how is the sausage occupied?

My wife’s 95-year-old Estonian grandfather, Edgar, likes to tell me how stupid and ugly English is, particularly the kind of American English I speak. This topic is usually capped by the proclamation that Estonian once came in second only to Italian as the world’s most beautiful language. I’ve never been able to substantiate the whole language world championship thing (not that I’ve tried very hard), but I’m not denying that such a contest once took place, nor that Estonian came in second to Italian in the final race. I simply don’t know. All I’m saying is I can easily imagine finding old men the world over who would make similarly cranky claims for their own languages.

That said, as an American poet working exclusively in the language, I don’t entirely disagree with Edgar’s takedown of English. It has a lot going for it, true. It’s flexible, nimble, and like a good toilet paper, it’s exceedingly resilient and absorbent. But it’s also messy, chaotic, and oftentimes cumbersome, and though English can certainly turn on the charm when it wants to, I don’t think we can amass more than a handful of people who might call it particularly pretty. Estonian, on the other hand, has a lot of cheerleaders, about 1.1 million, or basically every single Estonian speaker in the world, because with the exception of sauna and giant wooden swings, there is nothing Estonians are more militantly enthusiastic about as their language. No, I’m going to agree with Edgar and the rest of his countrymen and women, Estonian is a beautiful language, maybe even the second most beautiful language in the world, especially when spoken fluently by beautiful Estonian women, of whom there are many. Hoist the blue, black, and white and cue the 30,000-person choir.

But while we’re at it, Estonia, there’s one other thing about your language besides its beauty I’d like to point out. It’s horrifically frustrating to try to learn as a 40-year-old American, which is to say, it’s an ancient Finno-Ugric language with virtually no similarities to English. It’s a language in which there is no gender or future tense, but fourteen noun cases with hundreds of different spelling groups, and instead of prepositional phrases, all the nouns change in weird, irregular ways, and then all the adjectives have to change along with them. True, all languages have their eccentricities, and learning any new language is a struggle, and I’m getting awfully old for this kind of knowledge acquisition at any level of complexity. All I’m saying is that to travel to the land of fluent Estonian, one must cross a bridge gaurded by evil philologists. But I married in, so what’s a guy to do?

photo (13)The first time I tried to pick up some Estonian was in 2009 when I took a two-week summer intensive course at Tartu University. It was something of a failure, I’ll confess, but in my defense, no one learns more than a smattering of any language in two weeks, no matter how intense the course. Also, I returned to the United States immediately after finishing the class and—I don’t know if you realize this—there isn’t a great deal of Estonian spoken in the good old USofA. And do you want to practice something you’re bad at with your spouse, mother-in-law, or an old man who holds nothing in higher regard than the language you’re about to butcher alive? Right. So I walked away from my first attempt with what you might expect: My name is Matt, my favorite shirt is blue, and thank you for the delicious hand pies. In the interim I’ve retained exactly that, plus please, thank you, damn it, and my favorite, “mine perse,” which is kind of like f-off, but literally means “go up an ass.” Beautiful, no?

Now, five years later, I’m at it again because I’m living in Estonia for a year this time, going to the market every day, and pointing and grunting my way through transactions with the market ladies is quickly loosing its charm. No delusions of grandeur, mind you. I would simply like, for the first time in my life, to be something other than the stereotypical monolingual American that I am, the kind of person who might buy carrots without resorting to “please, orange things” in a bad accent and a lot of hysterical smiling thrown on top for goodwill. If, by the end of my stay, I can answer my Estonian teacher’s daily inquiry into my wellbeing by saying, reliably, “I’m well, thanks for asking,” instead of,  “I’m well, thanks for pissing” (a mistake by just one umlaut in Estonian), I’ll count myself a success of sorts, a winner in the game of radically lowered expectations.

photo (14)In the meantime, my lovely Estonian-American wife, Marika, mocks me daily, slowly and painstakingly asking me dumb questions over drinks or on my Facebook wall, things like, “how is the sausage occupied?” Well, perseauk (that means asshole, one of our terms of endearment, so you see how we roll), I’d be happy to tell you all about this sausage’s occupation, so long as I can do so in the simplest declarative sentences possible and you don’t rush me. This sausage name Matt. This sausage favorite shirt blue. This sausage love the hand pie, very good. Big thanks for pissing.

I come to you this week to report that I’m writing almost every day. I can’t say as anything particularly good is coming of it, but I’m putting words on paper, and submitting a few things here and there in the process. Though I never have any great hope for any one particular submission, I’ve also been around the block enough to know that the odds of success rise dramatically when one does something more than nothing. Hard earned wisdom, there. Thus, I believe, I’ve effectively resaddled the pony. Let’s ride.

