Literary sources and afterlives

“Extended Release,” now in Guernica, is one of those poems that came to me in a rush, the kind that writers sometimes refer to as a gift, in that it arrives in near-final shape. I jotted in a dim living room during my mother’s last weeks, when she was in and out of hospitals and nursing homes as we sought a diagnosis and, we hoped, a cure. I had been taking care of her in the house she shared with my brother when she suddenly couldn’t hold a spoon steady. I called the home nursing service; they said to call an ambulance. My mother’s reproach when she saw the EMTs–“Oh, Les, what have you done”–will haunt me forever, I’m sure, as well as the difficulty of negotiating treatment for her pain. I think she trusted me to be ruthlessly kind, if you know what I mean, and she was disappointed that I didn’t catch on that she could have slipped away without fuss that night. Days later, I would be the person who discovered her death, and I have a gut feeling she waited to let go until I was on watch because she thought I could take it. She always told me women were stronger than men and seemed to think I could endure anything the world would throw at me. I guess I have, so far–not that I’ve had the hardest life by a long shot, but I’ve kept plowing along. Maybe that’s just what I need to believe, that she thought I was strong.

The balancing force to my regret was our exchange about what comes after pain. My mother was spiritually all over the map, sometimes describing her many reincarnations and other times saying, “When you’re dead, you’re dead.” But she really did talk, as I recount in the poem, about what people wear in heaven. We compared notes on what heaven might be like, for us, if it existed. That was one of the best conversations we had during those last difficult weeks. She seemed peaceful and curious. It was a gift to be there and mull over possibilities with her. People’s kind responses to this poem have been gifts, too. So many people have been through this with loved ones. I wonder if it’s any better when someone dies suddenly, without that month of pain and uncertainty. I suspect not.

Gifts are also on my mind because I was just talking to a local book club about the weird process of writing Unbecoming. Much of my novel was made; some of it was given. It’s interesting, sometimes a little painful, to contemplate the afterlife of a book. Some women in the book club said they were haunted and touched by the novel. They generally agreed that they hated the cover (yeah, I know, that’s been a theme in the responses). But I’m glad to have been in conversation with them about the process of writing it and what the book means to me now. Books follow you around like spirits, too.

I’ll have more to say in a couple of weeks about the NEXT book, but in the meantime, I’m busy making hard judgments about other people’s poems. Shenandoah received over 800 poetry batches in the recent submission period (Submittable caps us at 800/ month but a few extras tend to sneak through somehow). I’m down to about 280, which feels like progress, but they get harder and harder to cull, of course. It’s a bummer to turn down strong poems, often moving ones in which language and structure aren’t quite tight enough yet, sometimes beautifully crafted pieces that haven’t quite articulated their stakes. But I still feel lucky, most days, to do this work. Plus, as I’ve said before, it’s a reminder that even when you don’t see your work accepted, it may still be reaching one person who appreciates it.

In the meantime, a watching recommendation: Get Back. Peter Jackson’s new Beatles documentary should be insufferable. It’s LONG, sometimes baggy, and full of infighting. I’m not even one of those Beatles fans who knows every album, etc., and gathers up every crumb about their career. I turned it on, frankly, in part just for the accents; my mother’s from Liverpool, same era, and Scouse sounds like home. Yet I’m finding it utterly riveting. The characters are fascinating and not what I expected, but more crucially, it’s amazing to watch talented people in the process of making top-notch art. The documentary covers a hyper-compressed period in which the Beatles came together to write a whole new suite of songs, practice them, and figure how to get along enough to put on a show. In the first episode, there’s a moment when people are arguing about the set, and in the background, Paul is tinkering on the piano (composing “Let It Be,” you gradually realize). When they play together, even after bitter disagreement, you can see the telepathy sparking, as well as their delight in each other’s talent. It’s wonderful that some of their process lives on, as well as the music itself.

The image Guernica editors chose, by Anne Le Guern, called “mother-daughter”–I love that it’s nonliteral and, like the poem, textile!

