Herewith, a break from our regular semi-scholarly musings and comparative reading.  Work on my forthcoming book continues.  It is now officially in production and available for pre-order from Seattle Book Company.

Click here to order Technical Solace

And, in what I hope will be the first of several reading events, I will be appearing with a group of other local authors at a Fifth Avenue Press book launch.  As I mentioned in my first post, Fifth Avenue Press is a new imprint of the Ann Arbor District Library.  We will be the first group of authors published by the press.  Check out this book launch event page. I hope to see you there!


“Poems are not ‘why.’ They are ‘because.’  Comprised of both question and answer they mirror music more singularly than any other human enterprise.”  –Ned Rorem, “Settling the Score”

So much has been written about the setting of poetry to music that I won’t try to improve upon it here.  Mr. Rorem is fabulously cantankerous about how the poet and the composer are both right, and both wrong, and about the difference between poetry set to music and lyrics that were never meant to be read in silence.  My angle is a little different. I’m into music poems.

There are two categories of music poems that I write and like to read.  One is poems about music, that allude to, analyze, or react to specific pieces of music or aspects of music-making.  The other is poems that imitate musical form. In this post, we’ll look at the first category.  Here’s a gorgeous music poem by Mary Karr:

Carnegie Hall Rush Seats

If you listen to the audio of the author reading the poem, close your eyes.  Even though I had read the poem several times over on the page, there was something I didn’t realize until I heard her read it: the ending sounds like what it is describing.  My ears expected her voice to keep going, but it stopped abruptly, as if at the edge of a cliff.  It’s chilling, then you savor the expertise of it.  Very much like the perfect cutoff of a solo cello line.

In addition to being illustrative, this poem works in other ways.  It contains its own raison d’etre and so, as Rorem says, it is “because.”  It’s a poem about virtuosity that is itself virtuosic, and so it works on the reader-musician as a kind of meta-artwork: like a great concert, it makes me want to redouble my practicing and/or give up entirely.  The poem is remonstrative; how could we forget that instruments are made of trees?  That, in bringing the cello to life, we kill the tree?  Karr is not the first writer to notice that cellos and women’s bodies are similarly shaped, but she avoids any shallow comparison here by using “shaped” in the sense of objectivity: having undergone a process (we are both shaped and smoothed).  I’m drawn in by her honest intimations of violence.  Often, the musical product we see in concert is presented in a luxurious way, plated, as it were, like a steak, a foregone conclusion.  Karr takes us back to the butcher shop.  We then have to reckon with where beauty comes from, and decide whether we can stomach the knowledge of brutality that yields the finished piece.

Taken with “Carnegie Hall Rush Seats,” I penned a poem in response.  Technique is always on my mind, never more so than when reading or writing a music poem.  But I was also swept up in Karr’s visual imagery and an almost kinesthetic sense of sway—both the feeling of holding and playing the cello (which I studied briefly in college) and the vertiginous feeling of sitting in nosebleed seats overlooking a stage far below (rush seats tending to be up there in the concert hall’s precipice).  I don’t have Karr’s technique, and anyway my means of expression is different. But I tried to attend to some of the same details she did from within my own transported state.

A dying sound
(homage to Mary Karr)

How you could shout on paper my
wrist vibrated taking in the shock
of your quiet song.  All those men
cutting down trunks and felling
women to get a cello in their muscled
legs.  All the times we almost missed
transcendence for the ticket price, concert
manners scrimming mortality.

How could I forget that the windowed
hourglass was also mine?  That instruments
are made of trees, tension, and age?  Saints
beyond Cecilia wait around the stage
doors of their graves, calling like hucksters
like hookers, like gangs, asking me do I want
to practice because they’ve got just what
I need.  Tell me again, it’s resin-sweet.

