Toasting successes, fleeing gnats

Even though I’m not teaching this year, I can SMELL that it’s the last week of classes. The campus, lush from an unusually rainy May, is full of giddy, jittery, sneezing students. My colleagues are staggering around exhausted, arms full of ungraded papers. Processing my heavy email load is like trying to get free of a cloud of gnats–they just follow you around, frantically propagating. I’m about to leave town and miss all the noisy graduation parties. When I get back, around Memorial Day, all traces of the academic year will be cleared away, except for a few stray Natty Light cans lurking in the shrubbery.

The chaos inside my house matches the energy of the neighborhood. My anxious 19-year-old, having just aced her first year at Wesleyan, has been interviewing for summer jobs, writing applications, scouring ads (keep your fingers crossed), so there’s been a lot of coaching in the evening hours. My 15-year-old has been taking standardized tests and has his last jazz band concert tonight (though I have to say, there’s no evidence HE is breaking a sweat). Chris is wrapping up this experimental, demanding, but very cool course. I had several blogging, reviewing, and editing gigs due this week, which are nearly complete now, but all this keyboarding with a sprained wrist is no fun.

And Chris and I are packing for our first weekend away as a couple in years and years. Tomorrow we take planes, cars, and boats to Martha’s Vineyard. On Tuesday he’ll fly home for W&L’s graduation, but I go on to Madison, Connecticut for Poetry by the Sea. I am SUPER-excited about this one. Lots of friends in attendance plus poets I’ve never met but want to hear from. So in addition to making lists for the kids of when the recycling goes out, etc., I’ve been preparing notes for a panel discussion on the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Right before I fly home on Saturday, May 28th, I’ll be reading from Radioland IN A GAZEBO. By the SEA.

Poetic report forthcoming, but for the moment, a photo of a bright spot this week–celebrating the birthday of one of my brilliant friends. (I think that’s Oliver Queen in the left background, but what I like best in this photo is how the dude behind me is really into his ice cream.) And hey, the finalist list for the Eric Hoffer Award is substantial, but Radioland is on it–that’s a small good thing. And The Robot Scientist’s Daughter by my friend Jeannine Hall Gailey–with whom I’m just finalizing picks for the SFPA’s annual Dwarf Star anthology–is there, too! Salut!

birthday drinks

Oh, mother

Writing is a confidence game, and while generally I can play it with the necessary brio, occasionally I drop all the cards.

In many ways, I’m having a great spring. I love this new essay on Radioland by Athena Kildegaard in Bloom. I’m happily tinkering with fall syllabi, but I still have a few months before September hits, hallelujah.

I also have some cool events coming up. One is a long weekend with my spouse on Martha’s Vineyard (attending a wedding then just hanging out). Others are work, but the fun kind. With the usual ambivalence–feeling both that my work deserves attention and I am a total impostor–I applied last fall and winter to various series, and some applications resulted in invitations. See my Events page for details on May-June readings In D.C., Maryland, and CT. It reminds me that when you throw out lots of filaments, like Whitman’s spider, a few catch.

So with all that busy-ness ahead, plus a visit with my mother next week and picking up my daughter from her first year of college, I thought: I need to stay focused on the time-sensitive work, which mostly involves tying up the threads on big projects and getting them under consideration. I tried, with some success. I worked, got sick, recovered, worked some more. Then, last weekend, I froze.

I don’t know why I’m having trouble moving ahead, although I always find it harder to send stuff out than to write it in the first place. I know why I write and always will write–building a little world is joyful, healing work. Marketing a little world: less fun. Maybe I don’t want to finish these projects, at some level. Maybe I’m experiencing biochemical chaos, pollen allergies, unresolved anger. I’m worried about my mother, who face-planted in the radiologist’s office recently and knocked out her top front teeth. I was also disheartened by being laid up on the couch all weekend. I’d been so relieved by improved health in the last couple of weeks–I finally seemed to be on a path toward physical well-being, able to take walks again!–and then I twisted my heel and reactivated my plantar fasciitis. Painful for a couple of days, but trivial in the long run. What’s harder is being reminded that all my plans are basically imaginary and can be swept away in a moment.bookcase

At any rate, after that Saturday morning injury came several very low days. Honestly, I’ve gone into deeper holes, and for much longer. I know how to manage an unhappy brain, just like I know the regime of heat, ice, rest, and gentle stretches that helps my foot. I just slow down and do whatever work seems possible; trying to force progress on a project I’m discouraged about doesn’t get me anywhere, so better to clean out a closet or just read. (Although I’m not yet ready to face reorganizing my books–why did I once think all my contemporary poetry would fit in one bookcase?)

