Writing and publishing poetry book reviews

I’m gearing up for a virtual weekend at the World Fantasy Convention, where I’ll give a Friday night reading as well as speaking on a panel about “The Weirder Side of the Fantastic,” both organized by the indefatigable, resourceful, generous writer Anya Martin. I’ll post about that next week, barring apocalypse, but in the meantime I’m thinking about what’s weird and fantastic about poetry reviews.

The WHY of reviewing is probably obvious. Most poetry books don’t get much love, so you serve writers, presses, and readers by bringing your favorites to wider attention. Every poet with means and time should give public service to the art they love, and reviewing is one way to do it (panel/ event organizing like Anya’s is another). Generosity occasionally pays off–if people appreciate you, they may help you in some future, unexpected way–and any byline can increase your name recognition. That’s not the core reason for literary service, though. Fandom is at the heart of it, plus desire to strengthen a fragile community. If you write a thoughtful review, you’ve shown the author they have at least one good reader out there. It makes all parties feel glowy.

Love of poetry isn’t all a reviewer needs, though. I’ve written a ton of criticism, so I’m a faster writer than many, but reviewing a poetry book is still an eight-hour commitment, more or less. I read the book once; put it down and think about it; reread it and start drafting; then take a break from the draft for a day, or a few days, and come back, rewrite, and polish. They’re typically 750-1500 words. Writing micro-reviews (250-300 words) is quicker, but I always end up writing long then boiling them down, a process that takes time, too.

Although I don’t always have the hours, I like reviewing a lot. It feels freeing to analyze a book without scholarly protocols. No bibliography, no citing Very Important Theorists! I’m trying to write a few reviews this year because I’m on sabbatical, grateful for good notices my books are receiving, and, at this bad moment, having a hard time concentrating on big stuff. Writing a poetry review is a way of procrastinating while still putting some useful writing out there.

The first thing to do if you want to write reviews is read a bunch of them and decide what you like and don’t like about them, ideally comparing published reviews to collections you’ve read. I personally find real-world models more revealing than instructions, but here’s how I approach the actual writing:

  • My first time through the book, I note striking lines and poems, trying to get a handle on the book’s through-lines. What’s at stake for the author? What are their strategies for exploring central themes and questions? You’re not writing a five-paragraph theme for English class, but you need an angle of interpretation.
  • In addition to an angle, I need a hook, some interesting remark or example to begin with. I’m always happy to read reviews that have an autobiographical entry-point (“I read this at a crisis point and this is what it meant to me”), but there are endless possibilities. Keep in mind that the review should be centered around the book itself, though, more than on you as a reader.
  • Type out favorite quotes as you take notes. It’s usual for a review to include many brief quotes as well as one or two in the 6-12 line range (micros excepted).
  • Increasingly, I make sure there are a couple of punchy sentences of praise in the review that the writer can excerpt. It’s fine to remark on problems or shortcomings, but I wouldn’t want to spend writing time on a book I didn’t like unless possibly, hypothetically, an incredibly popular poetry book was doing actual damage in the world. (But this is poetry. Not likely.)
  • As I revise, I think about the big picture. No review can cover every interesting aspect of a book, but it doesn’t seem right to get so obsessed with one element that you don’t convey an accurate portrait. Someone who reads a review might be thinking, “should I buy/ borrow this one?” They deserve to know whether a book is really what they want or need to read, because there are many good choices out there.
  • Writers should always try to be interesting in clear sentences, logically organized. I try to write reviews well. I don’t put them through the dozens of revisions a creative piece needs, though. Speed matters.
  • A note on multi-book reviews: I haven’t done many of these because the places I’ve written for steer away from them. But similar considerations apply: you need a hook and an angle. You also need interesting hinge-sentences (more substantive than “another interesting new book is”). I read this recent one by Rose Solari closely because she includes my book The State She’s In, but she’s got a strong angle–“Grief, Grace, and Anger” in books by women–and she she does a good job with linking/ contrasting.
  • On a related note: there IS a politics to reviewing. It’s good to review books you admire, but try, sometimes, for books that stretch you or make you uncomfortable; I always learn from those encounters. Pay attention, over time, to whose books you celebrate. I will always feel pulled to writing by people who identify as women, many of whom get less attention than less talented men, but spending time with work by writers whose experiences are different than mine feels REALLY important, too. BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and writers with disabilities deserve extra love in the current hellscape.

