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.

Coffee with poets in New Zealand

The Katherine Mansfield Birthplace was very, very cold on Friday morning. It’s small, furnished in dark woods with all the Victorian trappings, and of course unheated. Quotes from Mansfield typed up on the visitor’s guide call it “a little dark piggy house,” or something similar. Chris and I toured it on a sort of birthday outing before going out for an upscale lunch. We huddled by the restaurant heater with hot drinks, watching through a window as rain coursed down Tinakori Road, and talked about work. “You know the essay you should write?” he said. “‘Coffee with Poets in New Zealand.’ Just write up all the stories you’ve been telling me.” He recounted a couple of funny ones, still fizzy with the refreshing American frankness I’m often accused of, and I said, “But I couldn’t write that. Even if I didn’t use names, every poet in New Zealand would know who I was talking about.” He shrugged and answered, “Just draft it however you want to, and worry about it later.”

So, dear reader, I drafted it, half on Friday afternoon and half on Monday afternoon (that’s when the real work always happens for me: mornings, bah). I drew heavily from my notebooks and datebooks and while there are bits that might be touchy, it turns out to be quite autobiographical, really, and not otherwise professionally dangerous (I think). Now I have to let it ferment while we head out on a roadtrip around the North Island, but that’s just as well. Here’s a sip:

Early February: Nothing is working, not my email or phone at work or at my rental home. I don’t yet understand that no sensible New Zealander would be wasting these precious few summery days pestering IT. So I make an appointment to meet Bill Manhire, the country’s first Poet Laureate, in his office in the Glenn Schaeffer House. This is my job for the five months of my grant, I will tell people over and over. To have coffee with poets, go to their readings, pore over their books. When the person I’m talking to clucks enviously I admit, yes, I feel very pleased with myself. But sooner or later I will actually have to write something.

Somehow I arrive at Bill’s office without my notebook and must scramble for pen and paper. Later I lose these untethered notes. What’s left: the glitter of the harbor beyond the window; wanting to sit on the floor and read the spines of his books; sipping sugared Earl Grey from a glass mug; poet Chris Price joining us from her neighboring office… Bill is very friendly but uses Jedi mind-control to erase most particulars of the meeting from my memory.

Several days later, in the middle of the Fulbright orientation program, I come home from Waiwhetu Marae to actual internet access. One of the first messages I read is from my mother, explaining her very recent discovery that my father has been spending down their savings to conduct affairs and she has kicked him out of the house. Would I please not tell anyone yet, she writes. Evening in Wellington means very early morning in Pennsylvania so between my heavily loaded schedule and tech problems, I can’t call for days.

 ***

18 Feb: Anna Jackson and I have agreed to meet at two o’clock for coffee so I delay my caffeine consumption in anticipation. When she puts her head around my office door, she says, “Shall we take a walk instead?” It is another beautiful day and I am still failing to comprehend that there will be few of these. The walk involves many damp steps up to the Botanic Gardens, itself a collection of steep, intimidating paths—the kind I’d turn away from at home with a shrug, remarking, “Well, obviously we can’t walk there.” Anna is much fitter than I am; she can chat nonchalantly while I can barely conceal my pathetic wheezing…

***

22 Feb: Kerry Hines recommends Ti Kouka, across from Unity Books. I print out walking directions from Google Maps but still end up going the stupid way…

            Lunch is particularly delicious. I can’t always order what sounds best because I seem to be allergic to dairy and corn—the former a major liability when you’re living on a cattle-grazed island with fabulous butter, cheese, and ice cream. I order a messy, juicy burger, sliding out of its Turkish roll on a slick of aioli, and try not to lick my fingers.

            I devour information about Kerry’s work and experiences but what I remember most vividly is paying the bill nearly two hours later. “Did you hear about Christchurch?” the cashier asks as I swipe my debit card and eye the dessert case. It was a big one, she says.