Stealing the scholars’ wi-fi

The still eye of November’s hurricane was, improbably, a modernism conference in Boston. I scudded in a day late, only half an hour before my first meeting. I was recovering from illness, and my son and husband were sick, and I’d packed badly, especially considering how chic modernism scholars tend to be, with their Calder-mobile-style earrings and funky eyeglasses and fabulous boots. I often feel out of sorts at academic conferences, too—the poet-scholar failing at both sides of the hyphen. Yet the fancy hotel was full of friends: people who have helped me, people whom I have helped, and people I just like to talk and listen to. It was restorative and made me think hard about mentoring.

My autumn, as reported in the previous post, had the plot arc of a killer storm: the happy family was sailing along, backs to a swelling bulk of thunderheads. The first smashing wave was my mother’s sudden illness, eventually diagnosed as lymphoma with some dangerous complications. I think she nearly died twice, but was rescued by my sister driving in from New Jersey to drag her to the ER (my mother lives in eastern Pennsylvania, about a five-and-half hour drive from me). Double-crisis is the formula for a thriller; the danger seems at first to be averted, and then a bigger threat arises. Her treatment now seems to be proceeding effectively, but the past weeks taught us all vigilance. My concentration is terrible. I did finish my conference paper, write a few references, submit a micro-review. I know I drafted a few desperate poems, too, but haven’t had time to look at them—did I mention my laptop is also dying?

To help a little during the week before Thanksgiving—my sister is carrying most of the burden—I traveled to the Modernist Studies Association meeting by car, visiting Pennsylvania on the way. When I arrived at my mother’s hospital on Wednesday afternoon, they discharged her, and I spent a day and a half getting her settled at home: counting out pills into a dispenser, buying supplies, cleaning, doing laundry, cooking, phoning the insurance and visiting nurses, and helping my brother move a bed downstairs. I still can’t believe how much we did, even while I was absorbing seismic changes in a lifelong intimacy. One of my earliest memories is being carried shivering out of a bathtub by my mother, who rubbed me dry and unrolled lacy white socks over my ankles as I protested the cold. Suddenly I was dressing my mother, fetching layers as she shivered. Age goes this way for most of us eventually, and it’s good when we can help each other along. Still, it’s tiring work emotionally and physically.

It was strange to arrive at the Boston hotel in this condition, put on my professional clothes, and launch a reading I’d organized. Yet it eased my mind to hear those poems and have a series of conversations with other people negotiating their own crazy lives brilliantly. One friend’s major health crisis, she told me, was immediately followed by her husband’s heart attack; she knew exactly what I meant when I described my own juggling of caretaking and professional urgencies. Her glance, that reassuring touch to the arm, helped me exhale. A lot of my friends, of course, are middle-aged people with mortal parents and/or still-needy teenagers plus their own ambitions, but I also sat for a few minutes on the lobby carpet with a former student’s sleepless toddler as she deconstructed a lily. I don’t know who is mentoring whom in some of these interactions, but it’s all reassuring.

When I departed on Monday morning, I listened to Mindy Kaling’s recent audiobook, Why Not Me? Kaling commissioned one mini-chapter from a mentor—perhaps improbably, a middle-aged white guy. In the audiobook, he reads aloud his own words, “On Being a Mentor,” a bit of which I’ve transcribed below. After describing his own role-models, Greg Daniels speculates:

“I know a lot of people are probably thinking, ‘Oh, good for you, but nobody’s ever wanted to be my mentor.’ I don’t think any one of them wanted to be my mentor, either. My advice is: you take your mentoring wherever you can find it, whether it’s being offered to you or not. Have you ever used your neighbor’s wi-fi when it wasn’t on a password? If you have the opportunity to observe someone at their work, you are getting mentoring out of them even if they are unaware or resistant. Make a list of the people you think would make the greatest mentors and try to get close enough to steal their wi-fi.”

I agree with Daniels. Since grad school, a mess to discuss on another day, I’ve hijacked my mentors’ attention against their better judgment, or jostled in close to busy people to learn what I could. Most but not all of them were feminist women, and I don’t know whether that’s because women were more open to helping me, or whether I felt more comfortable sidling up to them. But I’ve attended most MSAs since the organization started in the late nineties, and again and again I see women there modeling an intellectual generosity I aspire to. Linda Kinnahan, Cynthia Hogue, Marsha Bryant, Dee Morris, and Cris Miller not only give dependably rockin’ talks but attend small panels with warm engagement; direct questions to the speaker who’s getting the least attention; redirect blowhards; and do the behind-the-scenes work, too, of tenure reviews, anonymous reader reports, and cleaning up complicated professional messes. I’m singling out a few who have been models for me, but there are many others—plus people at earlier career stages who impress me with similar gifts. Most of them could probably say no more often, and I should, too. If you don’t get good work done, after all, your own ability to help others shrinks. I really want to just hunker down and write this December, ignoring everyone beyond my closest family and friends. Still, strong signal, no password: that is a beautiful way to broadcast.

