My First “Real” Chapbook (and What Happened After Voice Break)

I just got the news that prepublication sales for my first traditionally-published chapbook, Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts, will begin on February 20 through Finishing Line Press. I’m pretty excited about this, because I’ve waited a long time for my first book contract. I have four other book-length manuscripts in the wings, and I’m hoping this modest milestone will help me move forward with all of these projects.

Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts isn’t really my first book. My first book is Voice Break, a longer poem about singing and writing. I self-published it through CreateSpace after one of my MFA program advisors at Pacific University suggested I come up with a musical cover and publish it. Voice Break is the reason this blog exists at all. The decision to take the project into my own hands, in lieu of waiting for a press to accept it, may be viewed as jumping the gun. But I was almost 50 at the time, really ready to bring attention to my writing efforts.

Voice Break Book Launch at Toad Hall in Yachats, Oregon, April 22, 2012

Voice Break Book Launch at Toad Hall in Yachats, Oregon, April 22, 2012

The thing is, I’m still living Voice Break, an outcome I wouldn’t have anticipated in 2012, when the book came out. Back then, I saw this long poem as being an exploration of an earlier failure I never fully came to terms with: my haphazard attempt to become a singer. I didn’t necessarily expect to continue singing as an aging adult. Yet a late-bloomer, “lifelong learning,” exploration of voice has taken on a life of its own, even through the trials of cancer treatment. I work at my singing these days—not with any big goal in mind—but because it has been truly fulfilling.

Voice Break ends as the narrator is performing as a soprano choir singer for the very first time at the age of 48 (before this, the only choir she ever sang in was Fifth/Sixth Grade Chorus at Valley Oak Elementary School in Davis, California). This soprano singing opportunity came about after a long break from her earlier tango with voice training that ended badly when she was 26. Not only did she wipe out as a singer, she walked away convinced she wasn’t really a soprano, because she can sing low. Yet when she returns to the art form some twenty years later, “just for fun,” to work with a new voice teacher, she learns how to sing soprano well enough to hang in there with the Cuyamaca College Choir, not to mention the chorus of a production of Amahl and the Night Visitors.

 Here’s how this singing story has played out from there (details not found in Voice Break):

The following year, the narrator notices the other college in her community college district has a choir that is going to perform in The Nutcracker, accompanying the San Diego Ballet. She’s curious to learn if she can join this choir, known as the Grossmont Master Chorale. She auditions and gets in, but not a soprano—as an alto one. She knows she cans still sing soprano if she stays with the Cuyamaca College Choir (where she is also on the faculty), so she asks her voice teacher, Esther Jordan, which way she should go. Esther suggests that since the Grossmont Master Chorale is a more advanced choir, the narrator’s musicianship would most likely take several leaps—if she can survive the GMC performance schedule. The narrator ends up taking Esther’s advice. She gets through more than three years with the Grossmont Master Chorale, singing as an alto one, before she is sidelined by breast cancer.

The narrator takes time off from studying voice (and everything else) as she undergoes breast cancer treatment. She wonders if she is done with singing, especially during the misery of chemotherapy. She does continue to work on her writing, particularly a long poem about her experiences with breast cancer. But once her life is back in order, she resumes voice lessons with Esther for a few more months, before retiring from the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District (in El Cajon, California). She plans to take a break on the Oregon Coast to work on her health, write, and regroup.

Shortly after arriving in Oregon, she is pleased to note the Central Coast Chorale is holding auditions. She shows up and offers herself as either an alto one or a soprano two. The Central Coast Chorale lets her in—they place her in the soprano two section (remember, the narrator hasn’t performed as a soprano since 2011). Instead of dealing with the break altos face, the one that plagued her in her 20s (as detailed in Voice Break), the narrator is encountering the passaggio that flips singers off the treble clef. As an aside, the narrator no longer cares about voice type—she just enjoys the thrill of performing with an ensemble. As she practices with her new choir, she works hard to remember what Esther has taught her about the passaggio, particularly how she needs lighten her sound across this break, so that it doesn’t pop out at the conductor. She hasn’t noticed many frowns—so far so good!

The Central Coast Chorale will be performing its annual Wishes and Candles Holiday Concert on December 8, 14, and 15 in Lincoln City, Newport, and Yachats. For more information, see the flyer below.

CentralCoastChorale

A Chapbook and a New Life

I am pleased to announce my longer poem, Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts, is scheduled to be published in chapbook format by Finishing Line Press. This project has become the perfect segue into my next phase of life, which will certainly include writing. Yet what’s in store sits calmly down the road holding an armful of question marks.

A year ago, I was recovering from a lumpectomy still waiting to learn if I would also need chemotherapy. I already knew radiation was in the cards. Around that time, I attended a Zen meditation retreat so I could “be” with the drama of breast cancer. I felt a lot of fear during those long hours, but ultimately relished some momentary peace. This was as well as I would feel for another seven months. I had my first chemo infusion on April 4, and my treatment plan continued on from there.

I didn’t often feel the pull to write during that time, but I did chip away at a longer poem, one I would ultimately break into five sections: Diagnosis, Surgery, Chemo, Radiation, and Follow-up. As I documented these experiences, I was occasionally startled out of the general stupor that had dropped over me. In such moments, I could feel what was riding beneath the surface. Unexpected emotion would arise, and I’d put words to what I hadn’t fully let myself define.

It wasn’t long before I got in the habit of heading to my computer right after a treatment, so I could record impressions before they left me. I never worked at it very long, just got stuff on the page. However, during periods of tedium (when I felt well enough to be bored), I tinkered.

