After graduating from divinity school, it would take a nudge from her wife to encourage Lisa to explore her interest in poetry. She is now a published poet and poetry teacher—with a collection of poems recently published via Black Lawrence Press.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Hyde Park, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, as the youngest of four. My father (retired now) was a physician and my mother (deceased since 2001) was a social worker. The house I grew up in was located a block away from the University of Chicago, an institution I had learned from an early age to associate with the highest standards of academic excellence. My father received his undergraduate and medical degrees there. My mother attended the U of C for her master’s degree in social work. Our house was full of books and there was a strong emphasis on academics—particularly on math and science. The message I received growing up was that logic and empiricism were superior to feelings and personal experience. I did not excel at either math or science, so I spent a good portion of my childhood and early adulthood feeling inadequate academically—as well as denying the importance of my feelings.
Another key aspect of my family’s culture was that we embraced fairly traditional gender roles. My mother was a social worker but the message I received growing up was that her career was secondary compared to my father’s. I was not encouraged to think of a career for myself. Instead, the expectation was that I would marry a man when I grew up and that my husband would provide for me financially. After graduating from The College of Wooster with a B.A. in Religious Studies, I moved back in with my parents and took a job as an appointment scheduler at the University of Chicago’s employee health clinic. Because I had never given much thought to a career, it was easy enough to settle for an entry-level job at the same place where I had worked as a high school and college student. It was here—during my post-college years—that I met Scott, a U of C student my age. My parents were very pleased when he and I got engaged and were then married a year later. It was as if, by marrying a man, I suddenly became a whole person, a real adult, in their eyes (and certainly my own as well).
My marriage to Scott lasted five years. We lived mostly in San Francisco where, initially, I worked as a receptionist at a dermatology clinic, then took a job at Harper San Francisco Publishers—first as an office assistant, later as a design assistant. While working at Harper, I started to think about going to graduate school to study theology—particularly feminist theology. Harper San Francisco specialized in religious and “new age” spiritual books and, given that I had been a Religious Studies major in college, their books naturally caught my attention. But the books being published by Harper were very different from anything I had been exposed to during college. Most of what I had studied and learned about in college was very male-centered. Now I was being exposed to books that had a more woman-centered and feminist approach—books about goddess culture, for example. I was entranced and hungry for more. I hadn’t yet had my feminist awakening but something inside me was beginning to stir.
Four years into my marriage, I applied for and was accepted to Vanderbilt University’s graduate program in religion, where my intention was to get a master’s degree in feminist theology. I had recently read Sallie McFague’s Models of God—in which she articulates female-centered models for understanding the divine—and wanted nothing more than to study with her at Vanderbilt. I still wasn’t thinking in terms of a career, though. This was all just for my personal enrichment. My plan was to take a year or two to get my degree and then to settle down somewhere in the Midwest with Scott. Settling down in my view meant we would buy a house and start a family. Scott would be the breadwinner—he had completed a master’s degree in library science while living in San Francisco—and I would stay at home with the kids. I even had a name picked out for the daughter I had assumed we would someday have: Katherine Louise.
Halfway through my first year of graduate studies, I realized—or finally accepted myself as—a lesbian. Deep down, there had always been some part of me that knew I was a lesbian. I hadn’t grown up hearing anything bad about people who were gay or lesbian. But I’d also never heard anything positive. There was just this total silence on the topic. Without a framework in which to understand who I was, I had no choice but to deny my feelings and to store away the clues that had been accumulating over the years into some small corner of my brain until I was ready to deal with them. At the age of 30, they came tumbling out. There are lots of reasons why this point in my life seemed to be so conducive to my coming out: studying feminist theology, studying in an environment that was very open and accepting of the GLBT community (as the Vanderbilt religion department was), and living in a city that felt like home to me. All these, no doubt, contributed to some deep sense of emerging “homeness” inside of me.
