Much to Attend To

and the lettuce that never stops growing

Writing is like gardening—could I pick a more cliched analogy? But besides the work I do for money and the small (and billowing, unexpectedly complicated, but fun) improvement projects on this house, writing and gardening are just about all I’ve been doing.

My partner and I were excited to sign up for two plots at the community garden, an unfenced space nestled in several acres of mowed grass behind a cornfield, the Wal-Mart, and a store called Farm King where you can buy coveralls, a feed trough, or twenty different kinds of popcorn. The garden is a ten-minute bicycle ride from our house—just pedal the potholed blocks past the rooming house, the bus depot, the embroidery shop, the brown apartment complex where one neighbor flies a huge rainbow flag. You can hear cows mooing sometimes, but you can’t see them. It’s all very small town, and because I've never lived in a place like this before, I was excited to lean in.

A soil science professor from the university coordinates the garden. We wanted to get involved to meet people. As indoor workers, we wanted to gain another reason to go outside. We wanted to grow some of our own food, and we wanted to grow enough to share with our friends.

I hadn’t gardened in any significant way in several years, so I’d forgotten just how much there would be to pay attention to. Weeding and watering and harvesting and composting the many varieties of vegetables all with different needs, the disappointment of plants dying, making decisions about what parts of the garden to prioritize and when. If I don’t visit just about every day, mistakes happen and work is lost.

There are the transformational aspects of gardening, of being in relationship with food which will become a part of me, food that will become my thoughts and words. There are the political considerations of gardening on land that is stolen from the Illini, a group of twelve tribes, by white people like me. There are the synergistic considerations of a community garden as a potential site of (re)connection and collaboration, of conversation and confluence. There is so much to pay attention to, but this is where, as I weed the arugula and water the cucumbers and listen to the mourning doves and semi-trucks echoing from Lafayette Avenue, my mind turns to writing.

Drafting and editing an essay or poem requires work across many days. I’m listening for what sounds out of place, poking around a piece of syntax that may or may not turn out to be edible, potable, something of use. I’m thinking, increasingly, about place, about where a poem is taking place geographically, even if it’s abstract. I’m trying to think about my own positioning in the story and what is being left out, about the political and power dynamics of the characters, the vocabulary, the force of the verbs on the nouns and whether those dynamics deserve disrupting. I’m paying attention to line and comma and period, to what questions the piece is asking, to crafting a title that makes a unique contribution to the whole. If I don’t write every day, I slide backwards a bit and need to spend time catching up.

Increasingly, I’m paying attention to the clock, to how much time I’m putting into a piece of writing, trying to increase my commitment to and relationship with my writing practice. I’m thinking about reading practices (maybe a topic for a future letter), how what I’m reading affects what I’m writing, what choices I’m making about how I spend my reading time and what I could add. I’m paying attention to the use of concrete imagery, to whether I’ve given a scene or idea the description it deserves or whether I’ve treated it as a jotted note, whether there is lengthening to be done, and where the piece I’m working on has brought up ideas for another piece of writing. I’m deciding whether the piece has a volta, a turn, a place where a clear voice breaks through the surface and changes the course of the text permanently, a change in course that can read as a kind of epiphany.

And because we can pay attention to only one or two things at a time, much of this work happens through revision. Just like many kinds of work, it is iterative, grueling, relentless, and gratifying.

Join me this summer…

On July 10th, I’m teaching Poetry for Prose Writers, a one-day class where we’ll address some of the biggest roadblocks and most delicious invitations prose writers might encounter when approaching poetry. The class is $35, and that gets you into all of the Nebraska Poetry Society’s member events for the year!

On July 11th at 10:00 am CST/11:00 am EST, I’ll be giving a virtual poetry talk/sermon on the poetic term “volta” in the context of ecojustice poetry for Unitarian Universalist Church West. It’ll be streamed on their Facebook Live and the recording will eventually be posted on YouTube.