07 March 2021

A Congress of Freaks.

I mentioned "Congress of Freaks" photos in an earlier blog post, but I thought I'd share a few of the ones I've found in the past few years--I swear I have a few more, but I'll have to look through my photos a little more closely to find them. Congress of Freaks photos are dated group photos of all performers in a circus or sideshow.

Circuses often contracted with photographers like Edward J. Kelty to take photos of circus performers. According to Art Blart online, though, Kelty paid Ringling in order to be permitted to take these photos. This complicates any simple belief that these "congress" photos were sold as souvenirs by the circus, or that they were used to create a visual record of each season's performers--larger circuses like Ringling had their own in-house photographers. Regardless, the usefulness of the photographs for my purposes isn't really affected by how the photos were originally used. They're rich with information that I could not and would not be able to find anywhere else, and certainly not while a pandemic has me trapped at home in rural Oregon. 

Bear with me as I'm organizing the photos by tattooed lady, not necessarily chronologically.

Betty Broadbent

I'm going to start with a few congress photos that include Betty Broadbent, one of the best-known tattooed ladies working in the 1920s and 1930s in the United States. 

The first photo below is from the Sells-Floto sideshow in 1931. It features Betty Broadbent on the bottom row, left side. And, Broadbent is standing next to Frances O'Connor, who worked sideshows as "The Living Venus de Milo"--such acts were known generically as "armless wonders" in the sideshow business. O'Connor was one of the stars of the 1932 film Freaks. You can see that both banners to the performers' right actually advertise O'Connor's appearance.

 
The second image here is from the 1937 season of Ringling/Barnum & Bailey's Combined Circus. This photo was taken by Kelty, and it shows Betty Broadbent in the lower row, left side. From this I know where Broadbent worked (and with whom) in the summer of 1937. And, at some point between 1931 and 1937, she moved from working with a sideshow to working with the Ringling/Barnum & Bailey Circus.


Ada Mae Vandermark and Lotta Pictoria

To take a look at another tattooed lady's resume, this earlier photo from the 1927 Ringling/Barnum & Bailey season shows Ada Mae Vandermark on the bottom row, toward the left side. She is wearing a large snake as a boa; being a "snake charmer" would have increased her popularity and her ability to draw a crowd--so it would have been a real value to hire her. Interesting to note, in 1927, the circus traveled with a second tattooed lady--on the bottom row toward the right, you can see Lotta Pictoria, too. 

I've not found any research that speaks to these tattooed ladies knowing one another or working together, so this is an exciting tidbit of information to find in a photograph.

  

And, while the following photo is not dated, it also features Ada Mae and Lotta together again. This may be another shot from the 1927 season, given the overlap in other performers between the two photos. 

To take a step forward to 1931, the photo below shows a much smaller Congress of Freaks from Ringling/Barnum & Bailey's 1931 season. The solo tattooed lady that year was Ada Mae Vandermark, pictured here on the bottom row.

And Ada Mae also appeared in Ringling's "Golden Jubilee" season in 1933. She's on the top right.

 

Stella Grassman

And although a bit out of order, the photo below, from the 1929 season of Ringling/Barnum & Bailey, shows Edith "Stella" Grassman as the tattooed lady; she's on the top row on the right. Her husband, Deafy Grassman, was responsible for all of her tattoo work. I originally thought this photo was labeled the 1924 season--it's hard to read--but that date would have made Stella only 15 years old. So, 1929 it is.

Deafy worked as a tattooist in both Philadelphia and NYC. Stella is easy to pick out in photos--her chest piece is a large butterfly--much more feminine than the patriotic tattoos that cover most tattooed ladies of this era. She also often wore a costume that had a custom-tailored neckline to highlight her chest tattoo.

Here is a second congress photo with Stella in about the same spot on the top row--I don't believe it's the same year, as there are several differences in the roster, but this photo is not dated. Also interesting to note is the autograph or signature on the lower right bottom of this photo--every copy of this photo on the internet today is a copy of THIS print. I can't find a single copy online that doesn't include that signature, or that does include a date.

 

Lady Viola

The photo below shows Ringling/Barnum & Bailey's congress from the 1932 season. In that year, Ethel Vangi, who worked under the stage name Lady Viola, was the featured tattooed lady. She is pictured on the top row, on the right.

That means that Ada Mae Vandermark and Lotta Pictoria were Ringling's tattooed ladies in 1927, and Stella Grassman was the tattooed lady in 1929 and at least in one other season. Ada Mae Vandermark was back as the tattooed lady is seasons 1931 and 1933, but it looks as if Lady Viola was the tattooed lady in Ringling's 1932 lineup.

And while I can't guess at whether these performers worked an entire season or just part of a season, or if their contracts regularly overlapped like Ada Mae's and Lotta's, but it's an intriguing look at some proof of a tattooed lady's reputation and employment. 

And none of these photos show Trixie Richardson, though she is supposed to have been working for Ringling in 1927 or 1929. Perhaps, like Betty Broadbent in 1931, Trixie was working with a sideshow, and maybe that sideshow that toured alongside Ringling. Just another puzzle piece, and I'm many puzzle pieces short of a certain history for any of these women.

