Elegy for a community reading series

Local honey

It is 5:31 in Lexington a Monday
after magnolia and before honeysuckle
the second week of Spring Term’s sugar drip
and I am driving the hospital road to Kroger
in my dogwood-dirty Hyundai with green dents
to pick up strawberries, lemonade, pre-sliced
cheese and wine with screw-tops because I
have finally learned to make hard things easier

By 6:03 I refrigerate the chardonnay, cheap
but not so sweet I won’t drink the last splash later
murmuring waste not, and I am chewing salad
with the kids, checking in about shin splints
and the Latin quiz while trying not to worry
did I remind the students and hell I forgot the signup
sheet because this will be the last open mic ever
at Studio Eleven and I could just savor
it for once in my hypoglycemic life
soon
I am at the gallery but sending Chris back
for Mattie’s jar of bee-stuff left on the sideboard
and surprise, Agnes Carbrey’s all over the walls
her dark-haired woman swimmers submerged
in and fragmented by rippled blue and feeling
as I will again the joy of summer weightlessness

When everyone sits I say something ridiculous
because I am underwater and cannot hear myself
Patrick eyes me through a long lens and Deborah
is plotting something, while behind the front-row
cadets dressed in spotless whites there’s Ted
cradling daisy-new pages and an old ration book

Finally I emerge dizzy into the first story
Sharon teaching in the prison where Mr. Vasquez
fell and the people meant to save him didn’t—
Sharon can’t revive him but gathers us anyway
in her cinderblock classroom, tables cleared
for a gurney and we witness its absence with her

in the rain outside redbuds carry candles
in the rain inside each swimmer listens for
the thump of the world, her own blood buzzing

4/29/14

cardLong day of teaching and conferencing here, but I just wanted to post a thank-you to everyone who made this three-year reading series such a success. Arthur C. Glasgow funded a reading series at Washington and Lee in 1962 and it still helps us pay honoraria and put out cookies. Dabney S. Lancaster Community College and the writing group SubTerra have also given the series significant support. Certain individuals have given us welcome help too, especially writer, photographer, filmmaker, and soon-to-be-retiring VMI professor Gordon Ball. Vicki Goodheart’s Studio Eleven Gallery has been an auspiciously beautiful space. Readers from Luisa Igloria to Kevin McFadden to my dear colleague Deborah Miranda, organizer of cards and gifts, have brought so much electricity to the space. Most of all, though, I’m grateful to collaborator Mattie Quesenberry Smith, because running this series was a downright crazy thing for both of us to do, and her particular kind of craziness is rare, lovely, and hard to come by. Oh, and apologies to my man Frank O’Hara, whose “The Day Lady Died” I keep abusing in poetic imitations–but whenever I want to write a goodbye that’s heartfelt yet not too sentimental, the voice in my ear is his.

 

Professor Aragorn swears a vow

Manifestos are for angry young men, right? I’m more like “cranky” and “middle-aged,” and as far gender stereotyping goes, I actually had a student write on a course evaluation once, “Just as kind as you’d expect from a mother.” Whippersnapper, if you’re out there, be glad that was anonymous. I am weary of hearing that niceness is my salient attribute. Especially when I just spent three months expertly guiding your complaining tenderfoot fellowship through the Nazgul-haunted waste land of modernist poetry.

The title of my piece in the summer 2013 issue of The Gettysburg Review, “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand,” suggests not a fiery declaration of creed but a series of low-stakes, highly civilized quenchings. I lived in Wellington from late January 2011 to the beginning of July as a Fulbright senior scholar researching poetry networks, in particular the rhizome-fibers fanning out from the International Institute of  Modern Letters at Victoria University. I spent the first few months talking to people, going to readings, trying to see the lines of force. By late April I hunkered down to write an article that I thought would become a book chapter.  I aimed for an audience of academics who are thoughtful about creative writing as a discipline. Turns out that’s a mythical tribe. At least, there are very few venues for such work, and do they want to hear my skepticism about the idea of “community” in the MFA enterprise, balanced by a case study of an antipodean program that’s actually pretty successful, better in some ways than many of its US antecedents? No, Lesley, as perhaps you ought to have predicted, they do not.

