So many mountains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rockies 3

Let us hold hands and look

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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.”

Lucidity, difficulty

As a grader of zillions of undergraduate essays, I hate the word “relatable.” I never let “universal” sneak through a poetry class without interrogation. I understand why some critics mock the word “accessible,” as if poems could be built to code with wide ramps and handrails. Relatable to whom? People don’t have equally easy entry to literature’s many universes. Asali Solomon, author of the great new novel Disgruntled, observed to me on Friday that while there’s contemporary poetry she approaches with goodwill yet still doesn’t understand, she gets the experimental work of Harryette Mullen.I’ve had similar experiences, and so have you: one kind of obliquity alienates, while another attracts, intrigues, or even makes deep sense. It’s changeable, too. A book that repels you now might be just what you need in 2025, providing we survive the zombie plague AI-takeover eco-apocalypse.disgruntled

Solomon was part of a panel discussion here Thursday with Helena Maria Viramontes. (Evie Shockley was prevented from coming by what had BETTER be Virginia’s last snowstorm of 2015.) The title of the event was “At the Crossroads of Literature and History” and one question we posed to the visitors was how each thought of audience. Part of what Solomon answered, if I’m remembering right, is that she wants to involve us in the world of her West Philadelphian character Kenya, but not explain that world. That is, some readers may receive the story with delight, seeing their own experiences there, and for others the book will illuminate unfamiliar territory. But the book isn’t necessarily for one kind of reader more than another.

Now that the contract is signed-sealed-delivered, I can publicly announce that my own next book, Radioland, is scheduled for September 2015 publication by Barrow Street Press, the same folks who did a beautiful job with my second poetry collection, Heterotopia. Most of the poetry they publish seems more experimental or difficult than mine, in my own imperfect judgment: I’d say their list has an intellectual character throughout a pretty good range of styles. The editors nudge me gently, respectfully towards intensifying rather than clarifying poems, if that makes sense. I think they’re right, so as I finalize the manuscript I’m paring away a few of the first-person pronouns and other bits of language that are probably implicit. It’s like boiling down stock, only for months or years rather than a few steamy hours.

I like the book better the more time I spend with it, but I am aware that all this sauce-reduction will make the poems more challenging. I ponder the cost/ benefit analysis constantly, because I firmly believe that while playing to poetry insiders is an effective short-term game, it’s short-sighted. “Intense” is good but “off-puttingly obscure” undercuts the ultimate value of one’s own verse AND does a disservice to poetry generally. The more poets aim to please a rarefied audience, the smaller our audiences will deservedly be.

I don’t think there is a universal sweet spot for me or anyone else, as far as judging levels of difficulty. As I started off by saying, accessibility is idiosyncratic. I did just finish reading a poetry collection, though, that I could recommend to anyone. Sometimes I buy or order a very good book and then don’t pick it up for ages; it’s revealing to me that I sank into Jeannine Hall Gailey’s brand-new The Robot Scientist’s Daughter as soon as I had a free hour. Her previous three collections were good reads, sources of pleasure unalloyed by irritable puzzling, complex but not alienating, so I (rightly) trusted this would be too. RSD

Look at a book’s layout and much becomes clear, even if it’s only a given author’s resistance to clarity as a literary value. In this case the cover art in itself is readable; the title and subtitles imply a narrative grounding; there are discursive notes naming research sources at the back. Even more unusually, an introduction by the poet describes her upbringing near the Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee, where her father consulted on nuclear waste clean-up. Gailey situates her poems in several contexts. Her poems tell an urgent story about the long term dangers to the natural world and to human health of nuclear power. They also vividly invoke the beauty of Appalachia even as it is rendered toxic to human and nonhuman residents: I particularly loved all the natural detail about wasp nests, identifying mushrooms, brewing carcinogenic sassafras tea. Her lush green childhood seems idyllic but at so many junctures is nearly fatal. Gailey also teases out resonances between her own life and the conventions of science fiction, too, in a way that’s political and playful, for she’s obviously a fan as well as a canny critic of the genre. But I’m not a critical wizard to see these things: she signals her affiliations and commitments clearly.

I know from Gailey’s blog that it took her a long time to place this book, which strikes me as pretty weird. This collection will interest many kinds of readers, plus she’s a smart self-publicist who will do lots of readings and get the word out. She’s particularly good at drawing in audiences who are not poetry insiders. And she’s a sane and pleasant person—these qualities all seem like the ones I’d look for, if I were a book editor. Did Gailey’s investment in reaching a wide variety of readers actually make her publishing path harder, I wonder?

When I was twentyish, my poems were obscure because I wasn’t doing the work of thinking them through, or wasn’t willing to reveal what I really did think. Teaching undergraduates made me put a premium on clarity, but during the last ten years of building a poetry-publishing career I’ve felt a lot of these little nudges back towards a more elliptical voice. Force sustained through every necessary word in a brief space: I value that. But I never finish a poem now, even a highly condensed and/or formally experimental one, until I know what’s urgent about it and could state some version of the crux in simple declarative sentences. My intentions are embedded in the work. Is that my sweet spot?

I don’t know, but then, the difficulty of figuring out the best way forward is what drew me to poetry in the first place. There is no way to become expert; I will never be sure of myself.

