Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My Mundane Life

When I finished grad school, about a year and a half ago, I was so burned out on writing fiction that I more or less quit doing it for awhile. My immediate fallback was poetry, and I'd like to think I've produced a decent number of poems in the past 18 months. But one day, I decided to try my hand at personal essays.

This was new territory for me, although I've since finished a handful of pieces and read several memoirs along the way. My main frustration during this process has been encountering a goodly number of pieces in which the author is 1) boozing constantly, 2) bed hopping like it's a contest to be won, or 3) both drinking and fucking.

There's nothing inherently wrong with either of these things, as long as you're not damaging yourself or anyone else (everything in moderation and all that). Almost everyone I know has a secret stash of liquor for emergencies, or else someone they can call when they're feeling, ahem, restless. But I'm starting to wonder if everyone with a book deal is an alcoholic nymphomaniac. 

Perhaps in an effort to push back against this, I write about pop culture, family, home,  tattoos, and my mental health. This may not be compelling in the same way a binge drinking-fueled orgy is, but everyday life is not necessarily extraordinary, and people need to know that their experience is valid. This is part of what's great about social media. People say stupid stuff on Twitter and they post really banal things on Facebook. Maybe it's annoying sometimes, or spectacular in the "Thank God I didn't say that" kind of way, but it's also comforting to know that other people get as bored or as silly or as outraged as you do. And so this is the beauty of a non-drinking, non-sexyfuntimes essay: you see that someone out there GETS IT. 

No disrespect to the authors who've sprung to mind (and shall remain nameless) while I write this post; they are often good writers, and I'm sure they're not bad people. And God knows I've done my share of stupid shit. But I can't help wondering how they function if they're always in bed with a hangover or else a new partner. I have way too many things to do with my life to spend it like that. 


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review: How Long the Night Is

Christine DeSimone
Lummox Press, 2013
80 pp/55 poems
When Christine DeSimone writes about everyday life, it feels like she means it. There is nothing forced in her descriptions, whether they are bright or painful. We see this early on in her collection, How Long the Night Is, when the speaker ends a friendship in "The Penitent" as equally as we see it when a parent experiences a peaceful moment with his daughter in "Man Returns iPad Because He Missed Being Bored." The way DeSimone crystallizes these moments is, in fact, one of her strongest assets, and she does it again and again throughout her 55 poems.

The reason I am so drawn to that as a reader is because I see myself in these poems. "If I Was a Poet" brings to mind the hours I've spent on highways: seeing people others seem not to notice and finding myself intrigued by the things they do. "You take what you find, wherever it's found," a line from "Misplaced," speaks to the writing life. The final stanza of "Quitting Smoking" makes me think of being far from home:
     but perhaps it's like the redwoods
     you've visited: between the acres of dense,
     silent trees, there are sudden patches
     of emptiness, and maybe you are alone,
     but maybe someone is thinking of you
     as they exhale into the cold between the stars.

At the same time, DeSimone is able to slip into various personae and draw me into those voices, even if I find nothing of myself in them. "Letter from Zelda," an imagined missive from Mrs. Fitzgerald to F. Scott, is the strongest of the persona poems in this collection, thanks in part to its attention to detail. Similarly, when she steps into her mother's voice in "Mother Fills Out the Restraining Order," DeSimone sheds light on the reality of abuse in a way that official paperwork never can, as evidenced by the clinical, bureaucratic excerpts presented in the poem.

The best display of DeSimone's poetic prowess, however, is "Spellcheck Suggests the Following Replacements," in which she shifts from one subject to another effortlessly based on incorrect words alone. As writers, we of course know that there is nothing effortless about it, but the fact that the poet makes it feel thus speaks volumes about her abilities. This sense of ease can be found throughout the whole collection, which is worth the read both for phrases like "My telephone rings were wolfwhistles," in "Inheritance," and for poems that are at once personal and universal.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Adventures in Rejection: Finding the Right Fit

I've been on a submitting marathon recently. Without consulting my submissions log, I can't tell you exactly how many poems have gone out or to how many venues, but I can say that the number is significant enough that I shocked myself.

