Don’t read this if you’re focusing on gratitude

As I slice sweet potatoes and cube challah bread for stuffing, I’m feeling not grateful or festive but sick at heart about two things: the injustice at Standing Rock, and what this election is going to mean for my children’s generation. I am fortunate to have my daughter home from college and a visiting cousin to cook for and a warm house full of food, and I think people absolutely need and deserve those consolations between the political storms, but this year, a sense of peace is just not something I can conjure with cups of tea and wedges of apple pie.

“And as the numbers came in on election night I watched him head to his room, his head down, his shoulders curving into his chest…he was slowly beginning to understand new truths: that the people who love you cannot always protect you, that unkindness can be a platform for the presidency.”

That’s Jacqueline Woodson writing about her 8 year old son for the New York Times. Over the last two weeks, as I’ve struggled with my own feelings, I’ve also been watching understanding sweep over the children and young people I know. The Wednesday morning after the election, my phone lit up with texts from friends, telling me their daughters were sobbing uncontrollably. Lots of kids are now worried that they, or their friends, or their parents will get deported or suffer violence. Sometimes they just feel humiliated–here is proof that half the whole country thinks less of them because of their gender or the color of their skin. I don’t know how to name what my own 16-year-old white son seems to be feeling–fury at systemic injustices, certainly, but mixed with a kind of crushed shame. And of course, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has been reporting, hate crimes are up, a high proportion of them in schools. Fear and shame are appropriate reactions, much as I hate to see them in children and teenagers. Most of the young people I know want to believe in justice and want to be good, although those impulses seem to burn out for many by full adulthood.

Kids who can’t remember much about pre-Obama politics are now seeing the backlash, or, as Larry Wilmore put it, the “Blacklash.” They’re only now realizing how impenetrable that glass ceiling for women still remains. They need to know these truths, but it’s still beyond awful to watch them learn it.

And while I’ve always loved Thanksgiving–at least the version of it without my father, who was usually filled with right-wing rage at this time of year–the holiday itself is basically Fake Racial Unity Day, a whitewashing of genocidal histories. The traditional narrative of cooperation is especially unconsoling given the current brutal fight over oil rights on Sioux land in North Dakota. Water cannons. Protest met by police violence. Looks a lot like a Civil Rights struggle but national media outlets are barely touching it. Where is my president now? If even President Obama has his head in the sand–or is unwilling to speak out against big oil–well, is there anything we can be proud of our country for anymore?

Told you not to read this. Because I do believe, however, most wholeheartedly, in dessert, I’ll leave you with a scrap of a David Remnick article. Remnick asked the president what he told his own daughters about the election, and this was the reply–sane and yet inspiring, a feat Obama seems to manage improbably often:

“What I say to them is that people are complicated…This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop…You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.”

He’s a good man. I’ll raise my untrusting, ungrateful glass tonight to the hope that at Standing Rock, he’ll follow his own advice.

 

 

Battles lost

awp-sunset

I’ve always had the sense that people looked at me skeptically when I characterize my life as damaged by sexism. I’m a US-born person of European descent who never had to go hungry. I obtained a good education, was legally able to marry the person I love, and now earn a respectable living. How bad can it be?

Yet I’ve also been discriminated against, groped, and raped. I’ve done work I’m proud of despite the constant battery–I’ve fought hard, that is, to prove myself, even as others hurt or just underestimated me–but those achievements are often disparaged or overlooked. The message: as a woman, I am less than a full person; I don’t have rights over my body; I can’t be trusted to lead. And now roughly half the voting adults in my country have confirmed that message by electing a woman-despising groper to the presidency.

Yes, I’m taking this election personally. It is personal. As I write, at dawn, my phone is buzzing with misery. Downstairs, my son and husband are choked up and slamming around. I feel terrible for my brilliant feminist children, and for my students, even though some of the latter surely voted for our criminal president-elect. They’ll have to live with the repercussions longer than I will, and who knows what the world is in for?