The divorce was mostly amicable but still difficult. Even though I knew I was a lesbian, I couldn’t imagine how I was going to live out my new life. I was depressed and emotional during this time. There was no script for this life like there had been for my previous life. After about six months, I sought professional help. That was a turning point for me. Once I started getting help for my depression, everything changed in terms of my perspective on life. I started to gain confidence in myself and in my ability to be who I really was deep down and within. It was like I was falling in love with myself for the first time (as an adult).
Three years after coming out, I met Laurie at a dinner party hosted by a woman I had just met who was starting her life over after a recent divorce. A couple months after our initial meeting—after running into each other at various gatherings hosted by our mutual acquaintance—Laurie called me on the phone to ask if I wanted to have coffee sometime. How about now? I said. That was back in 1998 and we have been happily together—and now legally married—ever since.
In terms of my work life during this time, I had secured a student assistant position at a research center focusing on mental health policy shortly after my marriage ended. I was still enrolled as a graduate student at the time and then—once it became clear that I was never going to finish my master’s thesis (my heart just wasn’t in it after so much personal turmoil)—I formally discontinued my schooling and took a full-time staff position at this same research center. This is where I was working when I met Laurie in 1998 and where I continued to work until 2009. Throughout my years at the research center, I worked in various support-level capacities. It didn’t feel like a career but it felt like a good enough job.
One day, in the spring of 2001, I came home from work and announced to Laurie during dinner that I wanted to go to divinity school. It was a total surprise to her—I had given no previous indication that I had been thinking of this—but she was completely supportive. Some people who go to divinity school talk about feeling “called” to enter the ministry. I never felt called to enter the ministry; I only felt called to go to divinity school. I started the program in the fall of 2001 and received my Master of Divinity in 2005. I did the program part-time so that I could continue working at the research center. Towards the end of my divinity program I had begun to write poetry. I had written poetry in high school and college but very little since then. Just as I had not been able to think of myself as a lesbian for so many years due to the lack of a suitable framework for understanding my sexuality, I also had not been able to think of myself as a poet for so many years. Poetry was not something I was supposed to take seriously. The only serious—i.e., worthy—pursuits were math and science.
During divinity school, I was drawn to studying the Bible. I wanted to learn as much as possible about this text—or texts—in which women appeared to play such a minor role. I wanted to somehow crack open the stories so that I could hear a fuller story. During my last year of divinity school, I began to write poems in which I creatively re-imagined certain keys stories in which women appear only peripherally. My point was to give these women a kind of voice—or at least my version of a voice—that had long been denied to them.
That’s where I was workwise in 2005. In terms of my family life, Laurie and I had by this time been in the adoption process for a year or two and, in the summer of 2005, a few months after I had graduated from divinity school, we found out we had been chosen by a birth mother. We were ecstatic. For several months, we had phone contact with the birth mother and then, in September, flew up to Boston for the birth. Our plan was that I would continue to work at the research center and Laurie would stay home with the baby. We had decided this mostly because my job at the time was slightly more lucrative and stable than hers.
But things did not go as planned. Instead, the birth mother changed her mind. We did not return home to Nashville with a baby. We returned to Nashville feeling depressed and empty. Soon after this, we both returned to our jobs (Laurie by this time was working at the same research center where I had been working for so many years). We muddled along for the first few weeks after our return, both of us just going through the motions of our jobs. Then, towards the end of September, Laurie spotted an announcement on the Vanderbilt webpage for a weekly poetry workshop that was going to be starting that fall and that would be open to anyone from the Nashville community. She forwarded the announcement to me with a message saying I might want to consider signing up. It turns out that signing up for this workshop was the beginning of a whole new journey—my next act—during which I would finally uncover my deepest, most real calling: to be a poet.
When did you start to think about making a change?
