About Lesley Wheeler

Lesley Wheeler is the author of Heterotopia (Barrow Street Press 2010), Heathen (C&R Press 2009), Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920's to the Present (Cornell University Press 2008), The Poetics of Enclosure: American Women Poets from Dickinson to Dove (University of Tennessee Press 2002), and the chapbook Scholarship Girl (Finishing Line Press 2007). With Moira Richards, Rosemary Starace, and other members of a dedicated collective, she coedited Letters to the World: Poems from the Wom-po Listserv (Red Hen Press 2008). A professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, she has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the American Association of University Women, and the Fulbright Foundation.

Sylvia Plath Quiz

My students’ responses to the real Plath quiz I just administered were too red, they hurt me, so I hereby offer an optional retest.* If your brain has not emptied of images like a cup or a room, please answer the following legibly without using the words hook, bald, black, moon, or blood.

1. What brand of cleanser works best to clear the white tumuli of a father-figure’s eyes?

2. Why did “Morning Song” make you all vow never to bear or sire children, while it strikes me as the most cheerful poem one could possibly write about the identity-negating sleep deprivation resulting from tending a newborn?

3. What marine creature does Plath see in the mirror, and what does that teach you about avoiding reflective surfaces?

4. In “Wintering,” what does Plath keep in the cellar, and please don’t all write “dead bodies” again, because that was seriously creepy?

5. Stop crying. Come here, sweetie, out of the closet. Will you major in it, major in it, major in it?

6. On a scale of 1 to 13, with 1 meaning “totally justified critique of patriarchy” and 13 meaning “wildly offensive trivialization of the Holocaust,” how ich-ich-ich-icky is “Daddy”?

7. Pure? What does it mean?

8. Why is bleeding because you “fall upon the thorns of life” so superior, Scott, to oozing gore from a trepanned veteran, dirty girl, thumb stump?

9. How can there be “nothing there” after Lady Lazarus’ “big strip tease,” except a phoenix? Alternatively, explain in three lines or less how these poems can be A) so messed up and B) simultaneously so powerful and indelible.

Extra credit if you can fold these poems back into your body OR tell me why the moon has nothing to be sad about.

*Passing this retest will not affect your actual grade in any fashion.

Frank O’Hara didn’t live long enough to write about middle age

"Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1953" by Larry Rivers

“Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1953″ by Larry Rivers

Last week, as another birthday hurried past, I taught Frank O’Hara! It was the first time ever I chucked the Selected Poems at my students instead of relying on anthology standards! Many of the poems I assigned were the WRONG ONES but it was still exciting—the papaya juice, George Washington in his tight white pants, unpunctuated rushes climaxing in exclamation points! My undergrads were delighted, pissed off, and puzzled in aesthetically pleasing proportions.

We also read an essay by Wayne Koestenbaum, who is visiting later this term for our Shannon-Clark series of scholarly lectures. “‘Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!': Frank O’Hara’s Excitement” starts, as many works of literary criticism do, by getting personal, and proceeds rapidly through a range of great insights about poetic structure, allusion, tone, and the minutiae that add up to style. One passage in particular has been resonating in me:

“Excitement comes from being lazy and fun loving. O’Hara worked hard, but he also took it easy. His Collected Poems are a manifesto of the high aesthetic rewards that accrue from a life—albeit a tragically abbreviated life—of taking easiness as the gold standard. Like Warhol’s professed love of easy art (or art that was easy to make), O’Hara’s love of easeful production stood in ironic contrast to the uneasy intensity that electrifies his work and complicates its every emotional posture, threading melancholy and ambivalence and the threat of self-loss into the most apparently insouciant exclamations.”

In class, a surprising remark issued from my mouth: I said something about finding that paragraph provocative, given that our culture has virtually adopted busy-ness as a religion. Now, I’m normally pretty skeptical of phrases such as “our culture.” Who is included and excluded from the “our”? Yes, there’s a lot of media coverage on ever-expanding workweeks and the now-standard response of “Busy!” to the old-standard question, “How are you?” I’ve seen plenty of social-media vows not to talk about being busy anymore; I’ve even issued one myself (and broken it repeatedly). I’m not sure it’s a new phenomenon, though. Hard work has been core to the U.S. national myth for a long time. Think of Melville’s busy lawyer facing down Bartleby: clearly you can be smug about your own industry whether or not you wield a cell-phone.

