Adventures in poetry teaching, part two: Gaileyland!

In psychology, it’s called “literary transportation,” although you may know the phenomenon by the metaphor “getting lost in a book.” Immersive readers do this all the time. We become so absorbed by a story that we forget we’re tracking lines of print. Physically, you’re sitting in an easy chair by the window, in a cozy room. Imaginatively, you’re shivering in a wintry landscape with a compelling character, half-visualizing the dark verticals of tree trunks glazed with ice. Your actual heart rate climbs when a faint, thin wolf howl rises in the literary distance.

Although I earned a PhD by treating poems in the usual ways—as Billy Collins alleges, you tie them up and begin the cross-examination—I’m fascinated by other ways books become meaningful to us, and hence I keep concocting peculiar assignments for my literature students. A few days ago I posted about some students’ translations of modernist poetry into other media (“Dancing to Loy”). My other class this term was a first-year composition course on the topic of speculative fiction. All fall they’ve been learning about developing arguments, reasoning through evidence, and handling that wild beast, the semicolon. They’ve been perpetrating all this critical prose about science fiction and fantasy: comparing Terry Bisson’s eerie “Bears Discover Fire,” for example, to Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists”; or looking for what Tolkien calls the “eucatastrophe” in tales by Kij Johnson or Octavia Butler; or juxtaposing Grimm and Gaiman.

We wrangled with speculative poetry, too. They just completed final projects inspired by Jeannine Hall Gailey’s first collection, Becoming the Villainess. First we read and discussed the book, with a visit-by-Skype from the generous poet. Then we began to take that “literary transportation” business seriously. We read Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a treatise about genre brilliantly disguised as a satirical travel handbook. Lonely Planet author and W&L alum Amy Balfour visited class to discuss real travel writing: how she pitches projects and receives assignment, the lengths of essays and how she structures them, the words she uses and the stock phrases she avoids. I also brought in piles of old travel manuals and we skimmed them for style and structure, then brainstormed. Reread Gailey’s book, I said, as a set of clues about a real place. What can you glean from the poems about the climate of Gaileyland, or the dining options, or the major attractions?

Everyone had to devise an entry and, with the help of our digital services guru Brandon Bucy, upload it to a joint WordPress site. Then the students chose different follow-up projects: some wrote analytical essays about Gailey’s verse; some wrote fantastic poems and tales accompanied by critical statements; and three volunteered to edit, expand, and redesign our collaborative web venture, Gaileyland: A Travel Guide to Becoming the Villainess. The result is a very strange and funny species of literary criticism. These students had to trace and analyze patterns of language and reference just as they would for an essay, but in a different style and very much in public. If there’s an implicit argument about the text in their project, it might involve Gaileyland’s essential darkness. The poems are rooted in trauma, although becoming a villainess is one way to seize back power from a world that would constrict a woman’s options and mute her dissent. All the weirder, then, to address poems about Persephone and Cinderella and Dark Phoenix in the perpetually sunny prose of tourism-boosting: eat at Philomel’s Athenian Restaurant! “Locals whisper that once the cook served human meat in a stew, but we think that’s just myth.”

I love the results and find it so gratifying to hereby celebrate the intelligence and creativity of my students, especially right now. It’s been a rough week at my home institution: very early last Tuesday morning, a car carrying ten students on their way back from an off-campus party crashed. A young woman in her senior year died and others were badly injured. The rest I don’t know for sure, but credible rumors involve an intoxicated driver who had already made multiple runs, returning partygoers to campus. All that vitality, lost or hurt. The latest wave of sorrow about it hit me as I was decorating the Christmas tree with my own teenagers yesterday, noting who was sentimental about what ornament, thinking that when each kid has a home of his or her own, I’ll pack up the little santas and boats and shells and kindergarten photo-crafts for them to put on their own trees. Then I freaked my family out by bursting into noisy tears, thinking about the idle plans we make all the time, and how for one set of parents, that whole speculative future is just gone.

Really, all assignments and grading are trivial in the end, though sometimes they add up to helping people learn a little. But writing and reading are important ways of seeking illumination and consolation. So are sharing them in good company: if you’re in Rockbridge tonight, and not too upset by today’s memorial service, come hear a bunch of area writers read at the Studio Eleven Gallery at 11. S. Jefferson Street in Lexington at 7 p.m. We’ll be collecting nonperishable goods and monetary donations for the local food bank. And sharing what moves us with others, and being moved—more nontrivial activities that need to keep happening in and beyond the just-slightly-magical space of the classroom.

Dancing to Loy: teaching modernist poetry and performance

This is the moment in the term when some of my craziest teaching experiments come to fruition (or wither pathetically on the vine). I always assign something fun or peculiar in the last week or two of the semester, in part to combat exhaustion as everyone faces down final papers and exams, and in part to make room for other ways of thinking through literary works. Analytical writing is important: by reasoning through ambiguous texts and bolstering claims with well-judged evidence, students exercise intellectual skills that can make them better writers, citizens, moviegoers, you name it. Analysis, though is far from the only way to come to terms with a poem. Some of us like to puzzle over how literature works, but analysis isn’t the foremost pleasure for most readers, I think. Many of us, for example, get most excited about literature when it provokes us to personal introspection or artistic imitation. Why shouldn’t those modes of response get some classroom time? Don’t we learn from them, too?

