More on Diversity in Creative Writing Programs

Last March, I published this list of resources addressing how to make Creative Writing programs more inclusive at the programming and curricular level. Since then, good things have happened. David Haynes has formed an AWP Committee on Inclusion for which I’m serving as librarian, until a list of resources can be posted on the AWP web site itself. Here’s a revision including updates from David. Please comment or contact me if you have further suggestions–I’d love to see it grow. As I wrote at the close of my March blog, this list emphasizes race and ethnicity–subjects on which hard work remains to be done–but we also have to keep talking about sexuality and gender, disability, and the economics of higher education. Students face many invisible impediments while seeking degrees, and too many talented people never get a chance to learn and thrive.

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

“Why I’m Done Talking About Diversity” by Marlon James, Literary Hub, October 2016

In Our Way: Racism in Creative Writing” by Claudia Rankine, Writer’s Chronicle, October 2016

Ferguson, Whiteness as Default, & the Teaching of Creative Writing” by David Mura, Writer’s Chronicle, October 2016

“Addressing Structural Racism in Creative Writing Programs” by Kazim Ali, Writer’s Chronicle online, October 2016

“Towards a New Creative Writing Pedagogy” by Fred D’Aguiar, Writer’s Chronicle, October 2016

“Challenging the Whiteness of MFA Programs: A Year of Confrontations at UW” by Kristine Sloan, The MFA Years, April 2016

“Degrees of Diversity: Talking Race and Diversity” by Sonya Larson, Poets & Writers, September/ October 2015

“Dr. Craig’s 11-Step Program to Curing ‘Mainly White MFA’ Sickness” by Craig Santos Perez, October 2015

“They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist” by Jenny Zhang, Buzzfeed Books, September 2015

“Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK” by Sandeep Parmar, Los Angeles Review of Books, December 2015,

“If We Want Diverse Books, We Need Diverse MFA Programs” by Hope Wabuke, The Root, September 2014

“MFA vs POC” by Junot Díaz, New Yorker, April 2014

“It felt like a door had opened: An Interview with Cornelius Eady” by Joshua Barnes,Sampsonia Way, June 2011

“Growing Diversity in Graduate School” by Rochelle Spencer, Poets & Writers Nov/Dec 2007, p.77-82.

Also see an excellent list of additional pieces collected by Erika Meitner and Sarah Gambito: David Fenza’s PowerPoint on race in education will also be of interest: educational-attainment-2015.

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

AWP Guidelines and Hallmarks:

“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):

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.

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

  • History/ background of creative writing as a discipline:

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.

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


Political poem


Put that on Lesley’s tab, jokes the mayoral candidate
on line in front of me at the supermarket, waking
me from daydreams about a free-range chicken
roasting at home, good bread and arugula. I laugh,
ask if he’ll be watching—his own debate is soon.
We exchange words, each coin stamped with accord
about the world and passed back warm, until he
wheels off. My turn. My soon-to-be chardonnay
and garnacha, six bottles for the discount. The cashier
surprises me, too. Who do you think is going to win?
Temporize: The town hall tonight? He pauses to key
in cilantro. Sure. My mother taught me good manners,
meaning no religion, no politics, meaning smile,
meaning make people comfortable, never hungry,
never ashamed. My books taught me to speak up,
that one person’s comfort is costly to someone else.
And isn’t civil silence also disrespect? So I answer,
Well, I keep waiting for Trump to cancel it, he’s had such
a bad weekend. Slow and calm, moving granola bars
across the scanner, a substantial man, he returns,
I don’t think so. Now we are both trapped in a relation
that serves neither. Troubled, perhaps he’ll be in
trouble with his manager, anyone could hear us.
This worry gnaws me, but other teeth sink sharper
and I insist, He said such terrible things. The cashier,
to his credit, does not shrug. All men talk like that,
he insists, all men but God, and next I know I’m
defending men, not all, I know men who are shocked,
as if men need my comfort, and perhaps John sees me
then filmed by a bubble of womanly innocence,
the soap sheen reflecting protective dollar signs while
also mirroring with distortion his own face. Kroger card?
he asks and sorry, sorry, I answer, dictating my digits,
inserting a silver card in the chip reader, paying
with imaginary money for actual food, wondering
which of us ought to be kinder, knowing his feet
must hurt, his hands look raw, but feeling like dirt,
like a pussy to use Trump’s word, to be grabbed or
judged not even worth grabbing, disgusting forked
breastfeeding bleeding holder of unwelcome opinions
as I take my wealthy self back to a job where I serve
women and men who at least pretend to value me,
although I don’t pretend to know what that’s worth.