So this week I tinkered with writing that felt outward-focused, not self-aggrandizing. I know some people don’t see reviews as acts of generosity, but I receive them that way, and writing them feels like service to poetry. Having finished a couple of tardy reviews, I already feel better. A little.

One obstacle to feeling a lot better is, paradoxically, my basic sanity. A failure of confidence is actual a rational response to the literary market. Most people don’t want to read what any of us is putting out there. Yet, oh my god, am I grateful other writers persist. I need to immerse myself in their consoling fictions when my own imagination fails and I confront the stark truth of things.

Well, my lunatic desire to seek audiences has always resurged before. I just have to accept this latest highly symbolic health problem, that my feet don’t want me to move. Work on it gently, and wait it out. I hear I may be getting breakfast in bed this Sunday with some homemade blueberry muffins. My feet, honestly, ought to calm down–they have it pretty good.

 

 

 

Collaboration

Lone wolf humanist here to tell you that while reading and writing in solitude are some of my favorite things, experiences with intellectual and artistic collaboration have astonished me, shaking loose all kinds of work and thinking I might never have otherwise produced. As poets

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Merrill and Jackson: collaborators on a seance-based epic?

Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton say in this great piece–which ends with the “10 Commandments of Collaboration”–working with another person can produce a “third voice” likely to surprise its parents. Yes, teamwork can slow down or intensify the labor, a big problem if you’re on a tenure clock or your collaborator’s literary metabolism differs radically from yours. I’ve also seen it speed and improve work in various genres. Writing can beget more writing.

That’s why, for the early-summer edition of my Modernism/ Modernity blog on the writing process, I’m seeking short reflections from scholars, editors, teachers, students, and artists about collaboration, in hopes that a collection of perspectives will shake good work loose from other writers, too. I sent out an email to some modernist scholars who collaborate, but I’d like to hear from people outside my network, so if you have something to say, please contact me! You can post replies here or email them to wheelerlm (at) wlu.edu, but I need responses by May 15th. The assignment:

  1. Choose one of the following prompts, or ask your own collaboration-related question, and send me an answer of under 200 words, along with a bio of 1-2 sentences.
  • How has collaboration changed your writing, your thinking, and/or the direction of your professional life?
  • What advice do you have for people considering a collaborative venture?

You can write this with a collaborator, if you want, or try a two-way interview. Just please keep it short and sweet. Alternately:

  1. Forward this to a friend or collaborator and ask him or her to write a reflection on one of these questions, or on another question you’d rather ask. It can be submitted directly to me, with a bio.

I’m looking for collaborators on modernism-related projects, but you can define that however you like. Collaborations in teaching as well as research, editing, and writing are absolutely fair game, as are student responses. Cautionary tales as well as positive stories are welcome—collaboration can be a complicated endeavor. (One of my first co-authors was my spouse, Chris Gavaler, on an article about H.D. for Sagetrieb, and we did a lot of anxious joking at the time about how commas were posing a marital problem.) My goal is to put together a June blog for the Modernism/ Modernity Print-Plus platform in many voices, with diverging perspectives. You can see the inaugural “process” blog post here, if curious.

lettersI could describe lots of other projects here, because I’ve been experimenting for a while now. Editing Letters to the World with a team of women I’d never met was a huge, at times stressful project with a beautiful result. I also love revisiting these poems I composed with Scott Nicolay in an email-based game of oneuppoetship. Last but not least, every class discussion is a collaboration, as we argue our way towards a joint reading of whatever text is to hand.

But I’d rather hear from you.

Don’t get ambitious

I’m trying to imagine myself as a pasty-faced superheroine–Anemic Woman!–battling vampires with cast-iron skillet and chimichurri (having learned fresh parsley is highly ferrous, I’m putting chimichurri on everything and calling it “Iron Sauce”). All this mythologizing, however, takes a lot of vim, and I’m tuckered out. I really enjoyed visiting Kenyon last week, and I’m delighted to be reading at the Taubman at Roanoke this Sunday at 2 pm , but I’m finding I have to spend energy cautiously. My hemoglobin levels were pretty low a couple of weeks ago, and it takes six weeks to make a new red blood cell, so all I can do is behave virtuously now and trust I’ll feel the difference in late May sometime. Even the morning walks Chris and I usually depend on are hard to manage–the littlest incline makes me lightheaded, and this is not a flat town. It’s frustrating to be sitting out some of our loveliest weather.