It’s probably truer to quote Ginsberg’s “America”: “I am talking to myself again.” While I’ve been trying to construct a relationship towards work my whole life, the problem seems more acute now in the second half of my forties. For seventeen-plus years kids have been a helpful counterbalance to ambition, reminding me that from a certain highly valid perspective, my urgent deadlines are meaningless. I accomplished a lot in those decades, and did a ton of kid-cleaning-up-after and school-project-advising too, but there were inevitably big chunks of just hanging out. We tossed pebbles into streams, read chapter books aloud for the fifth time, made birthday cakes in honor of cats who would never deign to sniff them, consumed seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, walked toddlers around the mall until one or the other of us finally collapsed like Lana Turner.

My daughter just handed me a sweet handmade card, though, in which she pointed out that if her college applications go well, this may be the last September ever in which she’s present to celebrate my birthday. (I hugged her and she said, “See, even your birthday is all about me.” Funny kid. Works too hard.) My son is younger so I’m not exactly dangling over a precipice, not yet. Still, there’s less and less standing between me and potentially WORKING ALL THE TIME.

I’m more like that stupid lawyer than I am like Bartleby. Work satisfies me, as long as I get pleasant breathers. And while I don’t know about Frank O’Hara’s writing process, his brand of poetic ease is shockingly difficult to pull off. Good poems only flow readily when you put in a lot of hours reading, writing, talking, and thinking about art, and often not even then. Striving is not the enemy. I just can’t stay clear of the anxiety maelstrom work tends to generate, much less keep it all easy and fun-loving.

I do know it’s impossible to predict which hours are going to matter. You have to write the bad poem before the good one, so walking down dead ends isn’t wasted time. Professional generosities sometimes seem like diversion from vocations—putting in a stint as a department head, writing reviews—and sometimes they are, in fact, almost meaningless exercises that subtract painfully from leisure. Other times a former student expresses gratitude for some kindness you’ve totally forgotten and you realize, well, it cost me forty-five minutes, but maybe that recommendation letter was, in fact, a more transformative literary production than any single poem I’ve ever written.

Koestenbaum also provokes me by asserting, “The point of a poem, or an essay, is to pose questions, not to answer them.” How often have I told a student to explain why his observation matters? Or railed against a grant application in my overlarge reading pile for not stating the significance of the research project? Poems, too—a lot of contemporary poetry is frustrating because the author hasn’t done the work of thinking through her fragmented inspirations. It’s not that she should hand me The Answer on an iambic platter. It’s just that if she doesn’t know what she means, the poem probably doesn’t either, and therefore a smart reader can’t puzzle it out. Jigsaws with lots of missing pieces rightly end up mulched.

Yet here I am, raising an unanswerable question about the right way to work. Asking questions is fun; devising even provisional answers is head-breaking. Maybe that’s the proper retort to the problem. If it’s not paying the bills or saving someone or intrinsically fun, should I ever do it?

And ah, here’s where I’m too much like O’Hara for my own good, and at the same time, much dumber about excitement’s necessary lassitudes. It’s ALL fun, isn’t it, from a certain angle? Poems and people and even devising the winter course schedule! But doesn’t Melville’s excitable lawyer strike you as a few ticks less intelligent than his enervated scrivener? It takes introspection and nerve to realize that even when it’s sequins and chocolate soda, sometimes you just prefer not to.

PS: what my essay on “The Waste Land” repressed

eliot1bTo frame an argument in words always entails filtering signal from noise: you can’t include all the evidence, so you try to assemble the best evidence in the best order. Making arguments about contemporary poetry, though, may be a particularly messy enterprise. Just look at the Reading List posted by the September Poetry contributors. We’re all reading different books—I think the only poet who comes up twice is Mary Ruefle. Even voracious readers of poetry haunt different neighborhoods, and we’re often ignorant of what’s happening elsewhere, because the scene is so big and fragmented. So how can anyone make believable qualitative generalizations about the whole field?

My “Undead Eliot” essay in the same issue sticks out a microphone and records echoes of “The Waste Land” in contemporary verse. I had been collecting examples from books, magazines, and web sites for a couple of years—whenever I spotted an Eliot allusion I stuck a copy of the poem in a little pile on a high shelf. I shore such fragments against my ruin all the time, though sometimes I lose track of them before a writing project materializes. In this case, I ended up seeing a pattern in the debris: lots of the poems emphasize sound, voice, cadence. And I found time to pound out part of an essay in the summer of 2012, before I dropped the project, pressed for time. Then Don Share was named Poetry’s editor and I thought, hey, he might like this. (I’d heard a memorable presentation from him years ago about curating audio archives at the Harvard Vocarium.) So I finished a draft, submitted it in June 2013, and a few revisions and 15 months later, I’m singing about unreal cities to all you folks out there in radioland.

