Conference report containing not nearly enough gossip

There’s plenty I’m NOT going to tell you about the Sewanee Writers Conference until the next time we can share a cup of tea or glass of wine together, after I check that your phone’s voice recorder is off. I’m also still processing and will be for a long time yet–a lot happens in twelve days! But here’s a sketch.

First off, I felt lucky to be accepted to this conference in winter 2020, and I still feel lucky. I hadn’t applied previously because of stray comments and stories I’d heard. I live in the U.S. South and I’ve encountered the clubbier bits of literary old-boy culture. Who needs it, I thought, until my friend Anna Lena said no, a great new director is coming in, try. She was right. Leah Stewart’s debut as conference director would have been in summer 2020. This deferred version is in person, with our vaccine records downloaded and masks indoors, so it’s still a Covid-complicated enterprise but very well run. The hitches seem small, like someone lighting a candle in the dorm at midnight and setting off fire alarms. I mean, I’m positive worse things are being handled quietly, but this is a staff you trust to handle things. The ethos is inclusive and respectful. Every reading is terrific. Audience members stay off their cellphones (well, mostly) and really listen.

The structure: there are five fiction workshop streams, two nonfiction, three poetry, two playwriting. Each workshop has two teachers and 12-14 students; it meets five times for two to three hours, so basically every other morning. The co-teaching model is unusual, but it seems to work smoothly. My workshop was run by Monica Youn and Nate Marshall. I was in Monica’s cohort in that she’s the one faculty member I had a personal meeting with, but Nate was a deeply thoughtful participant when Monica’s students were workshopped, and vice versa. I was also given three 20-minute meetings with editors and an agent, and spots in four one-hour master classes, which are “master” to varying degrees. My favorite was an exciting hour on using speculation in creative nonfiction, brilliantly taught by Tessa Fontaine, a Fellow.

Which brings us to hierarchy. There are “Visitors,” like the editors who swoop in for three days, taking meetings and giving a presentation or two. People in the “Faculty” role co-teach the workshops and give readings in mixed-genre pairs at 8 pm every night. Some of them also give afternoon craft talks. (The other poetry faculty this year, by the way, were Carl Phillips, Tarfia Faizullah, Mark Jarman, and A. E. Stallings.) Next come the “Fellows,” at least two in each workshop, and they have half-hour meetings with the other students in their classes as well as group reading slots. Some of the Fellows are rightly famous, like Eduardo Corral; others are amazing writers I’d never heard of before, some of them just starting out. I had a half-hour meeting with Arhm Choi Wild, whose poetry is dazzling and whose vibe is warm and generous.

I’m in the next group, the “Scholars.” Being a Tennessee Williams Scholar (!) means that my tuition was paid but room and board ($700) plus travel is on me, although I have help from my employer on those because again, I’m a lucky bastard. Scholars also have group reading slots of five minutes each (the Fellows have 15 minutes each and the Faculty 25, at a listener’s guesstimate). There are staff readings, too, and regular students have the chance to read at alcohol-fueled open mics after 9pm, which I kept missing. I can’t, as it turns out, do hikes, very intense workshops, several other daily events, three group meals, AND an open-mic party. My head gets full, my body tired, and besides, I’m your standard poet-introvert who needs to retreat periodically. Fortunately the dorm rooms are big, air-conditioned, and quiet.

That’s maybe more math than you wanted, but the structure is important to the experience. Conference veterans told me that Sewanee has been democratized in a big way: lunch tables with agents used to be arranged via sign-up, cocktails at the French House used to be limited to faculty and fellows, etc. All of that is gone. Did I still feel the hierarchy? Absolutely. Some of it is what we’re here for, frankly. I want to hear from writers whose achievements I admire and get a window into what high-profile publishers are thinking. Sometimes, though, I felt invisible, and my ego took bumps. A graduate student advised me on how to submit to a magazine I’ve published in multiple times, sigh. One editor told me, during our twenty-minute meeting, that I should sit down with him at a meal sometime, and when I did, he didn’t even acknowledge I was there. (That one was hilarious, actually. Over it.) The jockeying for status could be intense. But other people at every level of career success were remarkably open and kind and funny and encouraging. I suspect these dynamics are bound to occur when humans get together for any common purpose: dentistry conventions, quilting bees, spiritual retreats. Imagine the delicate snark of monks.

My occasional feelings of invisibility are partly on me. I started off anxious, which made me quiet, and then powerful readings and workshops stripped off my doing-okay veneer. I (briefly) fell into a pit of grief about my mother then climbed out again. Feeling fragile, I don’t think I made the most of my opportunities, although I relaxed some in the final few days and gave a good reading. I also remembered, oh, I don’t want to compete with the literary players, although it’s good to join the lunch table once in a while and see how it feels. I REALLY get that people have to protect their time and energy. But watching the eminences here and elsewhere, I aspire to be one of the friendly, non-power-hoarding types, if I ever hit the big league, which isn’t friggin’ likely for me or anybody.

