Poetry, suspense, and reading Maria Hummel

She stared at the screen until her eyes ached, willing an email to flicker into existence: would the prospective poetry publisher like her new manuscript? See, that’s an example of raising suspense in prose, but good poems do that too. As Stephen Dobyns writes in an excellent essay, “Writing the Reader’s Life,” only discovered by this belated reader last week:

“The energy in a work–meaning whatever keeps us reading–comes in part from (1) the balance between what we know and what we don’t know and (2) how well the writer has made us want to know. A failure in much writing, especially poetry, is that the writer has not created sufficient tension, has not done enough to make us want to know. A failure in much writing, especially poetry, is that the writer has not created sufficient tension, has not done enough to make us want to know. If the writer takes the reader’s interest for granted, then he or she will fail.” (in Poets Teaching Poets, ed. Orr and Voigt)

In case you were in suspense after my last blog post about procrastination, I did in fact have a great writing week last week. I drafted a new chapter about “Suspense” in lyric poetry, focusing on House and Fire, a first collection by Maria Hummel. I started tracking her work in May 2012, when I spotted the amazing ghazal “One Life” in Poetry. Ghazals aren’t really supposed to be narrative–or at least linear–but this one raises several kinds of suspense: why does she stop believing in heaven? what happened in the accident? what’s the matter with her son and will he be all right? There’s also the beautiful formal suspension of rhyme and refrain, and the drama of how she handles the ghazal’s other requirements (if you know the form, for instance, you’re always curious to see how a poet includes a signature in the final couplet). Maybe perversely, after reading “One Life” I became anxious about Hummel’s real son’s well-being, and followed hints about it through individual poems in various magazines and, finally, this May, through her book. Maybe this isn’t what Hummel wanted me to want to know, but I did. Somehow she generated quickly in me that weird, not-quite-justified level of identification that turns a mild-mannered professor into an embarrassed but desperate poem-stalker. As a mother whose son has had a scary hospitalization or two, maybe I was especially primed for it, but I also think Hummel is just really good. (All the sons involved, by the way, seem to be okay, and mine is nearly ecstatic that it’s finally June.)

As I hoped, drafting this chapter helped me plan for this Saturday at the West Chester Poetry Conference. I’ll be speaking about genre, plot, and time and reading a little from “The Receptionist” in the panel “Narrative and Non-Narrative in the Book-Length Poem” (June 7th at 3:15). I’m looking forward to poetic conversation but I also feel a little strange about going. Last time I attended–in June 2012–my father had just died and I was in suspense about his military funeral, because his young widow, officially next of kin, wouldn’t tell us when and where it would be (shortly after the conference and nearby, as it turned out). I was also waiting on copies of The Receptionist and Other Tales: the long narrative poem at the heart of it was inspired in part by the bad behavior of certain administrators at my home institution, one of whom was still my dean, and while the book is truly fictional, I was quite worried about fallout. While at West Chester, I got the call that this toxic dean had been demoted–this is quite the punchline, so wait for it–TO MY DEPARTMENT. Where he still lingers. So even though the 2012 conference was full of wonderful events and meetings, including Natalie Gerber’s excellent seminar on free verse prosody, it still makes me sick to my stomach to remember it.

As for my opening tease about my current poetry ms, Radioland, this one largely about my father: don’t know yet. The publisher asked to see it exclusively in January and still has it, promising me a verdict by mid-June at the very latest. I felt relaxed about the process all spring. While I’d be honored to publish with this press, I feel strongly hopeful that someone will eventually want this book. It would just be nice to deliver it to the world sooner rather than later, I told myself. Now, though–probably because I finally have time to think–I’m getting seriously antsy. But, dear reader, both of us are just going to have to dangle a little longer.