Through these photos as well, I've seen a few costumes that I've not seen Ada Mae wear in any other surviving photographs--out of all of the tattooed ladies included in my research, Ada Mae seemed to have more costumes in her traveling wardrobe than anyone else working at the same time. 

Many of the tattooed ladies who were photographed for pitch cards in New York photography studios of the time actually wore the same handful of costumes and jewelry. This has lead me to believe that certain photographers kept a small wardrobe of costumes for circus attractions to wear, not unlike the "old time" photography studios that we still see today at tourist destinations throughout the United States.

04 March 2021

Two new submissions, and some thoughts after the first day of AWP.

As I was sitting in my studio watching an incredible panel on women writing over 50, I realized it's been a month since I've sent out any poetry for publication consideration. When I checked this morning, I haven't sent out work since February 9th. Close enough. It's easy to start thinking I'm just not working hard enough, not putting enough time into the process--I"m grateful I started tracking my submissions on Duotrope in addition to the excel spreadsheet I've always used.


Duotrope reminds me that I've sent 452 poems out into the world in the past year, and that is pretty fantastic.

I did receive a rejection letter yesterday from Superstition Review, so submissions were already on my mind. (And who doesn't love a rejection during AWP? LOL) I pulled together a selection of five poems for Cream City Review and another four poems for Waxwing, and I sent those out this morning. Both journals have deadlines at the end of March/start of April. 

I also scratched out a rough draft of a new poem titled "Witchcraft" yesterday afternoon. That's a working title; I'm certain it won't stay.

I have really enjoyed the first day of AWP's conference, and the second day is just about to begin. At first, I thought there seemed like so many less panels this year than usual, but they've also spread the panels across Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday--when all the panels are usually concentrated on Thu-Fri-Sat. So, there might be a few less options, and the book fair experience is difficult to replicate virtually, but I like the more gradual roll-out of panels. I'm really impressed with the panels I've sat in on, and I loved the reading I attended yesterday afternoon of contemporary Muslim literature.

I know I'm going to have to spend some time this week on grading, but I really want to focus on my own writing and craft this week.

03 March 2021

AWP starts today, and new tattoo books!

I made the decision to attend AWP this year as soon as it was announced that the whole thing would be virtual. Yes, it means that it was less expensive than usual to attend, but I usually look forward to having those four days in a hotel room, alone, to incubate new ideas and generate new drafts of poems. I am sure that the interruptions of the cats and of trying to stay focused on writing when I can see my house is a wreck is going to present its own set of challenges. However, I am really looking forward to being able to revisit panels and readings while I'm on spring break at the end of March--having access to all AWP conference offerings for a month after the conference is an amazing opportunity for attendees like me who are in Week 8 of a 10-week school term, when student emails and freak-outs begin to ramp up in anticipation of final grades. 

As I mentioned earlier this week, I bought myself a few new books on tattoo history and one on the history of the dime museum in the United States. I decided my 50th birthday was reason enough to spend the money on these five books, but truthfully, they'll all have bearing on my larger project. The most amazing book--a collection of Dutch tattooist Henk Schiffmacher's vast tattoo history archive was just released by Taschen in January, and it's gorgeous. 

 
 
 

There are some high resolution photographs of tattooed ladies--nothing I've not seen before, but larger and crisply in focus. The most incredible part of the book is that the limited history that's included via the photographs' captions reinforces some of the conclusions I've come to myself about tattooed ladies and about tattoo history in general. And, there is a revelation about Trixie Richardson! 

I will go into detail about that in another blog post next week--I'm a few minutes away from my first AWP session for the day, and I want to get myself set up in my studio before it begins.

27 February 2021

My 50th birthday, and remembering my second husband.

Today is my 50th birthday, and I'm spending it grading on a Saturday. Certainly the pandemic is to blame for the lack of a celebration, but I'm at the end of Week 8 in a 10-week term, and the AWP conference is next week, so I would like to be caught up, at the very least, on last week's grading before next week begins. 

My second husband died on February 25th last year, so I anticipate that my birthdays moving forward will always have some sense of loss attached to them, at least for a while. I have no desire to rewrite history--things did not end well between us. But, our divorce was final only about four months before his death, and I had hoped we'd eventually salvage a friendship. I absolutely expected to know him longer. His passing does not require that I forgive him, but I am reluctant to hold onto hurt feelings and bitterness and guilt. I won't forget the numerous, valid reasons why I broke up with him, but I still mourn him. There are things that I miss, and things I'm glad are in my past. He was a big personality, and our good times were great. I loved him very much, but as I've said before, I am glad that it is a closed chapter of my life. (And, because I continue to write about him and talk about him, I know the chapter might be closed, but I'm still processing.)

My tax returns arrived--so I have paid off the small balance I was carrying on two of my credit cards, and I bought a few small pieces of furniture for the house. I used a few hundred dollars to buy a handful of books on tattoo history that have been published in the last few years--two of them over a hundred dollars. Those are my birthday gift to myself, and I feel I absolutely deserve them. 

