I recently ordered a 2021 calendar–I favor a portable Moleskine number–but, with heavy-handed symbolism, the order keeps being delayed. I’m a planner by temperament and I SO wish I could anticipate my future doings again. Not possible. It’s all clouds.
For the near term, all a calendar-minded person can do is brainstorm short-term ways to mark the passage of time, because around here, the cooling air and spots of yellow at the tops of trees strongly imply that the fall equinox is near. I keep daily work rhythms, even on sabbatical. On Saturdays, we take walks somewhere outside of this small town, hiking in the woods if we can. I’m applying for writing-related opportunities that might bear fruit next spring or summer. Other people are desperately trying to layer multiple workdays on top of each other right now–work, homeschooling, other responsibilities–so feeling lost in blurry weeks means I’m getting off easy, but to a surprising degree, it’s still a stressor.
Here’s a small anniversary: my fifth poetry collection, The State She’s In, was published on March 17th, 2020, so if it were a baby, it would be a chubby little person rocking forward onto its hands and trying to figure out locomotion. I bought it flowers and arranged a photo shoot to celebrate the occasion. It actually IS a book about time, among other subjects–the history of my region but also the approach and arrival of my 50th birthday, an event that I could watch descending like Wile E. Coyote awaiting the anvil. Processing age and change, I wrote many poems that reference the dreaded number explicitly (as in “Fifty-Fifty”) or use 50 as a formal constraint: poems of 50 syllables, 50 words, 50 lines, and more. I’m sure much of that formal play is invisible. It worked, though. Attacking a number every which way gave me some control over its meaning. I wonder if I could do some version of that by writing poems about 2021? I refuse to give 2020 that honor.
Here’s the last poem in the book, published in Gettysburg Review but never online. “L” was a title I contemplated for the whole book (50, Lesley, Lexington); for this particular piece I researched events that happened in 1967, my birth year, as well as having a conversation about ambition with the mountain that looms over my town. The weirdest thing about the poem, though, is that all of its 50 lines are 50 characters long–a persnickety constraint you can’t even see without using a monospace font, which neither the magazine nor the book does. I might always have to hedge optimistic claims like “I’ve stopped counting”–nope, haven’t yet!–but that’s one of my aspirations, to let go of measure and comparison. To “avoid mirrors except the page” and spend these blurry days as best I can because everything ends sometime and I can’t, in fact, control when that is.
L 1967 was on fire: Apollo 1 waiting to launch / Jim Morrison on Ed Sullivan stoking it higher / Mekong Delta / Newark riot hurling out sparks / summer of o sock it to me sock it to me sock it to me sock / pulsar first glimpsed black hole first named / far south Deception Island’s volcano in flames / while an infancy rages / some recently extinguished soul was slotted in my pigeonhole (Oppenheimer Coltrane Magritte) / but I’m no reincarnate star not even a meteor tail (Toklas) / just a minor cloud of space dust reborn to squall anew / Four decades & change accrue & a big birthday looms / half & half golden jubilee 5-0 code for pigs closing in & also atomic number of tin / Mystery heat rises to scald / What is it I’m reaching for over this terrible wall / A relocation / destination / permission for ignition because beauty burns low / potential guttered long ago / I don’t know / So I avoid mirrors except the page and work / burn the fuel of myself in words / program words to change this space & time / Recall Cobain & Philip Seymour Hoffman dissolved to smoke / Does it even matter how in that year of our new- born howl Lou Reed crooned heroin into the cradles /o it was a Warhol year surreal bananas / From my room painted like late-in-the-daylily / I can gaze across a blank tin roof pocked by finch claws past snow-packed sockets of a desolate maple toward the lavender brow of House Mountain that for this poem let’s personify as Ambition / the blaze considered discourteous to mention especially by women / Well shouldn’t I be striving? / Talk to me Mountain / & with a higher perspective than mine Mountain cries / You are a conflagration / Adrenaline singes your capillaries / Let the anniversary of your ardor to be born cool you like a shadow / Desire leads only to more desire even were your sororal motives pure and they are not / Mountain has spoken! / It meant cease building with borrowed stones unless to lift somebody else / message over bottle / O & hey says Mountain one more thing / All poems may be ash but some shelter small hot hopes / their seed swaddled in earth’s velvet / What strikes me now like flint on tinder is how talking to mountains or to you is the same as talking to myself / just as impossible & just as hopeful / either / or / both / & / Maybe we’re all alpine & none of us is / disconnection a gift of language we are supposed to hand back / No presents please what’s yours is mine already / But come in & have a drink on me / Today’s everybody’s birthday & I’ve stopped counting / well just about
