Wisdoms for Self

I’m wrestling with the letter I want to write to introduce my 2020 100 Day Project when I release it later this month. I’m feeling the pressure to get it just right. To say it just so. (Sound familiar? I keep finding different elements of this project to obsess over as a way to avoid sharing it. Go figure. Just share it, Lucy.)

I poked my head into Instagram briefly this morning and found Anis sharing a project that has its roots in a much older project and is now reemerging:

Back in 2014/2015 I was in a place of heavy loss, a place of relearning, rewiring, reforming my self, & began writing down & sharing online these monthly wisdoms/lessons for my self to learn, think on, & try to remember. Have wanted to return to this for years now, & being now in some months of heavy reflection seemed a good time for this returning. Here’s things I put down last month for me to hold & turn over & try to remember.

Here’s one:

12.21 Lessons for Self
(to learn anew &/or to be reminded of to continue learning)
Anis you do not need to straighten every wrinkle. Nor do you
need to respond in a moment. If someone is upset & out of that
anger speaking poorly to you, it is not your job to temper
them-
-if you need time to acknowledge your transgression to
them without theirs to you, step away & come back.
Dont forget Anis, no one gets to tell you how you process your
loss & rowboat your grief.
This means too, don't forget, you don't get to direct how others
process theirs, to expect them to rudder across the lake in the
way you might.
Decisions are not just cerebral in nature. Not all abstracted can
be bent for the brain to weigh, Anis you have to also recognize
that the heart & the body are part of the decision making pro-
cess.
Indecision is an enemy of vulnerability.

This subtitle sings to me.

It’s a funny thing how we all begin turning toward the same subjects at the same times (or have already been turning for several years). Reminders. Permission. Speaking to the self as the self, but at a removal from the self. This is the energy of the thing I’m about to release, too. Seeing it reflected in these words from my brilliant friend fills me with compassion and energy and, okay, a little envy, too. I have to elbow myself in the psychic ribs as if to say “Hey. Cut it out. There’s no race here, ya dingbat.”

On another slide, Anis writes:

I sometimes use vulnerability w/self to avoid vulnerability w/others. I wear my heart, but wearing can be a costume.

This is one of the things that drives me away from sharing such a personal thing in public. I want it to be known (I want to be known), but not in a space where I’ve traditionally used perceived vulnerability to mask real connection.

The greatest pleasure I’ve gotten from this project has been pressing the physical prototype (or the Dropbox folder of images) into the hands of trusted friends, and then talking about it with them. That’s energy I want to preserve moving forward. This connection. This depth.

Interior Design

I keep remembering Dad’s wedding reception
when Grandpa lost the word lily.
My hand out pointing to one of the centrepieces,
white flowers spilling over onto the table like wine.

I had the garden in my head
when I asked him to name them.
The garden out behind the bungalow he built
that he always kept so neat. I saw him on his knees
in blue overalls, pruning. I saw him pretending
not to mind as a football went crashing
through the fuchsias. Then I saw his eyes,
panicked and dark as the hole where a word should be,
some kind of —

and my dad said lily and this is how we manage.
Dad keeps the word lily. I keep the sunlight and the grey squirrels
cascading across the lawn on Sunday mornings.
And together we remember everything.

Joshua Judson (2020), via today’s installment of Pome.

Soup Brain

make note

make notes toward what you want to keep

noticing—let the notes, all the little bits of cumulative debris

(internal cumulus clouds), let these be

a kind of song, too

//

to live among & within & through words or more vitally, caring attention—that’s the daily practice, not writing poetry 24/7. but living with poetry brain, which could be the same, depending on the day, as laundry brain or long-talk-with-good-friend brain or soup brain

Chen Chen

Swoon.

Welcome, baby.

Hey look. It’s here.

A hand holding up a copy of Tell the Turning against a grassy field and sunlit trees and a blue sky. The cover of the book is simple white with a spiral of illustrated stones.

Working on Tell the Turning with Tara and Stefan over the past year has been such a gentle, eye-opening process. Historically, there’s been an element of exhaustion or overstimulation in the work I make due to it being tied in so many respects to social media. The energy of being on Twitter or Instagram bleeds into everything from the pace of production to the pressure to reach more people. Even if I’m enjoying making the art, there’s this extra stuff that I don’t quite know what to do with.

But this book felt different.