 

In which I procrastinate with snacks, parties, and fake-writing

The peony heads slump over in their lushness. I can hear the baccalaureate speaker’s voice faintly behind the air conditioner’s hum, and I wonder again: in what sense does featuring another white Christian minister make this religious event “more inclusive”? Well, I’ll sit it out in my office but don my robes tomorrow for another long hot graduation ceremony on the lawn, then rush to the departmental luncheon to scarf down a little fruit and chicken salad before the students arrive with their dads sweating through cotton jackets and little old grandmas tottering around on the edge of heat exhaustion. I like the luncheon—praising students quite genuinely to their emotional parents, shaking damp hands, asking neutral questions that don’t imply a new BA should have firm post-grad plans yet, celebrating when they offer up good news about a job or grad school acceptance. It’s a happy kind of closure after a long hard year, especially since the mini-saunas of our dress clothes will have purged us of old grade disagreements.

I’m still in that delusional dilatory state in which I think I ought to clear the deck before I really write. This is delusional because there is ALWAYS another bit of paperwork to finish, emails to send, clean-up from the previous term or planning for the new one. Though some colleagues still linger over dwindling piles of student writing, I tend to get my grades in as fast as possible, read and summarize course evaluations, move books from the “on deck for class” spot to regular shelving, and proceed to other marginally OCD term-closure rituals. May always brings magazine rejections and acceptances, too, as faraway editors clear their own desks, and I get a little frisson of record-keeping joy as I document their decisions and list the lucky yeses on my curriculum vitae and Faculty Activities Report.

I do know this is a little crazy, even though as procrastination goes, clerical work is more productive than painting my toe nails a new color or watching funny cats on YouTube (not to cast aspersions on those venerable amusements, but I do feel pleasantly smug when that FAR comes due and I am ready to hit send). I do have to remind myself every year that it is procrastination, not some exercise of virtue. Writers write even when their desks are messy and that faculty development event they attended isn’t properly logged. My spouse is a good reminder of this. He writes even when he’s showering, running, folding laundry. This time of year—once heavy teaching work is on pause for three months—I need to seek a similarly single-minded focus instead of, say, mentally drafting memos or dreaming about my next snack.

I am showing early, hesitant signs of hunkering down. During April I drafted a crazy long poem in a section per day, using Vladimir Propp’s thirty-one functions of the folk tale as prompts; the quester is a middle-aged woman taking a three-hour walk in the April woods, pondering a career change and worrying about whether she may be pregnant. I reread it last weekend, shaped it up a bit, sought the aforementioned spouse’s feedback, revised it again, and gave it the provisional title “Propagation.” It was really fun to draft, requiring lots of, you guessed it, long walks in April woods, and at least for now, I like the results. I just shipped it off to a friend who wants to trade critiques this summer. That’s work, right?—although I always start summer’s meal with dessert.

This project has been good preparation for a presentation I’m giving on “The Receptionist,” a very different long poem, two weeks from now at the West Chester Poetry Conference. The panel is “Narrative and Non-Narrative in the Book-Length Poem” with the very accomplished and hip poets Dolores Hayden and Jehanne Dubrow (Saturday June 7th at 3:15, in case you’re around). We’re going to discuss problems of genre and composition then read from our various works. I find myself thinking particularly about how all narrative is time-management—deciding when to work through a scene in slow detail, and how to handle those sudden, disparate jumps of an hour, a day, a month of story-time. The form I chose for “The Receptionist” was highly symmetrical, involving thirty-three terza rima cantos of thirty lines each, and that made time-jumps harder to regulate and clarify. Grounding the story in an academic year, September to June, helped, as did liberal seasonal and holiday references.

I wouldn’t say I’m ready to give that presentation yet, but at least I’m finally turning my mind into the right groove. I’m hoping to segue right from working up my talk into writing a narrative-themed chapter for my prose-book-in-progress, Taking Poetry Personally. I’ll lay some groundwork, at least, and do a little more research during a work-and-pleasure trip to France in the second half of June. More on that here before takeoff, I hope.

In the meantime, back to “work” on the conference by arranging meals with friends, including poet Rafael Campo, who is sage and inspiring in this recently published interview for Shenandoah. Oh, and there’s a reference letter I have to write, and this really fun collaboration with artist Carolyn Capps that’s been languishing (see a bit of it at the new issue of Levure littéraire), and I’m really behind on my literary-magazine reading after which, whoops, it will be time to race home and get dinner on before my son’s band concert, and of course tomorrow will be all ceremonies and parties, and who could squeeze in writing time then? And maybe Friday I should begin to update my poetry submissions—I haven’t sent work out for ages, and while submission has its own agonies, it’s not as hard as actually writing. But soon, very soon, I’ll definitely, seriously get cracking.

