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.

Professor Aragorn swears a vow

Manifestos are for angry young men, right? I’m more like “cranky” and “middle-aged,” and as far gender stereotyping goes, I actually had a student write on a course evaluation once, “Just as kind as you’d expect from a mother.” Whippersnapper, if you’re out there, be glad that was anonymous. I am weary of hearing that niceness is my salient attribute. Especially when I just spent three months expertly guiding your complaining tenderfoot fellowship through the Nazgul-haunted waste land of modernist poetry.

The title of my piece in the summer 2013 issue of The Gettysburg Review, “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand,” suggests not a fiery declaration of creed but a series of low-stakes, highly civilized quenchings. I lived in Wellington from late January 2011 to the beginning of July as a Fulbright senior scholar researching poetry networks, in particular the rhizome-fibers fanning out from the International Institute of  Modern Letters at Victoria University. I spent the first few months talking to people, going to readings, trying to see the lines of force. By late April I hunkered down to write an article that I thought would become a book chapter.  I aimed for an audience of academics who are thoughtful about creative writing as a discipline. Turns out that’s a mythical tribe. At least, there are very few venues for such work, and do they want to hear my skepticism about the idea of “community” in the MFA enterprise, balanced by a case study of an antipodean program that’s actually pretty successful, better in some ways than many of its US antecedents? No, Lesley, as perhaps you ought to have predicted, they do not.

By late May I had finished a draft of that scholarly article, which, sigh, is still wandering the wilderness. One cold rainy day I played hooky to visit Katherine Mansfield’s dismal childhood home. Afterwards, over lunch in a Thornfield café, my spouse and I talked about the weirdness of the trip so far. Setting up house in a foreign country, sending your small-town kids to school in an unfamiliar city, is bound to be difficult; you know your life is being reshaped and it’s hard to play scholar in the middle of it. Further, a few weeks after we’d arrived, a Christchurch earthquake had resulted in terrible destruction and loss of life. My husband’s beloved aunt Mary had suddenly died. And my parents, whose marriage, when I left, seemed solid as rock and just as affectionate, were divorcing. Radio silence from my eight-five year old father, now living with a forty-five year old woman.  When random Aotearoans asked me what I was up to, I would joke “having coffee with poets”: how else could I possibly sum it up?

“That’s what you should write,” my husband said, when I commented on how hard it was to assume an authoritative, scholarly voice as if none of this other material was boiling around me—how dissatisfied I felt by academic writing, under the circumstances. “An essay about having coffee with poets.” I took off Strider’s costume that afternoon and tried to assume my birthright, composing prose in which I was a whole person. I had lots of paring and reshaping to do later, but I put down the bones in a week or two. By the end of the finished essay, I declare my intention to transmit argument without filtering out all the personal noise that makes me want to make arguments. That is, to brew up criticism that also delivers the pleasures of story—more meaningful to write, possibly even of interest beyond academia.

Declaring that ambition feels arrogant to me, outrageous, not entirely nice. Further, the two years since have been crazy. The kids hit adolescence; our jobs changed in big ways; the house flooded; my father remarried, got sicker, and died. Basically I’ve been trying to survive my life and think about new goals while not laying down the old ones. I’ve written tons of poetry and prose and managed to get some of it revised and into the world but I’ve also been trying to do too much. My spouse’s latest pronouncement: I need to fire the tiny little booking agent who inhabits the cave of my head. She knows exactly how much I can do and she schedules me right up to the limits of my energy and sanity. “I hate her,” he said. Okay, I answered, overruling the homunculus. No modernism conference.

What I’m trying to do now, as the writing summer opens up, is prioritize. I’ve got a lot of projects steeping. The ones I’ve already committed heavily to: it’s time to dust them with cinnamon and serve them to some kind of public or just dump them if they’re too stale, but no more fooling around behind the espresso machine. And the new book, Poetry’s Possible Worlds will NOT be the straight-ahead scholarship I was trained in, but the mixed-up stuff I feel driven to write, the stuff that feels interesting to me and I hope will be interesting to others, too. Goals:

  1. Write what I want to write—poetry and prose that anyone who likes to read would enjoy—but commit to it. Stop trying to walk every path at once.
  2. Work long and hard. Get better.
  3. Unite the kingdom.

And the winner of the Big Poetry Giveaway is…

Poet and blogger Joseph Harker! I’ve never met him but just looked him up and his last post for NaPoWriMo, “Adam and Steve,” is pretty great. Nice list of favorite poets, too. I’ll be sending him my latest, The Receptionist and Other Talesand Feral by Janet McAdams.

