Far Other

My reading Augustine through the pandemic book, Far Other, is going to print!

The story of this, my sixth collection of poems, begins in December 2019 before there were any reported cases of COVID-19 in the US. I swung by HalfPrice Books and picked up a copy of Confessions by Saint Augustine. I’d first encountered the seminal memoir as an undergrad at Calvin and dismissed it completely. Returning to it in my thirties felt a strangely appropriate way to address, resolve, or lay to rest my “relationship” with God, that is, how I have ingested, appropriated, or wrestled with the idea of God in my poems.

The first coronavirus reports reached us by way of my mother-in-law in Guizhou, China: We’d actually visited there in February-March and the burial visit had provided the impetus for my August 2019 release Terminal Destination. Coming off the heels of that, I turned out Baldy, my most expansive collection to date, including as it does my experiments with dark humor and collage in a growing body of work about fatherhood alongside the ongoing cancer studies.

What had I been working on October 16 after about a week of a new wave of symptoms of head pressure, dizziness, nausea and fatigue, when I had to suddenly close my computer and stop because the pressure had so abruptly mounted in my head? Far Other. After a couple rejections, my book felt fat, overwritten, even cursed. Yet I had an obligation: A couple readers had encouraged me to condense. Then the notion of including a few of my older poems with an overt Roman Catholic connection struck me and an entire first section comprised of three poems from Fall Risk, two poems from Coming Home with Cancer, three poems from the manuscript at hand, and my latest I-70 Review contribution turned the book on its head.

The rocketing head pressure that made me close my computer and cover my face and stop immediately prompted my trip to the emergency room and I queried Woodley Press from my hospital bed on October 18, the day of the MRI scan that showed the evidence of tumor progression that has now been cast into doubt by my oncologist as potentially also radiation necrosis ….

October 21, the acceptance letter read:

Dear Cameron,

Congratulations! The board at Woodley Press has already read Far Other and we are unanimous in our enthusiasm for it. If the manuscript is still available, we would love to publish it. 

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Where Poems Begin

On September 22, I began writing my way through Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. My computer wouldn’t charge no matter the electrical outlet in the house. Without computer access, my notebook to document writing process had to be suspended, so I downloaded the Google Docs app and started making poems on my iPhone.

This compositional shift in format suggested a new form to me: the book-length poem. There are no page breaks in Google Docs, so I felt inspired to leave them out of my Suzuki Roshi project.

What the more immediate impact was for my poem-making was its orientation toward dailiness, the content of my present moment, as opposed to the transcendence of my notebook. Because I carry my phone, I found it easier to compose on the go. The poem, therefore, followed me everywhere. The positive consequence of this was my poems expanded to include the stuff of my life, my kids, our mealtimes and bedtime routines. The negative consequence was my time with them coincided with my effort to write them. That is, I lost my ability just to be with my kids without the pressure of rendering them in language.

A word more about this rendering: My language while reading Suzuki and Google Docs composing prioritized precision. The poems shrank, each word assuming greater weight. Eastern minimalism, at its best, is suggestive: Evokes much beyond what it says. At worst, it tends toward mysticism, placing too great a burden upon the reader to create meaning.

Just the right juxtaposition can set off an explosion. If not, it just falls flat. I begin the manuscript in medias res:

Home from school
hysterical to go back to school
for his tow truck,

Theo thrashes in my arms
toward naptime
and holes up in his carnival
tent of blankets.

Clipping my fingernails
over the rail of my back deck,
I notice his 1997 Ford
F-150 in the scrubby grass
among the clippings.

There it is: enlightenment in the day to day. OK, but I realized the reader would be left out because of one very important missing piece of information: The F-150 used to be Theo’s favorite. Now the tow truck is. So, boxed in, I had to add the title, “yesterday’s favorite,” and out the window, from the get-go, went the book-length poem idea.

Going back to the point about the dailiness of poetry, I began to feel ill at ease with the commonplace, almost cliché aspect my poetry began to assume: Were these poems, these fragments of family life? Gone were my mornings of quietude and contemplation in which I used to listen, just listen for the Word. Now there was no Word and words fell everywhere about me: Everything was enlightenment, Zen, nirvana. So nothing was. In an bottomless single page of text, who knows what to single out, capitalize, demarcate, or highlight?

What I have returned to is the realization that my efforts to write my life can undermine my ability to live it. Which, ironically enough, is the antithesis of Suzuki Roshi. Noting, too, that he was no poet, I find much in his discussion of zazen to parallel my writing practice: He seems well aware that no person in the real world can sit all the time as I know no one can write all the time.

My emphasis on mimesis ultimately overshadowed the things I wanted to imitate. Returning to language in the early part of each day, on the other hand, satisfies my creative requirement and relaxes me so that I can go about the rest of my day in a calmer, more mindful manner.

Dealing with Rejection: An Addendum

Reading Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, I realized something somewhat obvious about this literary business I am engaged in:

One of the main reasons especially beginner poets love getting published is selfish. The ego (the “I” or self of any person; a person as thinking, feeling, and willing, and distinguishing itself from the selves of others and from objects of its thought) transfers the approval implied by an acceptance from the work to the poet. This transference is sleight of hand. A one for one correspondence between an arrangement of words that is static, albeit open to interpretation, and a dynamic human something is absurd. The poet is capable of infinite arrangements. How could one represent her?

