It is the hour when I shine, like a star that has been back behind the clouds and sees a window of opportunity.
Truth telling. The power of truth and the power of story. Truth the first tonight; I am so very tired of swimming upstream. I am tired of how much effort it takes to put a day together that has any meaning and beauty in it.
But each day, I set my hands on the keys and it goes better for me at night.
My serious writing life began in 1971 when I moved to Minnesota from Colorado with a boyfriend. We bought an old VW bus that kept breaking down. I brought along my great-grandmother’s drop leaf bird’s eye maple desk, two dogs and a cat.
I was terrified of the city and to my boyfriend’s dismay I insisted that we rent a house in White Bear Lake. It turns out that I was conceived in an apartment over a stable in White Bear Lake when my parents were first married and my father was earning a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. Amazing.
I had dropped out of college to make the move– I had three semesters under my belt, showed promise as a poet, and Robert Bly who lived in Minnesota and had just won the National Book Award for poetry, had taken a look at my poems.
When I got settled I contacted him; he referred me to a few magazines and I began to be published. Meanwhile, after a rough winter living on a graduate student salary my boyfriend and I split; actually, he ran off with a fellow graduate student– a woman– to spend the summer on the Amazon.
To my credit, and despite being in a fair degree of pain over our break-up I moved into St. Paul, got a job, and began living on my own. I remember walking to work each day and taking the bus to go shopping. I carried a notebook everywhere; I was in a phase in which I saw poetry at every hand.
A journal in Minneapolis published me, and its editor invited me to my first all night literary party, in the topmost story of a warehouse in some run down inner city neighborhood. The place was filled with marijuana smoke, the wine was flowing, and everyone talked books, writing, art.
Shortly after that party, with new women friends who wrote, I founded a group we called Women Poets of the Twin Cities. Shortly thereafter, with my closest friend at that time I founded a poetry reading series in a little theatre in downtown St. Paul. We charged a dollar and provided hot cider and rum, and gave everybody a broadside that my friend Caroline produced– a frameable poem by each reader. What golden hours and golden days.
After the readings we would go back to one of our apartments in one of the many beautiful mansions on Summit Avenue, more drinking and lots of eating and talking.
Robert Bly published my first collection, In Pursuit of the Family, in 1974. Also in 1974, I won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature in Poetry. With a new boyfriend, a reporter for the Minneapolis Star, I traveled to the East Coast, up into the Canadian Maritimes, faithfully keeping journals, striving to live up to the great honor and vote of confidence bestowed on me.
In those days, the days of Jimmy Carter, there was a lot of money for the arts. A job was created for a full-time Poet in Residence in the St. Paul Public School system. It involved going into schools three weeks a month and getting kids worked up about language, with one week off to write. I got this job and my contract was renewed for four years. I never thought I was really good at this– but so very late in life, I’m beginning to see that I was and am.
What heady times these were. On weekends Caroline would take us all up to her family’s lodge on the Brule River in the Wisconsin woods– a huge tongue and groove affair built by Norwegian immigrants. How I loved that lodge, with its Mexican furniture and rooms fragrant with cedar. The lodge was built by Caroline’s aunts, Julia and Caroline Marshall, who gave a ton of money to the arts in Minnesota.
We didn’t call our fetes salons, when we read our work to each other and threw our wineglasses into the fireplace, but that’s what they were.
Caroline also staked me to a trip to Europe– the subject of a memoir I have just written and am allowing to cool off before I begin revision.
In short, I was blessed with a wonderful start on a career. In 1976 Ms. magazine featured me with other women poets. Lots of other stuff happened.
Fast forward and time travel with me to this hour on this night.
I came back in 78 after the job ended to take care of my mother; my father had died. I decided to stay, and finished various degrees including everything for the M.F.A. when we got it at Colorado State University. Lynx House/Eastern Washington University Press brought out my first real collection, Reunion.
Many things can happen to derail anyone, any writer’s career and we can derail our careers ourselves.
As I took up a life in the West and a new chapter involving raising animals and chasing my dream of a man and the land, I also suffered with terrible depression and alcoholism, much written about on this blog. My story along these lines is just like anyone’s story, following the same patterns, the same downward spiral.
I”ve just proclaimed on this site that no one should write memoir before the age of fifty, but today I had to reconsider my position: I listened to the author of Henry’s Story, Hyperion Press, on NPR talking about trying to save her son. I wept. I knew I was hearing a story that needed to be told.
I talked to a friend today about the issue of writing about the past; he agrees with me that you need the perspective of time to fully come to terms with something.
I could not have written the piece here, A Yellow Rose, about my relationship with my mother, any earlier. I was still angry, I was still sad, too much got triggered and I hadn’t forgiven her for being ill, unavailable and awful to be around.
I just sent a piece called A Bowl of Red about my father out to a quarterly and I couldn’t have written that any earlier either, for the same reasons.
Now poetry– different story. For some reason I seem to feel that people ought to take off their clothes when they write poetry and get real and raw. I don’t often post a poem here, as I did yesterday, because I write poetry so intimately, and I like to hold a book of poetry in my hand, knowing there is a private intensity between its covers.
I write to infuse my life with a sense of presence, of something happening, of movement, dancing with myself. There is no husband, there are no children or grandchildren, there are no longer any students, no community of other writers, and a few friends nearby and online. There is fading health, things changing about my body that signal the beginning of the slide into the time when like the women lifted in and out of bed next door in the nursing home, I will need to be taken care of on the state’s money.
To keep on when most of your dreams have fallen by the wayside takes guts. The writing of hard truths takes guts. I admire anyone who keeps on when we are all so blind-sided by life events and derailed by them. I only wish we could be more attuned to each other, reach out more, nurture more.
I need to go now to stir the brown rice I’m making, and check the potatoes that started to wrinkle up that will go into the last soup of winter: simple acts of self-love and survival. Peace….