On the one hand, it's easier to submit than ever before, given online tools like e-mail, Submittable, and Duotrope. On the other, it can be more emotionally grueling, since you have to choose from an ever-expanding number of literary journals and have more faith that someone, somewhere will enjoy your work enough to put it in print. As I mentioned before, the worst thing about all of this is that you can receive an onslaught of rejections, which can be soul-crushing.

For many years, I was opposed to the idea of online literary journals, because I felt they were too ephemeral, too fake. But over the last year or so, I've come to see how many passionate people there are in this world who are just waiting for the chance to support writers, emerging or otherwise. So it takes some of the sting out of reading, "We are unable to accept your work at this time," because I'm more aware of the fact that some journals are a good fit for me while others are not.

This is one of the things I have to keep in mind when I receive the battle scar of another rejection. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to keep going, and that would mean that all of my hard work up to this point would be for naught. And we can't have that, can we?


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Rob Petrie Is My Spirit Animal

Last weekend, I ate an entire box of Lucky Charms in about twenty-four hours, because that's the kind of thing I do when I don't feel good. While I did this, I sat on my couch and watched The Dick Van Dyke Show on a continuous loop on Netflix, stopping only to chat with friends on Facebook and throw some laundry in. It wasn't a sensible way to spend my Saturday, but it did make me feel better.

See, the Lucky Charms were delicious and all, but it was my time with Dick Van Dyke that brightened me up. For those of you who are unfortunate enough to be uninitiated, the show is about Rob Petrie, who works as the head writer of a comedy sketch show. The bulk of the episodes deal with Rob's domestic life or relationship with his coworkers. But there are plenty of moments where we get to see him at work, trying his best to finish a joke or script.

It's not that these situations are the funniest or most intriguing, but as someone who often struggles to write, it's nice to know that even fictional writers feel my pain. Because it can be difficult to muddle through, or to get started in the first place. Watching someone do this--what I do every day--on the screen is somewhat cathartic, I think, and decidedly nicer than laughing at the pain of ACTUAL people. 

In that sense, I suppose Rob Petrie is one of my spirit animals. Better him than some other fictional writer. For example, this guy. Am I right?


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

She's So Unusual

Recently, someone referred to me as "the weird girl." If we're talking about weird in the supernatural sense, we're gonna have to have a serious discussion about Macbeth. If we're talking about weird in the musical sense, I'll refer you to these guys. But--and I think this is a safe assumption--she was probably calling me weird in the bizarre sense.  

Other than the fact that I believe I have an unfortunate nose, there's nothing shocking about my physical appearance or fashion choices (unless you count my unswerving devotion to three-quarter-length sleeves as strange). My character might seem odd to some, but I suspect that's a side-effect of suffering from both anxiety and tunnel vision. To my knowledge, I've never done anything particularly "out there" at work, aside from lecturing undergraduates on the pitfalls of cultural appropriation and teaching ESL students how to ask girls if they got their tickets to the gun show.

Therefore, I'm left to assume that this woman thinks I'm weird because I am obviously bookish/academic/nerdy, or else because I find it difficult to socialize with coworkers (which is not their fault). To tell you the truth, my original response to hearing this was bemusement. Because yes. I am odd, in some ways. But so are my friends, and I like them that way. As far as I know, they like me this way. We're all weird girls (and guys!). And we're taking over the world, just as soon as we're done reading our books, watching our movies, and reblogging stuff on Tumblr. Deal with it.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Adventures in Rejection: Sixteenth Time's the Charm

October 20th was an interesting day. I woke up, went to brunch and ate my typical Sunday meal of biscuits and gravy with green grapes on the side, played on the Internet for awhile, took a nap, ate a burrito, made some lesson plans, watched an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy, and called my dad. Then I checked my e-mail.

And there, in glorious black and white, was an acceptance letter for a poem of mine called "Thursday."

