Editors’ Corner: On Waiting
These days, my life is very full. Of work, of editing, of coding, of teaching, of conversing and community-building, and—for the first time—of writing and thinking and speaking about not just about my work as an editor, but also about my own poetry, its context in the world, how I see it in conversation with broader discourses.
My first chapbook, Periodicity, is being published in February. I’ve been living in a bit of a fugue state since July, when my publisher first relayed the good news to me. Everything has been heady and surreal; suddenly, a wealth opportunities have been given to me to talk about my work, my writing, my personal literary interests. My evenings have been filled with logistics and correspondence: I’ve been gathering addresses for mailing lists, maintaining a Facebook page, conversing with friends and family about what a chapbook is, negotiating shipping refunds, designing promotional materials, scheduling interviews and reviews, and writing reams and reams of heartfelt thank-you notes. But in the midst of it all, I’ve found, somewhat disconcertingly, that I have had very little time, opportunity (or even physical energy) to write new poems.
I’m going to be honest here: I haven’t completed a full first draft of a poem in more than three months. I’ve written a few sketches here and there, most of which I’ve later thrown away. I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success, to make inroads on revising drafts from this summer. But since finishing the final revision of my chapbook manuscript in early August, I haven’t been able to write so much as a stanza. Every time someone congratulates me on the chap, I brace myself for the usual follow-up question: so what are you working on now?
I’m working on a full-length manuscript about my father, I usually respond. It has a lot of elegies in it. And this is true. Except that I haven’t truly touched this project (on paper) since July. I’ve dabbed at a blotchy corner or two. Every once in a while, I take it out and stare at it, sheepishly. I think about working on it and read things that make me think about working on it all the time. But mostly, it sits neglected in a dark little corner of my hard-drive, patiently waiting for its time in the sun.
I’ve been waiting, too—waiting for a chance to get back to it—and it isn’t easy. Whenever I see calls for submission, a little wave of guilt crackles through me. It’s often tempting to let the anxiety take over. I find myself feeling fearful that maybe I’ll become too rusty to actually write anything ever again, or that maybe in waiting so long, I’ll lose the momentum of my project. After all, as the violent grief that flattened me for the better part of two years has begun to fade to a quieter ache, the place from which I’ve been writing and thinking about these poems, these elegies, has shifted, as well.
But the more I’ve heard from older and wiser poets who have been through the publication mill before, the more I’ve come to understand that—like grief, like love, like all of life—writing has its seasons. And every season is different: for some people, the season in which one is working to bring a published volume into the world is also a season of great creative production; but for others, the two may not coincide at all.
Several weeks ago, I had lunch with a few of the women who organize the Kentucky Women Writer’s Conference—all of them older and wiser than me; many of them mothers. During the meal, a discussion about whether it was possible to write when one’s children were still very young arose. Some mothers, they remarked, can do it, and they do it remarkably well—their writing may even thrive from the experience. But for others, noted one of the women, writing while raising kids just isn’t a possibility for a few years. And, she said, that needs to be okay. If you can write prolifically while mothering an infant, you should write prolifically, by all means. But if you need to take some time off just to learn how to be a good first-time mother, you should also give yourself the permission to do that.
I’m not a mother (and don’t plan on being one for quite a while!), but it struck me that maybe the same could be said, on a lesser scale, for the birth of a book. Not that I want to make excuses. But I’ve come to realize that I am not the kind of writer who can do many things at once. I am a slow, slow writer of poems. (It took me five years to write my chapbook). But that is, in part, because I am also a writer who also needs to read, to listen, to critically theorize, to let percolate, and to understand the greater conversations that I am writing into before my work begins to truly make sense to me. So in some ways, I also need to be able to grant myself the permission to not write poetry now (at least not for a little while), to embrace this season of waiting, so that in talking and writing (prose) about my own poetry, in reading and thinking and observing the contexts within which my poetry is being discussed by others, I can deepen in self-awareness, and come to a more complex understanding of the position and import of my own voice and aesthetic/political concerns—as a poet, a woman, a person of color.
Most of all, as a person who is hopeless at multitasking, I need this time—this season of concentrated reflection—so that I can do due diligence to the project that comprises my chapbook. It may only be a first chap, but it is a project that represents five years of writing, researching, and conceptualization for me: five years of growth into my identity as a writer, and almost as many of total creative output. It is good for me, I think, to be able to step back and evaluate—What was it that I was trying to say with this project? Ultimately, have I said it?—and to consider how that argument (whatever it was I was trying to say), is being perceived, or will be perceived by my audience.
I was very encouraged by Barbara Jane Reyes’s recent blog post, in which she writes:
The movement and transition from writer to author is really not a cut and dry, easy experience on the psyche. Being in public is difficult. Being heard in public, being critiqued in public, being expected to exist in public, to be a public person, is difficult.
Right now, I’m still negotiating that transition: for a few years, now, I have had some sense of who I am as a writer; but who am I, in this uncomfortable new role, as an author? How is my work going to be read? And how do I engage wholeheartedly in the life that I hope my work will develop off the page, now that it exists outside of my head? I know that I’ll get back to my full-length project eventually, but in the meantime, I need to learn to be at peace with waiting. I’m just starting 0ut, and I need this time to listen and learn, to work out and to explore the space in which my own voice will operate.