Once the three pillars of breast cancer treatment were finally behind me, I needed to set the whole thing down. I let myself polish the poem for a few more weeks. Then I sent it out into the world, as if to say, “I’m done with this!” I was more than happy to move back into normal living—and everything around me seemed heightened. I wondered how long this poetic sensibility would last.

I do continue to encounter sparks of feeling that let me know I’m still processing things. Certainly, this occurred when I received my latest diagnosis, “no evidence of cancer.” Though I’m hopeful my doctors have nailed it, I’m probably not completely out of the woods. My medical oncologist will follow me closely for at least five years, during which time I’ll continue taking Arimidex to ward off new cancer growth. Now I’m trying to figure out what I can do to cheer this drug on. As I design my new life, I should probably ask myself, “What is good medicine?”

How does one maintain well-being? I know there are lots of opinions on the subject—books, videos, and audio recordings. And what is well-being, anyway? Fitness? Financial success? Doing good for others? Creativity? Love? A going with the flow sort of attitude? No doubt it depends on the person. Perhaps the courage to try things is the solution, finding a way to pound one’s fists through emotional ruts. Then there’s working on diet and exercise habits without becoming fanatical.

Developing an eye for opportunity also seems to be a good idea. I recently set up travel plans for a library conference in San Francisco, only to stumble onto a way to live (somewhat) cheaply live in North Beach for a month in an extended-stay situation. As I looked the possibility over, I briefly thought about writing in this buzzing environment and letting the adventures find me. Surely, this is something to contemplate after I take on my new role as retiree. In any event, stripping my life down to what I still want to do seems paramount right now. I don’t want to waste another moment of good health.

 

Poem in Helen: A Literary Magazine Friday Night Specials

My poem, “Snake in the Library,” has been published in Helen: A Literary Magazine Friday Night Specials.

Three Poems in Riding Light

My poems, “Little Song, “Practice I,” and “Practice II,” have just been published in the Music issue of Riding Light.

Stepping Out – A Balance Sheet

Two years ago I celebrated the release of my first book of poetry, Voice Break, on my fiftieth birthday. It was self-published, which made it seem like less of a milestone than landing a book contract—yet it felt like a milestone, nonetheless. I had been opening rejection letters on two novel manuscripts (some with encouraging comments) for close to twenty years. I’d even had an agent for a time.

Like many writers, I’d turned up my nose at self-publishing. The word wannabe can’t help but tag behind. Yet I decided to take this step after one of my advisers in Pacific University’s MFA program read my manuscript. In essence, he told me to come up with a musical cover and publish it. I’m pretty sure he was envisioning a chapbook, but I decided to take advantage of the growing frenzy over CreateSpace to see if I liked the way the process worked. I figured I didn’t have much to lose. The manuscript was quirky, and I sensed it wouldn’t sit well with a traditional publisher. It was probably too short to boot.

In the end, I found the process unexpectedly gratifying. I loved having editorial control! I loved choosing the cover and other design elements. And I loved the absence of deadlines—it wasn’t finished until I thought it was finished.

Once the book was released, I put on my PR hat and managed to capture a little attention in the news. I ended up selling copies to friends and a few generous strangers, but I must admit, my sales never proved to be brisk.

Meanwhile, I began to face a second manuscript, The Ballad of the New Carissa and Other Poems. As there aren’t a lot of ballads being written these days, I figured it would also be hard to place. So I repeated the process with CreateSpace and pretty much ended up with the same results. As an aside, both books were covered by media outlets in Eugene and Newport, Oregon. I was happy with that.

Problem is, poetry doesn’t sell. About the time I was waiting to learn how my own sales would go, I encountered an article in Publishers Weekly, entitled “Measuring the National Book Award Sales Effect”, which focuses on how many additional copies an award winner could expect to unload. I was surprised to learn the winner in the poetry category, David Ferry, had sold roughly 2000 copies of his book Bewilderment. While Ferry’s numbers had actually tripled due to his badge of honor, this number was sobering indeed.

Even so, I don’t regret stepping out. Poets have always found creative ways to make their work available. Or they have enlisted tiny presses to do it for them.

I can recall weeding books during the nineties in the Ballard branch of the Seattle Public Library, where I worked as a librarian, only to stumble upon an early effort by Sherman Alexie (I can no longer remember which one it was). It caught my eye, because Reservation Blues had just made him a star. I think I stood there imagining his early days as a writer, the loving attention he put into the book I held in my hands—one I probably wouldn’t have noticed if Reservation Blues hadn’t come along.

My two books are now housed in a couple of libraries. And due to print-on-demand technology, they are still available for sale through online vendors, should anyone else ever decide to take an interest in them. To my mind, this benefit of the print-on-demand process is probably the best reason to go the self-publishing route. A book can conceivably take all the time in the world to make its way into the consciousness of readers (instead of being remaindered and forgotten). The downside, of course, is that self-published books tend to be ignored by sponsors of literary contests, not to mention librarians and reviewers. I’m still wondering if anyone ever solved the riddle presented in Voice Break, a riddle that also serves as a turn of sorts. In any event, I’ve gone on to test the traditional route. I’ve already enjoyed some success with placing individual poems in literary journals. Perhaps this will ultimately lead to a third manuscript worthy of a good old-fashioned publisher.

Poetry may not sell, but it certainly isn’t dead. Last week I attended a Meet the Poets gathering in the Mission Hills branch of the San Diego Public Library. I was there to share one of my poems, which had recently been published in The San Diego Poetry Annual. The room was packed. Our moderator, Curran Jeffery, quickly ascertained for the record that most of the people in the audience were not poets or writers, but had attended solely to listen to the twenty or so of us preparing to read.

2013 Soul Making Literary Awards Reading

Video

Poem in Labletter Monthly Notes

My poem, “The Gull,” has been published in Labletter Monthly Notes.