By late May I had finished a draft of that scholarly article, which, sigh, is still wandering the wilderness. One cold rainy day I played hooky to visit Katherine Mansfield’s dismal childhood home. Afterwards, over lunch in a Thornfield café, my spouse and I talked about the weirdness of the trip so far. Setting up house in a foreign country, sending your small-town kids to school in an unfamiliar city, is bound to be difficult; you know your life is being reshaped and it’s hard to play scholar in the middle of it. Further, a few weeks after we’d arrived, a Christchurch earthquake had resulted in terrible destruction and loss of life. My husband’s beloved aunt Mary had suddenly died. And my parents, whose marriage, when I left, seemed solid as rock and just as affectionate, were divorcing. Radio silence from my eight-five year old father, now living with a forty-five year old woman.  When random Aotearoans asked me what I was up to, I would joke “having coffee with poets”: how else could I possibly sum it up?

“That’s what you should write,” my husband said, when I commented on how hard it was to assume an authoritative, scholarly voice as if none of this other material was boiling around me—how dissatisfied I felt by academic writing, under the circumstances. “An essay about having coffee with poets.” I took off Strider’s costume that afternoon and tried to assume my birthright, composing prose in which I was a whole person. I had lots of paring and reshaping to do later, but I put down the bones in a week or two. By the end of the finished essay, I declare my intention to transmit argument without filtering out all the personal noise that makes me want to make arguments. That is, to brew up criticism that also delivers the pleasures of story—more meaningful to write, possibly even of interest beyond academia.

Declaring that ambition feels arrogant to me, outrageous, not entirely nice. Further, the two years since have been crazy. The kids hit adolescence; our jobs changed in big ways; the house flooded; my father remarried, got sicker, and died. Basically I’ve been trying to survive my life and think about new goals while not laying down the old ones. I’ve written tons of poetry and prose and managed to get some of it revised and into the world but I’ve also been trying to do too much. My spouse’s latest pronouncement: I need to fire the tiny little booking agent who inhabits the cave of my head. She knows exactly how much I can do and she schedules me right up to the limits of my energy and sanity. “I hate her,” he said. Okay, I answered, overruling the homunculus. No modernism conference.

What I’m trying to do now, as the writing summer opens up, is prioritize. I’ve got a lot of projects steeping. The ones I’ve already committed heavily to: it’s time to dust them with cinnamon and serve them to some kind of public or just dump them if they’re too stale, but no more fooling around behind the espresso machine. And the new book, Poetry’s Possible Worlds will NOT be the straight-ahead scholarship I was trained in, but the mixed-up stuff I feel driven to write, the stuff that feels interesting to me and I hope will be interesting to others, too. Goals:

  1. Write what I want to write—poetry and prose that anyone who likes to read would enjoy—but commit to it. Stop trying to walk every path at once.
  2. Work long and hard. Get better.
  3. Unite the kingdom.

The exquisite hush I require, being a sensitive artist

“So how’s it going at your writer’s resort?” my son keeps asking, and you should definitely hear pre-teen sarcasm in those italics. I packed skepticism in my suitcase, actually, nested in there with books I didn’t use and tea I would brew in enormous quantities. What’s so special about writing over there instead of at home? I wondered, even though others kept assuring me that residencies are magically productive times. Today I’m participating in an Ecopoetry Anthology reading at 2 pm in Givens Bookstore in Lynchburg, Virginia, and head home after the reception—so here’s a fellowship report.

Pros:

  • I can see how making an occasion during which you have no excuse NOT to get it done can be a really useful thing. I was here to revise and compile work I’d been doing in snatches for years and I did, in fact, arrive at a good draft of a poetry manuscript called Radioland. The idea was a two-week poetry-only extravaganza arranged to begin the moment winter term ended, because I wasn’t scheduled to teach in W&L’s May term, and because I have a lot of critical writing to pull together later in the summer. I could have found a book in this messy pile of drafts by laboring in my regular office but I’m not sure I would have, at least not so efficiently. It’s easy for me to back-burner poetry but the guilty sense of privilege this fellowship inspired made the work feel urgent.
  • The company was pretty great. I absolutely loved visiting other artists’ studios, hearing them read, listening to their music. Just the most recent example: a concert last night by Jeff Harms, accompanied by James Berman on the violin, was fantastic. There are some people here I’d like to keep track of for the long haul.
  • The mountains here aren’t prettier than the mountains in Lexington, really, but here I’m closer to the quiet places. It’s been restorative to take long walks through ridges of oak and dogwood and not meet a soul (except for those naked women photographing each other in a sunny meadow, and that was interesting in its own way).
  • A related point: I have a noisy head and here things slowed down enough for me to listen to it. Following paths in an unfamiliar wood is a lot like following the language that scurries around in my mental underbrush, or launches from some inner branch, or wells up in the wetlands. I composed a lot of new poems and I have no idea if they’ll weather. They do feel strange in a good way, though.