It will likely be a week or two until I'm able to sit down and write another blog post about a tattooed lady, but I'm thinking that it might be Nellie Thornton or Mildred Hull. Millie is my favorite of all, but Nellie has quite a sordid tale. They both lived very colorful lives--Nellie as a traveling circus performer with multiple husbands, and Millie as a drinker and brawler. Millie was also the first female tattooist to set up shop and work out of a barbershop in the Bowery in NYC. This is a photo of Millie. It is difficult to date this photo, as her tattoo work looks less complete here, but the fascinator she's wearing in her hair is also in another tattoo shop photo taken from another angle. In it, she looks older.


I received a rejection letter from The Rumpus this past week . . . they'd held onto my poems since last July, so I thought they had a chance at publication there. Otherwise, everything is in a holding pattern with submissions.

23 February 2021

My research project. And Trixie Richardson.

I've decided to pick up my "tattooed lady research project" notes again. Finally.

A bit of background:

To be specific, I am researching in an attempt to correct and preserve as much of the ever-disappearing history of the early 20th Century tattooed lady in the United States as I can. I started this project during a spring term sabbatical in 2015; I made a trip to Baraboo, Wisconsin, to dig around in the Circus World archive, to help me to plan a collection of poems about circus folk and sideshow performers. Once I was in Baraboo, I realized that the whole project was shifting to some kind of nonfiction work. I'm not really a nonfiction writer, so the concept was both scary and exhilarating. I found a niche--MY niche--but my sabbatical and the following summer were just the start of the project. I thought I might have a book here, but I could tell it would take years to research, and multiple trips to other archives--Sarasota, Winston-Salem, San Francisco, and New York City to start. Holy crap.

Then, at the start of that fall term, after six months of steady work on the project, the shooting at UCC took place. To say that my priorities changed is a vast understatement. I'm still in the process of learning to live with related PTSD, and I've come to realize that my brain rewired itself in some pretty dramatic ways. And then I married and divorced in quick succession. I became buried in never-ending department chair work. In short, a few years were rough for a number of reasons. It's taken me a long time to come back to this project. 

So here we are.

In an attempt to get myself motivated to continue with this project, I brought home my enormous collection of note cards and photocopies from campus in October--and they've actually been sitting in the back seat of my car until today, when I finally felt compelled to bring them into the house, hoping I could force myself to start looking at them. "Baby steps" is a philosophy I've come to embrace.

Then I accessed my online annotated bib for the project this afternoon, and I freaked out, because I think I've lost a few of my online sources. The last time I've had them open was in 2015, and frankly, I don't know yet if I saved screenshots or pdfs of the web-based sources. I should have done that, but my brain was lightly scrambled in 2015--and I don't think I was necessarily thinking about maintaining the integrity of my sources when I unexpectedly put this research on hold. Frankly, of all the things I miss about how my brain used to work, I miss my impeccable organization the most. Even though I am extending myself some grace, I am a little upset about it. A few copies of photographs may have gone missing, too. However, I think I just need to sit with my research and get familiar with all of it again. I might be worried about information that I absolutely backed up. 

I'll find my foothold, and I will plug away with what I have. 

I feel like the project is even more pressing now. In five short years, additional history has disappeared from the internet. I thought I was seeing a surge in interest and writing about tattooed ladies, but that just hasn't been the case. And, these women don't seem important enough to the male tattoo historians who dominate the field.

Because there has never been a truly comprehensive, accurate account of these women's lives and careers, their photos become lost in a jumble of any and all tattooed women from their respective eras--and not all of them were circus sideshow attractions. At times, it's difficult to tell the difference, and there are distinct differences. Books like the excellent Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo by Margot Mifflin just can't do all of the heavy lifting alone. Most other published histories and "encyclopedias" of tattoo don't mention more than a few tattooed ladies by name. Many of them are riddled with errors.

Side note: "Tattooed Lady" is a term that, to me, denotes "a woman who worked as a professional tattooed attraction, pre-1950." In contrast, "tattooed woman" is a more general term that can apply to any woman with tattoos, from any time. I just want to explain that ahead of time, because I'm not a fan of men using the term "lady" or "ladies" as a diminutive term when they mean grown-ass women.

While published tattoo histories don't spend a lot of time on this fact, many of the tattooed women depicted in collectors' photographs from this era who sport a handful of "hidden" or discreet tattoos were sex workers who earned a few extra dollars on the side by posing for partially nude photographs.These photographs were sold to collectors from classified ads in the back of men's magazines by people like Bernard Kobel.

Many of the women in these photographs never worked as tattooed ladies. Other women--those with sketchy tattoo work, or without full body suits, for example--were women who scraped together a living between smaller traveling carnivals and dime museums. To further muddy the water, many of these small-time tattooed ladies worked under catchall names like "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," an attempt to bank on the popularity of the Marx Brothers song. Others worked as the even more generic "The Tattooed Lady," which was probably an effort to keep the sideshow's owners from having to commission new canvas banners whenever a new tattooed lady was hired.

So, there are a good number of vintage and antique photographs of tattooed women floating around on the internet and in private collections, but not all of them were working as tattooed ladies. Those that did work with circuses didn't keep diaries or journals that have been published or archived or otherwise made available. Some have families who were scandalized and shamed--who worked diligently to bury their family's connection to the sideshow. In many cases, the records for now-defunct circuses and sideshows have been lost to time. All of these truths work against the efforts to piece together any history at all for some of these women.

