Valentine’s Day in the uncanny valley

valentinesOn Valentine’s Day, I was asking my class about the psychedelic weirdness in Natalie Diaz’s poems about her brother’s meth addiction, when I suddenly realized I felt surreal myself: headache, vertigo, a conviction the last leftover scraps of bo ssam had not been such a good lunch plan after all. I muddled through a few more hummingbird gods and human sacrifices in When My Brother Was an Aztec, stumbled home, and slept through romantic dinner reservations.

I did get out of bed, though, for a dreamlike valentine exchange. I’m pretty sure a heart-shaped card from my daughter read:

Roses are red
violets are blue
I love you a lot
shoe new canoe
(idk how you do this for a living)

My son’s note to me contained the immortal verses: “When you do play Scrabble,/ you’re better than the average rabble.” Aw. My husband, too, typed me an android-themed valentine, each line on its own neatly-scissored scrap of scarlet paper. No problem there—we’ve been watching Almost Human, Äkta människor, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, so we’ve both got artificial intelligence on our biochemical minds. We have a tradition of writing each other sf valentines, like our zombie convergence a few years back; I’m the one going off the deep end recently, writing him verses about narwhals and eighteenth-century brain science. Nonetheless, he presented me with some pretty bizarre sweet nothings, including “I’m half crazy with almost human error,” “more robo-love, more robo-robo-love,” and “I fall upon the thorns of love—I leak!”

I woke up human the next morning and picked up a copy of the New Yorker containing a sort of history-of-atheism essay by Adam Gopnik which, on the whole, I disliked, but a couple of points stuck with me. First, there’s his relabeling of rationalists and believers as Self-Makers and Super-Naturalists, among whom he notes some convergences. For example, plenty of not-very-religious and even outright godless people nonetheless practice holiday rituals. That’s me: I paint eggs come spring and fix a red-white-and-blue pie in July and drag the whole family along with every demented tradition, but I’m a skeptic in most ways. Well, seasonal turns mean a lot to me, and I’m patriotic enough to spend much of my life reading and teaching the U.S.’s damn fine art, but mostly I just like making up weird family activities.

More annoying was Gopnik’s assertion that “nearly all of the major modernist poets were believers.” He cited Auden, Eliot, and Yeats, with Stevens as a counter-example. The first two, sure, and you could add in Marianne Moore, but is it Yeats’ idiosyncratic mysticism really anything at all like Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism? And, ahem, how about the irreverences of Hardy, Frost, Williams, Millay, Langston Hughes, and Helene Johnson, or the syncretic strangeness of H.D.? Oh, that’s right, nearly all of the major modernist poets were also white guys. I love poetry, modernist and otherwise, because it offers an alternative kind of sacred grove, with the worship diffused among every sensation, idea, and syllable the poet attends to.

I’ve been thinking a lot about familial love lately, partly because of Diaz’s powerful book, but also because I’m teaching Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars in another course. I first read her elegies for her father on the train to New York City in May 2012. I was about to give a reading in Bryant Park, and on the return trip, I would visit my father in the Philadelphia Veterans Hospital—not knowing he would die a week later, but suspecting he didn’t have another winter in him. Smith’s father, who worked with the Hubble telescope, becomes nearly godlike in the second section of Life of Mars, which is mostly comprised of a long poem, “The Speed of Belief.” She hated to imagine a world without him. I felt immense pity for my own bedridden, isolated father, but I also thought he had done at least as much harm as good with his eighty-six years. I knew I would grieve but not miss him, and I was right.

I’m currently revising an essay containing the line, “when all-powerful patriarchs run the show, things don’t go well for most of us.” I was raised to be a skeptic, but I do wonder if that intellectual position has remained congenial partly because, for biographical reasons, I just find the idea of a father-god obnoxious, not consoling. I adore Smith’s intelligent, exploratory, deeply felt book not least because it contradicts my pop-psychologizing: her poetry seems agnostic despite its author’s love and admiration for her earthly father. I wonder if my own kindly-fathered kids will continue to feel as they do now—as they have felt ever since they had the words to express opinions. One’s a spiritual seeker and one’s as profoundly rationalist and religion-resistant as anyone I’ve ever met. Well, whatever their future relationship to positronic Christmas elves, both of them can rhyme.

If you need more juice for your poetry battery and your rocketship can take you there, check out two speculative poetry readings next week in which I play a small, humanoid part:

Monday, Feb. 24th, 7 pm, Studio 11 Gallery in Lexington, VA: a night of sf, fantasy, and gothic poetry featuring Sally Rosen Kindred! Come for briefer readings, too, by Mattie Smith, Ted Duke, Brittany Lloyd, Chauncey Baker, and Tamara Lipscomb. Chris Gavaler and I will read from the HOT OF THE PRESSES anthology Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comics.

Thursday, Feb. 27th, 8 pm, Jack Straw Cultural Center in Seattle, WA (an AWP offsite reading): The Superheroes of Poetry, starring Bryan Dietrich, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Sally Rosen Kindred, Jason McCall, Jason Mott, Evan Peterson, and me.