Cons:

  • Like I said, I could do this at home with a LOT less inconvenience to kith and kin. Unlike many people, I have a supportive spouse, good space, a job that allows summer writing-time and rewards me for publishing. I’ve had spells when it was tough going, but mostly I’m capable of setting myself deadlines and sticking to them, putting other tasks on hold if I have to. A VCCA regular was telling me the other night that she has all her breakthroughs here, and it’s possible I’ll recognize later that the new work has some special quality I hadn’t yet attained. The verdict’s out, though. Maybe it’s a genre thing—maybe residencies are less vital for poets. You can draft new prose for 10 hours a day, maybe, but poems don’t work that way, and I don’t need a big well-ventilated studio or a borrowed baby grand.
  • I had a friend once who said that everyone should have to do their own scut work. At the time I protested vehemently. I don’t know any middle-class U.S. residents who don’t farm out some chores by eating meals at restaurants, hiring someone to do their taxes or re-shingle the roof, handing clothes over to the dry-cleaner, whatever. I mean, where would that ideological maxim take me? I don’t want to thresh my own wheat and spin my own cotton. Still, I get it. Chopping an occasional zucchini is good for an egghead. I think it’s probably better, in the end, for artists to clean toilets, wipe up cat vomit, live with other people to whom they have profound obligations. A break’s okay, but three meals a day with no effort probably isn’t good for anyone’s poetry over the long haul.

I guess what I feel is, introvert though I am (I spent lots of time reading in my studio while other fellows stayed up late talking), the connections here will probably have a bigger effect on me than the silences. And I’m feeling cheerful at the prospect of slapping up last-minute peanut butter sandwiches because my sarcastic twelve-year-old forgot to pack his lunch again. It’s good to be reminded that lots of people, quite rightly, don’t take my craft and erudition all that seriously.

Amygdala, shut up

While I boiled myself in the bath Sunday morning, emerging so puce-colored and limp I had to start drafting a blog post because I was just too weak to go buy groceries for my hungry family, I thought about how I’d woken up at five a.m. in a panic about my Twitter handle (too long! full of inconvenient caps! wait, is Twitter even case sensitive? I’m so stupid!).

I suffer from post-talking insomnia. If I’ve said anything at all to a friend, coworker, sales clerk, etc., I fret later that I’ve been insensitive, dumb, or boring. After forty-something years, I can almost always let the worry go after one bad night: really, if it’s still on your mind after the first cup of caffeine you should apologize, and if not, life will probably struggle on.

Each new way of talking, though, dials me back to middle-school-level fits. Facebook almost killed me. I had to sign up. First, I was researching poetry networks in the late aughts, and it seemed pathetic that I hadn’t participated in any virtual ones except for an email listserv. Second, I was planning on half a year in New Zealand, and for all Facebook’s faults, it really is one of the best ways to keep up with friends and family internationally. Finally, over a meal at the West Chester Poetry Conference, Ned Balbo told me to suck it up. Actually, he was very polite, but he did tell me that once you figure it out, you only need to spend ten minutes a few times a week to be a decent FB citizen, which turned out to be true, although when you’re really procrastinating that flickering feed can be dangerously mesmerizing. What destroyed me about the medium, though, was that standard writer’s dilemma of sussing out your audience. How could I post to modernism scholars, my local go-out-for-a-beer friends, my cousin the truck driver, poetry journal editors, college administrators, stray Republicans I’m on uneasily-friendly terms with, and, yikes, former students all at the same time? Starting a blog presented the same problem: for whom was I writing? Last summer I signed up for Twitter to follow my department’s new feed, although I didn’t really mess with it until last week, as a new year’s resolution to just try it, urged on by a few friends and that NYT article people keep sending me. I asked my daughter for advice on tweeting and she said “always be funny,” which of course completely paralyzed me, and not only because I’m rarely funny on purpose. It’s the same who’s-listening-question: funny to whom? Who really gets my lame jokes anyway except Chris and my college friend Scott Nicolay (@methysticin) and certain other poetry nerds, especially repeat-students whom I’ve forced to read everything I love and who have spent shocking amounts of time listening to me chatter?