Pain, pleasure, and Spottswood Styles

Ghosts of poetry: once, on the current site of Washington and Lee University’s theater, there stood a brick house with a stone fireplace “so large that we could burn whole railroad ties without having them cut.” It belonged to Spottswood Styles, 1869-1946, “Lexington’s Negro Poet.” I’m quoting from volume seven of the Rockbridge Historical Society Proceedings, provided to me by Tom Camden, Lisa McCown, and Seth Goodhart, who staff Special Collections. An introductory note signed “A.B.H.” informs us that Styles, one of fourteen children and father of ten, was born west of town near the Lucy Selina Furnaces, to John Robert Styles, formerly an enslaved person who worked forges that supplied iron to the Confederacy. Spottswood Styles probably obtained only an elementary school education, but he was a good mechanic who provided for his family by working at a “wood, coal, and machinery yard,” and he directed his creative energy in all kinds of ways. Deborah Sensabaugh, who wrote about Styles for the Lexington News Gazette in 1990, cites a grandson’s recollection of how Styles rechanneled a small stream from Woods Creek and “placed little waterwheels that turned mechanical items.” There were swings and see-saws, too, and “carved wooden men with jointed arms.”

Styles is the man with a child on his lap, according to the Rockbridge Report

Styles is the man with a child on his lap, according to the Rockbridge Report

Styles’ poetry was read aloud in church and published in the newspaper. Like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Styles wrote both in vernacular and standard English, and was particularly cited locally at this time of year for a piece called “Dat Ground-Hog Day.” “Some say I’m Juverstetious,” it begins, a comic error reprised suggestively in the next stanza: “Well, yes, I’m superspecious.” Several lines down he rhymes “Door” and “Low” to highlight the intensity of the accent. It’s an appealing poem that resonates strongly with the trickster tradition Henry Louis Gates, Jr. identifies in African-American literature: not only is the Ground-Hog an underground character whose “Ebry Little Sign” needs attention and decoding, but he even prognosticates an upsurge in coal and wood orders, benefitting the author’s business interests. (Tom also sent me a 1997 ad from the same paper sponsored by Herring Real Estate. “In Honor of Black History Month and Spottswood Alexander Styles, a Lexington Poet,” the ad quotes a drastically changed and standardized version of the “Ground Hog Poem”—I can guess why someone erased the dialect, but I’d still very much like to know who did the rewriting.)

I don’t have access to the ledger in which Styles transcribed his poems, and maybe it doesn’t even exist anymore, but it would be fascinating to examine the source of the few poems preserved by the Historical Society. (Sensabaugh says Styles wrote his poems on delivery tags for coal customers, too, but those must be long vanished.) An essay prefacing the short selection, by Houston Barclay, is fond but condescending: “What would our history be without the Negroes who added so much to our way of life!” Hmm. More tactful is a comment from Robert Frost, who visited the university in 1941 and remarked of Styles, “His work, judging from the few samples I have seen, shows a very poetic mind.” But genuinely, I like this work, and have so appreciated these glimpses of a talent who lived a few blocks from me but in a profoundly different world. The vernacular poems are spirited, sly, and very much in conversation with nineteenth and twentieth-century verse: they are, in short, a pleasure to spend time with.

In a more solemn mood, “Uncle Henry,” recounting Styles’ grandmother’s story of a son sold down the river, gives testimony of pain. His grandmother responds to this terrible rupture in her family by praying, “Lord break the Chains of Bondage, and set the Captives free./ Bring back my boy, dear Jesus, be merciful Lord unto me.” In the final couplet, breaking the chains of his own quatrains, Styles observes: “‘Twas at Appomattox Virginia when God through Grant had spoken,/ And General Lee gave up his sword, the slavery Chain was broken.” Writing from Lexington soon after Lee-Jackson day with its parade of flaggers, I feel relieved by this alternate vision. Styles honors Lee, not Grant, through the title “General,” yet God speaks via Union forces. This heathen could almost say: amen.

I’ve been haunted by the nineteenth-century U.S. South lately in my reading, my teaching, and the historical flashbacks enacting themselves around me. I’ve also been managing my own small, personal pain—as the doctor just confirmed, sciatica. But there’s been a lot of joy lately, too. It was such a pleasure to take my class to Special Collections—Tom handed around an 1802 New Hampshire edition of Phillis Wheatley, for heaven’s sake. What a privilege.

And at the doctor’s office, the nurse said she’d been waiting for me to have another health problem for months, because she’d fallen in love with Mary Oliver’s verse and could explain the experience only to me. She and I had previously talked about poetry helping to make contemplative space in life, I guess—as she put it, “one of those crumbs you drop sometimes, not knowing where they’ll lead.” She had said she was intimidated by poetry and I answered that everyone is entitled to like what they like, although it can be hard to find the poetry that will really help you. She then went on vacation and took a yoga class with a teacher who read aloud “Why I Wake Early.” Afterwards this nurse who didn’t really read poetry bought the book, memorized the poem, and now says it to herself every morning, cultivating gratitude and kindness with the help of Oliver’s lines. “We run around chasing things,” she said, “but you can find what you need if you just stop.”

It moves me to have played the tiniest role in that discovery—Mary Oliver and the yoga teacher really deserve the credit, and the nurse herself does, too, for being open and thoughtful despite a million pressures to the contrary.  Maintaining openness despite pain is the trick, isn’t it? This winter, I seem enmeshed in surprising connections. Juverstetious, too, and alert for signs.

*For the story of unlikely coincidences behind the photograph, see The Rockbridge Report. The woman who must have been his wife–I don’t know her name–has been appearing in my dreams.