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.

Why Edna St. Vincent Millay ate herbs in Dorset

Most of the female poets I read as a young woman had no children, or one. They steered clear of sexual relationships with men or, not having access to birth control, sought abortions. This fact had a terrible fascination for me in my early twenties, especially since the zero-or-one rule also held among so many female literary scholars. I had always been certain that I wanted to bear or adopt children and certain that I need to write. Exactly how difficult would it be, though, to manage both?

Later I met many women poets who, possessed of more choices than the modernists, elected not to have children or raised multiple kids. I also know too many women poets wimageho grieve infertility. I’m luckier than most in that I conceived one child immediately, the other after six months of trying, and never faced an unwanted pregnancy. If I had miscarriages, they were early ones, during that uncertain era when home tests weren’t so prompt. Bedrest from severe nausea and then bouts of postpartum depression didn’t feel lucky at the time, but people took care of me. I’ve muddled along all right since, herding poems and little people. Sometimes those activities nourished each other and sometimes they competed brutally, but I grabbed my good luck by the short hairs and made choices I still feel basically fine about.

I still think, though, about those modernist abortions. When on a recent July morning my spouse, two teens, and I were bound for Dorset beaches in a hired car, I programmed the GPS for a stop in the village of Shillingstone. Edna St. Vincent Millay headed there in July, 1922 with her mother, Cora, and some friends. Edna was sick and broke and unable to write. She was also pregnant after a Parisian fling. Cora Millay, a nurse, helped her daughter have an abortion there.

I don’t have a lot of information about that summer, just what’s in the Milford biography. Back then Shillingstone consisted of a “winding, unpaved street, a few shops and small houses, many with thatched roofs” (238). The group of women rented a house (I don’t know the address but am including photos anyway for local flavor).image Edna turned a hay shed into a studio. Edna’s friends and even her sister back home didn’t know the ulterior motive for the program of long walks on the downs, horseback riding, and stews of wild greens: Cora was searching for abortives listed in an old herbal guide. She did, in fact, induce Edna to miscarry during the first few weeks of the pregnancy.

I’m no botanist, so while I looked up some pictures of alkanet, the key herb in the equation, and went poking along the footpaths, I never found the right blue flowers. I saw dandelions, thistles, and nettles—all named by Edna in a letter as part of the maternal recipe—and trefoil, mentioned in Cora’s notes. Daisies and yarrow were blooming, and mallow purpled every roadside. imageMy own daughter was alarmed that I was even looking, as if medicinal herbs might jump up and dose us against our will. imageTo be fair, it is a creepy errand to conduct with your children. But this is the history behind my own good luck and it should be in my daughter’s rearview mirror, too.

image

Lines Composed in Bath a Few Days After Visiting Tintern Abbey

Lines Composed in Bath a Few Days After Visiting Tintern Abbey and Also Nottingham, Coleford, Netheravon, and Miscellaneous Places Viewed Accidentally Because We Forgot to Reserve a Car with Sat-Nav and Had No Map. June 22, 2015.

Twenty-six years have passed!–two advanced degrees,
two mortgages, two beauteous teens raised
to height if not to wisdom since I last
trudged complainingly uphill to gaze
upon the Royal Crescent; since I toured
the Roman Baths at student rates, and couldn’t
find an open pub at which to order cheaply.
Again I hear the angry-baby cry
of gulls and shiver in the English summer
drizzle. Again I fail at navigation
in the passenger seat of a hired car, calling
“Left!” down mazy B roads or into the coils
of roundabouts.

Yet Nottingham was new,
where Zayneb paced me past the trams toward
the castle and back to Wired, weaving the evening
into lace. And the puzzling mossy scowles we found
in a Welsh wood, where Nigel carried Ella
over yew bridges and slick mud, rust-hued.
It seemed a miracle to reach the abbey,
soaked clothes steaming in a sudden blaze.
The Wye rippled along, bright-scaled, as if
it were a sleeping dragon breathing. And next
day, the solstice, we steered past Stonehenge toward
a barbeque, where Boris the boxer chased
the terrier Molly round and round the garden
till she bared her fangs and jumped up on my lap.