Besides audience anxiety, or linked to it, there’s the identity question. Each medium invites you to present some facet of yourself, perhaps strategically. It might behoove me to talk like a poet-scholar-endowed-chair in all publishing arenas, which FB and Twitter certainly are, but when I hear other people doing that, it sounds bloodless at best. The funniest things I could tweet are mostly weird comments from my kids, but I don’t want to be a professional mom either—too many people are ready to define middle-aged women that way and I think about lots of things besides my fascinating children, thanks. I have strong feelings about politics and contemporary culture but rarely have an insight or cause to trumpet that someone else hasn’t already blogged about more eloquently; my head’s in the poetry-clouds so I’m just not fast enough. And while Neil Gaiman can tweet about his exercise regimen and still be interesting to people, well…let me know when you really want to hear what brand of mass-marketed tea I’m sipping while I’m watching some TV show six months later than everyone else.

For the blog, I decided I’ll be a poet/ poetry-reader who argues that everything is relevant to poetry and poetry is relevant to everything. Which isn’t much of a decision, really. In Facebook, too, I settled on ignoring the “groups” function and just posting occasionally about any random experience that seems at least slightly interesting, funny, or noteworthy, and not worrying about who’s listening. Basically, I’m just being the same me everywhere.

What works for me is to approach posting the way I approach drafting a poem. That is, I don’t know whom I’m writing for—some ideal geeky tender-hearted reader maybe who likes Emily Dickinson, David Bowie, Dorothy Sayers, Farscape, Langston Hughes, Ursula K. Le Guin, H.D., Thomas Sayers Ellis, Cake, Kim Stanley Robinson, Billie Holiday, Homeland, The Decembrists, Philip Pullman, Rickie Lee Jones, Gwyneth Jones, Rafael Campo, Octavia Butler, cussing in a pirate voice, dark chocolate, red wine, good bread, that handmade French ewe’s milk Roquefort the cheese lady downtown sells (can you tell my other resolution is to eat and drink less?). Anyway, if I’m imagining any reader at all, it’s that dactyl-obsessed slant-rhyme-loving totally anonymous unsexed calorie-padded soul mate. I’m not afraid to tell hir everything, and even better, if s/he doesn’t respond, my feelings can’t be hurt. After all, even if we never speak, I know s/he totally gets me. (I do think about specific readers, including editors, when I revise poems, but while I fiddle with poems for years, a blog might ferment for a day before publication.)

I don’t know if adopting that attitude is genius or an exceptionally bad career move, but this will be my mantra next time a hashtag experiment leaves me sleepless: it’s just like every other kind of writing. Be interesting. Be truthful. Be generous. All at once, in a 140 characters or fewer, several times per week @LesleyMWheeler. While simultaneously producing books, articles, and poems in a constant fever pitch of inspiration as agents, publishers, reviewers, and fans cry up to the office window in faint but passionate voices: “I’m hir!” Okay, not likely.

Searching for habitable planets

Otherworldly poetry is an adaptable traveler—it can thrive in many climates and habitats—but the new science fiction-themed issue of the New Yorker does not, apparently, possess a life-sustaining atmosphere.

My favorite reading bandwidth is slipstream, new fabulism, whatever you call it: that place on the dial where so-called literary values of complexity, moral ambiguity, and linguistic precision fuzz into the world-skewing tendencies of speculative fiction. Various definitions include any narrative that makes you feel strange, that reframes reality as a somewhat random consensus, though the main uses of these categories seem to be a) marketing and b) giving critics, teachers, and students something to argue about. (My recently graduated student Mathew, now off to do micro-finance in Mongolia, prefers the term post-realism; my rising senior student Eric growls when you put “post” in front of anything.)  I like realism too, and straight-out fantasy when the dragons are handled responsibly. The problem with the former, though, is that it can be too much like life—isn’t the real world mean, sad, boring, and pointless enough?—and the latter can be different from life in ways that are too predictable. My Darth Vader died a few days ago and I would like literary support, but no symbolic castrations, please, or death-bed reconciliations (in my family, last words run along the lines of “I need you to go retrieve cash from a secret compartment in my spaceship while my third wife is at church”—not something you want ringing in your ears during battle scenes).