The career introspection triggered here has been useful. I clarified for myself about what I want for future book-publishing experiences, for instance. I met a ton of writers whose work I like and will follow. Shenandoah will get subs from new people this year containing the sentence, “It was such a pleasure to meet you at Sewanee!” I’ll send a few of those subs to other people. It’s all good.

The most important thing, though, is the work itself. I have a lot of feedback to sort through, but I’ve already identified some habits I’ve fallen into as a poet that need interrogation. I have ideas about how to transform some messy poems into their best selves. I also see how to improve work I’ve been doing in other genres–the fiction and nonfiction talks and readings have been great. Even advice that I wouldn’t implement gives me information about how my work is coming through to different kinds of readers.

A few more readings, a booksigning party, and then I pack up and drive to NC tomorrow to meet my family at a rented beach house, where the long decompression begins! Well, not too long. Damn you, August, I am not ready.

Teaching guide for “A Grimoire” in Shenandoah 70.2

The Slightly-Later-Than-Spring 2021 issue of Shenandoah is live! I curated a themed section called “A Grimoire: Poems in Pursuit of Transformation.” My editorial note describes what I mean by “uncanny activism,” but in short, these are poems that try to make things happen, often by using the features of spells, prayers, charms, and other petitions to the more-than-human world. I describe how I see the poems speaking to the portfolio’s theme, but below I also provide lists and links for how these poems might fit onto syllabi for various literature and creative writing courses. Free online content can be a pretty useful way to add richness to a reading list, and of course I think these poems are amazing.

Forms and modes:

Ecopoetry:

Social justice and generally surviving a world than can be awful:

Poems engaging religion and spirituality (well, more directly than the others):

I hope this list might be helpful to teachers, although I think putting poetry into thematic categories involves some sleight-of-hand. Poems transcend labels like “ecopoetry” and “about religion,” if they’re good. Yet academic study, at least as constituted here and now, depends on categories, due to the sheer necessity of narrowing down some fraction of the literary universe into non-insane portion sizes for courses. Curricula typically divide material by the author’s country of origin, century of publication, literary school, gender, sexuality, race, religion, or other identity category; genre and theme play in, too. None of these categories is “natural.” We’re just used to them. Further, no reading list is fully coherent; every one generates borderline cases. I’d be interested to hear if you think I got any of these categories wrong for these particular poems.

I’m focusing here on the portion of the issue I edited, but I proofread the entire publication (even while on leave, because I love the magazine). I can testify that there’s terrific work all through it. The comics Rachel Cruz curated about survival are very powerful; check out the special translation section on Arabic poetry; BIPOC Editorial Fellow DW McKinney presents nonfiction about home and belonging (Sara Marchant’s “Haunted,” for example, is a memorably weird ghost story). Please check out the regular fiction and nonfiction, too. Beth Staples and her partner-in-crime Morgan Davis choose riveting pieces full of strong feeling that are also often experimental in structure and voice.

Every issue is a huge collective effort brought to wonderful fruition, and it means a lot when other people read it. When any issue of any magazine delights you, let the editors know! Or share it on social media, or do whatever you do to celebrate art you like. The world needs more of that.

In the meantime, I’m revising some pieces, submitting a bit, and preparing for the literary work and logistics of attending the Sewanee Writers Workshop next week–as a student instead of a syllabus-writer, which is delightful. I’m also planning for fall teaching with the kind of open-mindedness sabbaticals can generate, because they detach you for a while from the habits that help you survive an intense job. Toward the process, I’m reading Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop. It’s full of useful, specific ideas that are smart extensions and articulations of good classroom values: anti-racist pedagogy is here a way of being pro-empowerment for students of many identities who would benefit from thoughtful support. Sewanee is kicking off with an “Ethics of the Workshop” session, too. I’m excited to learn from these conversations, meet actual (masked) human beings, and just sink into the writing life for a while, although September’s mountains loom in the distance.

Listening to Iceland

Iceland’s landscape is gorgeous, but its soundscape is striking, too. I expected to hear crashing breakers and waterfalls, but I forgot there would be a million unfamiliar bird calls. I spotted oystercatchers, terns, gulls, fulmers, eider ducks, redwings, and sandpipers, but more often I heard screeches, warbles, clicks, and chattering from birds I couldn’t see, much less identify. There was a sea cave near Hellnar full of gulls and maybe other white-and-grey birds–I couldn’t climb close enough to see them well–but their cacophony carried. From around a bend in the trail, they sounded weirdly like small children in a playground, some cackling, one crying from an injury. We never saw puffins or seals, but from steep field after steep field, the sheep had plenty to say.