I wouldn’t say I had one big “aha” moment. It was more like a series of gentle nudges pushing me in a new direction. Having been told my whole life that there was only one legitimate way to acquire knowledge—one dominant and correct orientation for wisdom—I spent years feeling “out of sync” in terms of my ability to learn about and experience the world. This was similar to how I had felt for so long about my sexual orientation. Just as I had grown up thinking that logic and rationality were the most legitimate pathways to knowing the world, I had also grown up thinking there was only one legitimate sexual orientation, and thus felt “out of sync” in this respect as well. Both of these “impulses” had been present inside me all along but had been buried deep down inside as a result of the familial and cultural messaging I had received while growing up.
The first nudge towards my new life as a poet was the announcement forwarded to me by Laurie in the fall of 2005 about the upcoming poetry workshop. The workshop was led by Stephanie Pruitt, a local Nashville poet, and met once a week for ten weeks. I had never taken a poetry workshop before and was terrified about showing my poetry to other people. But Stephanie was a very encouraging guide throughout the process. Being in Stephanie’s workshop gave me the confidence to contact Kate Daniels, an English professor at Vanderbilt. I knew Kate taught creative writing at Vanderbilt and I wanted to see if she would look at some of my poems. She agreed to meet with me even though the only connection we had was that we both worked at Vanderbilt. I was nervous but Kate was encouraging about my writing and even invited me to audit one of her undergraduate creative writing seminars scheduled for the spring semester. I was honored but, when it came time to sign up, I chickened out. A week later I received an e-mail from Kate reminding me to sign up for her course. This was a very direct nudge. I knew I couldn’t let this opportunity pass.
It was Kate’s class that subsequently led me to audit more classes—Kate’s as well as those of the other poets on the faculty. After auditing five semester-long poetry workshops over a period of two and a half years, I decided to apply to Vanderbilt’s Master of Fine Arts program in poetry. I had been resistant to applying earlier because I knew it would be expensive to attend the program and I wasn’t sure it was worth it to spend all that money for a degree in poetry (since, typically, poetry is not a lucrative field). Then I found out that Vanderbilt had received a windfall of money for the program and would subsequently be offering full tuition plus a stipend. I applied and was accepted for the fall of 2009. With that I began the next phase of my next act: being a full-time graduate student at the age of 45.
What is your next act?
I am a poet and teacher.
After I graduated from Vanderbilt’s MFA program in 2011, I was offered a teaching position at Vanderbilt and have been teaching there ever since. I love teaching. I love the enthusiasm of the students and I love sharing the “good news” of poetry to students who might not otherwise read poetry (most of my students are not English majors). As a teacher, nothing makes me happier than having a pre-med or econ student say to me at the end of the semester that the next time they visit a bookstore, they are going to browse the poetry section.
As much as I love teaching, though, it is not the primary focus of my next act. Teaching is not the thing that I absolutely can’t not do, the way writing is. If someone told me I could never teach again, I would be sad but not crushed. If someone told me I could never read or write poetry again, I would be devastated. The primary focus of my next act is writing poetry—and reading poetry as well because reading and writing go hand-in-hand. Reading and writing are like two sides of a conversation—the listening side and the speaking side. Both sides are equally important.
Prior to enrolling in those first poetry workshops back in 2005 and 2006, the only poetry I had been exposed to—in terms of reading it—was whatever poetry had been assigned to me in my high school English classes or in the one literature class I had taken in college. Poetry, quite frankly, scared me. On the one hand, I was scared by how little of it I understood and, on the other hand, I was scared by how removed it seemed to be from the more “serious,” rational pursuits of, say, science and math. Through my classes at Vanderbilt, I was introduced to a wide range of poets, and it was in the process of finally reading lots of poetry that I began to feel a sense of “homeness” inside of me—a sense of deep contentment—as, finally, I was able to feed the deep hunger I had for knowing the world in the way that I needed to know the world.
