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.

 

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.

Keeping up with the Garden

I’ve been writing too many poems about the garden. I started with the bougainvillea that refuses to bloom, before moving on to skunks and raccoons insistent upon digging tunnels under the fence at night in order to hunt for grubs, the carnage that comes about due to survival of the fittest, and, more recently, a red coral tree that has made a spectacular comeback after nearly being killed off by last winter’s cold spell.

Sometimes I worry my work isn’t “heavy” enough. The garden does feel like a luxury in the face of the terrible problems taxing our world. Yet when I have a breather, and I find myself staring at plants, words often begin to crest. That’s when I head for the computer.

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I started yearning for a garden shortly after moving to San Diego. I would take long walks in my neighborhood, only to find myself ogling people’s yards. Not only does this climate sustain a truly interesting selection of flora (it’s easy to see where Dr. Seuss found inspiration for his quirky plants), it is possible to set up a garden so that something is blooming at any given time of the year. That’s an exciting prospect for someone used to a more traditional winter.

In the end, I have the Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College to thank for the fact that my own yard now supports a xeriscape garden in lieu of lawn. Cuyamaca’s garden is a teaching garden, one that encourages the use of drought tolerant plants and innovative landscape design. Students and non-students alike spend hours within its fences, taking notes on various plants, not to mention low-water gardening techniques. Indeed, the fellow who initially put in my garden is a graduate of Cuyamaca’s Ornamental Horticulture program.

My landscape designer gave me a beautiful start—then he gave me the reins. I quickly became worried that I would not have the ability, time, or inclination to keep up my garden. Lawns are a no brainer, but nudging plants to grow into pleasing shapes and color schemes takes some doing. To be sure, some of my favorite plants died early—some did not fulfill their promise. I have struggled over finding good replacements. I’m not sure I’m putting them in properly. Pruning confounds me (I generally feel like a butcher). I can handle the weeds, but I don’t like the pests. In the end, I often think about what I have not yet done with the yard. I know I could go further. I have friends who would have by now.

But really, do I have to keep up with the Joneses? We’re talking about a garden here. Secretly, I like its in-progress state. It will probably never be manicured to perfection. It generally displays a measure of unkemptness, which I tend to ignore until I can no longer stand it (sort of like my hair). I do occasionally meditate on benches, hanging art, chimes, statuary, and other accents I might add. I’m sure I’ll get to it someday.

My garden has come with some surprises. It does require less water than a lawn. And setting all of those aforementioned insecurities aside, it really hasn’t been difficult to maintain. I generally roll up my sleeves every four to six weeks to weed and prune. I particularly like to tinker outside after a stressful week at work, as I am reminded that not all creatures are on the clock—time can stretch in a different direction.

Most weekends, however, I sit in the garden cradling a cup of coffee as I stare at hummers particularly drawn to the Mexican sage. The Mexican sage sure is a trouper. I’ve decided that when all else fails, put in some Mexican sage. It’s been in bloom for months.