Currents and circuits

I’ve been revving high without going anywhere for a while, having entered the work-around-the-clock part of the term, so I’m going flat-out all day and it’s hard to calm down at night, much less write poems or do other creative work that makes me feel peaceful. Thinking about how to manage my energy better made this poem come to mind. It appeared in a 2018 anthology, Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle edited by Marilyn L. Taylor and James P. Roberts, and I’ll probably include it in my next poetry collection, providing the publishing world wants book number 6 from me.

Return Path


The only way to pray is through my feet,
earthward, jolted in return by the fizz
of a spiking current. I never thought a circuit

would loop through me, believed I was separate, 
alone, done with gods, but here it is:
I’ve found a way to pray. Through my feet,

I reach down. There’s something animate,
chthonic, that touches me back. It’s a species
of love, a thinking-spike, a zinging circuit

of energy and dirt, blood and spirit—
plutonic conversation, mostly wordless.
The way I’ve found to pray is through my feet,

sole bared to wooden boards, or rug, or slate,
or buggy grass, just as you want to press
skin to a beloved’s, sparking a current, a circuit.

Not that earth loves me, exactly. Matter’s what
matters. She wants me to return the mess
of my only body, pray from head through feet
as I sink, unthinking ash, into love’s circuit.

I call myself agnostic mainly, atheist occasionally, but I pray sometimes. I don’t discuss it much: saying you talk to the underworld is likely to concern religious friends on behalf of your soul and skeptical friends on behalf of your brain. But while praying the way I was taught in Sunday school felt terrible–addressing formal words to a pale and distant father in the sky who never answered–connecting imaginatively to soil and rock settles me. I even get good advice sometimes. Yep, what’s returning my calls may be a deeper part of myself rather than an outside force, yet I have an inkling that the inside-outside distinction is wrong-headed anyway, so I don’t worry about it. I’ll take whatever help the universe is offering.

Right now, I’m focusing on connecting gears so the revving gets me somewhere–with small and partial success. I just received edits on the second half of my essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, so I’m starting to enact those revisions, even though it’s a difficult time of year to carve out any hours. I also discovered an absolutely lovely blurb for the book in my inbox, from someone I had contacted out of the blue. A friend generously helped me research some cover ideas. I’m getting ready to speak at a virtual Writer’s Week held by the University of South Carolina at Wilmington, and then physically attend World Fantasy Con in Montreal, if the gods allow. A panel I’m on was just accepted for the virtual AWP but two others were rejected from the in-person one, though, so I’m second-guessing my intention to apply for university funds to attend. It’s hard to make decisions as the winds pick up.

In the shorter term: please let me know (at wheelerlm@wlu.edu or in the comments) if you’d like the Zoom link for a reading at 6pm Eastern on October 21, hosted by Lucy Bucknell of Johns Hopkins. She doesn’t post the links on social media so it’s usually an intimate group of 6 readers doing 10 minutes each–nice vibe. Next week’s lineup will include:

Elias Baez is a poet from New York.  He’s Poetry Editor at GAYLETTER magazine and has work in The Bitchin’ Kitsch and The Daily Drunk

Helena Chung is a Korean American poet currently living in Brooklyn. She is a recent graduate of the MFA program at UVA.

Linda Campbell Franklin, aka Rowena Sunder & Barkinglips, messes around with words, pictures, dogs, cats, outsider art, and antiques; and writes/illustrates all kinds of books.   

Jalynn Harris is a poet and book designer from Baltimore. Author of Exit Thru the Afro, she earned her MFA from the University of Baltimore. 

Caroline Preziosi is a poet and artist from Baltimore. She is currently pursuing an MFA at School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  

…with me at the end reading a couple of poems from The State She’s In and a couple of new poems, too. I hope our circuits connect and I see you there.