The largely missing story of Trixie Richardson is a prime example of how time can erase almost every trace of these women. 

Trixie Richardson is frequently mentioned in the limited scholarship about tattooed ladies, but virtually nothing is known about her life. Albert Parry's seminal 1933 book Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art identified Trixie as a tattooed lady who also worked as a tattooist, but she warrants little more than a line or two in Parry's book. Parry claimed that she worked as a tattooist at the New Jersey shore in 1925, tattooing several thousand women, so the story goes, in that single season. 

Perry offered no source for that information, and it sounds highly improbable to me. The average woman in the 1920s was not tattooed while on vacation at the shore. Instead, this sounds like a tabloid news story about a tattooed lady that's been told and retold until it became her only history. Trixie Richardson is subsequently mentioned in other sources, but those authors repeatedly cite Parry's book. No one has ever offered any information that helps to prove Trixie was a real person. For a while, I couldn't find any definitive proof that this woman actually existed.

Add to that: there are at least three different tattooed ladies identified in various sources as Trixie Richardson. They all have dyed black, bobbed hair, and they were all working in the 1920s and 1930s. They all passed through New York City--they were all photographed in the same studio with many of the same props and costuming as other tattooed ladies. However, these three Trixies don't have matching tattoos. 

The irony is not lost on me--these women made a living by baring their skin and welcoming the gaze of spectators, but they are also confused with one another regularly because tattoo historians often can't be bothered to look closely enough at their tattoos to differentiate them from one another. I can't tell you how many hours I've logged, zooming in on scans of hundreds of blurry, 100-year old photographs, trying to match arms to arms, chests to chests, for positive identifications on anonymous photos.

I believed for a while that none of these women was the "real" Trixie, becoming increasingly convinced that it may have been a name, like Lydia, that was used by more that one woman. I eventually found a photo of Trixie that was printed with her name on the front of the photo. 

So, I revised my hypothesis, thinking this woman may have been the first to use the name Trixie Richardson, and perhaps she found some fortune and fame. Other women may have been emulated her look in order to cash in on her popularity. 

It's important to note that I can't find evidence of Trixie in any group photographs of circus performers--and larger shows always took a "Congress of Freaks" photo each touring season, to be sold as souvenirs. Because of this, I believed Trixie to be a lower-tier sideshow performer and that it was just dumb luck her name was mentioned in Parry's book at all.

And then I stumbled on a photograph that changed everything, and clarified Trixie's place in tattoo history. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

This is the woman who is the "real," or the original, Trixie Richardson. When I began this project five years ago, this photo was all over Pinterest and the internet at large, but she was not always identified correctly. Note her chest piece--a rising sun behind a bald eagle, wings spread over two American flags.

 

And this is a badly retouched photograph of the same woman. The sun behind the bald eagle's head is what separated this chest piece from the others, but it's easy to look at the roses on her left shoulder and match those up, too; those are definitely the same tattoos. Her eyes are a giveaway, too. Her tattoos were not complete in the photo below, if you look at the field of blue behind the flags' stars; so, this is an earlier photograph than the one above. Another version of this photo, accompanied by a photo of her back, is labeled with her name, and as having been taken in 1924.

And this is when I stumbled across a bit of serendipity.

The photo below shows Trixie in a photo collage. This collage would have been would have been reproduced and sold as a souvenir "pitch card." The existence of this pitch card allowed me to confirm that Trixie was indeed a legitimate tattooed attraction, making her living in some sort of circus sideshow. 

I'd only seen a copy of this pitch card with most of the writing at the bottom of the photo cropped out. Though I couldn't read it, I knew that because the writing is bright white, it was likely written on the photo's original negative, or on an original print of the photo. This could have happened before the photo was distributed as a souvenir, or before the photo became part of the circus's archive. The style of handwritten block lettering is common on photos of tattooed circus attractions from this era. (I also know that Bernhard Kobel did not label the prints he sold in this manner--he used numbers.)

Then I found the copy below, and I could finally read the caption. She is identified as Miss Trixie Richardson, and she worked with Ringling Bros. in their 1926 or 1928 season. This is huge. Not only was she a circus sideshow attraction, she worked with Ringling. According to multiple sources, Ringling did not have blow-off acts in their sideshows, and they did not tolerate grift or sex work on their tours. They were considered family entertainment, even in the late 1920s. So, at least in 1926 or 1928, Trixie was at the top of her trade.

It's also important to note that this pitch card also has a separate engraved watermark/signature in the lower right corner, stating that Trixie was tattooed by Charles Wagner, the famed NYC tattooist. Because of the props and backdrop used in these photos, and the similarity in handwriting, and the connection to Charlie Wagner, I am willing to believe that the handwritten caption is correct. I will write about Charlie on another day--while not a tattooed lady or circus worker, his story is both sad and fascinating, and he appears as a minor character in many tattooed ladies' stories. While Charlie's reputation was questionable, his body suits were considered some of the finest tattoo work of its time on the sideshow circuit.