I encompass some aesthetic and regional diversity in the essay, but not much—there just isn’t room for more than a handful of examples. What I found myself considering, during the final weeks of back-and-forth about galleys, was what got left out and why. Several of the poems I cut from consideration, because they just weren’t as obsessed with sound as the others, happened to be authored by women. Most of the poets to whom I ended up giving extended attention happened to be authored by men.

So, is contemporary response to “The Waste Land” gendered? That’s hard to answer in the brief thinking-space I can give to blogging, as I perch on the precipice of fall term (classes start today). That question would be hard to answer, frankly, in a book-length argument pondered for years. “Women poets” is an unruly, diverse category, and hallelujah for that. But it may be that women are a little more prone, even when they respond affirmatively to Eliot’s poetic power, to take note, too, of Eliot’s misogyny and/or the poem’s focus on sexuality. There’s the disturbing section about Fresca, a woman poet whose literary productions are compared to passing “stool,” for example—that’s in the manuscript edition. The final version features a few scenes of men and women failing to communicate; the typist’s debased sex with the young man carbuncular; many references to how the rape of Philomel enables song-voice-poetry; and catty pub-talk about abortion. Tiresias stands conspicuously between genders and there are coded references to homosexuality in the Smyrna merchant passage and elsewhere. I hear Eliot’s love for Jean Verdenal resonating through the poem, and wonder if the secret he alludes to in the final section (“the awful daring of a moment’s surrender”) has to do with erotic attachment to the young man he knew in Paris and who died later in the Great War. The role of gender in the poem, and the history of its composition, has been key to its reception by many poets, including me.

By way of postscript, then, here are a couple of poems that didn’t fit my essay’s paradigm but that nevertheless testify about how Eliot sounds now. From “Her Nerves,” by Jeannine Hall Gailey, quoted by permission of the author:

You are afraid—not just of me,
but what I see and hear that you don’t—
the crusts of blood, slippery dirt-gorged voices.
You like it when I curse creatively,
hate it when the paper piles like excrement around me.

Fresca’s revenant presence in the above lines fits the logic of Gailey’s book Becoming the Villainess: to gain mature power, a heroine must become monstrous, and certainly powerful middle-aged women are not represented generously by modernist poets, male or female (think of those portraits of ladies, for starters). Like Eliot, too, Gailey is rewriting myth, with particular interest in Philomel. Gender scripts create a stifling catastrophe for several characters in Gailey’s collection as well as in “The Waste Land” itself.

After my essay was published, Daisy Fried sent me a link to one of her own Eliot-influenced poems, “Elegy.” Fried associates Eliot with a scene of schooling, but also with sexual adventure, and, ultimately, with loss. She even recasts Tiresias as “Transgendered Professor Y.” “Elegy” isn’t about what Eliot means to writers today; instead “The Waste Land” is sort of playing in the background, setting off weird harmonies between past and present. Of course we’re all still wasted by sex, grief, and all the great art we’ve inherited and can’t live up to. Inspired, too.

PPS: I talk about some of this stuff with the editors in a Poetry podcast, although how I ended up on a recording with John Ashbery remains a cosmic mystery to me. Also, thanks to Poetry Daily for featuring the essay this week and amplifying its range.

Ruthlessly pruning the overstuffed closet of a poetry book manuscript

After a shopping trip for school clothes on Saturday, my daughter, a rising high school senior, spontaneously cleaned out her drawers and closet to make room for the new. I cannot emphasize enough how out of character this was, but then again, she’s on the verge of so many changes. All summer she’s been doing ridiculously massive assignments for various AP courses in between touring colleges, drafting application essays, practicing with the girls’ cross-country team, babysitting, and volunteering. This time next year we’ll be packing up supplies for her dorm room at some college we can’t yet visualize. So yes, out with all those middle school notebooks and the keepsake tee shirts! Mademoiselle must be pitiless! The future is roaring toward us down the track, so pack light and zip up tight!

