August 27, 2012

Meridel LeSueur: Bonfire of Roses

I'm at work on a new manuscript.  I reach for my grandmother and other literary grandmothers.  The cadences of Meridel LeSeuer resound in me.  I want to celebrate her, sing her poems from Rites of Ancient Ripening and roll in the sound of her voice.  This is from her essay, "The Ancient People and the Newly Come":

Born out of the caul of winter in the north, in the swing and circle of the horizon, I am rocked in the ancient land. As a child I first read the scriptures written on the scroll of moisture by wolf and rabbit, by the ancient people and the newly come. In the beginning the century the Indian smoke still mingled with ours. The frontier of the whites was violent, already injured by vast seizures and massacres. The winter nightmares of fear poisoned the plains nights with psychic airs of theft and utopia. The stolen wheat in the cathedral-like granaries cried out for vengeance.

I know these roots: populist, the struggle of the worker against the corporation, the striving of people for fairness and dignity against greed.  She writes about the depression, about mortgages and foreclosure, about her grandmother losing her home.   The beginning of the unions, the fight for an 8 hour workday, for safe working conditions, for a system of social security.  She writes about her mother's effort to earn money only to have her own bank account seized by the bank to pay her husband's debts.   She writes about being reared by three strong women who worked hard to maintain a life despite the "drunkenness, chicanery, and violence" of men in their life.   Violence, she says, is linear.  Love is round, curved like the earth and horizon, like the cheek and breast of the women.

How lucky we are that she sat down to write.  In her Journal in 1930 she wrote:

Whittle myself down to the edge of suffering. We do not know ourselves except when we suffer... In joy I know only myself, in sorrow I know others.  In happiness we are seperete (sic)... In suffering we are fused.

Her strength is in the language, the ability to speak against injustice, to use the power of her voice to tell about the lives of those the world might forget, the poor and disenfranchised.  She inhabits a mythic space of a "green girl,"  a daughter or Persephone going into darkness and also she inhabits the strong mother and earth, the Demeter who can punish with drought and cold or bless us with harvest.   Meridel strikes the iron bough and from her words spring roses -- a "bonfire of roses."

In her essay, "The Ancient People and Newly Come," I found these words, a story about a country dance and the night, outdoors, where men and women would disappear for awhile in "a bonfire of roses." The image brings together her physicality as a writer, always in the sensual body, the use of landscape as a metaphor for emergence, the growth of seed and bud and blossom. Roses also are associated with Bread and Roses, the slogan of the 1912 workers strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. "A police attack on mothers and children at the trained station prompted a Congressional hearing that publicized the strikers' low wages and barebones living conditions."   She was writing about her birth and early family life on the prairie.  One of her images are the small houses that dot the landscape:
Let yourself down, as if under water, into these lost walls, to hunt for treasure, to illuminate violence with meaning. Under sea-strange light these little houses glimmer in memory, powerful as radium. (Ripenings, p 53)
When I heard Meridel LeSueur speak, her voice drove into me like a train. Here was a woman with a writer's voice akin to God: deep, resonant, and calling. I borrowed a phrase of Meridel LeSueur for a poem that pays homage to her: "Bonfire of Roses" in Night Train Red Dust.

Work Cited

LeSueur, Meridel. Ripening: Selected Work, 1927-1980. Edited and with an Introduction by Elaine Hedges. The Feminist Press. Old Westbury, New York. c1982.   Print.


August 20, 2012

A Writer's Leap of Faith


How do you make a living?  Some writers can support themselves doing their writing.  Others do other things, like I have.  It was a choice, always.  I wanted to buy a house, rear a child, pay for medical insurance, and I just didn't feel comfortable with the unknowns of a writing career and took the "safe" bet.  I worked Mondays through Fridays 8:00 am to 4:30 pm as a social worker.  Was that a good choice for my writing?  Wallace Stegner was a very good poet who spent years working for an insurance company.

Of course, in today's economy, not much is safe.  Because of technologies, out-sourcing and other reasons, the economy and our work has changed.  In the field of social services, privatization is common. Down-sizing is frequent. Work is often more project-based and if you can carry your own insurance and retirement plan -- and operate essentially as a private contractor -- so much the better.  Nowadays, there may not be much difference between careers when it comes to security and benefits.

It used to be that some people could rely on steady employment with one company or agency until retiring with a pension. Things were comfortable. I had that opportunity, or nearly did. I worked for a government social service agency for thirty years and probably should have stayed with it until I reached the "Rule of 90." For younger workers, it's already unreachable because of changes in the union contracts. The benefit has been taken away; they can never achieve it. But for some of us lucky enough to have been hired many years ago, the Rule of 90 is that magic number arrived at by adding your age plus years of service. When the sum was 90, you qualified for a pension at about 50% of your earnings.  It was an incentive.