So I awaited this New Yorker optimistically, eager to escape into a bracingly cool slipstream. It’s a decent issue. The stories by Junot Díaz and Jennifer Egan are terrific; the ones by Jonathan Lethem and Sam Lipsyte are passably entertaining; and the essays by Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Karen Russell, Colson Whitehead, and others are interesting and often very funny. I also really appreciated Emily Nussbaum’s piece on “Doctor Who” and “Community”: one theme of these shows, she observes, is that “the fan’s experience of loyalty and loss is its own, legitimate form of romantic love.” Inspector Spacetime, I love you madly.

But Paul Muldoon, you blew it! I guess I knew you would. I saw the names Kay Ryan and Charles Simic, though, and hope flickered in my dying warp drive. Both are wonderfully weird poets. Ryan’s “The Octopus” focuses on the extreme oddity of the titular creature, estranging it for us further: what does it have eight of, exactly? Arms or legs? And why is it so smart? She envisions some production factory where “Sometimes a brain-feed/ sticks until the brain/ that gets delivered has/ a hundred times the/ strength it needs in/ nature. Which changes/ nature.” Ryan’s a “strange intelligence” too. I like her questions, and it’s OK that none of her eight appendages is pointing to an answer, but this isn’t a world-skewing poem. And it’s short on the soundplay and crazy lineation that give some of her apparently slight poems their black-hole-gravity.

Not a speculative poem, and not a great poem either. Same goes for Simic’s “Driving Around,” sadly. He’s performing that surrealistic trick: imagine small town Main Street as “an abandoned movie set/ whose director/ ran out of money and ideas.” The unhappy woman in the bridal shop window becomes an out-of-work actress. I suppose the poignancy he intends is how a Hollywood metaphor makes ordinary desolation more vivid: aren’t we bad people, grieving more for the actress than we would for Miss Nobody? Simic is applying an alien perspective to a familiar scene, a strategy that once made James Fenton describe poet Craig Raine as “Of the Martian School.” This way of writing is a little science fictiony—hence the name—but in these particular cases, it’s also a little disappointing.

I speculate Tim Green at Rattle will do better (see his call for sf poems here). In the meantime, I’d be grateful for summer reading suggestions for half-orphaned poet-heroes: anything absorbing, preferably a little otherworldly; goofy is good as long as it’s not dumb. Elven stereotyping has gotten totally out of hand.

Points on my poetic license

I have a guilty sense that I’ve deluded people, cast up a falsely shimmering mirage of the Productive Poet-Scholar-Teacher, when someone asks how I get so much done. I feel perpetually behind, anxious about what I should have finished but haven’t started yet, and believe that last year’s publishing rate is a fluke. Really, my bulb has burnt out, and next year they’ll see the illusion flicker off like broken film.

At the same time, like everyone who has the arrogance to try and make art, I think I am an underappreciated genius. When asked how I get so much done, I experience a static charge of irritation. The answer, of course, is that I work really hard even when I don’t want to. That’s the only answer, ever.

There’s another piece, though, and it’s not something a scholar should admit: I am not a perfectionist. I send poems out before they’re done and regret it later. I don’t proofread my emails, dammit. I fail to double-check the spelling of a name or the exact wording of a reference. To anyone not a scholar or researcher or journalist, this probably sounds like silly stuff to worry over, and sometimes it is. I had a reviewer lambaste me for a misspelled name once (in a quick aside, not a major point) and I still think he was unnecessarily snarky; he was looking for errors because he didn’t like my poetic politics.

Sometimes, though, even small errors have ethical weight. I wrote down just the first author of a co-authored source once, and never re-checked and caught my omission of the collaborators. Later, one of those collaborators wrote me in frustration—she had just done me a huge favor and noticed in the process that I had cheated her of credit for a lot of hard labor. You of all people should know better, she said, and I agreed.

I recently made a couple of other mistakes in which I failed to give full credit to women. I just published an article about The Discussion of Women’s Poetry List called “A Salon with a Revolving Door: Virtual Community and the Space of Wom-Po.” One mistake was just a basic confusion rooted in the real difficulty of following tangled threads: I attributed the invention of “Foremother’s Friday” to Ellen Moody, who more or less runs that feature now, instead of to its real originator, Amanda Surkont. The other error is worse, in my opinion, because, again, I really should have known better. In one paragraph, I blithely recognize Charles Bernstein for founding the Buffalo Poetic List and John Kinsella for founding poetryetc. I describe Wom-po, however, not as Annie Finch’s creation but as the collective venture of a group of women.