If I could see into the life of things
or feel a Presence or hear the still sad music
of humanity, I wouldn’t presume to admit
it; trampling iambs into rubble with
my trainers is American enough.
Plus I’ve learned I’m “misophonic,” meaning
tormented by chewing and ticking and scraping,
and so the sadder human noises tend
to outscratch the musical intimations.
I need a white noise app to sleep, given
how the pigeons carouse and tourists flap.
Yet it’s pleasant to sit in the Pump Room
or try on corsets in the Fashion Museum,
dreaming of Austen heroines, or to look
on ruins overwritten by Romantic
musers, as if their lines still chime in each
damp breeze;–with each new scene a riffling
as of pages, worn soft now. Streets more dear,
and valleys greener, for my poets’ sake.

Apologies to Wordsworth, but this was too much fun to resist. We’re having a terrific trip so far, with a good balance of history, art, food, family, and walking around pretty landscapes. Bath is a great base. Chris is fairly busy teaching his creative writing workshop, but since he has superhuman energy levels anyway, he is still sightseeing with us some mornings and on the weekends, and our flat is so central (North Parade, between the Roman Baths and the cricket grounds) that taking the kids around by myself is simple. It’s a fifth floor walkup, though, so keeping the beauteous teens in groceries carried from Waitrose by hand is the biggest challenge. Here’s the view from the chair by the window beside which I composed these mortal lines.image

For any of you who know my “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand” essay, I’m reprising that experience, too. It was a great pleasure to meet Zayneb Allak and many of her teachers and fellow-students in Nottingham. The reading series at Wired Cafe has a wonderful energy, as do the creative writing staff at Nottingham Trent. And yesterday I drank my pot of chai with Carrie Etter who teaches here in Bath–and who already had a copy of Heterotopia, courtesy of Peter Covino at Barrow Street. Next stop: Liverpool, to read at the Blue Coat!

Flashing through spacetime

In theory, in two days, all this year’s schoolwork will be in recycling bins on the curb, I’ll be the parent of a rising high schooler and a rising first-year college student, and we’ll all be flying towards an English city full of ancient Roman ruins where my spouse is already teaching a fiction-writing class involving contemporary, historical, and speculative short stories. In addition to cars, planes, and trains, this will require yelling at teenagers in a perpetual loop to clean their rooms and pack already, AND repeatedly running after Poe the prophet-cat who detects suitcases and is trying to beat his own escape before we do. Oh, for a TARDIS so we could just land in Bath without the hassle of the process!

If you’re in the UK, you can see what I’ll be up to poetically on my events page. I plan to spend lots of time as a happy tourist, absorbing new-old stuff while writing a little and reading a lot, but you know how it is–all the proofs arrive in your inbox as soon as you’re en route and can no longer print them out to read properly.

The books that have been virtually transporting me lately include Liz Berry’s strong poetry collection Black Country; Stephen King’s Finders Keepers, which runs into some unfortunate bramble-patches but is an interesting mystery very much about reading; and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, which as a good fantasy novel is in most ways nothing like VanderMeer’s recent eco-horror trilogy, and yet made me think about how many speculative books I’m reading concern nature fighting back against human despoilers and polluters. Hmm. The monsters are shifting on us again.

Next up, in honor of Bath, is Northanger Abbey, followed by McDermid’s rewrite. I’ll be looking for the British books on the Forward poetry short list, which looks promising. I also have the new 10th anniversary issue of Ecotone for the plane, in which I’m honored to appear–an essay from my in-progress Taking Poetry Personally project is this issue’s “Poem in a Landscape” feature. It’s called “Spacetime: Walking Around in Paula Meehan’s ‘Death of a Field'” and you can read the beginning of it here. It braids together criticism and memoir, including material about my trip to Ireland a couple of years ago, right after my father died. Note that Ecotone‘s excellent editorial team hyphenated spacetime, but I don’t–I like how collapsing the words gestures towards the inseparability of those two dimensions.

I’ll write again, with pictures I hope, from our flat in the Nunes House. And in the meantime, tonight is Cameron’s graduation from middle school. We all missed Madeleine’s eight-grade ceremony because we were in New Zealand. I can’t believe that’s four years ago now. It terrifies my daughter when I tell her again and again that in most ways I feel just the same as I did at her age, and I’m only pretending to be the Competent Parent in Charge, because that’s what this moment seems to require of me. After a flare of panic, she squints back at me skeptically, knowing I’m really an alien. Our internal organs–and most definitely our feelings–are NOT in the same places. I’ll close with a link to her recent guest blog about Joss Whedon: more evidence of how spacetime flies.