Fever dreams, Pound, & Shenandoah

Last week, I wished for an energy display icon on my forehead. Uh-oh, Lesley’s at 12% and has entered low-battery mode, expect her to be dim. Honestly, I’m not sure how I got through all my classes as well as giving a guest lecture and two weekend readings. I fear I said weird things, and I know I sent a feverish work email I can’t recall writing, because I found it in the printer later.

But Erika Meitner gave a terrific reading that I somehow presided over (here’s a guest blog I wrote about her work for Shenandoah). And the audiences, hosts, and fellow performers in my own readings at Fairmont State and Richmond’s Tea for Two series were particularly warm and kind. On the downside, my forty-ninth birthday was spent trying to get a handle on endless homework while treating an awful sinus infection. I’ll have to do better next year.

It’s funny how work that drains you–such as teaching or hosting a visitor–can simultaneously plug you in and start charging you up again. It was tiring to drive to Richmond after a long semi-sick Friday. Laura-Gray Street and I had devised a plan of alternating reader and topic every few poems. Creating a list of poems for each theme was time-consuming. Yet the scheme raised the energy, I think, giving the event some plot and suspense. Perhaps it even raised the stakes. Laura-Gray had found the following quote from an “unnamed Chinese author, circa 575 B.C.E.”:

“Clothes, food, shelter: Satisfy these first, then teach people to be human.”

So our four topics: clothes, food, shelter, and being human (we chose poems for the latter about meaning and spirit). Turns out I’m a shelter poet and a being-human poet–my food poems are mostly about hunger and my clothes poems about nakedness. It was interesting to learn that. At any rate, I had some seriously lovely conversations with other writers afterwards. Connections sparking all over the place.

One more bright node: I had a late-August essay posted at Modernism/ Modernity last week, where I have a column on the writing process. This post’s called “Teaching/ Writing Correspondence, Part I” . It addresses the study of poets’ letters–a big topic for my current modernism students, who, for a final project, will be annotating some 50s correspondence recently acquired by our library between undergrad Shenandoah editor Tom Carter and Ezra Pound. I’m no Pound scholar and have always been skeptical of defining the period according to his program. He was a brilliant, crazy bigot; I like other poetry better. Yet I can feel myself being drawn into the vortex. I don’t really have time to fiddle around but this project is so interesting.

When I first started at W&L more than twenty years ago, I had a dream about walking into a near-empty classroom. The windows were open to a summer breeze and I could hear students running around on the grass. Sitting quietly at the desk working was a young Ezra Pound, pointy beard and all. He gestured me over and we sat and looked at some of my poems together. He didn’t praise them, but as he pushed them back to me, he nodded, implying he saw potential. He said, “Keep working and you’ll get somewhere.”

Was dream-Pound priming young me for later work on his legacy? Damn and blast.


A Tom Carter issue of Shenandoah (and dig that tuxedo ad!)


Rebalancing hours and relineating Clifton

“How are you doing so much emotional work in September?” I demanded of my friend and office-hall-mate Deborah Miranda on Tuesday, after I’d read this. She’s an intermittent blogger, like me, but lately posts have been pouring through–here‘s another powerful story, from just this morning. I think she laughed and said something like “it comes when it comes.”

Over on my side of the hall, it’s stalled. I’m really struggling with being back to a rigid schedule. I worked hard during summer and my sabbatical, too, but most of the deadlines were self-imposed. The core of what I’m doing now is also rewarding: I’m teaching an upper-level seminar on modern American poetry, a poetry workshop, and a composition course. My students seem exceptional even by local standards. My classes are each full to the brim, but the “brim” is fifteen–cushy almost anywhere. Yet all this means my days are chock-full of classes, preparation for classes, office hours, meetings, committee work, grading, reference-writing, and a million flavors of professional correspondence. Deadlines are external and difficult to defer. I’ve been racing flat-out for several weeks now to meet my obligations to other people. I write the committee report Saturday after class prep, with more preparation and grading to do on Sunday.

I’m still exercising some and I halt whatever I’m doing if someone I love needs me. When my brain stops functioning in the evening I watch some TV or read The New Yorker before bed. But carving out any other downtime seems impossible, and I feel desperately sad about writing projects I finished recently that need to be pushed along towards publication. I just don’t have the focus, or the hours.

You know this story, and I do, too. The moral is: make time anyway. So I’m submitting the damn strategic planning white paper today, and I’ll refuse to take further leadership in committees. I’ve almost stopped looking at Facebook. After a hard stare at my schedule, I realized I can take Tuesday and Thursday mornings to work at home, where it’s quiet, so I imposed that regime this week.

