Pre-Orders and the Journey of a Book in a Year of Yes

cover of slow arrow with description of book

Perhaps it’s the few new minutes of light since Winter Solstice or the still days between the end of Christmas and the hopes of a new year. Or just simply being stuck in bed with a lousy cold. But today seemed like the perfect one to begin the next stage of this long journey I’ve been on, the journey of the book in a year of yes.

I don’t even remember when I first heard about “the year of the yes” or when I first thought to turn monthly environmental columns I’d written into a collection of essays that braided together what I’d learned of this land at 9600 feet with what I’d learned that first year my 85 year-old mother came, here, to be with me.

I do remember describing it, haltingly, at a lunch for a writer being hosted by Regis’s Mile Hi MFA program. “Twelve months . . . twelve essays . . .one year . . .one book,” the writer said. “Perfect.”

But that was years ago. How did I know how much work it would be to find the metaphoric connections between the familial and the environmental that spoke to me, that linked beauty and wonder and the real environmental issues of this 40 acre microcosm I love with the journey of a woman I love, waiting to end this life, who asked me to share these moments with her?

I gave up. Often.

But then I read–again, I curse the fallibility of memory and my poor Internet search techniques–about a writer, and I think she was profiled in Poets and Writers, who did one of those famous years of the “yes.”

“Yes” to everything. Yes to finishing the book. Yes to sending the book out.

The hot spots were there, as I always tell my students. I just had to seek them out in the language: the carbon fossil images of leafs we found at a Florissant Fossil Quarry entwined with the images of my father’s face pressed against the glass in a hospital ward; skyglow and luminescence and the warmth of bodies here and no longer here; gravitational waves and the fears of a husband strapped to a heart monitor.

I remember when Natasha Trethewey, before she became Poet Laureate, visited Ashland University’s MFA program and how she described writing for the buried narrative beyond the historical marker. I realized that even within what seems like sometimes the desolation of these high mountain meadows I wander is the buried narrative of these places that connect history and nature and family: Indian princesses bewailing lost lovers, elk sunk to their bellies in a stoppered creek, stone trees and extinct volcanoes and mother lodes and streets of gold and Keats amid 400 billion stars.

When, finally, I thought I could write no more, that I was done (of course, as I found out in the editing and proofing stage, I wasn’t!), I thought of one more “Yes” to punctuate the “Done”: send it out, right then, to just one place before the long slog of agent searches and editor letters and marketing plans and submission spreadsheets.

I’ll give it a year, I thought.

So, with that “yes” in mind, that metaphorical period penciled in at the end of my manuscript, I looked up what place or two I could find on the Poets & Writers database on Small Presses . And there was Saddle Road Press with its stated editorial focus: “For 2019 we are seeking poetry and hybrid prose/poetry collections and collections of short stories or lyric essays.” Lyric essays? Okay.

And eight days later, this:

Dear Kathryn Winograd, 

We love “Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children” and would like to publish it. Thank you for giving us the opportunity! 

We’ll be contacting you soon about what happens next. In the meantime, congratulations on your wonderful book! 

Ruth Thompson 
Saddle Road Press 

Lesson learned from this journey? Believe. Find what speaks to you. Say, “Yes.”

sheep slippers
From Sick at Home Kathy

Convergences of Poetry and Prose: In the Light of Ocean Vuong and Michael Steinberg

Book cover for On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

I was in the Florida Keys, reading the poet Ocean Vuong’s genre-blurring novel, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, off my Kindle when the first social media posting of Michael Steinberg’s death appeared in my Earthlink. Michael, writer and founding editor of the literary journal, The Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, and I had just emailed each other a couple months before because, as all the beautiful tributes to Michael’s generosity attest to, he had kindly agreed to write a blurb for my upcoming book, Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, despite his upcoming eye surgery, asking only that I send my manuscript in large script. I did not realize then how serious his eye condition was, nor to what discovery it would, so sadly, so soon, lead.  