So this week, students in my upper-level undergraduate course on American poetry from 1900-1950 had to assemble into small groups and figure out some way to perform a poem that wasn’t on the syllabus. Some of them created videopoems inspired by Lorine Niedecker’s “My Life by Water.” Here’s a video response by Eleanor, Sam, and Kellie to Gertrude Stein’s “Sacred Emily,” with each of 370 lines represented by a single image flashing by quickly:

Another group provided a theatrical interpretation of Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago.” Here are Ben, Katie L., and Johnson before they smeared dirt on their faces and climbed on the furniture. Sandburg

Did you know Mina Loy designed lamps? So did Annie, Taylor, and Katie T., in response to her poem “The Widow’s Jazz.” With dramatic flair, they plugged their lamp in mid-reading, transforming an apparent blank spot in the shade into a sort of magic lantern illumination of Loy’s silhouette.

Loy lamp

By secret ballot, the class awarded “best performance” (and extra credit) to Amira, Danielle, and Caroline for their playful and insightful translation of a visual poem into an audiofile. Here’s their rendition of E.E. Cummings’ “rpophessgr.”

Another contender for the prize was a dance choreographed and performed by Alee, Alyssa, and Kiki, in response to Loy’s “Brancusi’s Golden Bird.”

I felt a little awed by the creativity and talent on display for what was, in essence, a minor homework assignment. And I’m fairly sure all these students understand the poems now better than I do, from the inside out. They devised great programs for their performances, too. Rather than including them all here, I’ll conclude with photographic testimony from Johnson, Katie L., and Ben, to the desperate intellectual seriousness of their artistic collaboration. Well, at least Katie looks serious. (P.S.: I really like my job.)collaboration

What I really read, and why, and what it means (Splinter Reviews Part 2)

High winds are plucking the last shriveled leaves off the branches while professional reading piles accumulate, isolating as snow-drifts: student papers, dossiers and writing samples from job applicants, scholarly mss I’ve promised to evaluate. At war with myself about whether I really need a Sunday off or a Sunday making a dent in it all, I decided to collect evidence from my Twitter account of what I’ve read and watched for fun since July. Some surprises: first, even when school’s in session, I read plenty of novels and feel no guilt about tossing off some half-baked remark about many of them. I’m actually less likely to tweet about a book that cuts deep—I reread Erdrich’s Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, for example, and it really impressed me, but that’s not in evidence here. Second, I’m less likely to tweet about poems. I read and liked Dean Young’s Falling Higher and Sally Rosen Kindred’s Darling Hands, Darling Tongue during the past few months, as well as revisiting older collections including Langston Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred, but didn’t have pithy observations about them. Is poetry less susceptible to summation? Or am I just more loyal to its complexities? I also would have told you that I prefer full poetry collections to the fragments in magazines, but that’s not borne out by what I’ve actually done lately—I read a single-author volume a couple of times a month this fall, but absorbed much more poetry online, through anthologies, or via the journals I subscribe to. I know we all consume media in part by convenience and happenstance—watching the mediocre movie that plays locally rather than the great one featured in some Hip But Distant Metropolis—but I wonder about that gray area between laziness and actual preference. I don’t always like the things I’m supposed to like, but rooting out those prejudices and admitting what I actually personally enjoy in a piece of art can be surprisingly hard. I haven’t kept a proper journal in decades so Twitter-as-reading-diary actually turns out to be sort of revealing.

Poetry and nonfiction:

On Jean Valentine’s Break the Glass: hairline crack in a bowl of light but the light doesn’t leak away

From Quiver, Nat Anderson on sleep as her squeeze: “he turns that key so soft, I won’t know he’s come/ until he’s left me.”

& today’s other delight: the cranky connoisseurship of Fry’s Ode Less Travelled. He didn’t even have to write it for tenure!

If unpersuaded about deep links between EB Browning and Battlestar Galactica, check out the essays in Derek Furr’s Suite For Three Voices

Sf and adjacent territories:

No sf in Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderful We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but it is all sf: sneaking up on the unknowable

Jo Walton’s Sulien walks in god-haunted woods between familiar versions of the world. I mean, she REALLY does.

Jo Walton’s Among Others made me wonder if I’ve been practicing magic for years. It’s brill.

Want to visit 2312‘s version of post-global-warming NYC and float along canals between skyscrapers #sfvacationdestination

Traversed @GrahamJoycebook‘s weird alt-world Silent Land through weird alt-world of headphones. Ears still feel packed with snow

@EmilyCroyBarker‘s #RealMagic, a scholar finds a portal. Turns out ice demons really like WC Williams, but Ashbery, not so much

What woke me up about #DoctorSleep is the poetry: incantation, sure, but also Eliot, Auden, and a kickass poet-great-grandma

Movies:

The excellent Much Ado reminded me cynics (Beatrice) morally trump idealists (Claudio). Also made me envy @josswhedon’s beautiful house

#Gravity proves my mom right: it’s crucial to wear nice underwear on field trips because accidents do happen

For the theory behind these tweet-length assessments see “Reviews the Length of an Irritating Splinter.” For another kind of conversation about art we love and how it worms into our brains, go to the latest issue of Midway, scroll down, and see some works of visual art by Carolyn Capps and the poems I wrote in response to them. The real landscape at hand when I drafted them were the Virginia hills around the VCCA.