What might stay with me most was the voice of ice on the move. The ocean beach near Jökulsárlón, noisy with sea-sounds and high wind, was so visually amazing we kept laughing with surprise at the black volcanic sands littered with glassy iceberg fragments, and just behind them, larger blue chunks of Vatnajökull bobbing on the waves. (The joy gets a lot more muted when you learn that this arm of the largest glacier between the Arctic and Antarctic is melting so fast that it will be a fjord in a few years.) We heard the ice much more clearly at a couple of less-visited glacial lagoons, Breiðárlón and Fjallsárlón, where we could tramp out to the edge of the lake and listen without other people nearby. The nearest floes were slushy; you could see as well as hear them crack then separate. Larger noises came from further away, including a rumble from the edge of the glacier. We froze to listen, wondering if it was calving.

We didn’t visit the volcanic eruption, by the way, which has been slowing. Here‘s a clip, though, with audio. Maybe I should write a poem called “The Geldingadalsgos Eruption as Shown by YouTube.”

This was a sparkly trip with plenty of shadows. It was a treat to ride a half-full plane to a destination that wasn’t choked with tourists–but that ease was a side-effect of a killer pandemic. I booked the flight and lodgings right after my mother died because I wanted something to look forward to, but even as I was stunned by photogenic scenery and clean scents and the freshest seafood flaked with grey salt, I was making mental lists: what really cool trips do I still have time to take in this life, if climate change doesn’t make travel less feasible soon? When will the vehicle of my body sputter and resist travel’s challenges? Already I can’t pack the days with sightseeing like I used to, and I had to dope myself with ibuprofen and lidocaine patches to manage some screaming tendonitis. I felt pretty mortal struggling up those cliffs. Plus a family member back home was having health problems, so we were on the phone a lot, trying to figure out how to help. I didn’t always feel present. The adventure was still amazing, no complaints here (!), but you can’t leave your worries out of the carry-on.

I’ll post again soon about the new issue of Shenandoah, but first I have a lot of other catch-up to do. It’s time to prep an online poetry workshop I’m leading this Tuesday (6 pm eastern until 7:30) called “The State We’re In.” It’s free to members of the Poetry Society of Virginia; check out this <a href="http://<iframe src="https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fangela.dribben.1%2Fposts%2F320838493088369&show_text=true&width=500&quot; width="500" height="658" style="border:none;overflow:hidden" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen="true" allow="autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; picture-in-picture; web-share">FB post from Angela Dribben to sign up. In the meantime, here’s a 6-second video clip taken from the cliffs above Vík í Mýrdal. We hiked a very steep trail in hopes the clouds would blow off enough for us to enjoy what are supposed to be spectacular views, but they didn’t. It was eerie being completely alone up there, seeing only the edges of dramatic drops as mist hurried around us. The audio isn’t great on this–my spouse is mumbling something–but you can hear bird cries and wind, too. The human and more-than-human join in messy disharmony.

Snagged in the antlers

I’ve been dreaming of my mother as a younger woman, the way she looked when I was a child and teenager, although in these dreams, she’s also somehow elderly and dying. The night of the summer solstice, she was sick in bed staring at a crack that had just formed on the ceiling. It looked like a man with antlers, and she was afraid of him. The next morning I, of course, went down an internet rabbit hole reading about deer-deities and Horned Gods. Underworld guides and mediators. Huh.

I thought more about the dream as I caught up with fellow poetry bloggers and read Ann Michael’s post “Constricted” about literary blockages related to sorrow. I’m pretty healthy right now, aside from the usual trouble sleeping and some chronic tendonitis (ah, middle age), but I feel the draggy reluctance to work, cook, or take walks that I associate with illness. The heat and humidity, my husband said. Sadness for my daughter, who is going through a rough breakup, is in the mix. But grief for my mother is also moving through my body and mind even when I’m not aware of it. It’s a more complicated, subterranean, barbed process than I would have guessed. I hope she’s okay out there and not frightened by whatever she’s processing. I’m not religious, or even a monotheist, but I do think we continue after death, and I feel an inner orientation to her as I did to my father during the months after he passed. I had the strong sense that he was being called to come to terms with his life and refusing the work. Being angry and avoidant would have been very much in character.