Giveaway plus

booksI don’t know why it’s so much fun to give presents to strangers, but I enjoy this annual Big Poetry Giveaway project so much. Thanks again to Kelli Russell Agodon for organizing it for National Poetry Month 2014. Twenty-seven people entered (that’s my lucky number) and I just selected a winner via an online random number generator. Congratulations to Michael Allyn Wells! There will be a bonus in addition to the two books promised. Ecotone editor Anna Lena Phillips just gave me a little pile of her beautiful and useful letterpress chapbook, “A Pocket Book of Forms,” so Michael, you’re getting one too. I don’t even remember saying anything helpful about this project in draft stage, but Anna Lena swears I did. Proof that little gifts do come back to you, multiplied.

This poetry week had ups and downs, but I’m ending it in the black. I started in pain from a wrenched back and shoulder and worried I wouldn’t be able to get through the mucky piles of labor ahead. Nightmares about trying and failing to keep my kids safe have been costing me sleep, too. I think it’s just mixed feelings about how fast they’re growing, but I slapped poor Chris awake at 6 a.m. today, thinking I was fending off bad magic directed at my daughter. I was also sad about the end of the Writers at Studio Eleven series and uncertain whether my spring term Poetic Forms workshop was clicking. In the last few days, though, people have been volunteering that they love the course, and more importantly, among the new poems they’re showing me are a few real dazzlers. I also received an email from a student who read at Studio Eleven a few weeks ago and now wants to start a slam poetry club on campus–hurrah! I also found myself participating in a teacherly energy-sharing circuit. Yesterday’s Skype visit to Stan Galloway‘s poetry course at Bridgewater College was really fun. I loved his students’ take-no-prisoners challenges: for instance, why there are so many ghosts in my poems when I describe myself as a skeptic? (Um…) Anna Lena gave a brilliant demonstration of literary editing to my class, using a triolet as an example, and then a beautiful reading later in the evening.

And then I received a note from Switchback, whose editors accepted my poem “Epistolary Art” recently. The poem’s now up AND it has been honored with the editor’s prize for the issue. I first drafted this piece while listening to a talk about Keats in New Zealand. The poem felt important to me–it’s about making connections over distance through letters and ultimately through poems, which is a central idea in my current ms Radioland. I had a particularly hard time getting it right, though, eventually subtracting a good-sized chunk of it, so it’s particularly satisfying to know this epistle reached someone.

So here’s to Michael, and to the month of May, and to poems in the pipeline–I even received an acceptance from Crazyhorse last week, a journal I’ve admired for ages. I’m going to give away the metaphorical farm–whatever that is–if subtractions keep adding up this way.

 

Elegy for a community reading series

Local honey

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

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

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

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

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

4/29/14

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

 

Buried bulb juts up a spear

More sleet and snow in the forecast, ugh, even as here in western Virginia, snowdrops and crocus and even a few daffodils show the shivering woods in bright spring clothes. I feel winter-locked too. Things have been germinating underground that I can’t talk about much: some hopes that have busted, some that may be hardier. Maybe I’ll be able to leap up from the leaf-mulch of half-graded papers and show some colors soon, but not quite yet.

In the meantime, at the risk of seeming really pretty goofy, here’s news of an inner turn, something that happened a month or so ago and has made me feel calmer. I’d been thinking a lot about ambition. Writers, probably all strivers for beautiful outcomes, have to construct this funny balance. On the one hand, you have to be humble and open about the work, because that’s all that matters and the work won’t tolerate some poet thinking she’s the one in charge. On the other, you have to cultivate arrogance: confidence enough to follow the words in the first place, and then the more public chutzpah involved in getting your work out there. Inspired by VIDA and other projects drawing attention to the weaker networks of women writers, our collective tendency to sidestep struggle and self-aggrandizement, I’ve been plagued by ridiculously heroic meta-ambition. I HAVE to strive, I told myself. Any woman who has the means HAS to, otherwise too few of us will ever see sunlight.