My experiences with chronic illness have been small potatoes, really (also good with chimichurri). But I can remember the first extended, taxing illness–gallstones at twenty-two, which took a while to diagnose–and how differently that experience colored the world. I would walk down the street carrying my own secret worry, looking at strangers’ faces, and marvel: all these people could be in terrible pain, and I wouldn’t even know! That’s true of grief and depression, too–before they debilitate you, they can be utterly invisible. It’s one of the few good things about pain, I guess, that it can teach compassion. I’m better than I used to be at taking a deep breath, when someone infuriates me, and reminding myself: I don’t know the whole story. There is a lot of suffering out there.

I’m better at compassion, mind you. I didn’t say I was good at it. That’s why it’s so wonderful when, instead of simply taking out her troubles on you, someone tries to explain them. Check out this poem and blog by Molly Spencer, for example, about the unpretty side of being a parent. Her frankness makes me grateful.

Some secrets, I suppose, may be better kept in darkness. For example, I had a perfectly good post-op visit with a doctor today, who cheerfully announced all my biopsy results were clear. She also–bless her heart–keeps giving me glossy photographs of the inside of my uterus before and after surgery. “Look how red and beefy it was,” she sighs. “You can post these on social media, if you want.” Um, no thanks. Truthfully, dear reader, wasn’t that beef image delivered verbally already TMI?

“Don’t get ambitious,” she then said, when I asked whether exercising was okay (I’d read some alarming things about overworking the heart when hemoglobin’s low). Slow to moderate. These are not words a writer wants to live by as her sabbatical draws to a close and brain fog hovers.

But I’m doing my best to be (imagine my wince here) moderate. Slowly reading and revising the novel I drafted last December and January, with even a nap here and there. The protagonist, a department head and mother of teenage twins, amazes me with all her chores and worries and plot twists. Who put her on such a grueling schedule, anyway? That poor woman deserves some rest.

P.S. I have some thematically appropriate poem recordings up on Cherry Tree‘s “The Stump” this week.One called “Perimenopause,” for instance. Rondels–that’s where a poet can REALLY get away with TMI.

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Noisy heart

“Has anyone ever told you you have a heart murmur?” asked the cardiologist, extracting a stethoscope plug from his ear. “Could be a leaky valve.”

I was in his office to talk about palpitations, long runs of crazy rhythm ten times a day, bad enough that I’d cough insanely and have a hard time focusing on anything useful. The week before, I’d picked up a Holter monitor from his building and walked around for a couple of days with electrodes on my chest, keeping a log of all the behaviors and emotions that, as far as I could tell, bore absolutely no relation to the arrhythmia.

Looking at the results, he pronounced, “Premature ventricular contractions.” Early or extra beats. “Maybe hormones,” he continued, “or maybe we’ll never know. The PVCs are only worrisome if your heart is weak, so we’ll do more imaging to rule that out.”

Turns out, after an X-ray, a sonogram, and various other diagnostics, that my heart is perfectly healthy. It’s just noisy. And a bit jumpy. The blood burbles to itself as it goes about its business. I’m helping the little red muscle along as the cardiologist prescribed, by taking magnesium, and the palpitations aren’t bothersome at all anymore.

But a few weeks later, the diagnosis is still making me laugh. Of course I have a noisy heart—I’m a poet. I’m quiet enough in person, but every poem and blog post is a kind of cardiogram. My metrical poems incline to extra beats—iambs and trochees turning into anapests and dactyls without my permission. I’m even writing poems about palpitations (there are older ones in Radioland, because I’ve been trying to figure this out for a while). But I would rather have people peer inside me via a poem’s small machine than by medical technology, and there’s been too much of the latter lately.

On a much needed break from the radiology unit, I spent most of last week in LA at the annual AWP conference. This was my first time attending as an AWP board member rather than as a citizen-poet at large, so I spent less time at readings and panels than I would have liked, but I still had a lot of fun.(For an example of said fun, have a look and listen to Jeannine Hall Gailey’s report on the Women in Spec panel, with audio.) On a yearlong sabbatical, I’d had a hermit-like winter (aside from doctors’ appointments), so it was startling to find myself in a convention center holding thousands, most of them projecting the contents of their noisy hearts.

