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Hello from below a full moon, and happy Virgo season! Thank you to everyone who dropped me a note in response to my July letter. I appreciate your good wishes and love learning what’s been growing (or going to seed) in your garden, what you’ve been writing, what you’ve been reading, and what joys are on your horizon.
 
As summer winds down, I’ve been especially grateful for the chances I’ve had to be in community with folks over the last few months: going to live shows, dancing, sharing meals. As I look ahead to teaching, coaching, and all the other events that autumn typically brings, I’m balancing my longing to keep spending time with people in person alongside the desire to be cautious as more risk and uncertainty around the pandemic emerges.  I continue to think of all of you out there reading this, and I hope you are safe, healthy, and finding some peace amid the changes.

~ Jennifer

Choosing My Own Adventure

After a flurry of short, formal poems earlier this year, August has been a month of meandering, of taking the long, circuitous route through personal essays. It’s also been a month of returning to abandoned projects, reexamining them, and starting anew.
 
For instance: In August 2017, I started writing an essay, “Voice Lessons,” about my intense fear of singing in public. As a child, I sang in choir for years and enjoyed hamming it up in the limelight whenever I could, and I wanted to explore what had changed since then. That essay, when I first wrote it, tried to encompass too much—every experience I could recall in which singing was fraught or in which I felt embarrassed by my voice—and so I set it aside. For four years.
 
This month, I came back to that essay, choosing just one thread to write about: my solo in a fifth-grade choir performance of “A Jingle-Bell Travelogue.” For those of you who’ve never heard this ditty, it might best be described as a Christmas carol wrapped up in a spectacular amount of racism. As a child, I could sense the wrongness of the song and of my performance of the role of “The Mysterious East,” but I didn’t have the language yet to name why it was wrong or to question the part I’d been asked to play.
 
As I researched the song this summer, I became fascinated by the footnotes on the sheet music. My essay, “Grace Notes Are Optional,” borrows its title from one of those footnotes, and as I wrote, I began incorporating more and more footnotes into the essay. The body of the essay, as it now stands, is under 500 words long. If you include the footnotes, though, it runs to about 3000 words. The footnotes became a way for me to shift back and forth between the limited understanding I had as a child and the critical perspective I now bring to this experience as an adult.
 
Writing this piece launched me into writing a string of essays, but there was another catalyst as well. In May, I received a Make|Learn|Build grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council to conduct research for a memoir, “Missing/Wanted.” I drafted a first version of this memoir about fifteen years ago, but I knew even as I was writing it then that there were too many gaps I couldn’t fill in. The memoir focuses on my relationship with my mother, from whom I was estranged for most of my life, as well as on a crime she committed when I was eleven that led both of us to live under assumed identities for some time. Only in the last couple of years have I been able to start piecing together parts of her life that were hidden from me, collecting stories from other people who knew her and comparing those stories to the ones I received from my mother and the ones I invented to make narrative sense of her life and her choices.
 
I returned to this project recently in part because of the looming grant deadline, but also because I finally had a new idea for how to structure it. To honor all the conflicting versions of the truth, to include the many dead ends I’ve encountered in my research, to represent the many paths I’ve taken in the past to try to tell this story, I did what any child of the ‘80s would do: I turned the memoir into something that looks very much like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. Every page ends with a series of choices embedded with hyperlinks to other sections of the memoir, and once I started working in this way, I found myself writing 30 to 40 pages in a week, which is an incredible pace for someone like me who often spends weeks writing and rewriting a single page.
 
There’s no doubt the memoir is weird and ungainly. It includes all those links, which I’m not sure how I’ll translate into a print format, and it also includes lists, poems, erasures, and comics. In telling my mother’s story and my own, the memoir zigzags through time, landing in every era from the 1940s to the near future, and it moves in space from Peru to Jamaica to New Jersey to Oregon to, of course, the un-space/no-place that is Zoom. Does it make any sense? Who knows? But I’m excited to be digging back into this project again after so many years, and I’m curious to see where this adventure leads.

Hanging On & Letting Go

I’d like to say I’m in the final stages of packing for a move that is only a little over a week away, but packing is not my forte. I cannot simply load my belongings into boxes with the urgency that an upcoming move necessitates. No, I have to linger over every object, remembering its stories, deciding whether to bring it with me to my new home.
 