Tuesday morning I labored over ms queries–a rational effort, the most urgent item on my to-do list. I got a few out. It felt terrible. Then my sister called with worrisome news about my mother’s recent blood tests and I got a couple of magazine rejections. I ran out of time to get my head together for my three o’clock class–it was fine, but not as energizing as the session could have been. The next day I pulled a muscle in my back at the farmer’s market, loading up the car with vegetables for the week. Back pain always seems so symbolic to me: I’m unbalanced, carrying too much.

So here I am on Thursday morning, when I’d promised myself to prepare queries for the other ms, blogging instead. This is an inefficient way to spend free hours, maybe, but writing just feels better than submissions. What’s the right math here–some aimless drafting, some submissions, some revisions, as the day seems to call for? Or should I focus hard-won time with laser intensity on what would really feel best in the long-run–delivering mss somehow, some way, to the world?

I don’t have the answer, but I can tell you the most fun I’ve had this week was preparing for my poetry workshop, very inefficiently. I was pondering how to get introductory students to see the possibilities of lineation, and I ended up retyping a Lucille Clifton poem: “the beginning of the end of the world.” For an unnecessary hour, I played out variations: what if I wrote out the poem as a single grammatical sentence, in prose (see below)? The poem turns out to be an open-ended proposition. Maybe the roaches are holy emissaries, not “dark” invaders, and our refusal of their presence will destroy us–she doesn’t quite spell that out, but it’s a resonant speculation, in this moment of hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric. Maybe the roaches break faith with us because we’re faithless–where might the commas go in that last bit, anyway? Would parentheses be better? I tried other versions, too–long lines to highlight the buried litany, for example (although WordPress won’t let me paste in hanging indents). Clifton’s poem is way better than my bowdlerizings but I learned the poem more deeply through the exercise, and I think discussing my revisions was illuminating for students, too. No answers. Just questions, and poetry, and play…I may often wish my life weren’t such an experiment, but pondering uncertainty seems to be the best survival strategy I’ve got.

Not Necessarily the Beginning of the End of the World (with apologies to Clifton)

Maybe the morning the roaches walked into the kitchen, bold with their bad selves, marching up out of the drains not like soldiers—like priests—grim and patient in the sink, and when we ran the water, trying to drown them as if they were soldiers, they seemed to bow their sad heads, for us, not at us, and march single file away; maybe then, the morning we rose from our beds as always, listening for the bang at the end of the world; maybe then, when we heard only the tiny tapping and saw them dark and prayerful in the kitchen; maybe then, when we watched them turn from us, faithless, at last, and walk in a long line away…





Five Year Plan

I once went for a period of several years, unable to work my ATM card because I’d forgotten the password, and unable to find the energy to contact the company and get a replacement. I just kept stealing cash from my husband’s wallet then saying, “Uh, honey, looks like you need to go to the bank.” So when people accuse me of being organized or having my act together, I laugh and laugh.


What Poe thinks of paperwork

But I do get some things done. I spend time with my kids and my friends every once in a while. Decent meals occur in my kitchen. I write a lot. I publish some of it.

I notice my last couple of posts have reflected the Annual Academic’s Augustpocalypse Angst. One recurrent task is writing reports–for me, this year, a report on my summer work, another on my leave year generally, and then something called a “Five Year Plan.”

It’s a highly speculative exercise, to map out the next five years, especially given how hard it can be to just pick a pair of trousers in the morning. But mine isn’t the only university that asks its faculty members, periodically, to look backwards, then forwards. We’re all supposed to hate it, this chore of generating memos and other documents that are, in turn, a chore for their recipients to read. If they read them at all. Some administrators are conscientious and responsive, and others are basically yawning faceless whirlpools with sheafs of papers rattling around in the abysses of their hearts.

poe1Don’t tell anyone, but I kind of like these reports. You know the satisfaction of writing a list and then crossing off items one by one? It’s like that. Out of the chaos of my life, I generate a roster of items I actually accomplished, and then I get to feel smug for a few minutes, until I remember all the forthcoming deadlines I cannot possibly ever meet.

The Five Year Plan, moreover, strikes me as genuinely useful, although perhaps it would be more so if you didn’t have to frame it with a degree of braggadocio (how lucky you are to employ me!–don’t forget at raise time), and if the personal stuff could be woven in with the professional, as it is in real life.