Madame is trying for similar late-summer ruthlessness. The biggest and hardest item on my to-do list is revising my poetry ms, Radioland. The editors at my press gave me brief notes to go on before more concentrated work scheduled for later in the year. Too many poems about poetry and famous poets, they said. And see if you can pare down all those first-person pronouns. These directives seem fair enough, especially the former. These poems concern communication and reception, so communion through reading books and letters is a recurrent theme. Honestly, Emily Dickinson is someone I talk to a lot. But you have to be careful about allusion. If a poem is just about poetry, that lowers the stakes. Plus, while a person who recognizes the reference may be delighted and feel suddenly able to place your poem in a long-running conversation, you can lose readers, too, when you get too insidery. A poem has to exert its own gravity, apart from the painting or political event or personal experience that inspired it. I can’t and shouldn’t cut all the poetry references, but I can weed out the flimsiest and hem up the trailing quotations in others. And other smart advice had been accumulating while I waited for press feedback—a friend gave me wise notes on cuts and rearrangements last February—so I was ready to eviscerate the closet.

I set to work. First you pull out the multicolored contents, try on each item, and sort the stuff into piles: essential, never fit though I wished it did, out of fashion. I had thought the former structure was successful and the poems polished, but knowing a mess of pages is really going to be a book makes you see the weak bits more clearly. Plus, I put this version of the ms together seven months ago. Then-raw poems had cooked up nicely since; magazine acceptance and rejections, plus hits and fizzles at poetry readings, had changed my sense of which poems represented my best work; and my life has moved on, so narrative threads connected to autobiography have unspooled in unexpected directions.

You have to review the whole and the pieces. I stitched and unstitched some poems, chucked others out, mixed and matched the core wardrobe with recent inspirations. Then I sought Chris’ fresh eye and perpetrated the whole process over again. My friend’s favorite section has moved up, as has the sequence about my father’s death. More theoretical poems about communication now come later, so they can be haunted by a specific and personal loss. There’s more light of all kinds in the book’s final movement. Now I’m resting and planning another read-through right before classes start, because every time you look at a manuscript you spot some new infelicity. Just last week, saving the seventh version of Radioland onto my computer, I noticed that the second and third poem both had the same word, “report,” in the title. That’s a pretty big, basic glitch, the repetition of an unusual noun on two consecutive pages, yet I hadn’t spotted it. It’s terrifying, really. I’m not a perfectionist, no publishing writer can afford to seek perfection, but the perfectionists do have a point. A book is never really done.

There are so many factors to weigh in revising a book of poems. Just a few I keep thinking about:

  • Is the book telling the most involving, interesting story I can pull off right now? Is the narrative arc complex yet clear enough to satisfy an involved reader?
  • And yet this is a collection of wayward fragments, not a wholly coherent narrative. Do the poems have some spiky independence from each other? Are they various?
  • Am I making the same moves not too often, but just often enough to keep the poems working in relationship to each other? This means reading for repeated words, ideas, stanza shapes, and other devices.
  • Who will be my readers, and how do I hope they’ll feel and think about this project? I personally believe the world is pretty awful and art should help us get through, so steering towards hope is important to me, but like many other poets I have a tendency to resort to black, the easiest hue to pull off without embarrassing yourself.

And then there’s the strategies-of-publishing level:

  • I love this one poem but it doesn’t go with anything else in the wardrobe. And since this is poetry, I’m not actually donating it to Goodwill and therefore sending it to a hypothetically happy home. If I leave it out now, is it basically gone forever? Would that matter?
  • If the poem did well with magazine editors, I should find a way to include it, right?
  • And what about the poems that keep getting rejected by the latter? For example, there’s a poem at the end of Heterotopia Chris still shakes his head over. He says “‘Forgetting Curve,’ that’s your Norton Anthology poem, man, and no one took it? What is with that?” I don’t know if he’s right about that poem, or whether I am about an orphan in this current ms called “Community Feeling,” but I bet you recognize the phenomenon, if you read acknowledgments. The Pushcart-winning ode seems mediocre, but the triolet that knocked your socks off didn’t even make Obscure but Noble Little Review.

And questions for the oracle who, sadly, does not perch on a nearby volcanic fissure:

  • Which of these poems, notes, or acknowledgment lines will upset or delight my relative/ friend/ mentor, and if so, that a fate to be courted or avoided?
  • What am I not seeing, or perhaps not admitting that I am seeing?

I don’t know, although I can tell you what the goal is: to put together the best book I can get someone to consent to publish. Whatever “best” means, knowing that five years from now, I’ll probably know better.

For the moment, anyway, it’s back to the late-summer frenzy. There’s dinner to cook, bookbags to pack, recommendations to write. I have a podcast to record tomorrow related to a recent essay in Poetry—yikes. And a son who keeps muttering about school: “I’m not going back to That Place.” I know how he feels. I’m pretty happy messing around in the closet, wearing black sweatpants I totally should throw out.

