“Do I Look Okay?”
This is what I ask my husband when I’m on my way out the door to teach my class. As I’m asking, I take my right hand (palm facing towards me) and make large, circular motions around my face and torso. I’m not looking for validation. The subtext of my question is not “Do I look pretty?” or “Am I beautiful?” When I ask my husband, “Do I look okay?” I’m being practical: Is there toothpaste on the corner of my mouth? Is my fly open? Am I nipping-out in this shirt? Have my underwear risen up past my slacks? This afternoon, when I turn around to write my “Story Plot As Inverted Check Mark” graph high up on the chalkboard, am I gonna end up exposing my students to my turquoise panties, losing the respect I’ve worked so hard to earn?
And this, my friends, is why I’ve avoided creating a blog for so long. How can I write something and put it out into the world without having labored over it for days or months or years? Right now, writing this feels an awful lot like getting dressed without looking in the mirror. And when I post this, my God, it’s going to feel like I’ve left the house without asking my husband (who loves me and so will always tell me the truth), “Do I look okay?”
The title of my first full-length collection of poetry, Cradling Monsoons, is inspired by a line taken from a poem that didn’t make the final cut in the manuscript. The poem “If We Are Measuring In Years,” is a short piece I wrote for my husband on the occasion of our third anniversary. Echoing the tradition of throwing rice at a newly-wedded couple, I wrote
“If we are measuring in years/then this marriage is hardly substantial, a handful/of rice. But if you imagine each drop of rain it took to grow each grain,/ then you will know that the spoon you put to your lips cradles monsoons.”
Driving to work this morning, I returned to that image and saw these grains of rice as a metaphor for every poem I’ve ever written. In the context of the larger world, my poems seem insignificant– murmurs, small ripples. I remember publicly lamenting (on facebook) about my struggles with writing. An exasperated friend commented, “Writing isn’t work. Digging ditches is work.” He’s right. Poems don’t put out fires or build bridges or cook a meal or restore power after a storm. But I believe (because I have to) that this friend is wrong. I choose to believe that I have been working on my poems, devoting hours, months, sometimes even whole years to perfecting them (some that will never see the light of day) because they matter. I’m driven by the desire to create an image or line or moment that is potent enough to capture a reader the way Carolyn Forche’s “The Memory of Elena” captured me when I was eighteen years-old.
I was in my bedroom, lying on my bed when I read of
“bells with their tongues cut out, waiting for this particular silence”
and I can still remember how the light fell on my white and floral bedspread when I came across this image. That single image is what made me want to write poetry, and it’s an image that has sustained me all these years and kept me writing. A few months back, I was able to meet Forche and tell her how that poem changed the trajectory of my life. I brought my 15 year-old copy of A County Between Us to Forche’s reading and she signed my book, “For Sarah, who remembers the light.”
My mentor, Bill Trowbridge, suggested Cradling Monsoons as the title for my first book, and I immediately latched onto the image. It captures the beauty and the terror that I felt during the three year span in which I met my husband, moved to Omaha, and began having children. I wrote most of the poems in the book while raising two small children, and I’ve described them (the poems, not the children) as prescriptions. Choosing to become a stay-at-home mom in a town where I had no ties to family and very few friends was a terribly isolating experience, and I now look back and see each poem I wrote during that time as a kind of self-prescribed prozac.
And now, here I am, out in the world. The publication of my book landed me a teaching job at the university, a Nebraska Book Award, and many readings in Nebraska and beyond. For the last year and a half, my mantra has been “say yes to everything.” I am motivated by fear, and the fear is that I’ll never get asked to do these things again because I’ll never get another book published. Nothing can assuage these fears, and the fear has me caught in a vicious cycle. I’ve spent so much time taking advantage of the opportunities afforded to me by the publication of my book, I haven’t had the time or energy to write anything that’s worth a damn for
the last year and a half a while. I was lucky enough to hear Mary Phipher give a talk in Nebraska City during my residency, and during this talk she used the term “An avalanche of roses” to describe her successes as a writer and the downside of those successes. There’s just no way to hold it all. It’s impossible to cradle a monsoon. Things slip through your fingers. But when the writing is the thing that keeps getting lost, you’ve got to do something about that.
I was driving to work, heading South on 72nd street, when the ideas for this blog post started to flow. Trying to steer, shift, and jot down legible notes without killing anyone, I realized that, on this drive, though I usually hit every red light, on this particular morning, ALL THE LIGHTS WERE GREEN! I could have taken as a sign from the gods that, yes, this blog thing is a great idea. And yes! I should go with it! “Go! Go! Go!” But I was (and still am) desperate (literally and metaphorically) for a red light, desperate for a minute or two to write down the ideas as they come. So here I am, all these hours later, sitting on my futon, finally writing, wondering, “Do I look okay?” Or can you all see the toothpaste on the corner of my mouth?