A little context: I wrote "Thursday" sometime in early 2012. The first time I submitted it was April 22, 2012. Since that time, I have sent it out on 22 separate occasions, both to contests and literary magazines. It was rejected 15 times before someone said yes (the remaining six instances were too fresh to have garnered a response by the time the poem was accepted).

I don't spend a lot of time spouting maxims like "patience is a virtue" or "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again." This is because I am 1) the least patient person I know, with the possible exception of my niece, and 2) easily discouraged. And the fact is, I am willing to give up on some poems when they have been passed over numerous times, because I re-read them and realize that they still need work, aren't quite finished, or are not worth the effort. However, in this case, I refused to back down, because I knew in my gut that this was a good poem. 

NB: I almost never say that about my work. For the most part, I think I'm a terrible writer. From time to time, though, my tiny little brain does magical things and I have to run with it. This was one of those times. 

There's a lesson in here, I guess. It's probably "never give up; never surrender," or maybe it's "Cate is always right." (Hint: I am not always right.) Or it's that awesome things happen when you write poems about this dude? Yeah, that's the one.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Desire to Relax

Sometimes when I'm bored or looking for a new blog topic, I reach back into the past to look at old posts. This serves the dual purposes of helping me refrain from repeating myself and shaming me into being a better writer.

Recently, I decided to explore the depths of my Twitter feed. I don't mind telling you that I went through about a year ago and scrubbed some of the more ridiculous/embarrassing tweets (which, of course, cannot really disappear, this being the Internet and all). But I was surprised by what I left behind. Or maybe surprised isn't the correct word. Either way, I did learn something along the way.

It turns out that I spent a great deal of my grad school years (2010-2012) talking about books, which is self-explanatory. But I also mentioned sleeping and napping on an alarmingly regular basis. Given everything that I experienced in those two years, it's not shocking that I was exhausted. What gets to me more is the fact that I was so limited in my ability to verbalize what was happening to me. 

Maybe this was a result of writing so many words along the way (just under 24k in the final draft of my thesis alone, which doesn't take into account any papers, e-mail messages, workshop critiques, interdisciplinary coursework, or drafts of earlier stories accrued over the course of 24 months of enrollment). Had I used up all of my expertise in school? It seems possible.

Or maybe I was getting at something primal: a desire to recharge and BE for a moment or two, without the burden of conversation or interaction.

This is still something I crave. There are days when I would be happy to sleep for 24 hours straight, or at least spend my time alone, curled up in bed and watching a movie or reading a book or magazine (one of the five or six issues of Smithsonian Magazine and Writers' Digest currently backlogged on my desk, for example).

Because I live a life that is often jam-packed, I have to take time out to relax. It took me many years to learn that if I skip this essential step, I will suffer some undesirable and debilitating consequences. Unfortunately, I'm not an expert at it yet, but I'm still trying.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

You're a Poet

Yesterday, it happened again: someone made the assumption that I am a poet.

Look, I get it. I work for a press that focuses on poetry. My undergraduate alma mater is known more for its poetry output than its fiction. Of the reviews I've posted here so far, the majority have been about collections of poetry. Almost all of my publications have been of the verse persuasion.

But the fact is, I have always thought of myself as a fiction writer first. Until partway through my BFA program, I didn't much believe in poetry at all. In grad school, I studied young adult fiction. Do you see where I'm going with this?

Maybe not. Because I didn't see it until about thirty seconds ago. I'm not a prose writer. I'm not a verse writer. I'm just a writer. That's all.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Adventures in Rejection: Cate As Editor

I have to admit something to you.

When sending out rejection letters, I'm a bit heartless. This might make me a hypocrite, seeing as how I regularly complain about receiving rejection letters. But hear me out, because this is important, at least as far as I'm concerned: as an editor, I MUST close myself off to the acute memories of having been rejected in order to reject the work of others.