The work + worry equations of winter 2022

The great thing about the first week of this year: I dedicated a substantial chunk to poetry. I discovered that although I’d revised older work, I hadn’t drafted a new poem AT ALL since summer 2021. That’s really rare for me. I tend to throw down drafts during spare hours and come back to them during academic breaks, but honestly, October through December were remarkably short on spare hours. In retrospect, it was right to commit to what felt like countless conferences and conventions to get word out about my 2020 books, and I have no desire to put aside my Shenandoah editorship, even though it can be an overwhelming amount of labor. I received edits on my forthcoming essay collection later than I expected, so mid-fall involved a full-court press on enacting them. I also put scads of creative energy into teaching, and I don’t regret it. But I said yes to too much other service/ committee work. My brain was always revving at top speed, which made sleep difficult, and that created a circular kind of tiredness. Pandemic anxiety and grief for my mother were also operating like background programs, slowing my machine. My PT person told me to walk less to let my tendonitis heal, but that’s bad for body and mind in other ways.

I know what to do with myself to recover from months like that, and as best I can, I’m doing it: more downtime and fun reading, non-homework evenings, plus physical pleasures like sleep, good food, hot baths. I took my respirator mask to a couple of art museums during those few days in Savannah–looking at art restores me, maybe because it’s slow and silent or because it always fills me with a sense of shared effort. The flow experience of writing lifts me, too, but it wasn’t happening. Re-approaching my poetry ms-in-progress felt like hard work I was reluctant to begin.

By dint of ruthless will, though, I made myself shift poems around, add, cut, and revise individual pieces to bring the book into cohesion–the usual arithmetic of solving for the book–and I called in a friend for advice. I can’t say I achieved flow very often last week, and the book still needs more time and thinking, but I do feel better after making real hours for the efforts most important to me. And I wrote two new pieces, one at the crack of dawn this morning!

Since classes start Monday, tomorrow, I’ve also been working on syllabi and first day plans, as well as polishing up the academic reports due this time of year. I’m still overcommitted–Shenandoah had to close early to submissions after receiving 810 packets of poems in four days, yikes–but aside from prior commitments, I’m saying no to every review, committee, or presentation request that doesn’t feel genuinely attractive or serve my writing (there have been a lot of them!). And since I’m not teaching during our May term, April will bring a REAL slow-down. Oh, ahem, except for publicity for Poetry’s Possible Worlds. We’re still firming up a launch date and discussing the cover, but it will be out this spring!

Now if I can just avoid a breakthough infection, even though students are pouring back from everywhere on the planet. Unlike many large public universities, my private college requires vaccination, masks, testing, and, as of the end of January, boosters, but we’re meeting in person and omicron feels like doom. A lot of friends and family have had mild illness; among my unboosted relatives, it’s been a harsher illness, although no loved ones have needed to be hospitalized so far. Additional stress on the anxiety meter: my (boosted, healthy) 21-year-old is flying to Budapest soon to study abroad for a term. He’s really excited to immerse himself in the great math program St. Olaf’s runs there, and I’m excited for him, as well as hoping to visit him at the end of May. What, though, is the math on negotiating the next few weeks?

Sacrifices, gifts, and a year in reading

Fairies and gods haunted my last post, to which I have a couple of addenda: first, an English cousin spotted my story about my mother and her father propitiating the fairies with sweets and, bless him, he brought a matchbox full of sugar to Sefton Park in Liverpool and left it in Fairies Glen, pictured above.

That moved me very much, but a comment poet-musician-blogger Frank Hudson left in response to the post made me sit up straight. I’d asked why sacrifice was so important to fairy stories as well as every religion I can think of. He wrote:

Ah, fairies and fairy stories and sacrifices/gifts. My last abandoned novel was an attempt at a fairy story told without any resort to explicit, understood magic. Too difficult a task for me, who I’m pretty sure is not a novelist, or maybe for any writer. The personal understanding I developed of fairy was that they represent everything we’re not: the other, the choices we don’t make, the things we’ve “conquered,” the suppressed. and so on. We give those things gifts and placating acts, in a complex mix of “tribute” (in the old alliances/bribe against war sense) and guilt. We wish those things to not overcome us, to make war on us and our state — and we also wish we could have those exclusive choices we’ve made and the abandoned choices too.