I felt really blue about dropping my youngest off for his second year of college, so I self-medicated by putting my head down and writing for long hours each day. The west coast on fire, more anti-Black violence, high infection rates–it’s not easy to pay attention and help in little ways without becoming self-destructively obsessed. Receiving the new issue of Kestrel, though–which contains an unexpected review of The State She’s In–is a big boost today. The review is a three-pager in a print journal so I can’t give you the whole thing, but Brittany Winland writes: “There is a particular resonance reading Wheeler’s collection in our present moment–with Confederate statues being toppled and Black Lives Matter protests energizing the country…The State She’s In throbs with danger: in everyday encounters like the Kroger check-out line, a racist ad in the newspaper, even deep inside the body susceptible to illness and pain…Wheeler’s willingness to examine and question herself with the same searing vision she aims at her uneasily-adopted state infuses the collection with an integrity that makes every damning observation that much more potent.” I especially loved that Winland heard my struggle to keep an eye on a better future: “Wheeler’s wonderfully prickly, unfailingly honest collection [is] also, ultimately, a hopeful one…These poems suggest that a state of hope–in spite of and because of all our grief, anger, and shame–is a deliberate and necessary place to live.” (Winland writes graceful, punchy sentences herself, doesn’t she?) I feel really lucky to have received such a generous reading.
In other good news, I’m getting ready for a virtual bookstore reading from my novel Unbecoming “at” A Novel Idea in Philadelphia this Weds, September 16th, at 6:30 pm. You can register for free here. I’ll read for no more than 15 minutes, answer questions, and of course you can order the book from this great indie bookstore to be mailed, or, if you’re local, picked up. (There’s a totally optional button for small donations, too, if you have the mood and the means–it’s not easy to be running a small business right now and word is that the sales bookstores enjoy from these events are much lower than from the live versions.) I’d love to have a few friends in virtual attendance. I had timed it so I could give my kids a visit around Cameron’s birthday, but I’m glad it can still happen in a different way.
Thanks as well to Thrush for including a poem of mine in their September issue: “Tone Problem.” I wrote it in April and submitted it in June, which is faster than I usually work, but it’s small and charm-like, with references to spring moons that I suspect were triggered by a post from Jeannine Hall Gailey, who is always attentive to those cycles. It felt especially hard then NOT to write about this world-changing pandemic, but I didn’t feel sure that my own experiences would be all that interesting to anybody, especially a couple of years from now, so I kept trying to approach it from an angle. In this case, I focused on how deeply surreal it felt to watch the natural world coming to life, gorgeously indifferent to human crisis.
Finally, that panel I moderated for the Outer Dark Symposium last month has just been released as a podcast. Called “Weird Metamorphosis or Life Change: Where the Body Becomes the Setting,” it ranged over genres–Weird, sf, body horror–and how gender, sexuality, disability, race, and many other factors affect what transformation means. Change isn’t all tentacles and violation. Sometimes it’s what we need.
This crazy August, when no one could concentrate on anything, turned out to be the very first time I completed The Sealey Challenge, instituted by Nicole Sealey in 2017. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to be so diligent again. I’m on sabbatical right now, and in other years August can feel frantic. My annual poetry binge is typically In December and January, when I slow down and look around for the books that have been gathering buzz.
But I’ve learned some from trying. The most important result was just getting acquainted with some fabulous work. Like a lot of people, I put Sealey’s own Ordinary Beast on my August reading list, and it’s amazing–it’s a crime against poetry that I hadn’t read it before. There are several other terrific poets on the list below whose work I hadn’t read in book form yet, including Tiana Clark, Rosebud Ben-Oni, and first-book author Leila Chatti whose urgent Deluge I still can’t get out of my head. (I chose it, by the way, because it kept popping up in other Challenge posts–another benefit of the project–and the same thing happened with today’s pick from John Murillo, also a knockout.) Mostly I had no fixed idea about which book I’d pick up next, although I began with Kyrie because it’s about the 1918 pandemic. Other reasons for reading: I looked for recent collections by Shenandoah authors like Jessica Guzman and Armen Davoudian, although I’ve by no means snagged them all, and I caught up with authors whose books I always look for, out of fandom and friendship. I did purchase some books some at the beginning of the month, in part because I would have anyway but also to make sure my list would be inclusive in various ways. I wasn’t enough of a planner to be fully stocked in advance for 31 entries, but there was something felicitous about that. I dug into some pretty dusty to-be-read piles; grabbed poetry comics and image-texts from my spouse’s collection (those books by Eve Ewing and Jessy Randall are amazing!); and downloaded a few free digital chapbooks. I liked how this resulted in in unexpected diversities in style and medium. I found books I’ll teach in future and others I’ll give as gifts. Others I’m just really glad to know about and to help celebrate.