The information I was able to glean from this souvenir photo is more detailed than anything that Albert Parry or anyone else has documented about Trixie Richardson. This quest to find any scrap of Trixie's story is exemplary of how these women and their histories are disappearing--it's often because no one has bothered to actually look for their stories. And, I think I'm at a point where it's too late to salvage much.

As I mentioned above, one of the cities I need to visit for research is San Francisco. However, in the five years I've been away from this project, Lyle Tuttle has passed away. While he may not have been willing or able to meet with me, he was the last living link to a lot of history.

I am hoping to make a trip to the Ringling archive in Sarasota, Florida within the next year. I think it will prove to be the key to this project in general, and to learning more about Trixie in particular. I hope Covid-19 vaccinations allow this to happen sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, I need to organize what I have, to make sure I have a detailed list of where to begin when I'm able to travel. 

Even writing this short essay about Trixie feels good. I've missed this project, and I can already feel my excitement and momentum returning. I'm going to start small--writing an essay here and there on this blog,

19 February 2021

A financial misstep, but a good week overall.

This week has been fairly stagnant with submissions; I've not received any rejections or acceptance notices, and I've not sent out any new submissions. 

On a more significant note, I did find out on Wednesday that I've secured professional development funding for the Summer Poetry Workshop at Community of Writers in Squaw Valley, CA--it's a full week of workshops with an amazing handful of poets, and I'll hear in early May whether I made the cut. And if I do, I won't have to pay for the registration out of pocket. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I expect that there will be a great deal of competition . . . this summer's workshop is virtual, which cuts the need for travel, meals, and lodging. I'm crossing my fingers that I might have a shot at a place in the workshop, anyway. 

AWP is coming up on the first weekend in March, so I need to start this coming week to get my online classes ready to run without me for a couple of days. AWP is also virtual this year, and I'm looking forward to taking advantage of that to attend more panels and readings. I'll hopefully be able to "attend" recordings of panels during my spring break, too.

I pulled together some rough, rough drafts of some new poems last night--working on lines I've salvaged from my journals, trying to mad-lib my way to something inspired. It's at least some effort.  

30% of the way through *The Overstory*--I love it. I love it in a way that makes me not want to read it too quickly.

So my financial misstep is actually a series of unfortunate events, all at once. I paid 500.00 on a credit card this past week when I meant to pay 50.00. I have tax returns on the way, with which I was planning to pay off the whole balance on that card, but I just made a simple error. Adding to that, I'd ordered a 350.00 bookcase from Wayfair the day before, and I was unable to cancel that order. Then, my friend's husband, a contractor, called me to arrange a small house project. For this week. So, I haven't had the pleasure of being this level of house poor, or hoping I can dodge any bounced checks, since I started living alone--almost two years ago. I'd just sent a check to my therapist, who is holding it until she hears from me, which is what the contractor is also doing. I was able to transfer funds, but it's taking forever to process. Unbelievable. 

On a positive note, the large, noisy, terrible air conditioning that was built into the side of my living room is gone, and the hole is patched on both the outside and the inside of the house. It's already quieter in the house, which makes working from home easier, and I'm in a better place to get a split heat pump system installed this summer. I'm grateful I was able to get that done on such a quick timetable.

16 February 2021

Getting started on a new journal. and new opportunities.

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been spending a little time in my studio over the last few days, making monoprints with acrylic paint and a gel plate--I use these papers in my journals, and I burned through my entire stash during 2020, because of lockdown. 

In 2020, I filled four altered books as journals--so much more than usual. However, since the last one was filled, I've not started a 2021 book. I am hoping that part of the hold up is that I don't have pretty art paper to leaf through and add to the substrate of a new book. 

I am about 15% into *The Overstory,* and it's strangely compelling. My kindle is surprisingly heavy (it's an older model), so I need to pull out my book triangle and work out some way that I don't have to hold it. It doesn't help that Tony Cat wants to sit all 16 pounds of himself on my lap and belly every time I sit on the sofa. So I'm trying to balance him, a book, two other cats who are also wanting to be as close as possible, and the fact that I have to pee every 20 minutes. 

I have a therapy appointment this morning via Zoom--my first in a month. I am reluctant to suspend appointments while we're still in the pandemic. I am afraid I'll bottom out or need that outlet as soon as I let it go, so we'll continue with once a month for a few more months. Once spring is fully here, I'll start considering whether I will be able to trade the garden for therapy for a few months. 

And the poetry. 

Getting a new altered book journal started will force me to at least play with found poetry a little bit, which is a tool I often find helpful when I am running low on inspiration. Sometimes, just a two- or three-word phrase, taken from three different pages in a book, can be the start of a strong line of a new poem. And, to paraphrase Robert Hass, it is harder to write a good line than it is to write a good poem. (I think I've mentioned that quote/paraphrase before--it really stuck with me.) Hass writes about the power of a good line in his book, *A Little Book on Form.* That book, incidentally, is on my bedside table, and it's another one that I plan to read in its entirety this winter or spring--for too long, I've read a chapter here, a chapter there . . . truth is, it's full of valuable lessons, and I need to finish it. 