Taking literary criticism personally

It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, there’s a lull in your chores and caretaking responsibilities (ha), you need a break from your own writing, and you’re at liberty to read anything you want. What would you rather pick up?

a) a novel

b) a collection of poems

c)  a magazine full of models who make you feel pocked and frumpy (whoops, gave that one away)

d) a book of literary criticism or theory

Now, scholarly books vary as wildly as any other kind: they can be moving, enraging, clumsy, hilarious, tedious. The best are much more engaging than a badly-written mystery or mediocre poems. And if you’re really invested in a certain field of knowledge, there is occasionally a work of criticism that you’re genuinely excited to pick up—wow, what is x going to say about y? There are even genres related to criticism that anyone might read for fun, such as biographies or memoirs of literary figures, fictionalizations of their lives, or literary responses to famous works, such as Jane Smiley’s Thousand Acres. Still, latter categories aside, I read criticism and theory only when I’m preparing to teach or write about related material—that is, only the stuff I need, and only during hours designated for work. Maybe I’m lazy, but I’m guessing even the nerdiest English professors find most books of literary scholarship less than fun to read, even when they’re competent, clear, and informative.

When I read advice essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how academics can learn to prioritize their writing, I think of this Saturday afternoon dilemma. There’s a reason people can’t get the writing done, and it’s not just how distracted we are these days or the perennial difficulty of plunging into demanding projects. I mean no disrespect to the work itself or what we learn by writing it. It’s incredibly hard to produce competent, clear, and informative literary criticism—painstaking work demanding one’s full intelligence and art. Then editors and peer reviewers inform you how much painstaking revision you have to do. Then it takes forever to get published. The whole enterprise is heroic. The problem is that even when these heroic feats are successful, almost no one wants to read the stuff.

There are reasons to write criticism anyway. Bits of the process can be fun. I like reading closely, putting sentences together, and, of course, getting some rare words of praise or a merit raise. Sometimes, too, a literary argument feels truly important, even field-changing; I want to write it and some people will need to read it. Mostly, though, while it involves a brutal amount of labor, finally submitting the ring to Mount Doom doesn’t change anyone’s life much. Deep down, most of us are too sensible to believe that writing literary criticism is the most important thing I could be doing with my short life. So we fritter away time we could spend on writing it—the hours we don’t have to spend on job requirements or supervising a child’s science project or buying groceries—by helping students, baking muffins, posting birthday messages on social media, reading that bad mystery, drafting blog posts. In short, we focus on what does feel important or fun.

I’m committing this particular bit of frittering because I said something too flippant in a department meeting Friday. Deep down, I intoned, leaning across the table with an expression of existential despair, I think scholarly writing is a mug’s game. Perhaps I’m exaggerating my performance a little, but I said those words. Later, I thought, “Gee, maybe that wasn’t such a constructive remark for a senior person to level at a roomful of other English professors at various career stages.” There used to be voting members of the department who had published more scholarly monographs than I, but they keep moving to places like Alaska and the dean’s office, so I have become shockingly senior, a sort of middle-aged tree left standing in a forest recently attacked by the lumberjacks of fate. My eccentric pronouncements might therefore be demoralizing, or even alarming, to colleagues who know I’m currently teaching research writing in a gateway course for English majors and may, in fact, evaluate their own promotion files.

It’s not that I have lost faith in the profession. It’s important to learn how to ground arguments in textual detail, find out what others have written on related subjects, and document how your thesis modifies the existing conversation. I’m beyond grateful when a smart article helps me understand a great poem better, and when good notes allow me to follow another scholar’s tracks. Undergraduate English majors and advanced degree programs should require the skills good scholars practice.

I just think what counts as good scholarship is appallingly narrow, and sometimes we make ourselves miserable trying to follow professional scripts that were ill-conceived in the first place. For the PhD and for promotion at most institutions, sure, you write what they tell you to write, and possibly you resent it, but if you do snatch up that holy grail of tenure at an institution where you can bear to remain, you should ask yourself what is the best way to spend my talents now? And there are myriad good answers, including I’m not going to kill myself anymore to accomplish quests that only a small group of people appreciate unless I’m having a seriously good time on the way. I know that I need to write pretty constantly. I love writing poems so much I would keep at it even if I never had any audience at all. For me, though, the pleasures of generating well-researched prose are mixed with quite a bit of pain, so I’m becoming more focused on outcomes as I choose projects–not the money I’ll earn (again, ha!), but will this project really matter, and to whom?  

Right now I do feel sure about what I’m writing. I’ve changed the subtitle of this web site to match my book in progress, which is critical and theoretical but also narrative—what Joyce Carol Oates just called bibliomemoir in a review for the New York times. Taking Poetry Personally addresses how and why we read twenty-first-century poetry. It’s a crossover project, meant to interest general as well as specialist audiences–to expand poetry’s audiences, in fact, by drawing attention to poems I love. Each chapter is keyed to a single poem reprinted in full, so it will be a sort of anthology, too.

