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Blog

Rilke and Foolishness

Christina Lee

Rilke in Moscow by Leonid Pasternak Sometimes, when I’m burnt out, I look to Rilke. Not his Letters to a Young Poet, or his masterpiece, Duino Elegies, but to his very first collection, Wegwarten. It was self-published, and he handed it out on street corners. One version of the story even claims he did this while “dressed in the black habit of an abbé with long curly hair.”

I really hate feeling foolish. I think, perhaps, it’s my deepest fear. I know, I know….my deepest fear ought to be something more lofty or noble, but honestly, embarrassment terrifies me.

I teach junior highers, so basically, I spend my days with 130 walking manifestations of this fear. They are never still—always tucking, brushing, fixing, sweating, lip-glossing, whispering, watching. They are little machines of anxious, self-protective energy.

When I think back on my own junior high years, I remember how intensely I wanting to blend in—to disappear, be it through diets, trends, or the right hedge of friends who would shield me from the blinding glare of individuality.

Even as a writer, even all grown up, I struggle with this. I obsess over how to write what I think editors want to read. How to snuggle into a writing community in which my voice will be welcomed and lauded. I skip certain contests and journal submissions, just to avoid the embarrassment of unrealistic expectations.

Of course I also fear writing forgettable poems, yet my pride steers me away from topics that would fuel really memorable poetry—family dysfunction, social justice, feminism, sex. Topics with the potential for embarrassingly spectacular failure.

In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury writes,

You're afraid of making mistakes. Don't be. Mistakes can be profited by. Man, when I was young I shoved my ignorance in people's faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you'll never learn.

As I write this, I am a few days away from working  The AWP Conference & Bookfair, and I know my first instinct will be to try to blend in with the crowd. But I’m going to try to shake off that fear. I’m making it my goal to embarrass myself early and often, for the sake of celebrating writing. To strike up a conversation with the writers I really admire, or share poems with fellow attendees, or hit up an open mic. Knowing me, it probably won’t go 100% smoothly. I’ll probably suffer at least a slight scrape to my pride.

After the sting fades, I’ll remember Rilke handing out his poetry on the street. Wegwarten was universally panned. In that moment, Rilke looked pretty foolish. But you know what? It worked out okay for him.