Matt bike raceWhich I did on Sunday, ride that is, after a fashion, as part of the Tartu Rattamaraton, the largest mountain bike race in Estonia (and one of the largest in the world). The event clocked in at over 8000 riders over two events, an 89- and a shorter 40-kilometer course. It was more of what we call a cyclocross race in the US than a mountain bike one, with the majority of the route covering gently rolling forest two tracks and gravel roads through farmland. Though the vast majority of riders were on mountain bikes, I road an old Norwegian single-speed bike with coaster brakes (the kind you have to pedal backward to brake) in the shorter race, and though I was a danger to myself and everyone around me, I finished the shorter race in two hours and seventeen minutes unscathed, and capped the experience off with a sauna in the woods of Elva, a little village just south of Tartu, where the race ended. I’ve much more to say about this little adventure, but I’ve got a little essay about it submitted and pending at a magazine that doesn’t take kindly to previous publication of any kind. So you’ll have to wait for that to move forward, or for it to get rejected and end up here. So it goes.

This I can share, though. After coming home from the race Sunday night, I put on my pjs and then gave a poetry reading as part of Transatlantic Poetry‘s online reading. I read a few poems from my book, THIS IS WHAT THEY SAY (Typecast Publishing, 2012) and I got to do it from my living room while drinking a beer. In retrospect I didn’t even have to wear pants, though I did.  Check it out below if you’re interested in such things, or go here.

It was a good day. More soon…

10606456_10152238777417257_18371475616253337_nIt’s foggy this morning in Tartu, Estonia, where I am living at the moment, having moved here three weeks ago with my wife and kids. We’ll be here until next summer. Marika and I are both on sabbatical from Michigan Tech for the year, she has strong family ties with the little country (she and the kids are dual citizens, actually), we want the kids to speak Estonian, we were able to make connections with Tartu University… More on this later, I’m sure, but right now, suffice it to say, it’s just a relief to be away from an America I find increasingly difficult to handle: the insane fundamentalist religiosity, the insane love affair with guns and the overwhelming number of mass shootings that are its spawn, the undercurrent of racism, sexism, and xenophobia, the public disavowal of information and knowledge and perspective and the dismantling of intellectualism of all stripes, the insistence upon total and perennial war… It’s a big list befitting a big dysfunctional country. True, all times, places, and peoples have their problems. Yet for all that is right with the States, and for all the reasons I love it and will gladly return to it when this sabbatical year ends, I’ve been ready for a trial separation for a good long while. We need some time apart.

Next week I turn 40. To be honest, while I find neither aging nor mortality particularly thrilling, neither am I scared of nor even particularly interested in either. Not yet, anyway. Besides, I’m better now than I’ve ever been in my life previously, so what’s to groan over? Not to mention, growing older is an inescapable fact, and much like the  weather, I find dwelling upon the subject to be mildly boring. Yes, Captain Obvious, there is weather; yes, we age. On the other hand, lingering overlong upon mortality has always struck me as futile at best and weak minded at worst, a malignant tumor sized failure of the human imagination. My money is on a particularly similar nothing at the end apropos to the eternity preceding our births. Not much to get jacked out of shape about. But let’s agree to disagree these points if it makes us get along better, and agree, instead, that I am happy to be alive, that I am happy you are alive here with me, that neither of us are what we once were, anymore than either of us is likely to remain as we are now. Then, let’s talk about music or food or poetry or sex or bicycles or birthday plans. This next one of mine will be spent with my family at a little Russian place down the street. I’ll be the big hairy dude eating blinis and caviar and getting drunk out on the patio. Everything else, my friends, is pointless noise.

It seems a good time, too, to mark a return to public writing. I’ve been absent from it for more than a year now. So much for my writing life! A friend once told me that in the absence of writing there is no such thing as being a Writer, that previous publications are no indication of present occupational status, that a person is only the thing when actively engaged in the doing of it. Unnecessarily pedantic, sure. I mean, one can still be a tennis player when they leave the court to take a shower, they can still be a lawyer when they leave the office to have dinner with their husband, right? But insofar as my friend’s claim hyper-privileges the place of process in the life of the artist… I guess I’m down with that, process trumping product and all. I suppose this is why writers always discuss current rather than past projects with one another. “What are you working on?” being more gang sign than project query. Are you one of us still, we are asking? Are you still in process? No, has been my answer to these queries these past months, at least in my head. No, I published my book of poems, I went on my little tour, and silence I was ill prepared for descended around me. No, I got tenure and checked the fuck out, broke my arm in a bicycling accident and checked the fuck out. No, I had a personal meltdown, was diagnosed with an obsessive anxiety disorder, and spent some very difficult , but fruitful months checking the fuck back in, as it were, pardon my language, and pushing my nastier demons out from the driver’s seat of my careening bus. No, I haven’t been working on much more than emails, texts, journal scribbles, the occasional rough sketchs of poems quickly miscarried. But I’d like to get back to it now, if for no other reason than to say I’m currently an American writer living abroad, something I’ve always kind of wanted to say about myself. How about you, what are you working on? More blinis, caviar, and vodka anyone?