Meanwhile, after my post-Bread Loaf bout of poetry revision and submission, I’m trying to concentrate on near-final edits to the essay collection I’m publishing this fall, Poetry’s Possible Worlds. It’s about reading twenty-first century poetry, but it’s also about my mother catching my 85-year-old father in an affair with a woman forty years younger (it was 2011 and I was 43, pursuing a Fulbright in New Zealand). My mother promptly divorced him, discovering along the way that he’d lost their retirement savings. Within a year, my father remarried, fell ill, had more divorce papers served to his bedside, and died. I had LOTS of dreams about him, although my grief was different because, while I loved him, he was an impossible person to like. My relationship with my mother was full of stresses–a new poem of mine in SWWIM gives a glimpse of that–but still, I loved her wholly.

So, um, maybe that’s another reason I’m struggling to focus. The book is emotionally hard right now. Plus, the previous version ended with my mother’s recovery from lymphoma, the disease that just recurred and killed her. I haven’t revisited the book’s conclusion yet.

In short, I am negotiating my need for mental rest in relation to my work drive, which is probably the overarching theme of this blog (and my life?). My best strategy for sidestepping a sense of obligation has always been travel, which has not been possible for a while, but: I’m going to ICELAND soon! Like, next week! Just with my spouse, for fun! I hope to return to you in two weeks with my Celtic deity nightmares replaced by musings about glaciers, volcanoes, and overpriced Icelandic microbrews–although the revisions will still be waiting.

About #Breadloaf21

Okay, so my cats weren’t impressed with the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Workshop, but I was–although since I would have been able to attend in person, the virtual format was a bit of a bummer. (I know virtualness makes a weeklong workshop so much more accessible for others, though, and cheaper. Tradeoffs.) The scoop:

I was assigned to a poetry workshop with 5 other poets led by Dan Chiasson, whose writing I follow but about whom I knew nothing as a person. First blessing: he’s smart and generous with praise and help. We met for three two-hour workshops based on 10-page mss we had each submitted, and we also had individual half-hour conferences with Dan. I’m sure the various workshop teachers varied in style, but I felt lucky–this class was the best part of the conference for me. I learned a lot about my own work and spend the week revising like a demon. Another big benefit: the other people in the class were ALSO talented, kind, and wise, although our styles and concerns varied quite a bit. I felt grateful for their attention and really hunkered down over their work, too, trying to give what I received.

My classmates’ comments were sometimes contradictory, in the way of all workshops, but that can be useful. You gain a sense of what’s working for some readers and what’s not, but it’s up to you to pick through the suggestions and figure out how to address the issues they raise. What’s typical for me: I get praise for the sound textures of my poems, told they’re beautiful, but sometimes that I’m shying away from unfolding their deeper stakes. And of course some things are a challenge for any poet, such as closing with punch yet unpredictability. My job this week was to crack many of the poems open and figure out how to keep the language good while also going for broke on the material. I think I made progress, which is all anyone ever does, right? Part of the pleasure of poetry is that it’s an art no one ever masters.

There were also three lectures from the Environmental teachers and a bunch more from the Translation conference, which runs simultaneously. These were very good, but none was the state-of-the-field lecture I was craving. There’s so much brilliant environmental writing out there now and I know I miss a lot, so I had hoped for at least partial maps of current practice–a cross-genre mini-course, basically. This conference wasn’t that, although to be fair they had never promised it, either. If I were empress, I would have set up a panel discussion among a few experts in related fields to compare notes. The other thing I missed was time and space for unscripted, spontaneous interaction among participants (there was a Slack channel but no one really used it). I ended up setting up a final Zoom happy hour for my small cohort, just to chat a little more, but I did that too late to figure out how to make the party wider. We introverts need to connect with each other, but we also need a nudge to do it.

The other stuff: the tech was well-run and the staff responsive and friendly. There were also chances to meet with agents and editors in 15-minute segments, and I signed up for two of them. That’s not like me, I’m deficient in hustle, but I had promised myself to make the most of the conference, even the elements that unnerved me. I prepped like hell for each meeting and I think they went well? It is way too early to know how big a difference the whole experience will make in my writing or my ability to find audiences, but I didn’t let myself down, despite all the anxiety I described in my last post. I brought my best energy to meet what felt like a rare opportunity. It was a LOT of energy, though. I seriously need to wind down and sleep like a cat.

Two other parts of my conference plan worked out in a mixed way, in case it’s of interest. My husband went off to visit family so I could simulate a writing retreat at home. I was able to work hard, but it took a major effort of will to stop spending my nervous animation on cooking and cleaning. I think, if I had the means, I’d try to find another space if I did this again. I did, as I hoped, manage to rough out a draft of a possible next collection; that’s what Poe’s rolling around on above. It’s a mess but a start. Submissions felt impossible, but I’m going to try again tomorrow. Today I’m resting my brain, catching up on chores, and having a back-porch drink with local friends during which I’m very unlikely to think about the po-biz at all.

