Today, The Pogues [repost]
Shane MacGowan died this morning. As a small nod in his honor, I wanted to repost this piece about my favorite song that he wrote, which I originally posted on St. Patrick's Day in 2021.
My Irish bloodline is more personal trivia than heritage. My forebears sailed across the sea to farm in Pennsylvania nearly two centuries before my birth and roughly a generation before the Potato Famine, all of which is to say, there’s a great deal of distance there. Ireland is an abstraction, and my connection to it is ancestral rather than lived.
I never experience that connection more strongly than when I listen to The Pogues, “Thousands Are Sailing.” That song encapsulates anything I’ve ever read, seen, heard, or felt of my Irish heritage. There’s a push and a pull, grief and love, genuflection and spit, grit and pride. It’s a great song.
I’m putting a YouTube link with the very-much-still-relevant lyrics below. By all means, wear the green plastic hat, drink the Shamrock Shake, tell the kids the leprechaun left a chocolate gold coin, and down some Guinness and Jameson alongside your corned beef. But if you can spare five minutes and twenty odd seconds this St. Patrick’s Day, give them to The Pogues and think of the Irish.
I am not going to write for a while.
I waited a couple of weeks to actually type that sentence because I did not yet know if I was on a brief vacation hiatus or a Guns n Roses Chinese Democracy is coming soon! hiatus. Having no sense of a timeline, no desire to draw a timeline even in sand, it is time for me to say it. Writing has ceased to bring me joy. I have been writing for the wrong reasons, and I need time away to love it again.
At this time last year, I had great expectations for my writing. A literary journal of note had longlisted one of my short stories for a prize. An author of greater note had praised my work. I had finished my novel and gotten an agent to represent the novel, which was sent to acquisition editors at whichever publishing houses you’re likely name without googling.
You can probably guess this, but neither that short story (nor a couple others since) nor the novel have garnered any offers. My agent and I have parted. A small press has requested a partial manuscript of the novel, and there are a couple other presses I will query, but the odds do not look like they did twelve months ago. In other words, I’ve been on a losing streak, which should not matter. I’d like for it not to matter. When I began writing a novel, I did not have an expectation that it would get published; I mostly wanted to see if I could write a novel. I think I was prepared for failure and a return to the drawing board, but I was not prepared for almost.
I started thinking of my writing in terms of a nascent career, which is to say, I lost sight of why I wrote to begin with.
Two weeks ago, I had a plan to draft chapter 13 of novel number two. I entered my favorite local coffee shop, but seeing bodies occupying every table, I lost my will to write. I mentally listed the different locations where I could write, the playlists or the beverages or the reading that might ready me to write—and I realized that if I had to try so desperately hard to make myself want to write, I was doing it all wrong. Thus began my hiatus of undetermined length.
The thing is, by any reasonable measure, I have attained my goals as a writer. When I joined Prose four years ago and wrote for the first time in years, my dream was to get a piece of my writing accepted for publication. After a whole lot of work and a whole lot of encouragement from my fellow Prosers, some still here and some departed, I gave it a shot—and I succeeded. I succeeded several times over, not with any big name mags, but with half a dozen short stories and nearly as many poems. Thanks to the fluke that is the alphabet, my contributor’s bio has appeared on the same page as a former Poet Laureate of the United States.
If you’re a longtime Prose user, you might remember a Random House/Prose essay contest that George Saunders judged. When he selected my essay, and I sent him 25 pages of that thus-far unwanted novel as the prize, I hoped I might get a paragraph response with some general thoughts and maybe a piece of encouragement. Instead, I received three full pages of enthusiastic notes. At the top of his email, the man who wrote Lincoln in the Bardo told me, “You’re a wonderful writer. Your prose is crisp and fast and convincing.” I will never forget how it felt to read those words.
I will feel that way about my writing again. I will love writing again. I once wrote in a Prose challenge that creative writing “feeds not only on my technical skills or logical analysis, but on my capability to express to someone else how I think and feel, with the center squarely on the ‘I,’” and that fiction is “an output of the core, internal self.” I will find that self again. I have written 28,000 words of that second novel, and I will finish it. Two weeks into my hiatus, I can say that and believe it, which is progress.
You will probably see me less for a while. I am not disappearing; I’ll pop in to read some posts now and again. If I get any good news about my submissions still floating out there in the ether, I’ll let you know in a post of my own. I’m not yet ready for next steps, but somehow, someday, that first novel of mine will see the light of day. Sooner than that, I’ll write something. I’ll probably post it here. I might feel an irresistible itch and resume writing this weekend; I might not write for a year, or longer. I do not know when it will be because I will not rush and I will not write until I can do so with joy and for its own sake, but I will write.
Keep writing, friends.
On First Looking into NYC Mayor Eric Adams’s Junket to Central America
Much have I travell’d through the realms patrolled
by gunmen, many broken countries seen;
of storied northern city had we dreamed
which Wall Street magnates do for Mammon hold.
Oft of stacked green bills, food have I been told
by smugglers selling boats from this domain,
so never did I surrender that dream
till I heard Adams speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like New York was just too full
to offer safety, clothing, or a bed.
Like that, I stopped. I felt the homeward pull,
missing drug cartels, starvation, brutal men.
I blithely turned back south as Adams headed
for his tour, with press, of Darien.
I’d like to say
it was her mind, first,
but you told me that lies
are slips into sin.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot
(a lot a lot),
and I think it might even be better
if I could say
it was her hair, or her lips,
or her curves (please
pardon me Father Johnson),
because beauty is good,
from the hand of God,
and is admiring art sin?
But the truth is, Father…
this is very hard…
but the truth is, Father,
mind was third and body second,
because as she stood next
to me at the party in that
tight red sweater,
the first thing that got me was
the perfect knot she tied into that
cherry stem with her tongue.
Lines, on the occasion of a vendor erring on a video call with the assembled faculty
The glasses are gone, like
the shirt and professional
pretense, for one ephemeral
flicker of the presenter’s avatar:
himself, bare-chested and sleek,
hard like the brick wall setting
off his sun-bronzed skin,
so I wonder, long after he
has hastily clicked away, who
this man is elsewhere,
beyond this Google Meet, beyond
this sales pitch for edu software,
beyond this dim and narrow
room: a man, who meets.
Searching (five haiku)
We and the sun, high
as lords, as our frisbee, white,
whirling to my hand—
cake, pavilion, dogs, friends, a
my grandparents and me, one
final time. Happy.
Photographs are leaves:
colorful and aged, what was,
pressed into a book.
Through my window, snow
frames cardinals, searching bare
vines for frozen grapes.
She smoothed the blanket down his legs and rubbed oil onto her palms. Delicate fingers massaged his scalp. She moved to his back, professional hands gliding over, then firmly pressing aging muscles. Ocean waves rolled within the white noise machine, covering his tears beneath the towel.
He felt touch.