In which the modernism scholar attends her first con

Three weeks out: What do these panel/ event names mean? “Queers Dig Time Lords and Outer Alliance TARDIS Party”? “Is Feminism Magic? The My Little Pony Panel!”? “None of Us Are Goats”?

One week out: Why aren’t my co-panelists answering the let’s-get-prepped email the conscientious WisCon organizers prompted me to send? Do they hate me for presuming to butt into their Con? Becoming quite sure everyone wishes I’d just stay home.

Day One: Had a deep conviction, while packing, that I needed more purple and feathers, but said “screw it” and just packed professor-clothes. I’d been clairvoyant about the purple and feathers—in professor-clothes at WisCon you feel like Clark Kent, only straighter. (For more on conference-gear anxiety, see “Rhymes with Poetess.”) On the upside, my co-panelists for “Women’s Speculative Poetry Now” are brilliant and enthusiastic and funny and show no signs of hating me whatsoever. The audience is good-sized and seems delighted. I learn a ton and am so glad I set this into motion.

Day Two: Sleep deprivation has now thinned the veil between dimensions. I lose time, in a good way, at Karen Joy Fowler’s reading. I have dinner with my doppelganger: turns out, though poet Meg Schoerke and I have never met before, we interviewed in 1993 for the same jobs and each got offered different ones. She informs me about my life in an alternate timeline and also how and why she is in the process of transforming into a science fiction writer. The day climaxes at the Haiku Earring Swap: I pick out sparkly pink beads, Elise gives me the title “The Duchess Regrets,” and I compose the follow-up lines “her indiscretion/ with the jelly. Really, love/ is sticky enough.” I am allowed to barter this haiku for my jewels.

Day Three: I put on the magenta tights I bought on State Street along with Elise’s earrings and I feel a little better, even though a street person shouts, “I love you, Pink Ass Lady!” (That seems fair enough, actually, since I’m the most colorful thing walking through his living room.) During a solo brunch at Graze I intend to read Caitlin Kiernan’s fabulous Tiptree-co-winning novel, The Drowning Girl. Instead, I sit next to an architect whose green designs, she tells me, include self-repairing airplane wings and a kind of paint that makes concrete surfaces absorb and trap greenhouse gases. Amazingly, she has nothing to do with the science fiction convention. More great readings today, plus the Dessert Salon. (I have never attended such a FEMINIST feminist conference: safe spaces for every identity plus constant access to chocolate conceived as a basic human right.) Having The Receptionist and Other Tales announced as a Tiptree Award Honor List book makes me feel magenta all over.

Day Four: I know I didn’t really DO WisCon because I never had enough stamina for the late-night parties, but I met some lovely people, and when I read from my book this morning at Michelangelo’s the audience laughed and said “mmm” at all the right moments. At the Sign-Out, Tiptree judge Andrea Hairston described reciting my book while parading around her house—wish I had that for a book trailer or something, especially since SHE has serious feathers going on.

I’m drafting this in the Madison airport. My bags are heavy with books and my head is jammed with still more titles—tons of reading to do. I don’t know the work of keynote speaker Jo Walton, for instance, but her reading and talk were amazing. I’m still pondering what she said about the relation between writer and audience: “I’m writing it inside me and they’re reading it inside them…the art is happening in the space between.”

I’m still writing mostly in the space between “literary” poetry (that’s a terrible label, but it’s what I’ve got) and sf. There are lots of speculative poems in my new ms, which is all about uncanny transmissions and connections, but it’s not a genre venture at its core as clearly as “The Receptionist” was. I’m just trying to write and read the very best poems I can, and I think “best” often harmonizes with “speculative” because sf asks such good questions about what’s real and what matters. I loved WisCon, but I find myself wishing for a poetry-focused conference this smart, this fun. I want to see what the rhyme-nerds wear when they’re really letting it all hang out.

Incarnation: WisCon

I’ve been a virtual sf author since Aqueduct published The Receptionist and Other Tales last summer: you can conjure me by textual transportation device. At WisCon this weekend, though, avatar and body will undergo fusion.

I’ve given readings from the book all year, but on all those occasions my primary identity seemed to be poet. At the “World’s Leading Feminist Science Fiction Convention,” though, my primary identity will be person invested in speculative fiction. Which I truly am. But I still feel jittery as I pull on the boots.

If you’ve gone to grad school—especially if you’ve been a woman in a fancy program—you probably remember episodes of feeling like a complete impostor. I often thought my admission was an accident or grudging concession: I was offered a fellowship by a state agency so Princeton said oh, all right, dammit, we can let in ONE New Jerseyan. I was the youngest person in my year and one of only two who had attended a public university, so I felt constantly outclassed, outread, and intellectually outmaneuvered.

