Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Writing Year: Get thee behind me, 2020

Derailed subway train in the Netherlands saved by a whale
sculpture, 11/2/20. Seems like an apt metaphor for the year.
I will just start by saying: All through the shitshow of 2020, the writing world remained an inspiration for me. I don’t know quite how we did it, but writers kept on writing. Poets figured out how to do readings online. Everybody learned Zoom. Literary journals continued, adapted, and sometimes thrived. A few really beautiful anthologies were produced about the pandemic, the ugliest of subjects. 
        Back on March 11, I wouldn’t have believed any of this. That was the day the NBA shut down, which, for some reason, was the watershed moment for me—the end of the civilization I knew. I pictured us at the end of the year, holed up in our dark bunkers reading old can labels to each other and trying to find the last station on the hand-crank radio. 
        So yes, as of today, we’re still here, but I won’t say it was a good year for writers. Or for my writing. Or for anything. That would be crass, cruel, and beside the point. Still, there were times of beauty and weirdness. Here are some things that changed, and things that surprised me, and some actual good things that grew, mushroom-like, in the dark year now ending.

Zoom poetry events: some good, some bad.
Seeing friends read in other cities—amazing! Seeing famous poets whose voices I'd never heard—fantastic! Attending open mikes with readers from other countries—transcendent! Going to online poetry
        Okay, let’s talk about that for a minute.
        I “went” to some online poetry conferences, the kind with presentations and workshops happening at various times through the day, where I could pop in on Zoom to check out each classroom and pop out if the thing wasn’t to my liking. I’m a restless conference-goer at the best of times, and on Zoom it was very easy to hit the “leave meeting” button when a presentation wasn’t floating my boat. At one day-long conference, I found one class I liked, stumbled across another that I sort of liked, and then bailed on another six—six!—after watching them for five or ten minutes. I can’t imagine walking out on six classes at an in-person conference; it would be too embarrassing to stand up and look at my watch as if thinking Oh dear, I left the baby in the car and clunk noisily out the door. But on Zoom, leaving is easy, silent, instant. Click. And I’m not sure if that’s good (freedom!) or if it’s hazardous to people like me with short attention spans; I wonder if I missed anything good. And the one thing I love most about writers’ conferences—the hanging out with other writers, grabbing a coffee between classes and drinks at the end of the day—was completely absent from those online ones. So, for me, Zoom conferences offer all the things I like least about conferences, and none of the things I like most.

I wrote a lot about the pandemic. 
I journaled to preserve the strange, disaster-movie quality of it all: the sudden shutdowns and surreal speed of it, the news from overseas, the appalling lack of response from the U.S. government, the rumors, the social divisions. It felt important to chronicle these things. I also wrote a shit-ton of pandemic poems early on, some of which I posted on Instagram with graphics, which was an empowering, absorbing project. I published some others in journals and anthologies. Some poet friends, I know, didn’t write at all about the pandemic. I totally hear that (see the next paragraph); I just felt compelled to make bread with the dough at hand, and pandemic dough was what I had.

I wrote almost nothing about a disaster close to home.
As if the pandemic, layoffs, racial tension, and that nail-biter election weren’t enough, my region got hit with another huge blow on September 8 and 9 when the Almeda fire tore through our Oregon valley, destroying more than 2,500 homes. It was epic, horrifying, unbelievable, frightening, and very, very sad. Many of my friends and co-workers lost everything. Even now, the burn zone—which starts 3 miles from my house and stretches 10 miles to the northwest—is a mind-altering, life-changing thing to see: miles and miles where homes and businesses used to be, everything now reduced to a hip-high, gray/white landscape of debris that looks uncannily like ruined tombstones. I’ve written a grand total of one poem about all that, although I did journal a lot. It was just too close; I know too many people whose lives are forever changed. To make art out of that and put it up on the internet did not feel like the right thing to me. It’s delicate, and I was not in the right mental space to do it.
        This made me think a lot about poems of witness and current-events poems. I write a lot of those, and I’ve always recognized that it’s different when you’re farther from the disaster; of course it’s easier to write about it. But there’s a voyeurism to it, an inauthenticity that, paradoxically, makes it possible to take the art/poem in different directions than if you’d seen the event yourself. But when it happened to people you know, there’s a line of ethics in there. Maybe there’s always a line of ethics, and we just trample over it all the time without thinking. 

Working at home hasn’t given me more time to write. 
I’ve been working at home full time since March 17 (and am so grateful to be working), and I still never feel like I have enough time to write. It turns out working at home in sweats is still working. I still really look forward to weekends.

I superly, very muchly miss drinking with poets in bars.
This surprises me, how much I miss the after-reading drink with a few friends at the pub. The big group walking to the restaurant for a meal with the famous poet who’s in town for one night. The random meet-ups in the hotel bar after a long day at the conference. The dinner with a poet friend where we talk about sequencing manuscripts and have a bit too much to drink and laugh our asses off. Writing is great, but being a poet is also about living in a world.

I miss doing road trips for out-of-town readings. I also enjoy not doing them.
Honestly, my relief at not doing them slightly outweighs how much I miss them. That’s mostly because of my 18-year-old cat, whose health has (knock on wood) been more stable during this quiet, stay-at-home year. I’ve also saved a lot of money by not traveling. I've loved the online readings I’ve done, but they don’t sell a lot of books. So the metric is all different. Two online readings I really enjoyed doing this year were the Spring Creek Project’s video series The Nature of Isolation (check out their other videos too, with writers and visual artists) and Rattle’s interview/reading series, Rattlecast, where I talked a lot about poem sequencing and revision and last lines and the music business and the problem with persona poems. 

I had to take some new author photos.
Because my hair is much longer now. I wasn’t identifying with the photos taken a couple of years ago, the short-hair ones. Is this isolation some kind of chrysalis? Will some of us emerge with antennae and tails? Will that be a wonderful thing? The pragmatist in me says Stop it. Cruel. Crass. The writer in me says…wings.

Netherland subway train photo by Robin Utrecht/Getty.

Almeda fire photo courtesy of Governor Kate Brown's office.