This is what had been missing from my life for so long: the kind of radical, visceral, feeling-based immersion into the world that, for me, would come from reading and writing poetry. By immersing myself into poetry—by lowering myself into it—I am, at the same time, being lowered into the world, past and present, in a wonderfully embodied way. When I read poetry, I feel physically affected by it. Something happens inside of me. I am reminded of that great story in the Gospel of Luke when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visits Elizabeth when Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist. As soon as Mary greets Elizabeth, little John the Baptist leaps for joy (in the womb) because he recognizes that Mary is the mother of Jesus. Obviously, I don’t want to make too direct of a connection with this story. My point is simply that when I read poetry, I feel something inside of me responding to it.
Sometimes when I read a poem, it feels as if I am entering a room, a room in which every word has been loved into being; other times it feels as if I am walking along a wooded trail—as if each line of text is a path I must follow, must gladly follow. When I experience poetry as a kind of walking, I am aware of how much reading it slows me down. Poetry is sometimes described as language in which every word matters—take away one word and you take away the poem. When I enter the world of a poem, I am entering a world in which every word must be paid attention to. Slow, meditative attention. This slowing-down effect is particularly helpful to me at those times when I am feeling depressed or just generally overwhelmed by the events of the world around me. Reading the work of some of my favorite poets, slowly and meditatively one word a time draws me back to my center, to the present-ness of the moment. The French philosopher Simone Weil once said that absolute attention is prayer. The act of reading poetry is a way of paying absolute attention and, thus, for me, a kind of prayer.
Too, when I read poetry, I know that I am not alone. I know that my life is bound up with the lives of others in this strange and wonderful and too often profoundly painful narrative of life. And when I write poetry, I know that I am not alone—that, in the process of writing, I am being led towards something bigger and deeper than my life alone. And it is in this feeling of transcendence—this feeling of connection to the larger web of creation and the web of human history in particular—that I feel a sense of deep, deep joy.
Another thing I love about being a poet is that it allows me to follow and immerse myself in all sorts of quirky research interests—from the cultural history of rain to the burial practices of Anglo-Saxon Kings to the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864—wherever my curiosity takes me. Back when I was in divinity school, I had to write a 15-page research paper on a Biblical text for one of my Biblical Studies courses. We were expected to read as much as we could about the historical context of the passage, the cultural context, the literary context, and to offer our own insights about the passage in light of our research. One of the students in the class did not see why he needed to do any research on a passage from the Bible. In his mind, all he had to do was pray for the Holy Spirit to guide him. When he expressed this sentiment to the professor, she responded with: You need to give the Holy Spirit something to work with.
I find the same is true with respect to my writing. I need to give my creative spirit something to work with. Some of what I work with comes from my own life experiences, but a lot of it comes from learning as much as I can about the world, from taking in the world, and loving the world in all its pain and beauty and despair. In some religious circles, people talk about reading the Bible with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other—which is exactly the way I approach poetry. Poetry in one hand, everything else in the other. It is important for me to anchor myself in that which moves through me. To write poetry is, for me, to be focused on a mountain that only I can see—on the messy, amorphous stuff emerging out of my exploration of the world. When I lose sight of this mountain—when I become too focused on external concerns—book contests, journal submissions, writing residencies—I lose sight of what is most important, of what gives me my deepest joy: the writing itself.
In terms of the focus of my book, Mosaic of the Dark portrays my journey to wholeness and addresses the psychological harm that can arise from restrictive societal expectations for women. As I examine my own early experiences as a closeted lesbian trying to fit my life into the prescribed script of heterosexuality, I also grapple with my mother’s possibly non-heterosexual orientation and eventual death from alcoholism. As the poems in the latter part of the book suggest, I eventually shed familial and cultural expectations in favor of my true self and, in the process, experience a spiritual re-visioning that allows me to move beyond the confines of a male-centered Christianity to a more expansive, mystical way of experiencing the divine.
Below is a sample poem from the book. In this poem, I draw from the Biblical story of Sarah and Abraham traveling through a foreign land, and Abraham lying about his relationship to Sarah in order to protect himself.