This is an ego trip. Ego is a drug.

We are always playing magic tricks on ourselves because we cannot stop and be still and breathe. Suzuki’s point is that you are human there in that still breathing place. That’s home. But plant your flag out there in the world and your life is forfeit. You have gone astray.

Submit, submit, submit. Then relax and let it be. Build your manuscript. It’s a fun thing to do. No one has to publish it.

Dealing with Rejection

There’s something incredibly difficult about putting together a collection of poems that is so personal, because it encapsulates your own life story, and submitting it to a press you believe for good reason will enjoy it. Then the email appears in your inbox and your heart leaps! This is it, for better or worse, and you don’t even want to click because the preview doesn’t contain the yes, or no, but leaves you in suspense.

It’s an almost out-of-body experience, watching yourself push the button, observing the moment where two possible futures collide–has or has not been selected. And how dare they use the passive verb tense as if no agency were involved in the insidious not?

But, OK. What happens happens. It sucks. You know you’re going to mope. I won’t help to anesthetize yourself. You’re in mourning. It’s a weird and ridiculous grief but grief nonetheless. Because you tried, you really tried, and you really wanted it, but whatever. Next time. Onward. Find another publisher.

All of the emotional experience aside, your left brain has the following suspicions. There are layers of uncertainty to wrap yourself in and warm yourself in. Try these on for size:

  1. You don’t know who is rejecting you. Even if the managing editor signs the message, your manuscript may not even have reached her desk. That is, some one lower down may have been responsible for its getting tossed in the waste basket, a person who may not have had the experience, wherewithal, education, or personal taste to recognize the quality of your work. Additionally, prejudice or politics may have played a role.
  2. You don’t know why it was rejected. The reason may have had everything, something, or nothing at all to do with your manuscript. I’ve had people tell me my book it too long. Didn’t know that was a thing, insofar as I’m observing length requirements in the submission guidelines. Now people are saying limit between 45-50 poems for a full length, “Aim for the 50-page mark.” On the other hand, maybe you inadvertently violated a submission guideline and got nixed on a technicality. What if the press couldn’t get funding? What if it’s in financial trouble?
  3. You don’t know out of how many subs yours was rejected. 1/300 may mean one thing but 1/3000? Think about the size of that pile. Even Yeats might get overlooked/misplaced.
  4. You don’t know how close it was. From the form letter, you will never know what went on during editorial meetings, what editors may have spoken up and vouched for, or even championed your work, and lost out. It’s deceptive because a manuscript that got a summary glance may receive the same wording in the form letter rejection as one that attracted a great deal of interest.
  5. You don’t know who you were up against. Most of us don’t operate under the delusion of being the best poet ever born. What if you were in direct competition with a Rankine, or Rilke, or Plath? How would you know?

Williams

Retired school teacher friend Harold Ackerman reached out after hearing of Lili’s August COVID-19 diagnosis and this little poem published in a webzine I suggested to him as a good home for his work.

William Carlos Williams has to be dealt with, after all, I suppose. As a fledgling poet, I avoided him. Must have read something of his I didn’t like and excluded him from my summer 2009 independent study with professor Klatt (L.S. Klatt) despite his insistence that Williams was poetry’s chief advocate for the conversational quality I was interested in.

During my 2012-2014 tenure at Beijing New Talent Academy I took up the practice of memorizing poems and reciting them on walks around campus. One of Williams’s was among the most pleasurable in my repertoire: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/to-elsie.html.

At the time I tried to memorize many great poems, all but lost to me now. But rereading it I can recognize the words, can’t recall, but recognize them. And I remember the sheer pleasure of recitation. I walked around campus reciting and I can remember a certain part of campus in connection with this piece. There was a far wall, a hedgerow (suitably enough) near where Lili taught in the kindergarten, a round colorful squat building among so many tiled squares. There. And at night, I remember it was night. Sometimes Lili would be held back to work so long overtime I would fetch her from the projects they had her engaged in out of sheer frustration, arrogant American that I was. 


Other poems in my docket were “On Hurricane Jackson” by Alan Dugan, “The Rain” by Robert Creeley, “A Blessing” by James Wright, “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath, “Fork” by Charles Simic, etc. “Skunk Hour” by Robert Lowell I associate with the fifth floor of my teaching building where the science labs were, glass cases full of taxidermies, and a couple of the Chinese high school teachers (men, of course) smoked up the bathroom despite school rules.

Canto I” I associate with the two shade trees in a court between apartment buildings, my bamboo flipflops, and the baggy sky blue shirt I wore untucked with khaki shorts while pacing in the death ray sun. What must have the Chinese folks thought of this wraithlike cantor of English? One lady in particular admired what she perceived to be my studiousness. Students tapped at the window glass when I spent time in an atrium in my teaching building. It was completely surrounded by classrooms. How weird was I?