The Slog Blog: Slumps, Doldrums, & More!

by Eric Morris-Pusey

Eric October Image

A particular slant of light on cold, overcast mornings; the particular knocking and grinding sounds a half-severed cooling fan makes against the engine of our car; the peculiar and vaguely threatening advertisements for short-term loans and for the annual Armageddon conference piled in the mailbox—these are all things I’ve thought of putting in a poem lately. I haven’t used a damn one of them.

I’m in a deep slump, poetry-wise. Among other writers I know (even some of the successful ones), it’s common enough. That knowledge doesn’t always help.

For a poet, not actually writing any poetry feels like a case of athlete’s foot, or like being slightly more drunk than everyone else at the party and wondering what the hell these fine people see in you. It just happens every now and again. It’s not all that big a deal, really. It’s all you can think about.

While I would love this to be a Buzzfeed-worthy inspirational post, complete with Instagram-ready success quotes framed against majestic peaks or rippling muscles, it won’t be.

In the year and almost six months since I finished my M.F.A., I’ve written two new poems. Both of them were pretty bad. I’ve revised a bit more than that, but it always feels like doing dishes on a treadmill, with a hangover. Or like failing to do that well enough and feeling sorry for yourself about it.

It seems almost dangerous to connect oneself so thoroughly to something as most of the people reading this have connected themselves to writing. Like gambling your last couple of bucks or falling in love, the act can be exhilarating and the payoff incredible. But when it doesn’t work out, the comedown is infinite, and you’re left alone with that infinity.

For the first six months of my slump, all I thought about was writing, or not writing. As I sat in front of the laptop or with pen to paper, the walls to my left and right shrank toward me. The space between me and the great nothing I was trying to turn into a decent something became wider and more improbable.

My vision blurred. I didn’t shower as often as I should’ve. The lights in my office, or the laundry room where I sometimes wrote, were always too bright or too dark. It felt like someone was watching through the window, and always disapprovingly.

Like trying to get to sleep, trying to write usually doesn’t work, except as a misery engine.

While I’m not saying to give up, and I certainly haven’t, sometimes it may be better to turn away from that void, that infinite comedown, for at least a minute or two. Athletes get injured, singers get head colds, and everybody gets tired. Sometimes there’s no point in doing something you just can’t do right now.

For both our writing and our health, a step back is sometimes necessary, as is forgiving ourselves for that step back. Virginia Woolf tried it on a Friday in April 1921, and though she said, “I ought to be writing Jacob’s Room,” instead she chose to “write down the reason why I can’t.” While I haven’t tried this particular technique myself, simply allowing oneself to not write, even if only for a moment, seems a radical act of self-forgiveness. Additionally, I don’t think it hurt Woolf’s career.

While I haven’t written a decent poem this past year, I might’ve read more than I have in the past two. I’ve submitted more work than ever before and even managed to get a couple pieces picked up. I continue to read submissions for Nimrod. And my step back from poetry has allowed me to focus on another project, something I’m (cautiously) hopeful about.

These rationalizations and justifications work halfway, half the time, to convince me I’m all right. And while part of me is writing this for you—because this happens to so many of us, and because it can be so deadening—part of me writes for myself, too. Because the slump never gets easy, even if it doesn’t stay as hard.

I felt the first stirrings of being able to write poetry again last weekend, hearing my former advisor Rick Jackson read a few poems and talk about poetic structure, the ways in which the stylistic choices a poet makes say just as much as the words they choose. Something flared for a brief moment; a dead fluorescent bulb flickered quietly on.

I haven’t written another poem yet. I know, or at least hope, I will soon.

Eric Morris-Pusey has written a few poems, some of which appear in The Missouri ReviewDriftwood Press, and 3Elements Review, among other places. He holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works on the Nimrod Editorial Board. You can find him on the interwebs or on his stoop in Columbia, Missouri, staring wistfully at the moon.

Contributor Interview: Craig Getz

As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.

Tell us a little about your work in Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts: what inspired it, how you came to write it, etc.