Yes, it was a collective endeavor—all those email lists are—and my article emphasizes its communal aspect as a feminist achievement. However, all those lists also had leaders, people who steered the conversation through conflicts, navigated technical difficulties, and kept the group lively and growing. In short, I gave full acclaim to the men, but not to the woman. There are enough jerks out there doing things like that with an edge of malice; people who don’t want to be jerks have an obligation to be careful. Annie Finch (in a nice way) called me on it, and I apologized, but I wanted to say again here: I get it and I am sorry.

I never made the omitting-the-coauthors misstep a second time and I don’t expect to make the failure-to-credit-the-woman-same-as-the-men error again, either. I’m pretty sure I will find myself apologizing for other mistakes, though. It’s not that I’m cavalier about it or won’t try hard to get things right, or at least err on the side of generosity. It’s just hot hard work here in the projection booth, with that Productive Poet-Scholar-Teacher film on constant display. My Teacher-Scholar simulacrum likes to finish things, tick them off the list and keep moving. Only the poet really takes things slowly enough, at least some of the time. That’s one of the uses of poetry’s uselessness.

Universal Reboot

I’ve been packing and unpacking houses and offices for weeks. And poem drafts, book ideas, changed relationships, grocery bags—I even dream about trying to stuff vacation clothes into duffels in time to make the plane. The other night, instead of half-empty tubes of sunscreen, my nightmare double had to gather up every toy our kids had ever owned, all of which were somehow crammed into a hotel room. Fisher-Price farmers, time to collect your human-sized chickens and close up the barn! (My daughter starts high school next month.)

I figured that since my life is in total disarray, I might as well redesign the blog too. I’ve added that third term, “conversation,” to the subtitle, as previously threatened. Given the hemispheric shift, too—it feels like passing through a mirror to me, Aotearoa to Virginia, winter to summer, sabbatical to real life—I flipped the color scheme from dark to light. I was worried that the old format was a bit hard to read. If you have trouble with this one, please let me know.

I’m also scouting for poems and essays that somehow address the notions of poetry as conversation, poems in conversation, and conversation in poems—suggestions and alternative prepositions welcome. I’ve been circling around these ideas like the buzzards over Washington and Lee’s law school and it’s time to swoop, although I don’t like where this simile is going.

For starters, although poets are thinner on the ground here, these are some of the poetic conversations I’m in, starting with the local: I just finished poet Margo Solod’s vivid memoir, Cuttyhunk: Life on the Rock, so I’m hearing her voice in my head; I hope it’s not mutual. I met Mattie Quesenberry Smith in Lexington Coffee on Friday to sip iced tea, perspire profusely, and strategize about how to generate a stronger sense of community among town and university writers—what reading venues and authors might attract both audiences, how to schedule and advertise. Rod Smith and I are emailing across the few hot blocks separating our new work spaces and I’m browsing the next issue of Shenandoah, on the verge of its launch. Walking into work today I chatted with Suzanne Keen about writing amid boxes and with Christopher Matthews about negotiating change in the poetry weather. He feels inspired to finish, arrange, and send. Right now all I want to do is draft, hopping from stanza to stanza without looking back. And I’m reading Deborah Miranda’s Facebook posts, since she’s in Cuttyhunk with Margo, and envying her evident immersion.

Ireland and Texas were waiting on my desk when I returned, in the form of an interview with Paula Meehan in the final print Shenandoah and Meta DuEwa Jones’s brand new poetry study, The Muse is Music: Jazz Poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to Spoken Word. My attention, however, is also floating above the Pacific: I’m listening to Hinemoana Baker’s gorgeous CDs and deciding what to send her by way of recompense, finishing an email interview with Bill Manhire, preparing to revise and polish the essays I wrote in New Zealand. First, though, I’m thinking these broad new windowsills need a paua shell brought back from Makara Beach and some succulent desert plant, a kind that’s never heard of the ocean.

Heroes in trouble

My baseball-playing-son’s choice of “Casey at the Bat” for school recitation made sense. I noticed in his practice sessions that he read the line “Kill the umpire!” with intense personal feeling; he tossed off “That ain’t my style” a little less confidently, but he clearly aspires to such flair. We had fun looking up the slang in “The former was a lulu and the latter was a cake.” It turns out that he didn’t even have to choose a poem for this three-minute speech: he elected to, he said, “because my mom is a poet.” His next public speaking assignment is to memorize and recite a poem of at least twelve lines. I thought maybe “Invictus,” but he said no, a funny one; he was disappointed that Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” wasn’t long enough. Out of the sheaf I presented as possibilities he chose Stevie Smith’s cheerful song about cruel loneliness and death, “Not Waving but Drowning.”