For the pic below with Cynthia Hogue and her dashing handbag, thanks to Marsha Bryant. You can see more from the MSA reading at Aldon Nielson’s blog.

cynthia msa

All my words small but costly: Emerson, illness, and work

Sometimes there’s a poetry-sized gap in your life. Today I filled it with a vintage stored against future need–Claudia Emerson’s final collection, Impossible Bottle. This was supposed to be one of those golden weeks, too rare even on sabbatical, when I had no big obligations and could just write and revise, but it’s not happening. Presumably the meds will kick in soon, but a sinus infection has made me sleepy and dizzy, plus I’m just tired from doing too much: an unexpected trip to visit my mother in hospital was followed by zooming down bad roads in the dark and rain to a 2-day AWP board meeting in DC (an impressive group–check it out). On the Saturday after, I had a sore throat but couldn’t resist a few hours at the Library of Congress looking at Millay’s papers. Next was writing an interview about Radioland from Frances Donovan’s wonderful blog Garden of Words, a joint signing with Chris Gavaler at Lexington’s Bookery, Bookeryand making soup to bring to my mom on the way to Family Weekend at Wesleyan, which I totally shouldn’t have attended, not only because I was getting sicker but because my son was, too. We ended up leaving Connecticut very early on Saturday to get my son back to a doctor. He was diagnosed with walking pneumonia so he’s still home from school, and from my fainting couch (not really) I’m nagging him constantly (really) about hydration, rest, and make-up work. And above it all I’m deeply worried about my mom, who has an aggressive lymphoma and starts chemo this Friday. Really, who could concentrate?

Emerson’s spare and lovely poems about illness, though, are good medicine. Honestly, while there are a lot of strong 2015 collections I have not yet read, I can’t imagine many are more deserving of notice on the best-of lists than Impossible Bottle. Full of gorgeous ruins and scenes of beauty gone wrong, it has the spiritual quality of H.D.’s war poem Trilogy, although Emerson’s crisis is more personal–instead of bombings, metastasis, and instead of Europe, a vividly evoked Virginia. In fact, a Virginian reader can date many of its poems in relation to public disasters. Our 2011 earthquake makes an appearance as well as the 2012 derecho. But cancer is primary, and outer storms only the “vaguest mirror” to a deeply inward book. The predominance of couplets reminds me of Trilogy, too, although many lines are left single, as if widowed. Formally, “Infusion Suite” is particularly brilliant–these twelve poems feel like a sonnet crown, but they turn out to consist of thirteen lines each. Emerson’s lyric is ominous and foreshortened.

It feels a little false, however, to review this book intellectually, with the critical gaze I’m trained to level at verse. It’s a personal book and, further, I cannot help but take personally, and not only because of my mother’s illness. Claudia taught at W&L in the mid-90s–she was a veteran adjunct professor here as I, ten years younger and much greener, started on the tenure track. Her friendship and example were important to me. I have an essay drafted about that time in relation to her first book, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, but I haven’t managed to polish it up and get it out, probably for the same reason I put off reading this last collection–it all feels too final.

Yet the book itself makes an argument for continuance of the self, for good and ill, through the work we leave behind. In “Well,” for example, she reflects on a relic “more remnant than place,” built by a great-uncle striving for usefulness–but the well draws up toxic water she drank throughout childhood (radon is prevalent in Virginia groundwater, particularly in her family’s region). The fourth poem in “Infusion Suite” concerns a mechanic named Leonard who specializes in repairing “the under-// carriage of a car after a wreck,/ realignment, the stuff nobody ever sees/ and will never notice unless–no, until–// it gets out of whack.” (The latter poem shifts in register to a funny punchline, but I won’t spoil it–go look.) I drew the title of my blog from the same sequence; it refers on its surface level to a game of scrabble. Poetry is work, too, enduring for a little while or longer, but not the only worthwhile kind of labor.

I’m glad, personally, that the speaker of these poems, while immensely sympathetic, is no sainted martyr. “Imagining narratives// worse than my own has become a kind of balm,” she confesses in “Murder Ballad,” and elsewhere Emerson studies bitterness and self-pity and despair. Cancer is an enemy and a metaphor but also just a stupid accident. I find the last line of “Cyst” especially chilling in its examination of awful randomness: “mistake a body can make,” set alone at the bottom of the page, opens up a dark coincidence in language. “Mistake” is “make” with an “ist” or “cyst” in it. Good effort, poisoned.

Praise to good effort! Even though we’re not entirely in charge of where words take us, these are valuable, resonant ones. Impossible Bottle is balm I’m grateful for. Now it’s back to a long list of postponed obligations–reviews, references, book promotion, a conference paper and other prep for the Modernist Studies Association meeting in Boston (see here for info on a reading I’m organizing there). I’ll sign off for now with an image from the Millay papers at the Library of Congress. You need permission to quote from most of the material, but this note to lover George Dillon by Millay (scrawling on her husband’s stationery) is in the “unrestricted” box. It expresses her shock and sorrow at the death of Elinor Wylie. Like Millay, I’d rather my favorite poets continue in life than in words alone, but I guess we have to work with whatever hand appears in the random scrabble pile, that “sorry trough of letters.”Millay on Wylie


Washington and Lee students often refer to their version of Lexington, Virginia as “the bubble,” as if were a protected from the world by those soft, old mountains. It’s not, nor would that be a good thing, and they know that. But seeming out-of-time is part of the attractive weirdness of some universities in the U.S. I know the damages people sometimes suffer even this privileged place, sometimes because of the privilege, and yet I appreciate the fantasy too sometimes as I walk through my gorgeous campus with arms full of library books, thinking poetic thoughts. It’s gothic, as my well-read firebrand of a daughter recently commented. Beneath the floorboards of wonderful intellectual conversations, a heart is beating out an accusation, and everyone tries to ignore the sound. (She really does talk like that and it’s part of why I miss her.)

