You can purchase Patrick's new poetry chapbook, Curiosity, and help support indie bookstores by shopping at: https://bookshop.org/books/curiosity/9781934832721.
4 May 2020
When I ask my students how they are, I get, most often, this trademark response: “good, but tired.” At some point in the semester, they have boredom all but painted on their eyelids like that one student in Indiana Jones’ class. But, I like to remind them that on whatever day that is, it’s only, at most, the twentieth time they’ve seen that date.
And, really, the first five or six of those days hardly count.
They sometimes take this as my shaming them, that I want them to catalogue how much of their lives they waste. I promise them that’s not the case, that I, too, have gluttoned myself on Messi videos and gone down a YouTube rabbit hole of the world’s best beat boxers while I sip down a bottle of Jameson. No, it’s more about taking into account the moment that they’re in, not all the time, but on occasion.
I say all of this because, last Thursday, April 30th, I turned 40.
Normally, birthdays wreck me. Leading up to them, I catalogue every conceivable failure that I’ve had leading up to that moment.
I also update five-year plan documents regularly, so I have an actual checklist to refer to, run my finger down line by line and say, Oh yeah, definitely didn’t get that accomplished.
But this year, my birthday passed pretty much without any problems.
No existential weeping after too many bourbons.
No swearing off of anything.
No giving up of anything else.
Instead, I had some drinks, ate some nachos, played a video game, and then went to bed.
Maybe it’s our son. Maybe it’s my wife. Maybe it’s because I’ve watched Cars four hundred times during the pandemic. I don’t really know.
I don’t think of this as any kind of progress, though.
Every day, I wake up positive that I’ve done something wrong, that my whole approach to existence has in it a whole bunch of mistakes, that I am, in fact, a bunch of little mistakes masquerading as a human, like if you shoved four hundred snakes into a trenchcoat and let it squirm around downtown.
But, still. It was nice to not fall apart for once.
But it was strange to have a mid-life birthday in a global pandemic. I didn’t mind it, actually, spending time with my family, avoiding crowds, not spending money at a bar. Maybe that sense of staying in, of being here, truly here, rescued me from curling up into a kind of old ball and cataloguing all that I have yet to accomplish in the larger world.
But still. Today, if you asked, I’d probably say that I’m good.
A little tired.
5 May 2020
I lie to myself often, and I tell myself that my only goal as a writer is to produce. Or, maybe, over-produce.
I write every day, and, on occasion, I revise. For me, though, the joy comes in writing, in filling up a document. (I don’t actually write every day. My adage is more: I write every day, except for the days that I don’t.)
My need to create matches my desire for notice, my ego. The more I write, the more I submit.
My first publication happened in grad school, a poem called “On the Way Home,” and it came out of a class exercise where we had to include a character from the Wizard of Oz and use some formal component. I got a fifty-dollar check for that publication, and I figured I’d made it as a poet.
My overall percentage (because that’s a thing I do, check that percentage) of acceptances to submitted material is just under ten percent. So, for every ten submissions I send out, on average, I get about 9.4 rejections back.
But at the tail end of 2018, I had a series of acceptances flutter into my life. It felt great. One of them came during a class, and I excused myself for a couple of minutes, did a little high-five in the bathroom mirror, and then went back to teach poetry.
But for the past eighteen months, I’ve had nothing but stone-cold, formal, go-fuck-yourself rejections. One after the other. And I submit plenty of work in a few different genres. So, one week in March, right before the world went on lock down, I got back seven rejections, three on one day.
The image of the self-destructive poet, the brooding Dylan Thomas burning rejection slips in a graveyard while using them to light the next smoke—that’s long since gone in my imagination. Really, the rejection-bummer feeling lasts a little while, then fades. More often than not, it sobers me up: did I send these out too fast? Am I focusing too much on publication, not enough on learning new moves, reading new books, memorizing poems?
After a few hard hits, I come up with a new plan: slow down. Focus. Work on one or two projects at the same time, at most.
But the truth is, I don’t really know how to think about publication and writing, how to make it coincide with academia, with parenthood, adulthood, being a good partner. Add a global pandemic, and the notion of publishing some poem of mine feels, some days, sad. And still, I do it.
I write. I read. I submit. I get (a bunch of) rejections.
What I keep coming back to, though, is this simple realization about writing and submitting: it brings me joy. All of it. Reading, writing, submitting work, having some editor email me a flat-out “no,” all of it brings me joy.
I grew up in a house of readers, where everyone had a book going all the time. My sister still tears through three or four novels a week, and my brother has a library of sci-fi that’s honestly daunting. To imagine producing something like that, to make work that someone reads—that’s a joy.
But the writing is where the joy really is. Even on the days when I hate what I’ve written. Even on the days when the world seems filled with murderous assholes, pontificating blowhards, and people who eat tomatoes like apples, I find great joy in putting words down on the page.
Even in the pandemic, it’s okay to joy.
Patrick Whitfill has work appearing in journals like Colorado Review, Threepenny Review, Kenyon Review Online, and other places. He teaches at Wofford College and lives in Spartanburg with his wife, son, and three pets. His chapbook, Curiosity, came out this spring from New Michigan Press.