I have an especially hard time packing books. From the dust that wafts down as I lift them off the shelves, it’s clear I haven’t touched most of them in months or even years. But books make a place feel like home, and once they’re all safely nestled in their cardboard containers, labeled and stacked in precarious towers, every room feels empty.
 
Still, it had to be done. And although packing is, for me, a stressful experience all around, I relished the moments of pause in the process, which often arrived as I was choosing which books to keep and which to give away. Some decisions were easy. Did I really need three copies of Orlando, of Maurice, of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? No, I did not. I do, however, need all four copies of Frankenstein, each filled with marginalia from a different era of my life.
 
As I sorted through my shelves, I also discovered, tucked among the books, two items that I’m still marveling over. The first is a xeroxed newsletter, “Tiger Tales,” that includes what I believe may be my first-ever published poem… from sixth grade. Due to many moves and mishaps, I have few keepsakes from my childhood—a few photos and not much else. So, to find this little treasure was worth all the packing that led up to it. I’ll spare you the poem, though will reveal that it’s called “The Quest,” references God and rainbows, uses the phrase “destroy your illusion,” and uses “man,” “himself,” and “his” to refer to humanity. Feel free to draw your own conclusions about what 11-year-old me was like and how I was socialized. In lieu of that masterpiece, I submit to you the opening page of the newsletter, which features these campaign songs for the 1988 presidential candidates, and which I had no part in writing. “No more death” is quite the campaign promise.
The other item I found is much more oblique and mysterious. It’s a list of words, clearly in my own handwriting, that I have no memory of making. I also have no sense of what they refer to. I offer it here as one part puzzle, one part writing prompt. Can you illuminate the connections here? Or can you invent some thread to tie these all together? If you can, I’d love to know what you make of this.
Five or so years ago, I was teaching a class that included erasures, and as I worked alongside students, I lifted these phrases from a newspaper article on artificial ingredients in foods.
Something about the name “Gilly” and the tenderness and heartbreak of those borrowed lines lingered with me, and over time, they evolved into a short story about a genderqueer teenager living on a remote island who falls in love with a girl named Gilly. (Wade—whoever he was—didn’t survive the journey from erasure to prose.) The full story was just published by Buckmxn Journal alongside beautiful photos by Michael Lee, and the whole issue features so much brilliant writing and art by Portland-area folks. Very much worth checking out. 
 
This month, I started and then quickly became overwhelmed by #TheSealeyChallenge. If you’re not familiar, in 2017, poet Nicole Sealey set herself the goal of reading a poetry book each day during the month of August, and since then, it’s become a social media phenomenon, at least among poets. I’ve never read a full thirty-one books in August, but usually I read at least a dozen, maybe even twenty. This year, I made it to… two. (Cue Charlie Bucket moment.) But I cannot stop talking about those two: Franny Choi’s Soft Science and Maria Dahvana Headley’s translation of Beowulf.
 
Part of the reason I didn’t get very far with the Sealey Challenge is that I was too enthralled by Grace M. Cho’s memoir, Tastes Like War. The book is a brilliant hybrid of sociological research, personal essay, and food writing. Cho investigates and recounts how her mother adapted and survived as a Korean woman living under U.S. occupation during the war and, later, as an immigrant living with xenophobia in Chehalis, Washington. At the center of the memoir is her mother’s schizophrenia, and Cho deftly explores how individual and collective trauma contributed to her mother’s illness. I came away with not only an intimate portrait of Cho’s relationship with her mother but also a broader understanding of how social factors—rather than just biology or neurochemistry alone—create the conditions for mental illness and mental health.

               
In the next couple of months, you can catch me at the following events. Whether you’re in the area or joining in via the interwebs, I’d love to see you.
 
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 8, 7PM PDT
Online
Vinnie Kinsella and I will be co-hosting the Incite: Queer Writers Read Series, sponsored by Literary Arts. September’s theme is “History Lessons,” and the event will feature writer and multimedia visual artist Mason Mimi Yadira, poet David J.S. Pickering, and novelist Alan Rose. The online reading is free and will be followed by a community discussion. Registration will be available soon on the Literary Arts website.
 
