“The Spinster’s Almanac”: Poetic Advice for Creating Art in Small Spaces -The Toast

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Please email all questions you would like poetry to answer via advice@the-toast.net, with “Spinster’s Almanac” in the subject line.


Dear Spinster,

I come from a small place where people grow big ambitions and leave, or furtively guard what they’re passionate about while getting on with the everyday business of work and family. I have ties that keep me here, and I don’t mind it so much. I make art on my days off, begging off early from the pub to go home to my desk (for which I get some crap), sending out my little poems and stories here and there. I’m finally meeting with some real if modest success, and I’m thrilled, but nobody really cares. Most people I know aren’t really readers, and they’d rather cajole me into discussing sports or gossip. Which are fine! But, you know. I’m excited, but I’m also self-conscious. I don’t need grand gestures or major accolades, but is the alternative this almost embarrassment? Is there any point to making art when so much of the time it feels like I’m not making it for anyone I know? What is the path between narcissism and hiding?

Ah, reader, I too come from a small place where no one who stays is generally allowed to get too big for their britches. A coworker once responded to news that I’d published some writing with a genuinely baffled “I would never want to do that.” Such is the lot of many of us who live in the overlooked, underrepresented corners of the world. Rest assured that your success is meaningful, even in a place where people might shrink from the implications of ambition or unfashionable creation. Your work gives you qualities beyond a row of obscure journals on your shelf; what you make comes out of this place that grows you.

I am going to offer you a garden metaphor, dear reader, and if that feels too on the nose, trust me that the wonderful Paisley Rekdal will make it wild and sprawling and unexpected. Her poem “Happiness” could have been written just for you:

I have been taught never to brag but now
I cannot help it: I keep
a beautiful garden, all abundance,
indiscriminate, pulling itself
from the stubborn earth

Sound familiar? The narrator’s cast-off modesty drew me to this poem. From the first line she indicates that her upbringing forbids her attitude, butends that first line with “but now” to indicate from the beginning that there is a turn here; like her own indiscriminate garden, she has grown wild beyond effacement. I can hear a quiet chime of pride in your letter under all its questions and hesitations. You sent those stories and poems out into the world in the first place, after all.

Rekdal’s narrator asks the reader directly:

does it offend you
to watch me working in it,
touching my hands to the greening tips or
tearing the yellow stalks back, so wild
the living and the dead both
snap off in my hands?

3917080705_f41635f5c7_bNote that she doesn’t ask if it’s the garden that offends the addressee, or its bounty. No, she asks if it’s watching the work, feral and destructive in the service of making something lovely. Her details are tactile and intimate, describing the narrator’s hands’ movements through the growth, eager to the point of carelessness, hewing both the living and the dead. Your work is not so public perhaps, but in a place where there aren’t half a dozen freelancers crowding every coffee shop, that hiddenness may seem more mercurial and strange, unsettling your social ties. That perception isn’t on you, but you do have to deal with its consequences.

Rekdal’s narrator suffers unsettled social ties. She describes neighbours stopping by with their “stuttering / fingers” and “broken / love” (even breaking the line in the middle of their ailments to emphasize their fractures). Does your community, in the midst of its small pains and dramas, look on you with your armloads of books, your evenings of picking the keyboard and back away? If you subsume your grief or anxiety into something creative, people may get nervous, especially when you receive rewards for it. Rekdal’s narrator asks:

Does it offend them to watch me
not mourning with them but working
fitfully, fruitlessly, working
the way the bees work, which is to say
by instinct alone, which looks like pleasure?

Ah, there it is: audacity to do what comes naturally, to let your hard work appear frivolous. But of course you toil, feel injury. Rekdal’s narrator emphasizes the stillness her garden allows her: “I can wait longer than sadness. I can wait longer / than your grief.”

Is it good to wait out sadness? The narrator and garden seem almost outside of time. In a garden, things grow and die relatively quickly, and yet the whole tangle of nature outlives us all. Yes, you must exist in the real world, but sometimes you’ll choose your verses over another conversation about the hockey draft and I will tell you: that is fine, even if it puts you “among the sweet / narcissus.”

Here Rekdal slows with a short line: “It is such a small thing / to be proud of, a garden.” The line at first seems to suggest that it is grief that is the small thing before the second line resolves the thought. She describes the animals she sees in her garden, ending with:

someone’s lost rabbit
scratching under the barberry: is it
indiscriminate? Should it shrink back, wither,
and expurgate? Should I, too, not be loved?

