on showing up and setting poetry goals

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poetry goals for 2021

It’s cold and dark, friends. Not my favorite time of year. (I am not happy with the weather unless it’s July.) When we say in Upstate NY that it’s cold for six months a year, we aren’t exaggerating; it may even be seven. And I wonder each year how I’ll get through it. I’ve been trying (recently) to get outside for a walk every day, but I’m not really happy about it. I’ve been listening to books on Audible as a way to tempt myself and get out the door. So far, I’ve listened in full to Convenience Store Woman, a novel by Sayaka Murata, and started The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, a true story written by Michael Finkel.

What intrigues me most in each is that the central figures make a conscious choice about who they’re going to be — and then they play it out turn after turn. They double down, repeatedly, and in doing so, forego much of what the rest of us call “normal” parts of life. And though the natural assumption may be that they’re renegades of some kind, both rely heavily on following strict — almost clichéd — rules of specific “character” types: store clerk (Keiko Furukura) and hermit (Christopher Knight).

Encountering these stories back-to-back has me thinking about who makes the rules and why we follow them and how expectations (our own and those from others) have so much power. If you can believe this story in The Onion (lol) — “‘I Can’t Do This Anymore,’ Think 320 Million Americans Quietly Going About Their Day” — we even abide by the self-imposed rules of inertia and accept, not just the need to work, but most painfully, its drudgery. The truth hurts.

It makes me wish to be the heroic figure in a story like Furukura’s or Knight’s. Admittedly, they’re tragic figures, as well, but allow me to indulge in oversimplifying a bit; let me romanticize breaking free of Undesirable Things without having to trade them for Different Things That Are Also Undesirable. Who would I become if I could take on any type/character? What kind of world would that create for myself?

If others think you are insignificant,
that’s because you haven’t held on long enough.
As long as you stay put year after year,
eventually you will find a world
beginning to revolve around you. 

A Center by Ha Jin

… once there was air,
a bird
could be got.
Not taken.
Not kept.
But conjured up.

Beginning by Lia Purpura

Of course, we do shape ourselves with series of choices and what they pare away and what they make possible. We conjure Mother. We decide on Divorcée. We take on Lover, Artist, Poet, Wife. We become Someone With a Career. In many regards, we make our own rules for these roles; in others, there are more certain guardrails. We put the pieces together. We procure. We curate. We do work. “If you want to write, write,” as they say. And that’s how we become writers.

And I guess that’s how I’ve come around to making poetry goals for 2021 even though I’d intended to be a little less earnest about Being a Writer. Deciding to put my butt in the chair and take care of business is making a clear choice, and mine is to live a Literary Life. (I have zero chill, LOL.) The things of that I want — a book, a community and an outlet, for example — require me to show up. Regularly.

once there was air, / a bird could be got

I don’t intend my pondering about deciding-who-I-am-and-then-making-it-so to be the equivalent of an answer to that horrid question: What do you want to be when you grow up? And I certainly don’t intend it to be any kind of pep rally for permission to be a writer. I am beyond both of those things. What I’m trying to do is sort out why the tales of Furukura and Knight — together with the drudgery of the pandemic — have stirred my attraction to old ideas about escapes and clean breaks.

When our kids were much younger (and our marriages were failing), for example, Jill and I used to fantasize about running away from it all. Back then, we entertained ourselves with stories about heading out west, working as waitresses and giving our spare time to cowboys and beer. Well, I added the cowboys just now, but it’s possible she could have been persuaded. Of course, neither of us was ok with the consequences — including being without our children — and so we let go of the fantasy. (Except the cowboys, LOL.)

Thankfully, lots of those difficulties are behind me. I’m happy in love, and my kids are much older, so parenting feels less like a fever dream. In normal times, I’ve tamed the desire to run away — “sneaking” away to the woods or small cities nearby to hide out for a while. We say, “We need to get out of Dodge for a bit.” And then we do.

Pandemic life is quite different. Obviously. Earlier in the fall, when many cities in the Northeast had a decent hold on the virus, we took a couple short trips and followed all guidelines for masks and social distancing. But starting around mid-October, even that didn’t feel safe/advisable. And so now that I can’t cast the normal expectations of my life aside even for small respites, I want it all the more. Like so many of you, I leave the house now only for groceries. Once a week or so. Or what’s known as “not enough.”

Mixed in with fantasies of departure, however, is an opposite desire. As in, I never want to be A Person In The World again. It’s frightening to me that despite the pandemic and the recent attempted coup here in the U.S., we’re all just trying to go about business as usual. We’re also going to be asked to forget about the inequities and disparities that got us in both of these messes. The calls to move on are very loud. So there’s a certain kind of allure to having control over the rules (a la Furukura) or withdrawing altogether (a la Knight). In chatting with Jill recently, I expressed my worry that I’d forgotten how to be any kind of Person In The World, anyway. So strange to think the curtain will open after all this and we’ll just return to how things used to be.

once there was air, / a bird could be got

Since there’s no guarantee this year is going to be any less pandemic-y than 2020, I’ve opted for a no nonsense approach to this years poetry goals.


  1. Assemble a new poetry manuscript / Chapbook. Full-length collection. Either one.
  2. Submit work 1X/month / Revise poems. Send poems.
  3. Write 1 new draft each week / Free write regularly and turn at least one into “something” each week.
  4. Attend six readings / Online for now. In-person if that becomes a thing again.
  5. Hide away three times to write / Even if it’s just a hotel room or Air BnB. Dig in for a couple days somewhere without distractions.

And this year, so that these goals are on my mind throughout the year vs. just at the end when I’m reflecting, I’ve set reminders in my phone to check in.

*Written always with a nod toward January O’Neil (Poet Mom), whose prior annual poetry action plans inspired me to adopt the same tradition.

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