The Lies that Save Us
Driving through Georgia,
we lie like Abraham.
Are you sisters?, people ask.
Yes, we answer. Twins, even.
Though we are dressed similarly
in broad-brimmed hats,
long-sleeved shirts and tan pants
tucked into thick white socks
(it being tick season and all)—
we look nothing alike.
Thought so, people say,
as if they have figured out
some secret code. We smile back,
knowing the power of things unseen:
atoms, quarks, and auras
and all the love that lies between.
Kissing energy, we call it.
But all they can see is
How hard was it to take the plunge?
In many ways, it didn’t feel like a plunge as much as a path that was slowly revealing itself. So, in a sense, I never felt like I had to prepare for anything. I just had to be open and receptive—which is, of course, much easier said than done. There were so many times when I wanted to leave the path. The first time was when I almost didn’t sign up for that Vanderbilt workshop with Kate Daniels. At the end of that semester, Kate encouraged me to ask Mark Jarman, one of the other poetry professors at Vanderbilt, if I could audit his workshop in the fall. He said yes. But then on the first day of class I learned that one of the course requirements was a giant (in my view) research project and presentation. At the time, I was working 30-40 hours a week. I really had no interest in doing a big research project on top of everything else. I figured the only solution was to drop the course. Luckily Laurie talked me out of this. She wisely suggested that I explain the situation to Mark and ask him if I could just do the poetry assignments, not the big research project. I was, after all, only auditing the course. So I sent Mark an e-mail. He wrote back right away and said: “Of course, that’s fine. You’re only auditing.”
There were countless hurdles like this along the way—many of them self-imposed. Even now, after having achieved some publishing success, I still have to remind myself that I am doing the right thing and that doing the right thing means there will be successes and failures. Failure is part of the process. Rejection is part of the process. I sent my poetry manuscript out for four years before it was accepted. I got lots of rejection letters. Part of the problem was that I started sending it out too early—before it was really as good as it needed to be—but the other part of it is that this is a very competitive and arbitrary field. There are lots of writers out there doing exactly what I am doing—sending out poems, sending out manuscripts. A lot of poetry publishers only pick one or two manuscripts out of hundreds of submissions. Oftentimes a poetry manuscript is chosen through a contest in which hundreds of poets pay an entry fee and submit their manuscript. Out of these manuscripts, one manuscript is chosen. This doesn’t mean that only one manuscript was good; it just means that only one manuscript was chosen.
One of the best ways to prepare for this kind of rejection is to know ahead of time that it will occur; to accept that it is part of the process and that everyone experiences it. Sure, there might be people in your life who seem to be magnets for success but it’s best not to compare yourself to those people. It will only make you miserable and get in the way of your writing. The only person you should ever compare yourself to is earlier versions of yourself.
How supportive were your family and friends?
Laurie has been wonderfully supportive on all fronts—the writing front, the publishing front, the teaching front. Everything. And her family also has been supportive, as have my friends. My siblings have been supportive of my teaching endeavors but they have never been as vocally supportive of my poetry endeavors. I think this is largely because they don’t really know how to handle my poetry. I write a lot about very personal issues—my mother’s alcoholism, her possibly non-heterosexual orientation, my experience of coming out as a lesbian, my experiences with depression and alcohol abuse. I think some of my material makes them uncomfortable. This kind of disconnect between a writer and his/her family of origin is fairly common in the writing world. I try not to dwell on it. I know they love me and support me as a person. I just think they would prefer it if I wrote more dog poems!
What challenges did you or are you encountering?
