Elegy for a community reading series

Local honey

It is 5:31 in Lexington a Monday
after magnolia and before honeysuckle
the second week of Spring Term’s sugar drip
and I am driving the hospital road to Kroger
in my dogwood-dirty Hyundai with green dents
to pick up strawberries, lemonade, pre-sliced
cheese and wine with screw-tops because I
have finally learned to make hard things easier

By 6:03 I refrigerate the chardonnay, cheap
but not so sweet I won’t drink the last splash later
murmuring waste not, and I am chewing salad
with the kids, checking in about shin splints
and the Latin quiz while trying not to worry
did I remind the students and hell I forgot the signup
sheet because this will be the last open mic ever
at Studio Eleven and I could just savor
it for once in my hypoglycemic life
soon
I am at the gallery but sending Chris back
for Mattie’s jar of bee-stuff left on the sideboard
and surprise, Agnes Carbrey’s all over the walls
her dark-haired woman swimmers submerged
in and fragmented by rippled blue and feeling
as I will again the joy of summer weightlessness

When everyone sits I say something ridiculous
because I am underwater and cannot hear myself
Patrick eyes me through a long lens and Deborah
is plotting something, while behind the front-row
cadets dressed in spotless whites there’s Ted
cradling daisy-new pages and an old ration book

Finally I emerge dizzy into the first story
Sharon teaching in the prison where Mr. Vasquez
fell and the people meant to save him didn’t—
Sharon can’t revive him but gathers us anyway
in her cinderblock classroom, tables cleared
for a gurney and we witness its absence with her

in the rain outside redbuds carry candles
in the rain inside each swimmer listens for
the thump of the world, her own blood buzzing

4/29/14

cardLong day of teaching and conferencing here, but I just wanted to post a thank-you to everyone who made this three-year reading series such a success. Arthur C. Glasgow funded a reading series at Washington and Lee in 1962 and it still helps us pay honoraria and put out cookies. Dabney S. Lancaster Community College and the writing group SubTerra have also given the series significant support. Certain individuals have given us welcome help too, especially writer, photographer, filmmaker, and soon-to-be-retiring VMI professor Gordon Ball. Vicki Goodheart’s Studio Eleven Gallery has been an auspiciously beautiful space. Readers from Luisa Igloria to Kevin McFadden to my dear colleague Deborah Miranda, organizer of cards and gifts, have brought so much electricity to the space. Most of all, though, I’m grateful to collaborator Mattie Quesenberry Smith, because running this series was a downright crazy thing for both of us to do, and her particular kind of craziness is rare, lovely, and hard to come by. Oh, and apologies to my man Frank O’Hara, whose “The Day Lady Died” I keep abusing in poetic imitations–but whenever I want to write a goodbye that’s heartfelt yet not too sentimental, the voice in my ear is his.

 

Zombie spring term

Summoning enthusiasm for our super-intense four-week spring term after a long year and a too-short break always feels just about impossible. I watch my spouse bounce along with superheroic energy and think, Good lord, can I do this? The same skepticism is showing on some student faces, too, especially among seniors with honors thesis hangovers.

So for the first meeting of English 205: Poetic Forms yesterday I mostly just followed the script I’d left after a previous round. The prompt I’d used for introductions two years ago: Tell us your name, year, where you’re from. Then describe a really good class you’ve taken in the past, at any level, and tell us what made it great—some element or policy that made it all click.

The answers were astonishingly similar. Every single person cited a class in which the professor strategically ceded control, students took charge of learning, and the stakes of that learning were clear. A couple of them praised free-wheeling discussions led by Eduardo Velasquez, a colleague hired with me twenty years ago who suddenly resigned early this month (well, it was sudden to me, but I’m probably just oblivious). One student cited the small capstone seminar run by the aforementioned energetic spouse, Chris Gavaler, for which senior majors build a syllabus based on their own obsessions. Others mentioned the open conversations of their first-year writing courses, peer workshops, and computer labs in which students tested and implemented programs. Not one class sounded easy. What the students valued was real work that was really up to them.