It also struck me that while just about every person at that conference had a deep allegiance to the power of words, most of the information we broadcast to each other still flows underneath language. I can’t always name what signals I’m registering when I have a gut feeling about someone—she’s ill, those dudes do NOT like each other, etc.—but I’ve learned, at least, that I know things that I don’t know that I know.

And then, post-AWP, I again became the diagnosee, which Word does not think is a word. After more prodding, imaging, and exsanguination, I ended up having surgery Friday morning with less than 24 hours notice, although it went very smoothly. I was home before lunchtime and had a much-needed quiet weekend, and in some ways already feel better than I did in LA. I just have some anemia to resolve now.

Which is good, because this wan, beef-eating, noisy-hearted poet is on her way to Kenyon College tomorrow. The details about my Monday evening poetry reading are here, and on Tuesday I visit poetry workshops run by Janet McAdams and Jennifer Clarvoe. I’m excited, although I have to say, LA’s weather forecast was rather nicer.

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AWP Book Fair with Jeannine Hall Gailey and my Very Special Board Lanyard

 

Post-poetry-reading rituals (AWP Prep Pt. 2)

When people talk about writing rituals, they usually mean the behaviors that get them primed for focused composition. For me, that’s a pot of tea and a laptop in a quiet corner, with email notifications turned off. If I still can’t get my head together, reading helps. Or I write informally or in another genre to get my thoughts straight.

Many writers also have pre-performance rituals. I contemplate a playlist in advance, mark poems with sticky notes, practice with a timer, dress in something bright, and pee about five times. I’m always a little nervous or wired, but that’s okay. I like giving readings. I’m no trained performer, but I’ve spent a zillion hours teaching and reading to children. Voiced poetry, and conversation about it, are two of my favorite things.

What I’ve never figured out is what to do with myself AFTER a reading. I know poets are supposed to knock down some pills with booze and call it a day, and while I’m perfectly happy to wind down with a beer and friends, especially people who tell me how great I was, I could use some alternatives. That wired feeling invariably lasts for hours, meaning I’m basically awake all night with or without self-medication. Occasional insomnia is no big deal, but I’m doing more readings than usual over the next couple of months, and I’d rather not deal with the brain fog and immune-system crashes that tend to follow sleep deprivation.

A doctor who recently reviewed my genetic tests–apparently I have a mutation that makes me particularly bad at metabolizing adrenaline, so it hangs around in my body–suggested headstands would be good for my adrenals. To the contrary, I think headstands would result in adrenaline-fueled ER trips. Despite years of yoga I’m not really a balanced person in any way, but especially not in the stand-on-your-head sense. And while I’m trying short post-reading walks to burn off energy, I’m not really excited about hitting the hotel gym in the middle of the night. I could just give up on sleep and read something absorbing until tiredness blinds me, I guess. Or a hot bath? A friend tells me her old therapist had a shake-it-off ritual after each session, but google that and you get advice about post-workout protein shakes. If you have an alternative suggestion for me–ceremonial dance? soporific incantation?–please let me know.

In the meantime, I had a wonderful time last week at the VA Festival of the Book, post-event sleeplessness notwithstanding. And I’m attending AWP this week, which is a crazily intense few days in any case, but this is my first conference as a member of the Board of Trustees and Mid-Atlantic Council Chair. That means I’m doing a few normal poet-things I committed to long ago PLUS board work, all of which I’m excited about, but my schedule for each day is LONG. Most will begin with breakfast meetings, are packed with events I want and/or need to attend, and end with 10 pm receptions. Sleep and scraps of down-time are going to be crucial.

It will also be sustaining to see friends. I’d be grateful for kind words in the hallways, so please say hello if you’re there, even if you don’t have sachets of Magick Dactylic Recovery Tea to smuggle into my tote bag. Here’s where I’ll be:

THURSDAY: Leading the AWP Program Directors’ Mid-Atlantic Council meeting (R158), Room 506, LA Convention Center, Meeting Room Level, 10:30 am to 11:45. I’ll also be holding Board office hours 4-5pm at AWP Booth 1011

FRIDAY:  AWP Bookfair signing for Radioland, 11 am, Barrow Street Press (608), LA Convention Center.

