The Heathen at the Trading Post

What if one of the few places you feel intellectually at home is a once-a-year gathering that shifts from city to city and disperses after three days? At the annual Modernist Studies Association meeting I can’t sleep for worrying about what I said or didn’t say during the panels. I sometimes feel like a clown from the wilderness, behind on the reading that everyone else seems to manage, failing to remember what I actually have read.

I also have conference friends with whom I’m instantly relaxed and cheerful, and I always feel energized by the intensity of the conversations. I missed fully half of the 2011 modernist materialization in Buffalo, New York last weekend but crammed in as much as I could while on site. The panels and especially the roundtables were terrific. I was on a roundtable organized by Helen Sword about innovative scholarship; my co-panelists were brilliant and I’m still chewing on their propositions. Another, Marsha Bryant’s “Re-thinking Poetic Innovation,” presented an electrifying investigation of a ubiquitous word. When it’s used to describe contemporary poetry, “innovative” vexes me no end and lo! I am not the only resister!

Some scraps from my notebook follow—smart questions, sharp observations, and other bon mots. I identify speakers when I know them. Caveat: I may have details/phrasing completely wrong. I was pretty worked up.

Alan Golding: What does fetishizing innovation stop you from doing?

Bob Perelman: “Avant-garde” is an increasingly quaint period term.

Steven Yao referred to “the phenomenon of the usual suspects” and asked what modernism would look like if we acknowledged the bigger picture of literary production. Following up on that point later, Mike Chasar pointed out, “when you read distantly you first have to identify your archive,” and then described going into debt buying strangers’ poetry scrapbooks via E-Bay.

Elisabeth Frost recalled another poet asking her, “But isn’t all good poetry innovative?” Discovering that her conversational partner “held all the rhetorical cards,” she rethought the term and proffered “transformational poetry” instead, being interested in identifying “what poetry can do.” The transformational critic, she went on to say, “tries not to be smart so much as connected.”

From the audience: “Innovation can be contextual. A Harlem Renaissance poet using the sonnet is doing something transformational.”

Another man asked how we can talk about innovation without destruction—the adolescent impulse to smash? Some enthusiastic/mocking pounding of tables ensued.

Jed Rasula offered the following distinction: experiments can fail while innovations have already succeeded; their status is beyond failure.

Meredith Martin asked why we’re still buying the “make it new” tag Ezra Pound sold us. It’s easy to teach, she answered herself, and Alan Golding commented that the problem with the great project of blowing open the modernist archive is that it becomes unteachable.

Mike Chasar informed us that Edgar Guest is the most published US poet of the 20th century—he published a poem a day for 30 years—and no one has written critically about him.

Lynn Keller suggested that innovation is a professional term: “WE want to be innovative, justifying what we do. The word has to do with the profession more than with the literature.”

Even just one provocative conversation justifies a few stupid airplane hops, especially when it’s framed by reunions over free pastries. I walked into breakfast on Saturday and Annette Debo and Marsha Bryant called out, fully as if they were happy to see me, “It’s Lesley! Where WERE you?” People greeted me like that all morning. I concluded the evening at the bar with a former undergraduate, John Mellilo, who now has a PhD and an ACLS fellowship and honeymoon plans and a wildman beard. Now, of course, I’m back on the heath, bags and brain stuffed with winter provisions

Work-work-work life balance

This week, one of the two most productive writers I know wondered aloud, “Is this it? Is the brain case empty now?” as she rapped her skull smartly. Last week, I asked the other one, who is going through a bad time, whether she was writing about it. “Nope,” she pronounced with authority from within her crenellated citadel of books and papers. Both are scholar-teacher-poets with lots of service commitments to the university, the larger profession, and various other communities, and I’ve recently seen both of them drop everything to tend to a family member in crisis.

September and October are always the absolute worst months for me as a writer (northern hemisphere bias alert: I definitely mean early fall and the beginning of school). Maybe it’s different when you don’t have teachers or students in the house; I wouldn’t know. At the office, classes, committee work, and special events force an intense schedule, and there’s all that leftover summer work to finish—the deadlines you didn’t quite meet. At home, the kids are stressed out by transition. They need both firing up and talking down so they can reestablish homework/practice routines and manage to sleep at night. For us, there are two September birthdays, conferences, and book promotion in the mix.

It’s not just time, though, especially where poetry is concerned. There’s a quality of attention I find hard to manage. To write, you have to notice what’s strange, urgent, lovely, or interesting and I’m just moving too fast. All weekend, even: feed the kids, grade the papers, get some minimal exercise, pay the bills, have postponed conversations about practical things like whether we have to take that tree down and what’s that growth on your thumb and what happens this Thanksgiving. Worse, because I’m moving rapidly from task to task, I fill free moments with similarly quick and not-too-difficult activities: check Facebook and email, read The New Yorker. I don’t have a lot of time, but there’s an hour every once in a while, and I don’t spend it on what I care about the most.

I’m drafting this entry early Sunday morning. My task today, having graded the papers and planned Monday’s class, is to prepare comments for a conference roundtable on innovative scholarship. As in, I’m supposed to be someone who produces it and can explain how. This does strike me as funny. My brain case isn’t empty—there are several big questions percolating in there—but at the moment I have too many options and wouldn’t know what to tackle if some power stopped time for a week and sent me to Yaddo or the Beinecke. Or how to tackle it. Would I be aiming my prose at venues with scholarly or literary prestige? Small coterie journals with great editors and no resources? My neglected blog? Or would I just play around? Self-indulgent, apparently pointless experiment has produced some of my better poems, though I revise with several editors’ heads bobbing facelessly over my shoulder like Sylvia Plath’s disquieting muses. I know that if I want to be a better and more productive writer, I have to be ready to waste time, stare at the wall, obsess fruitlessly, ignore responsibilities, and do it again and again.

Someone told me last night at a dinner that he’s going to read poetry when he retires and he has time to savor it. I’m going to look for writing windows sooner than that. Like, maybe, November.