It WAS hard to keep up the pace, though. I devoured books at the start of the month, often reading over breakfast or lunch (I take actual lunch breaks on the porch now–it’s the bomb). I wisely began reading at the end of July to give myself a head-start and likewise worked ahead before the middle weekend of August, when I had an intense 48-hour virtual conference. Sometimes, though, when my own writing was going gangbusters, I’d delay the book of the day until late afternoon or evening, and then I just didn’t feel excited to read something challenging–although I never regretted it once I got going. At this point, I’m a little fried, so there’s no way I’ll manage many entries under the #septwomenpoets hashtag. I’ve got some other deadlines to catch up on, anyway, plus two brief trips: tomorrow I drive my son up to Haverford for his shortened fall term (my first interstate travel since February–yikes), and later in the month, on my birthday weekend, Chris and I are renting a very small house in Virginia Beach. We’re both worried about crashing when it’s just the two of us again, so we’re thinking about what low-risk adventures we can plan.
A last word on my cheat book of the month (lyric essays by a poet, so it’s Sealey Challenge adjacent!). I strongly recommend the brand-new World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. The subtitle is “In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments,” and it’s definitely eco-writing with a deep investment in and fascination with the more-than-human world. I’m most in love, though, with how the essays interweave research with compelling personal stories about moving around as a child and young adult, often feeling out of place as the only brown person in her mostly-white classes, until she found a sense of belonging in Mississippi. This book is often joyous and funny, but predation is a recurrent theme, and that spoke to me. I think it would teach beautifully–I admire its craft–but I also just really appreciated how it urges readers to care. In an unexpected way, it resonated with the Tiana Clark collection I’d read the day before, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood: both of those authors eloquently argue that environmental justice should be inseparable from social justice, both in literature and in the world.
I was surprised to appear in the acknowledgements of Aimee’s book, maybe because I tried to be a good host during her campus visit and encouraged her to submit to Shenandoah? I don’t feel like I deserve the honor, but it’s in keeping, somehow, with the generosity writers have been showing each other this month. Here’s to small kindnesses in the hellscape that is 2020!
Questions I have researched recently for a writing project:
I have a hard time getting students to incorporate research into their creative writing, even the quick Wikipedia kind, but I can’t write much in any genre without internet access–and having friends to interview about mundane details is also a big help. In poetry, specificity is everything. Studying scientific processes helps me understand the world and myself; the textures of unusual words make the language pop. In fiction, people need to have jobs other than mine, and they need to walk around and be doing ordinary things when plot twists surprise them.
My process so far for the novel underway involves writing many pages in a mad rush then hitting pause to reflect on what the characters might think or do next, as well as what I’m missing about the properties of this fictional world and its residents’ patterns of behavior. I had worked out a lot before starting, but when I hit the 20,000 word mark I realized my plans were pretty vague after the opening. I’m at around 45,000 words now, not rereading too much but plunging forward, trying to hack out the basic shape of the story before I go back and make necessary alterations, because my sense of how it all needs to unfold keeps changing. I also know I’m falling into bad habits sometimes: for instance, I’m prone to summarizing action in a first draft and have to go back and dramatize it, as well as making the sentences much cleaner and the detail richer (which means my 45K words probably represent well over half the novel, plot-wise). It’s a lot like the discovery process you experience in the first draft of a poem–you need to see where it’s going before you can revise it, fit all the parts together smoothly. If you know everything about your destination from the outset, the results might not possess that essential element of surprise.
Another thing my writer-spouse thinks is unusual in my process: I do a ton of work that won’t go into the book. For Unbecoming, set at a small college, I mapped out the entire curriculum and every professor’s teaching load just to figure out when two key characters could meet for coffee (surely overkill, but that’s how my brain works, especially post-chairing). In my current project, space is really important, so I’m developing an increasingly detailed hand-drawn map of my fictional county. It’s not Yoknapatawpha by a long shot, and I’m not intending that Tolkienish move of including a map if this ever becomes a real book. I just need to know where stuff happens and how long it takes to drive there. It’s too much exposition to explain it all in prose, but I need to know it makes sense.