Both Thayer’s poem and Smith’s are about solitary men set against what Sylvia Plath calls “peanut-crunching crowds.” Five thousand fans in Mudville cheer in unison for arrogant Casey; Smith’s drowned man moans about being misunderstood while obtuse beachgoers exclaim, “Poor chap, he always loved larking / And now he’s dead.” Cameron loves brainy, wise-cracking heroes in the movies he watches and he books he devours, but seems to understand that even stars strike out and Holmes doesn’t always find his Watson. The boy is way too clear-eyed, in short, so I hope he keeps that dark, dark sense of humor.

As he mumbles rhymes under his breath, I’m revising essays about poetry and community and once again feeling the perversity of the whole project. In Cameron’s recitation pieces, crowds are either alarming or wilfully stupid. Dickinson’s “admiring bog” isn’t a club you’d want to join, either. Remember how John Stuart Mill described lyric poetry as utterance overheard? Dickinson’s poem, like many others, performs privacy: I sort of really hope somebody might be listening, but I’m over here pretending I’m talking to myself, so don’t bother me. Poetry is a funny way to be sociable, even when there’s a substantial readership or listening audience at hand. It’s a mode of conversation, yes, but incredibly slow and indirect, less like mailing letters than broadcasting greetings to hypothetical space aliens.

Of course, producing scholarship about poems may be even crazier if conversation is something you care about. This is why I’m now plotting a more narrative approach to this poetry and community project—wondering if I can write a book informed by research but driven by reflections about process, and possibly the story of why I’m interested, as much as by argument. What I need to decide before I pick up speed, though, is who would read this imaginary book and what they would want from it. The nature of the crowd, I guess, and what its taste in peanuts might be.

Community’s opposite

English departments are “hostile territory, dangerous turf.” That’s from an essay by George Garrett, but that notion permeates the 1970 collection Writers as Teachers: Teachers as Writers, edited by Jonathan Baumbach. Bill Manhire told me that he picked up this book in the early 70s in London, and he seems to have the only copy in the country of New Zealand, so the paperback on my desk is borrowed from him. Baumbach’s book arises from and reflects sympathy between 1960s expressivist or “Authentic Voice” composition pedagogy and Creative Writing programs then springing up in North America and Britain. Students are “secret outlaws, shooting the deer of the king in private Sherwood Forest,” as Baumbach puts it. To write powerfully is to be empowered. This radical activity, necessarily nurtured under the radar, requires unlearning whatever rules the “cops and teachers” have handed down.

Dated, yes. The cover illustration is pretty trippy: a pipe-smoking bearded hippy guy is strolling across a giant pencil, while mirrored below him, a pipe-smoking bearded professorial guy totes his briefcase in the other direction. Are they arch-enemies or the same person? Might the one in the suit pop into a classroom-phone booth and transform into the one in the fringed sweater, hands free so that he may liberate the masses? It’s a wonderfully passionate book, though, idealistic and caustic and flippant and practical. You can see why it energized a young English professor from New Zealand as he worked up his course in “Original Composition.” (That sort of course title was a common way of avoiding the taint of Americanness attached to “creative writing” as an academic field—and thereby of playing Robin Hood with university resources.)

Any community, no matter how positive and empowering, requires an opposite: we-feeling is defined by exclusion as well as inclusion. Many of the people who founded creative writing programs did so by breaking away from English departments structurally, fiscally, and ideologically. Having earned my own Ph.D. after the hottest battles died down, at some level I personally don’t get it; the worlds of academic English studies and academic creative writing seem more alike than different. I know many who feel that universities—creative writers, English professors, whatever—dominate the resources available to U.S. poets; that it’s difficult to keep going outside of the contemporary system of academic patronage; and that M.F.A. programs in particular favor certain aesthetics and identities. It isn’t a neat binary opposition—people move in and out of university affiliation, there are enormous differences among institutions, and there are plenty of other intersecting battles to fight over region, race, politics, etc.—but in the U.S., to me, being inside or outside of academe seems like a more significant divide than what department you’re in.