Also AWP Panel F222: Women in Spec: Women Writers in Speculative Poetry and Fiction. 1:30-2:45. (,  ,  ,  ,  ), Room 505 LA Convention Center, Meeting Room level. It’s going to be great.

And I’ll RUN from there to, at 3 pm, F237. A Reading & Conversation with Rigoberto González, Marilyn Nelson, & D.A. Powell, Sponsored by the Poetry Society of America. (,  ,  ,  ), Petree Hall, LA Convention Center, Exhibit Hall Level One. I’ll introduce Alice Quinn who does the REAL introductions.

SATURDAY: Here’s when I hope for more of a breather–to see some alumni and other friends and spend more time in the always-amazing bookfair. But my last AWP event before the 3:30 am Sunday morning shuttle to LAX is:

A Night of Hijinx: Interim and Barrow Street with Gemstone Readings. AWP Offsite Event. 7:30-10:30 pm, Pieter Performance Space, 420 W Avenue 33, Unit 10, Los Angeles, California 90031. Reading with Holiday Black, Emily Carr, Colby Gillette, Laura Marie Marciano, Miguel Murphy, Andrew S. Nicholson, Rob Schlegel, Heather H. Thomas, Lesley Wheeler.

Note that this last event is Free entry and free bar (BYOB/donations/tips encouraged). If you like to chase down your huge literary conference with some poetry and libations, I’m thinking this is the place to be. I’m hoping to read early in the list and then clink classes with you afterwards, because, what the heck, I won’t be sleeping much anyway.

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at the edge of the Maury River this weekend

 

Diversity in Creative Writing Programs (AWP Prep, Pt. 1, Updated)

A Creative Writing Program Head in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S.–of which I am now Council Chair–recently asked me if the AWP could provide a list of published resources on supporting diversity at the programming/ curricular level. It seems to me we need both a set of sources (research, testimonies, provocations) and a list of best practices. Here’s what an afternoon’s search turned up, as an interim measure, although I will keep working towards richer resources posted in more official places. And I’ll keep revising this post until those exist, so let me know what I’ve missed. (Updates on the original post are marked with an asterisk.*)

  • Online essays about race, culture, diversity, and the creative writing MFA:

“Degrees of Diversity: Talking Race and Diversity” by Sonya Larson, Poets & Writers, September/ October 2015 http://www.pw.org/content/degrees_of_diversity?cmnt_all=1

“Dr. Craig’s 11-Step Program to Curing ‘Mainly White MFA’ Sickness” by Craig Santos Perez, October 2015 https://craigsantosperez.wordpress.com/2015/10/02/dr-craigs-11-step-program-to-curing-mainly-white-mfa-sickness/

*”They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist” by Jenny Zhang, Buzzfeed Books, September 2015 http://www.buzzfeed.com/jennybagel/they-pretend-to-be-us-while-pretending-we-dont-exist#.ubvY8pXW9M

“Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK” by Sandeep Parmar, Los Angeles Review of Books, December 2015, https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/not-a-british-subject-race-and-poetry-in-the-uk/

“If We Want Diverse Books, We Need Diverse MFA Programs” by Hope Wabuke, The Root, September 2014 http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2014/09/why_we_need_diverse_mfa_programs.html

“MFA vs POC” by Junot Díaz, New Yorker, April 2014 http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/mfa-vs-poc

“It felt like a door had opened: An Interview with Cornelius Eady” by Joshua Barnes, Sampsonia Way, June 2011 http://www.sampsoniaway.org/literary-voices/2011/06/22/it-felt-like-a-door-had-opened-an-interview-with-cornelius-eady-2/

“Growing Diversity in Graduate School” by Rochelle Spencer, Poets & Writers Nov/Dec 2007, p.77-82. http://0-literature.proquest.com.fama.us.es/searchFulltext.do?id=R04237370&divLevel=0&area=abell&forward=critref_ft

*A terrific list of additional pieces collected by Erika Meitner and Sarah Gambito is herehttps://muut.com/raceandmfa/.

  •  Other resources on building and nurturing creative writing programs (advocating for multiculturalism but not exploring the issues at length):

AWP Guidelines and Hallmarks: https://www.awpwriter.org/guide/hallmarks_quality

“Policies and Practicalities: Examining the Creative Writing Doctorate” by Kroll, Jeri and Webb, Jen. New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing9.2(2012 July): 166-178.