I wondered if that was self-deceptive (“It’s not for my own sake, really, I’m staking out those prestigious journals for my sisters!”). I also noticed that these double pressures to succeed were making me feel inadequate and jealous–more hurt by the inevitable losses, less thrilled by the wins. And then I had not just the thought but the sudden conviction I tried to describe in the verse below, drafted on a February day when you could feel a bit of warmth, a hint that spring would eventually, in fact, arrive. I have the feeling it’s a fragment of process, not a poem yet or maybe ever, but putting those lines together helped me. And I went to the AWP and that sense of smallness we all have at that conference worried me less. I just kept writing down the names of women who said smart, moving things at the various panels and readings I attended, and now I’m going to order their books.

Weed Experiences Trite Yet Nourishing Epiphany

A breath riffles my trichomes:
we are all connected. Sudden sense
of the buried mycelium from which
all creatures sprout: shoots reach
through the air while we root
together invisibly. Why this
consoles a godless poet, I don’t know;
I could say what’s good for one
herb greens the whole field, though
hunger is never so rational; still
I feel relief in every chloroplast,
a hot June slackening of fear.

Same sex marriage–plus, talking cats!

Our daughter said to us recently about our first cat, Gladys: “All I really remember is her voice, the funny things you used to pretend she said. At the time I wasn’t sure what powers grownups had. I thought maybe you were actually translating.”

Chris and Gladys 2

Gladys, a petite gray-and-white creature we adopted in the early nineties, had a tough New Jersey accent and was intensely sarcastic. We must have ventriloquized her often, before we had kids who grew up and made our house noisy, because I can remember my friend Rosemary, over for dinner, laughing and saying directly to the little feline on the floor, “Oh, Gladys. You’re so funny.” Gladys was kind of hilarious, an improbably convincing and voluble joint id. Funnier than I am solo, anyway, although Chris manages to entertain without pretending to translate housepets.

My memory of Gladys’ voice resonates oddly with one of the books I just finished teaching: James Merrill’s Ouija-inspired poetic sequence. “The Book of Ephraim” is, among many other things, a romantic story: the characters JM and DJ (the latter based on Merrill’s partner David Jackson) spend their evenings together spelling out messages from their wickedly charming spirit-guide Ephraim. They also have houseguests and affairs, swim in the nude and grieve lost friends, and hunker down with their cat Maisie in cold seasons between episodes of glamorous world travel. Ephraim is their collaborative writing project, a folie á deux, and a reliable companion who flirts with them both and flatters them endlessly; his “backstage gossip” has a way of revealing aspects of their human relationship. Together, JM and DJ are witty, cultured, urbane, inventive—a brilliant match. They are also unequal in power and imperfectly happy. For example, when Ephraim tells the rich and increasingly successful writer JM that he’s done with reincarnation but DJ requires a few more tiresome rounds on earth, is the struggling novelist David Jackson consciously or unconsciously expressing certain mundane relationship frustrations? Maybe so, but as Merrill writes, “even the most fragmentary message [is]/ Twice as entertaining, twice as wise/ As either of its mediums.” In Ephraim, they’ve given voice not only to their individual hopes and doubts but something bigger, weirder, dreamier than either man alone.

That “something” might be defined as their marriage, although Merrill and Jackson weren’t allowed to marry then. However, just before I taught this poem last (2009), same-sex marriage was legalized in Connecticut (2008). Like many other Americans in my generation and older, I’m moved and delighted but deeply surprised that social attitudes and even laws are changing rapidly now—even in Virginia, the attorney general recently announced his disapproval of our same-sex marriage ban. I certainly see a shift in social attitudes in my classroom. I remember teaching “The Book of Ephraim” to an earlier group of Washington and Lee students, maybe seven or eight years ago. Someone made a homophobic remark and I told him sharply that his comment was offensive. That’s one of very few times in my career that I’ve cut off a student—usually I’ll try a counter-question or make space for his fellow-students to issue a challenge, because I think that’s ultimately more mind-changing, to hear disapprobation from peers rather from that suspiciously feminist-looking teacher up by the blackboard. To his credit, though, the student thought about it for a few weeks then came to me and apologized. He was just nervous and trying to be funny, he told me, but he realized his joke had been—what was the phrase he used? Narrow-minded? Unkind? Wrong?

