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…


Mess, noise, static

mess maple“The derecho felled my father, I mean my maple tree”: that’s a line from my forthcoming book, Radioland. My desk at home faces a large old maple, and beyond that Myers St., and beyond that House Mountain. A storm cleaved the tree, however, during the summer of 2012, about a month after my father died. Half the wood smashed down on our porch roof. A few weeks afterward, a pipe burst and our house flooded so catastrophically we had to move out for a couple of months while the major repairs were underway. In one of those irrational associational chains, I connected both events with my father’s death. On a tree expert’s advice, we let the broken maple struggle on for a few years. I wrote with an eye to its golden wound, watching the exposed grain darken, waiting for each April’s reduced leafing, until recently, we called it quits. The tree was dying and we feared the next storm would bring the rest of it down on us, or on our neighbors.

So it’s surreal to me to watch the last of my tree taken to pieces as I proofread the gallmess radiolandeys of Radioland, a collection full of my father’s death, that derecho-torn maple, and other disasters. I’ve been writing these poems for years, and in fact pulled together the first version of the book in April 2013, during a two-week retreat at the VCCA. I just found this snapshot of the winnowing/ arranging process on my phone. If there’s a way to lay out the draft of a poetry book without making a mess on every available surface, I don’t know it.

The book has undergone several transformations since then. Just a few weeks ago I took some advice from my editor at Barrow Street and put a different poem in front of the pack. It was the right call, but the change meant rereading critically to see how the book’s arc was jostled into new meanings. Everything alters a little: the story, the progression of feeling, the rhythms made by recurrences of forms and styles and subjects. I discovered patterns in diction I hadn’t caught before, particularly the overuse of “noise” and “static,” because that’s one of the main questions this book asks–how does a person sift through the noise of experience and find a true signal worth amplifying?

A year ago I wrote about the process of working on this collection here, and my ominous last question was, “What am I not seeing?” At this point I’m mainly proofing for layout problems–spacing, italics–but I did give the ms yet another rereading this morning. Each time, I realize something new. Radioland contains many sonnets, some of them portraying the dissolution of my parents’ marriage. They start off arranged in fragmentary couplets but become more integrated as the book turns in a hopeful direction. What’s missing, perhaps, is one last fourteen-liner, a love poem to the spouse whose help got me through. Instead, he’s lurking unobtrusively but companionably in a few first-person-plural pronouns. I wonder what other holes and excesses might be invisible to me now, but obvious to readers?

In the meantime, the tree guys and their cherry-pickers just pulled away, leaving only a stump to be ground later. The next question for spousal contemplation: what should we plant in the gap?mess stump

Elephant blessing

On Sunday afternoon I took a bubble bath–I know, tough life–during which I was visited by an apparition. My spouse and kids say I overheated myself, and I did emerge flushed bright-red and a little dizzy, but I swear I spent that half-hour with an elephant made of bubbles. This wasn’t just a heap of foam with a snout, but a nicely shaped creature with ears, an eye-dent, and an impressive proboscis. It rocked back and forth on top of the water cheerfully, refusing to dissolve until I pulled the plug.

I had been laboring hard on several projects, including the ninth chapter of Taking Poetry Personally, the critical book I want to finish during this year’s sabbatical. Each chapter–and they’re short-ish, under 5000 words each–concerns a single twenty-first-century poem, paired with an issue I’m thinking about as I consider what it means to immerse oneself in a poem’s possible world. This one, “Brevity,” is keyed to a sonnet by Rafael Campo. I was finding it amazingly hard to be brief about it. Poetic compression is a big issue.

This book blends criticism with personal narrative, too, and the story I’d chosen, with the alleged virtues of smallness in mind, concerned weight. Like a lot of women, I’m a serial dieter. I began counting calories as a teen feeling the usual pressures to be small and feminine, to deny any appetites. Periodically for the next three decades, I’d decide the padding was getting out of hand and resolve to count calories and/or carbs. It was always excruciating, but it always worked, until a few years ago. Now if I eat healthy foods moderately and exercise daily, I slowly gain weight. If I get stricter, I stop the dial’s uptick, but no matter what I do, I don’t lose. Plenty of perimenopausal women experience the same thing, I gather, and medical opinion seems muddled about it. Some sources the body is desperately trying to maintain an estrogen supply–if the ovaries won’t keep producing, fat cells can be made to serve the purpose–so dieting is no use. (But you can game your metabolism if you take our supplements!) Others say you can reverse the gain through a more rigorous diet and exercise program. (1300 calories a day and intense exercise forever–you can do it! It just means making a career of weight control!) It’s all alternately depressing and infuriating. After all, I have other work to do, and I’m healthy. The prescribed level of hunger makes me angry all the time and unable to think straight–and now that austerity doesn’t even work anymore, it just seems like the stupidest kind of vanity. Better to come to terms with occupying more space. And yet, as I drafted the chapter, I felt increasingly crushed, unable to let go of the desire to be thin once more, to feel in-control and approved-of. I have been hungry, hungry, hungry for about a week, spending more time at the gym, and the scale hasn’t budged one ounce.