Conference anxiety times a million

Socializing in Rockbridge County, Virginia

I don’t have major stage fright about teaching, and I’ve come to feel like I can give a decent Zoom reading. My upcoming conversation with the brilliant writers Anjali Sachdeva and Brittany Hailer–Friday 6/4 at 7pm Eastern, hosted by the White Whale, register here by 6:30 that day!–will amp me up for the night, but talking to them about fabulism vs. realism basically sounds fun to me. Yet GOOD LORD am I nervous about participating in a weeklong fancy virtual writers’ workshop starting June 6th.

I have a pretty good idea why. For most virtual presentations, you have to be prepared, come across as warm and engaged, and stay attuned to others. The latter two tasks are harder via screen, but I now have experience managing it. What I have completely forgotten how to do: 1) interact in a substantive, sustained, open way with strangers; and 2) be my most sparkly, enthusiastic, professional self among people with literary power. That second one was never easy for me. I’m an introvert whose battery for socializing has to be recharged by solitude, and my self-confidence ebbs and flows. But the pandemic means I’m REALLY out of practice. Grief doesn’t help, either–I’ve been low and spacey since my mother’s death, and when I work too hard, my brain and body conk out.

I came across an article the other day that reminded me that instead of hopelessly dreading my likely failure to make the most of a good opportunity, I could consider planning ways to manage stress. Self-help is not my preferred genre, and I have successfully avoided lots of pieces about social reentry post-Covid, but I was click-baited this time by a title about “using sobriety strategies,” about which I know little. Plus I’m desperate. The Washington Post article by Erin Shaw Street is here, although I don’t know if the link will work for everyone.

In short, the advice is to “start with acceptance”–this reentry thing will probably take a while, and that’s okay. “Have a plan, but stay flexible”: well, I always have a plan. My idea was to turn the week into a writer’s retreat at home, so my spouse is visiting family. Next week I’ll order out, let the dust pile up, and refuse to answer email. Write write write, I thought, and get back on the submission train, too. Maybe even use the empty house to lay out all my recent poems and see if they’re beginning to form a new collection! My revised plan: sure, try all that stuff, but if it doesn’t work, just do my workshop, make the best of my two 15-minute meetings with fancy editors, forgive myself if some of it falls flat, and otherwise chill. That’s the “pay attention to your feelings” part, which lately have made themselves very clear. “Practice gratitude and mindfulness”: well, all right, I know breathing exercises and I’ve actually worked on mindfulness lately, in my distracted way. What I’m proudest of, by the way of emotional planning, is in the “having a group of trusted friends to call on” category. I have actually scheduled a phone chat with Jeannine Hall Gailey right before the conference, because she is the best literary cheerleader I know. How about that! Me, planning a social interaction for my own sake, because it will make me feel connected and maybe even slightly more confident!! Miracles can happen. I also wrote the principles on a post-it note and stuck it on my office window frame, hoping I’ll stick with the program.

If you have ideas about doing your best in this kind of setting when you’re kind of a mess, I’d be glad to hear them. Most of this blog’s readers are writers, and I don’t think introversion is rare in our tribe. The conference is the Breadloaf Environmental Writers Workshop, by the way, with my individual group of six poets led by Dan Chiasson. I actually won a scholarship to it, so it would be rational to have some faith in myself. At the very least, I plan to learn more about environmental writing as well as gathering ideas for sharpening my poems–and, based on past experience, tricks for my teaching, too. It’s useful to play student occasionally, see how others run things, and be reminded how it feels to watch others examine your work.

Meanwhile, spacey-dopey-nervousness notwithstanding, I did make my most important May deadlines. Saturday I finished a monster participant packet for another fancy workshop, Sewanee, which will be in person at the end of July (another scholarship, ahem). And yesterday I turned in a short essay solicited for a new critical collection, Eliot Now. My piece discusses work by Jeannine Hall Gailey and Paisley Rekdal in relation to “The Waste Land.” In brief, Gailey and Rekdal highlight the prominence of sexual violence in Eliot’s poem while portraying their own experiences with assault. (Gee, I wonder why I felt depressed working on it?)

Sending out good vibes to everyone for a peaceful and/or productive June, whatever you need it to be. I’m not sure how much blogging is in my immediate future, although I bet I’ll have some things to share about the workshop when it’s all over.

I don’t know what I’m doing again

That’s a line from “Pushing Toward the Canopy,” a pantoum in Blackbird and The State She’s In, and it’s an example of one of my own lines becoming an earworm, which happens to me all the time, although I probably shouldn’t admit it. Being at sea suits me sometimes. I like learning. It’s why I’m always trying unfamiliar forms and genres. I just published a short essay, “Hand of Smoke,” in Speculative Nonfiction, that’s about being a student and also demonstrates me in a state of experiment–what am I willing to say about myself in the plainer mode of prose, and is this a risk I can succeed at? Enjoying being at sea can shipwreck into stress pretty quickly.

