Occasional poems

“Who Wants to Be a Scholar Anyway,” “The Academic Strategic Planning Blues,” “Ballad of the Executive Director of Alumni Affairs”: the titles in my poetry folders suggest that I write a lot of doggerel when I’m all steamed up. Most jobs present occasions for indignation, even when you like the work and feel fortunate to have it. I’m starting my 18th year at this selective liberal arts college, and while the job itself is a great fit for me—the emphasis on teaching and support for scholarship hit the right balance, and I have brilliant, dedicated colleagues—university and local culture still estrange me on a regular basis. Co-education came late, in 1985, and it was painful. The Civil War is still underway: General Lee is buried on campus and the local paper is full of letters, this week, from people who want our town to fly the Confederate flag. Undergraduate rates of sexual assault are too high. I love my students but know that a few of them must be committing those crimes; the dissonance is hard to live with. Things are better than they were, and being a full professor in a strong department insulates me somewhat, but these aren’t great consolations.

So when, in 2005, the planning committee for the 20th anniversary of coeducation asked me to commemorate this milestone poetically, I was electrified and stumped. My standard response to writer’s block (tellingly) is to conduct research. I studied occasional poems by Heaney, Auden, Brooks, and others. I also trudged down to Special Collections, where press coverage of coeducation is archived (we co-educated so late that the national media made a fuss). The latter was pretty horrifying. Some professors, alumni, and administrators argued eloquently for coeducation, but they won because finance aligned with feminism: men’s single sex colleges could no longer attract large numbers of highly qualified applicants, resulting in shrinking student bodies and loss of prestige. Coeducation’s opponents, meanwhile, flaunted obnoxious bumper stickers, and to the press, certain anonymous professors lamented the dilution of a noble enterprise.

I thought, okay, the asbestos gloves of form for dangerous materials, but I need a capacious form that can handle prosey rhythms. I labored over a sestina, toned it down, toned it down some more, and then tested it on friends, who still found it intensely angry. Clearly addressing coeducation head-on was a bad idea since I couldn’t celebrate that fraught occasion. Plan B: a totally different poem in tribute to a series of women students. Them, I could celebrate.

Neither the poem I presented (“Office Hours”) nor the one I kept to myself satisfies me. Maybe the process spelled doom in itself. I write first drafts in an exploratory way, turning off the editor’s voice and my compulsion to be nice; I couldn’t do that here. Ambivalence is my engine and I had to mute it. “Office Hours,” felt honest, at least, drawing on my direct and positive experience of coeducation as a teacher who arrived after the controversy. I’d be totally game to try again, but the whole thing does make me think of a student evaluation I once received: “I learned that writing poems is easy but writing good poems is really, really hard.” Writing good joyous poems is harder than writing good ambivalent ones. Writing good joyous poems for a specific audience on a specific topic might require divine intervention.


A veteran professor declared, seriously, ‘The education of women is a trivial matter.  The education of men is a serious matter.  I don’t think the frivolous and the serious should mix.’ -from a Newsweek article by Ron Givens on co-education at Washington and Lee University, October 1985

The banner, a bedsheet really, cleared its throat as day-
light changed George Washington to gold: “NO
MARTHAS,” it politely recommended.  Serious
banter draped beneath a finial image of the gentleman
whose once-warm original gave necessary sums
and his name to Washington Academy. Tradition

honors his largesse even though, says tradition,
George liked Martha. “A Roll in the Hay, but Not All Day,”
bumperstickers prescribed, heedless of allergy, but some
feared that immoderate exposure to women, with no
respite from estrogen, could harm young gentlemen
more than sexually-transmitted rhinitis. Serious

fears in frivolous words but their frivolity is seriously
funny, admit it, and shocking, as if tradition
might really mean privilege only for gentlemen,
gentlemanly in wallet more than character, not today
but back in the eighties, of course, when privilege brought not
just good cars, shoes, and liquor but keys to some

fraternity-shaped hay barn. Crass capital, sums
and debits, admitted women, found the Titanic. Serious
money ebbs and flows with SAT scores, and, no
joke, Goshen was in drought. Wealth is a tradition,
too. Brushing hayseeds off the sheets, Yesterday
went to bed grumbling; Tomorrow woke the gentlemen

with perfume and pink curtains. A gentleman
does not lie, cheat, or steal, suggested somebody,
or gripe about girls during African famine. The days
of men swimming naked in the gym pool sank into serious
dusk. Of course, we still pontificate about tradition
with little frivolity and less sense of history. No

school year stumbles by without slurs, although no
one drinks bourbon in legwarmers or whines, ungentlemanly,
that “everybody is worried about academics” now. Tradition
originally meant surrender or betrayal. Some
say it does still. Is Martha lucky to be here, seriously,
or does she surrender, betrayed, every day?

The gentlemen were seriously lucky that Martha
respected no tradition, flounced bravely in past Gorbachev,
Reagan, New Coke. Prevailing like Live Aid, like some MacGyver.



Jeanne placed her backpack
so that the pink triangle
pointed square at me.

