Lines Composed in Bath a Few Days After Visiting Tintern Abbey

Lines Composed in Bath a Few Days After Visiting Tintern Abbey and Also Nottingham, Coleford, Netheravon, and Miscellaneous Places Viewed Accidentally Because We Forgot to Reserve a Car with Sat-Nav and Had No Map. June 22, 2015.

Twenty-six years have passed!–two advanced degrees,
two mortgages, two beauteous teens raised
to height if not to wisdom since I last
trudged complainingly uphill to gaze
upon the Royal Crescent; since I toured
the Roman Baths at student rates, and couldn’t
find an open pub at which to order cheaply.
Again I hear the angry-baby cry
of gulls and shiver in the English summer
drizzle. Again I fail at navigation
in the passenger seat of a hired car, calling
“Left!” down mazy B roads or into the coils
of roundabouts.

Yet Nottingham was new,
where Zayneb paced me past the trams toward
the castle and back to Wired, weaving the evening
into lace. And the puzzling mossy scowles we found
in a Welsh wood, where Nigel carried Ella
over yew bridges and slick mud, rust-hued.
It seemed a miracle to reach the abbey,
soaked clothes steaming in a sudden blaze.
The Wye rippled along, bright-scaled, as if
it were a sleeping dragon breathing. And next
day, the solstice, we steered past Stonehenge toward
a barbeque, where Boris the boxer chased
the terrier Molly round and round the garden
till she bared her fangs and jumped up on my lap.

If I could see into the life of things
or feel a Presence or hear the still sad music
of humanity, I wouldn’t presume to admit
it; trampling iambs into rubble with
my trainers is American enough.
Plus I’ve learned I’m “misophonic,” meaning
tormented by chewing and ticking and scraping,
and so the sadder human noises tend
to outscratch the musical intimations.
I need a white noise app to sleep, given
how the pigeons carouse and tourists flap.
Yet it’s pleasant to sit in the Pump Room
or try on corsets in the Fashion Museum,
dreaming of Austen heroines, or to look
on ruins overwritten by Romantic
musers, as if their lines still chime in each
damp breeze;–with each new scene a riffling
as of pages, worn soft now. Streets more dear,
and valleys greener, for my poets’ sake.

Apologies to Wordsworth, but this was too much fun to resist. We’re having a terrific trip so far, with a good balance of history, art, food, family, and walking around pretty landscapes. Bath is a great base. Chris is fairly busy teaching his creative writing workshop, but since he has superhuman energy levels anyway, he is still sightseeing with us some mornings and on the weekends, and our flat is so central (North Parade, between the Roman Baths and the cricket grounds) that taking the kids around by myself is simple. It’s a fifth floor walkup, though, so keeping the beauteous teens in groceries carried from Waitrose by hand is the biggest challenge. Here’s the view from the chair by the window beside which I composed these mortal lines.image

For any of you who know my “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand” essay, I’m reprising that experience, too. It was a great pleasure to meet Zayneb Allak and many of her teachers and fellow-students in Nottingham. The reading series at Wired Cafe has a wonderful energy, as do the creative writing staff at Nottingham Trent. And yesterday I drank my pot of chai with Carrie Etter who teaches here in Bath–and who already had a copy of Heterotopia, courtesy of Peter Covino at Barrow Street. Next stop: Liverpool, to read at the Blue Coat!

Flashing through spacetime

In theory, in two days, all this year’s schoolwork will be in recycling bins on the curb, I’ll be the parent of a rising high schooler and a rising first-year college student, and we’ll all be flying towards an English city full of ancient Roman ruins where my spouse is already teaching a fiction-writing class involving contemporary, historical, and speculative short stories. In addition to cars, planes, and trains, this will require yelling at teenagers in a perpetual loop to clean their rooms and pack already, AND repeatedly running after Poe the prophet-cat who detects suitcases and is trying to beat his own escape before we do. Oh, for a TARDIS so we could just land in Bath without the hassle of the process!

If you’re in the UK, you can see what I’ll be up to poetically on my events page. I plan to spend lots of time as a happy tourist, absorbing new-old stuff while writing a little and reading a lot, but you know how it is–all the proofs arrive in your inbox as soon as you’re en route and can no longer print them out to read properly.

The books that have been virtually transporting me lately include Liz Berry’s strong poetry collection Black Country; Stephen King’s Finders Keepers, which runs into some unfortunate bramble-patches but is an interesting mystery very much about reading; and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, which as a good fantasy novel is in most ways nothing like VanderMeer’s recent eco-horror trilogy, and yet made me think about how many speculative books I’m reading concern nature fighting back against human despoilers and polluters. Hmm. The monsters are shifting on us again.

Next up, in honor of Bath, is Northanger Abbey, followed by McDermid’s rewrite. I’ll be looking for the British books on the Forward poetry short list, which looks promising. I also have the new 10th anniversary issue of Ecotone for the plane, in which I’m honored to appear–an essay from my in-progress Taking Poetry Personally project is this issue’s “Poem in a Landscape” feature. It’s called “Spacetime: Walking Around in Paula Meehan’s ‘Death of a Field'” and you can read the beginning of it here. It braids together criticism and memoir, including material about my trip to Ireland a couple of years ago, right after my father died. Note that Ecotone‘s excellent editorial team hyphenated spacetime, but I don’t–I like how collapsing the words gestures towards the inseparability of those two dimensions.

