Happy Scorpio season, spooky season, and—if you’re in the Portland area—soggy and soaked season! It turns out that the Halloween decorations I mentioned in the last newsletter were just the merest tip of a vast, cobweb-covered, tombstone-festooned, bone-bedecked iceberg that rose up in the sea of this neighborhood over the last month. It’s been delightful and startling and only occasionally truly disturbing to witness. (I’m looking at you, house with the girl from The Ring kicking it on the swing set!)
Amid this otherworldly transformation, I had my own less visible change. I turned 44, an age that feels perfectly unremarkable—it doesn’t have the luster of the lustrum and won’t be found announced in glitter on any Hallmark card. Yet, I can already tell that this year is going to have its own distinctive flavor. The internal soundtrack that has played on many of my recent birthdays is “Older,” or if I’m feeling especially morose, “Time.” Although there was more than a whiff of those in the background, the lyric that dominated my inner airwaves this birthday was much more celebratory. I take that as a good omen. Or at least as one more reason to dance around in my kitchen.

Beginner's Mind

This last month, I had lots of opportunities to teach and coach in different spaces, for which I’m grateful. In late September, I taught a class at LiTFUSE on assembling a poetry manuscript, and in October, I’ve had the chance to work with several poets individually as they craft their poems into books. Envisioning how a set of poems—often composed over years and influenced by a wide array of events and experiences—can come together into a cohesive manuscript is one of my favorite ways to work with other writers. It scratches some deep itch to connect seemingly disparate things, to find order in what otherwise might appear chaotic.
I’m always humbled when people trust me with their writing in this way, and I’m always surprised by how much I learn from reading so many poems by a single writer. I learn about the writer’s interests and strengths, but I also learn about my own tendencies, my biases, and how I make sense of someone else’s worldview. And in this case, after arranging several manuscripts and sharing lots of strategies for structuring books, I also learned something else: that the manuscript I put together earlier this summer wasn’t quite complete. There was suddenly an obvious gap, a whole section that was missing but necessary to ferry the reader from the shore of grief in the middle of the book to the verge of hope where it ends. Fortunately, all those haibun and sonnets I was writing last month, when taken together, created exactly the interlude that I wanted. Sometimes the writing knows what’s necessary before I do.
If teaching’s been a boon, I’ve been even more appreciative at the number of chances I’ve had to be a student this month. Because I taught at LiTFUSE, as a bonus, I got to take classes led by other poets at the festival: Ching-In Chen, Claudia Castro Luna, Alexandra Teague, Elizabeth Bradfield, and Tobias Wray. Although the topics of the classes were wide-ranging—from ekphrasis and etymology to lines and landscapes—over the course of the weekend, all the conversations and invitations began to speak to each other. Several teachers sent me out on walks that were a welcome respite in a screen-heavy weekend. Several instigated mixed media experiments, drawings, doodles, and map-making. In one particularly delightful moment, while everyone was studiously writing, one teacher unmuted their mic to speak into the Zoom silence: “Jennifer, freak that poem!” Perhaps the best advice anyone has ever given me mid-composition, it turned an overly intellectual and pretty drab piece of science writing into a poem about making out with nature, which was neither drab nor particularly intellectual. It was, however, very fun to write, and I needed that.
This fall, I also joined Brian Benson’s Creative Nonfiction Studio at the Attic Institute. The class is wonderful—every week I’m inspired by the talent and innovation of the other students in the class, as well as by Brian’s creation of a container where it feels easy to be vulnerable, to share writing in its draftiest stages, even when it's about experiences that are painful or prickly. And I’ve already been introduced to so many elements of craft, to so many essays and writers I’d never encountered before, that I’m pretty sure my resting face during class is the Mind Blown emoji. Every Thursday evening, after the class wraps up, I’m so energized by all the new possibilities that I end up taking long, meandering walks to bring myself back down to earth. And on those walks, all the fireworks of my exploding brain finally fizzle down to one single ember that becomes the spark of an essay.
Some of those sparks have been about ways to use new forms to return to languishing drafts and shape them into something I’m excited to dive back into. And some of the sparks have resulted in new, short pieces. One, “Blades,” revisits the summers I spent laying sod, which I often offhandedly describe in conversation as one of my favorite jobs, the one that helped me understand how much I love working outdoors. In writing the essay, I got to dig into all the unpleasant parts of the job, the ones that might explain why I didn’t make a career out of it. Some of the other essays I’ve written for the class look suspiciously like poems, and I’m enjoying frolicking around in that blurry space between genres.
All of this has been a good reminder to approach writing—and whatever else I can bear to—with a beginner’s mind: to be open, to explore, to let go of my sense of certainty about the right way to do something. I often think of Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki’s commentary: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” I love it when people trust me to teach them because they appreciate my expertise; this month, I’m remembering that I also love it when people invite me to be a student again, to enter a place where I don’t have to be an expert, or even competent. I’m remembering the pleasure of creating without any particular outcome or expectation in mind, and the freedom of knowing that if I don’t have a goal, I can’t really fail.

