Hey you out there in radioland!

radioland thumbnailMy new book of poems, Radioland, is now available for purchase! My own box is supposed to arrive today, although I live in such a small town we don’t receive daily UPS delivery, so it could be tomorrow. I’m jittery with suspense.

In the meantime, I thought you might find a couple of my answers to a Barrow Street publicity questionnaire interesting. It’s always a little tricky to say what a poetry book is “about,” and what I thought I was doing may be different than what I actually accomplished, but below I give it my best shot.

1) Explain the significance of your title.

“Radioland” is an imaginary place: broadcasters used the word to gesture towards their far-flung listeners. Since researching Voicing American Poetry–and especially since my 2011 Fulbright in New Zealand–I’ve been thinking about how and why we transmit our voices over huge gaps in time, space, and understanding. These poems concern many of the ways people send and receive their most urgent messages, including radio but also letters, cellphones, websites, newspapers, literary works, and even dreams and hauntings. Some of the trickiest communications in this book occur between my father and me. He was born in Brooklyn in 1925, so the dated sound of the word “radioland” also conjures the generation gap between us, as well as the difficulties I have decoding my own teenagers.

2) Briefly describe your work, as you would to someone who doesn’t read a lot of poetry. Talk specifically about repeating ideas, themes, and images, and why they are important to the work. What is the overall tone of your work? What do you think you are doing that might be new?

My obsession with sound shows up in recurrent signal-and-static metaphors as well as in rhyme and rhythm. Several natural disasters are important to the book, including the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, NZ; the 2012 derecho in the mid-Atlantic US; and Hurricane Sandy, as well as personal upheavals. Because I’m trying to redefine some kinds of destruction as change, experimental punctuation became important as I revised—a visual way of marking or resisting closure. There are a number of sonnets here, too, including the sonnet crown “Damages, 2011.” As the notes say, I am particularly interested in NZ’s tradition of arranging sonnets in couplets, but I am also thinking about the sonnet’s conventional turn or volta in connection to the idea of self-redefinition. The formal variety of the book, as well as its investments in damaged, irrecoverable, or imaginary places, are probably its most unusual aspects. There is more science here than in most poetry books, as well, including radio wave propagation, geology, meteorology, and neurotransmission.

Radioland’s autobiographical arc includes a 2011 sabbatical in New Zealand with my husband and two kids, during which my parents’ marriage (in the US) unexpectedly imploded; my father’s remarriage, illness, and death within a year of my return; a catastrophic house flood; and other episodes of personal and historical violence. The sequence moves towards consolation through natural cycles and human love. Raising teenagers and watching their rapid transformations emphasize the necessity of listening to other people’s signals. The many dream and ghost poems describe an inner attention, because sometimes we become strange even to ourselves.

*If you’re considering teaching or reviewing the book, contact me or Barrow Street Press for a complimentary copy (info at barrowstreet dot com). And I’m always happy to give a reading or visit a class, virtually (through Skype etc.) or in the flesh, if I can get there without taking out a second mortgage. And local people: my spouse and I will be signing our new books on Weds. Nov 4th from 5-7 pm at the Bookery. I’ll ask the W&L Bookstore to stock Radioland, too. Lots of work in the next few weeks to air this news!

 

Literary Lexington in the 1920s

“First came Vachel Lindsay and gave a ‘reading’ (if you could call it that) of his poem in the Washington and Lee Library. One of them sounded to me like a hog calling. Then came Carl Sandburg whom I liked much better.”

This is from an obscure memoir called Mrs. Ecker’s Lexington, 1918-1929, edited by Dr. Charles W. Turner, billed on the title page as “Retired Professor of History Department of Washington and Lee University,” and printed in Roanoke by the Virginia Lithography & Graphics Company in 1990. Grace Glasgow Dunlop was born in 1878 in Georgetown; in 1906 she married John Ecker and they had four children. Ecker died of tuberculosis around 1914, and as Grace Dunlop Ecker, a smart and energetic young widow, reflected some years later, “When war finally came to my own country it was a veritable mental boost for me, for it changed my train of thought and having no man of my own to send I threw myself, my soul and body, into the work of the Red Cross.” Eventually, however, with Washington “swarming” with war workers, and everyone suffering from food and coal shortages, she decided to move her family to Lexington for a while.

Her memoir of the town I live in is lively and interesting, full of funny detail about the Virginia Military Institute and W&L, where I work. Comical tensions between Presbyterians and Episcopalians; the lassitude of local summers after students clear out; Robert E. Lee idolatry–they ring true to the place I first came to know decades later, in 1994. While she lived first in a rented house on Letcher Avenue, between the two campuses, she later built a home around the block from me, on what became Barclay Lane. I’m pretty certain the painter Cy Twombly lived there later.

