In which I procrastinate with snacks, parties, and fake-writing

The peony heads slump over in their lushness. I can hear the baccalaureate speaker’s voice faintly behind the air conditioner’s hum, and I wonder again: in what sense does featuring another white Christian minister make this religious event “more inclusive”? Well, I’ll sit it out in my office but don my robes tomorrow for another long hot graduation ceremony on the lawn, then rush to the departmental luncheon to scarf down a little fruit and chicken salad before the students arrive with their dads sweating through cotton jackets and little old grandmas tottering around on the edge of heat exhaustion. I like the luncheon—praising students quite genuinely to their emotional parents, shaking damp hands, asking neutral questions that don’t imply a new BA should have firm post-grad plans yet, celebrating when they offer up good news about a job or grad school acceptance. It’s a happy kind of closure after a long hard year, especially since the mini-saunas of our dress clothes will have purged us of old grade disagreements.

I’m still in that delusional dilatory state in which I think I ought to clear the deck before I really write. This is delusional because there is ALWAYS another bit of paperwork to finish, emails to send, clean-up from the previous term or planning for the new one. Though some colleagues still linger over dwindling piles of student writing, I tend to get my grades in as fast as possible, read and summarize course evaluations, move books from the “on deck for class” spot to regular shelving, and proceed to other marginally OCD term-closure rituals. May always brings magazine rejections and acceptances, too, as faraway editors clear their own desks, and I get a little frisson of record-keeping joy as I document their decisions and list the lucky yeses on my curriculum vitae and Faculty Activities Report.

I do know this is a little crazy, even though as procrastination goes, clerical work is more productive than painting my toe nails a new color or watching funny cats on YouTube (not to cast aspersions on those venerable amusements, but I do feel pleasantly smug when that FAR comes due and I am ready to hit send). I do have to remind myself every year that it is procrastination, not some exercise of virtue. Writers write even when their desks are messy and that faculty development event they attended isn’t properly logged. My spouse is a good reminder of this. He writes even when he’s showering, running, folding laundry. This time of year—once heavy teaching work is on pause for three months—I need to seek a similarly single-minded focus instead of, say, mentally drafting memos or dreaming about my next snack.

I am showing early, hesitant signs of hunkering down. During April I drafted a crazy long poem in a section per day, using Vladimir Propp’s thirty-one functions of the folk tale as prompts; the quester is a middle-aged woman taking a three-hour walk in the April woods, pondering a career change and worrying about whether she may be pregnant. I reread it last weekend, shaped it up a bit, sought the aforementioned spouse’s feedback, revised it again, and gave it the provisional title “Propagation.” It was really fun to draft, requiring lots of, you guessed it, long walks in April woods, and at least for now, I like the results. I just shipped it off to a friend who wants to trade critiques this summer. That’s work, right?—although I always start summer’s meal with dessert.

This project has been good preparation for a presentation I’m giving on “The Receptionist,” a very different long poem, two weeks from now at the West Chester Poetry Conference. The panel is “Narrative and Non-Narrative in the Book-Length Poem” with the very accomplished and hip poets Dolores Hayden and Jehanne Dubrow (Saturday June 7th at 3:15, in case you’re around). We’re going to discuss problems of genre and composition then read from our various works. I find myself thinking particularly about how all narrative is time-management—deciding when to work through a scene in slow detail, and how to handle those sudden, disparate jumps of an hour, a day, a month of story-time. The form I chose for “The Receptionist” was highly symmetrical, involving thirty-three terza rima cantos of thirty lines each, and that made time-jumps harder to regulate and clarify. Grounding the story in an academic year, September to June, helped, as did liberal seasonal and holiday references.

I wouldn’t say I’m ready to give that presentation yet, but at least I’m finally turning my mind into the right groove. I’m hoping to segue right from working up my talk into writing a narrative-themed chapter for my prose-book-in-progress, Taking Poetry Personally. I’ll lay some groundwork, at least, and do a little more research during a work-and-pleasure trip to France in the second half of June. More on that here before takeoff, I hope.

In the meantime, back to “work” on the conference by arranging meals with friends, including poet Rafael Campo, who is sage and inspiring in this recently published interview for Shenandoah. Oh, and there’s a reference letter I have to write, and this really fun collaboration with artist Carolyn Capps that’s been languishing (see a bit of it at the new issue of Levure littéraire), and I’m really behind on my literary-magazine reading after which, whoops, it will be time to race home and get dinner on before my son’s band concert, and of course tomorrow will be all ceremonies and parties, and who could squeeze in writing time then? And maybe Friday I should begin to update my poetry submissions—I haven’t sent work out for ages, and while submission has its own agonies, it’s not as hard as actually writing. But soon, very soon, I’ll definitely, seriously get cracking.

Giveaway plus

booksI don’t know why it’s so much fun to give presents to strangers, but I enjoy this annual Big Poetry Giveaway project so much. Thanks again to Kelli Russell Agodon for organizing it for National Poetry Month 2014. Twenty-seven people entered (that’s my lucky number) and I just selected a winner via an online random number generator. Congratulations to Michael Allyn Wells! There will be a bonus in addition to the two books promised. Ecotone editor Anna Lena Phillips just gave me a little pile of her beautiful and useful letterpress chapbook, “A Pocket Book of Forms,” so Michael, you’re getting one too. I don’t even remember saying anything helpful about this project in draft stage, but Anna Lena swears I did. Proof that little gifts do come back to you, multiplied.

This poetry week had ups and downs, but I’m ending it in the black. I started in pain from a wrenched back and shoulder and worried I wouldn’t be able to get through the mucky piles of labor ahead. Nightmares about trying and failing to keep my kids safe have been costing me sleep, too. I think it’s just mixed feelings about how fast they’re growing, but I slapped poor Chris awake at 6 a.m. today, thinking I was fending off bad magic directed at my daughter. I was also sad about the end of the Writers at Studio Eleven series and uncertain whether my spring term Poetic Forms workshop was clicking. In the last few days, though, people have been volunteering that they love the course, and more importantly, among the new poems they’re showing me are a few real dazzlers. I also received an email from a student who read at Studio Eleven a few weeks ago and now wants to start a slam poetry club on campus–hurrah! I also found myself participating in a teacherly energy-sharing circuit. Yesterday’s Skype visit to Stan Galloway‘s poetry course at Bridgewater College was really fun. I loved his students’ take-no-prisoners challenges: for instance, why there are so many ghosts in my poems when I describe myself as a skeptic? (Um…) Anna Lena gave a brilliant demonstration of literary editing to my class, using a triolet as an example, and then a beautiful reading later in the evening.

And then I received a note from Switchback, whose editors accepted my poem “Epistolary Art” recently. The poem’s now up AND it has been honored with the editor’s prize for the issue. I first drafted this piece while listening to a talk about Keats in New Zealand. The poem felt important to me–it’s about making connections over distance through letters and ultimately through poems, which is a central idea in my current ms Radioland. I had a particularly hard time getting it right, though, eventually subtracting a good-sized chunk of it, so it’s particularly satisfying to know this epistle reached someone.

So here’s to Michael, and to the month of May, and to poems in the pipeline–I even received an acceptance from Crazyhorse last week, a journal I’ve admired for ages. I’m going to give away the metaphorical farm–whatever that is–if subtractions keep adding up this way.