The uncanny pulse gets louder this time of year, when the town hosts a different crowd every few days–family weekends for the two colleges, or trustee meetings, during which stray piles of cash drift over our academic mission like fallen leaves. Good work depends on that fundraising, so I’m happy it succeeds, but it makes me uneasy, too, because the emphasis so often falls on the wrong things. This past weekend was homecoming at W&L so the streets were rowdy with young alums. The graduates I’m closest to are often skeptical-minded literary types, too clear-eyed for unreserved cheering about a very good college with some very real culture problems. I ask if they’re coming back and many say, um, not my scene, unless they’re a retirement bash for a favorite professor in the offing, or some other content to the weekend than rah-rah-school-spirit. 

So it was unusual but very cool to walk downtown Saturday for a beer with a former student (and football-playing-poet) who became a college counselor and a fierce advocate for literary study at small liberal arts colleges. On the way I bumped into other former English majors, now passionately committed to teaching middle and high-schoolers. All are vocally grateful for those hours talking critically about books, writing and revising essays, figuring out what kind of people they wanted to be. My own elder child, a first-year at Wesleyan University, loves English but worries about focusing on it—will she be able to afford organic vegetables when she grows up? (She is really fixated on the cost of produce.) This question does not make me anxious at all. She’s smart and engaged and will graduate with skills employers want, no matter what undergraduate specialty she chooses. Finding the right path, the kind of job that satisfies employee as well as employer, can take time but I have no doubt others will value her intelligence and fire. My own graduates—lawyers, ministers, physical therapists, doctors, HR professionals, writers, editors, artists, arts administrators, diplomats, FBI agents, teachers at every kind of institution—give me high confidence that studying poetry can lead to a good life, however one measures that. (They could level some pretty smart arguments, in fact, for better ways of measuring of the good life.)

On Sunday, however, I fell into a bleaker mood, worrying about my mother in hospital, so I picked up a little book by Roy Scranton, whose first-year-seminar my daughter can’t stop talking about. I ordered it a few weeks ago, but hesitated to jump in, given the title: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights, 2015). And it is, in fact, a dark book, full of facts and figures about climate change—a rational person can’t deny a catastrophe is unfolding, but most of us prefer fictional televised zombie apocalypse to consideration of how our grandchildren, if they make it at all, might be subsisting on farmed algae in the new temperate zone of the Arctic Circle. That is the future to worry about.

Scranton was deployed to Iraq in 2003 as a private in the US Army. He managed his terror by following advice from an 18th century manual for samurai: Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. He ritually contemplated his own demise in graphic detail, then, “before we rolled out through the wire, I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to worry anymore because I was already dead. The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive” (22). He applies the same logic to human civilization: the Holocene is already over; we have to come to terms with living in a different era, with a very uncertain future.

There’s a lot to disagree with in Scranton’s book, but I was moved to watch it turn, eventually, into a fervent argument for the humanities. “Through the ice ages of the past and into the long summer of the Holocene,” he writes, “we carried tools, furs, fire, and our greatest treasure and most potent adaptive technology, the only thing that might save us in the Anthropocene, because it is the only thing that can save those who are already dead: memory” (95). And: “The study of the humanities is nothing less than the patient nurturing of the roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life. This nurturing is a practice not strictly of curation, as many seem to think today, but of active attention, cultivation, making and remaking. It is not enough for the archive to be stored, mapped, or digitized. It must be worked” (99).

When we make literature central to our thoughtful lives, generate new art out of ancient myths, or read poetry to remember the dead, we are working the humanities. I’m glad people fund and value the labor, although I wish we could talk more openly and seriously outside the classroom, as well as in it, about the costs and benefits of the apparent bubble, who’s excluded from it, and how. In any case, it’s good to be part of the heirloom-seeds-relay, so that my students can go on to share their favorite poems in Baltimore schools or embassy outreach classes in the Czech Republic. I’m also grateful my daughter has such a humane, eloquent teacher to plant Gilgamesh and Blake in her brain. We need optimists—hopeful people focused on the practicalities of getting each other out alive—but we direly need our bleak rememberers, too. We lose so much, so constantly.

Poetic housekeeping

The main piece of housekeeping wisdom my mother passed down to me was just make it LOOK clean. If the counter is wiped down, people will admire your kitchen. They’ll never know about the dust under the fridge or even see the crumbs on the floor. Was the family home immaculate? Rarely. Did the below-eye-level debris matter? Not at all.