The “C” hit Nora
like spume on a cat: green sparks,
salt, then pride and grit.

Meg left her poems and
fled.  The poems themselves, bolder,
stayed and stayed and stayed.

Up North I am a
dogwood May, said Carroll.  Here
I am heat, flood, storm.

In England I felt
like a woman, Lisa said.
Here I just feel black.

Kyle’s illness brightened
her, like snow in the sun.  She
will heal everyone

she meets.  Stanzas can’t
contain them or Rebecca,
Armistead, Sarah,

Denisio, Jenn,
Jessica.  My cramped office,
rough as an eggshell,

cannot confine them.
Washington and Lee holds them
just a little while,

like a rockfall on
the interstate, like the soft
banks of a spring creek,

like a phrase or an
idea you consider while
it considers you.

How to read a literary magazine (print)

Either immediately, because you’re procrastinating about some other task, or after a long period of dusty avoidance, as if reading poetry were a chore. Bad poet. This summer, after nearly six months in New Zealand, the pile is high and dust rules.

Primed for irritation, because so many poems will be dull and yet the editors chose them over your brilliant productions. Even when a poem catches you, there’s another kind of irritation, because you want to follow that voice but turn the page and the spell dissolves. This makes you a hypocritical magazine submitter, because you prefer individual collections. Bad, bad poet.

Skimming analytically: what is great poet A, or overrated poet B, or obscure genius poet C up to now? What is the new editor choosing, how is the old editor’s taste evolving, are any trends beginning or ending? This is interesting to you as a poetry nerd (term encompassing scholar, teacher, fan). It is also important in a practical way: you will send poems to magazines X, Y, and Z again, despite the irritation described above. You can’t control how your poems are behaving (long poems with zombies, really?), but you can look for overlap between what your obsessions and what editors seem to like lately. Notice it’s not really long poems in the Thanksgiving Horror genre.

Hopefully, because you really do love poems and all these magazines will contain at least one astonishing thing that lowers your blood pressure again.

Pieces that made me stop skimming and fall into their gravity:

  • In the Crazyhorse 50th Anniversary Issue, Bob Hicock’s lipsticked tulips and Mary Ruefle’s daffodil. In the latter: “He was pained to see me with no other career/ than my emotions about things” plus a surprising, perfect last line. If I quoted the ending, it wouldn’t work; you have to read the poem first.
  • Photographs and an essay by Thomas Sayers Ellis in the July/ August Poetry. Everything Ellis publishes is surprising, smart, and urgent; he totally deserves to get into the Norton anthologies before I do. “I am aiming for invisibility when I take a picture much more so than when writing a poem. I want to be seen when I write and seeing when I take photographs.”
  • Stacey Waite’s imperative to “Consider the monkeys” in the Summer 2011 Massachusetts Review. You need to consider those monkeys without making eye contact because each is “a time bomb of bite and scratch.” Riveting anarchy everywhere. And “In the end it’s my voice that makes people stare”: holy babble and doodle, Northrop Frye!
  • Mid-American 31.1 is a really great issue, like that Crazyhorse I mentioned. Although it seems incestuous to write poems about teaching poems, I love the whole subgenre—Wendy Barker’s entries here (not the ones I’ve linked to, but clearly from the same series) are great. The poem that hit me like paddle electrodes, though, was Erinn Batykefer’s “Spiderbaby”: “In the gore-spattered hell of the delivery room, / we counted: ten fingers, ten toes./ Ten legs.” Mental note: short poems in the Delivery Room Horror Genre welcome here.

Poetic neighborhoods

When you introduce multiple characters and tag dialogue in a short poem, you make all kinds of trouble for yourself. Part of it is just fitting it in: most contemporary poetry in print is going for economy, resonance, surprise, evocation in fragments. You can toss out some of the names and the “he said”s by strategic use of titles, typefaces, and margins, but the imperatives of interwoven stories can still add layers of difficulty to a genre most people find difficult enough.

There is a kind of poetry book, though—not narrative epic, not verse drama, not the modernist long poem with its collage aesthetic—that, by arrangement of short poems into sequences, plausibly fuses multiple voices into a noisy, sociable whole. The scope of the collection is defined by place and time more than by perspective, recurring ideas, or a frame of mind. Two of my favorites are Gwendolyn Brooks’ A Street in Bronzeville and Langston Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred. They concern Chicago’s South Side and Harlem respectively, presenting portraits of neighborhoods by giving voice to various residents. Many of the poems stand well alone and are often anthologized, but they work even better in context, returned to their home communities.

If there’s a twentieth-century tradition of this kind of book, it’s pretty obscure. Hughes and Brooks are certainly responding to each other; Claudia Emerson, whose books demonstrate a strong sense of place and character, often expresses admiration for Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie; and the three blurbers of Lumina, Heather Ross Miller’s new book (Emerson is one), all compare it to the most famous example, Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (I say famous, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about teaching it). I suspect that most poets dreaming of a multiple-voiced lyric sequence invent their way forwards with relatively few models to hand. For a contemporary writer, further, lyric sequences can be pretty impractical. It’s hard to build an audience for such work by publishing bits in U.S. magazines, where the one-to-two page stand-alone poem is king, narrative is suspect, and readerships are small and splintered. (Can you tell I’m worrying over some long poems and sequences of my own?)