I am drafting poems occasionally, particularly when I get stuck on the novel for a few days. I’ll be driving my son back to college in a week, so there’s lots of planning to do, as well as the usual pile-up of recommendation requests and “do this now!” emails. No other publishing news these days–August is always slow–but I have a virtual reading from Unbecoming scheduled for September 16th “at” A Novel Idea bookstore in Philadelphia (sign up for the Zoom here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/an-evening-with-lesley-wheeler-author-of-unbecoming-online-tickets-117838653585). I also received a super-nice note about The State She’s In from Denise Duhamel, a distinguished poet whom I don’t know personally but whose work I’ve long admired–I’ve taught her books a few times and even ran an independent study on her complete works maybe a decade ago (!). I am so grateful when someone reads a book of mine and sends me a note or gives me a shout-out–it reminds me to reciprocate, which is one of the pleasures of #thesealeychallenge. (One more week to go!)
I’ll sign out with a George Carlin bit I’ve been thinking about a lot. Tensions around the novel coronavirus feel high, even among people with whom I mostly agree. Obviously the anti-mask campaigners are dumb and toxic. Within the rainbow of behaviors sane people exercise, though, there’s a pretty wide range of opinions: whether it’s okay to drive to a lake house for a few days, or order take-out, or take part in a small, socially-distanced event with some friends. Whether it’s better parenting to send your kids to school, too, or keep them at home, and what policies schools and universities should have in the first place. I have opinions, like everyone else, and they’re conditioned by my experiences and temperament, like everyone else’s. Because I’m prone to depression and anxiety, for instance, I have a bigger fear than others would of the psychic costs of isolation to children and teens. I often feel judged for being too slack on one hand or too uptight on the other–which is my problem, I know, I’m too keen a reader of what other people are thinking–and I keep sliding into being judgmental myself. My strategy, besides taking lots of deep breaths, is to remember Carlin’s point about how myopic it can be to draw bright lines between right and wrong. The very high costs of this virus in the U.S. are largely the government’s fault–systemic–not the fault of the dog-walker who gets too close to me on the trail. It’s important not to make a terrible situation worse, but none of us is sure of the exact right answers to pandemic math. We need to be kind to each other, not least because we can’t always see the factors that lead people to make the choices they do. I’m working on resisting the reflex division of the world into idiots and maniacs.
(Funny that I remembered that bit as “assholes” and “morons”–my inner NJ driver resurfaces, I guess.) And since I went down another research rabbit-hole looking for Carlin bits, here’s something that’s earlier and spikier. I read this as Carlin seeming to play to the middle at first–mocking all kinds of extremism–and then showing his hand. There IS a limit to tolerance of different approaches to the world.
I love so much about #TheSealeyChallenge, a project created by poet Nicole Sealey asking people to read a book of poetry a day for the thirty-one days of August. I’ve read some guilty-sounding social media posts, though, by people saying they just can’t read poetry that fast, and I get it. The event has been running annually for a while now and I’ve only been able to post with the hashtag sporadically; I usually spend August desperately trying to finish up summer writing projects as I simultaneously gear up for the academic whirlwind of September, which has ALSO involved, for the past twenty years, filling out back-to-school forms and shopping and packing with my kids. Crazytown. This year, though, I’m heading into the best-timed sabbatical in the history of the universe. I can spare an hour a day for other people’s poetry.
Yet I have to add that one of the great things about poetry is how it slows us down, drawing readers into hard thinking, compressed language, and close observation of the world and ourselves. It’s paradoxical to try to read a lot of poetry FAST. I often do a first reading of a poetry volume in a single hour, trying to understand its scope and aims, but unless the poems are unusually brief and straightforward, that means I’m not taking in every poem deeply. I just read ARCs of a forthcoming book I plan to review, for instance, and I’m going to have to reread it much more slowly soon, taking notes, developing a deeper grasp of and appreciation for the work. Teaching a book, likewise, requires layered engagements with lots of pauses. And sometimes you just WANT to go back and reread something non-instrumentally, for the pleasure of it. #TheSealeyChallenge is a bit like NaPoWriMo, when people try to draft a poem a day for the month of April. The product isn’t the point–it’s the process of making daily space for art that counts.
I appreciate, though, how this challenge inspired me to buy a bunch of books, dig through piles of books I’ve never managed to read, and investigate library holdings. And I like, after months of flogging my own books, turning to poetic citizenship by promoting other writers. Finally, it’s fun to follow the hashtag and use it to find other writers and readers with similar tastes. All that said, it’s only the 5th, so who knows how I’ll do? I’m also deep into drafting my 2nd novel now and suddenly, after long July doldrums, I feel busy. My employer requires COVID-19 tests and I’m scheduled for next week, I have the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird coming up, and I’m helping my son plan for a return to college. (Allegedly. You have to wonder if ANY of these back-to-school-with-masks plans will bear fruit. But he’d rather take classes that will almost certainly go online while sharing the Environmental House on campus with a handful of friends, and I would have felt the same. He’s eating well at home and we like his company, but he’s lonely.)