Do I contradict myself?–creatically crititive

The relationship between critical and creative practice is:

  1. Chalk and cheese, apples and oranges, oil and water: i.e. recipe for a bellyache
  2. A tricky but fruitful alternation with, at best, one kind of labor generating ideas and energy for the other
  3. [Insert metaphor for fatal competition here—“Two Cats of Kilkenny” comes to mind]
  4. Identical—there is little difference between these activities
  5. Harmonious! I’m so happy about my balancing act! If I break this facial expression of brittle cheerfulness I will collapse into a zillion overextended pieces!

All these answers are true and false. To paraphrase Whitman, poets embrace contradiction—although scholars are supposed to resolve contradictions, an observation that returns me to the Kilkenny limerick. Anyway, this is one of the big questions of my life, and the same is true for many friends and colleagues. I value both critical and creative work, but I’m always worrying over the tensions between them. That is, what writing should I do, in what order and proportion? What makes me personally happy? What kind of writing is most useful to others? Is it even feasible to pursue both? By writing criticism, do I shortchange art, or vice versa—am I becoming a dilettante?

For academics, this is very much a start-of-the-summer question, because suddenly it’s not hypothetical. We all have demands on our time beyond writing, and we may be burnt out from the intensities of teaching and service, but if increasing the daily word count isn’t possible in the gaps between terms, it never will be. So, my teacher-friends who aren’t working second jobs, who don’t run summer classes—is that, like, five of us?—what projects do you actually WANT to sink your teeth into? Is there something you think you SHOULD be doing instead? And how do you negotiate writing in relation to a backlog of delayed obligations and gratifications? (It’s prime errand/ deal-with-house-falling-to-pieces/ deal-with-body-falling-to-pieces/ summer-camp-paperwork/ tower of unread lit mags/ catching up with friends/ new-Stephen-King-novel-just-sitting-there season for me, too.)

I’m asking because I’ll be giving a keynote address on the relation between critical and creative practice at Nottingham Trent University on June 19th, and this is me warming up. And not really sinking proper effort into it yet. And also noticing that keynote-writing is not exactly critical or creative writing in any case, or at least, not the writing I most need to do.

I feel chagrined at how much work I’m always lining up for myself, but I’m also eager and curious. I’ve never been to Nottingham. Plus I’m excited to meet my correspondent of the last year or so, Zayneb Allak, who is writing a dissertation there with a chapter on Heterotopia. This is my chronic problem-slash-positive-personal-quality—I like going places and learning from people more than I enjoy the sound of my own voice. But assembling a talk (hard) or reading (easier) is a fair price to pay, really, for a ticket to the party. And interesting new possibilities and projects arise whenever you haul yourself into gear to draft the keynote or prep the reading. Almost every single time I do, I think afterwards: well, that was worth it.

Notice how many “buts” and “ands” and hyphenations litter the above paragraphs? I change my mind about what I should be doing and feeling so often I have a perpetual case of vertigo.

Before I just give up and sit down with a mint julep, though, let me know if there’s something I need to read or hear about the relationship between critical and creative practice. Most of the testaments I’ve encountered so far are similarly ambivalent and irresolved, so if there’s something like wisdom out there, I’ve missed it. All I know is that I have two slightly overlapping networks and sets of accomplishments, and I don’t want to give up on either, so I’m doing my best to nudge the worlds closer together at every opportunity. I recognize this may be a hopeless effort: real scholarship, the kind that rests on slow careful scrutiny of every source you can find, just requires a different set of habits and behaviors than poetry-writing does. (I don’t count short reviews as real scholarship–their scope is too limited, and they’re too much fun to write.) I also recognize that if life makes me choose, poetry-writing is what I can’t live without, even if it turns out that good criticism is what the world really needs from me.

Well, back to distractions, for the moment. I’m Lead Packer for four of us as we prepare to relocate to Bath, where Chris is teaching a summer workshop. Because Chris leaves on Friday and his birthday is next week, last night I organized a Fake Birthday for him with presents and banana cake. Then there are TWO graduations–Madeleine from high school, Cameron from middle school–and, oh yeah, book edits, visiting family, and even major pre-packing for the weeklong summer camp Cameron will begin less than 24 hours after we return from England (I know, I know, but the boy wants to see his camp friends fiercely). Flashlight, sleeping bag, immunization records: check, check, check. Wish us all luck.