Modernists Vs. Zombies, the Rematch

“J’accuse!” shouted our daughter last night. No, not really, but she did hold us sternly to account for misleading her. Our dinner table conversations had given her the impression that science fiction and fantasy were high-prestige literary modes. Now, in her junior year AP course, the most seriously literary English class of her life, she has learned this is not, in fact, true. Poor child, raised by evil spiders in a sticky web of lies.

It’s that pre-Halloween grading-like-a-demon season—what northern hemisphere English professor has time to blog, excepting my insanely prolific spouse, who dragged me to Carrie for a Saturday night study break? Still, I feel provoked enough by an article in this morning’s Chronicle of Higher Ed to jot a few words of protest over my leftover sweet potatoes. The author, Adam Brooke Davis, seems like a dedicated teacher who wants to do the best he can by his creative writing students. The comment section, while full of fascinating and very smart responses, also brims with the usual ad hominem attacks (“this is so stupid!” “no, YOU’RE stupid!”), and he doesn’t deserve them. Still, as a serious poet and a serious speculative fiction reader, I find “No More Zombies!” seriously depressing. Since the article is paywalled, here’s the opening: “I banned alt-worlding from my advanced creative-writing workshop. Told my students that their fiction had to take place in real environments with real people, facing problems that are actually likely to confront us (as opposed to stories involving international spy rings, penal colonies on Proxima Centauri, or aliens).” He goes on to describe the sf premises of a series of student stories, some of which sound hokey and some kind of interesting. He then laments their reading practices:

“On their own, students were reading The Hunger Games, Twilight, and World War Z, and most of their experience of narrative came from time-constrained, market-determined, sponsor-vetted, focus-group-tested, and committee-created television and movies. I tried to provide some other models, including contemporary writers like Annie Proulx, Ha Jin, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Louise Erdrich, Alice Walker, and Raymond Carver.”

He doesn’t say so explicitly, but this list strongly implies he knows full well that the best contemporary literary fiction is full of ghosts, mutants, dystopian futures, and gothic horror. (Come to think of it, what is my daughter reading for that English class? Morrison’s revenant tale of undead American history, Beloved.) Strong writing can address any kind of story in any milieu; it just requires skill and understanding of the precedents, qualities a good workshop can cultivate in any student who is willing to work hard and read widely.

The sentence that drives a stake through my heart, though, is Davis’ assertion that “I gamely acknowledged the potential for allegorical treatment but tried steering the class toward the real world—what people want, what obstacles they face, that sort of thing.” What a reductive way of reading, and what a narrow way of understanding what’s real! I’m right now preparing to teach a wonderful essay by Ursula K. Le Guin called “The Critics, The Monsters, and the Fantasists,” in which she argues, “true fantasy is not allegory.” I’m not sure what Davis is getting at near the end of his piece when he alludes to the “purposes” of writing, but as Le Guin insists, books are not tracts. “Relevance,” one of those values realism is supposed to achieve, doesn’t equate to literary power, but even using that benchmark, I can testify that alt-world tales, when they’re very good, can be at least as relevant to our lives as realism. I admire Faulkner, but Tolkien has been of more use in helping me consider what I want and what obstacles I face, to use Davis’ criteria. Fantasy’s engagement with the “pre-human and non-human,” as Le Guin puts it, is more ethically challenging to me than anything I’ve found in Fitzgerald or Hemingway—though I’ve taught their work often and love much of it, their visions do not alter how I live. Le Guin’s vision, however, sustains me.

I’m all for challenging students. Make ‘em read books they don’t like; give them assignments that feel unnatural. I love rhyme, but I’ve created temporary bans against chime when faced with rhyme-addicts in my workshops, just as I try to kick against my own poetic reflexes. And I wouldn’t object to a workshop teacher pointing out that our literary culture has a strong prejudice in favor of realism, and students should get to know this dominant mode, whatever they want to write eventually. Davis projects a sense, though, that realism is somehow the basic, fundamental thing, rather than a fashion from which genre fiction only diverged a few decades ago.

Of course, there are moments in Le Guin’s essay that rankle, too. “The modernists are to blame,” she tells us. “Academic professionalism is at stake—possibly tenure.” Well, yes, I’m a modernism scholar with tenure and I do see justice in Le Guin’s claim. But realism=academic, fantasy=populist is too simple a binary. As I keep saying, my modernist poets are actually pretty fantastic. Eliot, Frost, H.D. and others find poetic power to be essentially mysterious. No more zombies, no more “Waste Land.” If we can’t overthrow our own prejudices as teachers and really see the weirdness latent in the canon we love, how can we expect to open anyone else’s mind, either?

There, a 1000 word rant in a lunch hour. For more considered prose in which I contemplate my father’s likeness to T. Rex, see my recent essay in Verse Wisconsin, “The Dinosaurs Are Breeding.” If you’ll be near Fairmont, West Virginia this Saturday, too, I’ll be reading some poems at Heston Farm Winery from 2-4 with other Kestrel contributors. I’ll try for a selection that’s literary, serious, and not mundane at all, because man, you should see my email in-box. Life is realistic enough: bring on those magical elves.