Here is a different kind of music poem, this one formed around/within a particular rhyme structure:

 A Heritage of Trumpets

Clive James, a white Australian poet who lives in England, here pays tribute to the great African American trumpet players who bequeathed us our musical heritage: Bunk Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, Cootie Williams, Bill Coleman, and Miles Davis, along with the Caucasian trumpet master Bix Beiderbecke, here envisioned as a kind of musical St. Peter at the gates of the hereafter. (For haunting historical fiction, look no further than Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, where the author imagines himself into the short, tragic, brilliant life of Buddy Bolden.) The poet even nods at Elijah McCoy—who eventually settled in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

But “A Heritage of Trumpets” looks back further still, its references to dying and to funerals reminding us of Biblical trumpets.  The archangel Gabriel, recognized in the mythos of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, is often portrayed as a trumpet player.  The Battle of Jericho (Book of Joshua) was supposedly decided by the powerful trumpeting of the Israelite army.  And Christian tradition depicts the coming of Judgement Day accompanied by trumpets.  Thus, James’s poem reads as a kind of psalm, a religious song-poem bearing a message in its text and in its subtext.  I wonder if it is a memorial, not only to the trumpeter-heralds of swing and bebop, but, in addition and in advance, to the poet himself.  The narrator has that slightly instructive yet overawed tone of a minor prophet, someone who knows he’s a conduit for bigger powers.

Again, as with the Karr poem, the writing here exemplifies itself. “A well-timed silence puncturing the swing / Only to add propulsion” contains a tiny musical rest followed by a quickening of beats. Slightly less successful is “The lawlessness, the skipping lilt of it,” which, while it comes across as basic iambic pentameter in my head, does have more lilt in the author’s own reading. And the assonance of kit/lilt/it is a pleasant touch.  Ultimately, this poem succeeds because it, like a trumpet fanfare, pronounces itself with clarity.  The cadence is clear, the evenness of phrasing gives it stability; it’s bright but not strident.  Like good brass, it has some darkness. Like a good funeral march, it’s never entirely dark.

A few years ago, by a series of associative leaps, I came across the album Four Marys, on the Chesky record label.  Rebecca Pidgeon’s title track was my first exposure to both this song and the legend to which it refers.  Briefly, Mary, Queen of Scots was thought to have had four namesake ladies-in-waiting: Mary Hamilton (the narrator of the song), Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, and Mary Carmichael.  Mary Hamilton supposedly became pregnant with the child of “the highest Stuart of all,” a child whom she abandoned or killed, depending on the version. The (probably fictional) Mary Hamilton paid with her life; the song is a series of her recollections and thoughts as she is led to the gallows.

The Child Ballads contain no fewer than eighteen versions of Four Marys.  It’s been recorded by Joan Baez as well as any number of Celtic music groups.  Oh, and here’s the sheet music for a solo piano arrangement of it I wrote for a theory class in grad school.

Stumbling upon a reference to a chilling old ballad one has listened to, sung, and arranged would be satisfying. Encountering it in poetic form, even more so. That’s what happened when I opened my copy of the New Yorker and saw this:

Homage to Mary Hamilton

First, let’s appreciate the deluge of allusions, parallels, and puns. Green-wood/the greenwood of many a Scottish ballad.  Queens, New York/Queen of Scots. Murder, Inc./infanticide.  Heartbeat in recycled newspapers/the infant wrapped in Mary’s kerchief.  Romeo and Juliet/the ill-fated couple of Mary Hamilton and the King of Scots. Three crows/the two crows of the, yes, Scottish ballad also, coincidentally, track #12 of the Four Marys album.  Four Toms, the author’s winning play on his own name and fictitious namesakes.  Second, let’s savor the way he weaves in lines from the original ballad, lines the poem’s narrator is hearing diegetically in his car in the poem, alternating with his own distracted thoughts.  And finally, the way he ties it all together lyrically, rhymingly, rhythmically.  There is both straightforward appreciation and satire of a super-mournful ballad at the heart of this poem that is, in effect, an appreciation and satire of the ongoing human condition.  It’s playful and sad and has that shrug-like quality of rueful inevitability.

Whereas Mary Karr describes a specific concert in general terms, and Clive James sums up a lineage of musicians, Tom Sleigh does something else here: he reacts to a specific song. He makes art about art that already exists. This is what we call ekphrasis, and it’s one of my favorite things in the world.  Even better is that the song is itself rooted in an unverifiable legend.  We can’t know if Mary Hamilton ever really lived, but her story is generalizable: a young woman taken advantage of by her powerful employer, resorting to a desperate solution that solves nothing, and coming to the worst possible end.  Tom Sleigh’s story is also generalizable, and perhaps more relatable to those of us leading ordinary lives: we grapple with the elements from a place of relative safety, we notice the perils and crassness of life and reflect on our own character in the world.  We hear echoes of the past and feel we’re not exempt.