It’s helpful to have a target venue or two before you write so you can check on their rules including preferred length, when their review submission period is open, and formatting questions. To find appropriate ones, I check out where the author has published before as well as querying places whose reviews I generally admire. (Some writers mainly review for one publication; I hop around.) Some considerations:

  • If you’re new to reviewing, consider starting with a less-fancy venue, but always try to do a bang-up job. When you have a published example or two, you can use them as sample clips to query prestigious places, because why not? Here is a list of outlets, big and small, from Poets & Writers.
  • That said, it is totally reasonable to hold out for gigs that PAY the reviewer, although you might need a clip or two from a non-paying venue to start with. The $50 Kenyon Review just sent me for reviewing Anna Maria Hong’s Fablesque isn’t a good hourly wage, and money isn’t what I did it for, but it’s nice! (I just donated it to a Philadelphia bailout fund after another police shooting of a Black man there followed by protests and arrests. Hellscape.)
  • Some magazines want you to query first, others ask you to submit finished reviews, and still other editors prefer to assign books to reviewers themselves. Also, some venues will only print a review within six months of book publication, so get ARCs and/or work fast. I’m reviewing for Harvard Review right now after querying them with clips, and the editor had the presses send me books directly. You can also personally request ARCs from the publisher (the marketing department, if they have one) or from the author.
  • Some journals are sticklers about there being NO relationship between reviewer and author. I get the ethics of that, but I find it impractical because the poetry world is small. You get to know people who share your interests, especially if you’ve been going to conferences and festivals for a while. If you’re already very good friends with the writer, though, it’s often better to help them with publicity in other ways, like posting Goodreads reviews or retweeting their announcements.

Whether reviewing can be part of your life right now or not, I hope you’re hanging in there. I’m struggling to stay sane, but it was nice to see the Fablesque review come to fruition, as well as a short interview about editing/ submitting with Frontier Poetry and the announcement of a prize I judged for Talking Writing–the winner is B. Tyler Lee, whose work is new to me but whose essay was riveting and moving (it was a well-run contest, by the way–thoroughly anonymous). I gave a fun reading via my college library yesterday that was widely attended by students, colleagues, far-flung friends, and alumni–that was a treat. Finally, I just received my copy of an essay collection called Deep Beauty and I’m really enjoying the many wonderful, surprising, and often uplifting essays bumping shoulders with my own. May your days be full of small good things, and may we soon be smiling over a landslide election.

Blue/ jazzed

The other day we got up early and drove to western Augusta County because the hikes there are much quieter than along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where foliage is peaking and so are the visitors. On autumn mornings here, especially if the day is going to be sunny, mist hugs the ground, gathering most densely over water and other warm places, wreathing the mountains. As the car wound along the empty highway, past farms and Trump signs and gun shops and churches, we alternately dipped into foggy hollows and rose up into sunshine where dew spangled the trees and the last wisps of steam curled up from roofs and embankments. The drive was an obvious metaphor for this October. I have moments of shiny hope but I keep crashing into feeling bad in the most sweeping ways, fearing the election and many more months of isolation, losing faith in everything I’ve written, unable to concentrate on the work I should be doing now. I’m pretty sure everyone feels the same–unless you’re stuck entirely in the lowlands. Here’s hoping the view gets clearer soon.

I can’t write poems but I need to work on prose anyway, particularly honing Poetry’s Possible Worlds, a book of hybrid essays due sometime in 2021. It blends criticism and memoir in a discussion of literary transportation–meaning immersive reading or getting lost in a book–in relation to short twenty-first century poems. I was going like gangbusters last week, but I’m dragging myself through the work very slowly this week. That’s okay, I keep telling myself. The two weeks before the US presidential election were always going to suck. Even when the world isn’t in dangerous meltdown, writing is full of hills and valleys.

I traded messages with a friend last week about the discouragement we often feel about finding readerships. It’s damn hard work and doesn’t get you very far; luck and connections probably matter more. Yet it’s helpful to have camaraderie in frustration. I always read Dave Bonta’s weekly Blog Digest, and this week that struggle was a major theme, especially in Kristy Bowen’s amazing post about self-publishing. It’s awful but cheerful, as Elizabeth Bishop said, or at least cheering to remember that this is just the way writing goes. You’d better be doing the work for it’s own sake or as a gift to others, not expecting anything in return, not even attention–yet the gifts will come back to you sometimes in surprising ways.