Dream, river, poetic convergences

My dream-life has been off-the-scale intense, populated by strangers demanding I change my life. The tarot spreads of my daily meditations keep saying so, too–that I’m feeling a call and soon to walk away from something but resisting change so far. I must have carried that energy to Harpers Ferry this weekend, when my spouse and I met our kids for a pseudo-Parents Weekend at a rented house. They all seem much more balanced at life cruxes than I am: my husband unbalanced by midlife transitions; my college-aged son, just turned 21, trying to divine what he wants to do with his life; my 24-year-old daughter recovering from a tough summer and pondering grad school. Me, I’m just a postmenopausal writer struggling to straddle different obligations, a bunch of books behind me and more in development, although in general I’m trying to treat myself more kindly. I’m not exactly sure what the big transformation is although my unconscious keeps insisting it’s coming.

It was the perfect landscape for wondering about it, where the Shenandoah and Potomac converge in sparkling streams. Perhaps because we were VRBOing in a Civil War-era house, different histories seemed to be streaming together, too. Union and Confederate troops battled furiously over this bit of land and water; for a while it was something like an international border. Perhaps that was why I kept hearing ghost-men sobbing and moaning during the night, although there’s also a brutal history of enslavement to consider. The river is now lined by ruined mills among which we walked as the morning fog burned off. I read every bit of signage we passed, learning that this area was also home to an important primarily Black college, Storer. Important abolition movement events happened in Harpers Ferry, and the area became a hub of African American tourism later. We had to end our hike before seeing the remains of John Brown’s Fort–Chris twisted his ankle–but after I brought him back to the rental, I enjoyed tramping around Bolivar Heights by myself. It was a cool trip although I have to say I felt uneasy most of the time (well, except while sipping rose on a restaurant patio, when I felt lucky indeed).

I have lots going on this week–classes in full swing and approaching midterms, random medical appointments, a colleague’s teaching to observe, a meeting with the new Dean about a task force I foolishly agreed to run long ago, before the pandemic turned me into a skeptic of university service, which is effectively free work now that merit raises have stopped and there are no more promotions to aspire to. (Maybe that’s the change, me bowing out of the task force? Sigh.) Here’s a plug for Shenandoah‘s open reading period, though: if you’ve lived in Virginia 2+ years now or in the past, you’re eligible to apply for the Graybeal-Gowen Prize for Virginia Poets, which thanks to the donors could earn you $1000. It’s free to enter here and the final judge will be Deborah Miranda, my wonderful and recently retired colleague. Try! The submission pool is way smaller than the general call for poems that will open in January.

All right, off to rustling leaves and walnuts thumping in my backyard like student poem drafts demanding my feedback.

Rereading Sedgwick, or, Oh Yeah, I Like Teaching

The first paragraph from this famous essay by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick just stopped me cold:

“Sometime back in the middle of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, I was picking the brains of a friend of mine, the activist scholar Cindy Patton, about the probable natural history of HIV. This was at a time when speculation was ubiquitous about whether the virus had been deliberately engineered or spread, whether HIV represented a plot or experiment by the U.S. military that had gotten out of control, or perhaps that was behaving exactly as it was meant to. After hearing a lot from her about the geography and economics of the global traffic in blood products, I finally, with some eagerness, asked Patton what she thought of these sinister rumors about the virus’s origin. ‘‘Any of the early steps in its spread could have been either accidental or deliberate,’’ she said. ‘‘But I just have trouble getting interested in that. I mean, even suppose we were sure of every element of a conspiracy: that the lives of Africans and African Americans are worthless in the eyes of the United States; that gay men and drug users are held cheap where they aren’t actively hated; that the military deliberately researches ways to kill noncombatants whom it sees as enemies; that people in power look calmly on the likelihood of catastrophic environmental and population changes. Supposing we were ever so sure of all those things—what would we know then that we don’t already know?’’ -from “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You”

Very different epidemic–AND a remarkably speedier development of treatments and vaccines (an observation I don’t think is paranoid)–but still, what foreshadowing in a piece originally published nearly 20 years ago! The essay goes on to analyze the contagiousness of suspicion as an approach to texts taken by literary critics and theorists, as in, “Let me expose the prejudices lurking behind this poem.” Rather than strive to forestall humiliation by the author-poet who wants to put one over on you, a reader could, she suggests, seek pleasure from a piece of literature, because life is pretty hard and art can make us feel better. That’s a gross oversimplication, and I’m not even touching on some really important aspects of the essay: how she describes each method working in queer theory plus the Freudian stuff (so much Freud…). Yet this essay grants a professor permission to be a fan as well as an analyst of poetry, and many others have taken it that way, too. What a pleasure to revisit it.