We took it at exactly the pace we wanted to. We didn’t share a great deal online as things came together. Instead, we focused on enjoying the process of building something as a team. We focused on enjoying each other. Mostly this took the form of writing many, many goofy emails, but there were other bits and pieces too.

I’m pretty sure we’ve only had one Zoom call this whole time.

When it was time to crowdfund the book, it funded. Quickly, and without much fuss. There was no need to hurtle towards stretch goals because we knew what we wanted to make and it was modest. Between us, we knew enough people who were willing to pitch in. We shared the load.

Time passed. The manuscript was typeset. I spent about a month in my new studio making paintings, settling in, texting Tara occasionally to ask about the identity of this or that plant mentioned in the book. We took a walk on the beach when she was visiting California in the summer. Stefan and his team sent the book to print.

And now all three of us have copies in our hands. In Poland, in Portland, in Ojai. And I guess a lot of other people are about to have copies in their hands as well, but a lot of this still feels local to that trinity.

Three friends who wanted to make something together, and then did.

A spread of white paperback books, all copies of Tell the Turning. There's a spiral of grey rocks on the cover, plus a few postcards scattered around. The books lie in a grassy field.

I like working this way. I hope I get to do it again sometime.

Printer Porn

Tell the Turning (my illustrated collaboration with poet Tara Shepersky) went to press last week in Poland and our publisher, Stefan, has been sending the most delicious slew of process photos from the print house. I figured I’d post some of them here because I’m trying to get in the habit of using this space for visual stuff just as much as I use it for blathering in text about craft and money and comics and everything else.

SO!

Here’s our impressive and pristine stack of Munken Arctic paper! This is one of the few papers not currently suffering from extreme stock shortages in central Europe, leading to our unexpectedly-ahead-of-schedule print date. At a time when all sorts of publishers and indie creators are reporting a three-month average delay in production timelines, I’ll take it.

A towering pallet of pristine white paper.

Here it is all loaded into the printer. (I have an intense soft spot for the little vacuum plungers that lift the pages off one by one.)

A complex offset press housing a huge stack of blank paper.

And then of course comes the best part of any printing house update which is, naturally, the video:

WHOOSH WHOOSH WHOOSH! BOOK BOOK BOOK!

That leaves us with a HUGE stack of printed pages…

A huge stack of printed pages.

…which will then be trimmed and sewn together to create the final book.

You can get a closer look at some of the illustrations (including the cover and the special Field Offering postcards I designed for Kickstarter backers) in this sheet:

A black and white sheet with several illustrations aligned with text, all pages from the book Tell the Turning. There are crows and owls and spirals of kelp—all pictures of things from the natural world.

Basically it’s going to be here before we even know it and I think it’s going to look and feel incredible and I cannot wait. What a joy.

(I should probably also mention that you can preorder the book here! It’s currently on track to begin shipping October 20th, which is just around the corner.)

This concludes the first installment of the “post more visual content, you coward” challenge. Thank you.

The Absence of Poetry

If we could just—just stop. For one year. If everybody could stop publishing their poems. No more. Stop it. Just—everyone. Every poet. Just stop.

But of course that’s totally unfair to the poets who are just starting out. This may be their “wunderjahr.” This may be the year that they really find their voice. And I’m telling them to stop? No, that wouldn’t do.

But wouldn’t it be great? To have a moment to regroup and understand? Everybody would ask, Okie doke, what new poems am I going to read today? Sorry: none. There are no new poems. And so you’re thrown back onto what’s already there, and you look at what’s on your own shelves, that you bought maybe eight years ago, and you think, Have I really looked at this book? Might have something to it. And it’s there, it’s been waiting and waiting. Without any demonstration or clamor. No squeaky wheel. It’s just been waiting. 

If everybody was silent for a year—if we could just stop this endless forward stumbling progress—wouldn’t we all be better people? I think probably so. I think the lack of poetry, the absence of poetry, the yearning to have something new, would be the best thing that could happen to our art. No poems for a solid year. Maybe two.

—Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist

Slowly, Slowly

For many months, earlier in the Pandemic, my elementary school had a banner of this Kobayashi Issa haiku hanging outside their driveway:

O snail 
Climb Mount Fuji, 
But slowly, slowly!

