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Happy Sagittarius season to all you centaurs and other mythical creatures out there! For those of you following the ongoing saga of what’s happening in my neighborhood, the Halloween decorations have mostly given way to winter lights. There is one notable exception, though: one neighbor has removed all the ghosts and ghouls but retained a two-story skeleton with glowing blue eyes. It is now wearing a huge, gold, Mr. T-style chain, from which dangles a freakishly large turkey leg. I’m waiting to spot the owner of this artwork out in their yard so that I can befriend them.
 
A couple of you wrote to me recently to let me know that this monthly exercise in rambling was named one of “Fifteen Notable Author Newsletters” in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers. To which I replied, whaaaaat? And also, Who makes such lists? With what criteria? Which is to say, I’m both honored and flummoxed, which I suppose is in line with my general state of being. Also, sharing in this newsletter the news that this newsletter has been found newsworthy makes me feel like I’m living in an M.C. Escher print.
 
If you’re curious about the other newsletters, here’s the full list:
 
 

Thanks to each of you for reading and for being bright spots as the daylight dwindles here in the northern hemisphere.

xo
JP

Thinking Inside the Box

In early November, I taught my first in-person, masks-off, we’re-all-fully-vaccinated classes at the Northwest Writers’ Weekend, a three-day camp in a beautiful forest in Washington. I did not realize until we were in the thick of it what a gift it was to see people’s full faces in three dimensions, to witness everyone’s delight and consternation show up in their whole bodies as we wrote poems with wild, complicated constraints.
 
In the class, I introduced lipograms, a form where one or more letters must be avoided, and as I wrote along with the participants, I kept wanting to write about my mother, as the weekend fell exactly two years after her death. But I’d asked everyone not to use the letter e, and it was only fair that I abide by my own constraint, so I could not write “mother” or “dead” or even “she.” What emerged instead was: Today, my mom is not on land, not on ground I could touch. Today, I am without, and wanting, and waiting. Which was a truer marker of how I felt that day than simply saying, “It’s been two years since my mother’s death.”
 
Despite using constrained writing for decades, I’m still startled by how constraints—or form of any kind—helps me name things I believed I didn’t have words for. I recently revisited Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma and was reminded how trauma affects Broca’s area, a region of the brain associated with speech production, so that we sometimes literally are unable to speak of our wounds. But the neural pathways that allow us to write are somewhat different from the ones required for speech, and I’m often surprised by how something I didn’t know I wanted to say shows up when I write, especially when I apply a constraint of some kind.
 
This whole month has been a reminder of how revelatory the process of constrained writing can be. I wrote four essays this month, and each of them turned out to be wholly different from what I expected. For instance, I set out to write about a memory of how my mother used to take me to work with her, and how she once sent me out to buy Milk-Bones for her boss’s dog and was distressed when I brought back only a dollar in change for her twenty. I wanted to describe this early realization about how tight money was in our single-parent home, but when I started writing, I did so in the form of one long sentence, inspired by Elena Passarello’s “Death Sentence” and Ross Gay’s Be Holding. Approximately three lines into my first draft, a memory surfaced of how, sitting in the stockroom of the store where my mother worked, I used to draw pictures and then fill in all the negative space with wavy lines, a habit I later learned was called horror vacui. I’m not sure this memory—or the meditation on emptiness, absence, grief, depression, and vulnerability that the essay turned into—would have arrived if not for that form, that single sprawling sentence that occupied the full length and breadth of several pages.
 
Other forms brought other revelations. An essay about Christmas that began in the form of “wish lists” was meant to be about my nostalgia for my grandparents’ long-gone Christmas tree farm, but about five sentences into that draft, it decided it wanted to be about growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, something I was amazed to realize I’ve never written about before. (Proof yet again that Flannery O’Connor was right when she said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of their life.) Another recent essay, “Navel Gazing,” started as an exercise based on Ruth Ozeki’s The Face: A Time Code, in which the author stares at her face for three full, uninterrupted hours. I thought it would be humorous to literally gaze at my navel for three hours and write about it. (Yes, this is how I entertain myself.) While parts of it are comedic, it took exactly eleven seconds out of those three hours for me to begin contemplating death, attachment, and the afterlife. (Funny stuff. Really yukking it up.)
 
