So many mountains

I am very glad I attended “Writing the Rockies” to discuss poetry and place with Anna Lena Phillips Bell, Tom Cable, Corinna McClanahan Schroeder, and many others. Getting there and back involved three flights each way, as well as some mild altitude sickness and a chagrined recognition that I’m too bad at sleeping in the first place to manage dorm accommodations (though my suite-mates were stellar company). But the conversations that started in panels and spilled into meal-times were exciting. It’s also wonderful to have cool sunny weather and grand scenery for the always direly necessary solitary walk on Day Two. A Friday night restaurant expedition was particularly memorable: the conversation ranged from poetry to negotiating childcare with spouses, and ended with a few die-hard poet-scholars finally walking one distinguished writer back to her hotel in the dark then stopping at McD’s for iced tea and soft-serve. Scandalous carousing, I know, so I won’t name names.

The poetry part of the conference, and of Western Colorado State University’s creative writing program generally, has a formalist bent. For example, during one paper for Anna Lena’s “Enplaced Poetics” panel, Tom Cable, medievalist prosodist extraordinaire, demonstrated how he can jog while reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets (and regularly does), but not while reciting “Sir Gawain.” Good thing we had a roomy venue. Ned Balbo took some blurry photos of the gallant galloping Texan–I’ll add them to this post when Ned gets home and sends them on. Corinna and I both discussed how and why poems immerse us in place, she by comparing her own “Instructions for Return” to Amy Clampitt’s work, and I in relation to the New Zealand poet Robert Sullivan. The always smart and generous Anna Lena closed things out by reading one of my poems–thank you!–and by talking us through an amazing handout. Check out, for example, Eric Magrane’s “Various Instructions for the Practice of Poetic Field Research.” I will definitely be returning to his prompts.

During these past few days, I’ve also been contemplating other 2015-6 conference plans. I’m likely taking on too much, but with Radioland coming out Oct.1, I’d like my work to be as visible as possible. Kim Bridgford and I hashed out panel ideas for the second annual “Poetry by the Sea”–I heard great things about #1–and my inbox was full of messages about events I’m helping to organize, including a participant reading at the Boston Modernist Studies Association meeting in November and long-term planning for a future regional AWP conference (I’m vice chair of the Mid-Atlantic region now and still figuring out what responsibilities that includes). Like half the US literary world, I’m waiting, too, to see how my 2016 AWP panel proposals fare (vice chairs can present, although chairs can’t).

Academic meetings and creative writing gatherings strain the wallet, the family, and the body, so making these choices is HARD. I therefore understand the frustrations expressed in last spring’s provocative NY Times piece by Princeton prof Christy Wampole, “The Conference Manifesto.” I have never, ever attended a meeting just to give my own paper then hang out at the pool bar, but I think her 10-point contract is good. It mystifies me that our conventional presentation mode in English is to flatly read out double-spaced pages. That would be a disaster in any classroom, and it’s a pretty lame use of time and funds, too, even when the audience is filled with patient, eager specialists. Yet Wampole’s conference skepticism also reflects greater access to informed conversation about her specialties than most of us enjoy. One published reply, “A Conference Manifesto for the Rest of Us” by Cora Fox, Andrea Kaston Tange, and Rebecca Walsh, was a relief to this professor at a rural liberal arts college. “…Academics often find themselves a party of one in their departments, working as the sole representative of a particular field, without immediate access to colleagues in their fields of expertise. Done well, an academic conference offers a chance for collegial dialogue of the sort that can lead to tangible progress.”–Yes.

These manifestos concern scholarly meetings but the creative writing ones work similarly: great presenters share the podium with unprepared, marginally coherent ones. You find soulmates in the art but also feel the disdain, sometimes, of cliques. Further, gender dynamics at most meetings of any kind range from slightly tricky to awful. Often, though not always, women are more generous in supporting each others’ work. An all-male panel draws a mixed-gender audience; an all-female one draws mostly women. I’ve never attended a wholly terrible, worthless conference, but there are some to which I would never return because of a poor sense of community.

The distance means I’m unlikely to become a regular, but there was friendly community for sure among the attendees of “Writing the Rockies.” I also appreciated how the critical and creative portions of the conference were similarly good and useful. That’s rare, and it’s what I want most–to bring both of my major writing commitments to a single, welcoming space. I’d like to put off choosing between the two sides of the hyphen in “poet-scholar,” yet so often my conference-going entails not balance as much as doubling the time, money, and effort. Even if my conference budget weren’t limited, my tolerance for sleep deprivation is.

On that note: while I’m taking a couple of days to normalize my circadian rhythms and organize receipts, it’s now that part of the summer when I need to sit down, consolidate what I’ve read and written during my travels, and establish a work rhythm. I’m finalizing Radioland, preparing to jump once again into the deep end of my critical book ms, plus I’d love to turn my attention to a few other projects now simmering on back burners. That’s a lot to do. Given the intimidating vista ahead, jet lag is joining forces with the usual pre-writing jolt of anxiety. Quiet hysteria, even. So many mountains.

