Conference Envy: A Survival Guide

Sad Web SurfingYesterday I was running around the park in a T-shirt with a birthday party full of seven-year-olds. Today, I walked downtown through a flurry of hard, tiny pellets of snow that I couldn’t escape from. It was a little like the experience of going to bed a happy, underpaid writer and waking up the next day as a miserable, underpaid writer who is staying home while everyone else you know is traveling to a conference.

No matter where you look online, you’re getting smacked in the face with these niggling little reminders that you’re here dealing with laundry and kids and deadlines and your friends are off brown-nosing editors and eating dinner in absurdly large groups and developing inside jokes and memories that you’re going to be outside of the next time you get together.

You can complain to and commiserate with the three or four other people you know who aren’t at the conference, but you’re aware that it’s petty and fruitless, so you stop after a few hours and just try to avoid the Interwebs for a few days—which means that, no, you didn’t see that video of Trump as Lex Luthor or whatever it was. [Read more…]

What Happened to Fun?

slumber partyI was so good, and for such a long time, two weeks at least of decent work and adherence to my schedule. Two weeks of self control, discipline, and a rule—twenty minutes of prayer, ten of spiritual reading, thirty of new writing, one to two hours of old writing and editing, fifteen of cleaning and picking up, with the rest of the afternoon devoted to planning and executing dinner.

Evenings are entirely for the children from two-thirty to ten. Exercise after the kids are in bed, go to sleep at a reasonable hour (sometime before midnight), and I felt so satisfied, was coming to such a place of peace with my life and what I’m doing with it.

And then I took a day off, if you could call it that. It was a Saturday. I refused laundry and dishes and meaningful work, because I was spending time with the kids, see, going to soccer games and helping them visit their friends, and otherwise resting and waiting and falling deeper and deeper into a pit of unquenchable longing.

This happens sometimes. I can almost predict it—though I never bother to try—when I have been unbalanced in my affairs, often, ironically, while attempting to live a life of balance. Evil can only fill a void, the spiritual teachers say. There’s no time for misbehaving when I’m living a full life, but there’s also no time for fun, and I miss play.

By play I mean something primal and social, but not exactly childish. It’s a matter of improvisation in the company of like-minded people, inhibition set aside, a bit more physical than ordinary conversation, with a hint of practical joke or slapstick, and it involves guttural laughter. [Read more…]

Autistic Lives Matter

4121837708_b3d12f0f30_oWhen I first met Daniel Bowman Jr. at the Festival of Faith and Writing, we both experienced that you’re-not-how-I-pictured-you-from-Facebook moment. While he may not have felt self-consciously compact, I became quite aware of my own awkward, lumbering stature that banged into a book table or two. Still, I tried to make a good impression while obsessing over the fact that I wasn’t wearing earrings twenty minutes before my appointment to read a poem at the chapel.

“I’ll feel naked up there without earrings,” I told him. “Wanna come with me to the campus store to find some?”

Nice to meet you. I’m neurotic and say inappropriate things.

Dan, on the other hand, was fighting a whole ninja army of thoughts: What do I say to de-escalate the anxiety rising up from standing in the middle of a conference with hundreds of people? How can I be endearing and likeable? If I’m witty will she want to get to know me better?

We not only survived the encounter, but over the next couple of years, grew in our friendship. We shared our writing, spent time with mutual friends at retreats and conferences, and even set up a co-reading at a local coffee shop in my area. Meanwhile, I began to observe some quirky patterns in Dan’s behavior—nothing too worrisome, since we are, after all, poets. But he often avoided eye contact or had trouble transitioning to hellos and goodbyes. Sometimes he became agitated during unpredictable social situations. [Read more…]

Talk to Me in Letters

Elizabeth_Bishop

By Alissa Wilkinson

Dearest Cal: Please never stop writing me letters—they always manage to make me feel like my higher self (I’ve been re-reading Emerson) for several days.
— Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell, July 27, 1960

Dearest Elizabeth: I think of you daily and feel anxious lest we lose our old backward and forward flow that always seems to open me up and bring color and peace.
— Robert Lowell to Elizabeth Bishop, March 10, 1963

My office bookshelves are segregated topically, and one entire shelf is devoted to books of letters between writers. Most are towering mid-century literary figures about whose lives I obsess like one might Facebook-stalk a crush, looking for new bits of information or examining the edges of pictures for other famous people lurking in the blurry background.

