day to be like a dog. Catch one scent in your mind and follow it.
And that's what I've done. Right here. Right now. I've followed my nose for 15 minutes to share my thoughts with you.
Daniela Gioseffi is, like the title of this blog says, an author and activist. She's dedicated her life to fighting for people's rights, promoting multicultural literature and art, defending democracy, and advocating for the environment. She has written 17 books of poetry and prose, including one which I edited with her, Pioneering Italian American Culture: Escaping La Vita Della Cucina, and her 2017 collection of poems, Waging Beauty as the Polar Bear Dreams of Ice. She also edits the online anthology: www.Eco-Poetry.org. I know I've mentioned it somewhere before, but I am Daniela Gioseffi's literary executor.
I first learned of Daniela's work when I was in an Italian literature class at Clemson Univ., and a colleague of my professor came for an Italian Studies Symposium with copies of Daniela Gioseffi's Blood Autumn: Autunno de Sangue. I didn't really know that there was a place or a space for Italian American writers.
A few years later, I was writing a paper on Italian American poetry for my Bibliography and Historiography (Dr. Blevins!), while working towards my MFA in poetry at McNeese State University. I guess I was trying to figure out where I fit in the world of poetry. I'm not quite a formalist, I'm not quite a Southerner, I'm not quite an Italian American (3rd generation doesn't really count). Anyway, while writing my paper, I happened across Daniela's email address, and I sent her an overly enthusiastic, probably fairly spastic, fan letter.
And she replied, and she asked me if I wanted to come help her with a few things if I was ever in New York. So I found a way to get to New York, crashing on the couches of my gracious friends and cousins.
At first, when there was a lot to do--Daniela is a powerhouse of publishing--, and when we were editing a collection of her essays and essays about her for Bordighera Press, I went as often as every six months. Now that we can do so much at a distance, I only visit about every two years.
Since my last visit, an archivist from Yale's Bienecke Library came to collect Daniela's vast donations of books and periodicals and papers and correspondence to what is the The Daniela Gioseffi Papers in their American Collection. Yep. For real.
This most recent trip, we focused on organizing the rest of the papers that Daniela has kept, shuffling, sorting and recycling. Not only was this incredibly cathartic, but it helped remind Daniela of all the things she's done, all the readings, the events, the protests, the activism and the inspiration. Her work as both an author and an activist has really been groundbreaking. It will be my job to preserve it, to make sure her hard work and her memory endure.
Going to Daniela's is like going home; I know all the doormen, it smells like home, I have my space. I love running at Brooklyn's Pier Park (which wasn't there when I first starting visiting), and walking through the neighborhood in the afternoons, soaking in the social and literary history of the place, its magnitude and all the greats who have walked there, too.
I always leave Brooklyn Heights with a little more wisdom: about myself, my writing, my career. One of the stories that Daniela told me during this visit is that she had an early teacher who told her:
"Be kind to life."
As kindred spirits, Italian-Americans, Aquarii, Daniela and I are both easily frustrated and anxious with the world, with our situations. Perhaps this is indeed what propels us to write and act, what gives us our passion. However, Daniela's teacher told her to "be kind to life." Even in those moments when we are most tired and despairing at the state of the world, I guess we must be kind to life, forgive it a little bit, for being so hard.
The hardness of life has not kept Daniela from achieving greatness, and her mentoring has helped me on my path to do the same.
Last month, I committed to writing a poem every day, and through this task, I learned a lot about my writing self. And, nah, I didn't write anything brilliant.
I came to grips last fall with the fact that I am a ponder-er or at least that my thought process is ponderous. It takes me a really long time to decide what I think about something. Like when all of my brilliant friends were writing about the election, I was saying, "I can't even" until about mid-January. Or when one of my amazing colleagues stands up for something really important in a meeting, and I'm like, "Damn! Right!? I wish I would have thought about that glaring objection!" I will never be able to do those things quickly.
Anyway, I sort of knew that this applied to my writing. For example, I have never really been an "everyday writer." I do not sit down, like some of my most-talented writer-friends, and scrawl iambic lines of verse every day (although I really respect their process and commitment, and I think Anne Lamott would secretly hate them with me). That's just not how I write, and trying to write everyday in April reiterated this.
For real. One of the things I learned last month is that sitting down to write every day does not guarantee me a mass of insightful poems (or even a composition book filled with marginally pleasing verse).
For example, this crappy ditty was inspired by what is in my fridge and William Carlos Williams:
April 5: This morning, / I am wishing / for the luxury / of blackberries. / But they have not / been rinsed / or pulled out / to lounge / in the sunlight.
Right? Not super insightful. Not even that insightful when I added line breaks and corrected that verb agreement error. I think I had an equally good time drawing blackberries.
I did have some positive revelations, too.
In addition to learning that writing every day does not create deeply insightful poems (for me anyway), I did learn how much form helps me write consistently. For example, I found pantoum (which is pretty much my favorite anyway) was really helpful in focusing on my thoughts. Basically a pantoum repeats lines 2 and 4 from one stanza as lines 1 and 3 in the next. You can read the full description here if you're so inclined. Usually I start a poem by writing about something weird I see and can't get out of my brain; for example, there was a line of black office chairs at a bus stop on my way home from work, and they will be a poem. But since I don't get this fodder for my poems every day, it was sometimes easier to start with a mantra or thought I wanted to focus on and then just start describing.
In this, I often started with a mantra: "I am here" or "I am okay." And then I slowly moved onto some images. For example, one of my pantoums ended something like this:
I am part of this world. / I breathe the air and sneeze the pollen, / and I am doing everything I can / desperately somedays but always.
I breathe the air and sneeze the pollen, / The dogs chase each other through the poplars / desperately somedays but always. / I watch the irises rustle in the wind.
(Yes, I intentionally displayed all of poems horizontally because I don't want anyone to get any ideas that these are finished at all.)
It's obviously not great, but it's something. Anyway, I also tried haiku, sonnets (of course! but none about my usual roadkill), Roethke's writing prompt according to Hugo, and even a ghazal. It was fun.
The last thing I learned is for sure the cheesiest. In fact, if my friend Jaime were sitting next me right now, she'd be rolling her eyes. "PERMISSION." And I'd be groaning like Tina Belcher: UGH.