I just submitted mine and it begins: “This is my fourth Five Year Plan. I accomplished all the goals I outlined in 2011 except winning an NEA grant (which remains on my bucket list).” The books I was working on then, and most of the essays, and some of the poems are now in the world; more books are fully drafted and looking for homes. I developed some courses that were only inkling ideas, too. I didn’t achieve everything I wanted to, either artistically or in world renown, but it’s still cool to note that hey, former Lesley, you did a good job following through.

Of course, my father also died, my house flooded and had to be substantially renovated, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and my mother became seriously ill. One child finished high school and was ripped from my grieving breast to attend university; the other grew some ten inches and started high school. Our cat Flashlight died; our lives are now ruled by Poe. Chris and I have had lots of ups and downs in health and in mood, but Chris landed a tenure-track job and is hugely happier than five years ago. All of these events affected my “productivity.” Surprisingly, some of them made me write more, because I direly needed to create some good shape out of sadness or mayhem.

Five years from now, if all goes well, Chris and I will be empty nesters, with one child in college and the other out doing something interesting with her BA. That’s got to be a HUGE change. I expect more health crises for us and for our parents, because we’re just at that age, even if catastrophic climate change and other factors don’t promote the spread of Zika and who knows what else. I look at the personal area of the map and think, “there be monsters.” Every project I plot could be taken from me without notice.

Still, it doesn’t feel silly to me to lay out my aims as a writer or as a teacher, because I’ve done it before and the process probably helped me prioritize goals and accomplish things. Five years from now I hope I’ve published the three book-length mss I’ve worked on this year: a poetry collection, a hybrid of memoir and criticism, and a novel. I’ll probably try to publish them prestigiously and end up with small-but-respectable presses, although strokes of luck can happen. I also hope to write good new work I can’t imagine now. I’d like to keep becoming a better, more expert, more versatile teacher. I hope it’s fun.

This is how I closed this Five Year Plan, encapsulating all those ambitions:poe3.jpg

“My aspiration, in short, is to look for overlap between the work I love to do—which is always changing—and the work the world seems to want and need from me. Finding audiences in a crowded literary marketplace is tough and I can’t control whether I score any particular opportunity. In the meantime, however, I’ll do the very best work I can, both on the page and in the classroom. I’m also keeping an eye on people who do land the golden rings, and mimicking their strategies as best I can, short of moving to Brooklyn.”


Waving and also drowning

When, while bobbing in the ocean, you spot a larger-than-usual wave steaming your way, what do you do?

A. Jump into it with joy, trying to hit the breaker where it crashes, for the wildest ride possible. (This is my husband and son.)

B. Shout “no!” in a stern voice, demanding the ocean behave itself. It does not. Before long, you decamp to the sand, electing to pursue a challenge of your own choosing, namely to read as many Russian novels as possible while summer lasts. (This is my daughter.)

C. Express alarm in a comical way that entertains your son, concealing some actual nervousness about getting out of your depth because you’re a pretty lousy swimmer, and then enjoy the tumult until things get fierce, when you actually do panic and nobody takes you seriously because you seemed perfectly fine until a second ago, like a character in a Stevie Smith poem. (Guess who.)

This was one of several potential metaphors I contemplated at the beach ten days ago. It could refer to all kinds of challenges, but what’s on my mind right now is work. I’m doing that late-August surfing, when you madly try to finish summer projects as you simultaneously madly try to get ready for classes starting. Big wave coming.

While I still had decent footing a week ago, moreover, my ability to get things done was sharply diminished last week. Four of my adult molars have been missing from birth–it’s a genetic thing–so baby teeth hung around in their places. One of the latter, bravely standing ground for forty-plus years, finally gave up in December. I went in for a bone graft and dental implant last week and the surgery was more complicated than usual, so my pain levels have been high and I’m sporting a mother of a bruise. I have several friends with serious illnesses, and this is comparatively NOT a big deal, but it’s a reminder of how hard chronic pain can be to live with and work around. It also reminds me I am NOT in control of my “productivity.” This time I can’t just scramble up to the beach and rest on a towel; I have to face the force of water until it’s done with me.

Weights I’m carrying, besides worry about work ahead and physical stress from the various ways a middle-aged body can thwart a person: there were a couple of post-publication prizes I thought Radioland might be a finalist for, and I just heard from the last of them. No luck.