That advice from a stay-at-home mom adapted pretty well to the life of a mother with a sixty-hour-a-week job, although when the appliance repair guy pulls out the fridge and uncovers some unholy dustscape, I do wince in anticipation of that look: what kind of woman are you, sitting around in sweatpants with piles of books, when THIS is growing HERE? Not that I feel guilty; it just annoys me to suffer raised eyebrows when I don’t have time to make speeches about gendered divisions of labor. I take Chris as a role model, since, in his focus on writing, he is completely impervious to looks the neighbors probably give him about our raggedy yard and the dire lichen blossoming on our siding.

The same principle converts fine to most kinds of work. At home, if the kids are thriving, it doesn’t matter if the weeds are, too. Likewise, at the office, if you’re giving students and colleagues the help they really need, you can leave certain emails to rot; you just have to be clear in your priorities and thoughtful about whether a small task completed now will matter enormously to someone later, or whether it’s really, genuinely small after all.

But what about writing? Scholarship is supposed to be meticulous. A small error now can be quoted and requoted twenty times, distorting arguments made decades later. Yet pore-over-every-source perfectionists may get scooped or never see publication at all, because research is endless, like housekeeping. Once you’ve scoured the whole field, dust is already gathering in the room where you started–there’s always a new angle, or an overlooked one, to worry about. At some point, you just have to say good enough and cross your fingers that the inevitable crumb on the floor stays invisible.

I have made mistakes in print. Blogging and social media make error even more likely–no editors, little time for patient scrubbing. I remind myself I’m not a surgeon–my slips usually cost someone proper credit for his or her hard work, not life and limb–but it still feels bad, as it should, I guess.

This season, as I’m delivering a new poetry book to the world, I realize I’m more fastidious about verse than any other kind of writing. A poem’s room is so little–nowhere for the trash to hide. I also know I can take my time with a poem. Unlike an article, whose reference list quickly spoils, a good poem has a long shelf-life.

Appropriately enough given today’s metaphor, my reflections on editing Radioland appear as a “House Guest” feature this week on Ecotone‘s blog. I’m still not sure if I got everything right in my new collection–my other books have flaws, although I refuse to name them here–but I worked on it word by word, comma by comma, at least as scrupulously as on any project I’ve ever undertaken. Go ahead, run your white gloves all over it and tell me what you find.

And, of course, I had tons of help; my acknowledgements page doesn’t cover the half of it. In addition to everyone named in the book itself, Mary Giaimo does meticulous copy-editing for Barrow Street Press. Sarah Kruse is laboring hard to fulfill orders and help publicity. IMG_1688 (1)Still further behind the scenes, many, many magazine editors made the poems better. (And on that note, hurrah for editors everywhere! I am delighted to have new poems lately in Eleven Eleven and the sci-fi issue of New Orleans Review.)

This week I hit pause on my critical project to complete some more invisible housekeeping. Some of it is unpaid work for others–reviewing articles and promotion files, writing references, and learning how to be a trustee for the AWP (did I mention I’m now Mid-Atlantic Council Chair?–yikes). For my own poetry’s sake, I’m working on a radio essay, with help from W&L people, and who knows if it will ever hit the airwaves? I’m sending out review copies, applying to festivals, and nominating myself for prizes. Most of that work won’t make any difference at all, it’s costly in time and money, and–let me show you behind the oven here–all the self-promotion gets kind of embarrassing.

But, well, hell, let the lichen grow all over the house and the dust bunnies fatten. Boosting the signal for Radioland–that’s high priority. And I am beyond grateful to everyone who has helped, or is helping now, by buying the book, ordering a copy for their library, reviewing it, teaching it, secretly plotting to invite me to read from it, or whatever else you’re doing for poetry rather than wipe out the kitchen cupboards. Seriously, nobody looks in there.

On judging and being judged

A couple of days ago I finished judging the annual poetry awards for the Science Fiction Poetry Association–a very otherworldly reading assignment! The following reflections on the experience appear in slightly more compressed form in the new issue of Star*Line and are reprinted here with permission. Thanks to the SFPA folks for inviting me to serve and to all the poets who participated. Spending time with their work gave me an interesting view on a literary universe I’m still learning about, and as you’ll see below, it also inspired some thinking about poetic judgment generally.


Rejections are always showering down on me like micrometeoroids. Learning to tolerate the hail is a character-building aspect of being a poet. Sometimes disappointment burns; mostly I shrug it off. No poem pleases everyone, and besides, judges are fickle. Writing that seems dull one evening, when a reader is tired and grumpy, might glitter in the morning light. Or a triolet about spiders might land on the desk of a rhyme-hating arachnophobe. That is, there’s contingency involved, even when everyone involved is doing their best to read objectively. A poet has to do good work to win a contest, but you also have to be a little bit lucky.

I’m personally calmer about that luck factor now that I occasionally judge as well as suffer judgment. Most recently, selecting the SFPA contest winners, I wondered about my differences from previous arbiters. I didn’t find myself worrying, for example, about degrees of science fictionality. A haiku might only deploy a brief speculative trope but that was okay by me—whereas another judge might be a stickler.