We’ve seen by now that the New Yorker’s editors have fine taste in music poems.  Time to get a little more personal.  There is another well-known folk tale close to my heart, not included in Child but listed in Roud’s index, that made its way from Ireland to Appalachia.  It’s known by several titles, including Molly Vaughan, Molly Bawn, Polly Vaughn, and, in Gaelic, Mailí Bhán (which translates as “fair-haired Mary”).  Spoiler alert, it’s about another ill-fated young woman.  This time, she’s the victim of circumstance and ineptitude. Molly (let’s call her) goes for a walk at dusk, takes cover from a rainstorm in some shrubs, and pulls her white pinafore around her to stay dry. Her boyfriend, out hunting at the same time, mistakes the white cloth for the feathers of a swan and shoots the woman he loves.  The chorus of the song, “she’d her apron about her / and he took her for a swan / but oh and alas / it was she, Molly Bawn” shares that same what-are-you-gonna-do quality as “Four Marys,” frustrating for a modern listener.  Whereas Mary Hamilton was executed for setting her baby on the sea, the killer of young Molly is never specifically punished–or, rather, his confession and feelings of guilt and loss are implied to stand in for any other punishment.  There are lots of good recordings, my two favorites being by Pete Seeger and Alison Krauss, respectively.

The ballad of Mary Hamilton is partly in third-person perspective, partly first-.  Mary gets to speak for herself quite a bit.  But Molly/Polly Vaughn does not.  It’s a truism of narrative style that first person gets us closer to the character, and I think it works that way in the songs.  We have less reason to sympathize with Mary, yet more inclination to do so, than with Molly.  Molly is wholly innocent, yet rather removed from her own tragic story.  It’s the dude who acts and experiences.  This got me thinking about the role of the singer and the listener.  What do we make of the story? Are we moved because of Molly’s murder or her boyfriend’s guilt?  Why is the only thing we know about her the way in which she was killed?  Does she bear any responsibility for being swan-like, in the woods, in hunting season?  I don’t truck with victim blaming, but I entertained the idea that she had some facets to her character, perhaps even foolishness, rather than being an entirely flat surface.  I also wondered how the urge to couple, to kill and to die draws a rope line from the ballad down to our own era.  The result is this poem:

Bird Legend

I will take you for a lot of things but probably not a swan.
You could wear romantic garments in the woods
but surely not an apron, and if so, not perching
under a hawthorn, in a storm.  Not that Polly Vaughn
or Molly Bonn deserved to be shot, no one does, but come on.

The swan can be different things: Leda’s rapist, or Camille
Saint-Saens reaching his blanched spirituality to the high re.
French, Irish, Appalachian even, it’s all a Greek tragedy.

Three swans, equidistant, ply
the still water just past the ice’s curve;
wind plays in the unstrung lute of bare trees.
Three swans, the border between winter
and water, and never once
have I thought of killing them, have I?

If the swan girlfriend is anything
like the crane wife, she’ll wish
for a bed soft as her own down.
If the rash young hunter is
anything of a husband, he’ll stalk
the stores until he brings it home.
By the time he starts to grieve
the song has flown.

This is where I’ve traced you, Moll:
to Erin.  Native of the strong green
and rough rock, nearly haunting cabins
in your slack dress, real woman or verse, wan
Mailí Bhán, your love was out shooting
his mouth off, drinking and gunning
for home.  You were gone over
the ocean—America—or only down
the ditch out of town, either way
white, either way far from everyone, you
cipher, you sweet long-lost moan.