The future is rushing at me fast, after a couple of months first in the bubble of my mother’s illness then riding grief’s first hard wave. My badly named college is graduating its class of 2021 tomorrow. The Board of Trustees has apparently already voted on whether we’re dropping Robert E. Lee from the name, but they’re not announcing the decision until June, citing security reasons. Either decision could change my relationship with the job. Would I search for a new position rather than continue to work for a place resolute in its association with white supremacy? Not sure yet, and I know I’d wait a year in any case, because I’m still cashing in on W&L’s college tuition benefit for my son’s pricey education.

The town is emptying out, the weather is steamy, the peonies are wilting, and there are only three months left of my sabbatical. I have an essay due to editors on Monday–it ain’t ready–and a twenty-page packet of poems for the Sewanee Writers Workshop in July. The following Sunday, Breadloaf Environmental Writers Workshop starts, and I have homework! I’ll be dedicating myself wholly to poetry during those times, but otherwise, I really only have five solid writing weeks left. Which is more than many people get in a year, I know. But I have three teaching preps in the fall, two of them new, plus editing and reviewing commitments to Shenandoah and the Fulbright Foundation, so my writing life is going to shriek to a stop come September.

The other side-effect of my mother’s death, though, is a changed perspective on what’s urgent. Apparently I CAN put everything aside for big swaths of time to take care of others and myself. I’d lost that muscle memory since my kids became independent. It’s a lucky thing to like your work, but work doesn’t always like you back. When it’s too much, it really is fine to say screw it. Literature is watertight and unsinkable.

Celebration & consolation

This morning I thought with a start: does “console” mean with-alone? It doesn’t, it turns out. According to the OED, it comes from the Latin con- (with) + sōlārī (to solace, soothe). We used to say “consolate” until Dryden, Pope, and others shortened it. But I like my pretend etymology, too. There’s inwardness to mourning, but it’s also touching how many people reach out kindly.

Last spring I found it deeply strange that the world was coming to life so beautifully as a virus ravaged populations all over the world. This spring, as the human social world stirs in harmony with the natural one, I’m thinking about how my mother would have appreciated the warm weather, the annual sequence of blooms, and the lift of mask mandates (I worry about the latter, but I bet she would have flung hers away triumphantly and gone to brunch with her friends, to her children’s exasperation). It’s strange not to text and call her. Guilt and shame sometimes flood in about the times I wasn’t kind to her. I woke up in the middle of the night mad at a relative who wouldn’t talk to her during the last year (although he’s also elderly, I thought in the morning, and deserving of compassion, so I will NOT be extending the grudge). I wish my mother had one more summer.

On the “with” side of lonely brooding, I’m thinking about traveling and connecting with friends, in person. I rebooked last June’s cancelled trip to Iceland as well as an August week at a NC beach house with my kids–and I’ll come to the latter straight from the Sewanee Writers Conference, which I’m looking forward to with excitement now. This Thursday Chris and I are driving up to NJ to spend three nights at my sister’s beach house before attending a small memorial for my mother in my sister’s backyard, with a few friends and relatives I haven’t seen in ages. I’ve picked out a poem from Heterotopia to read, and I’ll share a letter from my mother’s best friend while growing up in England, but other than that, this writer has no idea what to say. There’s so much, and a lot of it feels private.

Another emotionally confusing thing: my mother’s final illness somehow occurred between the first anniversaries of my 2020 books, The State She’s In and Unbecoming. This weekend marks the book-birthday of the latter, and I want to celebrate it! I went back and savored some blurbs and reviews. Here’s a lovely one from Emily Croy Barker (who also puts poetry in her tales!): “The story of a woman leading an ordinary life who discovers within herself extraordinary powers, UNBECOMING is sage, funny, and warm, like a long conversation with your best friend about all the strange and wonderful things that have been happening to her lately. Lesley Wheeler’s writing is so deft and magical that I’m convinced that she must have learned it from the fairies.” And from Gary K. Wolfe in Locus: “Unbecoming is framed largely as a satirical academic tale, but one leavened with more than a bit of witchery and magic, principally the notion, which begins to haunt the narrator, that certain women entering middle age somehow develop magical powers…there are occasional hilarious echoes of the sort of gonzo academic satire we used to see in the novels of David Lodge and others.” It would be a great book to read over the summer, hint-hint. 