  • On diversity in higher education (with some relevance to academic creative writing):

TuSmith, Bonnie and Reddy, Maureen T., eds. Race in the College Classroom: Pedagogy and Politics. New Brunswick, NJ,  Rutgers UP,  2002.

Lisa M. Stulberg and Sharon Lawner Weinberg, eds. Diversity in American higher education: toward a more comprehensive approach. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Darrell Cleveland, ed. When “minorities are strongly encouraged to apply”: diversity and affirmative action in higher education. New York: Peter Lang, 2009.

  • History/ background of creative writing as a discipline:

D. G. Myers. The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Paul Dawson, Creative Writing and the New Humanities, New York: Routledge, 2005.

Tim Mayers, (Re)Writing craft : composition, creative writing, and the future of English studies. U of Pittsburgh P, 2005.

This inadequate list emphasizes race and ethnicity, but there’s hard thinking to be done, too, about sexuality and gender, disability, and the economics of higher education–what sometimes-invisible impediments people face in the quest for degrees, and who never gets a chance in the first place.

 

Extinction burst?

Last Monday, I found a KKK recruitment flier on my front lawn. Just a week or so earlier and a few blocks away, the first physical memorial to enslaved African-Americans was meminstalled at Washington and Lee University, an institution that benefited financially from slavery but, until recently, bruited that terrible fact much less than, say, its debt to certain slave-holding generals. (See this post from last
year on a virtual memorial that, for me, marked the beginning of a better-informed conversation.)

I find myself trying to draw a line between those two opposing gestures, the plaque to honor the dead and the dishonorable flier. Maybe my sense of meaningful patterns is just a poet’s delusion.

The flier was one of many found in my neighborhood. It was protected from rain by a plastic baggie and weighted with a handful of rice. (White rice, and yes, I’m working on a poem with that title.) My more immediate media responsibilities, however, were to fire off a letter to the local paper and alert the police. Before that, like a real twenty-first-century American, I posted a query on Facebook, wondering how to respond given that the terrorist literature was probably legal–the threat of violence is latent, all right, but the flier doesn’t overtly advocate physical harm to others. The picture of a broad-shouldered, masked, accusatory Klansman carries a frightening charge, as do the all-caps format and the hateful associations of the initials themselves, as well as the not-so-metaphorical phrases “White Power” and “Join the Fight.” The flier certainly scared me; I went inside and locked the doors. But the organization itself is legal, and the politics it advocates are too, despite the KKK’s history of atrocities.

It was interesting how people responded via social media. Many recommended I contact the Southern Poverty Law Center (they never returned my call KKKbut I know other locals had already reported the fliers there). I learned that one local trigger for this flier-bombing was a day of memorial services for the Rev. LaVert Taylor, a black Civil Rights activist. But it’s not just a local thing, and in fact, friends reported similar recruitment efforts in other parts of the country. A certain Republican front-runner is, through toxic rhetoric, empowering white supremacists and other haters to come out swinging, everywhere. The state of U.S. politics, at the national level, is just dire beyond belief.

I’ve since given the flier to a student journalist trying to report the larger story, and there’s a rally against racism arranged for this Monday at 5 pm in Lexington’s Hopkins Green. So maybe this abhorrent attempt to rouse “white pride” is a wake-up call of a useful variety. And I look forward to the dedication ceremony for W&L’s memorial, at 4:30 pm on April 5th, around the side of Robinson Hall (though that back-door location does make me wince–I hope there will be a lot more remembering in the next few years, much of it front-and-center).

When another FB friend, a psychiatrist, said he hoped the flier was an “extinction burst,” I got excited, realizing what the term must mean. When a conditioned behavior stops receiving the expected reward, it gradually dies out–but before it decreases, instances of the undesired behavior might increase for a while. I’m glad to have an official-sounding shorthand for a phenomenon I’ve observed. Does this surge of KKK malevolence represent desperate flailing of a group about to shrink right out of existence? I like that idea, but am not counting on it.