And thanks, too, to The Malahat Review, whose current issue reminds me that I actually can write a decent poem once in a while. And the 10th anniversary issue of Ecotone just arrived–it contains the first publication from my book in progress, Taking Poetry Personally, an essay about Paula Meehan’s “Death of a Field” that combines criticism with memoir. We’ll see how my chalk and cheese cookery is received.

Doctored

The latest Wheeler-Gavaler time-travel expedition: a Virginia bed and breakfast presided over by a former patient of Dr. William Carlos Williams.

anderson cottage

Ten or twelve years ago, my mom came to stay with the kids as Chris and I, feeling desperate from too much work and too much toddler-chasing, retreated to Warm Springs for a weekend. Thomas Jefferson made the same escape once, although he was more afflicted by rheumatism than toddlers or email. The Homestead in nearby Hot Springs being well out of our price range, we stayed near the Jefferson Pools and took the waters gratefully, although we did mosey into the resort for afternoon tea, as friends had recommended. We loved our B&B, Anderson Cottage, built around 1790. One of the oldest buildings in Bath County, it’s seated alongside a warm stream thick with tadpoles and loud with frogs by twilight. We stayed in the main house, which is full of interesting old books and Asian art, and enjoyed talking to the proprietor, Jean Graham Randolph Bruns. I told her I was a poetry professor and was startled to learn that Williams had been her pediatrician, although she doesn’t remember him. While she was still little, the Depression dried up most of the potential employment for her father, a civil engineer. Her family left Rutherford in the early 30s and returned to Virginia.

During our first visit, I decided we’d come back some year with somewhat older kids and stay in the adjacent cottage, formerly a separate kitchen built a few decades after the main house. I didn’t expect to wait so long!–virtually to the last moment, since Madeleine is off to college in September and won’t be making many, or any, spring getaways with us again. We brought baguettes and cheeses for a Friday night picnic by the stream, took walks, enjoyed the liberty of bad cellphone reception. The kids were pretty skeptical about spending the morning soaking in sulphur-smelling water, and the old wooden buildings are indeed decrepit. They look just as in old black-and-white photos, in fact, except that the men wear clothes now during “family swim” (rather than bathing naked) and women have traded in their rompers. They were surprised to enjoy themselves, I think. In fact, we probably soaked too long, because we were staggering around hot and dizzy for hours after.

I’m not sure how many guests Jean hosts these days, but breakfast table conversation at the B&B is still literary. The two other visitors were retired professors (linguistics and law) who have returned religiously since the 1980s. We talked about poems we’d memorized in school; I’m fairly certain Jean can still recite “The Raven” in its entirety, although she only treated us to a few lines. She’s a descendant of the Andersons for whom the cottage is named (it used to be Locustlyn before the locust trees died, and in other incarnations housed a tavern and Miss Daingerfield’s School for Girls). I had just been reading about John Randolph of Roanoke in connection with Ezra Pound’s Canto LXXXVIII, so I asked her if her maiden name linked her to the old Virginia clan. “Oh, yes, descendant of Pocahontas, cousin to Jefferson, all that,” she said, smiling, and yes, when I searched for her name just now, I found those genealogies. Jean has grandchildren in Thailand, so the First Families of Virginia have traveled far.

Our last stop before leaving on Sunday morning was to the Warm Springs cemetery. Bath County is Civil War territory, site of hospitals and skirmishes, and some of the old stones are dated even earlier. My daughter rolls her eyes when I want to poke around the clover: why, mom? Do you LIKE to get freaked out? In fact, nothing seemed eerie about that green hill or, for that matter, our 1820s kitchen cottage, although the lower floor seemed permanently damp and cool. Food storage, once? Servant and/or slave quarters? Bath County produced officers who served on both sides of the Civil War, but enslaved people certainly helped build and maintain a village that now seems so quaint and peaceful, the old violence effaced. And while the bathers at Jefferson Pools are multiethnic now, the attendants are still African American, just as in those black-and-white pictures. These creased mountains ought to be haunted.