O miracle: I scored a decent job as I was finishing my dissertation. I worked really, really hard, for years. I caught up. There are still huge holes in my education but I know a lot of stuff about twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetry. I’m confident enough that I don’t worry much anymore about the gaps—very few are as well-read as they let on, really, and I plan to keep educating myself for at least three more decades.

I wonder how much of my confidence is rooted in the actual work I’ve done and how much comes from authority being mirrored back at me by other people, especially in classrooms, at conferences, and at the various other places we strut our professordom. I noticed this year, as I read course evaluations and exit surveys, a number of remarks such as great teacher but doesn’t have an enormous ego. This made me laugh, wondering which of my colleagues were being implicitly accused of egomaniacal behavior. Even if I don’t project a sense of overweening self-importance, though, it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the ego-boosts of teaching. I do. I just cited praise from my course evaluations, for heaven’s sake. And I love it when people ask me for advice or an opinion and then listen to the answer as if they expect it to be smart. As my daughter says about herself: being bossy is, like, my favorite thing.

And yet I keep throwing myself into situations in which I really am a green, untutored creature. I guess I like being a student. I’m attending WisCon in part to make the book visible to people and in part just to listen, learn, take it all in. I’m hoping that because it’s a feminist conference—fiercely egalitarian in all its communications with attendees—the whole ego parade thing will be less in evidence than, say, at the AWP. It’s an adventure, in any case, a portal into an alternate universe.

The protagonist of my poetic campus novella, “The Receptionist,” is also a half-reluctant, timid sort of quester. The alternate reality Edna inhabits remains vivid to me. People who know my real colleagues keep asking me who’s who in the poem’s imaginary English department and it really doesn’t work that way. I visualized the elfin Victorianist as someone I met elsewhere years ago. The dragon resembles several distinguished older women professors I’ve known, but physically I was projecting Helen Vendler, whom I’ve never met. Many have said, “oh, the hermit woodsman is totally Jim Warren,” and I get why, but I actually saw him very clearly as a small, dapper, wiry, silver-haired man, a little more formal and courtly than our real Americanist. The problem dean is definitely an amalgam of administrators I’ve known or heard stories about from friends, but mentally I dressed him up like the perfectly-nice-to-me postmodernism expert Andrew Ross as he was photographed for the New York Times in the nineties: longish black hair, bright mustard-yellow jacket (I think this is the article but the picture I remember isn’t attached). See?

Oddly, as far as seeing goes, the only character I can’t visualize is Edna. I would have said that I identified with several characters in my story, but drawing a blank on her features, build, coloring, and clothes makes me realize I was really looking over Edna’s shoulder the whole time, focused on how she saw others rather than as others saw her. She’s probably a good person to think about as I beam out to Madison, Wisconsin. A good watcher and listener, definitely jittery, but when she hears that voice in her ear, she’s willing to leap through a painting into the Narnian ocean.

And off I go to Madison, as soon as we get this batch of too-flattering students graduated. I’ll be moderating a panel Friday, May 24th, 9 p.m., called “Women’s Speculative Poetry Now” with Amal El-Mohtar, Shira Lipkin, Sofia Samatar, and Sheree Renée Thomas (Conference Room 4). And I’ll be reading in an event called “Overflowing the Aqueduct” on Monday, May 27th, at 10 a.m. with Eleanor Arnason, Nancy Jane Moore, and Deb Taber (Michelangelo’s in the Best Western Inn on the Park). If you’re also visiting this particular dimension, please say hello.

Professor Aragorn swears a vow

Manifestos are for angry young men, right? I’m more like “cranky” and “middle-aged,” and as far gender stereotyping goes, I actually had a student write on a course evaluation once, “Just as kind as you’d expect from a mother.” Whippersnapper, if you’re out there, be glad that was anonymous. I am weary of hearing that niceness is my salient attribute. Especially when I just spent three months expertly guiding your complaining tenderfoot fellowship through the Nazgul-haunted waste land of modernist poetry.

The title of my piece in the summer 2013 issue of The Gettysburg Review, “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand,” suggests not a fiery declaration of creed but a series of low-stakes, highly civilized quenchings. I lived in Wellington from late January 2011 to the beginning of July as a Fulbright senior scholar researching poetry networks, in particular the rhizome-fibers fanning out from the International Institute of  Modern Letters at Victoria University. I spent the first few months talking to people, going to readings, trying to see the lines of force. By late April I hunkered down to write an article that I thought would become a book chapter.  I aimed for an audience of academics who are thoughtful about creative writing as a discipline. Turns out that’s a mythical tribe. At least, there are very few venues for such work, and do they want to hear my skepticism about the idea of “community” in the MFA enterprise, balanced by a case study of an antipodean program that’s actually pretty successful, better in some ways than many of its US antecedents? No, Lesley, as perhaps you ought to have predicted, they do not.

