Happy equinox, and Moadim l'simcha to those of you observing Sukkot! I know we’re entering fall, when we’re meant to reap our harvests before we wind down for the winter, but so many years of being a student on an academic calendar, followed by many more years of being a teacher on that same calendar, have embedded in me the sense that September is the beginning of the year.
And new starts are happening. I moved into my new home, have embarked on new writing projects, and am designing new classes. I suppose it’s a time of harvest, too, where choices, conversations, applications, and offerings I made many months ago are bearing fruit. Whether you’re getting a new year underway or preparing for 2021 to draw to a close, I hope this autumn equinox is a time of balance, abundance, and equanimity.

~ Jennifer

Turn, Turn, Turn

With all the moving that happened this month, I’ve felt a wee bit ungrounded. Each day is a sea change. One moment I’m feeling the satisfaction of managing to fit all my kitchen gadgetry in the cupboards and still have room for food, and the next I’m missing having someone to cook for besides myself. Or I’m gazing in wonder at one of my dogs, snoozing in his little patch of sun, listening to his dream noises, and then suddenly I’m lamenting how I don’t get to watch him bound across our old backyard anymore. It’s a time of reversals and reconfigurations, and so it’s not surprising that this month my writing has come mostly in the form of sonnets and haibun, both of which have a moment where the poem shifts and turns.
Sonnets were my first poetic love, and I’ve written more than I can count. I have often written sonnets about moments when love and violence converge, and I’m happy not to be retreading that territory right now. But I have been writing sonnets about messy, complicated love (as if there were any other kind). Sonnets about breakups, about doing the thing that pushes your beloved’s buttons, about giving someone a second or third or fiftieth chance even when your gut says, no more, no way. Sonnets are, for me, the proverbial “my wife left me, my dog died, my truck won’t start” country song of formal poetry. If someone has not been done dirty by the end of it, I feel like I’ve got more revising to do.
I’m especially partial to sonnets that include three quatrains and a couplet, the turn coming late in the poem, when you think it may not happen at all, and the rhyme in the final couplet offering a satisfying closure that’s often in tension with something that remains unresolved in the poem.  I also enjoy the quasi-poems that a sonnet’s end rhymes make when read on their own. Here are two from this month:

pasta / talking / unlocking / terra cotta //
flames / left / slept / remained //
truck / box / across / tuck //
unbroken / chosen
go / not / rot / show //
blue / brood / stewed / to //
could / you / tomb / good //
skulks / pulse
(That last one’s got some definite Halloween vibes happening.)
Haibun are a newer form for me, and they’ve been helpful as I’ve moved homes, wanting to observe (and preserve) all the minutiae of each place. The shift from prose to haiku in a haibun feels similar to the volta in a sonnet, but with less closure. If that final couplet in a sonnet is like the latch on a heat-warped door that, after much jiggling, finally snaps into place, the haiku that ends a haibun is like spotting a deer ten yards from you in the woods, an animal that everyone around you has been pointing at but that it’s taken you a full five minutes to see. (Yes, both of these have happened to me this week.)
I’ve never studied or written haibun with other folks, so I’m excited to take a class on haibun with Ching-In Chen at this weekend’s LiTFUSE Poetry Workshop to explore what else this form has in store for me. In the meantime, in the same spirit as offering the end rhymes of sonnets, I offer here the haiku that ends my most recent haibun, written in my new backyard, where I can see a Douglas fir and two ailanthuses poking out behind neighbors’ rooftops:
pines hide their true names.
Even the tree of heaven
has a foul odor.
And in case you were wondering what happened to all those essays I was writing last month, they’re still there. In fact, they’re multiplying. I can’t control them. The memoir continues to wind down its many paths, and two new essays have bubbled up: an as-yet-untitled one about appearing on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” twenty years ago, and another I’ve tentatively titled “No Small Parts,” about being cast as “Korean Woman #2” in a high school drama production of M*A*S*H. (If you’re thinking the other Korean characters in the play, including Korean Woman #1, were played by white students, you’d be right.) More on those—or whatever other essays pop up—next month.

Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?

Most of the last month has been dedicated to moving, unpacking, working, figuring out what strange manner of adapter I need to plug my dryer into the outlet in my new apartment, guessing incorrectly which still-unpacked box contains that one thing I need right now, and sweeping mulch out of my home. (Avid landscapers + local timber industry = giant piles of mulch lining every street in southeast Portland.) But amidst it all, the dogs still need to be walked—and I still need to get some sunshine and exercise—so I’ve been spending my downtime roaming around my new neighborhood.
So far, I’ve observed that there are at least a half dozen houses that had Halloween decorations up by Labor Day. (Perhaps they keep them up year-round? I’ll report back in January.) One yard sports large, homemade sculptures of robots that vaguely remind me of Box from Logan’s Run. Another includes a plastic horse head hanging from a tree, which inevitably calls to mind The Godfather, but if I try to think wholesome thoughts, I can imagine it was once part of a child’s swing. A few blocks away is a house that’s visually nondescript but that always smells like an old girlfriend’s shampoo, a scent I haven’t encountered in years.
Sunflowers line the fences of every other yard. Little free libraries in all manner of designs and colors offer up paperbacks. Plenty of people wave and say hello when they bike past—everyone is on a bike—and I am already on a first-name basis with the local mail carrier. I am also on a first-name basis with many nearby dogs, some of whom I meet on their walks or at the dog park, and some of whom I know only by the sound of their human companion yelling at them as they bark and whine and run the length of their fence when I pass by.
My favorite part of the neighborhood, though, is the elementary school across the street from my apartment. It didn’t occur to me until after I moved in, but I’ve spent 13 of the last 20 years living directly next to an elementary or middle school. Although the collective, screeching cacophony of many young children at recess sometimes sounds like someone singing death metal, I find it really comforting. (For the record, I do sometimes enjoy death metal, but I don’t think I’ve ever found it comforting.) Even better, this school is awash in colorful mosaics and handcrafted signs declaring affirmations. These affirmations are not so different from the ones I begrudgingly recite to myself at my therapist’s behest, endeavoring not to roll my eyes and sigh while doing so. But it’s hard to be jaded when the affirmations are directed at kiddos, and they remind me that I was once a kiddo, too, and that as an adult, I could do with a little less scoffing.
On the other hand, cynicism about capitalism and hierarchy is not something I'm ready to let go of, and so every time I walk by this next affirmation, I insert a new phrase.
I do this, knowing full well that I have been the “boss” in past workplaces, that I have had both caring and toxic bosses, and that regardless, I hope none of these children are aspiring to be “like a boss,” unless they mean Bruce Springsteen, who is, ahem, “the Boss.”
Do you have a snarky statement you would add to this sign? If so, send it my way so I can envision it the next time I pass by.
In early 2020, I found a remaindered copy of Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel at Powell’s. I remember feeling mightily offended: Why are folks not buying this book? How dare it end up on the remainder table? And then the pandemic hit the U.S., and I stopped reading books in favor of doomscrolling for way too many months. So when I came across Chee’s book last month and started reading it, my indignation was directed at myself: Who buys a book this good and lets it languish in a pile for a year and a half? Turns out, I do. But when I at last did have the mental space for it, I was so ready. Chee’s essays are, among other things, about acknowledging all the many people, places, activities, and events that have taught him how to write. Chee is generous in sharing the wisdom that his teachers have offered him, as well as the hard-won knowledge that he acquired as he experienced loss, violence, and despair. He writes about his younger self with both kindness and clarity, and I admire how he manages to divulge his naivete, cynicism, and other potentially unflattering qualities not with shame or self-deprecation but with compassion and tenderness.