Time past pervades time present, to mangle a T. S. Eliot quote–the quickly-shifting local mist seems like an apt metaphor for how yesterday obscures today, and then suddenly evanesces. Certainly I was tripping over my own temporal slippages all weekend. The little son who so tired me out once is taller than I am now and finishing middle school. I saw Warm Springs palimpsestically, with several kinds of history layered beneath its May greenery. There may be no more locust trees on the Anderson Cottage property, but there’s an enormous lilac, the biggest I’ve ever seen. And there are still a few cones of bloom left.

  

Pound, Eliot, and vintage radios

I’m between stations with a head full of static. I just finished teaching–submitted my last grade, for an honors thesis on Wallace Stevens–but my sabbatical doesn’t officially begin until July 1. I’m also signing off on an interim year as Department Head, and the final hours involve an unbelievable amount of writing. The letters for colleagues feel important, the reports feel trivial, but in any case, none of it is remotely literary. I’ll be glad to remove my needle from this particular groove in a few weeks.

Another reason I’m not fully here, or anywhere, is that modernism’s greatest hits have been playing relentlessly in my head. I recently visited Washington and Lee’s Special Collections to visit a dazzling new acquisition: 100 letters from Ezra Pound to Thomas Henry Carter, once a student editor of Shenandoah. Old issues of the latter literary magazine aren’t online, so you can’t easily look up Andrew J. Kappel’s 1980 article about the correspondence: “Ezra Pound, Thomas Carter, and the Making of An American Literary Magazine” (31.3: 3-22), but librarian Jeff Barry sent it to me and it’s pretty interesting. In 1952, Carter was a W&L sophomore who wrote to Pound at St. Elizabeth’s for publishing guidance. Carter was also hoping for, say, a Canto or two, but Pound didn’t oblige for a few years. When Pound finally did send in part of Canto 88, a different student editor rejected it–and Carter died young, at home in Martinsville, Virginia. The letters had been housed at Patrick Henry Community College for decades, and now a Digital Humanities class at W&L is trying to figure out how to preserve and promote the legacy. There are also boxes full of other materials, including Carter’s great little magazine collection and a Wyndham Lewis portrait of Pound that really should be hanging somewhere (I vote for Payne Hall). I will be thinking about how these collections can inform my teaching of modernism, but in the meantime I’m preparing to give a lesson to the DH class–Pound 101, basically, or Modernism: Quick and Dirty. Whoops, did I say I was done with teaching?

In the meantime, I’m preparing to review a new biography: Young Eliot by Robert Crawford. At some point you’ll find my remarks in the T.S. Eliot newsletter, but the short version, although I’m only up to Tom’s undergrad years, is that so far the book is rich, detailed, fresh, and useful. I guess it’s trivia if you’re not a fan, but it’s satisfying to learn that the poor air quality of the early poems–all that soot and yellow fog–is not just informed by Boston or European cities, but by St. Louis, where industry was fueled by burning soft coal. Eliot seems more American all the time (even as biographied by a Brit who really should write “tornado” instead of “cyclone”).

AND my teenage daughter just wrote an essay about “The Hollow Men” so she’s reading further and demanding on-the-spot “Waste Land” lectures over grilled chicken. AND, as I finally relax a bit, seeing enough time enough next year to finish my current critical project about 21st century verse, Taking Poetry Personally, I start wondering what comes after. Is it some version of Taking Modernism Personally? From contemporary poetry, back to golden oldies?

Well, before that comes a quick trip to Swarthmore, and graduation here, and finishing the damn assessment report. Plus, I have to finish pulling together my fall poetry collection, Radioland. Photographer and vintage radio collector Mark Meijster of Amsterdam has just given me permission to use his gorgeous photograph on the cover. I am jazzed. Hey you out there in radioland: stay tuned.

Radioland cover image

Memorializing enslaved people at Washington and Lee

WandLMy seriously talented students are justifiably proud of their liberal arts college. The academic opportunities are excellent. Professors are dedicated to working closely with undergraduates in small classes and frequent office hours. The campus itself is lovely, staffed by friendly people, set in a charming small town, and surrounded by soft blue mountains. So the members of my winter course on African-American Poetry had mixed feelings when, as a January homework assignment, I asked them to read this timeline of African-Americans at Washington and Lee. They expressed pride about some entries, particularly the opening paragraph about John Chavis, the first African American to receive a college education in the United States; he completed his studies here in 1799, when we were still Washington Academy. Most entries dated from the 1800s up through the Civil Rights era, however, are shocking.