I find these chapters insanely demanding to research and write because I’m doing all the scholarly legwork and then hiding it (maybe the endnotes will disappear entirely in later versions, though I’m keeping them for the moment). But it’s the most important work I can think of to do right now. Since I’m tenured and otherwise credentialed, and I’m part of the gloriously open-ended and generalist-valuing enterprise that is liberal arts education, why should I do anything else? I retain huge respect for good scholarship in conventional modes and the dedication it takes to produce it. But I’ve rounded the turn now into the second half of my time on the planet, and writing in a respectable, professorial way for tiny audiences just seems too low-stakes. Most days, when it comes down to it, I’d rather bake muffins.

Same sex marriage–plus, talking cats!

Our daughter said to us recently about our first cat, Gladys: “All I really remember is her voice, the funny things you used to pretend she said. At the time I wasn’t sure what powers grownups had. I thought maybe you were actually translating.”

Chris and Gladys 2

Gladys, a petite gray-and-white creature we adopted in the early nineties, had a tough New Jersey accent and was intensely sarcastic. We must have ventriloquized her often, before we had kids who grew up and made our house noisy, because I can remember my friend Rosemary, over for dinner, laughing and saying directly to the little feline on the floor, “Oh, Gladys. You’re so funny.” Gladys was kind of hilarious, an improbably convincing and voluble joint id. Funnier than I am solo, anyway, although Chris manages to entertain without pretending to translate housepets.

My memory of Gladys’ voice resonates oddly with one of the books I just finished teaching: James Merrill’s Ouija-inspired poetic sequence. “The Book of Ephraim” is, among many other things, a romantic story: the characters JM and DJ (the latter based on Merrill’s partner David Jackson) spend their evenings together spelling out messages from their wickedly charming spirit-guide Ephraim. They also have houseguests and affairs, swim in the nude and grieve lost friends, and hunker down with their cat Maisie in cold seasons between episodes of glamorous world travel. Ephraim is their collaborative writing project, a folie á deux, and a reliable companion who flirts with them both and flatters them endlessly; his “backstage gossip” has a way of revealing aspects of their human relationship. Together, JM and DJ are witty, cultured, urbane, inventive—a brilliant match. They are also unequal in power and imperfectly happy. For example, when Ephraim tells the rich and increasingly successful writer JM that he’s done with reincarnation but DJ requires a few more tiresome rounds on earth, is the struggling novelist David Jackson consciously or unconsciously expressing certain mundane relationship frustrations? Maybe so, but as Merrill writes, “even the most fragmentary message [is]/ Twice as entertaining, twice as wise/ As either of its mediums.” In Ephraim, they’ve given voice not only to their individual hopes and doubts but something bigger, weirder, dreamier than either man alone.

That “something” might be defined as their marriage, although Merrill and Jackson weren’t allowed to marry then. However, just before I taught this poem last (2009), same-sex marriage was legalized in Connecticut (2008). Like many other Americans in my generation and older, I’m moved and delighted but deeply surprised that social attitudes and even laws are changing rapidly now—even in Virginia, the attorney general recently announced his disapproval of our same-sex marriage ban. I certainly see a shift in social attitudes in my classroom. I remember teaching “The Book of Ephraim” to an earlier group of Washington and Lee students, maybe seven or eight years ago. Someone made a homophobic remark and I told him sharply that his comment was offensive. That’s one of very few times in my career that I’ve cut off a student—usually I’ll try a counter-question or make space for his fellow-students to issue a challenge, because I think that’s ultimately more mind-changing, to hear disapprobation from peers rather from that suspiciously feminist-looking teacher up by the blackboard. To his credit, though, the student thought about it for a few weeks then came to me and apologized. He was just nervous and trying to be funny, he told me, but he realized his joke had been—what was the phrase he used? Narrow-minded? Unkind? Wrong?

Now, if any of my students are troubled to be studying a poem concerning homosexual love, I can’t detect it in their conversation or their papers. Maybe this reflects a new decorum rather than a deep change in attitudes. Still, it’s an improvement. There’s more room to talk about it as a love poem, a cold war poem, a mystical poem, or in other productive ways—better work is possible when you don’t have to justify the material’s place on the syllabus to start with. And this group of students, mostly sophomores, handled Merrill’s challenges pretty brilliantly.

Meanwhile, at home, we have a kitten, Poe, who is practically rabid with cabin fever and prone to pouncing on us demonically with hip-high leaps and extended needle-claws. Surely I have a poem to write about this crazed black cat with a Gothic moniker, but for the moment Chris and I are just trying to get his voice right. Our second cat, Flashlight, got drowned out by the uproar of jobs, child-raising, and book-publishing, although after the kids went to bed, she did enjoy dropping decorum and swearing like a sailor. When I channel Poe now, he sounds Homer Simpsonish, but when Chris-as-Poe cracks wise he sounds, disturbingly, just like Chris. How will the next decade of our marriage sound? I’m not sure, but it’s bound to be bigger, weirder, dreamier than any one human being babbling to herself.

Chris and Poe (1)