Gifts of late: a wonderful, thoughtful review of Unbecoming in Strange Horizons and a poem called “Dragon Questionnaire” in the same magazine; participating in a warm and intimate reading series organized by Johns Hopkins professor Lucy Bucknell; word of forthcoming reviews of The State She’s In; and a local author talk on Unbecoming scheduled and promoted by W&L’s amazing library staff. The latter is Tuesday October 27th, 7 pm EST, and open to the public–just register here: https://go.wlu.edu/unbecoming. I’ll talk about the book’s origin, read a couple of spooky excerpts, take questions, and give a couple of writing prompts.

Late breaking, too: I just got tapped to read from Unbecoming at the World Fantasy Convention, virtual this year. I’ll be part of the Weird Fiction Cluster on Friday October 30th from 10:30-12:30 pm ET, 8:30 Mountain Time (it should have been in Utah this year). The timing: oy. I’m no night owl, but I’ll manage somehow. The opportunity: hallelujah! The readings will be recorded for registered participants to view for weeks afterwards, which makes potential audience reach pretty good. See? I should be pleased to have attained this little hill.

In local politics, there’s good news, too. No word yet on whether W&L is changing its name, but The Washington Post just called our next-door neighbor, Virginia Military Institute, to the carpet for failing to deal with its deeply racist campus climate, and the governor is launching an investigative probe. In a small town like this one you inevitably have friends who work there, and I’m more optimistic for them and the cadets than I’ve felt for a long while. All the little justice struggles do add up, even if it takes forever, with lots of ups and downs along the way.

Imagining poetry after the election

Inside Out
September, 2016
 
 
Shouldn’t talk with a mouthful of half-chewed flags,
but he smirks and suggests her Secret Service guys
disarm and see what happens. The crowd turns wild
and you can spot a star wedged in his molar. Scraps
of stripe dangle from a lip. Maybe, he cracks,
the Second Amendment people will get wise.
While, you know, Russians hack her to bytes.
Silk between his teeth. Democracy. Facts.
 
Bleeding on the street’s not too good for her,
thinks forty-plus percent of my broken
country. The liar calls her liar and the smear
sticks. After all, horror’s ordinary. The thirteen-
year-old boy just killed for holding a BB gun.
And an open-mouthed woman—well, blood’s her career.

Lots of 2020 poetry collections bristle with political outrage–appropriately! The slant-rhymed sonnet above, first published in Cimarron Review and now collected in my 2020 collection The State She’s In, dates from a month four years ago when I couldn’t believe the sexist, racist incitements to violence spewing from a candidate’s mouth. Two months later I couldn’t believe he’d been elected, but, silly me, I also couldn’t believe he’d last all four years. I suppose the verdict’s still out on the latter–he has to crash when the steroids wear off, right?–but surreal as it’s seemed, this presidency continues to be brutally real. My spouse’s picture is now up on the FB site of a local self-styled “militia,” the GOP is in voter-suppression overdrive, and people are hunkered in their homes, if they have them, fearing increasing right-wing violence and, oh yeah, contagion. Even if a miracle Biden landslide happens, Trump concedes without a fight, and domestic terrorist groups keep their anger to a low grumble (all of which strike me as big ifs), poets and everyone else in the US are going to continue to have a LOT to protest about, including police violence against Black Americans, deep economic injustice, catastrophic environmental damage, and a Supreme Court banking hard to the right.

I’ve felt cheered by the upswell of political poetry these last few years, and wretched as 2020 has been, it seemed right for my book to come out in March (I just wish I’d been able to read from it more). As the next collection brews, though, I’m wondering what kind of poetry I and others will need three to four years from now, which is how long the process takes, if you’re lucky. I’m now sending poems to magazines, trying to catch fall submission windows that are often quite brief, and some of them will surely go in the next ms., although I’m getting more rejections than acceptances at the moment. I tend to draft, forget, revise, forget, revise again, then send, so I didn’t know what I’d find when I reopened my 2019-2020 folders. I had been consciously working on poems with spell-like qualities meant to transform anger, and I discovered some of those, but I unearthed many more poems than I expected about mental health struggles (2019 was rough–better now). I’ve been using poetry to explore some of the hardest episodes from my past and have no idea why now. I’ve also been writing more ecologically than ever, looking for hope in natural processes.