The entire family had a very good time yelling “O SNAIL” very loudly whenever we drove past. It made a hard season easier to bear.1

A pen and ink illustration of a snail, moving along slowly from left to right.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been working on a collaborative publishing project with my friends Tara and Stefan called Tell the Turning. It’s an illustrated collection that’s very much rooted in place: a poetic celebration of flora and fauna, a compendium of walking companions, and a testament to three people finding out that they’re on the same page about the correct pace at which to make something special (slowly, slowly).

In contrast to that preference, the Kickstarter campaign we launched this morning funded quickly, quickly. It took 78 people 4 hours and 42 minutes to turn this from a book we three collaborators believe in very much to a book that will actually exist. Though her poetry’s been published in various external venues, this is going to be Tara’s first book-shaped collection of her work. When I think about the difference it made in my life and career and whole *arm waving* identity as a creator to cross that threshold, I get choked up.

It takes so few people, relatively speaking, to make this transformation possible.

I felt allergic to the idea of crafting a bunch of flashy Instagram graphics to try and plug the launch earlier today, so I just sat in a field and recorded a 7-minute video ramble on the things I love about my collaborators and how capitalism traps us with a false sense of urgency and posted that to my story instead.2 (I’m no expert at these things, but maybe you can watch it at this link? Unsure. It’s pinned on my profile, anyway.)

The Kickstarter doesn’t have to be a runaway freight train. In fact it feels nicer as something intimate, held close to the chest, tucked into a pocket, or passed to a friend.

A pen and ink illustration of a sand dollar.

I have a lot more thoughts about this whole experience (of course I do, hi, hello, I’m Lucy Bellwood), but for now I’m gonna go take a long walk. If you want to investigate the campaign and watch the goofy video I made and marvel at Tara’s work, you can absolutely do so here, but you don’t have to pledge a dime because it’s already going to exist. This is enough.

And now we get to beam at each other and go make something beautiful.

1. According to Wikipedia, the poem was used to title a novel by the Strugatsky brothers called Snail on the Slope. I only learned about the Strugatskys for the first time from Jez last year, which made this feel like a bit of serendipity.

2. Apparently Stefan watched the whole thing with his young daughter and it was the first time she’d heard anyone say the word “motherfucker”! I feel honored.

Nesting and Turning

My working theory is that the silence and the sunshine and the singing are key materials of the nest I am always building, to hold whatever thoughts, feelings, rhythms, and ideas become my poems.

Tara writes a monthly guest column on Nicole‘s blog. Every installment holds several gems, but her latest is particularly gemful. The nest! I adore this metaphor. What are my nest materials? How do I tend to build with them? I don’t know yet, but I have hunches. I want to lay them out and inventory them like a bower bird.

An additional thrill is that Tara and I will be working on something together in the next few months. She’s a spectacular poet (in addition to being a thoughtful and lyrical essayist), and sometime last year she shared a new collection of work with me under the title Low Tide Book. (You can hear me explore her idea of “a low tide of the spirit” in Ramble #20, notably before I got with the program and started pronouncing her name properly. It should be terra, like earth.)

I read the poems and loved them, and then I can’t quite remember what happened next but somehow I got to do my very favorite thing and smush two good people together while yelling “MAKE SOMETHING!”

The other person in this equation was my friend Stefan.

I say “my friend” in that way I do to refer to anyone I know primarily through the internet, and it’s true we’ve never met in person, but I do think of Stefan as a friend.

We connected on Kickstarter in 2012 because we were both running our first projects at the same time.1 He ended up with a copy of True Believer and I ended up with a copy of Cedar Toothpick and then we sort of fell out of touch. I do remember that his campaign didn’t have a video, but rather a delightful audio recording taken in a field. Possibly with some bees. Anyway, I loved his attention to quality in paper stock and his creative focus on the minutiae of the natural world. Cedar Toothpick still has pride of place in my poetry shelf.

When we reconnected via Instagram many years later, he floated the idea of collaborating on something. By that point he’d been branching out into publishing work by other writers under his imprint, Bored Wolves. Somewhere in there was when Tara sent me Low Tide Book, and somewhere shortly after that was the moment I realized they were perfect for each other. She had this manuscript full of contemplative poems crafted in conversation with the natural world, he had a tiny, remote cabin in the Polish highlands and access to a boutique printer. It writes itself, really.

So the long and the short of it is that we’re all making a book! Tara’s already written it, and I’m going to illustrate it, and Stefan’s going to publish it.