Sources of buoyancy: a wonderful and eminent poet wrote me a fan letter out of the blue. Two friends who are ALSO wonderful poets have given me the gift of critical-but-usefully-specific feedback on unpublished mss, liberally salted with praise. I’m genuinely excited about my fall courses (although maybe not the grading). And I’ve been doing some sustaining reading, too. I just finished Viet Than Nguyen’s The Sympathizer as well as an advanced review copy of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Field Guide to the End of the World (I’m preparing to teach it this fall in my composition course, which has a speculative fiction theme). Both are powerful and I’m feeling blown away, with more great books and mss piled up waiting. That’s a burden that helps me float, if you’ll tolerate the hyperextension of my marine metaphor.

Okay, the secret is, I’m not as seaworthy as people seem to think, but I do have help, thank the gods. And what threatens to overwhelm me also sparkles.


Woman escapes monster

insatiableOh, the existential horror of a North American professor in August…Teaching at a liberal arts college full of talented students is an excellent gig, but during teaching terms, the job eats me alive. This is going to be an especially intense fall for coursework, plus I’m running a search. In a few weeks, in short, I will be all tied up and dangling upside down in the den of the monster Work.

Every year, the prospect frightens my saner summer self. I have a history of asking for books about meditation for my September birthday–until Chris laughed at the request, commenting he’d already bought me a shelf-full and I’ve never cracked any of them. Whoops. I actually have done marginally better this year with meditation, yoga, etc., but mainly because conditions were dire and I really had to work at not going under. Being on sabbatical is awesome, but anxious person that I am, I felt internal pressure to come to closure on long-standing projects–and then I was floored by the emotional stress of sending my first child off to college, my mother’s lymphoma, and a host of health problems. Lots of pain this year. Having a middle-aged body seems to require striving harder and harder to maintain a deteriorating status quo.

Relative to others, I remain very lucky. My mom is recovering well, my daughter had a brilliant first year, and I have the resources to handle most of the hitches the universe throws at me. A rusting roof that needs to be fixed and sealed? Cracked car windshield requiring replacement? Dental work? Do less pleasurable ways to spend pots of money even exist? But it’s okay. It’s getting done. And I’m likely to survive the fall, too, with only minor breakdowns.

Some strategies, since asking for self-help books should clearly be off the table.

  1. Do the work that stresses me out most, no excuses. I’ve spent the summer so far writing and revising (work I like) but, most importantly, making sure that all the best writing I did this year is under consideration somewhere. I dislike submissions intensely–it’s hard to figure out where work should go, but also emotionally hard to ask respected editors, “hey, do you like this thing that’s, you know, the very best I’m capable of, and intensely personal in ways that may not be obvious, as well as my cosmic reason for existing, kind of?” Ugh.
  2. When I’ve done at least one hard thing per day, use the rest of the time available to get a jump on work that’s easier, but would stress me out at a busier moment. I’ve been writing micro-reviews for the Kenyon Review Online so I have a backlog. Fall syllabi are well-developed and winter ones are roughed out. I’ve drafted the summer/ sabbatical reports due in the fall, made to-do lists, done advance planning for events I’m in charge of, etc. I cleaned out my office, even, and did a lot of chores at home.
  3. Pay attention. When I have pain, for example, instead of trying to live around it and maintain writing’s dream, I’m attempting to notice it, think about causes/ patterns, see if it can be remediated. Podiatrist tomorrow, sigh. The same goes for anger and worry. I’m noticing that FB has been making me unhappy lately, so I need to spend less time there. Many people in my life need attention, too. Lots of friends are having rough years. And while teenage kids don’t require a parent’s bodily presence as much, they need intelligent awareness more than ever.crow
  4. Bask in the good stuff. I had a couple of poetry acceptances this summer I’m really pleased about (Blackbird and Thrush). I’m including pictures here from two magazines that just arrived. The triolet is one of two just published by Kestrel and “Crow on the House,” inspired by Plath’s “Black Rook in Rainy Weather,” is from the latest Fjords. Clearly it’s the summer of birds, so remind me, please, of other avian-themed journals. I’ll fly to submit. 

And next week I’ll bask big-time. The four of us are heading down to a beach rental in North Carolina. I plan to do zero work and as much pleasure-reading in the hammock, or on the sand, as possible, and play board games, and explore an unfamiliar island with the ever-hungry and curious Gaveeler crew. The monster Work, as far as I am concerned, will just have to snuffle in frustration at my glib auto-reply.


Red wolf howl

Okay, so the red wolf is not a separate species but a hybrid of gray wolf and coyote. That kind of makes me like them more. What’s celebrated as local is mixed, impure.

red wolfMaking a fetish of purity–racial, ideological, national–is not just hateful. It’s dumb. No person is unmixed, no policy, no poem. That was an important problem for me to think through when I was writing the chapter on lyric collaborations for Voicing American Poetry, and it’s why I just revisited related questions in my “process” blog for Modernism/ Modernity, “On collaboration (or, she do the blog in different voices).” It’s also an important fact to remember as a citizen, watching or avoiding all the good and bad news out there. We’re all connected. The Obamas and Clintons speak for my America and so, frighteningly, does Trump. Freddie Gray’s tragedy is my tragedy. The failure of law to address his death is my failure.