Auspicious for a workshop, isn’t it? Inspired by their reflections, I asked them to think about poetic forms I didn’t put on the syllabus and offered to rearrange my plans based on their interests. What the heck. I’m looking forward to hearing their ideas this afternoon and seeing the poems they bring in (yes, the first writing assignment is due on the second day!). We’re ramping up quickly this week from litanies to counted and syllabic verse to haiku and renku to iambics—phew. Today we’re discussing Marianne Moore’s “The Fish,” so for fun, I’m attaching a poem that appeared in Subtropics last spring that duplicates Moore’s syllable and rhyme scheme: “Inside the bright.” I’ve been teaching “the Fish” forever so it’s not surprising it came to me when watching my kids ride waves in Kauai. I think my poem’s a lot simpler, though; I still don’t truly understand “The Fish,” even after twenty-something years of feeling attracted to its puzzles.

And since we’re counting backwards, here are a couple more student projects I’ve learned from. Remember the internship I ran with Max and Drew that resulted in a special Shenandoah portfolio of poems from New Zealand? Three of the poems we selected were just reprinted in Best New Zealand Poems 2013: Hinemoana Baker’s “Rope,” Cliff Fell’s “Chagall in Vitebsk,” and Anna Jackson’s “Sabina, and the Chain of Friendship.”

The latter publication occurred at the tail end of a set of New Zealand-based readings for my winter seminar on twenty-first century poetry and place. That class did a baby digital humanities project for which students had to pin place references from NZ poems on a world map: see the results here. The students reported pleasure and surprise just navigating the geography—most of them of course, have no idea what’s where in the Pacific, plus the sheer vastness of that ocean is generally a shocker to east-coast Americans. The project also confirmed my sense of the worldliness of NZ writers. While I asked them to focus on Aotearoa, plenty of pins speckle the Pacific islands, the Americas, Europe, even Antarctica. Lots of poetic teleportation going on…

Back now to staggering through the cruelest month, when dead Washington and Lee professors must somehow reanimate.

Lilacs, long poems, life transformations

april dutchman's breechesI’m at one of my academic year’s four hinges, less evenly-spaced than the solstices and equinoxes: the long winter term has ended, grades are in, and I’m gearing up for our May term, four intense weeks that conclude with graduation ceremonies. It’s a crazy time of year to attempt a poetry experiment: writing every day for a month through winter term’s crescendo, exams, spring break, and the beginning of a new workshop. Somehow, though, two weeks in, I am still keeping the faith. Perhaps the longer hours of daylight help make time. I know I’m inspired by the zombie season, everything dead struggling and wheezing back to life. From my home office window, I watch the mountain change colors, lawns green up, and flowers bloom in preordained succession. Today a pair of cardinals is dancing around the branches of our broken maple, still bare but tipped with pale small leaves like folded umbrellas. There’s a magnolia across the street whose white blossoms always remind me of crumpled paper; scraps are falling already, so the yard resembles an old-time writer’s den with sheets ripped from the typewriter, balled up, and discarded all over the floor. Some tulips are up, and dark clenched knobs suggest the lilac is fit to burst.

The long poem I’m working on in half-hour stints doesn’t have a name yet, but it began with a middleaged woman standing at the edge of the woods in early April and she’s now nearly halfway through her walk. For inspiration, an orange-bound copy of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale sits beside my laptop. He breaks such tales into thirty-one stages such as “MISFORTUNE OR LACK IS MADE KNOWN” and “THE HERO ACQUIRES THE USE OF A MAGICAL OBJECT.” Since one of the stages, “THE SEEKER AGREES TO OR DECIDES UPON COUNTERACTION,” is something Propp himself suggests is typically skipped, the whole thing makes an interesting set of prompts for a month with thirty days. The project requires me to take frequent walks in the woods, particularly on the back campus where wildflowers are in bloom (I believe that’s Dutchman’s Breeches in the picture). I’m trying to learn their names. “I think that one’s spring beauty, a.k.a. miner’s lettuce,” I told Chris this week. He dared me to taste it and I did nibble a leaf; he then refused to try it himself, pointing out, “Someone’s got to carry you home.” It didn’t come to that, but I did discover later that I had in fact eaten a bit of Virginia bluebell. It didn’t kill me, but none of my sources describe it as edible.