I would say that most of my challenges have been and continue to be mental challenges. I have to constantly remind myself that writing poems is my goal—whether or not they get published is not something I can control. I am certainly pleased when my poems do get accepted—and I am thrilled to have a book published now. However, the only true intention I can set for myself is to keep writing and keep developing my craft. My goal can only be to become the best writer I can be. When I become too focused on external concerns—on getting published, for example—I lose sight of what is most important. The external concerns are important but the problem is when I allow the external concerns to move inward to such an extent that I lose sight of that which gives me joy: the writing itself. The experience of immersing myself in my curiosities and passions far outweighs the experience of getting a poem published because it comes from a much deeper place; a place of exquisite interrelatedness. A place in which I feel a sense of deep communion with the lives of those who have come before me.
I remember—not too long ago—having a particularly bad day in which my external concerns were completely drowning out my internal joys. At one point, I walked into my study and I suddenly felt one of my arms reaching out towards my bookcase (where I keep a lot of my poetry books and research books). It felt a little like a poet’s version of an altar call—as if my body was leading me towards that which would heal me. Suddenly I was reminded of what is most important. Of what it is that I am called to surrender to and to dedicate my life to. I think it’s crucial for all writers (for anyone, really) to have some sort of touchstone—whether it’s a mental image or something physical—that they can return to when they are feeling lost or off-center.
The wonderful thing about immersing myself in my curiosities and passions is that this is the one thing with respect to my writing life that I can control. I will always be welcomed by my own curiosity. I don’t have to enter my curiosity in a contest. I am never going to get a rejection letter—even a personalized hand-written one—from my own curiosity. No one can take my curiosity away from me. And now, whenever I’m feeling off-center or having a bad day, I think about this altar call experience. About the way my own body and mind—at a deep level of interiority and consciousness—was reminding me in that moment of what is really important.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
This might seem like an obvious thing to say but one of the things I learned about myself is that I’m a poet—and that poetry is my way of making sense of the world around me. As mentioned previously, I grew up in a family in which math and science were seen as the most legitimate forms of knowledge. Since I wasn’t particularly good at math or science, I always felt inferior to my father and my brothers (all of whom excelled at math and science). I felt like I wasn’t very smart and that there was something wrong with me.
I remember as a teenager sitting in the living room of my parents’ house reading a heart-wrenching story in Time magazine about a boy who had been kidnapped at the age of two and then returned to his parents fifteen years later. I couldn’t stop looking at the picture of the happy little boy on one page and the much older boy on the other page. I couldn’t stop thinking about the anguish the parents must have felt when their child disappeared—and the new kind of sorrow they must have felt when he was returned to them as a kind of stranger. While I was sitting there thinking about all this—feeling all this—my brother, Peter, walked into the living room, picked up the magazine, and read the entire issue in less than ten minutes. Then he left the room. I sat there thinking there must be something wrong with me because I couldn’t read the rest of the magazine. I sat there thinking I wasn’t smart like my brother. All I could do was sit there and feel. Now when I think about this experience, I don’t see myself as not being smart; rather, I see myself as being smart in a completely different way from my brother.
As another example, I have always been drawn to the past, to history, but it has taken me years to figure out what to do with this interest. My minor in college was history and, at one point, I briefly considered doing graduate work in history. I had assumed that my only option was to do something conventionally academic with this interest. It had never occurred to me that there might be other ways for me to engage with the past.
There is a story from the Gospel of Thomas (an extra-biblical gospel) in which Jesus says: “If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” This is perhaps the most important lesson I have learned through the process of becoming a poet: I must bring forth what is inside me. And the way to do this is through writing. By not writing, I was destroying a key part of myself.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
One thing I would have done differently in terms of looking for a publisher for my manuscript is that I would have waited a couple of years before sending it out. I remember attending a writing conference several years ago and hearing a panelist tell the audience that you shouldn’t bury your weaker poems at the end of your manuscript. Instead, you shouldn’t include them at all. I realized in that moment that this was exactly what I had been doing—sneaking in my weaker poems in the back of the manuscript instead of taking them out altogether. In the end, it worked out. But I could have saved time and money by waiting a year or two to send out my manuscript.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Don’t compare yourself to other people! I know this advice gets thrown around a lot but it is hugely important especially when you are reinventing yourself later in life. It will be tempting to compare your newly invented life—at the age of 45, 50, 55—to what someone in your “field” has already accomplished by the age of 25 or 30. Don’t do this! You will just make yourself miserable. The only person you should ever compare yourself to is previous versions of yourself. Every now and then I think of my former self sitting in the cubicle of my former job. My former self was a good self. I don’t mean to be critical of this former self but, honestly, I am so glad that I am not still my former self. I am so grateful that I am doing something completely different with my life now, something that really enlivens me and feeds my spirit. Yes, it can be scary to re-invent yourself at a later stage in your life but, to me, what is even scarier is the thought of not taking the plunge at all.