It's a survival instinct. If I accept every piece, regardless of literary merit, I won't be able to publish the magazine. Even if I only accept works from people whose words have appeared in our pages before (again, without considering the printworthiness of their offerings), the end product will exceed our capabilities. As a result, I have to be merciless.

Some people who have been on the wrong end of my red pen will tell you that I have no soul anyway, and that I take endless pleasure in making pages bleed. But my selection work as the editor of a literary magazine differs in an important way from my revision/correction editorial work: as a reviser, I'm helping to shape an individual piece, whereas I have to create a collection when selecting from a huge pile of submissions.

Not every writer is in my position, having to live a double life. But some of us are, and as a group, we tend to feel the same way non-editors do when we get those form letters in the mail. That's how I can say with certainty that we don't hate you. I promise.


PS This has nothing to do with the topic at hand, but here's a link to an interview with a guy I know, and I think you should all know about him, too, because he's the cat's pajamas.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Ray of Light, Part 5: The Conclusion

Welcome to the fifth and final installment of my Madonna series! For Part 1: An Introduction, click here. For Part 2: Tracks 1-4, click here. For Part 3: Tracks 5-8, click here. For Part 4: Tracks 9-13, click here.


Of course, Madonna is well-known for drawing inspiration from other people--Marilyn Monroe in the “Material Girl” video (Like a Virgin), Andy Warhol on the cover of True Blue, ABBA on “Hung Up,” and so forth. Why should she not also reference herself, then? After the success of Ray of Light, Madonna became much better at doing this, perhaps because she had integrated her previous work and was fully self-actualized for the first time in her life. Prominent examples show up in obvious places, such as when she was on The Confessions Tour and folded part of the chorus of “Where’s the Party” into “Music” (Music) for an interesting mash-up. Sometimes, though, it is harder to determine at first blush. There are not always easy answers, like when a semi-continuation of “Borderline” (Madonna) makes an appearance in “Push” (Confessions on a Dance Floor).

To this day, however, Ray of Light remains the best synthesis of Madonna’s early career as well as an indication of what would come in the future. Rich Cohen argues that “Fashioning images: images that riff on Scripture, images that riff on junk, images that riff on other images--that’s been her genius.” But for this listener, it is Madonna’s ability to riff on herself that defines her. Confessions on a Dance Floor may be the best distillation of her musical efforts, but Ray of Light is a greater definition of who Madonna is, has been, and will be.


Thanks for reading along! I hope you enjoyed this commentary, and I'd love to hear what you think about it. Comment below or e-mail me:

Monday, October 14, 2013

Ray of Light, Part 4: Tracks 9-13

Welcome to the fourth installment of my Madonna series! For Part 1: An Introduction, click here. For Part 2: Tracks 1-4, click here. For Part 3: Tracks 5-8, click here.


Madonna even felt comfortable enough with her new knowledge that she managed to call out others in a state of denial in “Frozen.” “You only see what your eyes want to see,” she sings at the beginning of the song. Another lyric, “Give yourself to me; / you hold the key,” is a throwback to “Open Your Heart” (True Blue), which finds Madonna saying that “I hold the lock and you hold the key.” This exhortation to be a more receptive person is, in fact, a common theme in Madonna’s music, from “Stay” (Like a Virgin) to “I’d Rather Be YourLover” (Bedtime Stories) before Ray of Light and from “Get Together” (Confessions on a Dance Floor) to “Masterpiece” (MDNA) afterward. It is this more recent track that is easiest to connect with “Frozen,” when Madonna laments the pain that comes with “be[ing] in love with a masterpiece” who is the “look, but please don’t touch me-type,” which lines up with her declaration of frustration with a partner who is “frozen when your heart’s not open.”