The title we decided on was Tell the Turning and it’s (as of May 1st) ON KICKSTARTER RIGHT NOW!

1. The ecosystem was much smaller then, so it was common to just become pals with whoever else showed up in the Discover tab. It was nice.

Delights

This morning I woke suddenly in the dark, startled by something toppling in a gust of wind, and decided to get up. I very rarely regret being up before the sun. It’s something my dad taught me to love, waking early to wash the previous night’s dishes or listen to Satie at the kitchen table. Sometimes we’d go to the park and hit tennis balls back and forth on the empty courts, or walk around the block in the pitch black till my legs itched unbearably from the cold. Whatever we did, it always felt like secret, stolen time. A pocket of temporal spaciousness.

So, this morning, I got up and made tea and decided to curl into the armchair in the corner of the living room and use this particular pocket to read.

The Book of Delights by Ross Gay came very highly recommended. This is sometimes a deterrent because I’m the sort of nightmare person who stubbornly avoids things the more often I’m told to consume them, but in this case I’m glad I persevered. 

The premise is very simple: a year’s worth of daily essayettes on various sources of delight. The collection glows precisely because it isn’t some kind of Pollyannaish litany. Instead, it captures the complexity of finding joy in a flawed world, and the particular necessity of claiming joy as a Black man in America. Gay’s entries are full of digressions and caveats. He’s constantly gesturing toward vast, complicated power structures with one hand while using the other to point at tiny, captivating miracles poking their heads out of the soil.

I love any piece of work that wrestles with the paradox of “and yet” and “even still,” and this book is no exception. I love it because it doesn’t demand that we wait to be pure enough for joy. It doesn’t position a sense of a wonder as a commodity to be bought or earned. It doesn’t disqualify people. Delight is simply there, in spite of it all.1

Two years ago I sat in Mother Foucault’s Bookshop on a Saturday morning with the sun streaming through the windows and listened to my friend Anis perform his poem Today’s Love Is Brought to You by the Letter Jon Sands. (You can probably hear me laughing in the background of this video. You can certainly see me crying in the background of another in the series from that morning.)

Hearing the way Anis says “I fucking love Black people” echoes the many celebrations that run throughout The Book of Delights.2 These two half-Black poets share a tender ear for the sublime and an irreverent sense of humor—the kind of sharing that makes me wonder if they’ve met.3 Their words flow into each other and elicit snorts and grins and also pangs of truthful recognition. Neither of them eschew the paradox of what it means to embrace delight in the world we live in—in the skin they live in—and I am so deeply grateful for it.

I stayed curled in the armchair for an hour or so, and when I was done reading the acknowledgements (one of my favorite parts of any book) and had breathed one of those happy, book-finishing sighs, I looked out the window and realized there was white frost sparkling on all the neighborhood rooftops, and that the sunrise had snuck up on me, and that it was January 20th.

A laptop resting on a pillow in front of a window. There's a luminous pink sunrise glowing on the horizon.

Happy new presidency, America.

1. “Wanna hear something terrible? Even here, at the end of everything, I still love it.”

2. Which echoes the “black abundance” of Kiese Laymon’s Heavy. And so on, and so on.

3. Yes, part of me also wonders if there’s the sort of inexplicable friction we sometimes recognize as envy in this comparison. Occasionally people will refer to me alongside other creators whose work I admire and rather than feeling like a compliment it elicits a jab of petty resentment. But my friend Mara taught me that often what we envy in the other is an aspect of the self we haven’t fully claimed yet, and you know what? I believe that. It checks out. Things have gotten better since I started noticing those tiny jabs and thinking “Yeah, okay, that’s me too. I have that. Wouldn’t notice it if I didn’t.”

Convening the Poetry Cabal

Walking the walk RE: my last post and sharing something utterly delightful that just landed in my inbox.

Phil and Liam, the folks behind Galaxy Brain, are hosting a digital Burns Night celebration this Friday. Come prepared to read a poem and share a toast in memory of Scotland’s beloved national bard.

(Exactly what mice plans is he talking about here?)

Burns Night is technically the 25th, but since the celebration traditionally involves a certain amount of Scotch Consumption, they’re opting for a weekend-friendly date. Alcohol is optional, sharing a poem is mandatory.

Friday, January 22nd. 7:30 Pacific. Online. Details here.