Thanks to Susan Rich for organizing this and to everyone who put themselves into the lottery–27 people, three cubed and always my favorite number. The process: I counted down and gave everyone a number, making sure that the people who posted multiple comments were only counted once. Then I used a random number generator to determine the digit.

If you didn’t win and still want The Receptionist, it’s only $9 from Aqueduct Press, or $6 for an ebook. Or if you can review or teach it, ask for a complimentary review copy. Contact me at wheelerlm (at) wlu.edu if you want a signed book. I’ll also be at WisCon in late May and, this coming Friday, I’m reading new poems at Chroma Projects gallery in Charlottesville, Virginia–that’s May 3rd, 6 pm, in conjunction with a show by visual artist Carolyn Capps called “We Are Not Our Work.” Much of what I’ve been doing during NaPoWriMo is generating new pieces in response to her collages. It’s been really fun but now I have to revise them and read them while the linguistic paint’s still wet. Yikes.

I did keep to the NaPoWriMo program, by the way, often drafting multiple poems in a 24 hour period–but being at an artists’ residency for 2 weeks in the middle of April helped. Some days my output was extremely lame and yesterday, in the very last evening of obligation, I almost decided to bag it entirely. I’ll leave you with the poem from the 29th, one of those I-just-don’t-have-the-energy-for-this days. I was inspired when a former student, now a teacher at a middle school in Baltimore with a community garden, tweeted sadly that there aren’t enough poems about asparagus in the world. Poor neglected vegetable. I tweeted back:

spar grass loves spring’s steamy mood:
from woody shoot to point d’amour
a short and terribly tender fuse

Poets, go revise your April brainstorms, read as much verse as you can get your eyeballs on, and eat your sexy delicious greens.

 

 

The exquisite hush I require, being a sensitive artist

“So how’s it going at your writer’s resort?” my son keeps asking, and you should definitely hear pre-teen sarcasm in those italics. I packed skepticism in my suitcase, actually, nested in there with books I didn’t use and tea I would brew in enormous quantities. What’s so special about writing over there instead of at home? I wondered, even though others kept assuring me that residencies are magically productive times. Today I’m participating in an Ecopoetry Anthology reading at 2 pm in Givens Bookstore in Lynchburg, Virginia, and head home after the reception—so here’s a fellowship report.

Pros:

  • I can see how making an occasion during which you have no excuse NOT to get it done can be a really useful thing. I was here to revise and compile work I’d been doing in snatches for years and I did, in fact, arrive at a good draft of a poetry manuscript called Radioland. The idea was a two-week poetry-only extravaganza arranged to begin the moment winter term ended, because I wasn’t scheduled to teach in W&L’s May term, and because I have a lot of critical writing to pull together later in the summer. I could have found a book in this messy pile of drafts by laboring in my regular office but I’m not sure I would have, at least not so efficiently. It’s easy for me to back-burner poetry but the guilty sense of privilege this fellowship inspired made the work feel urgent.
  • The company was pretty great. I absolutely loved visiting other artists’ studios, hearing them read, listening to their music. Just the most recent example: a concert last night by Jeff Harms, accompanied by James Berman on the violin, was fantastic. There are some people here I’d like to keep track of for the long haul.
  • The mountains here aren’t prettier than the mountains in Lexington, really, but here I’m closer to the quiet places. It’s been restorative to take long walks through ridges of oak and dogwood and not meet a soul (except for those naked women photographing each other in a sunny meadow, and that was interesting in its own way).
  • A related point: I have a noisy head and here things slowed down enough for me to listen to it. Following paths in an unfamiliar wood is a lot like following the language that scurries around in my mental underbrush, or launches from some inner branch, or wells up in the wetlands. I composed a lot of new poems and I have no idea if they’ll weather. They do feel strange in a good way, though.

Cons:

  • Like I said, I could do this at home with a LOT less inconvenience to kith and kin. Unlike many people, I have a supportive spouse, good space, a job that allows summer writing-time and rewards me for publishing. I’ve had spells when it was tough going, but mostly I’m capable of setting myself deadlines and sticking to them, putting other tasks on hold if I have to. A VCCA regular was telling me the other night that she has all her breakthroughs here, and it’s possible I’ll recognize later that the new work has some special quality I hadn’t yet attained. The verdict’s out, though. Maybe it’s a genre thing—maybe residencies are less vital for poets. You can draft new prose for 10 hours a day, maybe, but poems don’t work that way, and I don’t need a big well-ventilated studio or a borrowed baby grand.
  • I had a friend once who said that everyone should have to do their own scut work. At the time I protested vehemently. I don’t know any middle-class U.S. residents who don’t farm out some chores by eating meals at restaurants, hiring someone to do their taxes or re-shingle the roof, handing clothes over to the dry-cleaner, whatever. I mean, where would that ideological maxim take me? I don’t want to thresh my own wheat and spin my own cotton. Still, I get it. Chopping an occasional zucchini is good for an egghead. I think it’s probably better, in the end, for artists to clean toilets, wipe up cat vomit, live with other people to whom they have profound obligations. A break’s okay, but three meals a day with no effort probably isn’t good for anyone’s poetry over the long haul.

