Doctored

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

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.

Family syllabus

Reading is often a business of following trails for the love of it. In preparing to discuss Paul Laurence Dunbar with my African-American Poetry course last week, I reviewed Meta DuEwa Jones’ wonderful study The Muse is Music—inspired by that book’s introduction, in fact, I extended our conversation about Dunbar’s vernacular verse by playing recordings of “When Malindy Sings” by the Fisk Jubilee Singers (1909) and the jazz singer Abbey Lincoln (1961). Jones quoted an essay called “Dunbar Lives!” by Elizabeth Alexander, so I looked it up and it’s wonderful, too. Alexander describes her father reciting Dunbar’s “The Party.” The 19th century poet was on her 20th century “family syllabus.” The same is true, she discovers, for lots of other African-American poets, although reading Dunbar’s work in school seems to be rarer.

I reported Dunbar’s influence to my wonderful students then surprised myself by asking, “What was on your family syllabus?” Blank looks.  I don’t entirely believe them; I bet some of their parents and grandparents said, “oh, you have to hear this song/ watch this movie/ read this book,” even if there wasn’t any oral recitation happening in the rec room. I’m sure my spouse and I are more professorial with our kids than many parents, but privilege and education are only part of what might drive family members to share the art they love. My mother and grandmother received half as much formal education as my father or I did—around ten years vs. twenty-plus—but they transmitted much more culture than my father, with the result that, growing up on Long Island and in New Jersey, I felt more connected to my mother’s Liverpool than I did to my father’s childhood home of Brooklyn. My mother handed me books she grew up on, including Austen, the Brontës, Shakespeare, Tennyson, and much odder bits of British children’s fiction (one of these days I have to find and reread Captain Marryat’s Children of the New Forest). My grandmother also brought books from England (I’m pretty sure Enid Blyton collections were packed in those suitcases alongside the chocolates), and she taught me old songs like “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.” Neither of them recited poems unless in half-remembered fragments, but my mother recalls the childhood entertainment of her father’s rendition of “Casabianca.” I memorized poems for fun back then, including nursery rhymes and songs from Tolkien’s books; it didn’t seem so weird.

Well, my mother grew up without electricity or indoor toilets, much less television, so through her I’m a generation closer to a necessary, vibrant oral culture than many Americans my age, and perhaps multiple generations closer than most of my students. My own kids were never interested in learning my grandmother’s songs (my off-key singing helped discourage lessons), but they hear Louis Armstrong recite “The Night Before Christmas” every year, and I whiled away many hours of baby-care by singsonging rhymes I’d learned by heart decades earlier. And, by accident and design, sometimes successfully and sometimes to hoots of derision, we introduce them to books and movies and music that shaped us. Sometimes we track down references together: after watching Boy in New Zealand, for example, we showed them Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” In a more deliberate way, I read aloud authors I’d loved as a child—Lewis, Le Guin. We played Joss Whedon’s television canon (delight!) and my collection of David Bowie on vinyl (not so much!). My husband indoctrinated the kids in arcane superhero lore and makes CDs of Not to Be Missed Songs of the New Wave. An exclamation such as “What? How can you not know Billie Holiday/ The Matrix/ ‘Kubla Khan’?!” still interrupts dinner pretty often, and out comes the laptop or the anthology. I’m not sure to what extent these family texts teach them who they are, except they surely know they’re nerd-spawn.

I’ve introduced poems, though, less often than you might expect. Setting out a family literary syllabus with educational intent rarely works. My children did not want to hear Yeats before our Ireland trip, although they showed more interest afterwards. My recommending a novel can guarantee the kid won’t read it. Bringing up a poem in a spirit of play, as Alexander’s father did, is much better. What I enjoy most of all is helping my kids follow their own leads. They don’t read a ton of poetry at school, but there was one memorable night they realized they’d learned slightly different versions of an Emily Dickinson poem. I explained about her variants then they immediately launched into an argument about which word choices were better. Voila! Instant English class!