A few things, without over-analyzing my own work.  The swan, as a mythical/animist figure, can be either victim or aggressor.  The Saint-Saens piece is “Le cygne,” penultimate movement of Carnival of the Animals.  The Crane Wife legend comes from Japanese mythology, is way more uplifting though still very creepy, and was explored in album format by folk-rock group The Decemberists.  There’s also a bit of Wallace Stevens’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Would it be too circular to suggest that Tom Sleigh, in “Homage to Mary Hamilton,” also makes reference to Stevens with the three crows?  (Maybe crows and blackbirds are so emblematic and widely written about that it’s a coincidence. Or maybe we’re all doing an homage to Wallace Stevens all the time.)

One thing I didn’t attempt here was regular meter and a planned rhyme scheme (I always have a bit of incidental, internal rhyme, and sometimes visual rhyme such as own/down).  Music poems don’t necessarily partake in the elements of music.  They can, as we’ve seen.  Or they can describe without exemplifying.  Here’s a poem by Pulitzer-winning writer Tyehimba Jess about the blind pianist John William Boone.  Among several things I love about this poem, it is the piano version of the John Henry legend:

Blind Boone’s Pianola Blues

I’d say this poem is in the key of D major, because it has two sharps.  The first “sharp” describes the pianola, or player piano, against which Boone demonstrates his prowess.  The second “sharp” describes Boone’s clarity of vision, as it were, his way of seeing/comprehending music by ear.  Contrast that with the blindness exhibited by the men judging him, who, rather than praise Boone’s intellectual caliber and total dexterity, put down his playing ability to luck. There is such a lyrical canter to this poem, it’s begging to be read aloud.  Here is my reading (with a rainstorm in the background). There is more to be said about human-versus-machine, whether it’s the modern version of this contest (digital pianos and recorded music, pop stars who lip sync to themselves) or the more general human anxiety that we will eventually be replaced by efficient robots in the workforce.  Then again, this poem is the last word: nothing mechanical, however accurate, will give us the “lunge” and expression of a human player; the “science of touch and sweat” is the beautiful endeavor of creatures who are dying as soon as we’re born.

There are more music poems to explore, but for now, let’s pause.  In the next post we’ll look at the second category of music poems: those that imitate a specific musical form.


“The world is in the work.” —Dina Maccabee

I have a couple of college degrees in music education, but that’s not what makes me a teacher.  I have zero degrees in fine arts, but I managed to become a published poet. Credentials aren’t meaningless, but they are contingent.  We’re born with certain aptitudes, we develop others, and luck has a lot to do with it.  What determines the nature and quality of our work? I’m a pianist by training; a linguist by birthright; and a finicky son of a gun because I said so.  If the goal in any craft is constant improvement, then we need to figure out what works, and try to repeat that.   As far as I can discern from my thirty years of playing and writing, craft comes down to three things.  They are (in order, I believe):

  1. Attention to detail
  2. Technique toward expression, and finally
  3. A transported state

Before we get too abstruse, here’s a picture of me playing the piano around the age of eight.  I had recently started lessons and my parents had purchased a little spinet for me to practice with.

piano kid (2)

That expression on my face, of total concentration and happiness?  Still a good indicator of how I feel while playing.  Not all the time.  There are moments of strong concentration without the happiness tincture, and there are moments of happiness or freedom, noodling about, without serious concentration.  There are also moments of getting stuck and frustrated.  But the combination of engagement and love of the activity with which one is engaged forms, to me, the condition for performance that I call transported state.  It’s like what Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, though his model has an important time component, which I don’t discuss here because it’s a separate (and pretty elusive) concept.  I do agree with him, though, that time seems to pass differently when one is engaged in work-play.

So how did I arrive at that state, or how does one arrive there in general?  Why does transported state end the list above, not start it?  Actually, it does, implicitly, start the list of conditions for good performance, whether written or musical.  First, we hear, listen and read.  We have to hear good stories to know that they can be told.  I had to hear and see someone playing the piano to know that that was a human activity.  I have an early memory, from around the age of three, of watching and listening as a woman played the piano in my nursery school.  The children were lying down on the colorful rug for a rest, and she played the haunting Southern song “All the Pretty Horses.”  I learned recently that the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax thought it originated with enslaved African Americans.  Being a toddler, I had no frame of reference, so all I could grasp was the sound itself.  Kids love novel sounds, especially minor and modal tonalities, which we don’t hear much in ambient American music.  I’ve found, teaching young students, that the first time they hear minor, they all perk up and want to try it.  That day in preschool I certainly perked up; I remember not lying down.  It wasn’t an impulse to disobey the teachers, I simply had to hear that music sitting up.  That was my first moment of piano craving.  I still remember that the name of the woman playing was Lyudmila, I remember the layout of the room and where I was in relation to the piano, and I remember feeling that there was no taking a nap while that song was going on.  You could say I was inspired.