Sounds reductive as I just wrote it, but I don’t feel it as reductive.

Good insights, even when they’re hard-won, do tend to sound obvious once you say them. This one really clicked. Fairies are so often associated with wild land but also wild feelings: uncontrolled eating and dancing and sex and cruelty. You lose time, and therefore abandon domestic ties, when you enter their circles. The fae character in my novel Unbecoming was, I now understand, incredibly fun to write because in imagining her, I got to inhabit the person I might have been if I were thoroughly, deliciously selfish, unworried about anyone’s future. I rarely consciously knew what she would say or do next; instead, I would take a break from writing and hear her whisper her next lines. The last dictation I received is her last quotation in the book: “I don’t know what I want, but I want it very much.” Word.

Speaking of traces of the past: one last magazine issue with a poem of mine slid under the old year’s wire. “You Know Where the Smithy Stood by the Clinkers” just appeared in the new National Poetry Review. It’s based on a lecture given several years ago by W&L archaeologist Don Gaylord. It immediately helped me see the buildings I work in in a different way, but I had to revise the poem many times, mostly by paring it down, until its architectural bones became clear. The past is always present, even when you suppress difficult memories.

And finally, here’s a list of the books I read, or sacrificed my hours on the altar of, in 2021 (with the *s indicating works published in the last year or so, to keep track of how much contemporary lit I’m reading). I’m currently in the middle of two others: Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence, a ghost story I was very much enjoying, but my daughter wheedled my e-reader away from me for a few days; and Emma Newman’s Between Two Thorns, a fairyland story I’d given to my son for Christmas, and which I started when deprived of Erdrich. I’ve been on a novel-reading binge and want to turn to poetry again in the new year–and I’ll have to, because I start teaching a class on 21st Century Poetry on January 10th. I can’t help the strong planning impulses baked into my character–you should see how busy my 2022 calendar is already!–but one of the goals on my mind is to keep thinking backward and inward, wondering how to negotiate peace with ghosts and my own fae self.

POETRY (29 books and chapbooks, including a few re-reads)

  • 1/7 Daye, Cardinal (reread for review)
  • 1/16 Tran, The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer* (met at a virtual reading)
  • 1/16 Goodkin, Crybaby Bridge* (met at a virtual reading)
  • 2/21 Bonta, Failed State* (fandom)
  • 3/8 Phillips Brown, The Adjacent Possible* (for teaching, and author’s a neighbor!)
  • 3/16 Wade, When I Was Straight (fandom)
  • 4/26 Chiasson, Bicentennial (workshop prep)
  • 5/4 Seuss, Frank: sonnets* (fandom)
  • 5/7 Rekdal, Nightingale (reread for research)
  • 5/18 Wade, Skirted* (fandom)
  • 6/24 Harvey, If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? (friend’s rec)
  • 7/19 Waldman, Not a Male Pseudonym (from a friend)
  • 7/19 Thomas, Red Channel in the Rupture (friend’s rec)
  • 7/28 Youn, Blackacre (my Sewanee teacher)
  • 8/4 Marshall, Finna (my Sewanee teacher)
  • 8/4 Smith, Black Hole Factory (met at Sewanee)
  • 8/10 Meehan, Geomantic (fandom)
  • 8/13 Kindred, Where the Wolf* (fandom)
  • 8/19 Manhire, Wow* (fandom)
  • 8/27 Jones, Reparations Now!* (fandom)
  • 8/28 Choi Wild, Cut to Bloom (met at Sewanee)
  • 8/29 Chiasson, The Math Campers* (met at Bread Loaf)
  • 8/30 Levin, Banana Palace (fandom)
  • 8/31 Phillips, Pale Colors in a Tall Field (fandom)
  • 10/1 Charleston, Songs of Protest, Songs of Freedom (teaching)
  • 10/14 McCully Brown, Nevison, In the Field Between Us* (professional request)
  • 10/25 Jones, Reparations Now! *(reread for teaching)
  • 10/28 Kindred, Where the Wolf* (reread for teaching)
  • 11/7 Tran, The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer* (reread for teaching)