This was a rough week for me—I’m enjoying a bout of sciatica and by the time evening comes, I’m exhausted by pain. (Yoga, heat, and rest this weekend have helped a lot.) It’s been a pleasure, though, to talk books through the haze. A few days ago, Madeleine explained over pasta why Toni Morrison is her favorite author (“the way she gets into the heads of even the most terrible people—a lot of my moral education has come from her. Plus, the sentences”). I suggested to my son, who was between books, that he might be old enough now to enjoy Lev Grossman’s novels, and he announced that, nope, he planned to remain loyal to Austin Grossman, “the superior twin” (every conversation also occasions sibling rivalry). And while taking a practice AP test, Madeleine became distracted by the beauty of “Dover Beach” and wanted to talk to someone about it, so I read it aloud and chatted. “You have a good poetry voice,” my son commented, while apparently absorbed by Terraria on his phone.

And Friday morning, after a week skim-reading a book required for her English class, Heart of Darkness, in a rage over its offensive treatment of Africans, my daughter came downstairs and remarked, “I read this amazing essay by Chinua Achebe and I feel much better.” She resolved to reread Conrad more carefully, adding, “I didn’t know famous authors wrote criticism, too.” “So your teacher didn’t assign the Achebe essay?” we asked. “How did you know about it?” Apparently she just went looking.

On the 2014 National Book Award for poetry

I try to be generous, really I do, but I have been known to nurse cynical and petty feelings about the poetry business. I watch various prizes dealt out and sigh inwardly. So many honors go to people who have already won the other honors as if in an endless feedback loop of being-lauded-because-they’re-lauded. Do poets without connections or their own major taste-making powers, I wonder, really receive fair consideration? Any serious reader sees good books regularly overlooked and knows that the system can be unjust.

Of course, all systems are unjust. Reading is a subjective business. Even fiercely democratic readers can be influenced by book design or by buzz. No one can read everything, much less encounter every poem in a fresh, open state of mind. And at some level I must remain optimistic, because I keep submitting poems to editors of elite magazines and presses who have never shown the slightest interest in me: my poems have been plucked out of slush piles by strangers before, and I hope they will again. It’s not like poetry’s arbiters are sitting around plotting about how to keep vast pots of publicity lucre and intense international prestige distributed among their cronies. Just about everyone in the po-biz has to be motivated by crazy passion for an undervalued art, because there is little lucre or prestige in it. Sensible people would invest in other enterprises. Right?

With these questions in mind, I’ve embarked on a project. I asked my college library to purchase the National Book Award poetry long list every year as a way to keep our US poetry catalog current. And for the next few rounds, at least, I’m determined to read those books and make my own judgments about their quality. Ideally I would evaluate the long-listed volumes relative to the pool of most US poetry books also published that year, but I can’t pretend to such scope. I read a lot of verse, but much of it is in magazines and/ or from other years, decades, or centuries, and, of course, much of it isn’t American. I sometimes seek out new books that seem to be attracting attention, but more often I choose a title because it floats through my line of vision for some other reason—it’s authored by an acquaintance, for example, or assigned to me for review, or I liked previous work by that person or press. In any case, my to-be-read pile is always ridiculous, and I am always behind.

And that’s true in 2014 as well, when I failed to even begin my long-list-reading project until the month of December. Here are the verse titles recognized in 2014 by the National Book Awards:

WINNER:

Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

FINALISTS:

Fanny Howe, Second Childhood (Graywolf Press)
Maureen N. McLane, This Blue (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Fred Moten, The Feel Trio (Letter Machine Editions)
Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press)

LONG LIST:

Linda Bierds, Roget’s Illusion (G. P. Putnam’s Sons/ Penguin Group (USA))
Brian Blanchfield, A Several World (Nightboat Books)
Edward Hirsch, Gabriel: A Poem (Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House)
Spencer Reece, The Road to Emmaus(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Mark Strand, Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House)

I confess to starting two of these books, finding myself unable to keep my attention on the words, putting them down after ten pages, looking up some information about the author hoping for a means of access, trying again, and finally releasing these poor fish back to the river in a life-is-too-short frame of mind. I admit I am probably to blame; very smart judges found them worthy, after all. Worse, I haven’t even gotten to Mark Strand yet, whose Collected Poems is surely a major achievement but of a different kind than the rest (and likely to need more than an afternoon’s concentration). I read the other seven volumes fully, liking them all to various degrees.