In order to get from a wholly innocent attraction to the piano, to being able to play that song, or any song, for myself, I needed to learn a host of facts and skills.  Among them: fingers have numbers, certain ways of curving the fingers are best for making sound, the black keys are arrayed in groups of two and three, except at the lowest end of the piano, low means left and high means right, although I’m right-handed I play with both hands, separately and together, unlike most things it’s easier to play the piano with only one hand at a time, in lessons you learn but in practice you learn more, there are sharps and flats, each key has a basic hand position for the first five notes, when you play every other one it is called a triad.

And that’s leaving out music notation entirely.

People are drawn to their instruments for various reasons. I think I was drawn to music in general, and the piano in particular, because I love dwelling in details. (I also work well with my hands; I learned to sew and knit very young.)  It was clear enough to me, by the time I reached adolescence, that I would never exhaust all there was to learn about the piano, never be able, or have time, to play even a small fraction of the standard piano literature.  It was clear enough that, when I came across a garage sale copy of an old piano method book whose cover boasted that this method would “lead to mastery of the instrument,” I smirked visibly and thought about the patriarchy of the 1960s.  Except for a few exceptional humans, no one masters the piano.  It masters us. And that’s the point.  The worth of studying is to devote oneself to detail, to serve some musical end, which might be as abstract as making music for its own ephemeral sake or as concrete as accompanying a soloist to earn rent money.  In any case, the idea is to deepen and broaden experience.  What once was novel and difficult becomes routine, in order that we build complex skills from simple ones and complex understanding from early apprehension.

If we have decent teachers, and decent instruments, and decent time, and decent self-discipline, and encouragement, we can begin. Imagine how much depends upon just this.  Then we start to build what is known as technique.  Any practitioner of any art form, visual or aural, written or material, will tell you that certain fundamentals must be entirely within a student’s grasp before free expression can take place.  That doesn’t mean that utter beginners cannot explore, improvise freely (or “babble,” a term used in music learning theory to describe the sorts of unstructured musical utterances all musicians blurt out before learning guidelines).  It also does not mean that artists can’t be self-taught.  But imagine a student wanting to create something original and beautiful, lacking the vocabulary—of words, of sounds, of gestures, whatever—to convey the inner idea to an audience.  It’s part of why toddlers have tantrums, why young writers compose in strings of clichés, and beginning musicians have no phrasing.  They may know what they want to say, but lack the physical and mental experience or finesse to do so meaningfully.

All technique starts with imitation.  The legendary music pedagogue Shinichi Suzuki grasped this intuitively as he developed his methods for young children in postwar Japan.  Today, Suzuki music is a thriving industry.  Teachers are specially trained to gift children their songs and exercises by rote, in a compassionate way, beginning with actions that are easy to do and easy to remember.  Eventually, the students learn to read music.  From the beginning, parents must practice with their children, so in effect, the teacher teaches the parent as well as the child, and the parent continues teaching the child at home.  There are many music teaching methods besides Suzuki, and many unofficial offshoots that teachers create on their own.  Any one of them worth its salt relies, at least in part, on imitation.  Whether consciously or not, as we learn to speak and then, later, to read and write, we are imitating the elders and peers all around us.  And so, when we begin to write in a purposeful way, we, like music students composing for the first time, are drawing on what we have already learned by rote, and what we have already learned to hear and to make sense of.

Around the same time that I started piano lessons at the age of seven, I was getting interested in poetry.  I wrote short rhyming couplets about my favorite colors.  It was the verbal equivalent of picking out a basic folk song on the piano (which I also did, although it was not part of my teacher’s lesson plans).  I was calling on some cultural knowledge I’d been given about how sound is organized and trying to do it myself.  I wasn’t doing it for any reason I could name.  When we discover our interests, it often happens in that way: I didn’t go to the piano or make up a poem because someone told me to, although they were happy that I did.  I wanted it; that was all and that was enough.

