Events of our exile

For the first time ever, while teaching “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I felt inspired to act out the last scene for my students: look, this is what she means, I said, crawling around the edges of the seminar room, fitting my shoulder into an imaginary smooch in the imaginary decorative wall-covering. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, I’m a little frightened at how much I identify with this narrator today. Did you ever register why she’s having her breakdown in a rental house with gorgeous views? Her own home is being renovated. There is no mention in the tale of plumbing mishaps—postpartum hormone/ neurotransmitter issues seem more immediately relevant—but hey, man, that’s all just leakiness and poor fittings in the house-as-self.

So, this afternoon we’re scheduled to move back in; the house won’t be finished but it should be liveable again. I am not confident that the transition will be smooth, but as I packed up our bits and pieces this morning in the house we’ve been borrowing from Kate, I confess I was muttering like a madwoman in an attic: I’ve got out at last, in spite of you dilatory contractors!

Meanwhile, here’s the list I’ve been keeping in my secret diary: evidence of how flooded with work and craziness our life has been for the past 7+ weeks. This is what’s happened since I last slept in my own bed.

1. I drafted many poems involving plumbing metaphors.

2. Madeleine’s height finally exceeded mine and Cameron outgrew a bunch of clothes. These factors compounded with a seasonal shift and poor Lexington shopping options put us into repeated sartorial emergency.

3. Madeleine earned her learner’s permit, began to motor around Rockbridge with an anxious adult in the passenger seat, had her ears double-pierced, and drove us bananas with her county-dwelling chauffeur requirements.

4. Cameron fractured his left wrist blocking a goal at soccer practice. He now refuses to allow his spiffy blue fiberglass cast with Gore-tex lining to be defiled with Sharpie signatures, which I remember as being the best part of the whole miserable adventure, back in the days of clumsy plaster.

5. Both kids finished their first academic marking periods without major crisis; Chris and I started teaching our fall courses, taught six weeks, and submitted overly generous mid-term grades.

6. Cameron commenced an optional science fair experiment involving varied watering conditions for small plants, because we all thought our lives needed further complication. We do not understand where these plants will live once we complete the move.

7. We started off spending much time in our damaged house talking to contractors and watching progress but, as the general disorder increased, became too depressed by the whole thing to stand being there.  It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw—not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.

8. Extremely frustrated with certain contractors, Chris and I took turns weeping, yelling, gnashing our teeth, and picking out tiles, but never gnawing on Kate’s nailed-down beds or tearing off strips of her wallpaper (she has neither, for which we were grateful).

9. I realized how destructive poll-reporting is to our democracy and, worse, to Chris’s mental health. The man is really suffering this election cycle.

10. When not suffocating under avalanches of student essays and poems, I reread Sarah Waters’ Night Watch, only realizing during the horrible protracted abortion scene that I had, in fact, read the novel before and felt cruelly tortured the first time around. Mindy Kaling’s memoir cured me. I just finished Chabon’s Telegraph Ave: A-. I’m wondering why none of my friends have mentioned Rowling’s book: that bad?

Back to reading student responses to Gilman’s gothic short story. Wish me an unhaunted, clean, peaceful night in my own bedroom tonight even though it is, in fact, painted yellow.

Fighting about poems: Shenandoah NZ Diary, Part II

Received by Email While Guest-Editing

I reject your rejection. You are not qualified
to cast me off. I’m a luminary: let me direct
your attention to an interstellar anthology.
You, sir or madam, have provoked a righteous
snit. A catastrophic reversion of my recent
surgery. You institutionalized me. My well-
being’s been battered by bad form letters.
Really, you made me very sad. And angry.
Sad, angry, sad, like stop-motion photography,
the sun rising, flaming, cooling, doused
with all my fondest hopes. You sack of dolts.
I thought we were friends. What a joke
your life is, what a waste of gravity. I project thee
into orbit now, thick-pate lightweight. Respectfully.