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Let us hold hands and look

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In a Bath Teashop, by John Betjeman
“Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another —
Let us hold hands and look.”
She such a very ordinary little woman;
He such a thumping crook;
But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels
In the teashop’s ingle-nook.

I have it on good local authority that Sally Lunn’s is the only teashop in Bath with an inglenook, so Betjeman’s poetic assignation must have occurred here. It’s the oldest remaining house in Bath, according to the plaque out front, and all the guidebooks say one must eat a bun there. We finally obeyed on Wednesday with my visiting cousins, and it was full of Americans–including one of my daughter’s high school teachers, to their mutual shock. It’s a lovely old three-story place with exposed timbers and a low curving plaster ceiling over the narrow stairs.

I didn’t scan for an inglenook because I wasn’t sure what qualified as one, but I just looked it up now: it’s a warm recess by a fireplace. The alliteration in Betjeman’s last two lines gets even more interesting when you learn than angel and ingle both come from Old English via Scots or Irish Gaelic–angel also means fire. I know almost nothing about Betjeman–although he was a poet laureate in the UK, he’s a small-ish figure in the US version of the British canon–but I admire the way character transformation links to linguistic change in this poem. How paradoxical, though, that speaking threatens to break the romantic spell. Language seems to debase love and identity here, and at the same time it carries the flame across great spans of time.

I’m saying goodbye now after a month in Bath, having never figured out what the local accent is, because everyone seems to be from elsewhere–or, at least, changed by long stays in other places. A month isn’t a significant sliver in forty-seven years, so I’m not claiming to have been re-written by the experience myself, as Bath itself has been re-mapped by Romans, medieval kings, and then the grand plans of the Georgians. But I made some wonderful connections here and elsewhere in England. I rendezvoused with family members I hadn’t seen in nine years. I talked and tippled with poets whose work was new to me and picked up more books and magazines than I should have, considering the luggage problem. I did some writing, too, and I suddenly have some new ideas for my youngest poetry manuscript, the core of the book that will come after Radioland. So now I’m off to a picnic lunch by the Avon, and tomorrow morning, very early, we’re dragging our cases onto a coach to Heathrow. Even though I’m returning to work and muggy heat and a small town without Thai food or Roman ruins, I’m feeling nearly ready for the translation.

Why Edna St. Vincent Millay ate herbs in Dorset

Most of the female poets I read as a young woman had no children, or one. They steered clear of sexual relationships with men or, not having access to birth control, sought abortions. This fact had a terrible fascination for me in my early twenties, especially since the zero-or-one rule also held among so many female literary scholars. I had always been certain that I wanted to bear or adopt children and certain that I need to write. Exactly how difficult would it be, though, to manage both?

Later I met many women poets who, possessed of more choices than the modernists, elected not to have children or raised multiple kids. I also know too many women poets wimageho grieve infertility. I’m luckier than most in that I conceived one child immediately, the other after six months of trying, and never faced an unwanted pregnancy. If I had miscarriages, they were early ones, during that uncertain era when home tests weren’t so prompt. Bedrest from severe nausea and then bouts of postpartum depression didn’t feel lucky at the time, but people took care of me. I’ve muddled along all right since, herding poems and little people. Sometimes those activities nourished each other and sometimes they competed brutally, but I grabbed my good luck by the short hairs and made choices I still feel basically fine about.

I still think, though, about those modernist abortions. When on a recent July morning my spouse, two teens, and I were bound for Dorset beaches in a hired car, I programmed the GPS for a stop in the village of Shillingstone. Edna St. Vincent Millay headed there in July, 1922 with her mother, Cora, and some friends. Edna was sick and broke and unable to write. She was also pregnant after a Parisian fling. Cora Millay, a nurse, helped her daughter have an abortion there.

I don’t have a lot of information about that summer, just what’s in the Milford biography. Back then Shillingstone consisted of a “winding, unpaved street, a few shops and small houses, many with thatched roofs” (238). The group of women rented a house (I don’t know the address but am including photos anyway for local flavor).image Edna turned a hay shed into a studio. Edna’s friends and even her sister back home didn’t know the ulterior motive for the program of long walks on the downs, horseback riding, and stews of wild greens: Cora was searching for abortives listed in an old herbal guide. She did, in fact, induce Edna to miscarry during the first few weeks of the pregnancy.

I’m no botanist, so while I looked up some pictures of alkanet, the key herb in the equation, and went poking along the footpaths, I never found the right blue flowers. I saw dandelions, thistles, and nettles—all named by Edna in a letter as part of the maternal recipe—and trefoil, mentioned in Cora’s notes. Daisies and yarrow were blooming, and mallow purpled every roadside. imageMy own daughter was alarmed that I was even looking, as if medicinal herbs might jump up and dose us against our will. imageTo be fair, it is a creepy errand to conduct with your children. But this is the history behind my own good luck and it should be in my daughter’s rearview mirror, too.

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