Instead–and my former students will recognize these terms from workshops–I read, as I always read, for power, control, and complexity. By power I mean the energy some poems emanate, perhaps through emotional intensity, narrative suspense, or startling imagery. Sometimes a less-polished poem conveys more power than an exquisitely crafted one, but you can’t disperse prizes on potential—that’s where control comes in. When judging these entries, I reluctantly put aside some poems with heart when I realized line breaks didn’t make sense or cliché dragged down the description. Complexity takes various forms, but in short, good poems work through at least two problems simultaneously. Maybe it’s a human-alien love story in concert with an unusual take on the sonnet, or a folklore revision using hyper-scientific diction—in any case, there’s a lot going on linguistically, emotionally, intellectually, and/ or structurally.

Last week I received three packets of poems stripped of identifying features and had to process them quickly. Over many pots of tea, I marked intriguing poems with sticky notes, took head-clearing walks, and read them again. Sometimes I realized the ending of an otherwise good poem was just too predictable; sometimes verses that had seemed marginal grew on me. I didn’t recognize any writer by his or her style or obsessions and was surprised to learn later that some quite different poems were by the same person. I also had no idea so many of the winning pieces were authored by women and don’t know how that stacks up to the entry pool, proportionally, but given that most of the publishing world tilts the other way (see VIDA for details), that result seems like a good thing. Several entries barely missed an honorable mention—so if you entered but didn’t get named a winner, ask a smart friend to read your piece with a critical eye, then tune it up and get it back into circulation. And as I said above, all judges have moods and idiosyncrasies, so I may simply have failed to render your brilliance appropriate homage.

Among the Dwarf poems, I admired the surreal situation and resonant ending of “Anomaly,” the imagistic freshness of “Methane Snowfall,” and the way “Crater Conundrum Pizza” riffs both on ad-speak and time paradoxes. Among the Short Form entries, “Metis Emits” delighted me with sound play and feisty sweetness. “Phone Tree” and “Some Who Wander Become Lost” juxtapose the mythic against the mundane, the first with wit, the second darkly. (The Short Form category, by the way, received more entries than the other two put together and so offered the stiffest competition: sf poets, keep that in mind for next year!) The three Long Form winners are very different from one another: “Transference” unfolds a complex sf premise in vivid language; in “Arizona Rest Stop” a lively voice projects a wild tale; and the weird sonnet crown “Comet Elm” is formally impressive.

I congratulate the winners but know others will judge the judge benighted—I rarely agree with other referees’ selections, after all. Fortunately, however, SFPA judges change annually, so next year you can take your chances with a different barbarous, stardust-battered hominid. Engage and allons-y!

Hey you out there in radioland!

radioland thumbnailMy new book of poems, Radioland, is now available for purchase! My own box is supposed to arrive today, although I live in such a small town we don’t receive daily UPS delivery, so it could be tomorrow. I’m jittery with suspense.

In the meantime, I thought you might find a couple of my answers to a Barrow Street publicity questionnaire interesting. It’s always a little tricky to say what a poetry book is “about,” and what I thought I was doing may be different than what I actually accomplished, but below I give it my best shot.

1) Explain the significance of your title.

“Radioland” is an imaginary place: broadcasters used the word to gesture towards their far-flung listeners. Since researching Voicing American Poetry–and especially since my 2011 Fulbright in New Zealand–I’ve been thinking about how and why we transmit our voices over huge gaps in time, space, and understanding. These poems concern many of the ways people send and receive their most urgent messages, including radio but also letters, cellphones, websites, newspapers, literary works, and even dreams and hauntings. Some of the trickiest communications in this book occur between my father and me. He was born in Brooklyn in 1925, so the dated sound of the word “radioland” also conjures the generation gap between us, as well as the difficulties I have decoding my own teenagers.

2) Briefly describe your work, as you would to someone who doesn’t read a lot of poetry. Talk specifically about repeating ideas, themes, and images, and why they are important to the work. What is the overall tone of your work? What do you think you are doing that might be new?

My obsession with sound shows up in recurrent signal-and-static metaphors as well as in rhyme and rhythm. Several natural disasters are important to the book, including the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, NZ; the 2012 derecho in the mid-Atlantic US; and Hurricane Sandy, as well as personal upheavals. Because I’m trying to redefine some kinds of destruction as change, experimental punctuation became important as I revised—a visual way of marking or resisting closure. There are a number of sonnets here, too, including the sonnet crown “Damages, 2011.” As the notes say, I am particularly interested in NZ’s tradition of arranging sonnets in couplets, but I am also thinking about the sonnet’s conventional turn or volta in connection to the idea of self-redefinition. The formal variety of the book, as well as its investments in damaged, irrecoverable, or imaginary places, are probably its most unusual aspects. There is more science here than in most poetry books, as well, including radio wave propagation, geology, meteorology, and neurotransmission.

Radioland’s autobiographical arc includes a 2011 sabbatical in New Zealand with my husband and two kids, during which my parents’ marriage (in the US) unexpectedly imploded; my father’s remarriage, illness, and death within a year of my return; a catastrophic house flood; and other episodes of personal and historical violence. The sequence moves towards consolation through natural cycles and human love. Raising teenagers and watching their rapid transformations emphasize the necessity of listening to other people’s signals. The many dream and ghost poems describe an inner attention, because sometimes we become strange even to ourselves.