Everyone forgets or represses or denies those links, sometimes. Reading that article on wolf species in today’s paper brought to mind the poem below, another outtake from Radioland, first published in Valparaiso Poetry Review in 2012. I know I’d recently read some monorhyme sonnets and thought hey, that’s cool–but I can’t remember whom I’m echoing here. I didn’t quite get the form to work–only the twelve middle lines close on the “n” sound–but I ended up liking the way lines 1 and 14 call to each other across a distance.

I do remember writing it when, on a family vacation in North Carolina, we went on “safari” in the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge. This meant a bunch of cars following rangers at twilight. Bullfrogs sounded loudly among the reeds, but our guides never managed to stir up a wolf howl. I lingered last, though, and after everyone else drove away, finally heard their weird cries. Listening felt like connection–like responsibility.

Red Wolf Howl

Their cries rise sweet and high like questions, cross
each other’s tracks in the air, the wildest din
you have ever heard./ Some rangers caravan
with tourists down a gravel road. No one
can see the wolves: they hide among the pine
and cedar, rusting in the pocosin,
trailing the white-tailed deer. While everyone
parks, two guides hike closer to the breeding pen
and howl encouragement. The canids listen,
but why should they answer us? Some insects moan
to sharpen the silence; secret frogs complain.

The group gives up. It’s nearly dark. Our van
loiters as the other tail-lights vanish. Open
windows. Then we hear them. They ask, and ask.


Gender shrapnel, from one foxhole

“The first time you’re hit by it, you have no idea what it is, what it came from, or why…If you ever try to confront the events, you feel half crazy and afraid…People start to tell you to calm down, to pick your battles more carefully, and to be grateful for what you’ve got…As you obey and shut yourself up, you start to notice more of what is happening to other women around you. The shrapnel itself and the silence surrounding it start to seem more and more absurd. You start coming up with nine-block cartoons and lyrics for a sexual harassment musical. You wonder who’s crazier now…” (4)

I just finished a new book, Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplaceby colleague and friend Ellen Mayock. It’s useful and even funny, as in the passage above, but painful to read, too. It’s hard to face being valued less in a demanding workplace because of your gender. I’m more comfortable acknowledging good luck than discrimination. My identity has brought me many advantages, but what what I’m thinking about today is how I’ve hated being a girl for as long as I can remember.

I hate the cultural implications–that my appearance matters so much to strangers and to me. But the ways that culture and biology intersect are no fun, either. I’ve spent so much time feeling physically afraid. Weak. And menstruation, pregnancy, lactation–oh my god. Having two healthy children prospering in the world is part of my luck, and it’s healthy for an intellectual to be reminded she is, in fact, a mammal, connected to natural cycles in the very tissues of her body. Yet I would gladly have shared the costs of gestation with my husband and I can’t wait for menopause. If you identify as a woman and love it, that’s great, truly. But womanhood as I’ve known it is, at best, a royal pain.

Is this a bad attitude to admit? Does it make me a lousy role model, or render hypocritical the solidarity I feel with women writers? I don’t know. Certainly it’s a kind of frustration no one should have to feel. But it’s the truth, for this one person.

I’m not the only professor who throws herself into work to get away from the limits of embodiment just to find work directing her back to that very body. Gender Shrapnel offers smart analysis of harmful ways an academic workplace can keep reminding a striver, “nope, you’re a woman, before all.” The chapters on “silence” and “tempered radicalism” are particularly powerful, as well as the idea that women who speak up become “radioactive,” tainting anyone they try to help. And Mayock is great on insidious factors that can reinforce gender power structures: when and where a meeting is set, for instance. A few other passages I dogeared:

131: “Administrators who appreciate strength, even divergent, possibly competing types of strength, in their employees also exhibit real strength, for they are modeling the type of intellectual debate that their organizational mission statements are promoting.”

171: On making place for critique of an organization, within the organization: “Ponder the possibility that all workers have the good of the organization in mind.” (I do, even in my angriest moments.)

175: “Leaders who can express ‘humility and modesty’ are de factomen. Why is this? Because it is a given that they are excellent and, therefore, they are provided the luxury of presenting themselves as humble or modest. Women leaders and/or aspiring women leaders do not have this luxury, and I believe that the same is true for people of Color.”