One of my yoga teachers used to say: Keep your ego on your mat. In other words, don’t worry if the person next to you can stand on their head or touch their toes or curl their body into an annoying, smiling pretzel. Just worry about what you can do. I think about this whenever I ride my bike in the very hilly park across the street from where I live. Some of the hills seem to go on forever. In all the times I’ve ridden my bike in this park, I have never passed another cyclist. Instead, other cyclists pass me. Sometimes even runners pass me. At first this felt just shy of humiliating. Then I realized something: I am in the park. Sure, I might be getting passed up by everyone but what about all the people who aren’t even in the park? What about all the people who haven’t taken the plunge, who haven’t reinvented their lives, who haven’t followed their passions and joys and curiosities? The key is to be in the park. It doesn’t matter how fast you’re going or whether other people are passing you by. The only thing that matters is being there and doing your thing—even if it means using the granny gear.
What advice do you have for those interested in writing and publishing poetry?
My first piece of advice is to not lose sight of your writing goals. In other words, focus on writing success not publishing success. Writing is the only thing you have control over. Reading, writing, and getting better and better at what you do. That’s all you can do. You can’t control whether or not your work will be loved or accepted by the world. If it is, that’s great. But getting published is never going to make you as happy as writing is. To that end, you need to read as much as possible. Other writers are often our best teachers. Writing is a two-way conversation and requires both speaking and listening.
One summer, several years ago, I made a point of reading a book of poetry every day. I’d never be able to sustain this practice during the school year but I was able to do it for a month or two one summer and I found that this daily practice of reading poetry really helped me with my writing. I wrote lots of lovely poems during this time but I’m pretty sure I would eventually burn out and become completely miserable if I tried to sustain this practice 365 days out of the year.
During the school year I often have designated reading and writing days (one or two days a week) during which I focus entirely on reading and writing. During the summer (when I’m not teaching) I try to write at least five days a week. The key is to find the schedule that works the best for you. Some writers have a daily writing practice—thirty minutes a day no matter what. Other writers are binge writers—writing a ton for weeks on end and then taking several weeks—or months—off. Writing is like a muscle. The less you use it, the harder it will be to use that muscle when you sit down to write. So, yes, it’s important to keep your writing muscles in shape but it’s also important to listen to your body-mind. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to write every single day. If writing every day isn’t possible with your schedule or if it makes you miserable, do what works for you. I try to ride my bike four times a week. Biking gives me great joy. If I told myself I had to ride my bike every single day, it would no longer be fun. It would no longer give me joy. Never lose sight of joy.
I also recommend connecting with other writers. Join a writers’ group if there’s one near you. And if there isn’t one near you, think about starting one! If you live far away from other people, try connecting with other writers online. I am currently in two different writing groups. One of these groups is an online group—we connect every summer via e-mail, sending in poems once a week for feedback. The other group meets in person once a month all year long.
In terms of submitting your work to journals, keep in mind that there are lots of different kinds of journals. Some journals are very difficult to get accepted to—The New Yorker, for example, or Poetry magazine. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try these journals. It just means you shouldn’t be crushed if you don’t get your work accepted to these journals. If you get rejected from a top-tier journal, then move on to another journal—or even another tier. And keep a spreadsheet. You will likely want to submit your poems to multiple places simultaneously and a spreadsheet is a great way to keep track of which poems are where. This will be especially helpful when you get a poem accepted because you’ll need to contact the other journals to retract the poem.