I didn't wait. I'd been juggling creative work (poetry and adjunct teaching) with this very steady, reliable job for too long.  If financial comfort was my only goal, my decision would have been different. I was fifty five years old, at the point when I began to clearly understand that time is finite, and none of us know just how finite. I talked to others who made a living in different fields, who were used to the changes in the market and the ups and downs of a career in the arts.   I talked to the counselor at my retirement fund. He told me if I could tell him how many years I was going to live, then he could tell me what my best option was.

So I left my job.  My last day was August 31, 2011.  They called it an 'early retirement.'  But I never considered for a minute the idea of actual retirement. I was funding my dream. After thirty years, I did qualify for a small pension, 40% of my earnings. It was the kind of money that some people make with a minimum wage job. I decided to accept that as a base rate (an idea that many of my coworkers found horrible), and I would make up the rest. It was a leap of faith. This is the story of my first year.

When I left my job, I was Duluth Poet Laureate and in the midst of a large community writing project.  For a year, I'd been doing workshops and collecting work that related to life's transitions -- a timely topic for me.  These I had edited and published (the book is called Migrations: Poetry and Prose for Life's Transitions).  In September 2011, I was beginning a series of seven publication readings and celebrations. This took me through October and November.

In November, I participated in NANOWRIMO, National Novel Writing Month, an online annual
event. Writers who are interested sign up and receive regular and encouraging emails as they document their progress.  I completed the goal and wrote 50,000 words.  A little of it was good; more of it had possibility. Although it was exhausting to churn out 2000 words a day, it was empowering.  I could do it if I had to.

In December, I felt as if I were falling through space. Suddenly, I was unmoored, without a time clock. I didn't have to be anyplace at all at any particular time. After thirty years of habitually managing a caseload, it was unnerving. However, I wanted to make myself wait before looking for a job. I applied for two arts grants and wrote new poems.  I sent work in to be considered for publication. I had some success with publication.

I should note that my partner and I do weekly "strategic planning meetings" for ourselves to establish weekly goals for our art, our marketing and arts related activity. These have allowed us to recognize the successes and stay on track. Ideas have a better chance of being realized when we break them down into steps and follow through.

At the end of December, I contacted the dean at a community college to inquire about adjunct teaching positions.  I was assigned one on-line class teaching freshman composition.  I was thrilled!  I get to teach from my core passion in life!

In the meantime, my time was filled with writing related work. I judged a poetry contest in February. I had a four week class in poetry at the University for Seniors (as a volunteer; this is not a paid position), and a few more community workshops as poet laureate of Duluth.  My on line class began in March and it fit well into my schedule.

In April, I organized a reading for National Poetry Month. In May, I was able to earn money doing an arts tour (workshops and readings) with another respected writer. We traveled over the northeast region of Northern Minnesota, visiting libraries and meeting with people in the community.

In June, we moved. Moving entails a certain amount of chaos. And the new house needed work. I immediately began stripping wall paper and painting.  I also taught a four week summer session writing class. It was an intensive, but very satisfying to see the students develop their writing skills.  If somebody asked me about my writing, I stared blankly at them.  But in actuality, I had written a few poems.

In July, I received an artist fellowship for a new manuscript based on my grandmother's journey. I began research to learn more about her historical and cultural context at the IRRC to study some oral histories of Finnish American homesteads in Minnesota in the early nineteen hundreds.

I had poems accepted at a poetry program run by a radio station and received a free copy of an anthology of Midwest LBGT writers (my work had been accepted). After moving from the other house, we evaluated our possibilities.  Could our old house be a gallery? (My partner is a media and sound artist).  Could it be our work/writing retreat?  To save money, we decided to rent it to somebody else. This allows us to focus our work and activities here in the new place.

In August, I spent two days selling my book at a local art fair.  Book sales: six.  I decided art fairs are not good places to sell books.  Although I enjoyed talking with the people who came to the table, sitting for eight hours a day underlined the fact that I like to be active.  It's true that the more active I was as a writer, doing workshops, readings, and other community events, the more books I sold through bookstores.

Now it's time to do more creative work again.  I'll be teaching as an adjunct.  The class assignments are unpredictable, but for me this works all right.  I have flexibility and time in my schedule.

The McKnight Foundation has been doing research on past fellows of their art funding.  They wrote to me and showed me my star and globe diagrams showing my artistic development. Click on this link to read fascinating information about artist's careers:  http://diagrams.stateoftheartist.org/   I realized that when I claimed myself as a writer and took creative risks to get my work out in the public, then I became more successful.  It was the very thing that helped my work move forward.  It takes courage, initiative, project management, persistence and networks. It takes work, patience, creativity, even good dreaming.  Why aren't we teaching writers about this?  It's valuable experience not just for being a writer or an artist but for work of many kinds -- work these days.

This month is the first anniversary of my new life as a writer.  This year, writing and art related work has added a lot to my income.  I've had some work published, and I have on a new project.  I'm happy.