At the top of this post is a sunset picture I took a few days ago in Tampa from the River Walk. I was in town for an AWP board meeting, trying to serve an underfunded organization that serves writers mightily, but I was also just aching from a brutal week at work, so I thought, well, I should take care of myself, by spending a couple of hours walking, looking, breathing. It felt good. Tampa is going to be a great site for the AWP conference in 2018–how awesome will it be to duck out of the convention center between terrific readings and walk along the water in balmy weather? I was, in short, tired and worried but also optimistic. I thought, well, there’s a lot of poison at my college and everywhere else, but I know an awful lot of good people who are working to clear it out. That’s auspicious, right?

I guess it still is. The same good people–like the AWP staffers who left the Gwendolyn Brooks quote below at my place setting–will keep battling to make the world better, one word at a time. And this morning’s news certainly clarifies my work as a writer and teacher.

I don’t feel safe, but now it seems even more vital to voice that persistent truth. I don’t know how I’ll be handling all this in my classes today, but I will convey that I like and respect all of my students and hope to help them thrive. That is, I’ll make safety, or try to, while, somehow, we live in the along.

awp-card

Ligeia’s fleas

fem-eyesThe following fragment was received telepathically from our feline boarder Poe on October 27th, Black Cat Day, about a month after my mother-in-law’s cat joined the household.

I cannot, for my soul, remember how or when I became aware of Female’s* residence in the empty bedroom. Or, perhaps, I cannot now bring these points to mind, because, in truth, the character of my beloved, the singular way her belly sways as she waddles on toothpick legs, and the thrilling eloquence of her quacks and growls, made their way into my heart by paces so steadily and stealthily progressive.

There is one dear topic, however, on which wit fails me not. It is the alluring beauty of Female. In stature she is tiny, although astonishingly rotund and possessive of the kibble upon which I had heretofore made solitary repast. I would in vain attempt to portray the majesty, the supreme crankiness, of her demeanor, or the incomprehensible thumping of her footfall. She comes and departs as a cannonball. Her loveliness is the radiance of a catnip-dream. Yet her features are not of that regular mould which we have been falsely taught to worship. “There is no exquisite beauty,” says Bacon, Lord Verulam, without some strangeness in the proportion.” Yet, although I see that the features of Ligeia–I mean Female–are not of a classic regularity –I have tried in vain to detect the irregularity and to trace home my own perception of “the strange.” I examine the contour of the short fuzzy forehead –faultless. I regard the whiskers, ivory and sable–her bared teeth glancing back, with a brilliancy almost startling, every ray that emanates from the reading lamp. And then I peer into the large eyes of Female.

They are, I must believe, far larger than the ordinary eyes of Felis catus. They are even fuller than the unnaturally azure eyes of the newborn Florida panther. The hue of the orbs is the most brilliant bronze, foxed with brown spots. The “strangeness,” however, must be referred to the expression. The expression of the eyes of Female! How for long hours have I struggled to fathom it! Those eyes! those large, those shining, those divine orbs! they became to me ominous meteors, and I to them devoutest of astrologers.

The uneasiness of that expression transferred itself to me until my own shaggy mane itched. And too, too slowly, understanding dawned. The obsessive scratching and rolling on Indian carpets–the chemical stink she bore home from a mysterious expedition by automobile–the humans’ alarm and fussing with sprays and tinctures–my beloved’s moon-white dandruff and the rare irritability of her temper–Female has a persistent case of fleas. And yet, helplessly drawn, I continue to stalk her during her restless wanderings, scrambling from piano to coffee table to evade her claws, scratching in devoted mimicry, until naptime doth us part.

Fin

*Female rhymes with Emily. The reason my mother-in-law thought this name funny remains shrouded in impenetrable mists. The reason I thought transcribing this tale a wise use of time, while stacks of grading loom, also remains veiled, except that this dare from Shenandoah worries me like a parasite. And I am beside myself with distress about some sex-based bullying at work, which I spoke up against, then the Title IX officer launched a formal investigation of the perpetrator which is proceeding whether or not I help, so I’m helping, without hope of a good resolution, because my university will protect its own legal interests, as it always has, counting on me to remain better-behaved than the bully, or at least not counting my avoidance of meetings and general stress and alienation as a significant cost–anyway, I’m writing Poe tales to escape the fact that I’m living one, sleepless and upset all the time, which is maybe what Poe himself did too, come to think of it. It’s uncanny, too, to watch a larger and more noxious version of it all play out on a national stage, and I don’t think I’m an unreliable narrator projecting my sense of endangeredness onto the political weather. I really, really wish I could just work and help other people work, and all of us could thrive according to our will and talents, but I suppose such a paradise has never existed, for most of us. Consider this post the unfathomable expression in a female’s eyes.