The “it” could of course refer to the rabbit or the garden, both deliberate and specific in their wildness. There are other ways to respond to the world’s chaos than to submit to a expurgated orderliness. Rekdal’s is a beautiful plea for natural environments, stunted and abused by industrial order, but also for the unmanicured aspects of the human soul, those who would forsake social curtailment to commune with their more animal (or botanical, or supernatural elements). If that means being the lady who mutters lines to herself on a long walk, so be it.

And should you not be loved? Of course you should. As Rekdal says, “It is only a little time, a little space.” You did not write me to ask, “Dear Spinster, how can I absent myself from all society like the Maine Hermit in service of my art, the most important thing in the world?” No, you asked me about how you live as an artist in a place with different values. All you want is a little time and space. But Reader, is your time in this space also in service of understanding your place a little better? The narrator is aware that “If I could not have made this garden beautiful / I wouldn’t understand your suffering, / nor care for each the same, inflamed way.”

I have tried to be as encouraging of your work and heart as I can without succumbing to the myth of the writer as being above the daily matters that surround her. There are ways to work that allow you to invest yourself in your community, to slip its hopes and challenges into the missives you send out to the wilder world. Can the intimate work of your imagination allow you new insights into your small place? It is not imperative that you take on the emotional or political lives of your community, or write in a certain way, but engaging with the world beyond your door will anchor your work in the lives of real people, real ecosystems. Rekdal’s narrator knows that without understanding suffering through creative labour, she

would have to stay only like the bees,
beyond consciousness, beyond
self-reproach, fingers dug down hard
into stone, and growing nothing.

8016587270_39ca6ed009_oThe work and the understanding are tied, and both are equally important. It’s not transcendence, for “There is no end to ego, / with its museum of disappointments.” That applies to both the individual who is wounded and to the creator, attempting to put her work in service of something beyond herself. Rekdal returns to the bee analogy and turns it on its head, emphasizing that while the work is pleasurable, it is not instinctively, unseriously so. If the narrator did not engage her world, her work would yield nothing from the stubborn ground.

Reader, do you long for attention for your work because you want a little celebrating (which is certainly worth wanting), or because you believe you’re making work that is meaningful to the people in your life? Rekdal acknowledges the tension between the two with her reference to ego, but her narrator also wants “to take my neighbors into the garden / and show them: Here is consolation. / Here is your pity.” Again Rekdal slows down her sprawling baroque sentences about flowers and birds and bees with shorter sentences in which the narrator addresses her reader, her neighbours. She points out the qualities she has observed in them, and how she’s built them into her labour. Does your work contain such investment in your own environment? Should your friends and neighbours care simply because you have accomplished something lovely, or because you’ve made something that values them, that situates them in your wider world as well?

Of the neighbours’ pity, Rekdal observes:

Look how much seed it drops
around the sparrows as they fight.
It lives alongside their misery.
It glows each evening with a violent light.

In Rekdal’s garden, natural process and human concerns become inextricable, much as elements of the environment—bees pollinating, wind carrying—do. The poem’s elaborate sentences suddenly shorten; they stop with each line, and then at the very end, the rhyme of “fight” and “light” click those final lines into place, creating a sonic sense of harmony, while the final image is more unsettled. The title, “Happiness,” becomes ironic; while the first half of the poem presents the narrator’s own happiness in her garden as genuine, the second half indicates that it is no protection from griefs and pities of those around her, that a genuine expression of any such happiness can only be in service of both feral nature and human pain. Pity becomes the point that finally unites the narrator and her neighbours in the garden. Why a violent light? Perhaps because this coming together illuminates all suffering: one neighbour’s for another, the gardener’s for her garden, the garden’s amid human encroachment. The poem, seeking a frustrated unity, illuminates all of these.

Your work is good and valuable, Reader, even if it sets you at odds, isolates you, seems unnatural to your community. But if you crave acknowledgement beyond faint praise, consider how you move through your world when not writing. Are you truly invested in your neighbours, in your town? Do you know what pains the gossip carries, why the local hockey team is such a rallying point? Do these things genuinely move you? Your work may never endear you to your neighbours, but you can be a champion for small places, overlooked pains. You can build them into the design of what you do, a potent familiar light spilling through your windows and onto your desk.

Marika Prokosh is a writer from Winnipeg, Canada. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Fire, Existere, Rip/Torn and at The Toast. She reads, writes, and eats in an old blue house, and tweets about books and cooking mishaps.

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