I also gave the novel a photo shoot and a few social-media shout-outs. Further, I’m thinking toward a virtual conversation I have planned with two AMAZING writers, Anjali Sachdeva and Brittany Hailer, at 7pm on June 4th, hosted at the wonderful indie bookstore The White Whale in Pittsburgh (they’ll also have copies of my book for sale). This event comes from the bout of planning I was doing in late winter, before my mother got sick, and I’m glad I managed to arrange this one good thing. I hope you’ll sign up at Eventbrite or Facebook. We all work in the zone between literary and genre fiction, so we’ll read a little from our books but also talk about those borderlands.

Other good things: my poetry book just received a lovely and unusual review from Seth Michelson in storySouth. I have two poems in the new issue of Nelle and a few more forthcoming soon from other magazines. I also had a great conversation about linebreaks with Tacey M. Atsitty and Ron White, hosted by Stan Galloway at Pier-Glass Poetry and later posted here. I wasn’t sure if I could manage it, honestly, but it was fun and stimulating, reminding me that the literary life is consoling and worth celebrating.

Grief metaphors flying

In what’s probably a common response to grief, two scripts are running through my head constantly: “I wish I” and “At least I.” I’m so glad I interviewed my mother about her life for my writing; that I spent a lot of time with her in April, memorizing her the way you do when you care for a sick person in intimate ways; and that we made a fuss of her 80th birthday in February 2020. My siblings and I did two things that she loved. We bought her one of those motorized reclining chairs–lift off without moving a muscle!–and we treated her at a restaurant in Philadelphia where all the waiters sing opera. For a Mother’s Day gift in 1994, before I moved to Virginia, we had escorted her to a matinee at the Metropolitan Opera and then a fancy dinner out, but she wouldn’t have had the energy for that much travel anymore, so the restaurant was a sweet compromise. I’ll always remember her thrilled face upturned to the waitstaff during solos. “Let’s do that again next year,” she said. My head is also full of all the adventures she didn’t have, especially the travel she didn’t get to do to Bermuda, the Mediterranean islands, Australia and New Zealand, and a host of European capitols. In emigrating from England to the U.S. and then zipping around the country with my father when she was younger, she did travel more than many, but except for a trip to England that a bunch of people supported in various ways, she was both too anxious and too cash-strapped to fly in her later years (my father burnt through all their retirement savings, but that’s another story).

This week since her death has flit by strangely. I spent time with my kids, both based in Philadelphia, before driving home. I’ve written a little: a poem my hairdresser dictated the title for (he’s both a literary person and wise about grieving, and the title is “First in Line for Takeoff”); some notes of my memories of her last days; her obituary; responses to condolence notes and gifts; this blog post and the last. I’m thinking about other writing-related work: submitting mss for the virtual Breadloaf Environmental conference in June and the live Sewanee workshop in May; the Mother’s Day promotion I was going to do for Unbecoming; a short article on Eliot due at the end of May; whether it would be consoling or ridiculous to try working on my creative mss-in-progress again. The book of essays I will deliver to Tinderbox Editions before too long–Poetry’s Possible Worlds is scheduled for November publication–currently ends with my mother’s recovery from her first bout with lymphoma in 2015. Does my coda need a coda? I can hardly bear to think about it. And, of course, I’m spending a lot of time doing nothing. There’s so much to think about and avoid thinking about. I’m most comfortable perched at an intellectual distance from big feelings, noticing how the people around me process it, for instance, and my own preference for matter-of-fact conversations about her death. That’s part of what makes me a writer–metaphor itself involves displacement as well as insight–but it can also be maladaptive.

Oddly, I just published a poem about letting go this week. “The Red Door” (who knows where that image came from?) appears in the new issue of Nelle (not online but pictured below), along with a slightly longer poem called “Early Cretaceous Walks Up to the Bar,” inspired by an apparently phosphorescent gar in the Hillsborough River and very much about standing at a distance from feeling. A friend once pointed out there’s a lot of running water in my poems. O river of life, you can be a very tired metaphor, but maybe a big weird fish flying through redeems it.

Mother of stories

My mother died early Friday morning of lymphoma in my sister’s house in New Jersey. There’s a lot to process–the good way the family gathered around and helped her through rapidly worsening illness; all that she said to us as we nursed her; great kindness and serious failures in the medical treatment she received–and the logistics have been and continue to be challenging. My brother as executor now has a million kinds of paperwork to do in Pennsylvania, where he and my mother lived together. My sister has a roomful of equipment and supplies to clear, having expected my mother to stay there for months (it turned out to be just 36 hours), and she’s taking the lead with the funeral home. I arrived back in Virginia last night after spending April as a tri-state nomad, helping negotiate facilities and doctor appointments as well as caring for my mostly bedridden mother for five or six days in my brother’s house. I’m also in charge of obituaries, and I’m sure I’ll work through the experiences and feelings of the past few weeks in five bazillion new poems. In this blog, though, where writing intersects with with the complicated business of being a person muddling through, I’m honoring the ways my mother shaped my literary life.