Those awful middle-aged women

Somehow I keep finding myself perched on a table in front of a bunch of perky twenty-year-olds, stirring up a conversation about some dreadful woman in a poem or story who is too sexual, or even just too friendly, for being so damned old.

For a while, my avoidance of those conversations was quite skillful. I neatly sidestepped, for instance, the artist-collecting salonnière in Ezra Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme”: I mentioned the modernist practice of staking one’s literary claims by tearing down some less than perfectly brilliant not-young female person, quoted the bit in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” about the “old bitch gone in the teeth,” and moved on. After all, that was our first session on international modernism, so there was “A Retrospect” to discuss, and “In a Station of the Metro,” and “A Pact,” and those translations based on Fenollosa… Having managed this clever escape from my poetry students, I landed in a composition class for which we’d read the Grimm version of “Snow-White” and various contemporary revisions. Uh-oh. I had some ideas about whiteness to throw around, especially given Neil Gaiman’s wonderfully disturbing retake in “Snow, Glass, Apples,” but we couldn’t evade that persistent stepmother (or mother in the earliest versions), driven by an unholy desire to remain beautiful when she should be ceding her place in the spotlight. How does the original differ from the Disney version? I asked, so we proceeded to the gruesome ending in which the stepmother is shoehorned into red-hot iron footwear and forced to dance herself to death. Yes, we agreed, she wanted to be a spectacle of gorgeousness, and according to fairy-tale logic she’s punished by this grotesque-mirror version of being the belle at the ball. Feeling myself the center of all eyes in the room, I shifted uncomfortably. The subtext became even more glaring when we moved to Anne Sheldon’s poem, “Snow White Turns 39.” One of the students proposed, reasonably enough, that the final line could suggest a death-wish. Aw, I lamented, having to admit he could be right—I wanted her to become empowered by smashing that mirror! They all laughed surprisingly hard, as if my plaint were extremely funny. I scowled at them suspiciously.

Yesterday, back to the poetry class. Assignment: Prufrock and Other Observations, which crackles with failed broadcasts between men and women. Sometimes a youngish speaker can’t quite manage cocktail chatter, as in the title poem, or romantic silence seems to authorize artistic creation, as in “La Figlia Che Piange.” Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady,” though, brings that problem of the talky, lonely, desiring older woman to the forefront again. There I am, a middle-aged woman who just wants to talk about art, teaching a poem to college students that’s ABOUT a tiresome superannuated Juliet trapping a bored college student with her embarrassing speeches about how much she values his conversation about art. The speaker’s “self-possession gutters”—he feels moments of sympathy, guilt, self-doubt—but he ends up more or less fantasizing about her dying already. Kind of a Mrs. Robinson situation, one student remarks.  I’m thinking: kind of like me.

Poems change on you from decade to decade—it matters who you are when you read them. Who you are also matters in the classroom. Long ago, a friend told me about teaching English in Japan. She asked her supervisor why her students were nearly all male. It had been arranged that way because sexual chemistry helps students learn, she was told. That assumption is wrong in so many ways—it assumes universal heterosexuality, for one thing—but it’s not entirely crazy to assume that the ages and sexes and characters of students and teachers affect their relationship. There is an emotional intensity to teaching. It’s appalling when teachers abuse their power and become sexually involved with students, but of course parties on both sides of any lectern have feelings about their interactions, ideally enjoying each other’s intellectual company very much. Literary people find literary conversation exciting. I’ve had many enduring friendships spring from the intimacies of teaching: who gets my English-nerd jokes better than the student who’s taken my classes, read all the same books, learned everything I think about the works that matter most to me, and mused with me about writing as twilight deepens past the office window?

So it gets to me now, when I see some version of myself in a text I’m teaching and she’s ridiculous. I’ve always had some privileges in the classroom. My mostly-white students don’t get angry or fall silent when I bring up race, for instance, because I’m white—some of my colleagues get much, much more resistance to that necessary topic. I also appreciate how aging has conferred authority, some of it earned, some of it just a side effect of looking more like my students’ mothers now than their sisters. I did have a senior undergraduate ask me on a date once, when I was his TA in grad school, and it was terrible—I should have explained seriously why I couldn’t say yes, but instead, assuming he must be mocking me, I laughed, and then his feelings were hurt and my chances of teaching him effectively for the rest of the term were pretty much blown. It’s a good thing to have achieved immunity from propositions!

I really don’t need to be the fairest in the land. In fact, it’s very clear from this vantage that I did my future self a big favor when in my cute-as-a-button twenties I staked my self-worth on intellect and art. But I would like to continue to be interesting to all kinds of people despite? because of? my literal and metaphorical gray hair and avoirdupois. I’m still the heroine of my own tale, ambitious as ever. More so.

If I ever write another fantasy story (I just found Joseph Harker’s review of the last one here, by the way), the protagonist will be female, on the better side of forty, and well-rounded in every sense—no adorable Narnian moppets, disenfranchised warrior sons, or thin fierce adolescents like Katniss. In the meantime, maybe I have a poem to write. Don’t worry, all you woman-leery hobbits out there: “Portrait of a Lady My Ass” is just a working title.

