Remembering, foreseeing, and missing the Pacific

Three years ago, the flurry of Christmas was eclipsed by a blizzard of planning for a Fulbright fellowship. In January 2011, Chris, Madeleine, Cameron, and I departed for Wellington, New Zealand for nearly six bracing, gusty, exhilarating months. We arrived at our Cuba Street hotel on an overcast summer day. My photo album also documents the rain that came sheeting down shortly after, and, when we relocated to Nelson for a few beach days, a rainbow manifesting over the sea (only one visible here, but there were two—that year we became almost blase about rainbows). Nelson rainbow

When I look at those images now, I can’t believe how young the kids seem: my son was only shoulder-height and now he’s nearly as tall as I am, big and noisy enough to play the tenor sax. In poetry-time, though, the seasons are longer. The poems I drafted in the southern hemisphere, revised in the months after my return, and started sending out late in 2011 are just beginning to see publication. The sonnet crown that recently appeared in Valparaiso Poetry Review, “Damages,” took ages to get right (and maybe still needs tweaks, time will tell). Although the basic shape of it crystallized quickly and I read a section on Radio New Zealand during my stay in Wellington, there were blurry patches for a long time I couldn’t quite bring into focus: a single vague or clunky phrase can scuttle an entire poetry sequence, especially if it occurs early on so the reader loses confidence in your control. “Damages” is also the sort of outcome you can’t predict when you’re writing a grant proposal: “While watching a major national crisis unfold in the background, I will obsessively ponder the sudden, painful dissolution of my parents’ 45-year marriage.” This crown is a slant-rhymed companion to the prose piece that appeared in The Gettysburg Review and Poetry Daily, “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand,” itself an alternate-universe answer to the research I was undertaking (and don’t even get me started on the incubation period for scholarly publication).

The pace isn’t always glacial. A couple of other poems inspired by that trip appeared more quickly in print magazines. “In Other News” was taken by Poet Lore. “Inside the Bright,” formally modeled on Marianne Moore’s “The Fish” and responding to a visit to Kauai on the way home, was published by Subtropics. These pieces may or may not hold their ground in a book-length poetry manuscript, Radioland, I’m beginning to shop around to presses—an alarming amount of what I write never makes the magazine cut, and a lot of my journal publications get shut out of my books. The latter have to be really lean and limber to survive the current market. At any rate, the current version of Radioland begins with the New Zealand material and ends with poems from winter 2012-3, a season of more travel and slowly processing my father’s death, even as we rebuilt a large part of our house after catastrophic flooding. Expect my output for the next few years to be extremely damp, metaphorically.

Meanwhile, here are a couple more Aotearoan poems in the new Unsplendid. “Things That Move Forward” is based on an incident on a walking trail near our Virginia home, but I first drafted it during a workshop I ran for the New Zealand Poetry Society that culminated in terza-rima-writing (the goodhumored participants promptly rechristened the form “torture rima,” which sounds funnier in a kiwi accent). “It Is Difficult to Get the News from Poems” quotes the extremely American William Carlos Williams in the title, but otherwise responds to a powerful event I attended right after the Christchurch quake (the next day, I think). The poet who counts tuatara at the beginning is Harry Ricketts, whose comments on local species of sonnet in 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry inspired my couplets. The poet whose understated reading moved me so much is Bill Manhire.

The other two selections in Unsplendid came later. “Past Meridian” was my first try at a fourteen-word sonnet in spring 2012—I remember because I drafted a poem a day that April and kept them together in a single folder. “Belief,” a random eruption from no occasion I can recall, is the poem Unsplendid’s editors have kindly nominated for a Pushcart. I’m so grateful to the editors of all these magazines for working so hard to bring poems to a world that doesn’t know it needs them. And grateful, too, to the Fulbright Foundation for granting me those wild, windy months. Everyone in my family was transformed by the undertaking.

Still, I hope the dramas of 2014 are more comic than the rather-too-epic adventures of the last few years. I can foresee some of them: we’re planning a couple of weeks in France in June, and touring universities in April and August. Madeleine will be a high school senior in September, biting her fingernails over SAT scores and applications. I’ve agreed to serve as interim department head in 2014-5 while the current chair takes a sabbatical, and I’ll be applying for a leave of my own in 2015-6 (here in Virginia, I think, given that I’ll likely be the cash-strapped parent of a first-year college student). While we all miss the climatically unpredictable Pacific, here’s to mild weather for all of us in the new year.

Adventures in poetry teaching, part two: Gaileyland!

In psychology, it’s called “literary transportation,” although you may know the phenomenon by the metaphor “getting lost in a book.” Immersive readers do this all the time. We become so absorbed by a story that we forget we’re tracking lines of print. Physically, you’re sitting in an easy chair by the window, in a cozy room. Imaginatively, you’re shivering in a wintry landscape with a compelling character, half-visualizing the dark verticals of tree trunks glazed with ice. Your actual heart rate climbs when a faint, thin wolf howl rises in the literary distance.

Although I earned a PhD by treating poems in the usual ways—as Billy Collins alleges, you tie them up and begin the cross-examination—I’m fascinated by other ways books become meaningful to us, and hence I keep concocting peculiar assignments for my literature students. A few days ago I posted about some students’ translations of modernist poetry into other media (“Dancing to Loy”). My other class this term was a first-year composition course on the topic of speculative fiction. All fall they’ve been learning about developing arguments, reasoning through evidence, and handling that wild beast, the semicolon. They’ve been perpetrating all this critical prose about science fiction and fantasy: comparing Terry Bisson’s eerie “Bears Discover Fire,” for example, to Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists”; or looking for what Tolkien calls the “eucatastrophe” in tales by Kij Johnson or Octavia Butler; or juxtaposing Grimm and Gaiman.