My OTHER project, starting today, is joining an intermittent fundraiser engineered by the brilliant Franny Choi. Called #TinyBookFair, it involves targeting a charitable cause and inviting people to make donations for a free signed copy of one’s own books. Heaving all the notices onto social media and constructing an email blast took a couple of hours this morning, and the physical mailings will take effort, too, but honestly, it’s fun. I feel really good about the orders trickling in, and life hasn’t contained a ton of feel-good moments lately. My #TinyBookFair (instigated by Choi and run in collaboration with the folks at Brew & Forge) raises money for Project Horizon, a Virginia organization dedicated to reducing domestic and sexual violence (my canceled March book party was meant to raise funds for them). I’m offering up to 15 signed copies of my new books to anyone who donates at least $20: participants can choose either The State She’s In (poetry) or Unbecoming (novel). If you’d like one (or more!), please 1) donate at http://www.projecthorizon.org/, and 2) message me your mailing address; a screenshot or receipt showing your donation; and a note about which book you want (my emails are firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, but I also use FB Messenger regularly). Then I’ll mail you a signed copy. My goal is to raise $300 by August 12th to fund Project Horizon’s amazing work. Alternatively, you could order one for a friend you miss–I’m happy to take requests. We have a ton of good causes to send our dollars to, of course, and a lot of us have fewer dollars to start with, so it’s like #TheSealeyChallenge–a small good thing, but not for everyone.
Below are a few pictures from nearby Lake Douthat, because I also plan to spend this month doing a few final summery things–some outdoor, not-crowded stuff–because being home at my keyboard all the time gets me down. I hope there are a few blue-and-green vistas planned for your August, too.
It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer. I would say a haunted house–there is something infected about it. Else, why should it be let so cheaply, and why have stood so long untenanted, during a global pandemic? John laughs at me, but one expects that in marriage.
You see he does not believe anyone is sick! If a Republican of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression–a slight hysterical tendency–what is one to do? So I take hydroxychloroqine and Airborne, vodka tonics and exercise, until I am required to work again in the hospitality industry. My brother is also a Republican, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.
Personally, I disagree with their ideas. But John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about Covid-19, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.
So I will let it alone and talk about the house. It is the most beautiful place with a delicious garden! But I don’t like my room a bit, where I use my laptop to design reopening plans to submit to the governor. It is big and airy, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways. It was an insane asylum first and then a gymnasium, I should judge, for the windows are barred and there are rings and things in the walls. The paper is stripped off in great patches all around my desk, as if a person wanted to refresh the decor then fell into melancholy because there is no future and no one will ever again have houseguests anyway.
I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those untraceable patterns committing every statistic sin. It is devious enough to confuse any epidemiologist, pronounced enough to terrify and demand study, and when you follow the uncertain rising curves for long enough they suddenly leap out of sight–plunge up at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in contradictions. It is a lurid sunset orange in some places, an unclean sulfur in others.
There comes John and I must put this away–he hates to have me blog.
We have been here two weeks. John is away all day giving dishonest testimony to Congress. I am glad my paranoia is not justified!
John calls me a blessed little snowflake and teases me as if I have a crush on Dr. Fauci. John knows there is no reason to worry, and that satisfies him. He even scoffs at me about this wall-paper! There is a recurrent spot where microbes rise in plumes. I fancy I can detect a sub-pattern in certain lights, and behind it a strange, provoking, faceless sort of figure that seems to keep washing its hands.
But otherwise really I’m getting fond of the room. It is so remote from bad air and fundraising dinners! I can doomscroll for long hours without being perceived.
There’s a member of the extensive and unquarantined house staff on the stairs.
It dwells in my mind so! The pattern starts at the bottom, rises acutely, dips in some places and plateaus in others. Then it climbs again, over and over. It is a constant irritant to the normal mind and I exhaust myself attempting to make sense of it. I will take a nap I guess.
I don’t know why I should blog this. I don’t feel able. John would think it absurd. He says I mustn’t lose my faith in the president, and has me take Breitbart, to say nothing of vitamin C and rare meat.
I lie in bed and look at the paper. Behind the outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like people posting and tweeting alarming news at a social distance. I don’t like it a bit. I wonder–I begin to think–I wish the pharmaceutical industry would hurry up and release a vaccine!