TUESDAYS, SEPTEMBER 14 – OCTOBER 12, 5 – 7 PM PDT
&
WEDNESDAYS, SEPTEMBER 15 – OCTOBER 13, 5 – 7 PM PDT
Online
I’ll be teaching a 5-week online class, Writing the Intersections of Our Identities, through Literary Arts. Through autobiographical writing about our identities—including race, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, and class—we’ll explore where we hold power and privilege and where we have experienced marginalization and oppression. In addition to experimenting with craft techniques such as audience, point of view, research, dialogue, and figurative language, we’ll also discuss how to use our writing in service of reflection, healing, truth-telling, and culture change.
 
The Tuesday class is open to all, and the Wednesday class is reserved for folks who identify as Black, Indigenous, and/or people of color. If tuition is a barrier, reduced rates are available through the Literary Arts Access Program
 
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, 7PM PDT
Online
Annie Bloom’s Books will be hosting the Airlie Press 2021 book launch, featuring Brittney Corrigan’s Daughters and David J.S. Pickering’s Jesus Comes to Me as Judy Garland. These are the last books I’ll see into print before my tenure as an editor at Airlie wraps up, and it was such a joy to work with both authors and to help shepherd their books into the world. Register for the online reading here.

                  

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 24 – SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 26
Tieton, WA
I’ll be reading alongside fellow Airlie Press authors Brittney Corrigan, Amelia Díaz Ettinger, and Jessica Mehta at LiTFUSE 2021, a weekend-long workshop for poets of all ages and styles. The faculty lineup is full of poets I deeply admire, including Ching-In Chen, Camille Dungy, Elizabeth Bradfield, and Alexandra Teague. Registration includes a reading Friday night, a keynote on Saturday night, and a wide selection of classes on both Saturday and Sunday, as well as access to several online events.  
 
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 4 – SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 7
Kitsap Peninsula, WA
I’ll be teaching two classes—“Contents Under Pressure: Using Constraints to Stretch Your Creativity” and “It’s Complicated: Love Poems for the Real World” at Northwest Writers’ Weekend. The weekend retreat offers classes for poets, songwriters, nonfiction writers, and folks who are feeling the cross-genre vibes. It’s also at a lovely camp in the woods, and lodging and meals are included in the registration.
 


As always, there are many other events I’m not directly affiliated with but highly recommend. Here's just a smattering of those:
 
TUESDAY, AUGUST 31, 4 – 5 PM PDT
Online
If you’re an Oregon writer, check out the Oregon Literary Fellowships Information Session. I was fortunate to receive one of these fellowships in 2019, and it wouldn’t be overstating it to say that the community I’ve found as a result of that award has been life-changing. Register here for the info session, and then send in your application by September 17th!
 
WEDNESDAYS, SEPTEMBER 1 – NOVEMBER 17, 6 – 8 PM PDT
Online
My favorite butch in a bowtie, Kate Caroll de Gutes, will be teaching a 12-week course on The Artist’s Way. The class is designed to help boost your creative practice and is open to artists working in all genres. For more information or to register, contact Kate via email.
 
SATURDAYS, SEPTEMBER 4 – 25, 10AM – 12PM PDT
Online
For many of us, the last year brought various obstacles that kept us from writing consistently. If you need some encouragement to get back on track with your writing goals, Olufunke Grace Bankole is offering a 4-week class on “The Path of Perseverance: Writing No Matter What.” If tuition is a barrier, reduced rates are available through the Literary Arts Access Program
 
THURSDAYS, SEPTEMBER 23 – DECEMBER 16, 5:30 – 8:30 PM PDT
Online
If you’re a creative nonfiction writer looking for inspiration, accountability, and community, check out the Creative Nonfiction Studio at the Attic Institute, an 11-week online class taught by Brian Benson. Applications for the next Studio are due September 12th!

If you’ve got an opportunity you’d like me to include in a future newsletter, please let me know.
For reading all the way to the end, here’s one more erasure from that same long-ago class.

 
May you avoid working in “full crisis mode” this month and every month.
Thank you for reading this letter! If you’d like to support this work, you can share this with a friend, send me a letter back, or tip me

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