My first full week of teaching was exhausting, full of positive feelings about my students but inflected by pandemic fears, too. Cases are rising fast here. We’re in person, masked, but students are having tons of unmasked encounters–let’s call them encounters–in residence and dining halls and, I presume, at parties. Prepping for and teaching 6 90-minute classes is as hard as I remembered, even before the grading starts; things are high-powered here, with smart students chewing through material fast, something that’s both lucky and sometimes a major challenge to keep up with. And there are all the extras like advising, reference letters, department meetings and consultations, university-wide meetings and events, etc etc. I’m beat.

Yet I’m having fun, too. I’m prepping Sedgwick’s essay for a senior seminar called “Taking Literature Personally”; during that session we’ll try some paranoid and reparative reading of Frank O’Hara’s poetry (no spoilers, but my lesson plan involves crayons). For yesterday’s class, we read the poem “Philomela” and the essay “Nightingale” by Paisley Rekdal as well as the Ovid tale for background, which is infinitely darker material though just as powerful. Whatever the literature at hand, the flow experiences of rereading then planning discussions feels really good. I wish I had more time to linger in it, but I’m being strict with myself about stopping work when I’m tired. I’m an introvert who HAS to recharge and a grown-up person who HAS to rest and sleep. I’m doing okay at it for now.

The picture below is from my book signing here in Lexington this week. Office hours, teach two classes, assemble cheese plate, then hold court at an author event for 2 hours–it was ambitious for a Tuesday. Yet pleasurable, too. I’m sure I’ll feel the same about my Randolph College reading next week, where at least I don’t have to cater the refreshments. Meanwhile, here comes Friday night, a drink with a friend, a gentle hike tomorrow morning. As I used to tell myself during college hangovers: pacing, Lesley. Everything’s more fun when you get the pacing right.

Pandemic books, like pandemics, keep coming

September 2021 in the U.S.: vaccines are widely available for those over 12, yet people are still suffering and dying from Covid-19 at a higher rate than last September, newspaper articles keep telling me. This is a comparatively trivial point, but for related reasons, it continues to be a tough time to launch a book. I feel for those authors who postponed and postponed, thinking this fall would be the moment.

Things are better for authors now than when I launched The State She’s In in March 2020 and Unbecoming in May 2020. Businesses have found workarounds and vaccinated people are rightly less afraid to enter them; an occasional literary event is in person, with caveats; organizers are more skilled at running virtual events and authors are better at presenting from a distance. Zoom presentations tend to be less engaging, but it’s no secret that live ones are a pretty mixed bag, too, as when a tweedy writer is staged at a podium, symbolically elevated above the audience and enforcing the sacred Literary Appreciation Hush. Yet even when in-person events are stuffy and formal, there’s a surprising amount of multisensory mutual feedback happening. That dynamism has been widely observed to result in better book sales. I think one lesson of the last year and a half is that authors and audiences benefit from virtual events–I’m now a firm believer that they should be in the mix–but that virtual promotion works best when it supplements rather than replacing presence.

I’m be swamped with teaching work soon, but with all this in mind, I just spent some time on Goodreads, giving stars and occasionally brief reviews to books I read this summer. This is an especial kindness to small press authors. None of us can afford to buy every book we might like by every author deserving more attention, but here’s a reminder to do what you can–Goodreads and Amazon reviews, social media praise, library requests, putting new books on your syllabi, whatever sounds doable for you. That circulation of dollars and attention rarely puts much money in a small-press author’s pocket, but it does enable indies to stay afloat, therefore publishing good writers who haven’t hit it big (yet) and keeping the literary world more lively, quirky, and full of risk. It’s much easier for a writer to place the next book when the previous one has done decently. And, of course, love gives a writer heart. This pandemic would have hurt worse without the company of books.