There are always new infection vectors in the wall-paper and the virus gets into my hair. In this hot weather it is awful, I cannot even walk in the garden. The CDC recommendations go round and round and round and round–they make me dizzy!
But I really have discovered something. The front pattern does move–and no wonder! The people behind the bars shake them! Nobody could climb through the pattern–it strangles so; but I see a woman wearing a mask and brandishing an absentee ballot.
John has contracted the novel coronavirus and is complaining downstairs. He says the Democrats gave it to him and also that it was engineered by Chinese scientists. How he betrays himself!
I don’t want to go outside. I won’t, even if my employer asks me to. It is so pleasant to be in this great room with the masked social media people and read angry opinion pieces as I please. I have locked the door and secreted the key in the hydroxychloroqine bottle. How John does call and pound! It is no use, Republican, you can’t open it!
“For God’s sake,” he cries between coughing fits, “why won’t you let me in? It is only the common cold.”
“I have got scientific rationality at last,” say I, “in spite of the government’s denials! And I’ve made a mask of the wall-paper and you can’t take it off!”
Now I see John in the garden, opening the hatch to the survivalist bunker stocked with guns and canned goods. But I can outlast him because there is sourdough starter under my bed, and toilet paper, and dark chocolate, and useless calendars with all my appointments crossed out. I can creep the internet, cackling and screaming, until the spring thaw, now that I am perfectly sane.
I slid off the rocks pictured above at Willoughby Spit, Virginia, last weekend, cutting my toes and raising a mother of a bruise on the opposite shin. A couple of days before that, I fell off a bike, although that time I managed to throw myself clear onto some relatively cushy grass. The day before that, I got bashed down by Virginia Beach waves a couple of times; the wind was high and getting from the billows to the shore was a challenge.
I’ve always been a klutz, but my muscle tension is higher now, which makes my balance lousy. Paradoxically, I don’t think my fear of falling helps. I watch my 19-year-old leap up and down steep trails, the kind spined with sharp rocks and tree roots; his footing is relaxed and sure because he trusts his body to do what he wants it to. Was I ever that agile?
I still want to move with speed and attain the great view, but if I push even a bit too hard, I end up benching myself. I’ve been thinking about ambition in writing, too–not, this week, ambition for quality of the writing, but craving a little bit more recognition, pushing myself to apply for more opportunities, even knowing that middle aged women hardly ever pull the brass ring. Leaving town for a few days, even though we didn’t go far, allowed me to stop thinking about Unbecoming and The State She’s In—hallelujah! When I got back from the beach last Sunday, though I dropped into a homebound funk, made worse by a sore throat. I immediately thought I was dying from COVID-19, felt sorry for the kids and husband I would leave behind, and did some soul-searching about what work I had left to do in the world (yes, I go apocalyptic quickly and vividly). Then I realized I had stopped taking an allergy medication at the beach, started it again, and felt fine within two days.
That cheered me up, but what cheered me more was a long phone call with Jeannine Hall Gailey ranging over all these subjects–health, career aspirations, politics, literary culture. It helped SO MUCH, and not just because she’s a gifted pep-talker, which she is, or because she gave me good concrete advice, which she did. As she wrote on her own blog earlier today, conversations like that can remind you that we’re not alone in aspiring and feeling frustrated. There’s a difficult balance to walk: for sanity’s sake, you can’t get carried away by po-biz longing, but I also don’t want any of us to underrate ourselves. Others are perfectly ready to ignore or underestimate us–we don’t need to get a jump on them!
Shout-out to Jeannine, too, for blogging about my recent books here. She’s a great literary citizen who reviews indie authors she admires on places like Amazon and Goodreads, something I’m trying to do more of, too. This week I’ll be striving to keep up my restored energy and improve my footing: a little publicity work, more drafting of projects I’ll be excited about next year or the year after, even if it seems like struggling through rough surf now and falling down a lot. I’m closing with a couple of poems about “flimsy plastic dreams” or being “focal/ marginal,” depending on whether you like estuary metaphors or punctuation play (actually, they both come from travel adventures, too!). “Danger Beyond This Point” just appeared in the new Chautauqua “Boundaries” issue and “Venus/ Dodo” in Michigan Quarterly Review (along with a golden shovel poem–a frigging hard form to get purchase on). All were first drafted 2-3 years ago then much reworked, submitted a bunch of times. I still like them. I guess it’s a reminder that even though the climb is hard, occasionally you get the shot.