“George Pearson” is one of the Meditations on Art and Artists which belong to a recent collection entitled “A Mountain on Jupiter”. I simply came across an article about the movie (directed by Pearson) in a Spanish newspaper, along with an image from it. These “Meditations” seek to explore my personal relationship with different artworks. Without even seeing the movie at hand, I explored the notion of leaving a movie unseen.

Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene from this work?

I like how the giant red tulips sort of interrupt a black and white poem.

What is your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?

To be aware of all the poems we write when we’re not writing. I’ve met wonderful poets who have never written a poem; and many who have but, in my humble opinion, I don’t really consider them poets.

Tell us something fun, strange, or interesting about yourself. It can have to do with writing—or not!

I’m also a photographer and have had several shows in Spain. One of my discourses is called “Moments of Glass” which is my passion for the reflections and juxtapositions glass often provides. Instead of stealing the token museum shot of a Vermeer painting, for example, I’ll focus on the window the painting has been next to, possibly for centuries, establishing a relationship between the painting and its
“real” source of light.

What’s on the writing horizon for you/what are you working on now?

I’ve just published my debut collection of poetry, “Suicide, 1964”, available on Amazon. I documented the performance/presentation too, available on YouTube.

Contributor Interview: Sarah Curry

As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.

Sarah_C

Tell us a little about your work in Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts: what inspired it, how you came to write it, etc.

I started “The Rickies” when my daughter was 3 weeks old. It was the first time I was away from her. I snuck out to a coffee shop and I needed to be back in 90 minutes to nurse. Instead of feeling guilty or pressured, I just got down to it and wrote–having absolutely no plans or even knowledge of what I was about to write. What came was a younger voice, a so-not mom voice. It wasn’t guarded. It was weird and honest. I’m not sure if I wrote that piece because I needed a space free of spit up; or there’s freedom in sleep deprivation; or or if there’s some truth to birth being a trauma that can awaken the past for you. Heck, maybe I just missed my girlfriends. I’ve been part of a group of 4 best friends twice in my life and there’s a power to it. You don’t need to worry about what anyone else thinks. You might as well be your own town.

Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene from this work?

Besides the image of the Rickies living in the box of discarded thing under the bed, I really like “caterpillar soup.” Next time, you see a butterfly I want you to clap for it because it has gone through some hard work to get here. Would you eat yourself to transform? And this is no Jonas and the Whale scenario–you’ve got to digest yourself too.

You were a finalist in the Francine Ringold Awards for New Writers, which means that this is one of your first pieces of published work in your genre. How long have you been writing, and what did being a finalist in the competition mean to you?

I’ve been writing since I was little kid and I even went to an arts high school where I got to spend two hours a day writing. I took a couple workshops in college, but I never revised. I just wrote and wrote. I actually didn’t write for a lot of my twenties because I was an immigrant rights advocate and that took a lot of my heart and my mind. But at a certain point, I realized I liked the world better when I was writing. It’s easier to find humanity, absurdity, and beauty in the world when you slow down to put things to the page. I was so fortunate to be able to take 3 years off from the real world to write stories and a novel in VCU’s MFA program. Now that I’m back to working full time, being a finalist just meant I took my full lunch hour and treated myself to a plate of chicken shawarma. But I totally plan on showing my kids my name in print.

What is your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?

If you’re a writer with very little time, see what writing you can get done with one hour less sleep a day. But make sure to sleep too.

Tell us something fun, strange, or interesting about yourself. It can have to do with writing—or not!

I coach my four-year old daughter’s soccer team. When I was getting ready to coach, I told her some stories from my glory days and how I was nicknamed Killer and Terminator because I was a very tenacious defender. She lowered her voice and leaned in, “Mama, we better not tell the other kids that.”

Bonus tidbit: I work on sexual violence prevention at a college. Some students I work with recently suggested that they form a group of active bystander women and call them “The Angies.” They have no idea about this story, and something about that felt so full circle.

https://www.sarahmanoncurry.com/

Sarah Curry earned a M.F.A. in fiction from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her fiction has received Honorable Mentions from The Masters Review and the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, and she was a finalist for the Center for Women Writers International Literary Award. She is at work on a novel. She lives in Kentucky with her children and husband, a mathematician.

Contributor Interview: Jackie Rigoni

As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.

Rigoni

Tell us a little about your work in Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts: what inspired it, how you came to write it, etc.

