Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Summer of Open Minds

It seems I am destined to begin each post with an apology about my delayed posting. This summer was a rough one, physically. My spine has been a real jerk, and I've had to cancel everything from dinners to entire vacations because the pain was uncontrollable. I spent an inordinate amount of time moving from room to room, trying to find some position or piece of furniture I could drape myself over that might offer a modicum of relief.

Of course, I feel about summers the way many feel about winters. I spend all my time cooped up indoors. I get mopey. My pain escalates and I start to feel like I'm living in slow motion. The days seem to get shorter. I know that doesn't make sense in relation to the light/dark hours, but somehow the night starting later makes it seem like that half of the day disappears so quickly. It's dark and then, suddenly, it's midnight.

Some of it is plain preference. I loathe hot weather. My skin burns easily and I get a nasty headache and nausea in direct sunlight (I think it's just the brightness. I'm pretty certain I'm not a vampire or anything else that would make me fodder for the current trends in YA novellas.) I hate sweating (yes, I am that prissy), and I get panicky about overheating after going temporarily blind during a near-heatstroke at an Ice-T show many years ago (does he still even perform like that? I'm pretty sure he's too busy Law and Ordering for an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. Doink! Doink!) So that's fun. Then there's the stuff that goes a little deeper. Getting out of town and arriving at university for the first time was one of the most intense and important moments of my life. The freedom, after living under the lockdown of an angry and suspicious parent, was almost more wonderful than I could fathom. Being sent back for summers and holidays was almost more than I could take. Returning to the place where things went so wrong in so many ways, hunkering down again to take the force of one parent's frustration and fury, while having to watch the other falter under the weight of alcoholism and bad decisions, I felt like Persephone. Don't get me wrong, even in the darkest of times I was lucky to have some pretty excellent people there to hand me a mag light. Still, even with the best of them on my side I felt like I was composed of darkness, or instead maybe dark matter--very small and unfathomably heavy.

So, since summer brings out a lot of my crazy, it seems apropos that this summer (and the flanking months), an assortment of my poems about my experiences with mental illness are being published. Open Minds Quarterly is a magazine geared toward mental health "providers and consumers", meaning people like me who have mental illnesses, plus psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists.

It's no secret that I have had OCD as long as I can remember, and my poem, High Functioning, was featured in the Spring Issue of Open Minds. The poem is a letter to Howard Hughes, someone well known for his (undiagnosed) obsessive-compulsive disorder and the extensive demands he made upon others to feed the beast. This was arguably responsible for his death, as he holed up with movies and morphine in an attempt to dodge the anxiety and the pain in his spine. It's not hard to see why his story resonates with me. I've often thought how easy it would be, provided you had all the money it would take to buy the compliance of people around you, to lock yourself in a room and have other people take care of your brain's demands and demons. Let them preform the one thousand steps required to prepare a single peach. The problem is, the more you give in to OCD, the more the compulsions multiply and the more cruel and elusively beautiful the obsessions become. It's a game you can't win, but can I see the appeal of locking myself away and trying until I die or run out of money? Oh yes. I tend to think, after years of psychiatry and a lot of effort, I'm healthy enough not to do anything like that and yet, still sick enough to find the idea of doing so delicious, in the way only what would destroy us can be.

The summer issue (the current issue as of this writing) includes two of my poems, Carbon Monoxide and Pain Scale. The former is about suicide and the mixed feelings that arise when my belief that suicide is a basic human right collides with a desperate wish that I could forbid someone I care about from choosing that option. The latter poem stems from my experience as a patient with debilitating chronic pain, and the maddening frustration that comes from being forever required to translate that pain into numbers that lack a constant scale. There is something quite disturbing about having to put your fate into the hands of a near-stranger, subject to their prejudices and ability, or lack thereof, to translate these numbers back into real suffering.

Finally, coming up in the Autumn issue is a poem I titled, Somnesia, obviously a combination of the words "somnolence" and "amnesia". It's about a special sort of unbridled anxiety that only happens when you find yourself shocked awake and alone 4 a.m. Everything you know about anything you know has vanished, and the things you used to know irrefutably--like that the sun will rise again--are entirely suspect.

