Intention / haplessness

As usual, I’m tripping over my own sleepy feet into National Poetry Month, knowing I should have a WRITING PLAN but instead feeling indecisive, half-awake. April is when W&L’s winter term ends in a flurry of meetings, receptions, and papers; exam week and spring break, which are relatively calm, occupy the middle; and by the last 10 days or so I may or may not be teaching one of W&L’s hyper-intense 4-week spring courses, meeting 15 undergraduate poets for a couple of hours daily and otherwise grading and planning like a demon. It’s rough to establish a writing schedule during those transitions, but on the other hand, it’s a moment when the earth is all churned up inside and out, and those are fertile poetry times for me. I get much less done during winter’s still darkness.

I began observing NaPoWriMo in 2012, drafting a poem every day that April, and it was an amazing season: I wrote some good stuff and made real progress as a writer. It was also my first spring in two years, because of a six-month stay in New Zealand where the seasons are flipped, so I went from light-starved to ecstatic sun-worshiper in the most intense attunement to spring I’ve ever experienced. In May, my father died, so I wrote furiously all summer and fall, too. Those poems form the core of my next book.

April 2013 was less successful, even though I spent part of the month at a writer’s retreat, perhaps because I didn’t need the release so desperately. In 2014 I shifted approach and wrote a long poem in a section per day, using Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale for prompts. I recently revised “Propagation” for a contest submission. It begins, as the excerpt below shows, with a middleaged woman about to walk into the woods for a solitary hike; she may or may not be accidentally pregnant, but she’s also unhappy and trying to figure out what to do next. I loved researching the local wildflowers as they bloomed on our back campus as well as experimenting with different forms and styles from day to day. The first section is below, just to give you the scent of it.

The deal I’m striking with myself now: as of tomorrow I have to spend at least 20 minutes per day working on poetry. I can write, revise, or just read and think and plan, but I have to prioritize it, including during the AWP. Even if your life is nuts in April, it’s a good discipline to remember that you can carve out little blocks of concentration for what’s important. You just need to make really living your life–as opposed to checking email or hitting snooze or whatever else gets you into trouble–non-negotiable. Wish me luck.

1

An edge will sharpen later:
  bright lot / chilled shade.
Now, at April’s front door,
  the woods begin
imperceptibly.
  Wizened sycamores
crook twig-fingers—come in, come
     in—but their kitchen
vents through a thousand
  seedy chimneys. No
green shingles yet
  divide the interior
from ruminating stars.

  Inside me another
brambled sleeping world:
  another boundary to breach.
Anger / desire. Inside
  me a felted bud may
be fattening. Embryonic
  summer. Infant
premonition of forest.

Postcard for Jean

Today I’m thinking of my much-loved Aunt Jean, who died at her home in England this morning. I came to know her best in 1988, when I stayed with Jean, my Uncle Pete, and my cousin Nigel in Cyprus for three weeks. I was studying abroad at the University of Southampton and, during a long term break, my friend Mary Beth and I decamped to the Mediterranean Island where my uncle was stationed on a British military base. They lived in a large, cool house with views of the sea. That trip remains one of the greatest adventures of my life. Jean and Pete drove us up mountains, through blooming orange trees, and through every interesting ruin around–I loved everything about the place.

Paphos

It’s funny to look back at these old pictures–Jean and Mary Beth in Paphos, Jean and Nigel clambering around on the rocks–and remember that the kind-hearted, warmly-smiling woman taking such good care of other people’s children must have been younger than I am now. Jean and Nigel

JeanEgypt

Towards the end of our trip, she encouraged us to take a brief cruise from Cyprus to Israel and Egypt. We barely had money for it and shared some pretty austere windowless bunks in the bottom of the ship; we were also the only Americans aboard, though there were Canadian UN peacekeeping troops, I remember. That’s 20-year-old me–I bet they don’t let you climb pyramids anymore.

I took my own kids to visit Jean, Pete, and Nigel in 2006, when I was conducting research for Heterotopia, a poetry collection concerned with my mother’s childhood in wartime Liverpool. There were bowls of stone and wooden eggs Jean had collected over the years. We also took a walk during which my young daughter was stung by nettles. Jean stopped and showed her what nettles looked like, and also pointed out dockweed growing nearby. When she plucked some dock leaves and rubbed them briskly over Madeleine’s legs, it seemed to soothe her–or at least she was distracted by the spectacle.

The poem below was written shortly after that visit and eventually appeared in Heterotopia. I’m not sure why I imagined myself hatching out of Jean’s eggs, but I know I always felt a few degrees happier around Jean, a little more trusting in the world’s potential goodness. I hope she’s in some kinder country than illness now, and wish I could send her a thank-you note.

Inland Song

In some kind houses the doors
never quite shut. Every table
hosts a bowl of eggs—wooden ones
or striped stone, cool to touch.

What could grow in such an egg?
A day becomes a story becomes a bird,
a lost seagull who shrinks each time
I describe him. Watch him fold

his filigree wings, crawl into
the shell. His song wasn’t much,
but he tries to swallow it,
as if he can retreat

to an ornamental state
of potential. This is not possible,
even in an inland village named
Barnacle. Just brush your fingers

over the eggs as you leave,
memorize the feel of the grain.
The paths are thick with nettles,
but if they sting, rub the blisters

with a fistful of dock. Pain
and consolation grow next
to each other, in some kind
countries. House and wing.