I’m also pondering what I can still do for my 2020 publications, knowing that plenty of people who might like them haven’t got around to checking them out yet. The plan:

  • I arranged a local signing of Unbecoming at a new Lexington, Virginia bookstore, Downtown Books, on Tuesday September 14th from 5:30-7:30. There will be wine, snacks, and goody bags stuffed with little doodads I began gathering pre-pandemic. The goody bag candy, however, will be newly purchased, because the chocolate eggs I bought to match the cover of The State She’s In, and which I had planned to scatter on the Tinderbox table at my AWP signing, are REALLY OLD.
  • I’m reading poetry at Randolph College at 8 pm on September 22, with Fran Wilde. We were the fall and winter Pearl S. Buck Writers in Residence but our readings were postponed to this academic year, with the aforementioned optimism. Despite masks and distancing and that frisson of risk, I’m really looking forward to it.
  • I’ll be presenting in person at some winter gatherings: DisCon III, an SF convention in DC in December; a NEMLA panel on hybrid writing in Baltimore in March; the Virginia Festival of the Book in March; and maybe, verdict out so far, at AWP in Philadelphia (also March, so that month is starting to look pretty nuts). Late fall booster shot, anyone?

I’m thinking I should try to arrange more events like readings or workshops at regional bookstores, places I can drive to. I’m also wondering if, instead, I should cool it, go gentler on myself. Applying for literary opportunities is a ton of work, and then doing events is a ton of work, but we all have to take care of our damn selves. People keep telling me that teaching stressed-out students while you yourself are masked and nervous is even more tiring than teaching was formerly. I guess I’m about to find out how much will be left of me at the end of each workday. My Tarot cards say that my life is in balance now but I’m about to totally lose control. Yee-hah.

“A diary of this kind is neither authentic nor satisfactory”: Millay’s journals

Champagne for breakfast!–no, I’m only kidding, but that’s what Edna St. Vincent Millay had on her birthday in 1933. I was asked to blurb an edition of her diaries, Rapture and Melancholy: The Diaries of Edna St. Vincent Millay, edited by Daniel Mark Epstein and forthcoming from Yale University Press. I’ve been reading the galleys for days. My head is full of her voice, which IS rapturous and melancholy sometimes, but also hilarious and chatty and occasionally wonderfully snarky. “The weather is frightful!” “Got the curse.” “I’ve just had my first gin-fizz. And it’s not going to be my last.” Millay records some mundane details–letters received, college grades, her weight when she was ill–and lots of meticulous observations about social and natural worlds, especially the flowers and birds at her Steepletop estate, where she gardened her heart out (sometimes in the buff) and occasionally hosted visitors, plenty of them distinguished.

Millay kept diaries on and off from the age of 15 forward, with big gaps. Some diaries could have been destroyed by family to conceal evidence of her wild adventures, but it’s just as likely that her diarizing was sporadic. She needed the money publication brought. Millay grew up in painful poverty, but even after she became famous, with funds for housecleaners and travel and scenic properties, she depended on her income from publishing and performances. I’m glad she wrote privately about asters and green snakes and bobolinks, but it wasn’t a practical way to spend her limited energy.

I don’t rely on income from my writing and a good thing, too. Yet her journals make me think about the calculus of blogging about poetry. There are plenty of people who can’t afford to give any writing away or who, at least, choose not to. I see the sense in that and sometimes wonder if diverting writing energy to this blog has dented my rusting jalopy of a career.

Blogging isn’t the same as keeping a diary, of course. Millay shared her journals with friends once in a while, and her husband even contributed occasional updates. She also constructed imaginary readerships, especially when younger, addressing entries to mother-substitutes and future lovers. But they were essentially private undertakings. Teenaged Millay gets quite fierce on the subject:

Resolved.
Firstly. That, henceforth, no one reads my diary.
Secondly. That whosoever, by stealth or any other underhand means, 
opens these pages to read, shall be subject to the rack, the guillotine, the
axe, the scaffold, or any other form of torture I may see fit to administer.