So it was particularly funny to share my bathtub with the elephant, biggest land mammal around. What does it mean?, I wondered, and the kids said, It means you should stop boiling yourself alive. (They also oppose austerity measures on principle because it means I stop making pasta.) With a pang of guilt, I remembered Asha from a roadside breeder zoo near here. We took the kids sometimes when they were little, but it was a depressing place, and in fact the zoo has been accused since of mistreating its animals. Asha is a female African elephant there who has been alone for nearly 20 years, although elephants are profoundly social. She touched my sneakered toe long ago with her trunk, jolting me awareness of her as a fellow creature, and likely a lonely, suffering one, but I had never done anything for her. On Monday I wrote a letter, signed a petition, thought of her. Was I called to do or learn anything else?

That night I dreamed of an elephant, male. He and I were going on a journey together, not as beast and rider, but as friends. Our house had a special door, like at a car dealership, large enough to admit him. He was thirsty and kept drinking from suburban hoses as we walked down the street. It was a sweet, companionable interlude.

Today I learned that one of the world’s many elephant deities, Ganesha, is a patron of wisdom and learning. People invoke him at new beginnings because he places and removes obstacles. Is that why I dreamed of him, looking for help with my sabbatical, my book? It’s not for the doomed diet: I’m not expecting any miracles as far as my own middle-aged girth. If I could choose my luck, anyway, I’d rather be a good writer than a skinny one.elephant

So many mountains

I am very glad I attended “Writing the Rockies” to discuss poetry and place with Anna Lena Phillips Bell, Tom Cable, Corinna McClanahan Schroeder, and many others. Getting there and back involved three flights each way, as well as some mild altitude sickness and a chagrined recognition that I’m too bad at sleeping in the first place to manage dorm accommodations (though my suite-mates were stellar company). But the conversations that started in panels and spilled into meal-times were exciting. It’s also wonderful to have cool sunny weather and grand scenery for the always direly necessary solitary walk on Day Two. A Friday night restaurant expedition was particularly memorable: the conversation ranged from poetry to negotiating childcare with spouses, and ended with a few die-hard poet-scholars finally walking one distinguished writer back to her hotel in the dark then stopping at McD’s for iced tea and soft-serve. Scandalous carousing, I know, so I won’t name names.

The poetry part of the conference, and of Western Colorado State University’s creative writing program generally, has a formalist bent. For example, during one paper for Anna Lena’s “Enplaced Poetics” panel, Tom Cable, medievalist prosodist extraordinaire, demonstrated how he can jog while reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets (and regularly does), but not while reciting “Sir Gawain.” Good thing we had a roomy venue. Ned Balbo took some blurry photos of the gallant galloping Texan–I’ll add them to this post when Ned gets home and sends them on. Corinna and I both discussed how and why poems immerse us in place, she by comparing her own “Instructions for Return” to Amy Clampitt’s work, and I in relation to the New Zealand poet Robert Sullivan. The always smart and generous Anna Lena closed things out by reading one of my poems–thank you!–and by talking us through an amazing handout. Check out, for example, Eric Magrane’s “Various Instructions for the Practice of Poetic Field Research.” I will definitely be returning to his prompts.

During these past few days, I’ve also been contemplating other 2015-6 conference plans. I’m likely taking on too much, but with Radioland coming out Oct.1, I’d like my work to be as visible as possible. Kim Bridgford and I hashed out panel ideas for the second annual “Poetry by the Sea”–I heard great things about #1–and my inbox was full of messages about events I’m helping to organize, including a participant reading at the Boston Modernist Studies Association meeting in November and long-term planning for a future regional AWP conference (I’m vice chair of the Mid-Atlantic region now and still figuring out what responsibilities that includes). Like half the US literary world, I’m waiting, too, to see how my 2016 AWP panel proposals fare (vice chairs can present, although chairs can’t).