Some troll tweeted at me the other day that since I seem not to like Lexington, Virginia, I should just leave. He styled himself as a lover of the Shire who’s not ashamed of being a hobbit. He even used Elijah Wood as Frodo for his profile picture. Good to know hobbit-hood is white supremacist code, I guess–a state of intransigent smallness.
“Love it or leave it” is a glib, narrow-minded slogan that’s already received more intelligent rebuttals than I could come up with (see my final paragraph on Kiki Petrosino, for instance–the title of this blog is from her poem “Farm Book”). The hobbit was responding to my tweet about the imminent renaming of local institutions such as Stonewall Jackson Hospital, the R. E. Lee Hotel, and, after a couple of long and contentious city council meetings, Stonewall Jackson Cemetery. A couple of years ago, R.E. Lee Church was rechristened Grace Episcopal (another hot and protracted fight that caused permanent rifts), and even my employer, Washington and Lee University, may be lurching toward a belated rebranding. Washington’s name needs to go as well as Lee’s, and it’s quite possible the trustees will hold out for a few more years against any change at all, but encouraging things are happening. The rising sway of clear-eyed young people has made a big difference here, as well as the hard work of others who have been putting their weight into moving the local culture for a long, long time. I know the activists, because Lexington, and W&L, are tiny. I remain moved and astonished by the opposition they continue to face and the grit they bring to facing it.
Yet fixing offensive honorifics feels so small! These names have always been aggressions, and if they didn’t matter, there wouldn’t be trolls and outraged alums and people spouting conspiracy theories at council-meetings. Still, they’re relatively superficial markers of a violence that goes so deep, that is so rhizomatically entwined with other aspects of town and university life, that expunging it would be more than a lifetime’s work.
For these obscene entrenchments and other reasons, I don’t like Lexington, and I thought about leaving right from the beginning. There’s a poem in The State She’s In, “Native Temper,” that ends with the line, “I’d rather die than die in these parts.” I don’t know if it’s a good line poetically, but it sang in my head for a while before I wrote it down, its paradox making me laugh with a hysterical edge. There’s always a reason to stick around a little longer. Some of the most serious reasons at various times have been a terrible job market, the exhaustion of raising very young kids, my spouse being hired to W&L’s tenure-track, fabulous tuition benefits for my older kids (damned if I wouldn’t take every cent I’d earned!), and fear of uncertainty, of hurting myself and my family by making a stressful move that turned out to make life even harder. W&L also did me a lot of damage–a plantation ethos entails systematic sexism as well as systematic racism and other noxious prejudices–and I think that paralyzed me, too. Staying hasn’t been good for me, as a friend observed after reading my new poetry collection. But here I am anyway, researching local history, writing about small-townness and southernness, thinking and teaching about complicity, continuing the small-scale work of making my spheres of influence some fraction better while very much doubting the rightness of my choices.
I feel particularly stuck right now because I don’t have the release of travel, of periodic escape to remind myself there’s a bigger world. I’m reading a lot but mostly books about small towns, too: Stephen King’s sin-haunted Maine villages (my stay in Salem’s Lot was unpleasant for a variety of reasons); plague-ridden Derbyshire mining country in Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders (I loved that one); a prissy Ohio suburb in Celeste Ng’s justly-celebrated Little Fires Everywhere; the island horrors of Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel and Lucy Foley’s The Guest List. Is that because I’ve been on a mystery-thriller kick, trying desperately to get out my own head? Do those plots work best in little bubbles? This spring, able to concentrate only in short spurts, my reading was mostly poetry that felt quite different, conjuring cosmopolitan places or a sense of global connectedness, as 21st-century poetry tends to.
The brand-new poetry collection I just finished, though, is local without ever being small–and illuminates Kiki Petrosino’s relation to a place she can neither love nor leave behind. In White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia, three long poems are based on the results of a DNA ancestry test; one section, titled “Albemarle,” eviscerates Jefferson’s celebrators in breathtaking ways; and another sequence locates itself in Louisa County, where some of Petrosino’s ancestors resided. Petrosino herself seems to have departed the region after earning a B.A. at the University of Virginia, and is now back as a professor there, drinking tiny glasses of bourbon at gastropubs while researching and receiving dream-messages from her dead kin. As Terrance Hayes writes, this book is “wonderfully irreducible” to tweets and slogans, plus so honed and gorgeous that it reminds me that poetry has special ways of helping people struggle with intractable problems; I think it will strike others that way, too, and be on short-lists for many prizes. I’m on sabbatical for a while but I’d love to teach it one day, in whatever still-messed-up America we land in a year from now.