My mother, Patricia Cain Wheeler, wasn’t a writer, but she was an avid reader. Born in Liverpool during World War Two, in a crowded tenement that she longed to escape, books helped her imagine other, better worlds. She was the storyteller-in-chief during my own childhood, conjuring Liverpool in the nineteen-forties in all its sharp contrasts with my suburban New Jersey comforts. I learned about the coal-heated houses she grew up in, with privies and bomb shelters in their back gardens, and in at least one of them, a swing she loved to ride as she daydreamed. My sister and I mapped our respective territories by upholstery seams in the backseat of an Oldsmobile; my mother’s sister drew chalk lines to construct a sort of privacy in their tiny shared bedroom. Rationing meant food was scarce for my mother and her three siblings; I grew up on Cheese Whiz, bacon-draped meatloaf, Wonder Bread, and the British chocolates my grandmother stuffed in her suitcases when she flew over for long visits. My mother’s educational opportunities were very limited, but she won a scholarship to Calderstones High School, where she played Caesar and Macbeth in school plays because, at 5’5”, she was the tallest girl in the class. At sixteen she left to study nursing at Royal Liverpool Babies Hospital, but it was difficult work. She left it to clerk at a store then, in 1962, to emigrate to the US and give in-home care to the children and elderly relatives of rich Long Islanders before she married. I wrote about these and other stories in my 2010 book Heterotopia. They’ve always exerted a powerful hold on my imagination.

My mother taught me to understand my life as a series of tales in which I was the adventurous heroine. She also gave me books. Each Christmas, the best present was a heavy shirt box filled with paperbacks, with the implication that at nine or ten, I was plenty old enough to enjoy them. They included most of the Alcott and Brontë novels plus works by Shakespeare, Jules Verne, Sir Walter Scott, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Homer, Chaucer, and much more. I remember walking down stairs carpeted in cream shag to ask her the difference between “impudent” and “imprudent.” When I was having trouble making sense of Wuthering Heights, she reread it and explained the story to me. Her taste wasn’t all high-flown, though. I also devoured her Reader’s Digests and Harlequin romances. It’s largely due to her that I always had my nose in a novel or play or epic poem, depending on them for escape and education. I told her how much I owed her for this a week ago, when she lay semi-conscious in a hospital bed, and it won me a rare smile.

She was also the parent who read all my poems and stories and, eventually, my published books, cheering me on. I owe certain teachers, too, for encouraging me to write poetry particularly, but I wrote Unbecoming because my mother taught me to love character-driven genre fiction (though she would never have used those words!). There’s a maybe-supernatural character in my novel because she loaded me up with tales about fairies and brownies and ghosts. I can’t believe that’s all in the past now, but my mother will survive as the stories we tell about her. Below are a couple of poems inspired by her life, the first from Heterotopia, the second from The State She’s In, in which she’s also a presiding spirit.

The Third Child Counts Her Options, 1949

We did own roller skates. I sometimes strapped
one over my shoe, gliding down Vronhill
Street like a sad flamingo. My sister

buzzed by on the other, pretending to
be a Luftwaffe raider. My brothers
rowed over the bicycle. There were four

of us, three fighters, and never enough
biscuits. One of us had to read the old
books instead. One of us had to sit still.  
Ambitions: Liverpool


I. In ‘62, my young mother flew from known melodies, from clouds rolling up and down the Mersey with the tides.
II. Where would I be otherwise? Each curved person a lattice of contingency. Weak sunlight filters through.
III. She was born in a curved iron and glass shed, Lime Street Station platform eight for London Midlands, with a hissing exhale and a rocking momentum.
IV. Corridors of red sandstone, arched brick, concrete bearded with soot and moss. Four pairs of rails rusted pink. The city’s muscles contract.
V. Towers topped with empty nests. Where are the birds? 
VI. My return ticket bought by her departure. My diplomas. My pay stub. My upwardly-mobile American refusal to pick up after men.
VII. Brakes whine softly until the country opens and I pick up speed.
VIII. Far away, joint-sore, she is throwing off a duvet, opening blinds, creaking downstairs to her son’s kitchen, listening to news of brutal collusions.
IX. Daisies, buttercups, yarrow—flowers that cannot be suppressed—and sheep-cropped hills beyond.
X. Clouds are heavy, sorrowful. They resist breakage but wind has its own ideas. Look at the azure vents it opens, with a tearing cry.