I’m not precisely sure why I’m doing so much side-reading in local history, except that poems keep coming out of that exploration. But it’s fun to stroll around the neighborhood with Chris in the evening, book in hand, and figure out which houses various eccentric Lexingtonians lived in by Ecker’s idiosyncratic descriptions. There are several references to literary culture here, too. I love the sound of the Wednesday morning Reading Club. Mrs. Derbyshire read dramatically from Sandburg, Lindsay, Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, and others, while her listeners darned stockings.

Ecker had taste and a fierce appetite for culture, as well as a longing to lead, to be useful, in a way her life rarely allowed. She isn’t an entirely sympathetic character. She thinks wrongly, for example, that she’s a good employer to a servant she keeps referring to as “fat, freckled, yellow Lucy,” who is homesick for D.C. and eventually walks out without notice. Ecker failed to understand her own prejudices, but she was a thwarted person too, a woman whose talents and desires had little enough scope beyond volunteer work and dancing at Hops with lonely cadets. She suffered too many losses, as well–not only her husband’s death and her mother’s but her young son’s too, suddenly, as she read to him on the sofa.Ecker

I’m glad she ventured out to hear Lindsay and Sandburg and wish she’d said more about them. The little passage I quote above, though, is followed by a fuller description of another literary event:

“Then on a strange October day came John Drinkwater who had become famous for his ‘Abraham Lincoln.’ I say a strange October day for we had a heavy snow, and I shall never forget the effect of the red and yellow leaves and the evergreen trees among the white snow. The event was to take place in the Doremus Gymnasium at Washington and Lee, the largest place in town. All the electricity was off and when the audience arrived the place was lit with candles and lanterns. When Mr. Drinkwater took his place at the reading stand, which was trimmed with greens and red candles, his first remark was he felt like a Christmas tree. He had to leave before eight the next morning, which he did not relish at all, to keep his engagement at Sweet Briar, nor, I heard did his English taste relish the salted butter served at the Dutch Inn, but I understand that he considered the campus of the University very beautiful and impressive.”

It sounds magical, doesn’t it?–despite the horror of salted butter. Ecker moved back to Georgetown not long after, grieving her child and ready for another change of scene. She died in her nineties, in 1973. You can find her better-known Portrait of Old George Town on Project Gutenberg (John Drinkwater’s Lincoln play is there too). I’m glad to have visited with her. All these familiar places are becoming even more haunted than they used to be.

On submitting a poem 50 times

I’ve had my head under a giant seeing-my-daughter-off-to-college-shaped rock, so when I read Jeannine Hall Gailey’s blog yesterday, its references to scandal in the poetry world inspired me to lift my busy skull and ask, “Wha-at?” I’m not going to name the white guy who published in Best American Poetry under a Chinese-American pseudonym, because he’s getting enough attention already for what isn’t, in my opinion, an interesting poem. If you, too, have been sulking underground and need to know what I’m talking about, this piece in the Rumpus will give you the gist. And editor Sherman Alexie’s reflections on the experience are also worth a read. The man is a master of the rhetoric of authenticity, but even so manipulated (“This whole damn essay is grandstanding”) I found myself converted to sympathy for his process and goals, if not for his choice.

None of it is that surprising, really–the arrogant defensive colonialist appropriation while wearing the mask of “white guys need a leg up” is familiar enough. But I keep snagging on the factoid that he submitted the poem to journals 40 times under his own name, 10 times under the alias, before Prairie Schooner took it. That’s not incredible, as most poets can tell you. There’s a lot of chance in the submissions game and it can take forever for even a very good poem to catch a sympathetic reader’s eye. I just keep wondering what exactly his figure means.

Mr. McMichael Derrickson O’Michaels, to borrow a sly friend’s re-naming riff, says he keeps thorough submissions records. I bet he’s better friends with Excel than I am. Rather than be organized and efficient, I maintain two lists. One involves a stack of pads on which I scribble down submissions chronologically in numbered batches. Here’s a page from 2013, in which I was doing MUCH better than ten years previously. submissions

I cross out the journals that reject the batch entirely and circle the ones that accept one poem or more. I used to average ten tries or so before an acceptance; now my odds are better. I think the poems are stronger than they used to be–I hope I keep improving!–but I’m also savvier about where I send in the first place. The handwritten list helps me see at a glance which forlorn, unloved batches need to be returned to circulation.