Moldy

Some good advice I received from Barrow Street editor Peter Covino about the manuscript of Heterotopia:  stop saying “I remember” so much. After all, he remarked—I’m sure I’m paraphrasing badly—isn’t “I remember” implicit in every poem? I received that comment with chagrined recognition. I’d even published a poem in my first book, Heathen, called “I Remember Last Weekend,” inspired by a friend describing his MFA classmates: their workshop submissions were often based on experiences about five minutes old, because they were, after all, mostly in their early twenties, and hadn’t had much tranquility for recollection yet. My snarky old title anticipated Peter’s suggestion and my subsequent revision program. I’d just forgotten.

This August, I found another bit of lost knowledge stashed and forgotten in a poem’s attic. I’d been having health problems all summer that were escalating from irritating to worrisome: heart palpitations, a persistent cough, and other weirdnesses that I’d been attributing to my increasing middle-aged decrepitude but, well, maybe not. A blood test suggested mold exposure. After I described last year’s flood and extensive renovations to an air quality expert, he said any mold probably wasn’t in the walls but in our old AC units. While I waited for him to come inspect the joint, I worked on old poems, and there it was, in a piece from several years back. I had used my inappropriately racing heart as a metaphor in some rickety ballad stanzas about the onset of summer. A click ensued: I’ve been having palpitations for ages, but only in the hottest months (and the least anxious ones for an academic, which should have tipped me off). When I sleep under a faint cool breeze from the moldy old AC units. Poem as medical history.

Poems can be wiser than their writers in far more significant ways than that. I’m teaching Robert Frost this week in a modern poetry class. He’s an example, surely, of a difficult human being, someone I might have disliked personally, whose poems nevertheless make the world a better place. It startled me, though, to reread his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes” and find such a mysterious description of the writing process there. A poem “inclines to the impulse,” he writes, “runs a course of lucky events,” and lands somewhere the author could not have predicted. He muses about “the surprise of remembering something I did not know I knew.” I recognize this sense of wilderness hovering around the edges of his well-ordered verse—something there is that does not love an iamb. I’d just forgotten.

I suppose all the poets I’m teaching in “American Poetry from 1900-1950” are going to seem strange to me this term, because the second course I’m teaching, on alternate days, is a first-year seminar on speculative fiction. The tales and poems on the latter syllabus obsess over the questions, What’s real? What are the rules? That persistent uncertainty about big problems resonates in me and it’s going to carry over to everything I read. Besides, Millay, H.D., Williams, Hughes, and the rest of the modernist crowd are great enough that if a question’s on your mind, you can probably see an image of it flickering deep in their poetry’s mirror.

Their poems are dirty mirrors, too, speckled by age, the kind that make you look strange to yourself—and the more you know about authors and contexts, the more provocatively filthy the poems seem. Yes, that’s a positive fungus metaphor (my moldy poems will come after my moldy blog posts, because the former take longer to ferment, but expect the motif to propagate). I know my hundred-year-old house will never be entirely free of invisible spore. I presume the spore are present for good reasons, too, even though they got out of balance in my particular secret ducts. I’m not freaked out by their alien proliferation, though I wish I’d noticed the problem sooner, and that it didn’t cost such a fortune to remediate.

I also wish I could clean out the toxins in my workplace as easily. I’m freshly crushed, this September, by the radical reconfiguration of a department I worked so hard to culture. Several individuals moved along of their own accord, for perfectly good reasons, though I miss them; and a former administrator against whom I’d brought complaints, even testified in legal battles, was bumped down into our midst. I can’t be comfortable at department events anymore or even in the halls. No one who has power to remediate the situation cares enough to do so—the trouble I make about it, after all, is almost microscopically small. Conversely, no one does care knows how to clear out the poison.

I can breathe in the classroom, though, and if elements get out of balance there, I can address the disorder myself. The other healthy space is the page: reading and writing can be disturbing and hard as well as joyous, but they’re good occupations. It’s not that these environments are sealed off from the rest of the potentially toxic world—they’re distinctly permeable by everything from market pressures to the Syria crisis to anyone’s lousy mood—but they’re premised on values not evenly respected elsewhere. Reason, fairness, complexity. But the student who is checking her cellphone under the desk, you say, who is cursing, like A.J. Soprano, that “asshole Robert Frost”? I think I can keep even that kid invested in literature’s idealistic questions, but maybe I’m crazy. It’s probably the mold.

Refueling? Yeah, not so good at that

Following a link in Marly Youmans’ blog a few weeks ago, I read an interview with Joss Whedon that stuck like beach sand to sunburn. He describes a work pattern of constant, compulsive production, often on multiple projects at once. Even in rare blocks of downtime his mantra is “fill the tanks, fill the tanks, fill the tanks” by consuming books and plays voraciously. I’m a Whedon junkie so I’m glad he’s a workaholic, and I enjoyed and identified with most of what he said, but the very idea of his life makes me sore, especially since watching Much Ado About Nothing and developing a bad case of house-envy (he filmed at home). First observation: he mentions no intermissions for packing up a sick mom’s condo or worrying over which summer camps to book for the kids (the hardest part of being a parent is trying to juggle zillions of decisions that could be trivial but that add up to a human being’s childhood—when you’re a Libra, no less). Most of my “downtime” is spent addressing other people’s needs. But best to leave the caretaking issue aside; I know I’m lucky and don’t regret my choices.