At any rate, some work of a few months back rises from the dead: my latest Kenyon Review micro-review is up, this time of Jon Tribble’s new book. A review of the new Millay edition appears in American Literary History (scroll down). 

Finally, Happy Halloween, with thanks to the friends who are pulling me through the madness somehow. Safety, justice, and chocolate to all.

 

More on Diversity in Creative Writing Programs (updated 11/3/16)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK” by Sandeep Parmar, Los Angeles Review of Books, December 2015, https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/not-a-british-subject-race-and-poetry-in-the-uk/

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

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

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

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

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

  • On craft and inclusion

“‘PURE CRAFT” IS A LIE’ by Matt Salesses: http://www.pleiadesmag.com/pure-craft-is-a-lie-part-1/  and http://www.pleiadesmag.com/pure-craft-is-a-lie-part-3/

Can Black Art Ever Escape the Politics of Race? http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/20/magazine/can-black-art-ever-escape-the-politics-of-race.html

“Why write a novel about a race that’s not your own? The case of ‘Ginny Gall’” https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/why-write-a-novel-about-a-race-thats-not-your-own-the-case-of-ginny-gall/2016/02/02/ce329aa8-c51e-11e5-8965-0607e0e265ce_story.html

  • Reading race

“White bro reading: Yes, I’m reading men and women equally — but they’re still mostly white”: http://www.salon.com/2016/01/10/white_bro_reading_yes_im_reading_men_and_women_equally_but_theyre_still_mostly_white/

Fighting “Erasure” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/07/magazine/the-painful-consequences-of-erasure.html

GrubStreet’s “What An Author Looks Like: On Race & Writing” Series, featuring Brando Skyhorse, Aminatta Forna, Mia Alvar, Celeste Ng, and many others: https://grubstreet.org/blog/column/what-an-author-looks-like

Toni Morrison. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

  • On teaching and inclusion

GrubStreet podcast: What Makes a Good Workshop Citizen: https://grubstreet.org/blog/column/sound-skeins

Report from the Field: Gone from My Heart: Violence and Anger in the Poetry Workshop: http://www.vidaweb.org/report-from-the-field-gone-from-my-heart-violence-and-anger-in-the-poetry-workshop/

We Need A Decolonized, Not A “Diverse”, Education: http://harlot.media/articles/1058/we-need-a-decolonized-not-a-diverse-education

Matt Salesses, “WHO’S AT THE CENTER OF WORKSHOP AND WHO SHOULD BE?” http://www.pleiadesmag.com/whos-at-the-center-of-workshop-and-who-should-be-part-4/

Writing Culture Has An Ableism Problem: http://www.ravishly.com/2016/06/14/writing-culture-has-ableism-problem

  • On literary climate

Marlon James: Why I’m Done Talking About Diversity: http://lithub.com/marlon-james-why-im-done-talking-about-diversity/

Claudia Rankine: Why I’m spending $625,000 to study whiteness: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/19/claudia-rankine-macarthur-genius-grant-exploring-whiteness?CMP=share_btn_fb

GrubStreet’s “Writing & Publishing As a Person of Color” Series, featuring prominent authors, agents, and editors of color: https://grubstreet.org/blog/column/writing-publishing-as-a-person-of-color

GrubStreet’s “Writers React” Series: https://grubstreet.org/blog/column/writers-react

Video: GrubStreet’s Writers of Color Roundtable 2016: https://vimeo.com/174363941

Write-up of GrubStreet’s Writers of Color Roundtable 2016 in LitHub: http://lithub.com/at-the-grub-street-writers-of-color-roundtable/