It’s not a bad list. I saw reasons for admiring all the selections, even the ones I personally found unreadable. The roster contains diversity of style and identity: senior stars and authors of just one or two books; writers of different races, genders, and sexual orientations; experimental poets, talky poets, lyric poets. And while the majority of titles were published by major New York houses, I’m glad to see little presses in the mix.

As I said, these are good books, accomplished, admirable. Most of the long-listers, however, are simply not better books than other 2014 collections. I’ll put together a New Year’s blog post shortly in which I’ll recommend some alternatives.

Nonetheless, while some of the list seems random, here’s an argument that the National Book Awards in poetry is NOT a broken, corrupt enterprise: the two 2014 collections that most astounded me were selected by these judges. One of them was a book I would have read anyway. The other, maybe not, so the NBA team deserves my gratitude.

I loved Claudia Rankine’s first book and was bowled over by her recent work in Poetry, so I put her new collection, Citizen: A Lyric, on my winter African-American Poetry syllabus before I even acquired a copy. It’s one of the year’s most powerful accomplishments in any genre, I think. It often feels more essayistic than poetic, though Rankine certainly works in relation to the lyric. However, it’s a terrifically urgent book, balancing personal meditation against public debates about race, gender, image, and language. Unlike briefer books by McLane or Howe, you can’t consume Rankine’s book in one sitting—it’s intellectually and emotionally overwhelming. But you should read it.

I was also moved and amazed by Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel. This long poem in tercets chronicles the life and death of Hirsch’s young son. In some ways it couldn’t be more unlike Rankine’s political prose poetry, and yet both these collections burn with strong feeling controlled by skillful, allusive language. Gabriel is also unusual in its formal and narrative continuity: like Citizen, it is fully a book, not a puzzle-box of lyric jigsaw pieces. Perhaps this unity explains why these volumes stood apart for me, but it also makes them risky and atypical.

There’s plenty of power, intelligence, wit, and skill in all the long-listed books, and Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night deserves the honor it has received, although I would rank it third. This dreamlike riff on quest narratives begins with several stirring reflections about aging, memory, and self-doubt. By the middle of the volume, however, I wanted some kind of turn, a deepening, and not finding it, I disembarked from the journey feeling a bit disappointed. It’s a thoroughly impressive and beautiful book, and if you’re interested theoretically in the functions of lyric poetry, it’s fascinating. But it didn’t strike me as full-hearted.

Is it a problem that the NBA winner probably isn’t a book to attract literate non-poetry-insiders, the way I believe Hirsch and Rankine both could? Maybe, although finding a consensus candidate among several opinionated judges must be murder. It does strike me as crazy that FSG published three books of the ten; they’re just not better curators than Graywolf or Copper Canyon or the Pittsburgh Poetry Series, to name a few. But O Award Gods, I still thank you for Gabriel.

Loaded with mysterious cargo and about to launch

Mad sleepingAt first she slept in a bassinet by our bed, keeping us awake with weird barnyard noises: grunts, squawks, clicks, snorts. After a couple of weeks we started pushing the bassinet across the room, and even into the hall outside our door, just so we could catch a little rest between feedings. Our tiny baby, after all, was quickly growing fat and happy—newborn jaundice fading into a golden Buddha sweetness. Five weeks after the birth, somewhere in late April 1997, we pushed that bassinet right into her own bedroom and all three of us, relieved by the peace, slept our first seven-and-a-half hour stretch. A talented sleeper, Madeleine dreamed through the night from then on in.

And now she’s been accepted early-decision to Wesleyan.