If you are at the point where you have a book-length manuscript and are trying to get it published, the first thing you need to do is acquaint yourself with the various presses. Not all publishers are going to be right for your work. If you write free-verse poetry, for example, don’t send your work to a press that only publishes formal poetry. This is an obvious example but there are all sorts of gradations of this same idea. Another thing to keep in mind is that many poetry presses—either during their open submission periods or for their contests—charge a reading fee (usually $20 or $30). So, it’s best to be as strategic as possible about where you send your manuscript. Keep track of those places where you were lucky enough to have been a finalist or a semi-finalist. These are the places to focus your attention on. And if you do get a manuscript accepted, keep in mind that, unless you already have a large following, you will likely have to do most of the marketing and publicity yourself. There are lots of great resources out there for marketing and promotion (I’ve listed two books below) but the key categories to think about are: book reviews and interviews, readings, post-publication contests, and book festivals. Again, I recommend a spreadsheet to keep track of everything.
It’s important, though, to not lose track of your actual writing in the midst of all the external concerns. Keep joy at the center! I once got so overwhelmed with the marketing and promotion side of things that, for a brief moment, I found myself wishing I had never written my book. If you ever have this thought, I recommend stepping back, taking a deep breath, and reminding yourself that the only thing that really matters is the writing. As my former homiletics professor used to say about sermons: Keep the main thing, the main thing. Writing is the main thing, not publishing.
What resources do you recommend?
Books about Writing and the Writing Life:
Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within (Kim Addonizio)
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (Elizabeth Gilbert)
The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language (Natalie Goldberg)
Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice (Laraine Herring)
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anne Lamott)
A Poetry Handbook (Mary Oliver)
Books about Marketing and Promotion:
The Frugal Book Promoter: How to get nearly free publicity on your own or by partnering with your publisher. (How to Do It Frugally) (Carolyn Howard-Johnson)
Guerrilla Marketing for Writers: 100 No-Cost, Low-Cost Weapons for Selling Your Work (Guerilla Marketing Press) (Levinson, Frishman, Larsen, Hancock)
What’s next for you?
The way I look at it, my “next act” is to continue the journey of being a poet. Specifically, to go deeper and deeper with my writing. As much as I love being a poet—and as much as I feel called to be a poet—writing poetry is not easy for me. I have to constantly fight the voices in my head that tell me I’m no good, that I’ll never write again, etc., etc. So, although it feels wonderful to finally know what I am supposed to do with my life, each time I sit down to write is itself a kind of “next act.”
Writing is a process of discovery. I never know where a poem or insight will lead me. I feel certain that I will write more poetry in the future—and publish more books—but what I will write is a complete mystery. Only time will tell what shape my future books—my “next acts”—will take. In many ways, writing poetry is a kind of spiritual practice. A way of deepening my connection and attention to the world around me. Just as one’s spiritual life can deepen the more attention one gives it, so too can one’s writing life deepen the more attention a person gives it. In some respects, what’s next for me is more of the same—more reading, more writing. But in other respects—key respects—what’s next for me can never be “more of the same” because ever poem I read and every poem I write is an entrance into a richly varied and wonderfully mysterious new world.
Lisa Dordal holds a Master of Divinity and a Master of Fine Arts, both from Vanderbilt University, and teaches in the English Department at Vanderbilt. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, the Robert Watson Poetry Prize, and the Betty Gabehart Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in a variety of journals including Best New Poets, Sojourners, Feminist Wire, The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, CALYX, Ninth Letter, and The Greensboro Review. Her work has also appeared in various anthologies including Rainbow in the Word: LGBTQ Christians’ Biblical Memoirs (Wipf and Stock) and Forgotten Women (Grayson Books).