Academic meetings and creative writing gatherings strain the wallet, the family, and the body, so making these choices is HARD. I therefore understand the frustrations expressed in last spring’s provocative NY Times piece by Princeton prof Christy Wampole, “The Conference Manifesto.” I have never, ever attended a meeting just to give my own paper then hang out at the pool bar, but I think her 10-point contract is good. It mystifies me that our conventional presentation mode in English is to flatly read out double-spaced pages. That would be a disaster in any classroom, and it’s a pretty lame use of time and funds, too, even when the audience is filled with patient, eager specialists. Yet Wampole’s conference skepticism also reflects greater access to informed conversation about her specialties than most of us enjoy. One published reply, “A Conference Manifesto for the Rest of Us” by Cora Fox, Andrea Kaston Tange, and Rebecca Walsh, was a relief to this professor at a rural liberal arts college. “…Academics often find themselves a party of one in their departments, working as the sole representative of a particular field, without immediate access to colleagues in their fields of expertise. Done well, an academic conference offers a chance for collegial dialogue of the sort that can lead to tangible progress.”–Yes.

These manifestos concern scholarly meetings but the creative writing ones work similarly: great presenters share the podium with unprepared, marginally coherent ones. You find soulmates in the art but also feel the disdain, sometimes, of cliques. Further, gender dynamics at most meetings of any kind range from slightly tricky to awful. Often, though not always, women are more generous in supporting each others’ work. An all-male panel draws a mixed-gender audience; an all-female one draws mostly women. I’ve never attended a wholly terrible, worthless conference, but there are some to which I would never return because of a poor sense of community.

The distance means I’m unlikely to become a regular, but there was friendly community for sure among the attendees of “Writing the Rockies.” I also appreciated how the critical and creative portions of the conference were similarly good and useful. That’s rare, and it’s what I want most–to bring both of my major writing commitments to a single, welcoming space. I’d like to put off choosing between the two sides of the hyphen in “poet-scholar,” yet so often my conference-going entails not balance as much as doubling the time, money, and effort. Even if my conference budget weren’t limited, my tolerance for sleep deprivation is.

On that note: while I’m taking a couple of days to normalize my circadian rhythms and organize receipts, it’s now that part of the summer when I need to sit down, consolidate what I’ve read and written during my travels, and establish a work rhythm. I’m finalizing Radioland, preparing to jump once again into the deep end of my critical book ms, plus I’d love to turn my attention to a few other projects now simmering on back burners. That’s a lot to do. Given the intimidating vista ahead, jet lag is joining forces with the usual pre-writing jolt of anxiety. Quiet hysteria, even. So many mountains.

rockies 3Rockies listeningRockies jogger

Rockies hand talker

Let us hold hands and look


In a Bath Teashop, by John Betjeman
“Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another —
Let us hold hands and look.”
She such a very ordinary little woman;
He such a thumping crook;
But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels
In the teashop’s ingle-nook.

I have it on good local authority that Sally Lunn’s is the only teashop in Bath with an inglenook, so Betjeman’s poetic assignation must have occurred here. It’s the oldest remaining house in Bath, according to the plaque out front, and all the guidebooks say one must eat a bun there. We finally obeyed on Wednesday with my visiting cousins, and it was full of Americans–including one of my daughter’s high school teachers, to their mutual shock. It’s a lovely old three-story place with exposed timbers and a low curving plaster ceiling over the narrow stairs.

I didn’t scan for an inglenook because I wasn’t sure what qualified as one, but I just looked it up now: it’s a warm recess by a fireplace. The alliteration in Betjeman’s last two lines gets even more interesting when you learn than angel and ingle both come from Old English via Scots or Irish Gaelic–angel also means fire. I know almost nothing about Betjeman–although he was a poet laureate in the UK, he’s a small-ish figure in the US version of the British canon–but I admire the way character transformation links to linguistic change in this poem. How paradoxical, though, that speaking threatens to break the romantic spell. Language seems to debase love and identity here, and at the same time it carries the flame across great spans of time.

I’m saying goodbye now after a month in Bath, having never figured out what the local accent is, because everyone seems to be from elsewhere–or, at least, changed by long stays in other places. A month isn’t a significant sliver in forty-seven years, so I’m not claiming to have been re-written by the experience myself, as Bath itself has been re-mapped by Romans, medieval kings, and then the grand plans of the Georgians. But I made some wonderful connections here and elsewhere in England. I rendezvoused with family members I hadn’t seen in nine years. I talked and tippled with poets whose work was new to me and picked up more books and magazines than I should have, considering the luggage problem. I did some writing, too, and I suddenly have some new ideas for my youngest poetry manuscript, the core of the book that will come after Radioland. So now I’m off to a picnic lunch by the Avon, and tomorrow morning, very early, we’re dragging our cases onto a coach to Heathrow. Even though I’m returning to work and muggy heat and a small town without Thai food or Roman ruins, I’m feeling nearly ready for the translation.