We’re sad at the prospect of pushing the bassinet all the way to Connecticut in late August 2015, but it’s what you’re working for all along, right? One minute she’s playing school with stuffed animals, then she’s challenging the ridiculously early bedtime you got away with imposing for a surprisingly long time, then it’s boyfriends and a school trip to Italy and AP Physics and boom, you’re ordering college sweatshirts for Christmas.Mad and me

After a fall season of application-essay-writing, sleeplessness, and intense suspense, we’re pretty happy here. Madeleine has recommitted herself to watching as many shows and movies directed by Wesleyan alum Joss Whedon as possible between massive homework sessions. Chris is reading over a book contract from Iowa University Press for a prehistory of superheroes based on his blog. My workload for exam week is ridiculous, and grading is the least of it; there’s a ton of department-head-work to do as well as miscellaneous meetings. Some of them are tiresome, like weighing in on new registration software; some are hard but important, like search committee work; some are even kind of fun, like meeting with the head of Special Collections about resources for my winter African-American Poetry course, and presenting on a panel in honor of a new essay collection, Forging a Rewarding Career in the Humanities (that’s 8:30 this Thursday morning in Hillel 101, if you’re local).

But you mind the busy-ness less when your family is cheerful and your fall 2015 sabbatical has advanced one term closer. Here’s hoping peace is contagious this season. The poem below will be in my next collection, Radioland. Warm thanks to The Southeast Review for publishing it early this year.

Cells All Ringing

It was not the sick shudder of a small plane, windshield
scratched, scenery blurred, or the snarl of a finger sliding
beneath an envelope flap. It was more like waking up
after a doze on a plastic raft, noticing the shore is far off
and the sky deep plum—not terrifying yet, just enough time
to paddle in, pack up blankets and slowly rusting chairs,
children who are no longer small. Or it was like not
hearing a toddler babble about toy sharks beyond
a half-closed door, realizing you’ve been not hearing her
for a few minutes now. She suddenly became fourteen
and it’s dinner and she’s describing the pregnant girl in Earth
Science as she doesn’t eat her page of cod, scribbled with herbs
and strips of wine-poached pepper. I sort of admire
her, she says. She’s getting really fat now. You correct her,
stupidly: Not fat. A seven-month-belly is hard and full
of baby. And then rising tones behind her fully-closed
door. Daughter and friend emerge to ask, How far along
until you start to show? It turns out to be another
teenager, not your sensible girl whose slender left hip buzzes
with texts until stars vibrate in a perfectly dark,
dry night sky like messages, like fish in deep
water or the unnecessarily frightened passengers
on a small plane about to land. A shell’s secretive
murmur reminds you of the sea but is really your own
blood echoing through nearby coils. Sound reflected,
not by a mirror. By the whorls of your daughter,
loaded with mysterious cargo and about to launch.

Applying for a Fulbright: one reviewer’s POV

I definitely did not have time this September to read and evaluate sixty 25-40 page applications from mid-career and senior scholars and artists to the region of Australia/ New Zealand. I said yes anyway because I was grateful for my 2011 Fulbright to Wellington and felt obligated to pay that generosity forward. I also knew I’d gain insights that might be useful if I ever try for Round Two and certainly could help colleagues and friends trying for similar opportunities.

Insight #1: it’s a miracle I won one of these babies. Fulbright fellowships are amazing, transformative, and few and far between. The agency receives some half-baked applications, but it also sifts through piles of outstanding proposals for highly significant projects from unbelievably gifted and well-credentialed applicants in every field from film-making to chemical engineering, and there are only a few winners for each region. Clearly you have to write a great proposal, but you also have to be lucky, because there are more brilliant projects than can possibly be funded. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, although you should be philosophical about the odds and have a back-up plan.

The Basics on Applying for Grants—You Know This, Right?