Snail's Pace

Earlier this year, I started attending events with People of Color Outdoors, a non-profit started by Portland nature-lover and force-of-nature Pamela Slaughter. POCO is pretty much just what it sounds like—a chance for Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color to spend time in the outdoors together. After many years of joining predominantly white outdoor events where people made fun of me for not knowing the “correct” terminology, or where I was told I was walking too slowly, or where people just generally seemed cliquish and uninterested in talking to me, POCO has been a salve and a delight. It’s powerful to canoe or hike or birdwatch with folks who are consciously claiming our right to be in nature, when other people might wish to exclude us or make us feel unwelcome. I’ve learned so much about the history of the land that Portland now lives on, I’ve made new friends, and I’ve picked up loads of that hitherto unknown terminology from folks who were graciously willing to share their knowledge with me.
One of those people, Tia Ho, offered to teach some of us POCOs how to lead outdoor experiences that integrate skills drawn from the practice of forest bathing. So, in addition to writing classes, I’ve also been taking a class called, “Forest as Nourishment,” which has been a good excuse to wake up early on Saturday mornings and spend the day in an ancient forest, listening to the rain and the river, noticing the changing leaves, observing all the mushrooms and moss and spiders and ferns living in and on the trees.
Forest bathing is so different from the hiking I usually do. There’s no destination, and the time in the forest is rooted in invitations to wander, to wonder, to notice our surroundings and sensations. The names of the invitations are a pleasure in themselves—one I practiced on our first outing was called “The Joy of Tiny Things,” and one I hope to use in a walk I’ll guide soon is called “Achieve Nothing.” (Yes, please.)
While I’m forest bathing, I’ve noticed how strong the urge is to document the experience, to try to record every marvel in a photo, a video, a journal. I’ve resisted that urge while I’m in the forest, but I have given in later, struggling to put these ineffable moments into words. That writing I mentioned earlier that was teetering on the brink between poetry and essay? It was inspired by sitting with a snail so long that I began to feel not just delight or wonder but also deep connection and awe at being in the presence of another being. As someone who often thinks slowly, talks slowly, writes slowly, I often feel pressure to increase my pace (see aforementioned person who told me I walk too slowly). But hanging out with a snail, with 700-year-old trees, with a river that’s been carving its path for millennia—that’s more my speed.
As part of LiTFUSE, each of the faculty had the opportunity to invite another poet to attend the weekend’s classes. We all read together at the Faculty and Scholar Reading, and I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed so much love at a poetry reading before. The poems themselves were moving and surprising—I’m still thinking about certain lines a month later—but just as moving were the scholars’ introductions of the friends and mentors who invited them. If you’re ever feeling discouraged about the potential of writing to create community, watching the recording of this reading should rekindle your optimism.
I also have four poems in the new issue of New Letters, which arrived in my mailbox this week. Here’s a little snippet of one of the poems, “An Account, Not a Fable.” Sometimes, poetry is the thing with feathers.
I’ve been feeling the eerie October vibes, so I picked up a copy of Daryl Gregory’s new book, Revelator. I’ve mentioned Gregory in a previous newsletter for his ability to make the supernatural and strange feel matter-of-fact, and Revelator might just have one-upped his previous books on that count. Set in the 1930s and 40s, the novel follows Stella, one of a line of Birch women who can commune with a being that lives in a cave on their land in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. The family builds a religion around the revelations that come of this communion with the God of the Mountain, who they also call the Ghostdaddy. (I read an online review that wondered why the being wasn’t called something more reverential, like “Ghostfather.” Answer: “Ghostdaddy” is 1000% creepier.) I found particularly fascinating the syncretism in the book, as the family integrates their revelations with their existing Christian faith. If you’re looking for a haunting tale that will make your skin crawl but want to forego the jump scares and buckets o' gore this season, Revelator is a good bet.
This month I’ve also been luxuriating in a new season of Poetry Unbound, a twice-a-week podcast from the On Being Project. I started listening to Poetry Unbound around this time last year, and it’s become one of my go-to rituals when I’m in search of something soothing (aka most of the time). Hosted by Pádraig Ó Tuama, whose voice may just be the embodiment of soothing, each episode opens with a reason to love poetry, followed by a poem and Ó Tuama’s close reading of it. Except “close reading” doesn’t adequately describe Ó Tuama’s unhurried approach to exploring the craft of each poem, as well as its connections to history, social consciousness, and personal experience. I love the many poems I’ve been introduced to through this podcast, but equally I love hearing poems cared for through such attentive reading. If you’re unfamiliar with the podcast and not sure where to dip in, I recommend the recent episode featuring Tishani Doshi’s poem, “Species,” a magical, dystopian speculative/sci-fi piece.
I’ve also been savoring the last few episodes of the VS podcast hosted by Danez Smith and Franny Choi. Rumor has it that the podcast will continue with new hosts, but there’s something particularly energizing about listening to these two talking with each other and with the other rockstar poets they feature on the show. Their conversations exude the joy of friendship and familiarity, and their ease and playfulness and irreverence with each other carry over into the interviews, which include a more traditional Q&A format but also make use of games like “This Vs. That,” where two concepts are pitted against each other and the guest must choose which would win in a physical fight, and “This Vs. Something Else,” where guests have to decide whether they’d prefer to stay in this reality or live in an alternate universe. (The episode featuring Douglas Kearney has one of the most mind-blowing responses to this question, as he explains why we wouldn’t want to live in an alternate universe where “poetry is enough.”) I’m looking forward to checking out where the new hosts take the podcast, but I’m going to miss the feeling of eavesdropping on two besties geeking out over poetry.