FICTION (32)

  • 1/2  King, The Mist (picked it up used)
  • 1/15 Harrow, Once and Future Witches* (review)
  • 2/14 Atkinson, Case Histories (audiobook for drive)
  • 2/20 Novik, Deadly Education* (review)
  • 3/13 Knox, The Absolute Book* (fandom)
  • 4/3 Mukherjee, The Rising Man (friend’s recommendation)
  • 4/20 Mukherjee, A Necessary Evil (ditto)
  • 5/4 French, The Searcher (audiobook, fandom)
  • 5/? Mukherjee, Smoke and Ashes (see above)
  • 5/27 Sachdeva, All the Names They Used for God
  • 5/31 King, Later* (fandom)
  • 6/10 French, Into the Woods (fandom)
  • 6/13 French, The Likeness (fandom)
  • 6/20 Hummel, Lesson in Red* (fandom)
  • 7/2 French, The Faithful Place (fandom)
  • 7/11 French, Broken Harbor (fandom)
  • 7/ 18 French, The Secret Place (fandom)
  • 7/29 McCorkle, Life After Life (bought at Sewanee)
  • 8/7 Foley, The Hunting Party (audiobook for drive)
  • 8/22 French, The Trespasser (fandom)
  • 8/28 King, Billy Summer*s (fandom)
  • 10/6 Novik, The Last Graduate* (fandom)
  • 10/29 Haig, Midnight Library* (to mentor a student project)
  • 11/7 Perez, Out of Darkness (to counter local bookbanning effort!)
  • 11/11 Ward, The Last House on Needless Street* (review in NYT)
  • 11/26 Hoffman, Practical Magic* (fandom)
  • 11/28 King, The Body (for teaching)
  • 12/1 Tesh, Silver in the Wood (research for conference panel)
  • 12/2 Tesh, The Drowned Country* (research for conference panel)
  • 12/9 Dean, Tam Lin (friend’s recommendation)
  • 12/12 Little Badger, Elatsoe (friend’s recommendation)
  • 12/30 Black, The Cruel Prince (audiobook for car trip)

NONFICTION/ HYBRID (15)

  • 1/5 Attebery, Stories About Stories (research/ teaching)
  • 1/5 Seymour, Bad Environmentalism (research)
  • 1/6 Richter, A Companion to Literary Theory, a good chunk of it (research)
  • 1/13 Russo and Reed, Counter-Desecration (recommended)
  • 1/14 Hakemulder et al, Narrative Absorption (research)
  • 1/15 Connors, Oyster Matters* (friend)
  • 4/3 Pollack, Seventy Eight Degrees of Wisdom (curiosity)
  • 5/12 Frommer’s Iceland (you can guess)
  • 5/18 Hailer, Animal You’ll Surely Become (planning a reading)
  • 5/19 Ball, My San Francisco* (local writer)
  • 7/16 Chavez, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop* (friends’ recommendations, and for teaching)
  • 8/18 Boruch, The Little Death of Self (research)
  • 9/6 Russo and Reed, eds, Counter-Desecration (reread for teaching)
  • 11/15 Dahl, Boy (teaching)
  • 12/27 Crispin, The Creative Tarot (play)

*published within the last year or so

Weird tree-person looking east

I love the turning of the year toward light at the winter solstice. It makes up a bit for winter looming ahead. This year was tough for everybody, it seems; as Eric Tran said when he visited to give a poetry reading here, we spent the pandemic borrowing energy from the future, and now we have to pay it back. My mother died at the end of April and she’s very much on my mind as I perform seasonal rituals: recent stuff like sending her a zillion gifts at Christmas 2020 to distract her from going out and taking risks; old stuff like mixing up Christmas pudding to steam and flame it (we always did that as kids, although I riff on borrowed recipes and she just bought Crosse & Blackwell). I need to find a quiet moment to think about her.