So, I wanted a new experience—creative, professional, pedagogical—and I got it, with a vengeance (although I’m hoping I haven’t inspired acts of vengeance). In May I sent out a call for work for a special Shenandoah poetry portfolio to appear in February 2013. By the September 1 deadline we had 103 packets, mostly 5 poems per author, from writers all over New Zealand and a few Aotearoans in exile. When I say “all over,” I really mean a high number from the Wellington area and a smattering from each of the other regions; my network is Wellington-based and I was only partially successful getting the word out more widely. Still, that’s a lot of poetry, and Rod Smith, Shenandoah’s Editor-in-Chief, told us we can publish a maximum of twenty-five.

The intermittent “we” in the above paragraph includes my co-editors Drew Martin and Max Chapnick. Both are senior undergraduates—although I have been suspicious for years about graduate student gatekeepers at other magazines filtering out unfashionable poems, poems that allude to sources beyond their own reading, and poems about aging bodies and other transformations born of getting older. In fact, I did like the submissions about parenthood and middle-aged chagrin more than Drew and Max did, and they liked poems of youthful urgency more than I tended to. I wanted to work with them, though, partly because of these differences. They’re different from each other, too—Drew, a musician, is drawn to oral energy and Max to allusive, intellectual stuff—but they’re both talented, opinionated, and forthright. I thought it would be clarifying to fight over poems, defending what we loved and finding ways to articulate our disappointments.

It turned out that we agreed on almost nothing. Through late August and the first week of September we read all the packets individually, marking them yes, no, and maybe. Max was the soft-hearted maybe-man while Drew and I had larger “yes” and “no” piles. Unfortunately, they weren’t the same piles. In in our first meeting, we discovered that only three authors had inspired unanimous yeses, and in those packets we were drawn to different poems. We then met twice a week for four or five weeks to wrangle each other into aesthetic submission. We came to agreement on seventeen-ish and the rest was bargaining: “you can have this, if I can have that.” Sometimes a weak line was a sticking point and we agreed to accept the poem while encouraging revision of the trouble-spot. I’ve gratefully received suggestions on my own poems from generous editors at Poet Lore, Poetry, Agni and other mags; it always seems like a sign of good editing to me and I wanted to imitate it. I’m thankful even when a rejection comes with a suggestion. Editors have overwhelming jobs, usually on top of other, paying jobs. When they show that much interest in your work, it’s flattering.

I feel good about our issue-in-progress, but for better or worse, this isn’t the issue I would have assembled by myself. I have some regrets over rejected poems. I liked a number of pieces whose virtues I never managed to articulate convincingly enough to my co-editors. One effect of the process, though, that’s probably good: my co-editors were much less cowed by big names, and not having met the submitters, were more impartial than I. (I had several crises—“Right, right, the poem has problems but we can’t reject HER/HIM!”—and they just shot me skeptical looks and waited for me to stop hyperventilating). They talked me into accepting a few poems they love but I merely respect; this is a collaboration so everyone has to win and lose sometimes. They also showed me the power in a few pieces I wouldn’t have read twice.  The result: some good work will be left out of the issue because no one fell in love with it. Every poem that willappear had a fervent champion.

Other side-effects: at least for the moment, I’m smarter about revising my own poems, because it’s easier to see what’s reject-able about them. I understand better than ever that good isn’t good enough: you have to provoke delight, passion. And, reading responses to our rejections—notes that are variously chagrined, gracious, and indignant—I can see I might not have the stomach to edit full-time. It’s hard to turn good poems away, especially when the respondents are gracious. It’s even harder to shrug off the angry replies, knowing how often I’ve swallowed the same frustration. Too much fighting! The poem up top was easy to write, not because I feel superior to my irate respondents, but because I identify with them utterly.