Blogs can be diary-like in their episodic reflections and informal voice, but even when the tone is intimate, they’re meant to be read. Further, they can be instruments for increasing an author’s visibility, and very occasionally they generate revenue. This platform has probably raised my profile a tiny bit, but not in proportion to the amount of effort it requires. In how they aim at small audiences, literary blogs seem more like letters–bids for connection among friends in the ether–but they do resemble private diaries in cultivating habits of attention that nourish a writer’s practice. They’re also zones of experiment for constructing a public self.

I like blogging because I like writing but publication is slow. It’s nice to have an immediate outlet for thoughts I’m not ready to cast as essays or poems. I’m not about to stop in favor of more strategic writing behavior, although one day I might. But I do regret a little having channeled time away from truly private writing. What’s really on my mind is often not mine to share–this week, “worrying about a friend in trouble” doesn’t even remotely cover it–so I end up misrepresenting aspects of my life in my blog, probably most often by projecting coherence I certainly do not feel. I don’t know if any entry is really better than a verbal selfie, in which I “show” my writing, reading self at a deceptively flattering angle. As Millay said at one of the many moments she castigates herself for not writing, “A diary of this kind is neither authentic nor satisfactory.”

Well, poets are experts at the simulacrum of presence, creating an illusion of voice through dry printed words. Millay certainly was. “What kind of beast would turn its life into words?” Adrienne Rich once wrote. Me, I guess, over and over again, trying to be authentic enough to satisfy myself.

When revisions are even harder

I’ve been working flat-out on honing the manuscript of an essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, due from Tinderbox Editions late this year or early next (I suspect the latter at this point). It’s a blend of memoir and criticism with a good dose of cognitive science and narrative theory, plus thirteen 21st century poems reprinted in full to anchor the short chapters. Recounting the close of my con-man father’s life, it’s also the story of reading poetry through personal crisis AND an analysis of how “literary transportation” works when you enter a poem’s pocket universe (that’s immersive reading or getting lost in a text, for the layperson). I’ve been drafting this book since 2012 so it’s really important to me. Closing in on a final version I’ll submit to an editor, though, always makes me nervous. You’re down in the weeds, seeing ways a sentence here and there could be made more elegant, checking the bibliography, and wondering whom you’ve inadvertently omitted from the acknowledgments. But it’s also the last time you can try for the 30,000 feet perspective, imagining how the book will be received by others and trying to catch those moments of obtuseness or under-explanation that inevitably linger. Hard work in multiple ways.

This book, though, works through challenging personal material. On the good side, there are stories of travel, particularly my 2011 Fulbright in New Zealand; reflections on growth and change; and positive representations of sustaining relationships. The dark stuff involves, of course, tales of my dishonest and narcissistic father but also workplace harassment; a long-ago sexual assault; Chris’ mother’s dementia; and my mother’s first round of lymphoma in 2015. It shook me to spend time with that material again. Worse, since my mother died of the lymphoma’s recurrence in April, I had to put my sentences about her into the past tense. No wonder I was resisting finalizing the ms.

I did the same thing to myself in July, at the Sewanee Writers Workshop. I had to finalize my workshop ms in May, and it was full of poems about my mother’s death and other tough material. Somehow, for the last couple of years, I’ve finally been writing about childhood abuse and mental health. My mother always read my poetry books, but I think at some level I knew she wasn’t likely to read this new stuff. I’m freer to be honest than before, and some of what hurt me long ago was my mother choosing not to protect us from my father. Again, no wonder Sewanee was emotionally intense.

I came to a good pause point on Poetry’s Possible Worlds this morning, and I go to Chris’ play The Zombie Life in Richmond tonight, so next week I’ll be turning my attention to different things: a department retreat, course prep, reference letters, poetry submissions, and as many other smaller writing-related tasks as I can squeeze in. That sounds like a lot, but except for the poetry subs, it isn’t nearly as difficult. Writing, as I tell my students, is a complex task with many factors always in play, which is why even a short, imperfect essay or poem is such an achievement. It’s salutary to be reminded, as I approach another academic year, that it can be hard in other ways, too.