Looking for hope sounds right; many of us need optimism and humor desperately, and I expect that will be true, too, a few years from now. Once again, as a reader, I can’t concentrate on any book that isn’t a page-turner–will that be true even a few months from now, or will I more-or-less get my brain back? I have to record a reading for the Hot L series that will air November 8th: holy cow, how can I even imagine what listeners will need a few weeks from now? All you can do is take a deep breath and remind yourself: what you should offer the world is your best, whatever that is. The best version of your art; the best energy you can summon; and writing centered on material that feels important to you, addressed with as much kindness and clear-eyed intelligence as you can muster. That’s all there is.

After that poetry submission binge, I’m back to writing ABOUT poetry in essays and reviews, at least when I can stop biting my nails over the news. I’ll be reading poetry submissions, too, as Shenandoah opens for Graybeal-Gowan Prize entries (Oct 15-31). Entry is free, the prize is $1000, and you can submit 1-3 poems in one document. You have to have a significant connection to Virginia to enter, as specified by the generous donor, but you don’t have to live here now–you could have been born here or gone to school here, for example (just describe your link to VA in the cover letter). Beth Staples and I will choose 10-12 finalists to forward to Kyle Dargan, who will choose the winner by sometime in January. If you’re not a finalist you’ll hear back by early December, probably sooner, but we get hundreds of subs, so I can’t promise those results by Election Day, either! Hang in there, friends.

Sonnet prompts from #SonnetsfromtheAmerican

Octave and sestet: my ridiculously precarious Zoom setup for delivering a paper at the Sonnets from the American Symposium, and then my home symposium-delivery system. Presenting on short-lined sonnets in a piece called “Partial Visibility,” I edited my messy desk out of the virtual window, throwing the focus instead on the bookcases behind me–so much more professorial. I thought about our partial visibility to each other all weekend, especially when Diane Seuss, the second-lo-last reader in the final event, talked about using long lines to expand the parts of life that can be included in the sonnet’s “gilded frame.” (Her new book, frank: sonnets, promises to be amazing.)

I loved the symposium, which was thoughtfully and effectively curated, and I learned a lot. Among the highlights: we viewed a video tribute to Wanda Coleman and her American sonnets put together by Terrance Hayes. There were mesmerizing live readings by Rosebud Ben-Oni, Kazim Ali, Tacey Atsitty, Kiki Petrosino, Shane McRae, Patricia Smith, and many others. Carl Phillips gave a particularly good keynote about “disruption built into” the sonnet and its “tendency to sonic dispersion,” making the form especially hospitable to marginalized writers. Fruitful panel discussions swirled around work by Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jericho Brown, Brandi McDougall, Henri Cole, and many more. I heard from friends, put some names and faces together among scholars and poets I knew only by reputation, and even saw fellow bloggers whom I’d never before met (hello, Frank Hudson! I really appreciated your comments and want to hear more about singing sonnets sometime). What I liked best were the recurrent readings of the American sonnet as a dissident form, incorporating multiple voices through its characteristic turns and pivots, treated rebelliously and inventively by North American practitioners. When Phillips called the sonnet “wired for rebellion,” he echoed the symposium’s exhilarating theme–exhilarating for me, anyway, because my education emphasized the sonnet as an exercise in obedience.

This symposium also gave me a million ideas for writing. I gave you a prompt for short-lined sonnets last week as I was prepping my paper. Here are some more, with credit to the presenters who jogged these ideas.

Interpreting the parameters of the form however you like, write a sonnet that:

  • Is a mode of transport or place of collision (Marlo Starr, “Dissident Sonnets”; Yuki Tanaka, “Cross-Cultural Sonnets”)
  • Depends on a single repeated line, like “Nothing in That Drawer” by Ron Padgett, possibly breaking the pattern at the end (Rebecca Morgan Frank, “Standing In One Place to Move”)
  • Involves collaboration, maybe tossing couplets back and forth with a partner or using octave/sestet for the switch between voices (Simone Muench and Jackie K. White, “The Sonnet as Conversation”). (I’ve been involved, too, in a couple of collaborative crowns, handing off the baton poem by poem. Here’s one.)
  • Uses a meter other than iambic, as Courtney Lamar Charleston does in “Doppelgangbanger” (Anna Lena Phillips Bell, “This resonant, strange, vaulting roof'”)
  • Is a duplex, following Jericho Brown’s torque of the form (Michael Dumanis, “Subverting the Tradition in The Tradition”)
  • Is improvisatory, derived from jazz, a mode Brian Teare discussed in relation to Wanda Coleman (I think this was in post-panel chat–but if you want to read more Coleman than the “American Sonnet” I just linked to, I highly recommend the new Selected Poems edited by Hayes)
  • Is based on David Wojahn’s “rock n roll sonnets,” Molly Peacock’s “exploded sonnets,” Tyehimba Jess’ “syncopated sonnets,” Philip Metres’ “shrapnel sonnets,” Amit Majmudar’s “sonzal,” Lyn Hejinian’s “anti-sonnets”–research these variants and have at ’em! (Kevin McFadden, “The Resistant Strain,” plus additions from the chat after)
  • Dances through the volta in an unusual way. Many panels raised these questions: where can voltas go? Can they be outside poems, or between poems in a sequence?
  • Breaks other “rules.” A prompt for any form: what patterns can you warp to put your work in lively conversation with the myriad traditions snaking behind us? Or, how can you hybridize sonnets with other forms or texts, as poets do with blues sonnets and sonnet-ballads?

I hope one of those prompts clicks for you and you start drafting. We can’t doomscroll ALL the time (hey, what would a doomscrolling sonnet look like?). For still more alternatives to watching the political weather, check out this cool cluster of short essays, “#MeToo and Modernism,” just published by Modernism/ modernity; I have a piece in there about teaching Eliot recruited after the editor saw my blog post on that subject–an interesting development that has now happened to me a couple of times. And if you’d be up to listen in on an intimate multipoet reading from 6-7pm ET on Thursday 10/15, please contact me and I’ll send you the link. It’s part of a sweetly inclusive series run by Lucy Bucknell at Hopkins, not fully public, but I’m allowed to invite friends.

Short-lined sonnets

One relatively rare variation on the sonnet form involves very short lines. Meter may be faintly present or not at all in these poems, but line number/ structure/ rhyme look familiar. I’ve always loved Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet,” a poem in this mode written late in her career and published in the New Yorker three weeks after her death in 1979.

Caught—the bubble                                 a
in the spirit level,                                      a
a creature divided;                                   b
and the compass needle                        a
wobbling and wavering,                          c
undecided.                                                b
Freed—the broken                                    c
thermometer's mercury                          d
running away;                                           e
and the rainbow-bird                               d
from the narrow bevel                            a
of the empty mirror,                                d
flying wherever                                        d
it feels like, gay!                                       e

The end rhyme is sometimes so slant that my way of marking it above could trigger fisticuffs among Bishop scholars. Less arguable is the structure: that “Caught–“/ “Freed–” parallelism marks the poem’s similarity to Petrarchan sonnets, in which an octave sets out a problem and a sestet develops or resolves it. Bishop inverts that scheme, arranging a turn after the first 6 lines. Bishop sometimes used “inversion,” a sexology term indicating gender role reversal, to encode what readers might now call queerness. The structure, that is, complements imagery of coming out of the closet. The great loves of Bishop’s life were women, not something she could be open about for most of her career.

I’ve taught this poem many times so I know there’s a lot more to say–a discussion of it can run QUITE a while. I’ve been revisiting “Sonnet” this week, though, as I prepare a short paper for a virtual symposium on the weekend of October 2nd, Sonnets from the American. I linked to the “schedule” page hoping you’ll check out how many amazing people are reading and speaking: Rosebud Ben-Oni, Kazim Ali, Meg Day, Kiki Petrosino, Diane Seuss, Patricia Smith, and many more. And it’s FREE–you just have to register. I’m a little worried about Zoom stamina–I don’t really want to miss any of it, but it’s a very full 2+ days! Still, I like the tight focus of this event and, more generally, I’m glad for these little intervals of literary community.

My paper will also cover a sequence by Adrienne Su, “Four Sonnets About Food.” I just read the book they’re collected in, Middle Kingdom, and spending time with it deepened my admiration of Su’s work, which is fabulous. Su’s short-lined poems follow a Shakespearean rhyme scheme and her metaphors are different than Bishop’s, but again, her deviation from the form actually seems MORE virtuoso than adhering to formula. Compression heats the lines to a boiling point.