*If you’re considering teaching or reviewing the book, contact me or Barrow Street Press for a complimentary copy (info at barrowstreet dot com). And I’m always happy to give a reading or visit a class, virtually (through Skype etc.) or in the flesh, if I can get there without taking out a second mortgage. And local people: my spouse and I will be signing our new books on Weds. Nov 4th from 5-7 pm at the Bookery. I’ll ask the W&L Bookstore to stock Radioland, too. Lots of work in the next few weeks to air this news!


Literary Lexington in the 1920s

“First came Vachel Lindsay and gave a ‘reading’ (if you could call it that) of his poem in the Washington and Lee Library. One of them sounded to me like a hog calling. Then came Carl Sandburg whom I liked much better.”

This is from an obscure memoir called Mrs. Ecker’s Lexington, 1918-1929, edited by Dr. Charles W. Turner, billed on the title page as “Retired Professor of History Department of Washington and Lee University,” and printed in Roanoke by the Virginia Lithography & Graphics Company in 1990. Grace Glasgow Dunlop was born in 1878 in Georgetown; in 1906 she married John Ecker and they had four children. Ecker died of tuberculosis around 1914, and as Grace Dunlop Ecker, a smart and energetic young widow, reflected some years later, “When war finally came to my own country it was a veritable mental boost for me, for it changed my train of thought and having no man of my own to send I threw myself, my soul and body, into the work of the Red Cross.” Eventually, however, with Washington “swarming” with war workers, and everyone suffering from food and coal shortages, she decided to move her family to Lexington for a while.

Her memoir of the town I live in is lively and interesting, full of funny detail about the Virginia Military Institute and W&L, where I work. Comical tensions between Presbyterians and Episcopalians; the lassitude of local summers after students clear out; Robert E. Lee idolatry–they ring true to the place I first came to know decades later, in 1994. While she lived first in a rented house on Letcher Avenue, between the two campuses, she later built a home around the block from me, on what became Barclay Lane. I’m pretty certain the painter Cy Twombly lived there later.

I’m not precisely sure why I’m doing so much side-reading in local history, except that poems keep coming out of that exploration. But it’s fun to stroll around the neighborhood with Chris in the evening, book in hand, and figure out which houses various eccentric Lexingtonians lived in by Ecker’s idiosyncratic descriptions. There are several references to literary culture here, too. I love the sound of the Wednesday morning Reading Club. Mrs. Derbyshire read dramatically from Sandburg, Lindsay, Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, and others, while her listeners darned stockings.

Ecker had taste and a fierce appetite for culture, as well as a longing to lead, to be useful, in a way her life rarely allowed. She isn’t an entirely sympathetic character. She thinks wrongly, for example, that she’s a good employer to a servant she keeps referring to as “fat, freckled, yellow Lucy,” who is homesick for D.C. and eventually walks out without notice. Ecker failed to understand her own prejudices, but she was a thwarted person too, a woman whose talents and desires had little enough scope beyond volunteer work and dancing at Hops with lonely cadets. She suffered too many losses, as well–not only her husband’s death and her mother’s but her young son’s too, suddenly, as she read to him on the sofa.Ecker

I’m glad she ventured out to hear Lindsay and Sandburg and wish she’d said more about them. The little passage I quote above, though, is followed by a fuller description of another literary event:

“Then on a strange October day came John Drinkwater who had become famous for his ‘Abraham Lincoln.’ I say a strange October day for we had a heavy snow, and I shall never forget the effect of the red and yellow leaves and the evergreen trees among the white snow. The event was to take place in the Doremus Gymnasium at Washington and Lee, the largest place in town. All the electricity was off and when the audience arrived the place was lit with candles and lanterns. When Mr. Drinkwater took his place at the reading stand, which was trimmed with greens and red candles, his first remark was he felt like a Christmas tree. He had to leave before eight the next morning, which he did not relish at all, to keep his engagement at Sweet Briar, nor, I heard did his English taste relish the salted butter served at the Dutch Inn, but I understand that he considered the campus of the University very beautiful and impressive.”

It sounds magical, doesn’t it?–despite the horror of salted butter. Ecker moved back to Georgetown not long after, grieving her child and ready for another change of scene. She died in her nineties, in 1973. You can find her better-known Portrait of Old George Town on Project Gutenberg (John Drinkwater’s Lincoln play is there too). I’m glad to have visited with her. All these familiar places are becoming even more haunted than they used to be.

On submitting a poem 50 times

I’ve had my head under a giant seeing-my-daughter-off-to-college-shaped rock, so when I read Jeannine Hall Gailey’s blog yesterday, its references to scandal in the poetry world inspired me to lift my busy skull and ask, “Wha-at?” I’m not going to name the white guy who published in Best American Poetry under a Chinese-American pseudonym, because he’s getting enough attention already for what isn’t, in my opinion, an interesting poem. If you, too, have been sulking underground and need to know what I’m talking about, this piece in the Rumpus will give you the gist. And editor Sherman Alexie’s reflections on the experience are also worth a read. The man is a master of the rhetoric of authenticity, but even so manipulated (“This whole damn essay is grandstanding”) I found myself converted to sympathy for his process and goals, if not for his choice.

