The Head-Space of Revision

One more day in NaPoWriMo. I’m wondering: could May be NaPoRe(vision)Mo, and June NaPoSub(mission)Mo? Not sure I’m capable of it—the next few weeks are about as busy with teaching, domestic stuff, committee work, and miscellaneous deadlines as they could possibly be—but I’ll try. One potential snag: drafting is about openness and dreaming, restorative activities when your life is too busy. Revision, though, while it can be about receptive listening, also requires intellectual focus and decisive ruthlessness. The needle might be hovering around empty on those tanks, given this month’s grading, administrative, and report-writing obligations.

Whatever happens next, I’m shocked by the sheer amount and intensity of what I’ve written. Not one poem from the inventory below is ready for prime-time yet, but most of them contain interesting ideas, juxtapositions, and bits of language. It’s as if I squeezed in a writing retreat through random 30-60 minute blocks. The numbers refer to dates; I started storing drafts in an “april12poems” folder about three days in, when I realized I really was committed and would lose track of process otherwise.

1 He Likes Road Runner Best (sonnet treating Merrie Melodies, my son, Afghanistan)

2 The Opposite of Elegy (drafted outside Lee Chapel thinking about recent memorial services)

3 Acoustic Niche (terza rima about birdsong and creative writing workshops)

4 In Praise of Slogging (haiku expressing frustration about slacker students through an apple blossom metaphor)

5 OLD, Petersburg Virginia, by Gordon Stettinius (ekphrastic and syllabic, from a photograph in Staniar Gallery that made me think of my daughter’s recent birthday)

6 Past Meridian (fourteen word sonnet about middle age)

7 How Study Abroad Transforms You (couplet-sonnet depicting the Notorious New Zealand Paintball Outing)

8 Distractible (cruel and sexy April)

9 Semi-colons (extended sentence about teenage romantic drama)

10 Art Film (talked about that one in the last blog)

11 The Size of It (ditto; also 1989 cross-country trip)

12 Photoautotrophic (getting a little ecstatic, one of this month’s many long-lined free verse poems)

13 Working Assumptions (how I thought life operated when I was nineteen)

14 Powder Burn (remembering the guy who told me, “if you had long hair and a southern accent you’d be the perfect woman”)

15 Zut, Zut, et Zut (more melodramatic teenagers)

16 Earth, Air, Fire, But Mostly Water (looking at Deborah Miranda’s mountain, then pretty much on fire)

17 Chorophobia (look it up)

18 Reverberation Room (double sonnet that begins with the friendship between Liz and Jack on 30 Rock and ends up rhyming “obscene” with “feeling”)

19 Anti-Dinosaur Haiku (commissioned)

20 Enter the Wormhole (based on Janet McAdams’ rock-paper-scissors prompt from BookBalloon, though I broke the rules)

21 Science Fiction (I am definitely not done with this as a poetry topic)

22 The Sun Went Down Then I Felt Sad (response to a dare)

23 The End of Talk (using “talk” in epistrophe—does one say “in” epistrophe?)

24 Werewolf Arm (a sonnet referring to Chris’ birthmark)

25 That Small Item You Forgot Was In There (litany based on phrase “my first home,” the beginning of Robert Sullivan’s “Boyle”)

26 Lessons/ Reflecting Water (swimming pool haiku series, watching Cam splash after Sullivan glossed “waiata” in class)

27Aubade (playing with a three-step line)

28 Uncanny Valley (you know that theory about how too-lifelike robots inspire revulsion?)

29 Falling (lame title, but the poem uses trochees and dactyls to talk about marijuana)

30 ? (but what I’d like to pull off is a response to Craig Pleasants’ gallery exhibition)

Suggestions for tomorrow are very welcome, but you have about 11 hours until I’m at risk of starting to write without you.

NaPoWriMo=Write more, sleep little

It’s probably not the poetry; I’m drunk on light. I spent January-July 2011 in the southern hemisphere, so this is my first spring in two years, and I feel transformed. I sit outside every spare minute, grading papers on campus leaning up against a white column or watching the sun set over House Mountain from my front porch, shivering over a glass of carmenere. I’m less interested in sleep and food, presumably because I’m photosynthesizing. And I’m drafting a poem a day according to the National Poetry Month regime, though I’m not following prompts or being at all systematic about it. I’ve written at midnight, three a.m., dawn, lunchtime, late afternoon, after dinner. I’ve composed on laptops and in notebooks, in the study at home or at my office, at a picnic table downtown, in the front yard, tonight on a hotel balcony swarming with sand flies. The process is less difficult, more fun, and far more revelatory than I expected it to be.