I guess what I feel is, introvert though I am (I spent lots of time reading in my studio while other fellows stayed up late talking), the connections here will probably have a bigger effect on me than the silences. And I’m feeling cheerful at the prospect of slapping up last-minute peanut butter sandwiches because my sarcastic twelve-year-old forgot to pack his lunch again. It’s good to be reminded that lots of people, quite rightly, don’t take my craft and erudition all that seriously.

I’m sorry I’m abandoning you all

All it takes is a wobble
of ankle or attention—
the other racers fly ahead
and I’ll never catch up.

This is a stupid way
to approach a cherry
blossom. With fear,
I mean. What if,

I ask my spouse, I waste
this gift of two weeks?
I will have betrayed
my family. Counting

games and recitals
at which I will not
cheer, mushrooms
I will not fry. This

week I helped my son
imagine how to draw rain.
I mailed my daughter’s
lopped ponytail to a cancer

charity. All that honey.
Now she runs light.
And I pack the car
with tea bags, soft clothes,

books about other books
because who knows what
a mother of teenagers
will do with solitude?

My spouse laughs.
His first gift to me,
a quarter century ago,
was news that my terror

is funny. We keep walking
past a drowned young
green snake, curled
in a spiral, along the brown

creek, all roiled up
by last night’s rackety
storms. Surprised, he admits,
I slept through the thunder.

My NaPoWriMo poem drafting frenzy continues. One of the most fun projects I’ve started is a collaboration with visual artist Carolyn Capps–she sent me an image, I wrote a poem by way of reply, she’s going to create another image and send it to me, and we’ll see where it goes from there. More on that later, I hope.

This morning’s poem, posted above, had several triggers. My daughter is now on the track team. I read an ominously beautiful poem by Jack Ridl in the new Poet Lore called “Within the Moment of Indefinite Suffering” that begins, “All it takes is a tick.” And, obviously, I took a walk with Chris. He’s just back from Pittsburgh, where he’s settling his mother into assisted living. I’m off tomorrow to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I’ll have a studio, three effortless meals a day, and woods to walk in while I think poetic thoughts. I’m obviously feeling guilty and panicked. I’m wondering if I’m the only person who’s dumb enough to approach the amazing privilege of a 2 week fellowship, no strings attached, with this level of fear, or whether this is a totally normal angsty writer way to siphon off the joy from an amazing spring adventure.

Pretty books, messy drafts

photo (1)“No,” she said (I’m paraphrasing), “you have to post your daily poem. That’s how you learn to stop worrying about what other people think. It frees you.” Luisa Igloria, who gave a great reading here a few days ago, has published a poem a day at Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa since November 20th, 2010, so she should know. I’m still resisting, although like many other crazy versifiers, I’m drafting a poem a day this April for NaPoWriMo. Part of my resistance to posting them all is just plain ego and ambition: what if I write something brilliant, self-publish it in my blog, and then it’s not eligible for a starring role in some luminous magazine venue? (I do realize I could profitably let that reservation go.) Another part is skepticism that people really want to read my first drafts: I read students’ unpolished lines for a living and while helping people become better writers is an awesome job, I am not hungry to read more drafts in my spare time. I believe in and regularly practice radical revision, brooding over pieces for months or years. Many of my favorite poems convey hard thinking about knotty problems. I know their authors banged their heads against walls for a long time to figure out what’s really at stake in each of those babies. The flipside to that Bishopian sense of caution is that some great poems do pop, Athena-like, out of writers’ heads fully-grown, and you’re much more likely to receive those gifts if you hold yourself accountable to a daily practice.

My last reason for not posting my daily poems is the most artistically urgent, I think. I tried this regimen for the first time last April and the constant drafting did free me, in a way. I was writing so much it removed the pressure on each poem to be serious or even good. I started tackling subjects I’d never dared address before. I wouldn’t have been willing to take those risks on a public stage (if you can call a poetry blog “public”).

But, because Luisa has earned the right to recommend it, I’m going to post a few of my April poems here this year. The one below was occasioned by a gift she brought, and also by my recent reading of Trilogy with the talented students in my seminar on British and Irish poetry.