I don’t know what that viking-druid I spotted on the trail yesterday portends. He’s looking toward the new year, but I’m mostly looking back. For a conference, I went on a binge of reading related to fairies and Faerie, old tales people keep making new. I discuss some of them here, in the annual “pleasures” column hosted by Aqueduct Press. They make me remember my mother, too, who was the teller of fairy stories in my house, as her Irish father was to her. He used to take her on walks to a Liverpool park in the 40s, where they’d put their sugar ration in a matchbox and leave it for the fairies. You have to propitiate them with sacrifice, or–what? It was always clear to me that Enid Blyton tales of brownies making “mischief” were euphemistic. Fairies are more dangerous than that. Thinking about all this sent me on a weird late night Google binge last week, asking questions about why sacrifice is so central to so many religions and legends. Google didn’t know, but I’d welcome your theories.

I’ll close with a looking-backward list of my publications this year, with a post about the year in reading to come. Then, I suppose, I’ll have to think about 2022, although I can’t yet imagine what it wants from me.

POEMS:

ESSAYS:

INTERVIEWS AND REVIEWS:

Shenandoah, #DisConIII, biobreaks

During the last few weeks, I spent 20+ hours reading and ranking national student Fulbright applications in Creative Writing so I could meet with two other jurists and wrangle amicably over the best ones to send up the decision chain. It was interesting work but EXHAUSTING and very hard to accomplish at such a busy moment in the academic year. The planned five-hour Zoom meeting, however, turned out to take half that long, largely because our moderator was awesome. She used a term I hadn’t heard since early in the pandemic: “biobreaks,” as in pauses from our cyborg virtual/ human activity for hitting the bathroom, stretching, hydrating.

YES, I thought, that’s what I need. More biobreaks! Calm my body down with good sleep and unscheduled time. Maybe even gain the mental clarity to write again. It’s probably been two months since I’ve done more than jot down ideas. I don’t worry about dry spells like I used to–I know excitement about writing always comes back–but it’s bad for every part of me when I don’t periodically enter its flow experience. I’ve been working flat out on putting out various fires, from grading (done!) to last minute proofing (the new issue of Shenandoah, full of brilliant poems, is hot off the presses!). Past those accomplishments and the Fulbright effort, my life, thank goodness, is finally cooling down.

Right now I’m at a big sf annual convention, WorldCon, this year in DC and called DisCon III. I know that doesn’t sound relaxing, especially since I’m giving two readings (fiction and poetry) and speaking on two panels (“Teaching and Analyzing Genre Fiction” and “From Grimm to Disney and Back: The Changing Fae”). But since I don’t know anyone here, I’m otherwise taking it easy, bringing takeout back to my room in a cheaper satellite hotel to get my head together, trying to take advantage of the programming but not fry my poor brain. Obviously I’m also catching up with little tasks like blogging, but I have to say, this kind of writing feels like play, not work, at least most of the time.

I’m also watching poetry Twitter, as usual, and recent poets about some beloved poet, unnamed, who paid $25,000 for a publicist to promote their first collection and, as you’d suspect, did pretty freaking well. (It’s probably terrible to ask you to message me if you know who the $25K person is–I’m just crassly curious.) I don’t have that kind of money burning a hole in my pocket, but I have thought about smaller-scale consulting with a publicist, and I know other friends who have, as well–it’s suddenly an open secret that many writers find audiences by investing cash upfront in the process. It’s one way of managing another huge time commitment, I guess, as well as a way that the publishing playing field will never be level. Certainly applying for reading series, festivals, etc. is work I strain to get done. It’s the usual quandary of whether to play the system as it exists or step aside into an alternate artistic economy. I get the arguments for both strategies. I like to think that if I spent some money and gained prominence from it (which can’t be a given, right?), I’d use any power I gained to help other writers. In some ways I already do, but that is certainly a rationalization–if your real goal is to help others, you don’t start by hiring a publicist. Anyway, as I slow down and look around, it’s one of the things that seems to be on my mind.