Heartbreak, in fact, abounds on Ray of Light. After “Frozen” comes “The Power of Good-Bye,” an end-of-relationship anthem that finds Madonna declaring her freedom from another lover who is distant and closed off. She absorbs lessons from this decision, noting that “Freedom comes when you learn to let go; / creation comes when you learn to say no.” But this is not exactly a revelation, since Madonna explored similar themes in “Till Death Do Us Part” (Like a Prayer) nine years earlier. In that song, she realizes that her husband will not change, which is the catalyst for her leaving the relationship and letting go as she would again in “The Power of Good-Bye.” Sadly, this is a pattern for the singer, who would come to similar conclusions in “Miles Away” (Hard Candy) after another decade passed: “I can’t pretend to be someone else,” she insists, and then continues on to say that “When no one’s around and I have you here, / I begin to see the picture--it becomes so clear.” Even the affluent among us must endure life lessons, if these examples are any indication.

There is a moment on Ray of Light where Madonna achieves clarity, however, after the tumult of “Frozen” and “The Power of Good-Bye.” In “To Have and Not to Hold,” she comes to the conclusion that she is responsible for her troubles: “Like a moth to a flame, / only I am to blame” since she “go[es] straight to you.” But that does not mean she has let go of her frustrations. Rather, she spends most of the song lamenting the situation. Similar tactics were used on Erotica, both in “Waiting” and “Words.” In “Words,” she sings, “I don’t wanna hear your words; / they always attack,” hurting her the same way the paramour of “To Have” has eyes that “go right through.” Moreover, she opens “Waiting” with the very sentiment that permeates “To Have” by saying, “Well, I know from experience that if you have to ask for something more than once or twice, it wasn’t yours in the first place,” which declaration is echoed in the chorus of “To Have,’ where she sings, “I’ve been told / you’re to have, not to hold.”

Later, Madonna would revisit this theme in her disco-drenched tune “Hung Up” (Confessions on a Dance Floor), where she insists that she “can’t keep waiting for you; / I know that you’re still hesitating.” But a more powerful connection to “To Have” is found in “X-StaticProcess” (American Life). “Process” hinges on the singer’s frustration with an aloof, too-perfect Other, who makes her feel that “I’m not myself and I don’t know how.” This recalls her contention in “To Have” that no one, including herself, will be able to “break my fall.”

There is a brief respite from the sadness on the back end of Ray of Light, delivered in the form of “Little Star,” an ode to the infant Lourdes. A glittery, lightweight tune that is no less heartfelt for its sheen, “Little Star” immediately brings to mind “Cherish” (Like a Prayer). While that earlier tune focuses on romance, it also addresses the importance of love with the line “Cherish is the word I use to remind me of your love,” while Madonna instructs Lourdes to “never forget where you come from: from love” in “Little Star.” And although “Little Star” is more of a lullaby, it still has an influence on “Easy Ride” (American Life), a song about what Madonna wants for herself and her offspring: to “breathe the air and feel the sun on my children’s face.”

After “Little Star,” though, we realize why Madonna is so adamant about her daughter knowing that she is safe, beyond the obvious fact of maternal love. The final track on Ray of Light is, it turns out, a meditation on the early death of Madonna’s own mother. “Mer Girl” therefore negates the warm, fuzzy feeling the listener gets from “Little Star.” But Madonna had explored this territory earlier in her career, notably in “Promise to Try” (Like a Prayer). “Can’t kiss her goodbye,” she sings at the end of the song, “but I promise to try.” In “Mer Girl,” however, she admits that “I’m still running today.” And, like many people do with their childhood traumas, Madonna continued trying to process this. “Mother and Father” (American Life) was her next attempt, when she pulled together pieces of “Oh Father” (Like a Prayer), “Promise to Try,” and “Mer Girl” to create a fuller picture of what she had experienced, admitting that she was “a victim of a kind of rage,” which goes a long way toward explaining the images of decay and fear that crop up in “Mer Girl.” The track, however, is a fitting close to an album that starts with an examination of Madonna’s external life and then moves inward to explore her personal demons. This is her attempt at fulfilling a prophecy she made in an interview with Maureen Orth in 1992: “I will never be hurt again, I will be in charge of my life, in charge of my destiny. I will make things work. I will not feel this pain in my heart.”


For Part 5: The Conclusion, come back on Thursday!