Category Archives: artists

My First Book’s Coming Out. Cue Panic?

OYHH Front CoverMy first book releases March 31st. This isn’t the post I thought I’d write about such an occasion, but then– this isn’t the book I thought I’d write, either. 
Here’s a confession. Publishing this book is easily one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. Writing it involved excavating and articulating stories, fears, and beliefs that I’d never let anywhere near my songs. Or even my own head. But over the course of a couple years, a poetic practice crept into dark corners and reported back what it found. Some of it is comprehensible. Some of it is recognizably nameless.

Some of it is photography. Michael Wilson and I have talked for years about creating a book together, and when these poems began piling up, they seemed to beg for a Wilson-ian counterpart. Perhaps less for illustration than for a haunted (and haunting) camaraderie, for a shift in conceptions of violence, of peace. For a break in the patternless pattern.

When the manuscript was complete, I was thrilled (as any writer is) to have the book accepted by a press. I signed a contract and made preparations. Logistics, aesthetics, repeat. And then the press settled on a release date. I was excited. I posted on social media. I texted my family. And then I fell into the most severe depression I’ve experienced since the illness sent me out of full-time music and into another life.

There were other factors; book-publishing doesn’t happen in isolation. Still, these poems pull on lovely, bloody threads strung from real bodies that move and feel in a real and volatile world. This isn’t to say that the book is (entirely) autobiographical, but it does expose and implicate. I don’t know how it couldn’t.

Of course, as it turns out, we keep things silent for reasons. I’ve spent the last several months tripping on mine: I’ve thrown up, cowered in bed, stopped for deep breaths while teaching, cried weirdly (and not soundlessly) in public spaces. I’ve berated myself for being given a great opportunity, only to cringe whenever it’s mentioned. I’ve steeled myself for congratulations, and tried to feel them in my bones. Sometimes I do.

I’m fortunate to have found support, and I’m getting steadily better. I’m more and more proud of the person behind the words in this book. I’ve begun to feel empowered by her movement from silence to conversation, or at least to nice-sounding works of word. Music-less songs.

I’m telling you this both to confess a terror and to dispel my lingering (irritating) sense of the shame of depression. This illness is, of course, less a signifier of personal weakness (or strength) than of personal intersections with chemistry, biology, time, and perhaps an uncanny, relentless sense of the possible. Perhaps none of these. Ideally, one simply learns over time to better live with depression—to move her body through the thick space of it. She learns to feel the shape of it in her mouth, and say it.

I’m also telling you this because, for the past several years, I’ve made my life’s work about the movement of silenced stories into public discourse. I’ve spoken urgently about the negative health impacts of individual and collective repression, about the necessity of the arts in helping us tell our stories. But if I needed a reminder that silences are bulwarks, safehouses, that they often serve vital, bone-deep purposes, this book has been mine. I’m re-learning the sense of fragility that often precedes the powerful ownership of one’s history; the fluctuating, feverish means by which secrets become strengths. I’ve questioned again whether it’s worth it.

I believe that it is.

 …The only recourse / is to name one’s self, and hold the margins / wide enough to walk in.

//

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you’re not that busy.

just omg so busyMeet the Busy Brag: social media’s hate-worthiest addition to the human experience. I am important, cry the crafted tweets and updates,

because busy. Did you guys happen to notice I’m busy? If not, here are some pics about my busy. It’s a good thing you’re not as busy as I am, or you’d miss my social media updates re: busy. I won’t see YOUR pics or posts, because busy. In demand. Hashtag overwhelm. Hashtag cost of success.”

…From my latest for Ploughshares Literary Magazine, in which I punch the busy-brag in the face.

Because human busyness ≠ human value.


For centuries, artists have asked, explored, and hypothesized about what gives life value. When creatives give in to the notion that we’re essential and significant primarily when busy, we answer the question before we can ask it. In the process, we defy the humanistic ideals at the root our artistic efforts.

You’re not that busy. (AND you’re valuable.)

(*gasp*)

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Creativity: Neither Magic Nor Madness

Nothing like telling the entire world about one’s clinical depression to enliven a Tuesday.

Here’s my latest for Ploughshares Literary Magazine, in which I own up to the depression that yanked me out of music-touring
and in which I punch the Mental-Illness-Makes-Better-Artists myth in the throat.

Regardless of whether you’ve suffered from mental illness, there are things we can all learn from the popular myth that “madness”—or at least some kind of untamable magic—begets creativity. By owning up to our reliance on Magical-Muse thinking, we empower ourselves and each other to make more and better work. And to be healthy while we’re at it.”

The choice may not be between “madness” and dullness, but between passive and active engagement. Here are 5 ways to kick your magic-thinking habit, and get to work.