Since I had parents with the means to provide me with music lessons, and since they were great readers and language-lovers, I got to have my start. I got to have what I wanted.  No learning process is perfect, and I missed plenty along the way.  But as I acquired a basic technique, greater fluency and range came along.  If you imitate good art enough, eventually you may produce some good art. Or some not-too-bad art.  And when you gaze at the details, practice toward proficiency, and eventually succeed? Presto, transported state.  The elation of creation.  Recycle, replicate, repeat.

How we learn is clearly connected with how we express ourselves.  And how we understand and use what we’re taught makes the difference between merely repeating the songs and verses we know, and creating something entirely new.  In the next section we’ll look at music and poetry as linked art forms.



“If you have time to spare, ride your bike there.
The library is great; let’s have a parade!” –G., age 7

I love my public library. I should—I come from a library-going, poetry-writing family. When my younger brother was in second grade, he won the prize for his age category in the local library’s library-themed kids’ poetry contest.  He composed the whole poem in his head, and my mom transcribed and submitted it. The concluding lines are quoted above. (I’m pretty sure the semicolon was mom’s.) The prize was a colorful ribbon and the poem’s being displayed in the library showcase. To us, that library was a magic place.  The kids’ room with a round couch, skylights in the ceiling festooned with fancy kites.  The quiet research area, so mysterious, so inaccessible. The giant, barely-spinnable globe.

A year or two after that, I won a school-based poetry prize.  My mostly white, largely Jewish middle school had an annual Diversity Day (capping off a four-week curricular Black History Month) in which students cooked and brought in foods from our own ethnic traditions, shared knowledge about known and lesser-known African American historical figures and wrote well-intentioned “brotherhood poems.”  I recently found mine and it was not as awkward as I thought.  Called “Unity Through the Ages,” the poem summarizes tragic historical events and ends with an ironical hope for better (in full rhyme and meter). It wasn’t unusual, in my family or in my town, for a twelve year old to be comparing and contrasting the Holocaust and lynchings.  Here’s a middle stanza:

Only the surface unmarred by a ruffle,

The little ripples are carefully muffled.

Racism walks with a quiet shuffle;

We don’t always see the scuffle.

Semicolon!  Capitalization!  And, yeah, a sincerity of intent.  Poetry was the only thing that seemed able to reach those extreme realms of thought or emotion around death and love. And if there are two things an adolescent is concerned with, it’s death and love writ large.  (The poems I wrote about my crushes at that time are only slightly quieter than the ones I wrote about World War Two.)  I got to read my poem out loud to the other students and our parents at the big ethnic-foods lunch, and the English teachers awarded me a prize. It was everything I could have wanted: a sparkly hair clip and a small leather wallet in reggae colors.

Prizes are nice. Writing for its own sake is also nice.  Personal expression, etc.  But then there was that moment I realized that other people were affected by what I wrote.  The experience I had reading poems in books—connecting with a voice, a personage, real or fictive, who seemed to already have thought of and put on paper things I believed—was something I could give to other people. I was always going to keep writing poems, but it was the Diversity Day recognition I received that made me want to keep entering contests. To submit to my high school literary magazine.  And, in college in the late nineties, collect my poems and have them bound at Kinko’s into little ten-page chapbooks that I gave to my friends and parents.  And, as a young adult, submit steadily and unsteadily over years, winding up with a few publication credits online and in print.  To reach people, tiny numbers of people, and know that my words and weird enjambments resonated somewhere outside my own skull.

All of which led, naturally enough, to putting together a book-length poetry manuscript.  I submitted some version of it to various contests judged by well-known poets whose work I respected, and I received pro forma rejection letters from the editors every time. I wasn’t too dismayed, but I wasn’t satisfied either. My work needed to land somewhere.  To keep myself motivated, I framed the exercise as a means to becoming a really great reviser of my own work.  A keen self-scrutinizer, the way a classical musician should be.