While my students read in and wrote about a rich poetic tradition–so much of which concerns history and memory–I asked them also to blog about a set of connected questions. Some of them came into the room already acutely aware of how race affects their academic and social lives, but I hoped everyone would begin to tune in to the prejudices that remain poisonously present here, not necessarily because we’re a southern institution but because we’re an American one. Wanting them to perceive also how racism can root deeply in a place, even in the bricks and mortar, I instructed them to take a walk, look around the physical campus, and analyze what implicit lessons art, architecture, and other elements teach about race at Washington and Lee. I limited blog access to class members, hoping to allow greater frankness. At the end of the class we decided to keep those limits. Students submitted lively posts I wish I could share more widely, though, on the sometimes-blinding-whiteness of this place–the “iconic white pillars” of our colonnade looming up out of the snow. “Whose tradition is it?” they asked, stepping back for a critical consideration of our buzzwords, and “Where’s the love for John Chavis?”–noting the prominence of statuary of white male slaveholders. One student remarked that the fraternities and sororities resemble plantation homes. Many of them noticed, too, that race isn’t the only elision: start counting portraits, for example, and you see how overwhelmingly white and male are the figures whose contributions we honor.

So how could we modify the implicit curriculum delivered by Washington and Lee’s physical campus? In particular, what commemorative work should we be doing on behalf of the enslaved African-Americans in W&L’s history? The timeline is an outstanding contribution, but most students have never seen it. It seemed to us that we need a range of monuments and events: some fixed or recurring, like statues and MLK Day programs, and some changeable. Student tour guides and Lee Chapel docents could have more to say about race here. There is curricular work to do and perhaps orientation programming. I’d love to see a permanent video exhibit in a major building, sampling a range of visual documents and texts (even poems–plenty of writers have studied here, including Christian Wiman and Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon). Our neighbor, the University of Virginia, is working on commemoration.  A pamphlet, some exhibitions–I know they don’t right the wrongs of the past. But they feel important to me just the same.

Of course, my class shouldn’t decide the scope or kind of remembrances we construct. That should be a big conversation involving many different constituents. On the other hand, the best work isn’t always done by committees. Sometimes artists and activists need to jolt the conversation. For now, I’ll let my students do it.

Junior Gingy Dixon observes: “On the lawn of the Colonnade stands an obelisk in honor of John Robinson, a man whose ‘donation’ of slaves is central to our university’s history. In Washington Hall, many artifacts and pieces of art related to George Washington sit in shiny display cabinets or hang below tasteful spotlights for visitors to admire. I take no issue with our school honoring its namesake benefactor and this nation’s first president, but I do take issue with the negligence of the people who built this hallowed institution and those who dared to bring about change… Wall plaques in Washington Hall bear etchings of influential monetary donors throughout the University’s history, which is fine, but it should also bear the names of the slaves who provided as crucial (if not more crucial) a service. They were treated as objects and not people because of their skin color, and therefore deserve to have their names displayed as prominently as the people who freely donated their money. Being a veritable institution of honor means honoring the past – ugly as it may be… if we own our history, we maintain our honor. Doing anything else is just weak.”

And from senior Brittany Lloyd, a Civil War buff and former Lee Chapel guide as well as a pretty damn good English major: “Remembering sometimes has to be gory and brutal and uncomfortable. It is easy to forget. It is vital to remember.”

AWP Haiku

Note to future self:/ skip panels on publishing/ and self-promotion.

I used to wonder/ how to break in. Now I want/ to write good. Backwards?

Rita Dove talking/ about anything is worth/ ten hummus buffets.

That’s as far as I got with seventeen-syllable crystallizations of my experience at this year’s annual meeting of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. You can tell I’m still delirious.

I missed a lot, having suffered some airport disasters en route and arriving twelve hours later that expected, but the thing is, you ALWAYS miss a lot at AWP. Attractive panels and readings are nearly always running simultaneously, and besides, there’s the bookfair, and the fact that human neural tissue rapidly becomes saturated–outdoor walks and episodes of hotel room decompression are crucial if you want to absorb even a fraction of the events running from early morning until midnight. Even if you pace yourself you at some point end up staggering through the exhibition room, arms full of books stored up for solitude, like a “drunken squirrel,” my friend Ellen aptly observed. Ellen was exuberant, though, her red hair lighting up the bookfair, and she even knew just where to go for lunch (Lotus for fabulous and cheap Vietnamese food).