Oh, and I should gloss the other difficulties alluded to in my last post. The crisis was completely nonliterary, but this blog is supposed to be where art meets life, right? My husband had Covid. We knew he’d been exposed so he waited 5 days to take a PCR test, which was negative, so after consulting everyone involved, we went ahead with Thanksgiving. He ended up passing it to my daughter who lives in Philadelphia (probably–the source and timeline are a little uncertain–but that’s what I think happened). Fortunately, they had symptoms equivalent to bad colds and recovered reasonably quickly. Chris’ parents and I, who’d received our booster shots earlier due to higher risk factors, escaped infection entirely, but I went back to isolating and teaching by Zoom for a while to wait until I knew for sure. We had to divide the house into separate zones while he, an exceptionally energetic person who’s much more social than I am, sadly waited out quarantine. My main source of sadness was getting the zone with the chores. (I’m joking, pretty much.) It was anxiety-producing, although it all turned out fine. Get your boosters, friends, and if you can’t, please take very good care.

Unbecoming in the exhibit hall at DisCon III

Writing/ being a “strong female character”

One of the students in my senior seminar is exploring representation of female characters in contemporary fiction. On the one hand, there’s pressure to write “likeable” women protagonists. Koa Beck wrote about this for The Atlantic in 2015, quoting an amazing retort from Claire Messud, in response to a journalist’s question about whether anyone would want to be her protagonist’s friend:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.

If only I could be that direct and brilliant when people annoy me. My student Chloe assigned Beck’s piece to the seminar, as well as this one about strong vs. strongly written female characters, as she prepares to write a final essay on the subject. Discussion was lively.

These essays resonate with my train of thought during last weekend’s World Fantasy Convention in Montreal, which was mixed. I saw some very good readings panels–mine, on speculative poetry, was brilliantly moderated by Terese Mason Pierre–but a couple of half-baked ones, too, plus participants asking hostile questions and volunteers who seemed strained to the limit. I’m not sure I would go to this convention again, although the city made up for it: great walks, great pastries, and vaccine policies a woman can get behind.

Listening to one of the presentations I found most useful, on story structure and character, made me think about revising my novel Unbecoming. Panelist Susan Forest said something like: the core of the book, the hard work it does, is rooted in the one action your character takes at a defining moment, the action that produces irreversible change. Ellen Kushner, in the Q&A, also remarked that everyone is haunted in a way that prevents them from living their best life; the author’s job is to decide, what is the worst thing that could happen to a character haunted in this particular way?

My editor helped me locate and rewrite the crisis moment Susan Forest describes. At the outset of Unbecoming, the main character, Cyn, refuses to recognize her own strength, magical and otherwise. And when you don’t admit the power you have, others get harmed in ways you could have mitigated, or maybe even headed off, if you had your wits about you. Cyn does come to terms with power and its consequences by the end, but the choices she makes about how to use her magic are problematic: some good, for sure, but some ethically questionable, to put it mildly. The problem she faces lies in the nature of magic–by definition, power is inequity, right? The MOST ethical thing is to give up your magic/ privilege, to redistribute it, but that’s ALSO hard, for a million different reasons. In short, I’m sympathetic to Cyn, but I don’t entirely like her.

A book of poems creates characters, too, some of whom are strong or strongly-written. Eric Tran visited campus this week, and while his poems seem intensely autobiographical, he emphasized their fictionality, how many of them rely on invention rather than personal history. One of my favorite’s of his is “I Tell My Mother About My Depression” (scroll down at the link and you’ll find it), and, interestingly, that was the one he chose as an example of writing in persona–not what I would have expected. Yet all poems fictionalize, even when they hew closely to fact. How you experience your life, after all, changes all the time; the you who writes the poem won’t exist in the same exact way tomorrow. I often feel distant from and critical of earlier poetic selves. Some of the poems in my most recent collection, The State She’s In, like “The South,” involve a version of me looking back at an earlier mindset and telling Former Lesley off.

Further, compelling poetic characters, the people implied by the words, are often flawed, messy, self-interrogating. I love a good poetic self-indictment.