An even tighter variation on the sonnet exists. Seymour Mayne calls it the “word sonnet”, but while I think they’re lovely, his work just isn’t in conversation with the sonnet form the way Su and Bishop are (Mayne’s word sonnets feel much more like haiku). I wrote my own sonnet with one-word lines, after many tries, but keeping the rhyme scheme; it’s in The State She’s In and also included below. I ended up calling the form “occluded” because I wanted to draw attention to what was missing. Being so looked at as a young woman made me intensely uncomfortable, but the way middle age brings invisibility wasn’t entirely welcome either. Maybe that’s a turn behind rather than within the poem.

I write sonnets so often that I joke about having a sonnet problem; my words will suddenly start slant-rhyming on me then I’m riding the volta and grabbing at closure perhaps sooner than is always good for the work. But it’s fun to experiment with a form that so many people recognize because of all the conversations it raises, AND the rebellions it makes possible (and visible). It’s also fun to turn my mind to a small critical problem like this one after swimming in a novel draft all summer. Smallness can be a respite, a way of organizing attention that otherwise keeps wandering toward the political horrorshow.

I voted early at the local registrar’s office the other day, another small good thing. Writing prompt: vote (if you’re in the U.S.), then compose a fourteen-line poem about voting. It doesn’t have to use meter or rhyme, but make sure it contains a volta around line nine, a turn toward something better.

Occulted Sonnet
 
You
look,
crook
head
awry
to
elude
my
 
gaze.
Nobody
sees
me,
these
days.

6 month birthday for THE STATE SHE’S IN (time does not exist)

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  

Hope, in spite of and because of

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.

Wonders, discoveries, & #thesealeychallenge2020

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!

  • 8/1 Voigt, Kyrie
  • 8/2 Atkins, Still Life with God
  • 8/3 Guzman, Adelante
  • 8/4 Hong, Fablesque
  • 8/5 Davoudian, Swan Song
  • 8/6 Matejka, The Big Smoke
  • 8/7 Hedge Coke, Burn
  • 8/8 Sealey, Ordinary Beast
  • 8/9 Chang, Obit
  • 8/10 Perez, Habitat Threshold
  • 8/11 Corral, guillotine
  • 8/12 Neale, To the Occupant
  • 8/13 Bailey, Visitation
  • 8/14 Chatti, Deluge
  • 8/15 Muench, Wolf Centos
  • 8/16 Flanagan, Glossary of Unsaid Terms
  • 8/17 Nuernberger, Rue
  • 8/18 Kapur, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist
  • 8/19 Farley, The Mizzy
  • 8/20 Avia, Fale Aitu | Spirit House
  • 8/21 Andrews, A Brief History of Fruit
  • 8/22 Taylor, Last West
  • 8/23 Harvey, Hemming the Water
  • 8/24 Ben-Oni, 20 Atomic Poems
  • 8/25 Ewing, Electric Arches
  • 8/26 Mountain, Thin Fire
  • 8/27 Randall, How to Tell if You Are Human
  • 8/28 Davis, In the Circus of You
  • 8/29 Clark, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood
  • 8/30 Nezhukumatathil, World of Wonders
  • 8/31 Murillo, Kontemporary American Poetry

Maps, teaching schedules, and other demented pre-writing adventures

Questions I have researched recently for a writing project:

  • Suture kits and how to stitch up wounds
  • Microquakes, subsidence, and local geology
  • The effects of psychedelic mushrooms and hazards of their long-term use (lots of this via my work computer, yikes)
  • Fungal behavior generally
  • The properties of copper, where it comes from, and the various ways it’s stolen
  • The stages of death from congestive heart failure, and how it’s treated at each stage
  • Home hair dyes, including instructions and the names of colors
  • Local bus schedules
  • What Bengali terms of address to family members a man who grew up in India might use
  • What weird situations a home health nurse might encounter; what the ordinary procedures are and what equipment is needed for them; who staffs the clinic that’s the nurse’s home base
  • Phases of the moon in the summer of 2021

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.

The other side of fear

This Friday, I’m moderating the first panel at the Outer Dark Symposium 2020 (virtually): “Weird Metamorphosis or Life Change.” Moderating panels doesn’t especially scare me. It’s basically leading a class discussion, except with very smart people who love to talk. I’m always nervous about Zoom, though; I’m no technological wizard, plus catching all the undercurrents in a virtual conversation is hard. To make things eerier, I have to tune in from my extremely haunted office, because I’d be competing for bandwidth at home. I usually clear out of Payne Hall when darkness falls.