The most unanticipated writing moment this month, though, came during revision, as I went back to “No Small Parts,” an essay that I began way back in June 2017 about being cast as “Korean Woman #2” in a production of M*A*S*H at my mostly white high school. After innumerable prose drafts that felt tedious and whiny, in October I tried rewriting the essay in the form of a play. I wrote several scenes that I immediately knew had a different energy to them than past drafts, though I couldn’t identify what that energy was or where it was going. (To be specific, the phrase that kept repeating in my head was, What even is this???) It took bringing it into the Creative Nonfiction Studio and discussing it with the brilliant folks there to realize it’s not an essay in the form of a play. It’s a play. And an absurdist play at that. So now I’m finishing something that, if I’m lucky, people might perform one day. (The little voice that was wondering What even is this??? is now silent, but now there’s a new one asking, And what business do you have writing a play???)
 
All of that’s to say, I’m beginning to think of all these forms less as restrictive constraints and more as magical containers, window boxes in which I plant a seed and watch an entirely different species—and sometimes a being from a whole other phylum or kingdom—emerge from the dirt. And I’m thanking my little voices more often for letting me know when I’m venturing into some new, terrifying unknown, a signal that I’m onto something worth pursuing.

Home Slice

Two years ago, a co-worker asked me what my secret dream business was, the one I’d start if only I had the time and resources to do so. I told him I didn’t have one, that the thought had never occurred to me, that I didn’t have an entrepreneurial bone in my body.
 
I’m a liar, as it turns out. Or perhaps 2020 resulted in the growth of some new bones, since I have now been self-employed for nearly a year and a half, running my own teaching and consulting business. At this point, I am even the owner and operator of a one-person corporation, which still makes me throw up in my mouth a little when I think about it. I’m still figuring out the ebb and flow of working for myself—or, as one creative/contractor friend put it, when to be a grasshopper and when to be an ant.
 
This month has been almost all industrious ant and very little fiddling grasshopper, but one pleasure I’ve consistently made time for is baking. When I worked in an office, baking was a year-round activity: I’d bake tarts filled with whatever was in season in my garden. I’d gather lavender and infuse it into lemon shortbread. In the winter, I’d bake anise seed cookies and citrus tea cakes and galettes with slices of apple arranged in intricate designs that more than one recipient described as “vulval.” I found it so satisfying to feed people, to offer them a delicious surprise. Although I know how often poetry sustains people’s spirits, it’s hard to observe that as it happens. There’s no mistaking, though, the signal of an empty tray littered with crumbs at the end of the day, and I always felt gratified to know some sweet I’d made had nourished someone.
 
Since I’ve been working from home, I’ve scaled back the baking. (There are only so many desserts I can foist off on neighbors, especially since I’m new to these parts and so many of my wares inadvertently resemble Georgia O’Keeffe paintings.) But pies are irresistible, especially in the winter, when I can warm my apartment with pastries sighing out their steam full of cardamom and ginger and cloves. I’ve occasionally daydreamed about setting up a roadside stand, stocking it full of pies every day and letting people leave payment on the honor system. I’ve daydreamed about it enough to have given this little shop a name—Home Slice—which I suppose proves I am, in fact, a liar and that I do harbor a secret dream business.
 
But when it comes down to it, I have no real desire to turn my avocation into a vocation. I’ve turned too many other hobbies into jobs and thwarted the pleasure of them in the process. For now, I’ll keep baking mostly for myself, learning to focus more closely on taste and scent and texture, caring less and less about how the pies look, since no one else sees them. And whenever I next have co-workers or big gatherings of friends and family to bake for, I will be ready to dish out bounties of scrumptious, ugly pies, every single one on the house.
This newsletter was fueled by the power of this apple pie.
Fast on the heels of Northwest Writer’s Weekend, I participated in several Portland Book Festival events, both virtual and in the hey-you-have-a-body-from-the-neck-down-sphere. If you missed the virtual events, the recordings are available online and include conversations with Maggie Nelson, Rita Dove, Ruth Ozeki, and a whole host of other writers I love. One of the videos includes my interview of Devon Walker-Figueroa about her book Philomath. (Apologies to any passersby that Friday who heard me muttering fuh-LOW-muth to myself over and over, trying to remember to pronounce the title like an Oregonian and not like an ancient Greek.) Devon’s book is brilliant on so many levels, and if you want to know how to create “fruitful misunderstandings” through line breaks or to maintain momentum in a seven-page stichic poem, Philomath is where it’s at.