On the whole, though the past seven days were exceptionally busy and tiring, last week was the best I’ve had in a while. A reading at a high school reminded me that poetry does matter. Many people have written to me—thank you!—about the videopoem of “My Dead Father Remembers My Birthday,” a piece that appeared recently in the New Ohio Review and which has just been reprinted as Shenandoah’s poem of the week. I’m writing. And I’m basking like those young garter snakes I saw by the river in our change of fate: Chris was recently hired tenure-track as W&L’s fiction professor (he’s been adjuncting here for ages), so now I can stop feeling guilty about transplanting him to Virginia twenty years ago, and our department can enjoy full-time, committed talent in a direly important field (our major is thriving generally, but fiction workshops are more in demand than any other course). I still haven’t processed this news deeply. Maybe I’ll fully relax when the cones of lilac blossoms do.

On my to-do list for “break,” in addition to writing, course prep, administrative catch-up, poetry submissions, summer travel planning, and taking my daughter down to Davidson for a college tour: sign up for various book lotteries from Kellie Russell Agodon’s Big Poetry Giveaway list. For a chance at my Heterotopia plus a signed copy of Lyrae Van Clief Stefanon’s ]Open Interval[, post a comment here.

High school, the best poetry audience ever

One way to tell the story of how I came to read poetry desperately and constantly would be: early. I still know by heart a book of nursery rhymes I used to own, with Richard Scarry illustrations. A lot of us, though, had our first serious poetry crushes in, or at least during, high school. At fifteen, while I was struck dumb by Keats in the classroom, I was also buying David Bowie albums, reading the liner notes, and hunting down the books he mentioned there. Hence William Burroughs—who was NOT on the curriculum at the Academy of the Holy Angels—and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which was a life-changer. Then Sister Ignatius commanded that I enter a poetry contest at Bergen County Community College, so I copied over my verses and, to my shock because I never won anything, took first prize. The professor-judge told me I’d clearly read a lot of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom I’d never heard of (maybe he’s the love-child of Keats and Ginsberg?), so I went home and read him, too. University was where this all gathered speed—taking modernism courses, meeting intense young writers who were also cute boys—but I’m not sure I ever needed poems as urgently I did in high school. Those were such isolated, unhappy years. Give me bad office politics, babies who wake at 5 a.m., even tax forms. It’s all better than being fifteen.

So I am all the more impressed by Beth Konkoski at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, Virginia. She’s the kind of teacher I needed but most of us never get. Yesterday, at her invitation, I drove nearly three hours, ran a workshop for 30 students, read to about 300 in a large auditorium, had lunch with members of her department, and drove three hours home again. She doesn’t run an event of this magnitude every year, but Beth is a poet who meets other writers, like me, at conferences, so she knows her way around po-biz. She is also dedicated and organized: Beth asked some weeks in advance for a few poems I planned to read, especially poems revising myths and fairy tales, and gave them to her students in advance with journal prompts. She is also experienced enough in managing teenagers to make it look like a magical power: who ever heard of 300 highschoolers sitting quietly and with the appearance of respectful attention for a 40 minute poetry reading by some middle-aged person? It also seems to me, from a quick visit, that her large, diverse public school must be unusually supportive of inspired teachers, because the logistics alone were staggering. So many permission slips…

My workshop involved litanies and list-poems, a similar scheme to the one I wrote up for The Exercise Book (which I revisited for ideas earlier this week and man, that really is a good collection). I wanted to frame the reading itself with poems by other writers, so I elicited a bunch of suggestions on Facebook. I then didn’t follow any of them except for Margo Solod’s general directive: “hit ‘em hard.” Which meant, I deduced, not corporal punishment but choosing the most powerful poems I could. I began with a terrific Tim Seibles piece and closed with Mary Oliver, because one of my first Washington and Lee students, Jeanne, said “Wild Geese” had empowered her to depart from the script and be who she needed to be. Of my own, I chose a poem about being a zombie, another about campus sexual assault, some about my mother’s childhood in Liverpool, and elegies. The dead pet poems triggered noisy tears from a young woman in the back start—I hope you’ll forgive me, Cellist Girl. A newish poem, “Vasovagal Syncope,” made another young woman run up afterwards: “I have that! I never thought I’d hear a poem about it!”