I started off exercising the usual reflexes. On April Fool’s Day, following an argument with Chris and Cameron on the relative appeal of Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner, I started typing: oh, look, I seem to be rhyming; my goodness, it seems to be a sonnet. I stayed with received forms for a few days because they always give me something to go on, a sound to chase (I identify with the ingenious, pathetic Coyote). I noticed that my poems were getting sexier as spring unfolded and that the maple outside my house was a recurring character: golden flowers, expanding leaves, and suddenly samaras. Since then the poems have been about sex, particularly during my years in college—a bullying first boyfriend, rape by a stranger at a party, another assault in a fraternity, falling in love with Chris and owning my desires, various weird pickup lines along the way and wondering what those glib young men could possibly have been thinking, what I looked like to them, how I seemed to myself. I’d never written poems about any of it, the bad or the good or the extremely funny; those experiences were just too big, it seemed, to become material. The verse is very messy and I’m not sure much of it will ever see the light of day, but it’s worth writing. It feels like digging. If I didn’t keep at it, the tide would come in and silt over the excavation, reshape and soften the marks of the shovel.

I recommend this, even though I’m sitting awake most nights, not upset or tired, just a little more alive than is entirely comfortable.

My daughter the spy and other angles on poetry classes

I’m usually more giddy than blue at the end of a term. I like my students, even the slackers and con artists, and I love talking about poetry for a living, but I also like addressing a new set of problems with a new group every time the season turns. And you just need a break occasionally from the practice of intense alertness that discussion-based teaching requires, even if “rest” constitutes a stack of papers and facing some looming research deadline. But as this winter term closes, students keep moving me through office-hours confessions, poetry conversion testimonies, and spasms of insight and art. Over my shoulder, a three-course term that had seemed only moderately successful suddenly looks blossomy.

Introduction to Poetry can be difficult to teach—the students have wildly different academic backgrounds, aptitudes, attitudes, goals. While my section is full of amazing people, I make some strategic mistakes in assignments and the magic chemistry thing never quite happens. Yet when some students choose to write a portfolio of poems in traditional forms instead of a third essay, the results floor me.

  • A shy first-year interviews her brother with Asperger’s syndrome and turns his answers into a gorgeous pantoum.
  • Another first-year writes a series of pieces about a nude self-portrait she’d been required to do for studio art. During the required class reading, she projects the portrait on the document camera. How brave is that?
  • Another first-year, an enthusiastic, self-assured spoken word poet when he walked in the door, kills the group with an incantatory piece about what drives him to write.
  • A woman who never says hello, please, thank you, or goodbye—basically, I’ve never had a clue what she thought about anything—submits a strong piece about how much safer she feels in the language of numbers. She tells me she was inspired to write it by the aforementioned spoken word guy. I hear versions of this story a couple of times, about one student excited by another student’s poetry and trying to channel its power.
  • One late afternoon, a sweet and very smart young man comes in with a suite of love poems about his relationship with another guy. At another college, maybe business as usual for a creative writing teacher? Not here. Seniors do come in annually to tell me they’re gay, trying to come out, struggling with it. I have mixed feelings, honored to be in his or her confidence but sad it’s always so hard. Having that conversation, though, with a sophomore who’s calmly out, wildly in love, and mostly just worried about the poems—that’s pretty beautiful.

Introductory Poetry Workshop: I have to find a totally new way to prep this course to differentiate it from the Poetic Forms course I’ll be doing in our four-week May term, and again, I make some syllabus miscalculations and things don’t go as brilliantly as I’d hoped. And then they keep coming in, saying thank you, telling me how sorry they are the course is over. They show me the drafts they’re working on and suddenly the work looks a lot better.

My upper-level seminar on poetry and place is one of those rare classes you love unreservedly from beginning to end. I’m actually glad to see them three times a week instead of two (not my preferred schedule, ever). The students are wacky in a variety of ways, offering me their weird nicknames, Springsteen fetishes, and sundry odd takes on various assignments, like an electronica composition instead of a response paper. Some of their presentations and class comments are uproariously funny, and always smart and interesting; I’m working through ideas along with them and learning a great deal from their essays, questions, and frequent skepticism. Occasionally they snow me—pulling the conversation along strange tangents to distract me from discovering they haven’t done the reading—but I don’t even mind.