197: “The leading study on maternal wall stereotypes found that, compared to women with identical resumes but with no children, mothers were: 79% less likely to be hired, 100% less likely to be promoted, offered $11,000 less in salary for the same position, held to higher performance and punctuality standards.”

I dread taking this female body back to full-time teaching as my sabbatical ends. I love teaching, and other parts of my job can be great, too–helping students and colleagues thrive, advancing the arts on campus. But a boss who bullied and undermined me for years is still parked in my building, proof to me, forever, that my employers don’t consider my professional well-being important. I don’t feel safe, even cushioned as I am by so many privileges–tenure for starters. Whiteness. None of us is ever safe, I know, but I wish we could show more respect for each others’ fears and impose consequences on aggressors.

On shrapnel and poetry: I know of two recent cases in which talented women poets were pushed out of academic leadership positions for reasons that had a lot to do with gender. And women writers suffer flak from more distant battles, too–VIDA has done a lot to highlight how much gender shrapnel is flying around in the publishing world. Small data points have big consequences.

But harassment, mobbing, and other destructive behaviors rooted in gender bias affect literature more deeply than that. Sometimes people are so demoralized they can’t or don’t write in the first place. Sometimes, more positively, suffering redirects writing into new channels.

Writing remains a primary way for me to probe inequity and imagine a better order. Here, in disembodied language, I feel as strong, as pretty as any of you. So among Mayock’s many lists in this book, I particularly relished “Stages of Confronting Sexual Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation in the Academic Workplace” (50-2). The whole thing is priceless, beginning with #1, “What the hell was that?” But I note how much time I spend at #15, “Anger, frustration at the injustice,” in which the harassed person, coming to voice in ways others may find inappropriate, “consider[s] writing cartoons or musicals.” For me, speculative feminist novellas in terza rima, and I ain’t done yet.

Bless activists who make change in the courts, the streets, the boardrooms. For me, it’s mostly the classroom, the student conference, the printed page, the blog. Also, the voting booth. Small spaces. The consequences remain to be seen.

Lastly, because performing gender is a drag, here’s some joy:

Book promotion, reading, butt-sitting

Lately I’ve been reading in a fragmentary way–journalism, parts of books, letters in archives–in the shadow of crises. Too much death and division in the news; too many friends ill. The latest small, stupid pain came from a hornet’s sting Sunday. I guess the hard crying afterwards was cathartic, but my foot is still swollen and my stalled condition seems symbolic.

Yet I am lucky to be sitting on my keister reading, writing, and revising–work I love. Since I’ve got three + book projects in the works, and since we’re now more than halfway through 2016, I started thinking about my readerly habits. I’ve been keeping a list like the one below for a few years now, but the latest variation involves jotting down, in parenthesis, why I picked up that particular volume. I imagined this way of keeping records might help me figure out where to put my own publicity energy in future.

It turns out a good chunk of what I read is, in one way or another, on assignment. Usually I’d be prepping for class as well as conducting research, but this spring, on sabbatical, a lot of my assignment-reading related to monthly micro-poetry-reviews for the Kenyon Review Online, as well as reviewing for other journals (at a rate I will not be able to keep up…). But what about the rest, the reading I do for pleasure, out of general curiosity?

Turns out reviews do matter, but primarily when I admire the reviewer. I’ve never met N.K. Jemisin, for example, but I like her own books and her taste, so her new sf roundup column for the New York Times has been shaping my choices. Friends’ recommendations are highly influential, too, via published reviews  or when the guy who cuts my hair says, “I know My Name Is Lucy Barton sounds like a depressing premise, but it’s really not that sad–I loved it.”  

There are certain authors whose work I watch for and read immediately–King, Erdrich, and Le Guin lately–and others who have been languishing in my must-read pile forever. I also read books by old friends and new acquaintances, often spurred to do so by the prospect of seeing the person soon. My project since joining the AWP board, for instance, is to read one book by each of my very lovely fellow board members–but I paused halfway through, right after the conference.

I rarely read a book because of the press or cover design or fancy blurbs, although those factors can get me to open the book and spend a little time with it, sometimes even to buy it. But as much as sales matter, are they more important than actually getting read? If I don’t warm to the work on its own merits, after all, I just put it down. I’m middle-aged, man. Millions of good books and no time to lose.