We wrangled with speculative poetry, too. They just completed final projects inspired by Jeannine Hall Gailey’s first collection, Becoming the Villainess. First we read and discussed the book, with a visit-by-Skype from the generous poet. Then we began to take that “literary transportation” business seriously. We read Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a treatise about genre brilliantly disguised as a satirical travel handbook. Lonely Planet author and W&L alum Amy Balfour visited class to discuss real travel writing: how she pitches projects and receives assignment, the lengths of essays and how she structures them, the words she uses and the stock phrases she avoids. I also brought in piles of old travel manuals and we skimmed them for style and structure, then brainstormed. Reread Gailey’s book, I said, as a set of clues about a real place. What can you glean from the poems about the climate of Gaileyland, or the dining options, or the major attractions?

Everyone had to devise an entry and, with the help of our digital services guru Brandon Bucy, upload it to a joint WordPress site. Then the students chose different follow-up projects: some wrote analytical essays about Gailey’s verse; some wrote fantastic poems and tales accompanied by critical statements; and three volunteered to edit, expand, and redesign our collaborative web venture, Gaileyland: A Travel Guide to Becoming the Villainess. The result is a very strange and funny species of literary criticism. These students had to trace and analyze patterns of language and reference just as they would for an essay, but in a different style and very much in public. If there’s an implicit argument about the text in their project, it might involve Gaileyland’s essential darkness. The poems are rooted in trauma, although becoming a villainess is one way to seize back power from a world that would constrict a woman’s options and mute her dissent. All the weirder, then, to address poems about Persephone and Cinderella and Dark Phoenix in the perpetually sunny prose of tourism-boosting: eat at Philomel’s Athenian Restaurant! “Locals whisper that once the cook served human meat in a stew, but we think that’s just myth.”

I love the results and find it so gratifying to hereby celebrate the intelligence and creativity of my students, especially right now. It’s been a rough week at my home institution: very early last Tuesday morning, a car carrying ten students on their way back from an off-campus party crashed. A young woman in her senior year died and others were badly injured. The rest I don’t know for sure, but credible rumors involve an intoxicated driver who had already made multiple runs, returning partygoers to campus. All that vitality, lost or hurt. The latest wave of sorrow about it hit me as I was decorating the Christmas tree with my own teenagers yesterday, noting who was sentimental about what ornament, thinking that when each kid has a home of his or her own, I’ll pack up the little santas and boats and shells and kindergarten photo-crafts for them to put on their own trees. Then I freaked my family out by bursting into noisy tears, thinking about the idle plans we make all the time, and how for one set of parents, that whole speculative future is just gone.

Really, all assignments and grading are trivial in the end, though sometimes they add up to helping people learn a little. But writing and reading are important ways of seeking illumination and consolation. So are sharing them in good company: if you’re in Rockbridge tonight, and not too upset by today’s memorial service, come hear a bunch of area writers read at the Studio Eleven Gallery at 11. S. Jefferson Street in Lexington at 7 p.m. We’ll be collecting nonperishable goods and monetary donations for the local food bank. And sharing what moves us with others, and being moved—more nontrivial activities that need to keep happening in and beyond the just-slightly-magical space of the classroom.

Dancing to Loy: teaching modernist poetry and performance

This is the moment in the term when some of my craziest teaching experiments come to fruition (or wither pathetically on the vine). I always assign something fun or peculiar in the last week or two of the semester, in part to combat exhaustion as everyone faces down final papers and exams, and in part to make room for other ways of thinking through literary works. Analytical writing is important: by reasoning through ambiguous texts and bolstering claims with well-judged evidence, students exercise intellectual skills that can make them better writers, citizens, moviegoers, you name it. Analysis, though is far from the only way to come to terms with a poem. Some of us like to puzzle over how literature works, but analysis isn’t the foremost pleasure for most readers, I think. Many of us, for example, get most excited about literature when it provokes us to personal introspection or artistic imitation. Why shouldn’t those modes of response get some classroom time? Don’t we learn from them, too?

So this week, students in my upper-level undergraduate course on American poetry from 1900-1950 had to assemble into small groups and figure out some way to perform a poem that wasn’t on the syllabus. Some of them created videopoems inspired by Lorine Niedecker’s “My Life by Water.” Here’s a video response by Eleanor, Sam, and Kellie to Gertrude Stein’s “Sacred Emily,” with each of 370 lines represented by a single image flashing by quickly:

Another group provided a theatrical interpretation of Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago.” Here are Ben, Katie L., and Johnson before they smeared dirt on their faces and climbed on the furniture. Sandburg

Did you know Mina Loy designed lamps? So did Annie, Taylor, and Katie T., in response to her poem “The Widow’s Jazz.” With dramatic flair, they plugged their lamp in mid-reading, transforming an apparent blank spot in the shade into a sort of magic lantern illumination of Loy’s silhouette.

Loy lamp

By secret ballot, the class awarded “best performance” (and extra credit) to Amira, Danielle, and Caroline for their playful and insightful translation of a visual poem into an audiofile. Here’s their rendition of E.E. Cummings’ “rpophessgr.”

Another contender for the prize was a dance choreographed and performed by Alee, Alyssa, and Kiki, in response to Loy’s “Brancusi’s Golden Bird.”

I felt a little awed by the creativity and talent on display for what was, in essence, a minor homework assignment. And I’m fairly sure all these students understand the poems now better than I do, from the inside out. They devised great programs for their performances, too. Rather than including them all here, I’ll conclude with photographic testimony from Johnson, Katie L., and Ben, to the desperate intellectual seriousness of their artistic collaboration. Well, at least Katie looks serious. (P.S.: I really like my job.)collaboration