It’s different here. First of all, at least theoretically, New Zealand universities are equal in prestige and resources, so many people go to school where they live. You don’t have to stop attending that reading series you love because you decided to study creative writing full-time. While tuition remains a big barrier for many potential students, costs aren’t as astronomical as in the States; access to education seems wider, more democratic. The “other” of a New Zealand writing community is often regional: there’s the Wellington/ Auckland thing, and more powerfully the South Island/ North Island thing, never mind New Zealand/ Australia or Australasian-Pacific-Southern Hemisphere/ All Those People Up North Who Forget About Us. A writing community’s opposite isn’t so much defined by university affiliation because academe and regional identity intersect more than in the U.S. At least, that’s what I think this week.

In any case, one’s elsewhere shifts according to where one’s standing at the moment. Plus, individuals bring their own elsewheres to any communal enterprise. For the year you’re in a workshop you think: I identify with this group because we’re obsessed with the same things and we’re helping each other, as opposed to those other people (employers, friends, family) who don’t care if we get the writing done. But at times you also think you don’t quite fit, that you’re different from everyone else, or you’re in irritated awe of the person who’s emerging as a star. It’s when it’s almost over or in retrospect that a warm glow softens those edges and the sense of belonging really takes hold. Sometimes. It’s slippery, this idea of community, says the pipeless beardless woman sitting high up in the English Department, thinking about the creative writers in the Glenn Schaeffer house, on the other side of the giant pencil.

Excess sugars

“At some profound level,” writes Damien Wilkins in “American Microphone,” a very funny story about a dismal public reading, “I think of Americans as dangerously carbonated people.” This confirms my U.S.-Soft Drink Association Hypothesis as to why New Zealanders keep calling me “refreshing.”

Wilkins was the person who told me to look for Emily Dobson’s first book, A Box of Beesthis as I dissolved sugar into a cup of Earl Grey in his office and tried not to get lost in his spectacular view of the harbor, framed by a blooming tree that neither of us could name. Dobson, like Hinemoana Baker (see “Milk and honey,” April 13, 2011), was an MA student at the International Institute of Modern Letters a few years ago. As Damien and I talked about how workshops affect writers, he described how Dobson’s classmates nudged her prize-winning portfolio towards the topic of bee-keeping. Dobson was born into a family of apiarists in Hawkes Bay and, at least as I remember the story, didn’t initially see poetic gold in what were, to her, the ordinary details of childhood. Whether or not this particular workshop tale is quite true, it suggests one positive effect of belonging to a community of smart readers. They help you recognize your most urgently interesting material.

A Box of Bees, based on this portfolio, was published by Victoria University Press in 2005. Its epigraph from Sappho highlights a fragmentary and sensuous quality in the untitled poems that follow, all in couplets (this made me think of H.D., also ambivalent about sweetness). In fact, the poem-cells fit together in a patterned comb. The hive of the family is central to this book; Dobson portrays it as both fragile and dangerously powerful. The speaker also makes many flights outward. Narratives of desire and travel intersect with a portrayal of domestic enclosure. Hives protect but they are also open, and here I return to an aesthetic of porousness or seepage that I keep noticing. There are several examples I could choose—“The blue sign beside the hot road,” for one, involves invading German soldiers, scraps of Greek, and goats in the house—but the best is probably the poem near the end that is framed by the lines:

Sylvia Plath and Sir Edmund Hillary both kept bees.

Oh yes, the air is full of honey and

the seas are dripping honey.

I am saturated with bees.

I have nothing to do with bees.

I have just about had enough

of the whole damned business.

This piece begins by invoking Plath, unsaintly patron of so many women writers, and the New Zealand mountaineer who’s a demi-god in these parts. As Dobson tells us in the book’s brief “Notes,” the rest of the poem collages quotes from The Upanishads and novels by Englishman Peter Ackroyd and Canadian Elizabeth Smart (source of the book’s fiercest swear word) in an artistic genealogy parallel to the family migrations traced here. The language zinging around has travelled great distances before melting into Dobson’s lines.

Seepage becomes suffusion in “Sylvia Plath and Sir Edmund Hillary both kept bees.” Bees have a reputation for diligence and subordination to the good of the community, and this is all a little too sweet for Dobson. Her tone of protest is, in fact, probably what makes me love this poem—I recognize that sick-to-death feeling when you’ve been too immersed in a writing project, plus I’ve been in a polite country long enough to be nostalgic for four-letter stingers. Dobson’s poem struggles against its own debts but is too sharp to get trapped in stickiness.