This month also saw the last Incite: Queer Writers Read event of the year. With readings and performances by Andrew L. Huerta, Mikki Gillette, and Carolyn Wood, and a community discussion on vulnerability and baring oneself to others, the evening was a funny, moving, and thoughtful way to bring this year’s series to a close. If you’d like to check it out, it’s available online, and if you want to stay in the know about what co-host Vinnie Kinsella and I are cooking up for 2022, you can sign up to receive updates about future Incite events here.
Because this month has been more ant than grasshopper, I’ve mostly been reading as preparation for work of some kind, but that doesn’t mean the reading hasn’t had its own personal pleasures. I’ve been brushing up on some recent zines to share with the creative writing classes I’ve been visiting through the Writers in the Schools program, and I’ve particularly enjoyed returning to a few recent publications by Portland’s zines & things.

Matt MacFarland’s More Seasons of Gary reminded me how much storytelling can happen within the parameters of a single-page, four-panel comic. I especially appreciated, though, the multi-page comics in the second half of the zine, which are lessons in how to write compassionately about the effects of alcoholism on relationships and about complicated parent-child dynamics.

I also revisited Alissa Hattman’s POST, a series of postcards written to people, places, and objects that highlights the versatility of the epistolary form. Among the many inventive delights in this zine were a postcard to a nephew born during the pandemic and meant to be read on his 55th birthday, as well as a postcard written by The Bedroom to The Studio, offering the blessings and wisdom received from being a place of dream and restoration.

I’m excited to get my copy of the next zines & things publication, Jen Shin’s Have You Received Previous Psychotherapy or Counseling?, which is available for pre-order now and launches on December 4th.
Have a zine recommendation? Send it my way!
Next week, on November 26th, one of my acrostic-telestic karaoke remix poems will be up on Cutbank’s All Accounts and Mixture. Check it out to find out how I remixed the classic 80s musical/new wave crossover, “One Night in Bangkok,” into a poem about that other classic crossover, race/gender.
 
In December, I’ll also have new poetry out in Juxtaprose Literary Magazine, and in early 2022, I’ll have some flash fiction in the next issue of Buckmxn Journal.
 
If you’re in the Portland area, I’ll also be celebrating Winter Solstice a few days early at the Lilla Lit reading on December 19th at Leach Botanical Garden. If you haven’t been to the garden, it’s worth checking out even when there aren’t literary happenings there. Admission is free, and it’s a great place to practice forest bathing, which I extolled the virtues of in my last newsletter.

As for upcoming classes, I’m powering down for the winter—not quite cutting the cord, but attempting to see if it’s possible to go a whole month without Zoom. I know what you’re thinking…
But I’ll never know unless I try. So I won’t be offering any online classes in December or January, but I’ll be back with new classes in February. (More on those in a future newsletter.) In the meantime, I’m still available for manuscript consultations and one-on-one coaching via the ancient technologies of phone, email, or sitting together in a coffee shop.
 


Other opportunities I recommend:
 
Hugo House in Seattle offers both in-person and online classes, and their scholarship applications for Winter 2022 writing classes are now open! Scholarship applications are evaluated by a group that considers a combination of geographic location, historic exclusion by literary institutions, financial need, and previous writing class experience. They especially encourage applications from BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other underrepresented voices. Applicants are asked to select one class from the Hugo House catalog.  The application will close on December 6, 2021, and applicants will be informed about scholarship decisions on December 13th.
 
De-Canon is teaming up with Fonograf Editions to publish an anthology of hybrid-literary works by women and nonbinary BIPOC writers. The anthology will explore multimodal forms of writing that navigate the restless intersections of writing, visual art, and other media, and that innovate in their contemplations—and complications—of language and form. More information and submission guidelines are available here, and submissions are open through December 15, 2021.
 
The Seventh Wave is seeking creators to contribute to their next issue on Root Systems. The Seventh Wave offers digital residencies to their contributors, which include publication and three virtual gatherings, including a workshop and two sessions on craft, process, and practice. If you’re interested, you can read the call in full here, and apply via their Submittable page by December 31, 2021. 

If you’ve got an opportunity you’d like me to include in a future newsletter, please let me know.
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