I sent an application to the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, CA last week for their summer poetry workshop. It's a juried application process, and although I'm already using my faculty professional development funds to attend AWP in March, both AWP and the Squaw Valley workshop are virtual this year, meaning that I only have to pay the registration, not meals and lodging and travel. However, I've already told myself that I'll charge the registration fee if I am accepted to the workshop but don't secure funding. 

Susan Olds will be one of the instructors, and Brenda Hillman, Blas Falconer, Kazim Ali, Forrest Gander, and Evie Shockley are the other planned instructors. Robert Hass will be reading. Holy shit. They'll make notifications by May 1, so I'm crossing my fingers that I might have a shot. I'm so unknown, and it's been so long since my writing has been workshopped by others in any formal or informal way--I'm hoping I'm not completely out of touch with what was expected in the writing sample. 

I'm still waiting for word on a fairly tall stack of submissions to journals and magazines . . . and I need to get back to generating new drafts of new poems. I know I've written a lot of poems in the last year, but I worry that if I get out of practice, I'll stop trying.

14 February 2021

Valentine's Day, my book list, and a quiet weekend.

Valentine's Day this year is blissfully quiet--I've been reading on the sofa with the cats for most of the day. I realized it's been over two weeks since I've posted to the blog, so I am taking a break to write this. I'm going to make pasta alfredo (with shrimp!) for dinner for myself. 

I've also been spending a few minutes here and there on monoprinting some new art paper. I spent about a hundred bucks on some newer acrylic paint tubes around Thanksgiving, so I have a half-dozen colors I'd not even played around with. I am finding that if I do a few layers on a few sheets of paper and leave them to dry, and come back an hour or two later, I'm less of a perfectionist and I get less prickly less often. It's going well so far, and I'm glad to be building up my ready supply of papers. 

I also made up a set of four winged hearts--hearts cut from vintage book covers, layered with junk and found poetry--for a friend's mail art swap. It's the first time I've mail art in over a year.

And, I have not been spending as much time on new drafts of new poems as I should be, so I am going to work to change that in the coming week. I need to buy myself a decent office chair for at home--I think I could sit at a desk or table for longer if my ass didn't hurt from my metal kitchen chairs.

Right now, all of my work is out simultaneously at the maximum number of publishers i feel comfortable submitting to . . . so the last two weeks have been a little slow for submissions, because everything is already sent out. I haven't gotten any rejection or acceptance notes in almost a week.

I have, however, been reading--and reading much more than I have over the last few years. I am so excited about that! I feel like I'm starting to train myself to sit still and focus on a book all over again--I've gotten too used to watching a movie and flipping through my phone at the same time, and that's not doing me any good as a writer or an instructor or an artist. Putting down the phone is hard, but I'm working on doing it more frequently.

I am currently on a long weekend for President's Day, and my grading was caught up, so I've had a few days in a row to myself. Happy Valentine's Day to me. It's perfect.

I finished up Mary Karr's *The Art of Memoir* yesterday, and I'm about a third of the way through Matthew Zapruder's "Why Poetry?" as well. This morning, I found RIchard Powers's *The Overstory* on my Kindle, so I began reading that. I have a bad habit of buying novels that are prize winners then not always reading them. 

So far in 2021, I've read the following books:

*The Art of Memoir* by Mary Karr

Karr's voice is worth the price of admission here. I've read all of her books, and her memoir is as wonderful and vivid as her poetry. Some chapters are better than others, but it's all valuable. She ends the book with a kick-ass list of memoirs she teaches from and recommends. 

*The Book of Speculation* by Erika Swyler

A novel about a family with a carnival/circus background? Yes, please. I will basically read any piece of shit that boasts a connection to carnival or circus folk. This one was meh. I found a few elements of the plot pretty hard to believe; I couldn't get past the inconsistency in the main character's actions. Frankly, the protagonist and his sister both destroy items that are the only tangible proof of their family's history, and it just didn't ring true to me.

*Ayiti* by Roxanne Gay

These stories are wonderful--they were quick to read, and entertaining. Gay is enormously talented; I'm glad I have *Difficult Women* in my stack for February.

*Writing Hard Stories* by Melanie Brooks

Meh. I think there were some great revelations in some of Brooks's interviews with well-known memoirists, but too much of the book was spent describing their lunches, their interactions as she set up the interviews . . . Brooks was still in graduate school when writing this book, and perhaps there's just a little too much wide-eyed deferring to the masters. I didn't feel Brooks had enough of her own philosophies and her own ideas about memoir to hold it all together effectively. Most significant to me--I thought the book would offer a lot more about writing trauma-informed memoir. And, some chapters were really repetitive--several authors repeated the same lessons, and I felt it bogged down the book. It seemed obvious to me that she needed every interview she had--because she didn't leave out interviews that overlapped again and again.

*The Dark Dark* by Samantha Hunt

I did not love this book, and the last story in it seemed like a bad MFA workshop piece, which it probably was. I have Hunt's novel *Mr. Splitfoot* on my kindle, half-finished for a couple of years now. I just don't think she's one of my favorites. 