I’m still bothered, though, by Whedon’s sheer capacity for work, even though others have accused me of the same proclivity. I drafted this post on vacation, feeling out of sorts because I wasn’t sensing fuel rising in the metaphorical tanks. We visited Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington, North Carolina. I’m the family vacation planner and this year we wanted to do something low-key within a six-hour drive; we could squeeze out six days if we combined the travel with a southward detour to pick up my son from camp; and I always like to see an area I haven’t visited before. I won’t be volunteering for the regional tourism bureau anytime soon, but it was an interesting area. The ghost tour in Wilmington’s historic downtown was a blast. I could develop a serious dependency on fried pickles and Britt’s Donuts, so I’m glad my proximity to them was temporary. Eating Thai curry in a fancy little hut at Indochine was lovely. Walking on the wide pale beaches, discussing fiction with my son while bobbing in waves, sipping rosé on the hotel balcony while a guitarist crooned Van Morrison covers down by the pool—all good. I kept telling myself so.

I also told myself: it’s okay to be out of sorts. There were the usual trials of family vacations like picking up after kids in a small shared space, non-cooperative weather, traffic jams. From home, English department personnel upheavals and their consequences chased me via email—I started writing about those worries here last year, and the situation has only gotten more complicated since. I’m waiting on medical tests too, nothing apocalyptic, but one of the weird symptoms of the summer has been a racing heart that doesn’t seem to correlate with anxiety so much as create it (it’s hard to relax in the warm sun when your heart is palpitating madly). And my mother-in-law was hospitalized with pneumonia as soon as we crossed the state line, though she’s much better now. So if I was tired and down, that’s not unreasonable. Bad weather breaks eventually.

I’m less rich, prolific, and free than the internationally famous writer-director: I could afford to calm down about that, I suspect. Still, I was thinking all week, retrospectively chewing over my decisions the way I always do: was this the best way to fill the tanks, fill the tanks, fill the tanks?

Whedon’s metaphor might be the problem. I don’t actually believe that’s how it works: pour art in, then rev your own art machine. For me, writing energy is unpredictable. Sometimes the more you burn, the more you have. Sometimes you break down and lie around in the junkyard, for better or worse, vaguely hoping you’ll be road-ready again after a breather. Sometimes “rest” is the cruelest thing you could do to yourself (see Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and imagine it as a writer’s blog). And then there’s all the worry around the work: keeping any kind of a spotlight on one’s writing can be a more than full-time job, and it’s a frustrating and demoralizing one. I alternate between committing to the publicity game and repudiating it, the way many authors do, I guess. Social media present whole new ways of feeling insignificant, even when the writing itself goes well (now imagine Gilman’s narration as a series of Facebook posts with decreasing rates of “friend” response).

In short, I don’t even know where my tanks are. But I have an idea that fried pickles are going to appear in a poem one day. Also those walks I took to the top of the barrier island: little waves were carving off chunks of sand in sweeping curls just behind me and I kept jumping, thinking I was being followed. And the buckeye butterfly that landed on my head like a benediction. Not fuel, exactly, but the world whispering to me, if I could turn off the engine long enough to hear it.

buckeye

Poetry as speculative fiction; or, being naive

I don’t share in ritual contempt for literary criticism as an enterprise—how could I and still bear to live with myself?—but having spent too much of the summer engaged in a massive review of several critical fields, I feel annoyed about the whole endeavor. English Departments are full of brilliant, passionate people but most of them aren’t using their publishing powers for good: shouldn’t criticism persuade others that reading and thinking about literature are intensely rewarding experiences? Dull writing is The Big Awful. If you can’t be consistently fascinating you should at least be clear and concise, and few of us meet that bar.

My peeve this week, though, is how every critic fondly dismisses the previous critic’s naïveté. Oh, Frye, he’s so naïve about genre. Oh, all those guys, they think literature is mimesis. Silly theorists. Here’s how things actually stand… I find myself wanting to answer with a manifesto claiming naïveté as my personal philosophy just to save everyone the trouble. It’s okay, Future Critic. I already know I’m benighted.

I really am doomed to be so damned. I’m writing a book about twenty-first century poetry, arguing that it’s all (well, often) speculative fiction or perhaps fantasy. Definitions of the latter tend to include the words “possible,” “knowable,” or “reality”—I can promise you this because I’ve read ALL OF THEM—with the frequent co-stars “strange” and “uncertain.” Fantasy is literature preoccupied with the question “what’s real?” or its corollary, “what are the rules?” Its arch-nemesis, according to various explainers, is sometimes realism and sometimes science fiction, both being arts invested in plausibility, whereas fantastic literature proposes that everything is more mysterious than we thought. I prefer “speculative fiction” as a term to “fantasy” because it suggests a useful kind of blurriness, potentially including straight-up genre books as well as all the crossover territory, but for most people it’s so blurry it doesn’t mean anything, so I may have to give it up. The working title of my book is Poetry’s Possible Worlds and since June I’ve drafted four chapters of a projected dozen. I’d like to sketch out the whole monster in the next thirteen months, but I’m burnt out right now and I teach full-time from September through May, so we’ll see.

I realized in early July: oh, I’m writing literary theory. Which is stupid, because I have a limited tolerance for reading literary theory; the gist is often interesting but the nuances make me sleepy. And sleeping through chunks of Jameson or Todorov is bound to make me extremely naïve.