The embarrassing grant genre of the “career narrative”

Posting this feels way scarier than uploading bad selfies to Facebook. The genre potentially fuses bombast with whining: “I am the most awesome candidate in your enormous pile of awesomeness” with “please please I NEED this.” But many of us at least consider applying for grants from time to time, and I thought it might be helpful for others to see one take on a common assignment. I am not posting the “statement of plans” for a variety of reasons, but hey, this whole blogging enterprise is heavy on “career narrative,” right? Below is a draft towards some fall applications, so it is not from a winning application and probably won’t be–the odds are always terrible. As I brag below, though, I’ve been lucky before, so I can’t be the worst career narrator ever. Hope this helps someone.

*

Taking Poetry Personally integrates intellectual and artistic concerns I have pursued for twenty-five years. Most of my scholarship zeroes in on lyric poetry, and since studying for a B.A. from Rutgers College in the late 1980s, I have been writing sound-driven short poetry as well. Focusing on this genre and its hazy boundaries means considering medium and reception ever more deeply—hence my current project on how and why to read twenty-first-century verse.

I earned my PhD from Princeton in 1994 with a dissertation that became the basis of my first book. The Poetics of Enclosure: American Women Poets from Dickinson to Dove (Tennessee, 2002) investigates the lyric poem as a virtual place. Each poet under consideration—Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, H.D., Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop, and Rita Dove—treats the lyric as a contained space. Moreover, each poet uses enclosure as an idiom defining women’s verse and conveys a complicated relationship with that evolving tradition. Domesticity, maternity, sexuality, and other aspects of women’s experience and embodiment suggest “closure,” even as “open” form becomes the reigning ethos.

I completed this project as I earned tenure at a rural liberal arts college, Washington and Lee University, submitting final revisions in September 2000, a week before the birth of my second child. At the time, my English Department colleagues and I taught seven writing-intensive courses a year on a long academic schedule that abbreviated the summer research window. There was no junior leave, though a grant from the American Association of University Women funded one summer’s research. During my post-tenure sabbatical, therefore, as I marked up proofs and nursed a new baby, I contemplated what I actually wanted to write, now that scholarship no longer seemed like a dire emergency.

I discovered an ambition to pursue a riskier project by asking questions I felt unqualified to answer. In a new line of research, I assembled a history of poetry performance in the U.S. I also considered what it means to discuss sound in the twentieth-century lyric poem, and what poets and critics intend when they refer to “poetic voice.” All these problems extend in some ways from my first book’s preoccupations with the lyric as a genre and the complicated feedback loops between poets and audiences. The project I eventually developed—Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present (Cornell, 2008)—represented both a fresh start and a return.

Voicing American Poetry explores voice as a defining medium and figure throughout a wide range of poetic movements and affiliations. In addition to chronicling conventions of poetry recitation, I analyze Edna St. Millay’s performance persona on the stage, the page, and in radio broadcasts; Langston Hughes’ inventive translations of sound culture into print; and the illusion of poetic voice in collaborative projects by James Merrill, David Jackson, Denise Duhamel, and Maureen Seaton. A final chapter compares conventions of the contemporary academic poetry reading to slam poetry.

I remain proud of my first book, but when I developed this second project, with more publishing experience but without terror of publish-or-perish consequences, I produced a study that meant more to a larger audience. A sabbatical fellowship from the National Endowment from the Humanities in 2005-6 enabled its completion through a fifteen-month work marathon and also significantly increased the final project’s visibility. Voicing American Poetry was a finalist for the Modernist Studies Association’s book prize but also reached students and specialists in creative writing studies. I still receive notes about it from literary magazine editors and meet audience members at poetry readings who know me through this scholarship. This project persuaded me that high-stakes, accessibly written criticism still has an eager audience—and that boldness pays off.

The other commitment I made during that first sabbatical was to my own poetry. I had been pouring all available publishing and networking energy into scholarly production, desperately needing advice and new mentors: as I finished the PhD, one of my dissertation directors collapsed and was nudged into retirement, even as the other was denied tenure and left for the west coast. Yet I never stopped writing poetry, and my poetic obsessions with sound, place, and story had often intersected with my teaching and research preoccupations. Now I resolved to give this kind of writing high priority. I allowed more time to write, revise, and submit poetic work, with limited success at first. My knowledge of contemporary styles, coteries, and venues deepened after a few years of reading. Good magazine publication credentials accumulated. I published my first collection, Heathen, in 2009. Heterotopia, judged winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize by David Wojahn, followed in 2010. A 2012 novella in verse, The Receptionist and Other Tales, received notice on two prize lists that generally recognize prose fiction: it was named a James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honor Book in 2013 (“for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender”) and was nominated in 2014 for the Ackies (the Chronicle of Higher Education’s list of recommended academic novels). My next collection, Radioland, will appear late in 2015.