As we all know, inspiration can shine through any slat in the fence if we are open to receive it. The inspiration for my poem, Life, Death, and Breakfast, came when I pulled into my driveway and opened the car door to find this leaf perfectly and impossibly balanced on the pin tip of a succulent. It was too impossible not to be a message. I managed to snap some pictures. The image stayed with me until it crystalized into this poem.

Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene from this work?

This line is my favorite, since it was the launching point of the poem:

But I know how a fallen leaf can / hang in the balance for a lifetime /on the pin tip of a succulent.

You were a finalist in the Francine Ringold Awards for New Writers, which means that this is one of your first pieces of published work in your genre. How long have you been writing, and what did being a finalist in the competition mean to you?

I’ve been writing in various forms, both recreationally and professionally, but only recently have I started to send out poetry for publication. As much as I’d like to say that my ego is not concerned with external reinforcement, having my work connect with someone enough for them to acknowledge it as a finalist for the Francine Ringold Awards for New Writers is an honor and a motivation to risk putting my poems out in the world again. In fact, since sending this piece out, I’ve had two others accepted for publication, which added to my credentials for being named Poet Laureate of my hometown of Belmont, California.

What is your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?

Immerse yourself in your local writer community. Put your work out there before you are ready.

Tell us something fun, strange, or interesting about yourself. It can have to do with writing—or not!

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Marshall Islands and still speak fluent Marshallese, a language spoken by about 44,000 people.

Jacki Rigoni writes and teaches within the found spaces of single parenting her three children in the San Francisco Bay area. She has an M.A. in English from UC Berkeley. An award-winning Creative Director and Copywriter by profession, Jacki’s other writing work can be seen on TV and the back of snack packaging.

Contributor Interview: T. J. McLemore

As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.

McLemore

Tell us a little about your work in Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts: what inspired it, how you came to write it, etc.

The two poems that appear in this issue—“Lighted” and “Eucharist as Sortilege”—represent two poles of my writing experience and sensibility. “Lighted” is a private piece, one of those rare poems that emerged fully formed as a first draft. I wrote it in summer 2017 while sitting on my back porch, considering the beautiful decay of the day, the house, my own face. The poem’s fireflies are an invention, a hoped-for vision—the collision of enzymes that make the insect’s brief light, those moments we feel the present purely before self-awareness crashes back in. “Eucharist as Sortilege” has a more public impulse, finding its setting on a community farm. I drafted some of these lines in late 2008. It’s one of the first poems that engaged my formal imagination: each of the four stanzas contains 78 syllables, a constraint reflecting the composition of the Tarot deck. I abandoned the draft for years before returning to it during the assemblage of my MFA thesis. The poem has now gone through a couple dozen drafts.

Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene from this work?

The quick visual association—almost like the pairing of cards pulled from a deck—in the final stanza of “Eucharist as Sortilege” seemed like a form of divination when I first “drew” these images; this is the original impetus for the piece and the reason I returned to it. I’m still fascinated by these associations; the wind is embodied in laundry and oak trees, while “Leonids streak / the sky. The clouds are tinged / with flame.” It’s a peaceful yet unsettling scene. In one Tarot deck I saw, The Tower appears as a tree rained down on by lightning and fire from heaven, a figure for both destruction and liberation, a sign of sudden and unforeseen change.

What is your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?

Read as much contemporary literature as you can get your hands on. Then, instead of aspiring to some form of external recognition or validation, aspire simply to write well. I think we remain aspiring writers.

Tell us something fun, strange, or interesting about yourself. It can have to do with writing—or not!

I started writing poems in college while touring with an indie rock band. You can hear some of that music on my website.

What’s on the writing horizon for you/what are you working on now?

It’s almost summertime, which for me means a teaching break and some extended time to write. Over the coming months, I plan to start my second manuscript of poems (while of course keeping my fingers crossed for my first collection to win a contest). I also hope to write some songs. I’m eager to see what direction this new work will take.

www.tjmclemore.com

T. J. McLemore lives and teaches in Fort Worth, Texas. His poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Prairie Schooner, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Kenyon Review, The Adroit Journal, The Massachusetts Review, and other journals.