Are the women characters in The State She’s In “strong” or “likeable”? I invoke strength in some of the poems, weaving spells to banish bad people. Elsewhere I explore the accusation that Hillary Clinton wasn’t likeable (like Claire Messud, I say, For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?). I also test, I think, the limits of womanly likeability by writing from anger–against Trump’s regime, workplace harassment, and the racist past and present of Virginia, you name it. My collection received many lovely reviews, but a mixed review that often comes to mind (not linking to it!) was by a writer who wrestled with her own discomfort with or even distaste for those gouts of outrage. It was one of those reviews that reveals at least as much about the reviewer as it does about the book, but it brought home to me how, even in an age of activist poetry, it’s hard for a woman to write from negative emotion without risk of alienating otherwise sympathetic readers.

By Ruth Rodriguez

Rhyme. Activism. Speculation. Revision. Pumpkins.

I still don’t have exact dates for my forthcoming essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, but I can see the light in the distance now. I’m STOKED to have a version of the Introduction appearing in the new American Poetry Review, where lots of people will see it. I just finished revising the whole ms according to my editor’s notes, too. It feels polished and good. I need to reread it as a whole to make sure I haven’t introduced other errors, but I’m nearly ready to share it with others!

Yet carving out this Saturday, jack-o’-lantern style, for processing those edits (and this morning for contacting finalists for Shenandoah‘s Graybeal-Gowan Prize) was HARD. I think this week and next may be the busiest of my fall–unless I’m just deluded about things easing later. My pumpkin-head is so full these days I don’t know how to quiet it. Some of the lovely too-muchness:

  • I’m preparing a craft talk and a reading for UNC-Wilmington’s Writers Week this week–all Zoom, all free–and full of luminaries. See the schedule and Zoom links here. My craft talk, “Led by Sound,” is about using rhyme as a way of getting past your rational brain to access the weird stuff that makes a poem powerful. It’s based on a workshop I gave years ago, but I felt the need to renovate it deeply, so it’s taken lots of time.
  • I’m ALSO preparing for the World Fantasy Con in Montreal next weekend, where I’m giving a reading plus participating in a panel on speculative poetry (which I haven’t prepped yet, but I know this stuff, right? I’ll pull it off, right?). Never mind packing, doing the Covid tests, etc. I’m vaccinated with Moderna and not scared of flying (casting no shade on people who are, which I think is a reasonable position), but flying was always a pain and now is an even bigger project.
  • Two wonderful poets, Ashley M. Jones and Sally Rosen Kindred, visited different classes of mine via Zoom this week, and each hour was an oasis of forest, music, inspiration, and transformation. I also visited two classes, the Shenandoah internship to talk about poetry selection and a fiction writing class to talk about Unbecoming. I LOVE doing that. But my head is buzzing with everything we said and didn’t say, as well as the regular discussions happening in my classes and office hours. I’m teaching books I’ve never taught before. Students are devising final projects. There’s a lot to talk and think about.
  • Setting up W&L’s Task Force on Chairing–wait, you do NOT want to hear about that!! Much more interesting are the whirlwind days coming up of a campus visit by Eric Tran; presentations by finalists for our tenure track job opening in postcolonial and indigenous literatures; and doing some advance training for my late November-early December gig as a Fulbright evaluator in creative writing.

In short, not much time to answer messages or haunt social media, so I’m sorry if I’ve been a Bad Art Friend by not liking your posts. I’ll catch up.

I’ll close with a Halloween scare: I am full of dread about the upcoming Virginia governor’s election. I voted weeks ago, but the outcome is very iffy because of what they call an “enthusiasm gap” (Trump fans love Youngkin; McAuliffe is the better candidate by miles, but he doesn’t warm the cockles of anyone’s heart). Youngkin, by way of one small example of potential future horrors, is encouraging book-banning. I just started reading the excellent YA novel Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez because local right-wing parents are bombarding the high school with demands to remove books from the collection, including that one. Everyone needs to marshal arguments to keep them in the stacks. As activism goes, that’s definitely my speed, but what a stupid battle to be fighting when the world is burning.

Currents and circuits

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

Return Path


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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