A Few Days in Charleston

I have been staying in Charleston, SC for a few days to clear my mind before school starts and to get some writing done (and also because, right now, all of my paying work can be done remotely).

My plan was to go through the full-length manuscript I “finished” in January. Though I have been sending it out to publishers since then, it seemed like the collection could use another thorough edit, especially since some time has passed which allows one to see the work anew. I also thought that I might switch out some newer poems for some of the poems in the manuscript that weren’t really pulling their weight.

Though I am not always a diligent practitioner at home, I like to do morning pages when I travel. My other goal was to establish some complete drafts from some “scraps” and notes in old notebooks I’ve kept the last few years. I’m hoping to offer a class (maybe online?) next summer on how to create new work from old projects or ideas you’ve abandoned.

Finally, I also wanted to finish a few book reviews which are sort of overdue. I took Amtrak to South Carolina (the 12 hours it required to arrive from South Florida was sort of a perfect time span) and spent nearly the whole train ride reading critical essays about the poet Anne Sexton.

There will be more to come when I publish the review of the book, but I learned a whole lot about Sexton, a poet whose existence I’ve been aware of since college, but whom I heretofore never spent much time thinking about or reading. The thrust of the critical book (don’t worry; no spoilers here) is that her complicated life (a poet who chased fame, a poet who lived and died with mental illness, a poet who was more competitive than women were “allowed” to be, a brilliant poet who also wrote some rushed, “bad” work) is worth taking into account in its entirety. The impulse that past critics have had is to cordon off her life into segments. How do we view somebody as a whole person without just making her a symbol for something?

I am also trying to catch up on a few reviews of poetry collections I agreed to do earlier this year. I was also honored to be asked to blurb a friend’s chapbook, which I plan to work on during the train ride back.

The truth is that these kinds of trips are rarely quite as productive as one hopes they will be.

I stayed in my room for several hours a day: woke up at 8:00 am, started with morning pages and working on developing new drafts from older scraps, and then took a break. I spent the afternoons working on book reviews and, to be honest, taking advantage for an hour here and there of the hostel’s free Netflix. (I’d never seen it before and had no idea that Queer Eye would be so emotionally provocative!) The evenings were devoted to my paying work.

I got a good start on all the book reviews, though they range from probably 60%-80% completion. As mentioned, I didn’t get to the blurb, and several of the new poems I worked on are highly questionable. I do feel like my writing is in a sort of “ugly duckling phase.” (Who wrote the article about MFAs experiencing this? I can’t remember right now.) I have a heightened awareness of weaknesses in certain poems, but I don’t yet have the skills to fix them. I am also conducting new-to-me experiments with language, but I have little knowledge of whether these experiments are working.

I have to say that I didn’t even open up the book manuscript this week. Maybe I will find time tonight or tomorrow. I’m walking away from this week with a bunch of drafts (some of them more promising than others), but very little completely done.

One of the essays I read this week is about how Anne Sexton wrote The Awful Rowing Towards God in 20 days. Many critics view this book as sub-par work which Sexton wrote chasing after further fame, trying to make money. In other words, she wrote it too fast.

I had a sleepless night and got way up in my own head wondering about my push towards hyper-productivity. (Sometimes, I write 10 or 20 poems in a few weeks, then spend a few months revising and polishing them.) This led me to getting in my own way. I became paranoid that if I wrote fast, I was going to produce some really bad work. (What the critics don’t always say when they tell this story about Sexton is that Sylvia Plath wrote much of the Ariel, a book people are still reading over 60 years later, in, also, less than a month.)

I’m not comparing myself to these globally-famous writers, but rather trying to figure out what any of us can learn from insights into their creative process. It’s notable that Sexton was struggling with debilitating addiction and mental health concerns near the end of her life, so that surely led to the deterioration of her poetry as well.

Anyway, my thinking evolved in a way where I wondered if it might be useful to change my attitude or perspective towards my own work. I spend so much time feeling guilt and shame about the amount of work I am creating. It’s never enough, which means that I also start too many projects and sometimes feel overwhelmed. (There isn’t enough time in the day.) This leads, at times, to creating sub-par work too fast, but it also leads to writing too slowly. Both of these troubles can be poisonous.

I have a feeling of scarcity related to my “output” (how capitalistic). But when I am honest with myself, I realize that no amount of productivity would ever be enough.

I know that many of my friends also struggle with this. It’s not just fear of the blank page or doubting the strength of the work. There are also fears related to one’s body of work as a whole.

Anyway, I am going to stop here with this inward-looking summary post of what I’ve been working on this week. There is more—much more—to say about what it has been like to visit the city of Charleston. This is an intense place with a troubled history that echoes loudly into the present. (Though, I realized, isn’t this true for this entire country?) I hope to do some more writing about the social aspects of my time in Charleston. There is a lot to notice.

There is something to say also, about race and class in relation to the other things I’ve discussed in this post: Why I can afford to take this trip. How white supremacy gives me undue advantages in publishing and other ways my writing is supported. How and why my intellectual voice has been encouraged by teachers and others. How it might be otherwise.

My biggest takeaway from visiting the Old Slave Mart Museum (yes, that’s really what it’s called) and walking, by accident, past Mother Emmanuel, the site of the 2015 church shooting, was that I realized how much I have to learn, how much I don’t know. So, most of all, I hope to do more listening, more reading.

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