But even before I heard about Michael’s death, Vuong’s novel, a soaring and lyrical tour de force about Little Dog and his family of refugees from Vietnam, had me thinking about the convergence of poetry and prose and what Michael had written to me a few years ago when I asked him to be part of an AWP presentation on the lyric essay.

The essay (and/or memoir), Michael wrote, is the story of one’s thinking, the revelation of consciousness. Except for those essayists who reflexively use poetic elements and   language in their work, these are missing from most of the MFA work I’m seeing—even the very good ones.

 Michael’s words articulated for me what I could feel was missing in some of my MFA students’ creative nonfiction work: that craft of poetry that so often leads to the most beautiful and revelatory memoir-writing.

Reading On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, even the title resplendent with poetry, I realized how much this novel/memoir/poem that Vuong describes as “grounded in truth but realized by the imagination,” could teach my students about the graces of poetry in creative nonfiction.

“Poets have been there,” Vuong says in his recent profile in Poets and Writers, “and thrived with the sentence and the paragraph.”

First, most simply, I would tell my students, there is the utter beauty of imagery to “show the world new,” a maxim taught about poetry even to children: “The crickets ignited across the low shifting grass around the barn.  Turning to him, I felt their serrated legs through the floor beneath us as I said his name, full and long; I said it so quiet the syllables never survived my mouth. I drew closer, toward the wet salted heat of his cheek.” How do we separate now the pulsing of love from the pulsing of cricket?

Second, the juxtaposition of image with image can sometimes fire into being emotion and thought we can only intuit (and, here, too, because I know I could not help myself from saying, what Miller and Paola in Tell it Slant calls “Gathering the Threads of History,” the beautiful weaving of the personal and public self) :

It was the summer of 2003, which meant Bush had already declared war on Iraq, citing weapons of mass destruction that never materialized, when the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love?” played on every radio station but especially on PWR 98.6, and you could hear the song from nearly every car on the block if you slept with the windows pen, its beats punctuated by the sound of beer bottles bursting on the basketball court across the street, the crackheads lobbying empties up in the sky, just to see how the streetlights make broken things seem touched by magic. . .

Do you see how the singular world of the self can show itself to be a morass of the incongruent, of the fantastical, the undefinable?

And, third, I would show my students what Vuong teaches us most thoroughly, most beautifully, the use of metaphor– vehicle of that “revelation of consciousness” that Michael understood was most essential, so often missing, from the prose of the essay and the memoir.  On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous is awash in metaphor, but here are two small examples among so many.

The bullies on a school bus, finally gone, who have slapped Little Dog into speaking English—“That’s a good little bitch,” they say–Little Dog stares at the flashing shoes his mother bought him, kicking them until they “erupted with silent flares: the world’s smallest ambulances, going nowhere.” End of scene. Metaphor in its singular precision.

And, next, the extended metaphor: hardest, best. Vuong weaves monarch butterflies throughout the story of Little Dog’s mother, wounded refugee from Vietnam: the female monarch butterfly flying south, dispersing eggs, which will burst into future generations of butterflies that will only make the return trip the mother began.

“Even history has more than one thread, each thread a story of division,” Vuong writes, the image of the monarchs culminating in their “fleeing not winter but  the napalm clouds of [the mother’s] childhood in Vietnam . . . like debris that kept blowing, for thousands of miles” so that “you can no longer fathom the explosion they came from, only a family of butterflies floating in clean, cool air, their wings finally, after so many conflagrations, fireproof.”

Sometimes, I think, even in Florida, sitting in a fair breeze gone cold, at the cusp of a canal where manatee wallow, you can find an intersection of truth: grace and grief, poetry and prose conjoined.

“I’m not a journalist,” Vuong says. “I’m an artist.”

Michael Steinberg, writer, friend, mentor, truth-teller to so many, affirmed, in so many ways, once more.