I see a lot of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other prejudice in daily life, but those biases are less socially acceptable now than in my childhood, or than they were in the 90s, at the beginning of my teaching career. My first-hand experiences of prejudice involve not racism but sexism, sometimes vicious and sometimes quietly insidious. I’ve been discriminated against, harassed, and assaulted. But I have many more opportunities than my mother did, and my daughter lives in a freer world than I knew at 19–and maybe all 3 of us will be able to vote for a female presidential candidate this fall, a development that has been absurdly long in coming. It’s obvious that the revolutionary reality of an African-American president and the possibility of a female one have created a lot of backlash. The whole Drumpf-o-rama extravanganza of the last few months, including the poisonous trash I found by my doorstep, could be a sort of final or near-final tantrum of some ancient varieties of stupid.

I don’t actually believe racism’s on its way out, rationally, or sexism, for that matter. If recent eruptions constitute an extinction burst, it’s extinction on a glacial time-frame, with many more explosions of hatefulness still to come. My seasonally recurrent hope for us all, though, isn’t entirely irrational, either. The Darth Cheneys, Grand Dragons, and other super-villains of this all-too-real world are getting pretty creaky in their cyborg parts. They won’t be pulling puppet-strings forever. And I don’t think this W&L memorial, small and belated as it is, could have gone up twenty years ago.  We haven’t made nearly enough progress, and making any gains at all seems incredibly, insanely, criminally difficult, yet I’ve seen growth happen. Happy spring equinox, friends. Imperfect closure, I know, but I’ll keep trying to rhyme with it.

kkk letter

Watch me listen

Thomas_Wilmer_Dewing_-_The_Hermit_Thrush_-_1890

On Saturday I met my daughter at Union Station in D.C. and we ended up at the National Portrait Gallery, standing in front of paintings until our feet ached. I’ve done the rounds there a few times but don’t remember seeing “The Hermit Thrush” (1890), above, by Thomas Dewing. I love those postures of keen, blissful listening. And the precision of the figures against the passionate blur of a landscape–they’re immersed in that meadow, melting into it as they listen.

Being a poet and poetry critic means focusing on verbal rather than visual representations of listening. The song of the hermit thrush is important near the end of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” but what I thought of first was an earlier poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”–one of Whitman’s elegies for Lincoln. For Whitman, the thrush’s song is a “carol of death,” and yet he hears praise in it, and his own song echoes it.

“O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call,
I hear, I come presently, I understand you…
As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night,
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy,
Covering the earth and filling the spread of the heaven…”
Why does Whitman’s poem, with its fragrance of lilac and cedars, absorb me more deeply than Dewing’s painting? Vision presupposes distance, while sound enters your body through the ears’ uncloseable portals–but after all, a poem in print only pretends to sound, or at least, I only sound it mentally. A poem is, most days, a visual artifact. Maybe the answer lies in me, not any quality intrinsic to the artworks. After all, I wrote and drew and painted furiously as a kid, but poetry was the art that stuck–I’m just a reader more than a gazer. In any case, I do love Dewing’s luminous rendering of a practice so central to my life. (Not that I’ve ever heard a hermit thrush specifically, except here.)
Lately I’m cocking my ear to piles of criticism and theory, as I brush up the now-complete manuscript of Taking Poetry Personally and try to decide if I’ve missed some source that deserves a respectful endnote. I’ve also been listening to my own heart’s rhythms. “Premature ventricular contractions,” the Holter monitor told me, which rarely means anything serious, but it’s uncomfortable to have an unhappy bird in your rib cage. I’m logging symptoms and activities to see if I can get a handle on triggers (caffeine?) while I wait for the cardiology appointment. Tick, tock, nix my tea and I will balk.
I recommend Ecotone‘s new Sound issue loudly, by the way, especially for anyone who’s obsessions echo mine. And I’m looking forward to doing some listening of my own next week at the Virginia Festival of the Book. Here’s where you can hear me:
Tuesday, 3/15:  Author Talk with Lesley Wheeler and Chris Gavaler,  5 pm, Leyburn Library Book Nook, Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Refreshments served.

Thursday, 3/17: Together and Apart: A Poetry Reading with Gary Dop, Erika Meitner, and Lesley Wheeler, New Dominion Bookshop, 2 pm, for the Virginia Festival of the Book.

 

As if suspense were a permanent state

Poetry isn’t generally associated with suspense. It seems like an art of uncertainty–and a consolation for that uncertainty. Yet I find myself more and more convinced that poetry’s fragmentariness needs to be anchored by story (earlier post related to this idea here). I’m also wishing I could see the shape of my own story more clearly. As usual, I’m projecting my life into poetry, and vice versa.