I found myself thinking a lot about this during all those fragmentary conversations with friends in noisy rooms: who was thrilled to be at the AWP and who was thrown into existential crisis by the weird parade of it. One rhapsodized about getting her book signed by Ann Carson (to which I say: damn you, Chicago storms!). Another smiling, successful poet said, “Inside I’m…” She put her hands up next to her head like a specter from Munch and screamed, discreetly.

Iris bought me an absinthe cocktail at Ling and Louie’s called a Forbidden Dragon and beamed out positive energy: sitting next to her I was suddenly talking about how being here was a privilege and fizzing over with panel ideas. Another friend asked me how to handle people constantly overlooking or dismissing your achievements, and while I talked about making sure people know about your publications, and laughing merrily and referencing her eight peer-reviewed articles when they suggest that maybe publishing something would help her get a job, I know I answered her inadequately. After all, later that day I was in a post-teaching-panel Q&A and received an answer that I found a little condescending. I repressed my urge to stand up and shout: I’m a full professor at a teaching-based institution whose full classes receive rave reviews! Let me show you my state teaching award!!–This is one of my many reactions to AWP, every year. Seeing so many good writers striving to be seen, heard, and read fills me with cosmic despair. Any one of us is very unlikely to ever be the It-Girl.

The only thing that brings me back from the edge is refocusing my ambitions. Write as urgently and craftily as you can, I tell myself, so what’s on the page will hold up if the spotlight falls on you. Of course, NaPoWriMo is highlighting for me how poetry-writing is not really happening right now. The projects I feel most drawn to require archival legwork, that long slow hit-and-miss process of reading around for understanding and inspiration, and I’ve had little time for it.

So, what’s left? Service to poetry: buying, reading, listening, reviewing, celebrating, teaching, writing criticism. Cultivating receptivity.

Moments of clear, grateful reception: a fantastic panel on occasional poetry with Rita Dove, Richard Blanco, and others, who discussed how the challenge of the occasion redefines the how and why of poetry, tunes you to the intimate moments in public occasions, reminds you that people really do want poems, sometimes. A panel on black masculinities in which Tim Seibles read a new poem comparing a baby’s feet in utero to little crickets. A childbirth poem by Kevin Young in which he used “crocused” as a verb–he was really stunning. Carolyn Forche’s right hand fluttering over the podium to hypnotize us. Friends leaping from behind book tables to hug me, as if they were actually happy to see cranky me, swollen from travel and pho and poetry-bibbing.

 

Teaching Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

Teaching a single-author poetry book is a different enterprise than assigning poems from an anthology. There’s a lot more information to sift and process: the future greatest hits are interspersed with poems that may be harder to absorb; ordering, epigraphs, and subsections suggest new meanings; there’s an arc to read for, a set of through-lines to discover. Those carefully composed slim collections, though, are my favorite way to encounter a poet. Maybe it’s all that intensive concept-album-listening I did as a teenager. I love to consider lyric fragments as part of a larger design.

In most of my undergraduate poetry courses, I assign at least a couple of these volumes, often recent ones I want to study more closely. I typically place them in the second half of the semester, after close-reading skills are sharp enough to stay in balance with the larger thematic readings students often prefer to do. One I taught recently was Evie Shockley’s 2011 the new black, a brilliant book to close a course on African-American poetry because it’s so historically-minded, so diverse in its strategies and affiliations, that it has a scholarly or critical quality.

The very last book we read together, though, was Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, and for our last session I used an assignment I describe in the essay “Mapping Sea Garden,” collected in Annette Debo’s and Lara Vetter’s book Approaches to Teaching H.D. In short, I ask students to track some element of the volume and find a way to represent its recurrence on a single page. Then, for part of a class, each student brings his or her “map” (often a graph, list, or chart) up to the document camera, projects it, and talks through what he or she learned in the process.