photo-1It has been a year of readings, lectures, classroom visits, book festivals, fairs, and signings: Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Boston, Massachusetts; Iowa City, Iowa; New York City; State College, Pennsylvania; Albany, New York; Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota; Dayton, Ohio; Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, Michigan; Chicago and Rock Island, Illinois; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Louisville, Kentucky; among others. I’ve read in the basements of punk rock bars and community arts centers, in book stores and libraries, brewpubs and coffee shops, in university lecture halls, on stumps, in alleyways and old movie theaters, and in at least two boutique clothing stores. There have been mics and no mics. There has been money, but mostly no money. Sometimes I sold books, sometimes I didn’t. I once read to an audience of two, mostly to audiences in the teens and twenties, and twice I’ve read to audiences of almost two hundred. Sometimes those audiences have come of their own free will while others have been conscripted. Sometimes I’m the draw while other times I am a happy hanger on. I’ve traveled by plane and train, but mostly thousands of miles in cars. I prefer the trains, hate planes with a passion, but as it is America, cars are simply the path of least resistance. I hate cars, too. Cars, it’s said, are coffins. I’m almost at the end of it. Three Twin Cities events yet in front of me. I’ve smoked too many cigarettes. I’m tired. I’ve learned a lot, much of which concerns the fact that I am most certainly no longer twenty and being almost famous as a poet is about the equivalent of being a hobo. I’ve always liked hobos.

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There is this, from the New York Times, about teaching creative writing to non majors. It is a little bit about love and magic, two concepts I find sorely missing in academia.

tumblr_lluj394jFL1qkb2g8o1_400As a lowly MFA in a tenure-track line, I always feel a little bit like Gorey’s Doubtful Guest, stealing things from the swells and dropping them into the pond or tearing pages from their valued books. In my paranoia, I’ve become hyper conscious of Stanford literary critic Mark McGurl’s accusation that academic departments dabbling in literature have become so locked in battle over who’s the failed writer and who’s the anti-intellectual, they’ve lost site of the prize, starved rats fighting over crumbs. Only the poet/scholar will be saved, McGurl predicted. Every time someone asks the question, why do the humanities fail, I always have to choke back the urge to invite the speaker to look in the mirror. The humanities are alive and kicking, I think, looks at this, look at that, you’ve just wandered away from the party and are pissy no one came with you.

Should elephants teach? Emphatically, yes. Besides, no one else is doing it, so why shouldn’t we?

In other news, did you know there is new [PANK] in the world? It’s true. My heart bursts. Our March online issue and a new print issue are alive. They’re alive! And both are chockablock with both magic and love – brimming, bursting, overflowing magic and love. I hope you’ll dive in and take a swim. No. I hope you’ll fly.

58285-ANTIQUE-MACHINERY_viewThe Things Happened Machine got me. I bent over to pick up a shiney. My hair got caught in the gears. It pulled me in. Now my shoes hurt, lacerations, and I’ve a lump on my head. Who are you? Where am I? Last thing I knew it was the middle of February. Now it’s the end of March?

I seem to remember something about AWP, something about Boston. Things are fuzzy. There was a slush storm. North easterners panicked. Silly north easterners. A tavern named after a famous drunk, a famous writer, a famous drunk writer, filled with almost famous drunk writers. Panels of mouth holes were speaking, speaking, speaking. I remember piles of unsolicited manuscripts and sure I’ll read your thing, why not, but no, I don’t want to trade, and sure I’ll answer some questions in front of your camera, but not now, not now. Dinners with good friends too far away, didn’t we? And too many faces I didn’t kiss? During the first few hours of AWP, there was desperation in the air, a miasma, cloying and sticky. What a bunch of sad bastards you are. And that bitch from that one journal, fuck her. Then people started drinking, I think, and everyone calmed down. By the end, PANK sold out of all its merch and there was much back slapping and elbow nudging and on our insides we were all doing the fuck you thrust and flipping our birds and we were thinking “ugh, yeah, suck it, swells.” But really we just wanted to be liked. And we wanted to like you. And we were. And we did. And it all felt really, exhaustively good. Thanks, AWP. Thanks, liver. Thanks smoke bummers and haven’t seen you in a long time huggers and all the other kindly faces. Somehow I got home.