A 2007-2010 stint as department head subtracted from research and writing time, but one transformative adventure occurred shortly afterwards. In 2011, I received a five-month Fulbright Senior Scholar Fellowship to Wellington, New Zealand. My original plan was to develop a book-length study of twenty-first-century poetic networks. One chapter would focus on the International Institute of Modern Letters, New Zealand’s first academic creative writing program, as an example of institutionally-fostered community. The experience confirmed my sense that while twenty-first-century poetry in English is marked by national border crossings and is liberated by virtual networks from complete dependence on urban centers, mutual presence remains vital. The increasingly electronic nature of our professional and creative relationships paradoxically makes local scenes more powerful and live performance more rewarding.

The Fulbright vastly widened my reading and my own international connections, resulting in essays, interviews, reviews, poems, a special co-edited poetry feature in Shenandoah, and other projects still in the pipeline. A related article I had envisioned as part of the book, “‘Salon with a Revolving Door’: Virtual Community and the Case of Wom-po,” appeared in Contemporary Women’s Writing. Yet this venture also persuaded me to reconceive my book project. I remained committed to writing about twenty-first century poetry and its border crossings—I intend to shape critical conversation about this emerging field in which my pedagogical, artistic, and scholarly interests so often converge. I realized, however, as I began a blog called “The Cave, The Hive: Poetry’s Possible Worlds,” that a different kind of book, a riskier one, might reach a broader audience and have a greater impact.

Blogging about poetry taught me what appeals to readers in real time. I describe above how reactions to Voicing American Poetry have unfolded over years; suddenly I had data within hours about what kinds of posts inspire comments and social media shares or attract new subscribers. These brief, informal essays incorporate literary criticism, but require weaving argument and narrative together. Doctoral students are taught to efface the personal roots of their research obsessions; university press editors often invite more autobiographical reflection; but in a blog post, the conditions of writing come to the fore, inflecting critical judgments and ideally rendering them more urgent and persuasive. I began to apply this experience in longer essays and two acceptances persuaded me I was on the right track. In a more personal mode, “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand” appeared in the Gettysburg Review and was later featured by Poetry Daily. “Undead Eliot: How ‘The Waste Land’ Sounds Now,” forthcoming in Poetry, is criticism dangling only a few shreds of autobiographical material, but I could not have written it before starting that blog.

Writing Taking Poetry Personally has been difficult in every possible way. I spent a year working out the best possible structure. Each chapter requires great quantities of research into reading and literary world-building, and then effacing that research, so the scholarly scaffolding is present but not dominant. Prose memoir, too, is more emotionally challenging to write than autobiographical lyric, in which image offers a handy bypass around the trickiest terrain. Literary pressures shape each sentence as well as the exigencies of scholarly reasoning; resolution of narrative suspense must converge with the argument’s periodic conclusions. Yet this feels like important, exciting labor for which I am well equipped. Not only blogging but programming community readings and teaching introductory poetry courses to undergraduates for more than twenty years—all have sharpened my insight about what kinds of poems and presentations appeal to different audiences. And my critical impulses have always tended in a literary direction. Why not strain every skill at my command and exercise every unlikely ambition? Whose permission would I be waiting for?

No middlebrow for poetry

There really isn’t a place for the middlebrow in poetry publishing.

I don’t like ranking people’s tastes by their supposed expanse of forehead. First, it’s mainly marketing, defining us by how we spend. Second, we’re all more mixed than that. I’m more adventurous about food than music, for instance: I like edgy vegetables and songs with round corners. I am attracted to weird art but have zero interest in experimental novels. I don’t even know how to describe my taste in poetry. Yet an artist-friend has been sending me links to articles on middlebrow art, including the recent New York Times piece. And at the same time I’ve been helping an acquaintance with a poetry manuscript and thinking, “in fiction, there would be a place for this.” Her book retells a politically complicated historical episode in a straightforward style, shifting from speaker to speaker with nary a qualm about appropriation. No lacunae, ellipses, apologetic verbal hedges about the fundamental inaccessibility of the past. Yet the writer, while not versed in the politics of contemporary verse, is ultra-competent, with a long multigenre publishing resume. It’s not that she’s writing badly. She’s just not writing for me.