By late May I had finished a draft of that scholarly article, which, sigh, is still wandering the wilderness. One cold rainy day I played hooky to visit Katherine Mansfield’s dismal childhood home. Afterwards, over lunch in a Thornfield café, my spouse and I talked about the weirdness of the trip so far. Setting up house in a foreign country, sending your small-town kids to school in an unfamiliar city, is bound to be difficult; you know your life is being reshaped and it’s hard to play scholar in the middle of it. Further, a few weeks after we’d arrived, a Christchurch earthquake had resulted in terrible destruction and loss of life. My husband’s beloved aunt Mary had suddenly died. And my parents, whose marriage, when I left, seemed solid as rock and just as affectionate, were divorcing. Radio silence from my eight-five year old father, now living with a forty-five year old woman.  When random Aotearoans asked me what I was up to, I would joke “having coffee with poets”: how else could I possibly sum it up?

“That’s what you should write,” my husband said, when I commented on how hard it was to assume an authoritative, scholarly voice as if none of this other material was boiling around me—how dissatisfied I felt by academic writing, under the circumstances. “An essay about having coffee with poets.” I took off Strider’s costume that afternoon and tried to assume my birthright, composing prose in which I was a whole person. I had lots of paring and reshaping to do later, but I put down the bones in a week or two. By the end of the finished essay, I declare my intention to transmit argument without filtering out all the personal noise that makes me want to make arguments. That is, to brew up criticism that also delivers the pleasures of story—more meaningful to write, possibly even of interest beyond academia.

Declaring that ambition feels arrogant to me, outrageous, not entirely nice. Further, the two years since have been crazy. The kids hit adolescence; our jobs changed in big ways; the house flooded; my father remarried, got sicker, and died. Basically I’ve been trying to survive my life and think about new goals while not laying down the old ones. I’ve written tons of poetry and prose and managed to get some of it revised and into the world but I’ve also been trying to do too much. My spouse’s latest pronouncement: I need to fire the tiny little booking agent who inhabits the cave of my head. She knows exactly how much I can do and she schedules me right up to the limits of my energy and sanity. “I hate her,” he said. Okay, I answered, overruling the homunculus. No modernism conference.

What I’m trying to do now, as the writing summer opens up, is prioritize. I’ve got a lot of projects steeping. The ones I’ve already committed heavily to: it’s time to dust them with cinnamon and serve them to some kind of public or just dump them if they’re too stale, but no more fooling around behind the espresso machine. And the new book, Poetry’s Possible Worlds will NOT be the straight-ahead scholarship I was trained in, but the mixed-up stuff I feel driven to write, the stuff that feels interesting to me and I hope will be interesting to others, too. Goals:

  1. Write what I want to write—poetry and prose that anyone who likes to read would enjoy—but commit to it. Stop trying to walk every path at once.
  2. Work long and hard. Get better.
  3. Unite the kingdom.

And the winner of the Big Poetry Giveaway is…

Poet and blogger Joseph Harker! I’ve never met him but just looked him up and his last post for NaPoWriMo, “Adam and Steve,” is pretty great. Nice list of favorite poets, too. I’ll be sending him my latest, The Receptionist and Other Talesand Feral by Janet McAdams.

Thanks to Susan Rich for organizing this and to everyone who put themselves into the lottery–27 people, three cubed and always my favorite number. The process: I counted down and gave everyone a number, making sure that the people who posted multiple comments were only counted once. Then I used a random number generator to determine the digit.

If you didn’t win and still want The Receptionist, it’s only $9 from Aqueduct Press, or $6 for an ebook. Or if you can review or teach it, ask for a complimentary review copy. Contact me at wheelerlm (at) wlu.edu if you want a signed book. I’ll also be at WisCon in late May and, this coming Friday, I’m reading new poems at Chroma Projects gallery in Charlottesville, Virginia–that’s May 3rd, 6 pm, in conjunction with a show by visual artist Carolyn Capps called “We Are Not Our Work.” Much of what I’ve been doing during NaPoWriMo is generating new pieces in response to her collages. It’s been really fun but now I have to revise them and read them while the linguistic paint’s still wet. Yikes.

I did keep to the NaPoWriMo program, by the way, often drafting multiple poems in a 24 hour period–but being at an artists’ residency for 2 weeks in the middle of April helped. Some days my output was extremely lame and yesterday, in the very last evening of obligation, I almost decided to bag it entirely. I’ll leave you with the poem from the 29th, one of those I-just-don’t-have-the-energy-for-this days. I was inspired when a former student, now a teacher at a middle school in Baltimore with a community garden, tweeted sadly that there aren’t enough poems about asparagus in the world. Poor neglected vegetable. I tweeted back:

spar grass loves spring’s steamy mood:
from woody shoot to point d’amour
a short and terribly tender fuse

Poets, go revise your April brainstorms, read as much verse as you can get your eyeballs on, and eat your sexy delicious greens.