There’s the correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, the missives Simone de Beauvoir sent Jean-Paul Sartre, decades of letters between Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt, others between Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, the love letters Vladimir Nabokov sent his wife Vera, stacks more.

Obviously I’m not alone in this: Carlene Bauer wrote Frances and Bernard, a fictionalized correspondence (and entirely fictional romance) between characters modeled on Lowell and Flannery O’Connor, who met at Yaddo in 1948. I have my students review the book every term, purely for my grading pleasure. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Mixed Company” by Brett Foster

lastsupperEach Friday at Good Letters we feature a poem from the pages of Image, selected and introduced by one of our writers or readers.

The much-beloved poet and teacher Brett Foster passed away earlier this week and so I’d like to dedicate “Poetry Friday” to his memory. Image published quite a few of Brett’s poems and the one I’ve chosen to talk about is “Mixed Company.” I chose it because while many of Brett’s poems exemplify an elegant formalism (in part deriving from his deep knowledge of Renaissance literature), this one shows him to be in a more informal, colloquial mood. With its short lines and dramatic soliloquy form, “Mixed Company” offers a vivid glimpse into the second chapter of the gospel of Mark. Like those medieval or Renaissance paintings that placed biblical stories in contemporary settings, this poem begins by talking about a coffee shop. There’s some fun as Brett plays with the meaning of the poem’s title (and don’t you just love “the ‘meh’ of our behaviors / or consistent confusions”?). Having disoriented us with the coffee shop reference, Brett suckers us in to the perspective of one of the disciples, who is grateful for the way Jesus accepts him (and his fellow “sinners”). The speaker realizes that something Jesus has told them might be considered insulting, but instead he finds it liberating. In Brett’s deft handling, simple language gains unexpected resonance and power: “I found / myself happy to be allowed /
to stay there.” I believe Brett did find a place to “stay” on this earth and I trust that he’s found it even more truly now.

 

—Gregory Wolfe


“Mixed Company” by Brett Foster

Mark 2

Meaning, not the fey name
of a coffee shop cheekily named,
but me and the sinners
(not “mixed” as in unlike things
commingling, but rather
the “meh” of our behaviors
or consistent confusions,
contradictions like breaking
news ongoing, over and over
with little new to report…)
as I was saying, me and sinners
and tax collectors, resorting
to the healer’s home most nights
since Levi from the tollbooth
introduced us all. That one night
he delicately explained how lately
the holier-than-thous
who police our community
were increasingly complaining
of our all hanging out.
We half expected to be gently
asked to leave at that point.
I mean, I think we would
have mainly understood it.
You’ll appreciate with me, then,
how surprised and pleased
we felt that this wasn’t
the case or the result
of his telling us this, not
at all. “It’s sick people who need
a doctor, not healthy ones,”
he said, smiling. Thinking
of it now, it’s sort of insulting,
but that’s not how we heard it.
They were comforting
words instead, and I found
myself happy to be allowed
to stay there, just nodding,
nodding vigorously,
at the sound of those words.

 

Brett Foster is the author of two poetry collections, The Garbage Eater (Triquarterly /Northwestern) andFall Run Road, which was awarded Finishing Line Press’s 2012 Open Chapbook Prize. A third collection,Extravagant Rescues, is forthcoming. His writing has appeared in Books & Culture, Boston Review, Hudson Review, Kenyon Review, Poetry Daily, Raritan, Southwest Review, and Yale Review. He teaches creative writing and Renaissance literature at Wheaton College.


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