I’ll write again, with pictures I hope, from our flat in the Nunes House. And in the meantime, tonight is Cameron’s graduation from middle school. We all missed Madeleine’s eight-grade ceremony because we were in New Zealand. I can’t believe that’s four years ago now. It terrifies my daughter when I tell her again and again that in most ways I feel just the same as I did at her age, and I’m only pretending to be the Competent Parent in Charge, because that’s what this moment seems to require of me. After a flare of panic, she squints back at me skeptically, knowing I’m really an alien. Our internal organs–and most definitely our feelings–are NOT in the same places. I’ll close with a link to her recent guest blog about Joss Whedon: more evidence of how spacetime flies.

Do I contradict myself?–creatically crititive

The relationship between critical and creative practice is:

  1. Chalk and cheese, apples and oranges, oil and water: i.e. recipe for a bellyache
  2. A tricky but fruitful alternation with, at best, one kind of labor generating ideas and energy for the other
  3. [Insert metaphor for fatal competition here—“Two Cats of Kilkenny” comes to mind]
  4. Identical—there is little difference between these activities
  5. Harmonious! I’m so happy about my balancing act! If I break this facial expression of brittle cheerfulness I will collapse into a zillion overextended pieces!

All these answers are true and false. To paraphrase Whitman, poets embrace contradiction—although scholars are supposed to resolve contradictions, an observation that returns me to the Kilkenny limerick. Anyway, this is one of the big questions of my life, and the same is true for many friends and colleagues. I value both critical and creative work, but I’m always worrying over the tensions between them. That is, what writing should I do, in what order and proportion? What makes me personally happy? What kind of writing is most useful to others? Is it even feasible to pursue both? By writing criticism, do I shortchange art, or vice versa—am I becoming a dilettante?

For academics, this is very much a start-of-the-summer question, because suddenly it’s not hypothetical. We all have demands on our time beyond writing, and we may be burnt out from the intensities of teaching and service, but if increasing the daily word count isn’t possible in the gaps between terms, it never will be. So, my teacher-friends who aren’t working second jobs, who don’t run summer classes—is that, like, five of us?—what projects do you actually WANT to sink your teeth into? Is there something you think you SHOULD be doing instead? And how do you negotiate writing in relation to a backlog of delayed obligations and gratifications? (It’s prime errand/ deal-with-house-falling-to-pieces/ deal-with-body-falling-to-pieces/ summer-camp-paperwork/ tower of unread lit mags/ catching up with friends/ new-Stephen-King-novel-just-sitting-there season for me, too.)

I’m asking because I’ll be giving a keynote address on the relation between critical and creative practice at Nottingham Trent University on June 19th, and this is me warming up. And not really sinking proper effort into it yet. And also noticing that keynote-writing is not exactly critical or creative writing in any case, or at least, not the writing I most need to do.

I feel chagrined at how much work I’m always lining up for myself, but I’m also eager and curious. I’ve never been to Nottingham. Plus I’m excited to meet my correspondent of the last year or so, Zayneb Allak, who is writing a dissertation there with a chapter on Heterotopia. This is my chronic problem-slash-positive-personal-quality—I like going places and learning from people more than I enjoy the sound of my own voice. But assembling a talk (hard) or reading (easier) is a fair price to pay, really, for a ticket to the party. And interesting new possibilities and projects arise whenever you haul yourself into gear to draft the keynote or prep the reading. Almost every single time I do, I think afterwards: well, that was worth it.

Notice how many “buts” and “ands” and hyphenations litter the above paragraphs? I change my mind about what I should be doing and feeling so often I have a perpetual case of vertigo.

Before I just give up and sit down with a mint julep, though, let me know if there’s something I need to read or hear about the relationship between critical and creative practice. Most of the testaments I’ve encountered so far are similarly ambivalent and irresolved, so if there’s something like wisdom out there, I’ve missed it. All I know is that I have two slightly overlapping networks and sets of accomplishments, and I don’t want to give up on either, so I’m doing my best to nudge the worlds closer together at every opportunity. I recognize this may be a hopeless effort: real scholarship, the kind that rests on slow careful scrutiny of every source you can find, just requires a different set of habits and behaviors than poetry-writing does. (I don’t count short reviews as real scholarship–their scope is too limited, and they’re too much fun to write.) I also recognize that if life makes me choose, poetry-writing is what I can’t live without, even if it turns out that good criticism is what the world really needs from me.

Well, back to distractions, for the moment. I’m Lead Packer for four of us as we prepare to relocate to Bath, where Chris is teaching a summer workshop. Because Chris leaves on Friday and his birthday is next week, last night I organized a Fake Birthday for him with presents and banana cake. Then there are TWO graduations–Madeleine from high school, Cameron from middle school–and, oh yeah, book edits, visiting family, and even major pre-packing for the weeklong summer camp Cameron will begin less than 24 hours after we return from England (I know, I know, but the boy wants to see his camp friends fiercely). Flashlight, sleeping bag, immunization records: check, check, check. Wish us all luck.

And thanks, too, to The Malahat Review, whose current issue reminds me that I actually can write a decent poem once in a while. And the 10th anniversary issue of Ecotone just arrived–it contains the first publication from my book in progress, Taking Poetry Personally, an essay about Paula Meehan’s “Death of a Field” that combines criticism with memoir. We’ll see how my chalk and cheese cookery is received.