When I’m not writing, or teaching writing, or writing newsletters about writing, I serve as a diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) consultant to organizations and schools. This fall, I’m working with several groups that are led by and/or composed of mostly white womxn, and so I’ve been re-reading Rachel Ricketts’ Do Better: Spiritual Activism for Fighting and Healing from White Supremacy. Ricketts describes her book as written to white womxn, but for BIPOC folks, and her practice of that distinction has helped me be more thoughtful about both the audience I’m seeking to engage (whether that’s in consulting or writing) and the reasons why I’m showing up to do that work. I’ll admit, the phrase “spiritual activism” provoked some side-eye from me when I first encountered the book, but Ricketts’ critique of the “wealth and hellness” industry is spot on, and her personal stories made me reflect on what baggage and biases I might be bringing to the table about both spirituality and activism.

Where to find me in the next month or two:

Today, Wednesday, September 22, is the last day to register for LiTFUSE 2021, a weekend-long poetry festival. Due to the pandemic, the entire event is now online, and the registration fee has been reduced to $150. Registration includes 7 classes of your choice (including one I’m teaching on Abundance and Order: Assembling a Poetry Manuscript), featured readings, faculty craft talks, and two keynotes.
On Friday, September 24, 6:30-8pm PT, I’ll be reading alongside Krystle May Statler, Elizabeth Bradfield, Amelia Díaz Ettinger, Brittney Corrigan, Alexandra Teague, and many other beloved poets at the LiTFUSE Faculty and Scholar Reading, which is free and open to the public. Join us via this Zoom link.
Next Thursday, September 30, Poetry Daily will be featuring my poem, “Upon Researching Lung Fung, the Much-Maligned Local Takeout Joint, I Stumble on the Meaning of My Mother’s Maiden Name.” (Believe it or not, in the first draft, the title was even longer.) I’ve been reading Poetry Daily for at least 15 years, and this is the first time one of my own poems will be featured. If you’re subscribed to their newsletter, you’ll also get to read a little note about what  writing and publishing this poem meant to me. (Aside, that is, from having to re-check all my online security questions to make sure “Mother’s Maiden Name?” wasn’t among them.)
The next issue of New Letters arrives in the world in October and will feature four of my poems, including two of the acrostic/telestic poems I wrote about in the June newsletter, one of the Beautiful Outlaws I wrote about in the July newsletter, and what I’m pretty sure is my first-ever published prose poem. The double issue also includes new writing by Andrew Porter, B.H. Fairchild, Carrie Shipers, Heather Sellers, and many other talented folks. If you don’t already subscribe to New Letters, you can pre-order a copy of this issue for $12 through October 1st.
I’m still holding out hope that the Northwest Writers’ Weekend, scheduled for Thursday, November 4 – Sunday, November 7 in Kitsap Peninsula, Washington, can be safely held in-person. 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.” 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.


Other opportunities I recommend:

Each year, Profile Theatre hosts Community Profile, an affinity cohort for people with shared identities to write together. I participated in a previous cohort over the last two years, and it was truly transformative—an affirming space with amazing mentors and generous fellow writers. This year’s cohort is for BIPOC queer youth (ages 16-24) and offers monthly online writing workshops, mentorship from award-winning writers, and access to Profile Theatre’s events. Oh, and it’s free! The first session will be held on Saturday, October 16. Sign up or request more information here.
If you’re an artist living in Oregon’s Multnomah, Clackamas, or Washington counties, check out the Regional Arts & Culture Council’s Make|Learn|Build grants. The next round of applications is due on Wednesday, October 6, and can support the creation of work in any artistic discipline, professional development for artists, or transitions for arts organizations. The grant I was awarded through this program in May reinvigorated the research and writing of the memoir I wrote about in the August newsletter.
Whether you’re in the Portland area or not, you can check out the Portland Book Festival, held online November 8-12 and in-person on November 13. The full lineup will be announced and tickets will go on sale today, September 22. The whole festival is free for youth 17 and under, and if you attend, you just might spot me teaching a class, interviewing one of the featured authors, or tabling at the book fair.

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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