None of it is that surprising, really–the arrogant defensive colonialist appropriation while wearing the mask of “white guys need a leg up” is familiar enough. But I keep snagging on the factoid that he submitted the poem to journals 40 times under his own name, 10 times under the alias, before Prairie Schooner took it. That’s not incredible, as most poets can tell you. There’s a lot of chance in the submissions game and it can take forever for even a very good poem to catch a sympathetic reader’s eye. I just keep wondering what exactly his figure means.

Mr. McMichael Derrickson O’Michaels, to borrow a sly friend’s re-naming riff, says he keeps thorough submissions records. I bet he’s better friends with Excel than I am. Rather than be organized and efficient, I maintain two lists. One involves a stack of pads on which I scribble down submissions chronologically in numbered batches. Here’s a page from 2013, in which I was doing MUCH better than ten years previously. submissions

I cross out the journals that reject the batch entirely and circle the ones that accept one poem or more. I used to average ten tries or so before an acceptance; now my odds are better. I think the poems are stronger than they used to be–I hope I keep improving!–but I’m also savvier about where I send in the first place. The handwritten list helps me see at a glance which forlorn, unloved batches need to be returned to circulation.

I simultaneously log this data into a Word file that lists magazines alphabetically, so I can see, for instance, if I’ve sent these particular pieces to The Journal before, or whether I need to give those editors a longer rest from my bombardments. I bold the names of journals that have published me before and use asterisks for venues I aspire to see my poems in. I also include notes from previous readings of the magazine–my own weird shorthand to help me remember “hey, this is NOT the place to send a rondel.” This morning I looked for a magazine that has rejected 50 of my poems, since I can’t easily search by single pieces. Here’s one:

*harvard review: lyric, funny/experimental—good ear
7/03 pupal stages, cross-eyed, 2 faced, foreign bodies P, sonnet looking rej 7/03
6/04 genuine, in threes, baby’s, neighboring T, torturing rej 7/04
8/06 patter, two in the bush, 3 out of 4, just long, sabb rej 10/06
7/07 ode, shipshape, she’s doing, divine, horror rej 11/07 “submit again–C Thompson”
12/7 hawthorne, beatles, widdershins, gifts, dead man rej 4/08
6/08 woman using, inner life, exercise, underground, jesus rej 9/08
2/09 split, oral, forgetting, twilight, tub rej 7/09
2/10 douchebags, sigh, entrée, sub, adolescence rej 10/10
9/11 that shall cross community speech paternity Wallace encouraging rec 4/12
4/13 pattern my dead father radioland can’t catch holding rej 9/13

Some of the magazines that keep turning me away get moved to the “Why Bother?” or “Just Rude” section of the file. I’m not going to continue trying no-simultaneous-submissions journals that take a year to respond, for instance, and sometimes, upon further research, I’ve realized that although a venue is prestigious, I am consistently bored by their choices. I’m sure I started sending to Harvard Review simply because the name sounded fancy. I’ll keep trying, though, because I do admire their selections and feel kinship with them.  Who knows–maybe the fifty-first try will be the charm.

What neither of these lists reveals, however, is that I constantly revisit and improve poems–I would never try a batch with a different editor if I hadn’t recently cast a critical eye over their slant-rhymes. Often I realize that a poem I’d thought was a killer is actually undeveloped, or that it begins or ends with the wrong line. And that’s after sitting on it for months before submitting it in the first place–I don’t rush work out. It just takes a lot of distance for me to see my own strengths and weaknesses objectively. Some of the poems HR rejected went on to appear in journals that are at least as well-respected–I’m pretty sure they missed a couple of beauties. Others had problems I only resolved through a round of rethinking. Still other poems I eventually dumped, stopped sending anywhere, because I lost faith in them. I write a LOT of poems. They’re not all keepers.

See, that’s the thing–sometimes editors overlook a poem wrongly, but on plenty of other occasions their refusals are right. If a poem gets turned down 40 times, it probably needs medical help. Just resending and resending the same thing seems dumb to me. It’s possible to LEARN from even form-letter rejections–to learn something, that is, about what makes a poem work for readers, rather than cynicism about a system you then game through deception. And I don’t know why any of us would keep trying if we’re not in it to keep writing better poems. It’s not like there’s any glory in this undervalued art, except the glory of a gorgeous line.

One last thing: the 76th poem Alexie mentions, the one he feels sick over not including in BAP but will never identify? I’m pretty sure that was mine.

Crazed poet-parent launches daughter and book

Mad Wesleyan

Now my daughter is off in radioland–away at college but constantly present in my imagination, and intermittently present through texts and posts. A message with cheerful emoji has such an instant calming effect on my blood pressure–it’s amazing that when I went to Rutgers, I could only communicate with my family once a week or so via a payphone shared by the whole hall. My mother says that after dropping me off, she went to bed for eighteen hours with her first and only migraine. Performing the same ritual thirty years later, I headed towards the tear-blurred George Washington Bridge, driving like a maniac as I fought a very strong urge to turn the car around again. It’s a relief to be off the highway and tuning into my daughter’s increasingly upbeat broadcasts.

The shock of the separation is, of course, a mark of love–it’s better, in some ways, than NOT finding the transition difficult. When my mother went off to nursing school at 16, no one even walked her to the bus. Imagine that, dragging your lonely suitcase down some Liverpool street towards mysterious adulthood, without even the illusion that the Twitterverse is listening.