*Carry* by Toni Jensen

Full disclosure: I worked with Jensen at Chatham University where I earned my MFA, and I am briefly mentioned in the book. That being said, I felt that I gained an important lens on our country through this book. I'll write more about it in the next week or so . . . I don't want to shortchange it.

I am shooting for four books per month, for 48 books in 2021. I am hoping to hit 50, just because I'd like the round number. I am making an effort to read more books on the craft of writing, and I am trying to read more BIPOC writers, though I know my list this year is fairly white so far. I have another book of Gay's and Jensen's short fiction collection in the short stack of books that are waiting their turn, and a few more on my kindle. I was really missing the feel of a novel--needed a break from the nonfiction and the short stories. 


31 January 2021

Rejections and "Sacrifice."

This has been a rough couple of weeks for rejection letters--I have received rejection letters from two chapbook contests (Sixth Finch and Black Lawrence Press), and I received rejection letters from Kenyon Review and The Adroit Journal, as well as from Sierra Nevada Review and GASHER.

The Adroit Journal is always on Duotrope's list of 25 most difficult markets to crack, but they had (like Kenyon) had my work for a long enough period that I was getting a little hopeful about it.

Regardless of the rejection, the editor did send a personal note, saying that they most enjoyed my poem "Sacrifice" out of what I'd sent to them. This meant a great deal to me, as I'll explain further.

While working on my MFA at Chatham in 2006 or so, I wrote a poem about abortion and titled it "Sacrifice." While I write often about facets of relationships, abortion is a controversial topic, and I'd never really felt comfortable sending this poem out as part of a submission. Not because I was ashamed of the poem or the topic, but it just never seemed to fit with my other work.

Full disclosure/back story: about 15 years after dating a man, we briefly connected via Facebook or LinkedIn--just to say hello. We were kids when we dated; I was fresh out of college and new to Eugene, Oregon, and he was a college junior at UO. I did not date him exclusively, but he was one of my favorites. When we reconnected, he sent me an unsolicited email attachment of a large, high-resolution photo of a toddler boy. His young son.

When we dated, I had an abortion. While I was not ready at all to be a parent, he did push for the decision we made. We still dated for a while after the drama and the procedure, but we started to drift apart. I think I was hoping he and I would eventually end up together, but he was largely unwilling make a commitment. Other men drifted in and out of my social life, and we stayed friendly. I eventually moved back home to West Virginia, and we did not stay in touch. 

I wrote that poem because I just remember feeling like someone slapped me in the face when he sent that photo of his son. I wasn't angry or sad that we didn't end up together, but my first thought was that had I not agreed to the abortion, he wouldn't have that same life. (Neither would I, but at that moment, I wasn't focused on that view of the truth.)

It was a hateful thought, and I didn't (and still don't) wish him any ill. I just thought it spoke to how thoughtless he was when I knew him, and how thoughtless he still was, 15 years later. 

I don't think "Sacrifice" was ever angry or hateful, but it was difficult to feel comfortable with that poem. In my two and a half years at Chatham, only two or three poems were ever almost too emotional for me to discuss in workshop. This was one of them.

Fast forward to this fall, at the end of a crazy 2020. Another decade and more has passed, and I'm digging through older, unpublished poems in an effort to tinker with something on a day when inspiration isn't coming. When I revisit this poem, "Sacrifice," I realize that my experience and this poem are worthy of revision and of being shared. I still find this man's thoughtlessness surprising, but the poem has a learned feel that it did not have before. I found that another decade of space between the poem and who I am now has created a stronger poem. It may also come from my own process of letting go . . . even though that is not explicitly part of the poem, I have softened to the perceived injustices of 25+ years ago.

So, I sucked it up and included it in a submission of five poems to The Adroit Journal. It was the one poem they commented on. In a time when personalized notes on rejections are not common, I was (and am) so encouraged. I received their rejection this past Friday. As I mentioned above, they accept very few poems--far less than 1% of what they receive--so any personal note expressing favor or encouragement is like finding a spectacular agate at the coast; they aren't unheard of, but they're quite rare.

Feeling quite pleased with myself and that poem, despite Adroit's rejection and also because of it, I sent "Sacrifice" out to the Delmarva Review, as part of a packet of five poems on the same day. 

I find that if I send work out on every day that I receive a rejection, I'm taking that rejection and turning it into forward momentum . . . this is my work now. Teaching pays the bills, but I am a writer. I'm owning that; it's becoming truth.
 
Delmarva Review is located in the Chesapeake Bay area--Delaware, Maryland, Virginia = Delmarva. Their average wait time for responses is about 60 days. I happened across them on Submittable; while they are not exclusively a regional journal, I am always a bit concerned when my work isn't grounded in place at all and the journal seems to value that.

Delmarva's submission deadline isn't until late March, but I figured I'd give it a shot. (My philosophy is that if I submit in the last few days of a submission period, I have a better chance of an acceptance--and the editors have a hold on my poems for less time.) 
 
Then, I check my email on Saturday morning, and the editors at Delmarva accepted three of my five poems--including "Sacrifice." It's the quickest acceptance I've ever received--24 hours!--and I'm so pleased that "Sacrifice" in particular will be published. 
 