For another pretty book, this one full of less pretty drafts, see my exhibit in the wonderful Tapa Notebooks archive at the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre coordinated by Michele Leggott and Brian Flaherty. The first of the pages in the digital archive is a brainstorming exercise on terza rima I did with a group of poets in Wellington in June, 2011 (they called it “torture rima”). In the subsequent pages you can see lists of possible rhymes, a recipe for farro risotto, a blog draft, and notes from a wonderful conference on African-American poetry held at UT Austin. While I kept the first half of the journal as a commonplace book, I eventually called on other poets to fill up the back: I asked the writers I met to put down a few lines of poetry by another writer that had been haunting them lately. You can see some of those pages, too: Leslie Marmon Silko from Deborah Miranda, Terrance Hayes from Roger Reeves, Myung Mi Kim from Dawn Lundy Martin, Wallace Stevens from Dean Young, and more. Having excerpts of my writing journal online makes me feel a little naked, but it’s a terrific project and being involved is an honor. Another American whose Tapa Notebook just got archived: Joy Harjo.

She Must Have Been Pleased With Us

the pages, I imagine, are the blank pages
of the unwritten volume of the new
H.D., “Tribute to the Angels”

She gave me a journal as small as a camel
cricket. I don’t have visions like other
poets, just an occasional auditory or
olfactory hallucination, but Maria Luisa’s
gift reminded me of Lowndes Square
in wartime. Bryher thought to raise chickens
there—Belgravia!—but they ate their own eggs.
The Lady with the Book came to Hilda in May
1944. Those interminable blackouts, long
confinements in the flat, began to shorten;
one might keep the window open late,
imagining the scent of apple blossom
from a charred tree. Perdita’s darning needle
limned by the dim glow from a clock-face.
Waiting for the zrr-hiss. I can’t see it.

My book whirs along a fine bronze chain
around my neck. A lady gave it to me
in an egg-shell. I would need a camel-
hair brush, a single fiber, to paint a poem
there. Each syllable a sensillum.
H.D. thought, she was satisfied
with our purpose, and heard campanili
call the names of angels. I hear
the sky creak with cold: no cricket music
yet. I smell candlelight, a long-ago
poet toasting bread over a little blue jet.

April 3, 2013

Poets do it for free

 

My Try Poetry GiveawayYou thought I meant poetry readings, I’m sure, and yes, we will talk dirty to you in bookstores, classrooms, cafés, and other marginal spaces, for little or no compensation. But at the moment I’m referring to another kind of freebie. The wheel of the year has turned and it’s time to get Feral for National Poetry Month. At the prompting of verse alchemist Susan Rich I’m participating in The BIG POETRY GIVEAWAY (follow the link if you’d like to give away some books yourself). As she says in her invitation:

“Anyone with a blog can giveaway 2 books of poems. Anyone with an email address can enter any or all of the giveaways. Yes, poetry is that easy! You can give it away and you can also sign-up to receive it! You don’t need a blog to participate, you just need to visit different participating blogs.”

The two books I’ll be giving away at the beginning of May are my most recent poetry collection, The Receptionist and Other Talesand Janet McAdams’ 2007 book Feral. Both have a slipstream vibe, occupying the littoral zone at the edge of speculative fiction. I like to call the long poem “The Receptionist” a feminist fantasy campus novella in terza rima; it’s followed by shorter poems involving revenants, hallucinations, zombie apocalypse, and other alarming lyric materializations.

Feral  explores another kind of wildness—tales of feral children—although Janet McAdams also populates this intensely lyric book with fish girls, polar explorers, and others who hover between worlds. McAdams is a brilliant writer who teaches at Kenyon College in Ohio; other equally fabulous books include her novel Red Weather and her first poetry collection, The Island of Lost Luggage. She founded the Earthworks series for indigenous poetry at Salt Press.

If you’d like a chance to win these books, leave a comment below that includes a way to reach you. At the end of April I’ll develop some magical randomizing process for choosing a name. Like any of the participating bloggers, I’ll cover postage to any place in the universe. Here’s a teaser from Janet’s book.

What She Will Sing to You

My mother cast into the wave that nudged my birth
and I finned out with a slime-covered flipper

and learned a different kind of love:
this dorsal fin could cut you through like a razor.

You will learn to breathe here after all. Over these joined legs
are two fat breasts and a mouth, soft and open. A tongue to wrap

around the words I might whisper, through water, salt water.
Sailor, you can learn to breathe here. Come down, come

down. I was never human, not your fairy tale. I will teach you more
than breathing. I will make your body ache open with salt pleasure.