If I ever regain some mental focus–all these strong feelings crowd my receivers with a LOT of noise–I’ll be hunkering down to the sabbatical version of brisk September labor. In addition to my main writing project, I have conferences to prepare for and I’m behind on the regular work of poetry submissions. I’m also making to-do lists for the publication of Radioland in a few weeks. You can see the cover, blurbs, and a sample poem here, although it’s not quite available to order yet. Poetry presses do the best they can with limited resources, but publicity is mostly up to the poet, so I’m researching post-publication prizes, festivals, and other reading opportunities, and I’ll send out many notices and review copies myself. (Contact me if you want to teach or review it! Barrow Street Press is good about fulfilling orders, too.) This investment of time and money is intense but worth it; I put a lot of heart and hard thinking into the book so I want it to find readers, even if its chance for serious glory is, as always, small.

In the meantime, if you’re sending out a prose or poetry ms, check out C&R Press’s call for submissions. They published my first poetry collection, Heathen, but the press has new owners now. I’m impressed with the energy and smarts John Goslee and Andrew Sullivan are bringing to the enterprise. Thanks also to the editors of Time Present: The Newsletter of the T. S. Eliot Societywhere my review of Robert Crawford’s Young Eliot appears.radioland thumbnail

And beam me good vibes if you can spare any, because while I’m trying to be philosophical and appreciate my own luckiness, I am kind of a mess.

Women on the radio

english books

Broadcast, by Zayneb Allak

It’s about loneliness.
A woman from Birmingham tells us
about the time she was lonely.

When I left Birmingham
the Bull Ring was still ashen.
I remember it in the slush:

a lady in a pink and gold sari
with a grey anorak over the top
dragged blue and white plastic bags.

Nothing sounds more hangdog
than a lonely Brummie, I think,
no vowels could be droopier.

My dad used to mimic them,
I’m from Birmingham I am.
We’d tell him he was way off.

The woman on the radio says
the time she was lonely was bad,
she actually literally wilted.

Her cadences announce
what I least expect: home
how I might miss it.

The Rialto 82, Winter’s End 2015, page 50, reprinted by the author’s permission

I’ve been meaning to post this lovely poem for a while. When in England this past June and July, I picked up a bunch of books and magazines–Carrie Etter, Sarah Jackson, Rory Waterman, and other poets publishing there now are pretty great. I’ve also put myself on a catch-up reading course in 21st century verse from the British Isles, although in the haphazard way of a curious person rather than in the urgent way of a professor preparing a syllabus (I’m on sabbatical–have I gloated enough about that yet? Of course not!). I took out the few recent volumes our little library owns that I’d never read (how is Selima Hill new to me?). I also ordered books based on selections I liked in a couple of anthologies (Niall Campbell’s Moontide is magical–there’s a podcast by him here). And the new Irish-themed issue of Poetry just arrived, so more self-education awaits. Even on an endless sabbatical I couldn’t read all the published contemporary poetry in English, of course, but it’s fun to try.

Zayneb Allak doesn’t have a book yet–she’s finishing a creative dissertation at Nottingham Trent University. One of her critical chapters concerns my book Heterotopiaa Liverpool-themed collection she found by accident but that resonated with her own complicated experiences of place. She grew up partly in Liverpool, partly in Iran, and her family now lives in Birmingham, as “Broadcast” suggests. I love the lines “Nothing sounds more more hangdog/ than a lonely Brummie,” and I also love that her home-longing is triggered by sound, an accent heard over the radio. Given that my next book, Radioland, uses broadcast as a motif, it sounds like our obsessions continue to harmonize.

New Jersey and New York accents, hated as they are by many, sound homey enough to make my heart skip a beat. So do Liverpudlian voices. My mom doesn’t have a strong Liverpool accent; she grew up in that city but was mostly schooled out of scouse intonations, which carry strong negative connotations over there (but not in the U.S., where everyone thinks “Beatles!”). I had assumed this prejudice was past-tense until I sat with an English couple while traveling a couple of years ago; they were very friendly until they found out where my mother was from, after which they shut up firmly and kept their eyes downcast. I know the bias concerns class and probably politics. I’m too much of an outsider to understand the nuances, but I think of Liverpool when I hear people express prejudice against the varieties of drawl associated with the southeast U.S. The unfair cliche is that a southern accent sounds stupid, uneducated. I know many southerners who code-switch, dialing up the twang for local friends and muting it in, say, academic circles. I personally mourn the loss to the soundscape, but I’m sure I would code-switch too–and probably did alter my own accent unconsciously at some early age. My sister, for example, sounds more New Jersey than I do. And my mother says I had a British accent before I started school.

Zayneb, a generous, capable sort of person, arranged some events for me in Nottingham and Liverpool. It was wonderful to meet her and I’m rooting for lots more poems with complicated accents under her byline in future. For the moment, here’s a picture of her near Nottingham Castle–I wish I could post a recording!english zayneb

And hey, speaking of little magazines doing good work in amplifying poetry’s signal: thanks to One for featuring my eccentrically-titled “Postlapsarian Salsa Verde” in their new issue. They’re looking for submissions for the next one…