March snow storms.

The reward for good work, you know, is more work. Websites to be redesigned. Funds drives to be organized. Shipping and distribution to be managed. A post-AWP swell in submissions to be waded through. And I have students, too, I think. I think I’m teaching two classes this semester. I’m not winning any teaching awards this semester. They suffer the most, the wee children. Easily misplaced on the battlefield. Between the tenure process this year, the service load, the magazine, the grubbing for money and time and space, life (kids need to eat? I have kids? they have lessons?)… And don’t get me started on the state of my own writing; your Facebook gloating and self-congratulation, writers, makes me want to punch you in your stupid faces. It’s just jealousy. You’ve your own crosses, I know. I love you. I’ll get over it. Chin up. Chin up. Tomorrow is a new day.

March snowstorms.

Read and strongly recommend the following books, in no particular order: The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell; The Writing Life by Marie Arana; issue 4 of The Common; Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley by Joshua Ware; The Explosions by Mathias Svalina; Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons by Tara Laskowski; Dear, Companion by A.W. Watkins; Cloudfang::Cakedirt by Daniela Olszewska; If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write by Jarett Kobek; The Romances and Other Poems by Micah Cavaleri; Other Kinds by Dylan Nice; Imperial Bender by Amanda Smeltz; Man Vs. Sky by Corey Zeller; Scuffletown by Chris Mattingly; The Illusion of Seperateness by Simon Van Booy; 23 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years by Mark Lamoureux; Book of Rhymes by Adam Bradley. Write your own damn reviews. Or better yet, just read these books like I’ve told you to and make up your own mind. I loved them. You think you know better than me? You don’t.

The to-read pile is now taller than I am. I am a very tall man.

March snow storms.

And last, but not least, I finally finished watching Battlestar Galactica. Meh. It was OK. Way too religious for its own damn good. Does space really need god talk and divine intervention to affect wonder? That’s kind of sad for people. But for infinite space, that’s really fucking sad. Shame on you, Battlestar (but I kind of loved you anyway, late to the party though I may have been).

Stop nagging me, voices! Up yours, Heikki Lunta! Onward!

Happy Valentine’s Day. Here’s one of my favorite love poems. I’m giving it to you because I love you so much.

A Poem to the Freaks by Jack Micheline

To live as I have done is surely absurd
In cheap hotels and furnished rooms
To walk up side streets and down back alleys
Talking to oneself
And screaming to the sky obscenities
That the arts is a rotten business indeed
That mediocrity and the rage of fashion rules
My poems and paintings piled on the floor
To be one with himself
A Saint
A Prince
To persevere
Through storms and hardons
Through dusk and dawns
To kick death in the ass
To be passed over like a bad penny
A midget
An Ant
A roach
A freak
A Hot Piece
An Outlaw
Raise your cup and drink my friend
Drink for those who walk alone in the night
To the crippled and the blind
To the lost and the damned
To the lone bird flying in the sky
Drink to wonder
Drink to me
Drink to pussy and dreams
Drink to madness and all the stars
I hear the birds singing

1. In which I admit to being a quitter with a dick bookmark.

photo-4I can’t seem to finish my second pass through Haruki Murakami’s Orwellian opus, 1Q84. You remember this book from a couple years back? I liked it enough then, though I struggled through it at the time, propelled in part, I think, by (A) my being a Murakami fanboy and (B) all the hype surrounding it. I liked it enough the first time to know I wanted to come back and do it again, maybe comprehend the whole thing better. I still wish half-heartedly that I could read Japanese because I’m a believer at heart. But I should have known something was amiss on this benighted second pass when my prescient 5-year-old son presented me with a “rocket” bookmark that looks a whole lot like a dick. That was a sign I just couldn’t see at the time.

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Built things. My health is building back up so I spent Saturday clearing the snow from the patio and building other things up, as well. I built a fire in what we call the Swede stove. I built a harrowing sled run from the top edge of the lot, through the trees, around the woodpile, around the stove, to the bottom edge of the lot. I built a pyramid of empty beer cans. I had a lot of help from my friends with both the run and the beer. Together we all built camaraderie and elaborate hangovers. The kids built some muscle for their puny kid bodies by running up the hill a thousand times. At the bottom of the run we built a berm for a brake. If you’re not careful, the berm acts more like a ramp catapulting you into the downhill neigbor’s trees. We built some bruises, but only one of us drew blood.

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