Worse: I can’t even use the butt-covering jargon du jour. Poetry’s Possible Worlds is also a book about reading. It’s aimed at anyone with some interest in, though not necessarily deep knowledge about, contemporary poetry. Each chapter begins with a poem quoted in full. Permissions will be tricky, but it’s really important to me that readers have their own encounter with each poem before I start messing around with it. My premises are that it’s pleasurable to get lost in a poem’s pocket universe, that we should take poetry personally, and that we have a right to our own responses. The chapters add layers to those responses by telling stories about the personal contexts of my own readings—yep, that means memoir—as well as fiddling around with exegesis and what-it-all-means argument (a.k.a. theory). I think twenty-first century poetry is absolutely worth reading. I’m selecting focal poems with variety in mind (national and aesthetic diversity as well as diversity in race and gender), but my most important criterion: I have to find each poem powerful, and imagine it could detonate powerfully inside readers who don’t recognize allusions or linguistic fashion statements.

Anyway, you can see why I really need next week’s mindless beach vacation. The chapters are not very long (4000-4500 words each) and the writing has been really fun, but it taxes every resource at my command. The style is essayistic—driven not only by arguments but motifs and lyric association—and I’m including a scaffolding of endnotes, at least for now, to keep track of the sources influencing me most. I’m getting feedback as I go from my spouse, a fiction writer who’s really good at macro/ structural considerations, but mostly I’ve just been charging ahead like a maniac. I’ll probably send a couple of chapters out to lit mags that publish creative nonfiction with a critical bent, but I’m not ready yet. I need to be quite sure of where I’m going first. Plus, creative writing just needs more fermentation time as text than the writing that appears in scholarly journals, which is really just a delivery system for ideas—the sentences need to be balanced and elegant, with no clumsy transitions, and that takes multiple rounds of scrutiny.

This is the most urgent book I can think of to write at this moment. Caring so much about it makes the work harder. I know my argument is idiosyncratic. Some people will think I’m diminishing poetry, or fantasy, or both. Others will find huge blind spots in the poems I include or neglect. There will be too much criticism for some readers, too much personal crap for others. The experience of writing it reminds me more of poetry composition than criticism-writing, in large part because of the driving terror. After all, if something about the jostle of the words in a poem doesn’t delight, confuse, or outright alarm you, why are you writing it? Who knows if you’ll ever have readers, so you have to imagine them and forget them. You have to please yourself.

Not inspiration but stupid grit

Lately, the idea of writing makes me want to throw up. I’ve coped with severe morning sickness, the kind that keeps you bedridden for months, so a few paragraphs aren’t going to get the better of me: I face down the nausea almost every day.  I’m watching myself with a certain amount of curiosity, though. How long will the queasiness last? And why do I keep writing anyway?

Physically, I lack grit, or at least I rationalize myself out of difficult efforts very quickly. My mother used to call me “lazy Lesley,” with some justification. I still don’t like to clean my room, much less shovel snow. I exercise just enough to keep total decrepitude at bay. My spouse and daughter are runners and my daughter, newer to the sport, describes the satisfaction of pushing through the pain. Not me. I hate the metabolic collapse of middle age, but to face the pain of serious exercise I’m going to require a more urgent motive than a little mild self-loathing.

When the efforts are social, intellectual, and creative, though—in teaching and especially in writing—I seem capable of pushing myself beyond all reason. I honestly don’t understand why, though I have an inkling it may have to do with identity investments. I have let go of a lot of old truths that once felt permanent: “I am young,” “I am a skinny person,” “I know a lot of crap about contemporary music,” and, very recently, “I am the mother of young children” (the younger will be a teenager in September).  Those changes make me cling even more strongly to “I am a good teacher” and “I write like crazy, or like a crazy person, but anyway, watch me go.”

So, having lost a lot of time last summer to my father’s death and its aftermath, this summer the need to make progress on a long-contemplated prose book feels especially non-negotiable. I decided that May, when I wasn’t teaching but had various end-of-year school obligations, I could clear up a backlog. In June, I would hit the new book hard. May was, in fact, one of the most productive months I’ve ever had as a prose writer. I revised three essays, finished another that had been languishing in a state of near-completion, edited an interview with a poet, wrote two reviews of poetry books, and submitted the lot to various journals. That doesn’t mean they’re done, or I’m done revising and resubmitting. Still: triumph over pain!

Despite confidence, though, about what I have done, I feel totally appalled by what I need to do next. I have no faith that anything I’m writing is worthwhile. In the new manuscript, a book about twenty-first-century poetry but aimed at a general readership, I’m trying to keep out on the edge of what feels safe because at least life is interesting, out on a cliff. At least I’m not bored by the problem of putting sentences together, as I had been feeling when writing conventional scholarship. The new work, though, is challenging me at almost every level. At every juncture I ask: is this transition interesting, at least to me? Would somebody reading this sentence really want to step into the next one? Why does this paragraph matter? Those questions hurt.