Where to find me in the next month or two:

This Wednesday, October 27, 4pm-5:30pm PT, I’ll be reading as part of the launch for NOMBONO: Speculative Poetry by BIPOC Poets, edited by Akua Lezli Hope. NOMBONO, drawing from the Zulu word for “visionary,” brings together poets from around the world to respond to the question, “Are we about to take flight and evolve or plummet into cataclysm?” (My answer: Yes, both.) The anthology is currently available at a pre-order discount, and 10% of all preorder sales go to UNHCR. Join the launch reading online with the password “safta”. 
Northwest Writers’ Weekend is a go! I’ll be teaching two classes at the event—“Contents Under Pressure: Using Constraints to Stretch Your Creativity” and “It’s Complicated: Love Poems for the Real World.” (These will be my first in-person classes since pre-pandemic times.) Held Thursday, November 4 – Sunday, November 7 in Kitsap Peninsula, Washington, the weekend also includes classes in memoir with Marie Eaton, in songwriting with Geof Morgan, and in cross-genre creativity with Kate Gray. The whole shebang will be hosted at a lovely camp in the woods, and lodging and meals are included in the registration.
On Tuesday, November 9, 4:30-6:30pm PT, I’ll be teaching a class on Embodied Writing as part of the Portland Book Festival. This class, geared toward high school educators but open to educators of all sorts, will combine writing prompts with embodiment practices—including trauma-informed yoga, mindful movement, meditation, and breathing—that help regulate stress and bring awareness back to our physical sensations. More information and registration are available on the Literary Arts website.
If you’re joining the virtual Portland Book Festival programming (and at a sliding scale, why wouldn’t you?), I’ll be interviewing poet Devon Walker-Figueroa about her book, Philomath, as part of the “Love and Loss” panel on Friday, November 12, 7pm-8:30pm PT. Tickets can be purchased at the Literary Arts website.
AND… I’ll be at the Portland Book Festival in-person on Saturday, November 13 tabling at the book fair. If you’re attending, please swing by the Airlie Press and Lilla Lit booths to say hello!
November also marks the end of my first year co-hosting the Incite: Queer Writers Read series. When I agreed at the end of 2020 to join Vinnie Kinsella in picking up the series that Kate Gray and Kate Carroll de Gutes started, I couldn’t have known that, a year later, we’d still be holding the events on Zoom. I also couldn’t have known how grateful I’d be for the candor, comfort, and community the featured guests and audience co-create at every event. The last reading of 2021 will be on Wednesday, November 17, 7pm-8:30pm PT. The theme is “Bare,” and the event will feature fiction writer Andrew Huerta, playwright Mikki Gillette, and memoirist Carolyn Wood. As always, the reading is free and will be followed by a community discussion. You can register to attend at the Literary Arts website, and sign up to receive updates about future Incite events here.

Other opportunities I recommend:
Are you a socially conscious, tech-savvy soul? A fundraiser with a love of the arts? A visual artist who enjoys being in conversation with writers? If any of the above sound like you, The Seventh Wave has open positions for a Social Media Strategist, a Director of Development, and an Artist in Residence. Each is a one-year role that includes a stipend and a chance to be part of an organization that brings together writers, artists, and activists for collaborative residencies and publication.
The Creative Youth Collaborative, a youth-led adventure to expand arts programming for young creatives in Washington County, Oregon, is looking for more young artists (ages 14-20) to join the Collaborative. Interested artists must live, go to school, or work in Washington County and be able to commit 3-8 hours a month. The Collaborative is open to young artists creating in all media (e.g., design, music, publishing, architecture, film and video, crafts, visual arts, fashion, TV and radio, advertising, culinary, literature, computer games, performing arts). If you’re interested, or know a young person who might be, applications are due by November 15!
In the last newsletter, I mentioned Community Profile, a writing-based affinity cohort for BIPOC queer young people. The cohort has shifted to a slightly older group—ages 18-28—and will be starting in January 2022, but the program still offers monthly writing workshops, mentorship from award-winning writers of all disciplines, and the opportunity to connect with a community of peers who share similar identities. And it’s still free! The program will start taking applications next month. For more information, contact Director of Community Engagement and all-around wonderful human being, Bobby Bermea.
If you’ve got an opportunity you’d like me to include in a future newsletter, please let me know.
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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