Miller’s Lumina, named for a fictional aluminum-smelting settlement in North Carolina, is subtitled “a town of voices.” It’s a beautiful and elegiac book, reanimating lost family members and a drowned landscape: the dammed river powering everything is “a dazzled brain-damaged giant just/ gone to sleep a while.” The main character, often the speaker, is Nell Leopard, but voices and perspectives from different generations in the same place jangle together. Miller finds a sonic analogue for those shifting resemblances that is much more like Brooks than Masters: irregular rhyme, often internal, sometimes just a slantwise echo of vowels and consonants. I could pick out almost any passage as an example but here are two:

Engineers came to furnace

our bright falling water

and they meant business.

They meant deep water

deep enough to spark

the whole hot place.

They meant hard work

hard enough to keep men

all night tasting salt straight

down their bare faces… (“Nell sees them pen the Falls, dam the Yadkin” 2)

The passage begins with a command: “Listen.” What I hear is imperfect rhyme: furnace/ business, spark/ work, place/ straight/ tasting/ faces. Or:

She had asthma sometimes

so bad, she beat through a screen door

to get her breath, beating the screen

to death. People drown beating

their way through a door to the

last breath. It’s true, and more. (“Mark Drowns,” 18)

The most salient rhymes are breath/ death and door/more, but those pairs also chime with “get,” “bad,” and “their,” and the assonance of beat/ screen/ the flows through the lines. Further, these sound-families intermarry in the desperately-linked sight rhyme of beat and breath. And I get hypoxic just writing about the line break on “the”: the dying girl’s last breath is just out of reach. The story of Lumina is moving, the characters compelling, and that’s why Miller’s book is worth reading, really. But it makes a lot of sense for a book about memory and inheritance to play around with echo, and rhyme harmonizes its ingredients in a way that delights me.

I must be forgetting this book’s other kin; if my description of Miller’s achievement reminds you of similarly populated collections, I’d love to be informed/ reminded.

Living with a writer

“Page two is a verb tense tour de force,” he says, and I puff right up. I’m pretty new at creative nonfiction as a genre, but prose storytelling is his mastery zone. Who knew the personal essay was all about verb tenses? Transitions, yeah, understood they were trouble. And bending accuracy for elegance (we sometimes ate upstairs from trays, but he wants me to say we ate upstairs from trays): those choices shape poems too but the pressure seems higher when the “I” is more plainly me (“speaker,” hah). Where do I write “Richard Attenborough” and where “John Hammond”? Does “curator of cloned dinosaurs” cover it, in an essay littered with Jurassic Park references? You’d think I’d be worried about the family business I’m rolling out in these sentences, but we agree on ethics quickly, having been discussing them since 1986. That was the Cretaceous Period, when we worked on the Rutgers literary magazine and flirted across the editorial table.

Then he says, “But I think this is the kind of piece that you need to sit on for a couple of months,” and I deflate miserably. I always let poems cool off at least that long but I just wanted to finish something, send off something, and I thought this was it. He spends the next twenty minutes trying to take it back while I make tragic eyes at him.

This is the core of living with another writer. It’s no joke finding time and energy to read each other’s stuff with jobs and kids and domestic crises to tend. When you do, you might like it or you might not, but be careful how you comment because you’ll be in bed with that person all night. And none of it is separate from all the other conflicts that percolate between two people in the same house. One always seems to be finding more writing time, or winning more accolades, or earning more money, and that absolutely affects the force with which the frying pan is lowered onto the stove. What can look from the outside like a steady climb is full of morasses, like when a press closes right after printing your novel and you’re completely on your own for promotion (buy Chris Gavaler’s School for Tricksters now!)  

Competition was much alleviated when we parted generic ways in our early twenties (his poems got longer and prosier while I cheered from the sidelines). I was genuinely happy about his successes, but my congratulatory exclamations still felt cleaner once I started having some success of my own. I didn’t like it at all when he started writing short stories about a stay-at-home dad whose English professor wife got pregnant by another man; by the time he posted an offprint of “The Best and Worst Sex Scenes of All Time” on the department bulletin board and colleagues started waggling their eyebrows at me, I’d had it. I regret asking him to get his female characters the hell out of my job description, though, and now I second-guess myself when I want to say: don’t write that, this one’s too personal. The kids deserve veto power but after all, reader, I married him.

Despite the appearance of kiss-and-tell (that character really WAS NOT ME), he’s a better writer-spouse than I am. He reads a higher proportion of what I produce, with less show of angst, and comments more generously. He often fails to notice that a poem is in iambic pentameter (oh yeah, it does rhyme) but he’s invariably smart about structure, where I need to cut or expand, whether I’ve gotten to the urgent you-must-read-this material or whether I need to keep digging. I rarely publish something before incorporating a few of his suggestions.

Except blog posts.