And then school ended for my kids and my spouse came home from a difficult trip emptying out his mother’s condo: she has dementia now, he just moved her into assisted living, and a buyer wants the place in late June. I did feel full of the appropriate spousal compassion, but holding down the fort domestically for six days had meant drastically compressed work time. I had become panicky about not practicing my nausea and self-doubt. And then we had our annual argument about how the summer days should get split—who gets to write when—which meant making a case for time to do the sickening work I’m not convinced anyone will ever want to read.  My time comes at the cost of his time, and he’s a writer afflicted by existential nausea, too. So now there’s an extra pressure on my time at the desk, an extra reason to feel like puking.

Another question I ask myself when facing down that screen: is there something else I’d rather do for these few hours a day during the short span of an academic summer? Because, you know, I have tenure. I could just stop. I could do volunteer work or spend enough hours walking to compensate for my hatred of that efficient, high-intensity running stuff.  Perhaps I could surrender to my stealthily-growing Twitter addiction. After all, there are a lot of highly-disciplined writers out there. I’d have to be delusional to think my own effort was genuinely important.

But I have a strong, illogical compulsion to push through the pain. It’s primary programming: keep writing until the circuits die. It would be handy if I could believe a Master Programmer created this drive in me as part of an elaborate plan. Instead, I suspect it’s just some biochemical feedback loop, a serotonin delivery system or something. Yet here I am.

Two related posts you might be interested in, if you’re thinking about the same things: Jeannine Hall Gailey on whether you can get it done and still be a nice girl; Marly Youmans on creating good vibrations. That’s a nice idea, isn’t it, that all our good lines and sentences might be a way of improving the tuning of the universe? That’s not really why I write, though. I don’t know why I write

In which the modernism scholar attends her first con

Three weeks out: What do these panel/ event names mean? “Queers Dig Time Lords and Outer Alliance TARDIS Party”? “Is Feminism Magic? The My Little Pony Panel!”? “None of Us Are Goats”?

One week out: Why aren’t my co-panelists answering the let’s-get-prepped email the conscientious WisCon organizers prompted me to send? Do they hate me for presuming to butt into their Con? Becoming quite sure everyone wishes I’d just stay home.

Day One: Had a deep conviction, while packing, that I needed more purple and feathers, but said “screw it” and just packed professor-clothes. I’d been clairvoyant about the purple and feathers—in professor-clothes at WisCon you feel like Clark Kent, only straighter. (For more on conference-gear anxiety, see “Rhymes with Poetess.”) On the upside, my co-panelists for “Women’s Speculative Poetry Now” are brilliant and enthusiastic and funny and show no signs of hating me whatsoever. The audience is good-sized and seems delighted. I learn a ton and am so glad I set this into motion.

Day Two: Sleep deprivation has now thinned the veil between dimensions. I lose time, in a good way, at Karen Joy Fowler’s reading. I have dinner with my doppelganger: turns out, though poet Meg Schoerke and I have never met before, we interviewed in 1993 for the same jobs and each got offered different ones. She informs me about my life in an alternate timeline and also how and why she is in the process of transforming into a science fiction writer. The day climaxes at the Haiku Earring Swap: I pick out sparkly pink beads, Elise gives me the title “The Duchess Regrets,” and I compose the follow-up lines “her indiscretion/ with the jelly. Really, love/ is sticky enough.” I am allowed to barter this haiku for my jewels.

Day Three: I put on the magenta tights I bought on State Street along with Elise’s earrings and I feel a little better, even though a street person shouts, “I love you, Pink Ass Lady!” (That seems fair enough, actually, since I’m the most colorful thing walking through his living room.) During a solo brunch at Graze I intend to read Caitlin Kiernan’s fabulous Tiptree-co-winning novel, The Drowning Girl. Instead, I sit next to an architect whose green designs, she tells me, include self-repairing airplane wings and a kind of paint that makes concrete surfaces absorb and trap greenhouse gases. Amazingly, she has nothing to do with the science fiction convention. More great readings today, plus the Dessert Salon. (I have never attended such a FEMINIST feminist conference: safe spaces for every identity plus constant access to chocolate conceived as a basic human right.) Having The Receptionist and Other Tales announced as a Tiptree Award Honor List book makes me feel magenta all over.

Day Four: I know I didn’t really DO WisCon because I never had enough stamina for the late-night parties, but I met some lovely people, and when I read from my book this morning at Michelangelo’s the audience laughed and said “mmm” at all the right moments. At the Sign-Out, Tiptree judge Andrea Hairston described reciting my book while parading around her house—wish I had that for a book trailer or something, especially since SHE has serious feathers going on.

I’m drafting this in the Madison airport. My bags are heavy with books and my head is jammed with still more titles—tons of reading to do. I don’t know the work of keynote speaker Jo Walton, for instance, but her reading and talk were amazing. I’m still pondering what she said about the relation between writer and audience: “I’m writing it inside me and they’re reading it inside them…the art is happening in the space between.”

I’m still writing mostly in the space between “literary” poetry (that’s a terrible label, but it’s what I’ve got) and sf. There are lots of speculative poems in my new ms, which is all about uncanny transmissions and connections, but it’s not a genre venture at its core as clearly as “The Receptionist” was. I’m just trying to write and read the very best poems I can, and I think “best” often harmonizes with “speculative” because sf asks such good questions about what’s real and what matters. I loved WisCon, but I find myself wishing for a poetry-focused conference this smart, this fun. I want to see what the rhyme-nerds wear when they’re really letting it all hang out.