Moral: luck, timing, acquaintance, readings, and word of mouth all get a book into my hands. But unless some big obligation is sitting on me, I won’t actually finish it unless it’s somewhere between good and awesome. Below are the mostly good-to-awesome books (not magazines) I’ve read completely (or listened to) during the first half of 2016 (asterisks for those published this year, to help me if I get a year-in-review gig next December). I would be VERY interested to hear how various books make it to the tops of YOUR piles.

1/10 White, LettERRS (review assignment)
1/18 Rankine, Citizen (reread for work event)
2/15 Stone, Poetry Comics (friend’s recommendation)*
2/19 Francis, Forest Primeval (review by friend in Kenyon Review)*
2/19 Dungy, Suck on the Marrow (scouting historical poetry)
2/20 Barnstone, The Beast in the Apartment (friend’s recommendation)
2/22 Carson, Nox (knew it would be great and was saving it)
2/23 Gray, Photographing Eden (AWP staff)
2/25 O’Reilly, Geis (review assignment)
2/27 Okrent, Boys of My Youth (review assignment)
3/19 Bridgford, Human Interest* (ms to blurb)
3/20 Robinson, Sometimes the Little Town* (friend and local author)
3/21 Meitner, Copia (bought after her reading at VA Festival of Book)
3/23 Dop, Father Child Water (ditto)
3/25 Powell, Useless Landscape (preparing to meet him at AWP)
3/27 Leahy, Constituents of Matter (AWP staff)
4/2 Rocha, Karankawa (AWP prize winner)
4/3 Day, Last Psalm at Sea Level (picked up at AWP)
4/7 McAdams, Seven Boxes for the Country After* (friend and poet I admire)
4/10 Clarvoe, Counter-Amores (reread prior to Kenyon visit)
4/11 Meeks, The Genome Rhapsodies (review)
4/23 Le Guin, Late in the Day* (review)
5/1 Kildegaard, Ventriloquy* (review)
5/4 Hoppenthaler, Domestic Garden (possible campus visit)
5/4 Dubrow, The Arranged Marriage (heard her read from it 2 years ago)
5/13 Duncan, Restless Continent (review assignment, also recommended by friend)
5/27 Stallings, Olives (had been meaning to for years)
6/1 Nelson, American Ace* (poet long admired, picked up at conference)
6/2 Preston, Centennial Poem for Washington and Lee University (research)
6/4 Starace, Unseen Avenue* (friend and poet I admire)
6/13 Davis, Traditional Ballads of Virginia (research)
6/14 Frank, The Opposite of People (review assignment)
6/26 Jackson, ed., Selected Poems of ESV Millay* (review)
7/4 Schroeder, Inked* (met author at conference)
7/11 Tribble, Natural State* (review)

1/16 Lerner, 10:04 (daughter’s recommendation)
1/20 Butler, Kindred (reread for guest-teaching)
1/31 Anders, All the Birds in the Sky* (Jemisin’s NYT review)
2/7 Gavaler, Patron Saint of Superheroes (unpublished, to give the author feedback)
2/15 Penny, Still Life (friend’s recommendation)
2/19 Atwell, Wild Girls (writer recently moved to my town)
3/13 Jemisin, Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (friend’s recommendation)
3/18 Jemisin, Broken Kingdoms (continuation of trilogy)
3/22 Jemisin, Gods’ Kingdom (continuation of trilogy)
3/29 Jemisin, The Awakened Kingdom (novella postscript to trilogy)
3/29 Grimes, Rainbow’s End (audiobook it took me 5 months to finish)
3/29 Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton* (friend’s recommendation)
4/17 Ozeki, Tale for the Time Being (recommended by friend)
5/4 Martin, Dance with Dragons (reread for TV show)
5/12 Myerson, The Stopped Heart (Weber’s NYT review)
5/23 Weber, True Confections (met author at Kenyon)
5/30 Erdrich, LaRose* (longstanding favorite author)
6/18 King, End of Watch* (another favorite author)
6/22 Sittenfeld, Eligible* (curious about her work for a while, NYT review)
7/10 Hairston, Will Do Magic for Small Change* (Jemisin’s NYT review)

1/30 Kolbert, Sixth Extinction (daughter’s recommendation)
2/8 Jackson, Marginalia (for research)
2/8 Scholes, The Crafty Reader (for research)
2/8 Coates, Between the World and Me (recommended by a zillion friends)
2/9 Freedman, Frey, Zauhar, Intimate Critique (for research)
2/11 Tompkins, Reader Response Criticism (for research)
3/4 Christman, Darkroom (AWP board)
3/8 Eakin, How Our Lives Become Stories (research)
5/12 MacDonald, H is for Hawk (audiobook; widely recommended)


One of several intimidating to-be-read piles in my life