You know how obsessions grow on you and into you, like fungal hyphae bursting through carpenter ants’ heads and disseminating spore? I’m currently fixated on fungi, but a few years ago I developed a more explicable obsession with perimenopause and its sequel. Like puberty, this process has major effects on mind and body. I know post-menopausal people who say it wasn’t a big event, but it was huge for me, and I had a hard time finding information about it, much less encouragement. My novel, Unbecoming, imagines the so-called change of life as a positive time: the main character develops weird powers. I wrote the book I needed to read, and meanwhile developed the magic power of novel-writing. It was mainly as I neared a final draft that I started finding other literature about menopause, beyond crappy self-help books. I list some below and would love to hear of others.
I wish I’d known earlier what Darcey Steinke reports, that many women experience something like auras before hot flashes, occasionally accompanied by a sense of doom. I used to wake with a jolt in the middle of the night, have no idea why, then feel the heat rumble up. Instead of soaking through my clothes, I got to throw off the covers preemptively. During the day, this early-warning system gives me time to yell at anyone trying to cuddle, “GET AWAY FROM ME RIGHT NOW!”
What Beth Kanter says in her McSweeney’s bingo card about hoarding super-plus tampons: again, I wish I’d known. I attended an AWP Conference without a sufficient supply and ended up bleeding through everything, everywhere, way more gruesomely than the archetypal middle-schooler surprised in white pants. (Fortunately, muscle atrophy and metabolic slowdown, by which I mean weight gain, result in an all-black wardrobe). I bled for 7 weeks, went to the doctor, discovered I was seriously anemic, and was rushed in for an emergency ablation–basically having my uterine lining fire-blasted. Afterwards, my enthusiastic gynecologist gave me before-and-after pictures of my uterus and encouraged me to put them on Facebook.
Most scary for me was the mental health upheaval. Midlife crisis is a cliche, as is empty-nest syndrome; hormones aside, a lot of 50ish people have trouble adjusting their ambitions and mustering optimism about the next phase. For a few, according to the medical literature I eventually found, these recalibrations coincide with brain-chemistry apocalypse. I’ve always been prone to depression and anxiety, but in spring 2019–when I was 51–therapies that had kept me sane for years stopped working. I was as messed-up as I’ve ever been, not suicidal but not wanting to live, increasingly sure this shift was permanent. I tend to maintain an appearance of control, so most people I confided in didn’t seem to believe me (or maybe didn’t know how to talk about it, which is common with illness and grief). I finally hit a new equilibrium in winter 2020–very lucky, considering what was ahead. I’m okay now, except for the standard 2020 stew of sadness and frustration.
Of course, mental health crisis doesn’t happen to most menopausal people, but women should know in advance that changes are coming, and as Mary Ruefle says, hot flashes are the least of it. In the essay I link to below, Ruefle also writes, “This was not depression, this was menopause,” somehow making it droll that she wanted to kill herself with a steam-iron. While I admire Ruefle’s writing enormously, I don’t find that joke helpful. When Sarah Manguso writes about rage, likewise, I’m skeptical of it as a symptom, except of women’s rational midlife appraisals of the world.
Here’s my pitch: menopause is relevant to everyone, whether or not it’s on your list of past or future rings of fire. More poets, journalists, novelists, and scientists need to write about it, storming past the editors who think it’s icky. We read about lots of crises we may not personally experience, right? Learning about others helps us be kind and wise. Further, like adolescent coming of age stories, menopause is full of dark passages but it’s also wild, weird, and often really funny (as Moira Egan makes clear). Menopause has been social kryptonite, but it should be literary gold.
Poems and a bingo card (thesis: ALL poems are hot flashes):
Prose nonfiction (literary, scholarly, journalistic):
Fiction (not just about midlife generally, but about menopause–there must be others)
Bonus: my rondeau from The State She’s In, written more or less synchronously with Unbecoming and originally published in Cherry Tree. Extra bonus: I can’t find those pictures of my uterus to include in this post, so count yourself lucky.
Perimenopause Unstoppered. Uncorked. The spilt mess of the body’s plan puddles in the john, useless now. Recurrence gone wrong. Broken verses and a bloody chorus. Who could have predicted red excess, unspeakable clots of denouement? My mouths are unjammed, endless mess of me congealing at the bottom of the john. Ready now to lose the losing: night sweats, palpitations, insomnia, floods of gore, done. Dried up, a long fluent speech in crimson. Dissolved and flushed. Yet the song carries on, uncorkable pour of me, shameless.
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