Along with "Sacrifice," Delmarva editors chose "Between Rows," a newer poem about the space between love affairs, and gardening, and "An Unfinished Window," which is a very new piece that builds on a strong stanza of a terrible poem I wrote about college boys while I was a teaching assistant at WVU in the late 1990s.

The Delmarva Review with my work won't be out until late fall 2021, but this is a wonderful way to start the year. 

I am thrilled that my abortion poem will be a published piece. As I close in on my 50th birthday, I am thinking of how difficult it was to share this poem in workshop in my mid 30s, and how I'm grateful that I found the value in what I had to say. 

14 January 2021

Eclectica Magazine takes "Broken Women."

I woke up this morning to an acceptance email from Eclectica Magazine--they're going to publish my poem "Broken Women" in their winter issue, as part of their Word Poem Challenge. Obviously, I can't link the poem here; it's not live on their site yet.

I don't usually submit to themed issues or challenges, because I'm not very clever at quickly writing a poem with a particular topic or theme, or using a given set of words. My work just sort of comes when it comes, and I don't always plan where a draft will go. That makes themes and challenges difficult. 

Eclectica's challenge had five words, I believe--the only word that was not already in "Broken Women," a poem I first drafted in early fall, was "nail." It now appears in the last line--I reworked the last four lines or so, to meet that last requirement, and I'm thrilled my poem was selected for inclusion. 

Eclectica Magazine's website is pretty minimalist, but the publication has been around since 1996, as an online journal. Their archive is vast--and a treat to explore. I remember what the internet was like in 1996--I was in grad school for the first time, earning a MA in English at West Virginia University. That this web-based journal has survived (and thrived) since then is pretty incredible. 

Eclectica Magazine

12 January 2021

A rainy Tuesday, and finally admitting to disappointment.

It's Tuesday of Week 2 in Winter Term at UCC, and I'm already buried in grading. Last week's events in Washington, DC, has made it difficult to concentrate on work--I'm struggling, both with my own writing and with grading and communicating with students.

Fortunately, most of my students this term seem like self-starters. About 8 students across three classes completely checked out for the entire first week of classes--I communicated deadlines in 6-7 different ways, including an email that had a subject line that read "PLEASE READ." Those eight or so students still didn't do the work on time. I was frustrated yesterday, but today I'm moving past it. I have a department meeting on Zoom at noon, then a student meeting after that, so I'm putting most of my effort right now into mentally preparing to be "on" for an hour or two.

Writing is coming along, but I'm seeing a little decline in my motivation since school started back up. I drafted a few rough poems last night, and I hope to work on them some more this week, once I make a bit of headway with grading.

I received the first rejection letter on my book manuscript--I did not win the APR/Honickman First Book Prize. It was judged by Ada Limon, who I admire and whose work I really respect, and I had been hoping I had a real chance there. 

It is important to mention that the editors said that they received over 1000 manuscripts. They also said in my rejection letter that they hoped to see my work again soon. The winner was announced--Natasha Rao--in my rejection letter, so I take some solace in that I wasn't notified a month ago that my work was out of the running. 

That hit me a bit harder than anticipated--I do know that it's a long shot. I'm trying to be more realistic as I wait to hear from other presses over the next couple of months. 

At this point, Kenyon Review still has my work, too. : )

04 January 2021

First day of winter term.

I think I'd mentioned previously that I actually worked through my first day and a half of winter break, preparing the course syllabuses and the entire first week for all my winter classes, so that I could relax on my break. It was such a great idea. I didn't suffer from my usual first-day nausea until 2:00 am last night, so I was spared the several days of anxiety I usually suffer from. Yesterday, I gave myself a pedicure, washed clothes, changed the bed sheets, and mended a table cloth. None of it was work-related, and it was glorious. 

I woke up this morning and put on makeup for the first time in at least six weeks. I decided to be "on" for Zoom office hours, though I was sure no one would show up (no one did).

I was certain I'd have to put out several fires via email, but nope. I had three student emails waiting this morning--that's it. Two were from the same student. Today has been the easiest first day I've had in years. 

On the publication front, everything is holding steady. After the half-dozen or so rejections since Christmas, that I'd already mentioned, everything else is just a waiting game. All of the chapbook contests and first book prizes are actively reviewing manuscripts now, so while I still have until March before I'll hear from most of them, it's exciting to know that they're finally reading!

A lot of submissions of poems have moved to "in progress" . . . so this week or next should bring more rejections. Hopefully I'll also see an acceptance or two.

I'm trying not to obsess, but that's precisely what I'm doing. I think part of that is that I'm writing in a vacuum. I should really try to organize or initiate a workshop of some kind. A poet friend from WVU brought this up a while back, but then neither of us followed through. I don't know if I could get 4-6 people interested, but it would be great to exchange poems via email, even, and exchange critiques. 

I should take advantage of today and read. I want to start reading more, and I have a whole stack of things here to get through--I'm embarrassed that my attention span has been making it difficult to read books. I should be reading more, and I'm going to try to read two books per month in 2021. That's a low goal, and I should be able to do it. I don't want to make resolutions, but I want to make a commitment to the currency of my own knowledge.