Fiction does this all the time: storytelling depends on imagining points of view one person can’t truly access. Fiction I’d call literary does this very persuasively, with psychological and intellectual sophistication, in prose full of surprises. Fiction I’d call popular is more predictable, from its similes to its characters and plot, but I read my share of it and I’m glad it’s out there.

There is some range in recently published poetry collections. Some are much, much more abstruse than others, yet even the most approachable are still literary in their values. And unless you’re a former US Poet Laureate, you’re probably finding it increasingly hard to publish narrative verse in a straightforward, grammatical style.

My poetry predilections are probably highbrow, because I’m nerdily delighted when I cut my fingers on the edges of a stanza. But among the poets I meet through publishing and conferences and festivals, I feel kinda lowbrow. I’m attracted to story, and if a poem doesn’t show the author’s attention to potential readers–eagerness to be interesting, willingness to come clean about what’s at stake–I put it down and go back to poetry that seems to want my company. My own feeling of resisting certain avant-garde pieties, however, is relative to a tiny, poetry-obsessed readership, because there isn’t much of a general audience for contemporary takes on this particular art form.

It’s different for Dickinson, Frost, Eliot, Hughes, etc–non-poetry-specialists do read older verse. I’m talking about print, too, and books in particular. Poetry readings can have big, open-minded audiences–I hear accessible, middlebrow poetry more often than I read it. In slam, there’s plenty of popular stuff a professor might deem bad, and that’s good. When an art’s healthy, there’s a big enough range in contemporary practice that there’s no way one person would appreciate all of it. For instance, I can go to an art house film if I want, or sink into a high-box-office 3D noisefest, because the movies are still for everyone.

I wish there were more room for poetry books that might be called middlebrow or lowbrow or accessible or populist, stuff you don’t have to be an insider to get. My own favorite field, as in the novel, is crossover stuff: literary fiction that flirts with mystery or thriller; fantasy that’s smart and well-written. I want more poetry that works at both levels, too–highly readable but sharp and worth lingering over. But how likely is that, when the poetic equivalent of popular fiction can’t find a friendly curator or a book-buying audience? Everything is aimed at the cognoscenti.

Well, that’s enough big-foreheadism. The advance of August always lowers the hairline, but it’s worse for the woman resigning herself to a stint as department head: I have advising sheets to revise, after all, and capstone sections to sort. Time for the mid-career middle-aged medium-height poet to muddle back in the midden of middle management.

Teaching and writing in the Confederacy

My cushy job is supported by bequests from wealthy people. I knew some of that wealth must have been amassed in ethically fishy ways. However, I only learned for sure a couple of weeks ago that my home institution prospered directly and substantially from slavery. This unsurprising fact is still so shocking I can barely write about it.

Various news outlets recently featured the apparently controversial story that, in 2014, Washington and Lee University is becoming slightly less hospitable to nostalgia for the Confederacy. I’m happy confederate flag replicas are being removed from Lee Chapel—it’s a good change, if overdue—though the furious editorials in the local paper seem seriously overblown to me. C’mon, people. There’s still a recumbent statue of Robert E. Lee roughly where the altar should be. Our institution is still named after him.

On the same day the president was explaining to reporters what flags we would not wave and why, a timeline of African American history at W&L was circulated to the faculty. This, it seems to me, is the more interesting, disturbing, important story. The kicker comes under the heading “1826”:

“‘Jockey’ John Robinson dies and leaves his entire estate to Washington College. An Irish immigrant who had himself been an indentured servant, Robinson had amassed a considerable fortune as a horse trader, whiskey distiller, and plantation owner… Proceeds of the bequest, which was nearly as large as George Washington’s gift of canal stock, included ‘all the negroes of which I may die possessed together with their increase…’ Accounts different slightly on the total number of enslaved men, women and children whom Robinson owned at the time of his death, but it ranged from 73 to 84.” [emphasis mine]

The university is named after Washington as well as the Confederate general who presided here after the Civil War, while Robinson just gets a building. Yet Robinson’s gift was a defining one. Washington College profited from the labor of these human beings for years and then pocketed the proceeds from their auction. The last two slaves owned directly by my employer were sold in 1852. If you scroll down to that date you can download a senior honors thesis on the subject from 2007, so clearly I have been working hard to maintain my comfortable ignorance. It’s also clear my institution has not been advertising this part of its history very audibly, much less seeking to redress it.