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Waiting for a job? grad school? publishing deal? Here’s HOW TO WAIT BETTER:

WAITINGMy latest for Ploughshares Literary Magazine is a bit of a confession:

I SUCK AT WAITING. And so do many other writers and artists. We hover over email inboxes, trying to survive the feeling of teetering on someone else’s whim. Thus:

Hey Writers: Four Steps to Better Waiting

Check it out, leave a comment. Tell me what you’re making.

Whatever you’re waiting on, you can wait better.

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(In which Rilke nails December. And depression.)

It’s been a dark December. I mean this metaphorically, although (oh god) it’s raining again. It’s the kind of December to which one should invite Rilke, post haste.

Particularly since, 100 years ago, Rilke was having a rather dark December himself. So for you fellow depressives, grievers, broken folk… from Melville House, this today:

Rainer Maria Rilke is in a bad way during those last December days [of 1913] in Paris. He writes: “I see nobody, it has been freezing, there was black ice, it’s raining, it’s dripping—this is winter, always three days of each. I have truly had my fill of Paris, it is a place of damnation.” And then: “Here is the incarnation of my desires for 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917 etc. Which is: peace, and to be in the country with a sisterly person.” He then writes to one of those sisterly people… Sidonie Nádherny: “Now I would like to be as if without a face, a rolled-up hedgehog that only opens up in the ditch in the evening and cautiously comes up and holds its grey snout up at the stars.”

Yes. Yes.

Want more? I recommend this translation of  The Book of Hours, in which Rilke loves himself some Dark. Worth your December attention.

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“Expensive cities are killing creativity”

creatives bewareSt. Louis-based writer Sarah Kendzior has published an editorial for Al Jazeera, calling upon creatives to reject the now-cost-prohibitive art centers of the world. Kendzior launches her piece by citing Patti Smith’s May 5th advice to young NYC artists: that they “find another city.” Smith said, “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. New York City has been taken away from you.” Similarly, David Byrne stated in October that “the cultural part of the city – the mind – has been usurped by the top 1 percent.”

Kendzior notes (and I recommend reading the piece in full) that the exploding costs of living in New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, and LA mean that failing as an artist often means more than getting yet another job:

“To fail in an expensive city is not to fall but to plummet. In expensive cities, the career ladder comes with a drop-off to hell, where the fiscal punishment for risk gone wrong is more than the average person can endure. As a result, innovation is stifled, conformity encouraged. The creative class becomes the leisure class – or they work to serve their needs, or they abandon their fields entirely.”

In other words, if creatives want to be able to take risks, or simply pursue their own work — as opposed to serving corporations (and/or the 1%) — they may need to take Patti Smith’s advice and “find a new city.”

i can has artAs a midwestern artist, my knee-jerk retort was that quite obviously, economic hardships are everywhere – particularly in humanistic/artistic professions. And while a city’s cost of living is a significant factor considering the low incomes art careers often earn, it’s not as if art is undervalued strictly (or even primarily) in the recognized artistic centers of the world. In fact, some of us pine for cities in which people actually go out to look at, listen to, or otherwise value art of any form. (The sense of being undervalued is likely more stark in cities in which a smaller population means that the small percentage of art-valuers necessitates a microscope.)

And finally, most artists – in any locale – have to serve corporations in order to pay our bills: often by licensing music, designing logos, or writing copy for marketing campaigns. While this may be sign that various cities undervalue creativity, these artistic circumstances are much more nuanced, extensive, and (by now) culturally intrinsic than a few cities’ issues with inflation and elitism. (Cue projects such as Kickstarter, or Jack Conte‘s Patreon.)

choose your own

Still, what’s great about Kendzior’s piece – regardless of its failure to take a more holistic approach – is its theoretical rejection of (financially-)enforced artistic silences. It offers a turn from the myth of “proximity-equals-success” to a focus on minimizing — to whatever extent such minimization is possible — the risk that one’s work will be (over)determined by economics, and thus deprived of its individual voice. In effect, Kendzior gives artists “permission” to go wherever our work can be most ours… and to feel no compunction that this may not be in a culturally-approved, globally-recognized center for art.

Kendzior’s call to artists will feel, to most of us, entirely too theoretical and imprecise, but the thrust of it is sound: Any creator must actively set aside assumptions about where art is (or can be) made in order to uncover where her own art is made. If such a place exists — and no one is saying it does — it’s worth some grueling exploration to find it.

And if, in the process, one chooses to give a theoretical middle finger to cost-prohibitive cities that have enjoyed a reputation for welcoming starving artists with open arms: well, bonus.

“Perhaps it is time to reject the “gated citadels” – the cities powered by the exploitation of ambition, the cities where so much rides on so little opportunity. Reject their prescribed and purchased paths… for cheaper and more fertile terrain. Reject the places where you cannot speak out, and create, and think, and fail. Open your eyes to where you are, and see where you can go.”

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