  • On publishing

“You Will Be Tokenized”: Speaking Out about the State of Diversity in Publishing | Brooklyn Magazine: http://www.bkmag.com/2016/02/24/you-will-be-tokenized-speaking-out-about-the-state-of-diversity-in-publishing/

How Chris Jackson Is Building a Black Literary Movement http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/07/magazine/how-chris-jackson-is-building-a-black-literary-movement.html?_r=0

“We’ve Been Out Here Working”: Diversity in Publishing, a Partial Reading List | Brooklyn Magazine: http://www.bkmag.com/2016/02/24/weve-been-out-here-working-diversity-in-publishing-a-partial-reading-list/

“Bare Lit Festival, for Minority Writers, to Make Debut in London”: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/02/24/bare-lit-festival-for-minority-writers-to-make-debut-in-london/?smid=fb-share

The PW Publishing Industry Salary Survey, 2016 http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/71506-the-pw-publishing-industry-salary-survey-2016.html

Why Publishing Is So White http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/69653-why-publishing-is-so-white.html?utm_source=Publishers+Weekly&utm_campaign=1473a2bb65-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0bb2959cbb-1473a2bb65-304652261

Where Is the Diversity in Publishing? The 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey Results http://blog.leeandlow.com/2016/01/26/where-is-the-diversity-in-publishing-the-2015-diversity-baseline-survey-results/

  • On Lionel Shriver’s speech

Lionel Shriver’s full speech: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/lionel-shrivers-full-speech-i-hope-the-concept-of-cultural-appropriation-is-a-passing-fad

Festival keynote attendee Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s response here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/10/as-lionel-shriver-made-light-of-identity-i-had-no-choice-but-to-walk-out-on-her

Festival organizer Rod Nordland’s New York Times coverage  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/books/lionel-shriver-cultural-appropriation-brisbane-writers-festival.html?module=WatchingPortal®ion=c-column-middle-span-region&pgType=Homepage&action=click&mediaId=thumb_square&state=standard&contentPlacement=3&version=internal&contentCollection=www.nytimes.com&contentId=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2016%2F09%2F13%2Fbooks%2Flionel-shriver-cultural-appropriation-brisbane-writers-festival.html&eventName=Watching-article-click&_r=1

Lionel Shriver’s response to the backlash: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/23/opinion/will-the-left-survive-the-millennials.html?comments#permid=19896530

Sonya Larson’s NYT chosen response to Shriver’s op-ed: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/23/opinion/will-the-left-survive-the-millennials.html?comments#permid=19896530

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s breaks down “Who Gets to Write What”: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/25/opinion/sunday/who-gets-to-write-what.html

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s LA Times piece, “Cultural appropriation: It’s about more than pho and sombreros,” here: http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-appropriation-culture-20160926-snap-story.html

What Are White Writers For? https://newrepublic.com/article/137338/white-writers-for

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

AWP Guidelines and Hallmarks: https://www.awpwriter.org/guide/hallmarks_quality

“Policies and Practicalities: Examining the Creative Writing Doctorate” by Kroll, Jeri and Webb, Jen. New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing9.2(2012 July): 166-178.

  • On diversity in higher education (with some relevance to academic creative writing):

Tiffany Martínez, “Academia, Love Me Back”

Lisa M. Stulberg and Sharon Lawner Weinberg, eds. Diversity in American higher education: toward a more comprehensive approach. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Darrell Cleveland, ed. When “minorities are strongly encouraged to apply”: diversity and affirmative action in higher education. New York: Peter Lang, 2009.

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

  • History/ background of creative writing as a discipline:

Paul Dawson, Creative Writing and the New Humanities, New York: Routledge, 2005.

Tim Mayers, (Re)Writing craft : composition, creative writing, and the future of English studies. U of Pittsburgh P, 2005.

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

 

Political poem

Credit

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

Fever dreams, Pound, & Shenandoah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

msa-shenandoah-page

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

 

Rebalancing hours and relineating Clifton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Five Year Plan

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

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What Poe thinks of paperwork

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Waving and also drowning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woman escapes monster

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

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

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

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

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

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