When a friend, who works for the library here in town, pointed me toward a call for submissions by local authors put out by the library itself, it was one of those coincidences that would only seem weird if you had walked into the movie just then.  My whole bookish life was actually leading up to such an event.  I love the library. I love the new, naturalistic architecture of my local branch, and the straightforward assertiveness of the downtown main building. I love the kids’ room with the fairy doors in the shelves. I love the used book sales, the wonky workshops, the network of connected libraries where I have never failed to find any obscure work I wished, to have it delivered to within a mile of my house.  And I love that they started a press to give local authors a means to get their work into many people’s laps.  Do ride your bike there. We should have a parade.

I duly revised my manuscript again and submitted it.  Then, imagine an underscored montage of the library’s in-house press receiving my work, and me waiting for word for the better part of a year, and me shrugging and assuming they were not interested.  And a library staffer emailing me to say that they were interested in my manuscript, but needed me to resubmit it.  The whole process repeats itself. Six weeks elapse, instead of months.  And just when I get ready to take my manuscript elsewhere, a different library staffer sends me this email:

Hi Rebecca,

First, sorry for the delay in responding; it’s taken us a bit longer than we expected to get through all the submissions.

Second, we want to publish your book! (<—buried the lede)

We’re shooting for a fall launch of the press with 10 (and counting) titles, perhaps in November and tying it to NaNoWriMo event

Do you have any photos or images you’d like to use for the cover? If not, our designer can look for some things if you have ideas about what you’d like to feature on the cover.


Feel free to ask me any questions, or let me know if you’d like to meet up to discuss anything, including the cover.


Fruition again.  No prizes, no money, just the best result of all: a small local press, run by city library staff, will be formatting and publishing my book of poems.  They will be e-publishing it for free circulation to all library card holders.  They will be promoting it at community events. They might even take my author photo! Gosh, what should I wear?

Now I’m figuring out how to be an author, more so than before.  So I start this blog to let folks know about the book, still a few months in the offing.  I connect with author friends and ask eleventy thousand questions, and I email library staffers with a degree of enthusiasm and detail that is probably annoying even to people who fully comprehend the Dewey system.  I chat with local book shop owners about holding events.  I do these things because I’m curious about how to connect, and you can’t know if you don’t ask.

I produce new work.  Producing new work right now is especially joyous, because it feels like my writing has a place to land.  I remember my beginnings: Doctor Seuss, Mother Goose, A Child’s Garden of Verses, Shelley, Burns and Byron, Whitman, then Hughes, Lorca, Neruda, Martí, Brooks, Szymborska, Milosz, Yeats, Lynch, Walker,Wilbur, Merwin, Piercy, Cummings, Ostriker, Gregerson, Ryan.  (I once wrote Kay Ryan a fan poem in the style of Kay Ryan. She wrote me back, on a postcard with one of her poems. I forgot to keep a copy of the poem I sent her, but I have the one she sent me.)

I remember my libraries.  The childhood one, that rewarded my brother’s enthusiasm. The elementary school library where I first read about Dr. King and Rosa Parks. The middle school library where I first heard the word “periodicals.” The high school library with a section of books by alumni and wooden ladders on metal rails.  The various college libraries with their moldy stacks, their absolute hush, the odd intimacy of carrels.  Their photocopiers.  Their endless scope.

To pick up where we left off: after the brotherhood poem, and a very near loss in the district spelling bee, I must have been designated Word Girl of the eighth grade. A poem of mine was also read at middle school graduation. It wasn’t the one I first submitted.  The one they read was somewhat fatuous, as grad poems tend to be. The one I wanted was about teenage girls’ social pressures and was titled “Anorexic Thespians.”  My takeaway there was that you can write what you want, and you can get some notoriety, but it might not be for the same work.

Finding out whether that was true took the next couple of decades.  And I’m still finding out. And I’ll let you know.  In the meanwhile, I hope to share, here, my adventures as a member of the first group of authors published by this press, in this way.  I’d like to share work by better, better-known poets and comment on why I think they are worth reading. I’d like some part of something I write to reach you, and I’d be honored if you reached back.