Convertible and weird

I’m home from Sewanee followed by a pretty decent week at the beach. It was wet in North Carolina, but we hot-tailed it to the beach whenever the rain stopped for a couple of hours. The surf was wild, the water hospitably warm. Our rental house on the sound had kayaks and bicycles we made the most of, plus an insane parrot and flamingo decoration scheme, which I’m inclined to put down in the “plus” column. If you see some metaphors in my beach report, so do I. This summer was packed with challenges–and sometimes opportunity–for me, my family, and friends. It’s not over, but my tan is fading. My tarot spreads, a pandemic hobby that hasn’t run out of gas, are full of aces and fools, signs of new beginnings, but also upside-down wheels and travelers. They hint that it’s time for change, although I’m resisting it.

Our teaching year begins properly in September, preceded by buckshot meetings that I will dodge as possible. In the meantime, I’m prepping for one last summer event. ReaderCon, which I’ve never attended but which has a rep for being the most serious and interesting U.S. speculative fiction convention, kicks off this weekend for its first virtual iteration. I’m moderating two panels, one on historical sf by women, the other on critical theory and sf. I’m bemused to realize I actually do have some expertise in the latter. Among English PhDs, I definitely don’t count as a theoryhead, but among sf writers who read for writerly inspiration, I think I’ll do okay. Wish me luck. And if you’re intrigued, it’s still possible to register here for just $25.

I’m also revising like crazy, converting drafts workshopped at Sewanee into snazzier models. That involves sifting through a lot of advice, putting much of it aside, then tinkering with suggestions small and large. Mostly I like this work, but there’s too much of it for a compressed late-summer timeframe, and I’m afraid that if I put it off I’ll forget what my scrawled notes mean. I thought I was going to do the Sewanee Workshop in the summer of 2020 then cruise into the relative intellectual leisure of a sabbatical, but, you know, best-laid plans. The upside: better poems! I’d like to get some submissions out during August magazine reading windows, but we’ll see, because I’m ALSO also completing final revisions on my forthcoming essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, as my editor’s advice rolls in.

Too much, right? I like all of the projects I have underway, just as I’m excited about each of my three fall classes, but I also can’t work this hard all the time, keeping the engine just this side of overheating. Meanwhile, I hear my university’s administration wants to raise caps on our fall courses, basically because they miscalculated, underhired, and don’t have enough seats for first-years (strategically, would be my guess). My question for them at a Zoom meeting last spring was “how are you planning to lower the stress next fall for your burnt-out and exhausted faculty?” (Demoralized, too–we had voted to change Robert E. Lee’s memorialization in the university name and the trustees said “nah.”) Instead, the administration is putting out ask after ask, even during the summer, which was once time we were urged to protect for research and recharging. There’s an analogue here to the U.S. “worker shortage,” meaning people resisting working too hard for too little money under bad conditions. I’m personally fine, with way more options than most if I can just make myself rev down, but generally, the university’s aspirations to remain a top-ranked liberal arts college do not jibe with undermining the faculty’s ability to teach well and thrive.

Speaking of change: my poem “Convertible Moon,” a sapphics-ish elegy for my mother-in-law, appears in the new issue of One. I wrote it maybe five years ago, right after she died, and rewrote it many times, struggling to open a hyper-compressed poem to the air. Meanwhile, an etymological riff of a poem, “In Weird Waters Now,” appears in Smartish Pace 28. That one came fast. I drafted it, polished it, sent it off, and it was taken on the first try. I’d like more magic like that in my life, but in my experience, you earn the breakthroughs only by keeping your writing practice alive, and that’s time an overstuffed workday tries to edge out.

Finally, if you’re in Virginia and can make it to Virginia for a play in Richmond, please buy a ticket to The Zombie Life, written by my brilliant spouse, Chris Gavaler. There’s a feature on it here. Talk about weird transformation. It’s as if it’s a theme in our lives, or something.

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.