I will sound dismissible to some readers, I know—another squawking Yankee. Twenty years ago, I packed up my New Jersey mallwear to move to Virginia, and the move did alarm me. Some of my fear concerned W&L in particular. There was national gossip about bad behavior in the English department: “snake pit,” one adviser warned. The campus itself was as pretty as a country club but while W&L was a highly selective liberal arts college—a great kind of place to teach—I could see right off that many students drove vehicles worth more than my starting salary. They were also uniformed in designer sundresses or navy blazers that marked me, by comparison, as an utter outsider. Aside from the challenges posed by the school’s strange little culture-bubble, I wondered, what would it really mean to live and work in the South? Could two Northern non-churchgoers ever feel at home here?

Some of my fears turned out to be based on stereotypes and bad information. The Virginians I’ve met are racist in the same proportions as the New Jerseyans. They’re not more hospitable than Northerners, either, though they tend to be more polite in casual encounters. A county with lots of artists, small farms, and multiple colleges has to be full of good and interesting people to break bread with, although I wish there were more poets around. I feel almost at home here, and “almost” is as good as it gets for the hypereducated first child of a first-generation immigrant.

As for W&L, even the most homogenous-seeming student body is full of secret difference, and those secretly different students need decent teachers more than ever when the pressure towards social conformity is high. I had a senior colleague who disapproved of the newfangled field of American literature, and whose prejudices began with an Episcopalian dislike of Presbyterians and extended who knows how far. I also had terrific mentors like Visiting Assistant Professor Claudia Emerson, who told a story about playing war as a child with her brother and not realizing for years that the South hadn’t actually won. Those tales helped me frame my constant disorientation about how present the Civil War seemed here—and still seems. In my family, for example, if you said “the war” you might mean World War II or Vietnam. No one ever talked or thought about 1865 outside of a weeklong unit in Social Studies.

Many narrow-minded or otherwise difficult old guys have moved on since, and I helped hire their replacements. And my very good job gets noticeably better every few years as new scholarships attract students whose academic seriousness is ever greater. We do lose people because of W&L’s problematic history and culture—talented students bail out for more diverse institutions, and at least one brilliant colleague whom I still miss terribly just wasn’t going to feel welcome or safe while Civil War re-enactors marched past her Main Street apartment window. People will keep leaving. This sucks.

Ritual reverence for slaveholding white men at various annual college events doesn’t help. I am tired of being asked to admire Robert E. Lee; I don’t. Yet that timeline drives home for me that while I may feel like an alien, I can’t stand apart from, much less above, this history. My ancestors may not have owned African slaves, they weren’t even here, but I have still inherited culpability, and in a much more specific way than white Americans who generally enjoy privileges rooted in centuries of exploitation and discrimination.

Because of this job and this paycheck, I have amends to make, and I don’t know how. My colleague Rod Smith recently pointed me to this Atlantic article on reparations, and yeah, I’d support HR 40. I vote and make donations, but I believe W&L’s specific history needs to inform my professional behavior, too. I’ve always taught and written about African American poetry. I talk about race when I teach white and non-white authors. And I will continue to make the department as hospitable as I possibly can for every literature whiz who dares walk in past those white, white columns. Every student ought to be able to find, in our curriculum, books that illuminate his or her identity. Every diligent person ought to enjoy enough warm support to do his or her very best work. But what else?

I have been wondering if I have responsibilities as a poet. I read Tess Taylor’s The Forage House this weekend. It’s a very good recent poetry collection concerning, in part, her slave-holding white ancestors in Virginia. I admire the book, and I don’t mean to pick on it particularly, but I’m dissatisfied by parts of it. There’s a certain kind of contemporary poem whose essential argument is that history is inaccessible to us, that it’s wrong to appropriate points of view we can never fully comprehend, and that a conscientious writer would never erase real but vanished stories by imposing her own constructions over their fragmentariness. It’s all true. I’ve written that poem and made those arguments myself. Besides, poetry needs to be its own purpose, or maybe to spring from obscure sources. If a poet’s primary goal is historical, the language tends not to go so well. I can’t just will myself to write about W&L’s history in verse and produce good art.

But I stare at those awful lists posted on the timeline and wonder: isn’t there any act of imagination that could honor these lost people? Maybe not. The dead are past our apologies. It doesn’t matter to them that I am thinking about them as I pace these red-brick pathways.

Albert, 13, appraised value $325. My son’s age.  What would he have wanted W&L to become? robinson_slaves_list