The questions amazed me most. You know how during the question period after a reading, all the college students will freeze and all the community members shift around uncomfortably? I had thought of pulling a Craig Santos Perez—he tosses cans of Spam to the first audience members who speak up—but I don’t have the throwing arm to reach the back rows, so I just braced myself for nervous silence. Instead, I couldn’t keep up with their raised hands. Okay, there was the sloucher in the first row performing disaffected sarcasm, but almost all of them were writer questions. What do you think about rhyme in contemporary poetry? How do you know when a poem’s done? What’s the most important idea you try to get across to your poetry students? What do you do when you’re staring at a blank page and nothing’s happening? How do you manage self-doubt? The one-on-one conversation afterward was just as urgent. One guy who called himself a “music nerd” asked, “So are there poet’s poets, the way there are obscure, unknown musicians that all the other musicians admire for their skills?” And there was the fiction writer who asked about writing a story in which people are telling a story. “Well, that’s called frame narration,” I began, and he said, “Yeah, but how do you DO it? Is it like, dot dot dot? Is there a way to start in third-person omniscient and then move to first-person?” Man, that kid is in the trenches.

Are there any questions more high-stakes than those, more serious? I liked those students so much for sticking their hands right up in that potentially intimidating space and asking what they needed to know. And I like their teachers so much for making room for this conversation in an era of frantic standardized testing and STEM-field obsession. The music nerds and future scientists need poems, too, and Beth is making sure they have access to them. It’s beautiful.

Big Poetry Giveaway 2014

big poetry giveaway 2014So it’s national poetry writing month again, and shouldering aside all the forces that prevent one from concentrating on any project in a dogged way, I am writing. The plan: draft a long poem, one section per day, for thirty days. The rules: I just have to write a little bit daily, at any time, under any conditions, doesn’t matter if I’m cranky or it seems bad, and I’m not requiring myself to share any of it while it’s in progress, though I may. Yesterday, being April’s fool, I performed my duty on our backyard trampoline. I perched up there with my laptop, typing as the sun set, shivering because I’d stepped into snowmelt in stocking feet. This morning I drafted for half an hour at a desk like a proper poet. Updates soon.

Meanwhile, I realized I’m just in time to fling some books at the universe in the Big Poetry Giveaway 2014 (thanks to Kelli Russell Agodon for organizing this!). If you want to be in the running to receive the following two books, just reply to this blog post by May 1st. I’ll then use a random number generator to select a winner, contact you for your address, and mail them to your planet of residence. Last year, I gave away my third and most recent collection, The Receptionist and Other Tales. Working backwards, I’ll give away two second poetry books this time:

heterotopiafrontHeterotopia, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize in 2010, selected by David Wojahn. These poems center on my mother’s childhood in Liverpool, England during the Blitz and the years of privation that followed. Here’s a lovely review by Julie L. Moore in Verse Wisconsin.

]Open Interval[ by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, a National Book Award finalist published by Pittsburgh in 2009. Not only is it an inventive, intellectual, beautiful book, but back in another millennium, when I was a new professor at Washington & Lee, Lyrae, nearing graduation, was my advisee. I’d like to take a tiny bit of credit for helping her get started as a poet, but nope: I just signed her registration forms. I’m going to hear her read at Hollins this Saturday, so if they have copies for her book on sale there, I’ll get her to sign it for you.

See Kelli’s master list for links to the pages of LOTS of other participating poets. Put your name into a lot of drawings and you may have a big pile of inspiring poems to read by the time those cicadas start buzzing (or, southern hemisphere readers, before snow falls).