On life suspense: my mother is ailing, and so am I, and so are several other people dear to me. Being ill without a clear diagnosis is definitely a bad kind of suspense. My mother has lymphoma and while chemo is triumphing over the tumor, it’s also wearing her down–the doctors are still figuring out why this week has been so bad. I’m a six-hour drive away, so I spend a lot of time waiting for my phone to buzz.

During my 2005-6 sabbatical I researched poetic voice; during this one, I’m making a long-term study of my mother’s intonations by telephone. It’s not just what she’s saying and in what mood, but hoarseness, shortness of breath, and when things are really bad, her difficulty tracking the conversation. Slurring in October first alerted us that something was seriously wrong. I’m judging my sister’s level of worry, too, through tones and texts. All this close listening makes me think of Dickinson only consenting to medical examination through a crack in the door. Not much for a diagnostician to go on.

I’m not so sick as all that. Asthma, swelling, palpitations, lightheadedness–I’ve had the basic tests done to know I’m not in the middle of some cardiac cataclysm, but these medium-annoying symptoms could spring from about five million different problems, and lord knows how long it will take to narrow it down. Another research project.

I’m medicating myself in the interim by reading and writing. I’m revising Taking Poetry Personally and figuring out what presses to query, but that requires high concentration. What I seem to want to do most is read and write poems. Since I have stacks of poetry books around, some sent for review and others I’ve been meaning to get to for ages, I’m picking one up every time I feel low.

Plenty of them are good, but too often I’m disappointed by the first few pages. Every published poet knows, I think, to pick a strong opener, a well-wrought poem that inaugurates the themes and strategies of the collection. It’s surprising, however, how few poets use those early pages to generate suspense–the good kind that keeps a reader on the hook. I don’t mean a murder should be discovered in the first stanza, leaving us to ponder who done it over seventy pages of clever line breaks. Yet there should, I think, be at least one urgent question percolating. And the poems that follow should sustain interest in those questions, so that, by the last few lines of the last verse, we have some provisional, partial, fragmentary sense of an answer.

Narrative isn’t the only tension-generator: poems can also be arguments, spells, and riddles, to be resolved by sound or formal elements as well as, or even instead of, sense. The best poetry book I’ve read recently is actually pretty experimental: Anne Carson’s Nox (what? you demand, and shh, I reply, because my yet-to-be-read list is really embarrassing). I bet many of you have already cracked that box, unfolded the astonishing accordion pages, and pondered her artful use of collage, translated verse, dictionary glosses, etc. The book certainly doesn’t tell a straightforward tale. Yet Carson has such a strong sense of story–she is one of the best living poets, I think, when it comes to writing suspensefully.

“I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds,” she writes early on, addressing the death of her brother. “But death makes us stingy. There is nothing more to be expended on that, we think, he’s dead. Love cannot alter it. Words cannot add to it. No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history.”

Who was her brother, you wonder, and how did he die? What’s “odd” about his life and death? Isn’t there something odd about this speaker, too–the mix of grief and cool detachment in those lines? Carson doesn’t reveal complete or stable answers to any of these questions. She replies, rather, as poets do, through patterned fragments. Nox is really a long poem and therefore much more unified than most collections, and maybe my own distraction makes me a cranky reader right now, yet I really, really wish more poetry books had some part of its propulsive drive.

In considering all this, I realize the guiding question of my next book of poems is already crystallizing. It’s: Where am I? Really, interest in place runs through all of my poetry collections (think of the titles Heathen, Heterotopia, Radioland), but I’m further out on that question’s ledge than ever.

One answer: nowhere. I’m a middle-aged striver laboring in an obscure small town. As I try to promote Radioland, and feel enormously grateful for the reviews I’ve received and the events coming up soon (W&L next week, and also the VA Festival of the Book, AWP, Kenyon College, and Poetry by the Sea), I’m also struggling. It is HARD to inspire people to order and/or open a poetry book, much less decorate it with laurels, no matter how  engaging its interior might be. One kind of suspense I’m suffering from: of all the threads I’ve recently cast into the void, trying to launch the poems toward a larger audience, will any catch?

Well, I keep telling myself, suspense in this case is better than having hit the canyon floor. I’m proud of the book, plus the new work is worth doing in its own right. I’m finding the somewhere in nowhere and having a hard look around. These badlands have some interesting features.

wile-e-coyote