I’m also thinking about fear because it’s an inescapable part of transformation stories in Weird fiction and film. Some of the panelists are especially interested in body horror, which involves violence or violation to the body, as in “The Button Bin” by Mike Allen or “Anatomy Lessens” by Edward Austin Hall. Some, in our pre-panel discussion, expressed fascination with what puts people emotionally onto that uncomfortable-to-terrified continuum. They explore it in awesome ways, thinking about race, gender, sexuality, disability, and their intersections.

I’m involved in this panel because my new novel involves the deeply weird transition of menopause. As I wrote and revised Unbecoming, though, the feeling I focused on was not fear but desire. The uncanny power growing in the main character, Cyn, lies in wishing for change, both through small rescues and major redirections. Desire is key to making characters interesting and complicated, so it’s probably central to all fiction. I had a list taped to my wall as I composed, listing what each major character thought they wanted plus what they REALLY wanted (which is often the opposite of what they thought they wanted), and sometimes what they really, really, really wanted in their secret hearts. The push-and-pull among those impulses can make a character–really a bunch of words–come to life in your imagination. Like magic.

My conscious subjects in the last few years have been ambition (a species of desire) and anger, but as I prep for this panel, I realize how fear is bound up with both emotions. My main character, Cyn, wants to rewind the clock on her rapidly changing life, so that her kids stop growing away, her marriage returns to a happier state, and her body and mind behave in the reliable old ways. She’s also afraid of being stuck in the past, as she simultaneously, paradoxically fears metamorphosis. Her powers excite her and scare her. Fee, the stranger in town, also excites her and scares her. Change tends to come violently, breaking apart the old balance, and it’s sane to dread that pain.

In actual life, this is a year of fearing not only disease but that a racist, sexist, ableist, transphobic, polluting, murderous, systematically unjust America will fail to change. I thought about that last night as I watched my own emotions unfold around Biden’s VP pick. I thought it would be Kamala Harris, so first I thought, oh, okay, that works. Harris is to the right of me, but a center-left, Democratic establishment leadership would be a BIG step up from what we’ve got. I’ll be voting for them.

My next reaction, though, was to skip right over the gratification I expected to feel about having a Black woman, a child of immigrants, on the ticket. Instead I went straight to fear. The misogyny of the last election cycle–from lefty friends, moderates, right wingers, the whole spectrum–destroyed me, not least because I was battling harassment at work simultaneously. The season of misogynoir ahead might break me again. I’m also worrying about the math. Will young people and progressives skip voting because a Biden-Harris ticket depresses them? Will all the moderates who don’t know they’re misogynists start using sexist lines like “she just rubs me the wrong way” or “I don’t see her as presidential”?

If you’re thinking, “um, Lesley, if you’re having a fear problem, maybe take a break from the Weird”: I do better with engaging fear and seeking answers on the other side. The narrative I’ve had the hardest time with lately is Mrs. America on Netflix. I can see it’s good–strong acting, important material–but watching that Schlafly character try to monster her way out of a toxic miasma of oppression: THAT is horror. I grew up in that cloud, starving myself to hold off adolescence; directed to smile and avoid upsetting my always-angry father; criticized by family and strangers for not being femme enough; even told by my mother during my first pregnancy that women who work shouldn’t have children. I prefer fictional werewolves any day of the week.

Anyway, here’s to climbing out of what’s bad, toward the better. I had a wonderful time talking to Anya Martin and Ed Hall on the Outer Dark podcast last week, for all of the thunderstorms banging around in the background. We discuss the novel in the first half of the podcast, my new poetry collection in the second half, and the episode concludes with an absolutely amazing seven-minute review by Gordon B. White. The Outer Dark conference should be fun; I’m giving a reading there, too. I close my #TinyBookFair today, in which I gave away 17 signed copies of my books in exchange for donations to Project Horizon, a local organization dedicated to reducing domestic and sexual violence–the total is $385, exceeding my goal. Also today, I have a poem of politic desperation and, I hope, resistance up on Verse Daily (it was originally in 32 Poems and I have to credit editor George David Clark for helping me make the poem stronger–bless the editors!). I’m still looking at that mountain, its gloomy hunch but also its glow.

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