Considering Craft: Adapting From a Whirlwind to a Calm Breeze

This guest post comes from Carrie Conners. Her poem, “Unchained,” appeared in LPR‘s Winter Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Conners, originally from West Virginia, lives in Queens, New York, and teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at LaGuardia CC-CUNY. Her poetry has appeared in Cider Press Review, Steel Toe Review, Aji Magazine, Right Hand Pointing, Rhino Poetry, and the Monarch Review, among other publications. She is also a poetry reader for Epiphany magazine.

The last eight years have been a whirlwind. Well, to be precise, seven of the last eight years have been a whirlwind. I defended my dissertation at the University of Wisconsin in June 2010, moved from Madison to New York City in August of that year, and started as an Assistant Professor of English at LaGuardia CC-CUNY in September. Since then I’ve enjoyed developing my teaching of literature, creative writing, and composition with students and colleagues at LaGuardia while exploring the city and learning to negotiate the subway. (Confession: I still consult a subway app on my phone and would still be lost in the Village if it weren’t for Google Maps.) Working toward tenure is a bit like juggling on a tightrope. Negotiating teaching responsibilities with college, union, and committee service while trying to carve out time to write and publish is no easy feat, especially when working to produce both scholarly and creative writing and, you know, attempting to have a life and maintain relationships. So, after I was granted tenure and approved for a year-long sabbatical fellowship leave to complete a research project, I was presented with a new challenge: how to adjust to having time, how to adapt from a whirlwind to a calm breeze.

Even during graduate school when I was writing my dissertation I always taught both as a teaching assistant at the university and as a teacher and tutor for test-prep classes, so I had never experienced a time when my sole responsibility was to write. Colleagues who had recently been on sabbatical told me that the time can fly by if you’re not careful, so I decided to make a plan. I know that I am privileged to have had this opportunity—so many writers never have this luxury—and I wanted to make the most of it. At the end of June 2017, a few weeks after I turned in grades and began my leave, the National Poetry Foundation held a conference focused on poetry in the 1990s. I thought that it would be a wonderful opportunity for me to present my early thoughts on my sabbatical project, which focused on working-class women writers, particularly Jan Beatty, Sandra Cisneros, and Wanda Coleman. The conference paper helped me to immerse myself in the project and conversations with other conference participants sparked ideas of how to expand the presentation into an article.

After the conference, though, I decided to set that project aside for a bit to focus on what I wanted to accomplish during my year. The conference was held in Orono, Maine, and afterward my husband joined me for a short vacation on the coast for a few days. After a long walk on the beach, the bracing water energizing my brain, I made a list of goals for the year. These goals included writing projects, of course, but, inspired by a former poetry teacher of mine in college who told me that in order to grow as a writer I had to get out there and live and not just read every book that I could, the list was dominated by non-work goals, including spending time with friends and family, travelling, trying out new forms of exercise (I jog now!), perfecting a ricotta cheesecake (it’s almost there), and sleeping.

After returning from Maine, I switched my work focus to creative writing. So, during the summer, inspired by my research into working-class poets, I wrote new poems about work and about the work of my family in my home state of West Virginia, including “Unchained,” which was published in Little Patuxent Review. I also made revisions to a full-length poetry manuscript and sent it to presses. I was fortunate to receive interest from several presses, and the manuscript Luscious Struggle is under contract at BrickHouse Books. As I revised that manuscript, I realized that I had enough material that didn’t quite fit with that project for a chapbook focused on the relationships between humans and animals. I’m now at work on another full-length poetry manuscript, which feels like an extension of those two projects.

In the fall, I turned my focus back to scholarly writing, expanding my conference paper into an article. I researched the poets that I was writing about, broadening the scope to include the entirety of their work, not just work they published in the 1990s. I was invigorated by the connections I saw between their poems, and the conference paper quickly tripled in length. I decided to send the completed draft to The Journal of Working-Class Studies and the reviewers and editors decided to publish it in the June 2018 issue. Because my sabbatical project went smoothly, I decided to use my extra time to continue work on an academic manuscript on humor in contemporary American poetry, a subject that has been the focus of my research for some time. I was able to revisit the project with renewed energy and fresh eyes, and it is now near completion.        

But, returning to those non-work goals, every day during my sabbatical I took time to enjoy something unrelated to writing. I rarely set an alarm (glorious!), made meals with produce from my local farmers’ market, jogged to Gantry Plaza State Park to look at ducks in the East River and the Chrysler Building, explored Queens, where I had recently moved to from Brooklyn, with my husband and friends. I was lucky enough to spot manatees and dolphins at Manasota Key in Florida with my family; smile through tears as my friend got married on the beach in her home town of Mazatlán; watch otters gleefully eat squid while swimming on their backs at the Monterey Bay Aquarium with my friend near her new home in California; celebrate my 10-year wedding anniversary by walking around Charleston, South Carolina, with my husband, a small city new to us and much warmer than Madison, Wisconsin, the small city where we met. While I haven’t written about all of those adventures yet, my former teacher was right. I feel more tuned in to my writing because I am more tuned in to my life. While I’m proud of the work that I produced while on sabbatical, I’m most grateful for perspective that it gave me.

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