The last session’s on Good Friday and one of them takes charge, arranges for the seminar to meet in the basement room of Blue Sky Bakery. My 9th grader is off school so she sits in the corner with a pastry and a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. I see her scowl a couple of times and ask her later what that was about. “That dark-haired girl was texting the whole time and I wanted to slap her. Don’t you know what’s going on when someone has a sweater on her lap or her purse set down in front of her?” Uh, now I do. “And they all kept staring at me.” “No one was staring at you!” “Yes, they were. That one guy came over for a napkin and he just, liked, glared right at me. The hot guy, not the short hot guy, the one who’s tall-nerdy-hot.” So many ways not to answer that remark.

Maybe I’ll finish grading, read the course evaluations, find they’re snarky after all, and march into May term unsentimentally, a ruthless gleam in my eye. This soft-focus lens is nice for the moment, though. And I’m really excited about some of the experiments I’m planning to inflict on these spring term students.

Poems and chapels

When Alice Te Punga Somerville walked out of Lee Chapel a week ago Sunday, she looked around for water and ended up rinsing her fingers in a puddle, flicking the water back over her head. “Don’t want to take anybody with me,” she remarked. I had forgotten that traditional gesture upon leaving a burial place. Robert E. Lee is below the chapel in his family crypt, his horse interred just outside; their graves are just a few steps from my office, and my office is above the room where the former confederate general was inaugurated president of Washington and Lee. It didn’t seem worth rinsing my own hands. I live with these ghosts. Each night Alice was here, in fact, I dreamed of the afterlife—in one case an eternal poetry conference on the beach near Nelson, New Zealand, run by Bill Manhire.

A couple of hours later, I returned to the chapel on my own for a memorial service for Severn Parker Costin Duvall III, a W&L professor of modern poetry who retired in the mid-nineties, when I was hired. Learned, eloquent, and sharp-witted, not to mention tall and good-looking, Severn could be intimidating in the classroom. To me, he was utterly charming, always greeting me with a cry of enthusiasm, inquiring about my well-being in a wonderful Tidewater accent, and reflecting on what a brilliant hire I had been.  When I was researching the history of literary readings in the U.S. for Voicing American Poetry, I interviewed Severn, who had been hired to start the Glasgow series, bringing Muriel Rukeyser, Ishmael Reed, Allen Ginsberg, Czeslaw Milosz, and many others. Severn spoke of standing-room-only crowds in that same chapel for James Dickey, and how the all-male student body was riveted in 1973 by a symposium of women writers: Mary McCarthy, Denise Levertov, Carolyn Kips, Barbara Deming, and Penelope Gilliat. He sipped coffee in Elrod Commons while I scribbled furiously, feeling star-struck, for a couple of hours. I would have loved to listen longer.

And a few days later, news of Adrienne Rich. The space in which I’ve been mourning her couldn’t be more different than Lee Chapel. I’m hearing testimonies through Wom-po, a virtual space full of women from different generations, backgrounds, life paths. It’s impressive how many of these poets felt authorized and inspired by Rich’s work. Many of them are already writing essays. I’ll leave them to it. My own experience of Rich isn’t unique or interesting. As a university student in the late eighties, I found her work, fell in love with it, and wrote an honors thesis partly based on “Twenty-One Love Poems.” I heard her read once at a Whitman centennial in Paterson, New Jersey. I teach her work in a range of classes and it always fully engages me—heart, brain, conscience.

What compelled me as an undergraduate reading “Twenty-One Love Poems” were her thoughts on the ethics of telling, of making one’s interior life exterior through words. There’s one scene of two women touching one another as they vomit over the rail of a ferry; diction linking love to pregnancy; and of course that sexy female volcano (which I finally climbed myself this past summer, thinking of Rich). Lots of pain and destruction in those metaphors, but in the end telling is better than keeping secrets.

I’m sorry Severn is gone. It was good, though, to hear one of Severn’s grown-up students talk to us about what he learned from his tough, generous teacher; he vividly conjured up one particular seminar in a room where I’ll teach this spring term. I’m one of Rich’s students, although I never met her, and I can still inhabit the space of thinking she made through poetry. Sometimes the virtual rooms are as vivid, as important, as the real ones.