Lucidity, difficulty

As a grader of zillions of undergraduate essays, I hate the word “relatable.” I never let “universal” sneak through a poetry class without interrogation. I understand why some critics mock the word “accessible,” as if poems could be built to code with wide ramps and handrails. Relatable to whom? People don’t have equally easy entry to literature’s many universes. Asali Solomon, author of the great new novel Disgruntled, observed to me on Friday that while there’s contemporary poetry she approaches with goodwill yet still doesn’t understand, she gets the experimental work of Harryette Mullen.I’ve had similar experiences, and so have you: one kind of obliquity alienates, while another attracts, intrigues, or even makes deep sense. It’s changeable, too. A book that repels you now might be just what you need in 2025, providing we survive the zombie plague AI-takeover eco-apocalypse.disgruntled

Solomon was part of a panel discussion here Thursday with Helena Maria Viramontes. (Evie Shockley was prevented from coming by what had BETTER be Virginia’s last snowstorm of 2015.) The title of the event was “At the Crossroads of Literature and History” and one question we posed to the visitors was how each thought of audience. Part of what Solomon answered, if I’m remembering right, is that she wants to involve us in the world of her West Philadelphian character Kenya, but not explain that world. That is, some readers may receive the story with delight, seeing their own experiences there, and for others the book will illuminate unfamiliar territory. But the book isn’t necessarily for one kind of reader more than another.

Now that the contract is signed-sealed-delivered, I can publicly announce that my own next book, Radioland, is scheduled for September 2015 publication by Barrow Street Press, the same folks who did a beautiful job with my second poetry collection, Heterotopia. Most of the poetry they publish seems more experimental or difficult than mine, in my own imperfect judgment: I’d say their list has an intellectual character throughout a pretty good range of styles. The editors nudge me gently, respectfully towards intensifying rather than clarifying poems, if that makes sense. I think they’re right, so as I finalize the manuscript I’m paring away a few of the first-person pronouns and other bits of language that are probably implicit. It’s like boiling down stock, only for months or years rather than a few steamy hours.

I like the book better the more time I spend with it, but I am aware that all this sauce-reduction will make the poems more challenging. I ponder the cost/ benefit analysis constantly, because I firmly believe that while playing to poetry insiders is an effective short-term game, it’s short-sighted. “Intense” is good but “off-puttingly obscure” undercuts the ultimate value of one’s own verse AND does a disservice to poetry generally. The more poets aim to please a rarefied audience, the smaller our audiences will deservedly be.

I don’t think there is a universal sweet spot for me or anyone else, as far as judging levels of difficulty. As I started off by saying, accessibility is idiosyncratic. I did just finish reading a poetry collection, though, that I could recommend to anyone. Sometimes I buy or order a very good book and then don’t pick it up for ages; it’s revealing to me that I sank into Jeannine Hall Gailey’s brand-new The Robot Scientist’s Daughter as soon as I had a free hour. Her previous three collections were good reads, sources of pleasure unalloyed by irritable puzzling, complex but not alienating, so I (rightly) trusted this would be too. RSD

Look at a book’s layout and much becomes clear, even if it’s only a given author’s resistance to clarity as a literary value. In this case the cover art in itself is readable; the title and subtitles imply a narrative grounding; there are discursive notes naming research sources at the back. Even more unusually, an introduction by the poet describes her upbringing near the Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee, where her father consulted on nuclear waste clean-up. Gailey situates her poems in several contexts. Her poems tell an urgent story about the long term dangers to the natural world and to human health of nuclear power. They also vividly invoke the beauty of Appalachia even as it is rendered toxic to human and nonhuman residents: I particularly loved all the natural detail about wasp nests, identifying mushrooms, brewing carcinogenic sassafras tea. Her lush green childhood seems idyllic but at so many junctures is nearly fatal. Gailey also teases out resonances between her own life and the conventions of science fiction, too, in a way that’s political and playful, for she’s obviously a fan as well as a canny critic of the genre. But I’m not a critical wizard to see these things: she signals her affiliations and commitments clearly.

I know from Gailey’s blog that it took her a long time to place this book, which strikes me as pretty weird. This collection will interest many kinds of readers, plus she’s a smart self-publicist who will do lots of readings and get the word out. She’s particularly good at drawing in audiences who are not poetry insiders. And she’s a sane and pleasant person—these qualities all seem like the ones I’d look for, if I were a book editor. Did Gailey’s investment in reaching a wide variety of readers actually make her publishing path harder, I wonder?

When I was twentyish, my poems were obscure because I wasn’t doing the work of thinking them through, or wasn’t willing to reveal what I really did think. Teaching undergraduates made me put a premium on clarity, but during the last ten years of building a poetry-publishing career I’ve felt a lot of these little nudges back towards a more elliptical voice. Force sustained through every necessary word in a brief space: I value that. But I never finish a poem now, even a highly condensed and/or formally experimental one, until I know what’s urgent about it and could state some version of the crux in simple declarative sentences. My intentions are embedded in the work. Is that my sweet spot?

I don’t know, but then, the difficulty of figuring out the best way forward is what drew me to poetry in the first place. There is no way to become expert; I will never be sure of myself.