So, I hope you'll come along with me on this arc into and back out of summer, through its poison ivied scrub trails undulating with insects and the green-reflective eyes of opossums. I tried to make it worth the walk. I hope you'll find it so.

Order your copies of Open Minds Quarterly at the link, below. The poems referenced in this post are featured in the Spring, Summer, and Fall 2015 issues.
Additional available issues featuring my work:
Winter 2011, Declawed and Pullet,
Fall 2010, :01 and 5:30, 3 and 9,
Spring 2009, A Bucket of Divinity,
Winter 2004, Eleven Cats,
Summer 2002, Stone Fruit,

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Judging April

Backing up a bit in time for this post. As poetry fans know, April is not only the cruelest month, it's also National Poetry Month. I'm not sure how those two intersect, but I'm pretty sure there has to be a connection. April is also the Writers' Digest Poetic Asides PAD (Poem-a-Day) Challenge. Every day, Robert Lee Brewer, the editor of the Poetic Asides blog (and the similarly named column in Writers' Digest magazine) posts a prompt to inspire the day's poems from his readers which they then post in the comments section of the blog.

What happens to all of these poems? Selected poems from each day are compiled into an annual chapbook. Each day's submissions are judged by Robert and a few guest judges, but with the number of responses he gets each day, this year he added an additional group of preliminary judges to help with the volume. The PAD challenge has come to be a really important tool for my writing each year, pushing me to spit out a full poem each day. The poem may not be great, it might even be a complete wreck, but by the end of the month I have a nice big stack of potential (I actually had to correct a typo just now when I wrote that as "poetential" which may actually be a more apt term. Well, if it was one.) poems that usually keep me busy for months beyond. So, when I heard he was looking for preliminary judges, I jumped at the opportunity to send him my C.V. and was thrilled to be selected to help.

I anxiously awaited receiving my set of poems, having been told that I would be assigned a day of the month and sent the poems from that day's comments section. Finally around mid-May I saw the email in my account and opened it with great enthusiasm to find almost 900 posted poems to read that were ultimately to be whittled down to 50 to then pass on to the final judges. The topic that day was "love" which is a subject I'm enthusiastic about, so all seemed optimal to get to read these poems leisurely over the next few months, what with the August deadline and everything.

Ha. Not quite. I clearly misunderstood. The deadline was just a few days away and I was leaving for the Caribbean the next morning. Nonetheless, I made the deadline. Over the next few days, I read each poem carefully, frequently more than once, and stayed up almost all night the night before to make sure my decisions were good ones. In case you haven't quite grasped my love for poetry, here's an illustration. In choosing between poetry and this:

I chose poetry.


Tuesday, March 31, 2015

I took the Knoxville Writers' Guild Poetry Contest. Can I "Woo" yet?

Those who know me well know about my telephone anxiety. I jump four inches in the air when the phone rings, and occasionally that's accompanied by a yelp. Despite my efforts to find the world's most soothing ringtone, there's something in my brain stem that cringes when it hears the name Alexander Graham Bell. There. Now I'm sweating.

I keep my phone ring turned down to slightly audible, though my text ring can be as loud as it wants. I'm just genuinely weird when it comes to this thing, and so that is how I ended up feeling like a jerk for winning this poetry contest. 

I got the message fairly quickly, explaining that I won and saying how much they liked my poem, Carbon Monoxide. I was smiling and squealing and super excited. Then they added that they'd like me to come read at their event tomorrow. In Knoxville. It's something I'd love to do--in a universe where I'm not completely bossed around by a spine disease that hates me. I can travel somewhere, or I can attend an event that day. Both? Not really. At least, it hasn't happened yet.

I tried to call them back, but the number just went "beep", which I supposed was voice mail, so I left a message both very excited and grateful for the prize, but regretful that I couldn't make it on one day's notice. The problem is, I don't know if they got the message or if I misheard the number in their message. So I emailed. And posted my thanks on Facebook. And messaged them via Facebook and their website. I never heard from them again. I'm afraid I messed up by not being able to jump in a car and perform on short notice.

The worst thing about being sick is disappointing people. If I hear from them, I'll let you know.