Now, if any of my students are troubled to be studying a poem concerning homosexual love, I can’t detect it in their conversation or their papers. Maybe this reflects a new decorum rather than a deep change in attitudes. Still, it’s an improvement. There’s more room to talk about it as a love poem, a cold war poem, a mystical poem, or in other productive ways—better work is possible when you don’t have to justify the material’s place on the syllabus to start with. And this group of students, mostly sophomores, handled Merrill’s challenges pretty brilliantly.

Meanwhile, at home, we have a kitten, Poe, who is practically rabid with cabin fever and prone to pouncing on us demonically with hip-high leaps and extended needle-claws. Surely I have a poem to write about this crazed black cat with a Gothic moniker, but for the moment Chris and I are just trying to get his voice right. Our second cat, Flashlight, got drowned out by the uproar of jobs, child-raising, and book-publishing, although after the kids went to bed, she did enjoy dropping decorum and swearing like a sailor. When I channel Poe now, he sounds Homer Simpsonish, but when Chris-as-Poe cracks wise he sounds, disturbingly, just like Chris. How will the next decade of our marriage sound? I’m not sure, but it’s bound to be bigger, weirder, dreamier than any one human being babbling to herself.

Chris and Poe (1)

Poetry resolutions with a side of black-eyed peas

Every New Year’s Day, after the hoppin’ john, my family of four pulls out a box that gets packed away annually with the Christmas ornaments. It contains lists we’ve been keeping since before our kids, now 13 and 16, could write. We reread them, laughing or chagrined or occasionally pleased, before drafting a new list for the following year. Some highlights in various hands: “Get better at drawing robots.” “Be good so I get a hamster.” “Unlock every single guy on Super Smash Bros.” “Schmooze at AWP.” “Remind whole family to floss regularly.” “Floss no more than 20 times in next 2 years.” “Don’t let Mom make me floss.”

I’m always appalled by how my yearly vows to eat less and exercise more don’t do a lick of good. I should take a lesson from my most successful resolution ever, which was doable and specific: if there are four flights or fewer and I’m not carrying something very heavy, I take the stairs (conserving fossil fuels, spending my own stockpile). A series of resolutions did make my diet healthier—higher in veggies, limited in fats and sugars—plus, having discovered dairy and corn allergies several years ago, I can’t eat most processed foods. Still, like many middle-aged people, I grow a little jollier-looking ever year. Remember when you were twenty, and all you had to do was swear off midnight cheeseburgers and the pounds just melted away?

We’ll see what I write on that slip of paper tonight about diet, exercise, and drawing robots. Here, in the meantime, are my literary resolutions for 2014.

1. Maintain a list of every book I read so when I get those end-of-year “Best of 2014” requests, I can remember favorites from before October.

2. Read at least some of every poetry volume that gets shortlisted for the major post-publication prizes, THAT YEAR, instead of discovering five years later, “oh, that really WAS good!” I’ve asked my library to order them, which should help.

3. Persist in seeking publication for poems and essays, and especially for the new poetry ms, Radioland, despite clerical tedium, existential crises, etc.

4. Draft the middle third of Taking Poetry Personally, or Poetry’s Possible Worlds (title in flux)—this critical-memoirish thing I’m writing, and which I just reread the first third of, and which I immodestly think is kind of exciting.

5. Apply for an NEA, because what the hell.

6. Revise ruthlessly and decisively.

7. Remember my priorities. It’s good to help other people and hard to say no, but I need to be better about directing my not-unlimited energy at the projects that seem most urgent. I have a plan, as far as writing is susceptible to plans anyway, but I’m constantly letting it get sidelined.

As I drafted this I saw a similar post from January Gill O’Neill and liked her list better than mine. “Have a vision” is basically like “Remember my priorities,” but I need some version of her “Ditch what’s not working.” That’s hard for me, letting hours or days or weeks of work result in nothing, even harder than the submission-rejection wheel of pain.[1] Easier, though, than flossing.

 

[1] Unintended pun. I’m Wheeler, and I work in Payne Hall. Hmm.