You have already applied, successfully, to college and grad school, and probably with mixed success for scholarships and a million other opportunities. You know to seek the advice of acquaintances with related experience and start long before the deadline, because glitches happen (the referee falls ill, tech crashes). You should only apply for grants at the appropriate level (no, exceptions will not be made) and only if you genuinely want to attend that humanities seminar in Siberia—don’t waste time, effort, and referee goodwill if you’re not serious and don’t have an actual shot. Really read the instructions to make sure you know what the grantor is looking for and ask for help if you don’t. For individual fellowships to develop your research or your art, and possibly to fund a sabbatical if you’re an academic, you should also think hard about those referees. Ideally they know you well, admire your work, and hail from different institutions to show the breadth of your connections; they should also be able to testify to the skills you’ll exercise in this particular project (it’s alarming when all the referees for a teaching fellowship say “I’ve never seen her teach but she’s quite charming personally.”) It’s fine if they all know you from different contexts and can testify to different aspects of your career—just make sure the puzzle pieces will fit together into a meaningful whole.

Fulbright Specific Things.

In the region and at the levels I read for, you can apply for research or research/ teaching fellowships, but not just teaching. The deadline is August 1. Proposals are swiftly sent to disciplinary experts who write up short evaluations. If they’re good they help people in other disciplines sift through to the key elements: this journal is top-rate, the research is cutting-edge because x, the sample syllabi are outdated because y, referee no. 3 is a field leader. They’re mostly good. Occasionally, however, some mathematician will offer (probably feeling positively verbose because he’s using words instead of symbols): “A good proposal from a hard-working fellow with respectable qualifications. Should be funded.” Defend against such cryptic obliquity, if you can, by providing your own context for your accomplishments. Sometimes an essay prize or a citation index makes all clear, but remember you will have poet-readers who don’t know biopolymers from colloids, much less how prestigious that visiting lecture series is. Tell us clearly but non-arrogantly what it all means.

The next stage, by the way, involves 4 jurors from different fields who get the applications in mid-September and have to read and comment on them all before a meeting in D.C. in early October. We write up bullet-point comments in three areas: applicant credentials; the quality of the proposal; the significance/ likely outcomes of the proposal. Sixty long and diverse applications, three weeks, hellaciously busy point in the school year: absorb that math. We’re conscientious people, but skimmable applications that are unjargonishly clear about method, deliverables, and significance please us.

Your audience is professional.

Avoid overly general pitches beginning with platitudes such as “science is beautiful” that you might direct at sixth graders or politicians. We’re on board with the premise that research and artistic production are worthwhile for their own sake. Get right to the specifics.

Your audience, however, includes people from radically different disciplines.

What would you say if you were explaining this project to a smart acquaintance from an opposite field, who didn’t know thing one about standard ideas and practices in your subspecialty but who catches on to the basics pretty fast? Make sure that person, reading your proposal, knows why the research matters. The best proposals play out the work’s significance not only within a specialty but to other fields, and sometimes even to government policy, public health, cross-cultural understanding, and other aspects of, you know, life. In the world.

Sound like a Fulbrighter.

You should be eager to contribute generously to your host institution through advising students, giving workshops, and participating in seminar series, and perhaps to the larger community through general interest lectures. You have a lot to give. Know, however, that you will also be helped, possibly even radically changed, by this experience.

I don’t think it’s smart to wax lyrical in your application about the wonders of international immersion. If a past international experience has changed how you think, say so in a specific way that relates your research, and then get back to those project details. It’s worse, though, to sound like a jerk who knows that the poor folks in this remote backwater would be lucky to have you around for a few months.

Plan a project that really requires you to be on site for archival work, equipment use, collaboration, interviews, whatever. Conceive of it from the beginning as a two-way flow of open-minded goodwill and energetic mutual usefulness. Then, even though you’re talking about a hypothetical and faraway time and place, be as specific as you can about what you have to give and hope to learn.

And good luck. Winning altered the course of my professional life—my scholarship, poetry, reading, teaching, even my social connections are richer for the experience. My children now understand that they live not just in the US but in a huge, weird, fascinating world; they dwell in it with greater self-confidence. Trying for this long-shot lucky break was one of the most important and rewarding risks I’ve ever taken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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