Noise, Voice, and the T. S. Eliot Society

Last week, on the night of my birthday, I dreamed that my father phoned from the afterlife. The strangeness of hearing his voice made me think, the next morning, of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s elegies for the voices of lost loved ones: photographs were common then but since audio recordings were very rare, a person’s timbre and accent really did fall silent forever. It wasn’t clear, in my dream, that my father knew he’d died, but I did, and even asleep I was amazed at how he sounded perfectly like himself. I’ve looked at lots of pictures of my father since his death but, although there are probably recordings of his Brooklyn vowels somewhere, I’m unlikely to hunt them down and listen. Even for twenty-first-century me, voice remains more ephemeral than image.

That strange dream-signal was part of the noise I brought to the T. S. Eliot Society’s annual meeting in St. Louis this weekend. Michael Coyle invited me to lead a seminar on sound in Eliot’s verse, which turned out to be pretty fabulous. Members of this small group had prepared papers on Eliot’s poems, criticism, and plays in print and in performance: John Melillo, who wrote an honors thesis for me at W&L ten years ago, now listens for the shifting relations of voice and noise in “The Waste Land,” with Dada playing in the background; Elizabeth Micaković had fascinating things to say about Eliot’s relationship to elocution (I’d forgotten that Emily Hale taught speech!); Fabio Vericat took on Eliot’s shifting relationship to poetic genres as he became more involved in BBC broadcasting; Julia Daniel discussed a recorded performance of Murder in the Cathedral, particularly how Eliot developed the chorus with help from a celebrated expert in choral verse speaking; and actor Michael Rogalski described his work on a performance of Four Quartets. This was an auspiciously noisy seminar: conversation began on the shuttle bus and stayed lively straight through the session and lunch after. We agreed that it had been the best seminar in recorded history and it’s a shame all of you other human beings missed it.

On the second day of the conference, Mike performed Four Quartets. His production-in-progress is fairly spare: a white screen, four white blocks he shifts around, and one actor in a gray suit. The setting, in contrast, was the posh St. Louis Women’s Club, where we had just been served a fancy lunch with monogrammed silver: a large chandelier glittered over Mike’s head as he spoke, white columns framed the space, and he paced on a dark green carpet patterned with vines and roses. Sometimes I was aware of Mike interpreting the poem; sometimes I fell unselfconsciously into the flow of language. The experience reminded me of another lost person, my dissertation adviser and a distinguished scholar of modernism, Walt Litz. I had confessed to Walt that I loved “The Waste Land” but couldn’t get excited about the repetitious, recursive self-corrections of Four Quartets. Walt chuckled at twenty-five-year-old me and reassured me it was a poem for middle-aged people. Well, here I am, getting older, and yes, Eliot’s disclosure of the “gifts reserved for age” is powerful now. So, though, is the noise, in this case the distant kitchen clatter of mostly African-American women doing the luncheon dishes and laughing, as the mostly white audience sat respectfully hushed. That counterpoint seemed important to me.

The “compound ghost” of Walt and my father—I have always associated them with one another, both men paternal to me, and drinkers, and more smart than honest—materialized again during the conference’s Saturday night festivities. While several scholars sang show tunes over a grand piano and others danced barefoot, I talked with a Washington University professor who had helped Walt during his crisis years just before retirement in the early 90s, when I was one of Walt’s final protégés. It turns out that my dissertation adviser, who was good to me but so destructive in other ways, who seemed almost to fall off the face of the earth, is still alive in a Princeton nursing home. If I can find out which, I can still contact him. I’m not sure if he remembers me, though—if I left an impression at all commensurate with his echo in me. He liked me and helped me land a job at Washington and Lee, but whatever I am now, I wasn’t a star then. It came back to me later (through Walt himself? through my eventual colleagues? I can’t remember) that he had called my interviewers, then a department full of men who’d had trouble hiring and tenuring women, and told them that I was “easy to get along with, but no doormat.”

Over the dream-telephone last week, my father said hello and apologized for not calling sooner, mumbling angrily about the doctors who had screwed things up. He also said, “It’s snowing here,” before the line was cut. So much of what we would say to people gets fuzzed out, lost in the snow. Sometimes the message would be so painful that memory’s degradation is a good thing. And sometimes it’s also good, as my own long-ago student so wisely does, to attend to the noise just as closely as the voices.