I simultaneously log this data into a Word file that lists magazines alphabetically, so I can see, for instance, if I’ve sent these particular pieces to The Journal before, or whether I need to give those editors a longer rest from my bombardments. I bold the names of journals that have published me before and use asterisks for venues I aspire to see my poems in. I also include notes from previous readings of the magazine–my own weird shorthand to help me remember “hey, this is NOT the place to send a rondel.” This morning I looked for a magazine that has rejected 50 of my poems, since I can’t easily search by single pieces. Here’s one:

*harvard review: lyric, funny/experimental—good ear
7/03 pupal stages, cross-eyed, 2 faced, foreign bodies P, sonnet looking rej 7/03
6/04 genuine, in threes, baby’s, neighboring T, torturing rej 7/04
8/06 patter, two in the bush, 3 out of 4, just long, sabb rej 10/06
7/07 ode, shipshape, she’s doing, divine, horror rej 11/07 “submit again–C Thompson”
12/7 hawthorne, beatles, widdershins, gifts, dead man rej 4/08
6/08 woman using, inner life, exercise, underground, jesus rej 9/08
2/09 split, oral, forgetting, twilight, tub rej 7/09
2/10 douchebags, sigh, entrée, sub, adolescence rej 10/10
9/11 that shall cross community speech paternity Wallace encouraging rec 4/12
4/13 pattern my dead father radioland can’t catch holding rej 9/13

Some of the magazines that keep turning me away get moved to the “Why Bother?” or “Just Rude” section of the file. I’m not going to continue trying no-simultaneous-submissions journals that take a year to respond, for instance, and sometimes, upon further research, I’ve realized that although a venue is prestigious, I am consistently bored by their choices. I’m sure I started sending to Harvard Review simply because the name sounded fancy. I’ll keep trying, though, because I do admire their selections and feel kinship with them.  Who knows–maybe the fifty-first try will be the charm.

What neither of these lists reveals, however, is that I constantly revisit and improve poems–I would never try a batch with a different editor if I hadn’t recently cast a critical eye over their slant-rhymes. Often I realize that a poem I’d thought was a killer is actually undeveloped, or that it begins or ends with the wrong line. And that’s after sitting on it for months before submitting it in the first place–I don’t rush work out. It just takes a lot of distance for me to see my own strengths and weaknesses objectively. Some of the poems HR rejected went on to appear in journals that are at least as well-respected–I’m pretty sure they missed a couple of beauties. Others had problems I only resolved through a round of rethinking. Still other poems I eventually dumped, stopped sending anywhere, because I lost faith in them. I write a LOT of poems. They’re not all keepers.

See, that’s the thing–sometimes editors overlook a poem wrongly, but on plenty of other occasions their refusals are right. If a poem gets turned down 40 times, it probably needs medical help. Just resending and resending the same thing seems dumb to me. It’s possible to LEARN from even form-letter rejections–to learn something, that is, about what makes a poem work for readers, rather than cynicism about a system you then game through deception. And I don’t know why any of us would keep trying if we’re not in it to keep writing better poems. It’s not like there’s any glory in this undervalued art, except the glory of a gorgeous line.

One last thing: the 76th poem Alexie mentions, the one he feels sick over not including in BAP but will never identify? I’m pretty sure that was mine.

Crazed poet-parent launches daughter and book

Mad Wesleyan

Now my daughter is off in radioland–away at college but constantly present in my imagination, and intermittently present through texts and posts. A message with cheerful emoji has such an instant calming effect on my blood pressure–it’s amazing that when I went to Rutgers, I could only communicate with my family once a week or so via a payphone shared by the whole hall. My mother says that after dropping me off, she went to bed for eighteen hours with her first and only migraine. Performing the same ritual thirty years later, I headed towards the tear-blurred George Washington Bridge, driving like a maniac as I fought a very strong urge to turn the car around again. It’s a relief to be off the highway and tuning into my daughter’s increasingly upbeat broadcasts.

The shock of the separation is, of course, a mark of love–it’s better, in some ways, than NOT finding the transition difficult. When my mother went off to nursing school at 16, no one even walked her to the bus. Imagine that, dragging your lonely suitcase down some Liverpool street towards mysterious adulthood, without even the illusion that the Twitterverse is listening.

If I ever regain some mental focus–all these strong feelings crowd my receivers with a LOT of noise–I’ll be hunkering down to the sabbatical version of brisk September labor. In addition to my main writing project, I have conferences to prepare for and I’m behind on the regular work of poetry submissions. I’m also making to-do lists for the publication of Radioland in a few weeks. You can see the cover, blurbs, and a sample poem here, although it’s not quite available to order yet. Poetry presses do the best they can with limited resources, but publicity is mostly up to the poet, so I’m researching post-publication prizes, festivals, and other reading opportunities, and I’ll send out many notices and review copies myself. (Contact me if you want to teach or review it! Barrow Street Press is good about fulfilling orders, too.) This investment of time and money is intense but worth it; I put a lot of heart and hard thinking into the book so I want it to find readers, even if its chance for serious glory is, as always, small.

In the meantime, if you’re sending out a prose or poetry ms, check out C&R Press’s call for submissions. They published my first poetry collection, Heathen, but the press has new owners now. I’m impressed with the energy and smarts John Goslee and Andrew Sullivan are bringing to the enterprise. Thanks also to the editors of Time Present: The Newsletter of the T. S. Eliot Societywhere my review of Robert Crawford’s Young Eliot appears.radioland thumbnail

And beam me good vibes if you can spare any, because while I’m trying to be philosophical and appreciate my own luckiness, I am kind of a mess.