I share a few visually striking ones below with the students’ permission, but they employed a wide variety of conceptual and graphic approaches, as fits such a complicated and visually-oriented book. The first presenter tracked animal references, which turn out to be quite prominent–he divided them into “predators” and “ruminants.” Others made lists of sensory references (there’s a full range, less tilted to vision than you might expect); emotions (they cool over the course of the book); or types of human interactions (strangers outnumber friends or colleagues). They were attracted to motifs such as rain, blossoms, and mouths. All of those strategies highlight important aspects of the book: its vividness, sense of danger, preoccupations with speech and wayward feeling.

citizen word cloud Cynthia Lam wrote down every woman’s name, counted its recurrences, and created this word cloud. “Serena” dominates, even when you count the possessive and the full name, “Serena Williams,” separately.

citizen stencil

The next, by Anna Kathryn Barnes, with its stencils and handwritten notes, seems to me to document a very personal process of reading–that experience of words and images lodging in your mind, haunting you, for reasons that may be idiosyncratic.

citizen skullsThe same is true of the third piece pictured here, with its temporary tattoos of flowers and candy skulls. Its creator was thinking of masks, pronouns, and personas, but the swirling quotes also convey an emotionally charged encounter with Rankine’s challenging book.

Citizen body

A final favorite is more intensely blue in the original than my photograph–the reader wrote down all Rankine’s uses of the word “body” and discovered how often the word “blue” appeared in conjunction with it.

Onto their last assignment now, self-chosen: each student has to write a review of a book published by an African-American poet in the last 15 years, and the poet has to be someone whose work we haven’t studied together.  I’m excited to hear their presentations today.

As far as my own work for National Poetry Month: oy. I did manage to get a poetry submission in, and I wrote an unusual number of words for a weekday during the teaching term, but my writing impulses were totally perverse. I worked on a hybrid critical-personal essay I’ve been cooking up concerning Claudia Emerson’s Pharaoh, Pharaoh. I started drafting this blog. I also wrote the first scene of what might be a NOVEL. Here’s hoping I’ll at least experience that phenomenon of accidental productivity through misbehavior…

Intention / haplessness

As usual, I’m tripping over my own sleepy feet into National Poetry Month, knowing I should have a WRITING PLAN but instead feeling indecisive, half-awake. April is when W&L’s winter term ends in a flurry of meetings, receptions, and papers; exam week and spring break, which are relatively calm, occupy the middle; and by the last 10 days or so I may or may not be teaching one of W&L’s hyper-intense 4-week spring courses, meeting 15 undergraduate poets for a couple of hours daily and otherwise grading and planning like a demon. It’s rough to establish a writing schedule during those transitions, but on the other hand, it’s a moment when the earth is all churned up inside and out, and those are fertile poetry times for me. I get much less done during winter’s still darkness.

I began observing NaPoWriMo in 2012, drafting a poem every day that April, and it was an amazing season: I wrote some good stuff and made real progress as a writer. It was also my first spring in two years, because of a six-month stay in New Zealand where the seasons are flipped, so I went from light-starved to ecstatic sun-worshiper in the most intense attunement to spring I’ve ever experienced. In May, my father died, so I wrote furiously all summer and fall, too. Those poems form the core of my next book.

April 2013 was less successful, even though I spent part of the month at a writer’s retreat, perhaps because I didn’t need the release so desperately. In 2014 I shifted approach and wrote a long poem in a section per day, using Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale for prompts. I recently revised “Propagation” for a contest submission. It begins, as the excerpt below shows, with a middleaged woman about to walk into the woods for a solitary hike; she may or may not be accidentally pregnant, but she’s also unhappy and trying to figure out what to do next. I loved researching the local wildflowers as they bloomed on our back campus as well as experimenting with different forms and styles from day to day. The first section is below, just to give you the scent of it.

The deal I’m striking with myself now: as of tomorrow I have to spend at least 20 minutes per day working on poetry. I can write, revise, or just read and think and plan, but I have to prioritize it, including during the AWP. Even if your life is nuts in April, it’s a good discipline to remember that you can carve out little blocks of concentration for what’s important. You just need to make really living your life–as opposed to checking email or hitting snooze or whatever else gets you into trouble–non-negotiable. Wish me luck.

1

An edge will sharpen later:
  bright lot / chilled shade.
Now, at April’s front door,
  the woods begin
imperceptibly.
  Wizened sycamores
crook twig-fingers—come in, come
     in—but their kitchen
vents through a thousand
  seedy chimneys. No
green shingles yet
  divide the interior
from ruminating stars.

  Inside me another
brambled sleeping world:
  another boundary to breach.
Anger / desire. Inside
  me a felted bud may
be fattening. Embryonic
  summer. Infant
premonition of forest.