Ligeia’s fleas

fem-eyesThe following fragment was received telepathically from our feline boarder Poe on October 27th, Black Cat Day, about a month after my mother-in-law’s cat joined the household.

I cannot, for my soul, remember how or when I became aware of Female’s* residence in the empty bedroom. Or, perhaps, I cannot now bring these points to mind, because, in truth, the character of my beloved, the singular way her belly sways as she waddles on toothpick legs, and the thrilling eloquence of her quacks and growls, made their way into my heart by paces so steadily and stealthily progressive.

There is one dear topic, however, on which wit fails me not. It is the alluring beauty of Female. In stature she is tiny, although astonishingly rotund and possessive of the kibble upon which I had heretofore made solitary repast. I would in vain attempt to portray the majesty, the supreme crankiness, of her demeanor, or the incomprehensible thumping of her footfall. She comes and departs as a cannonball. Her loveliness is the radiance of a catnip-dream. Yet her features are not of that regular mould which we have been falsely taught to worship. “There is no exquisite beauty,” says Bacon, Lord Verulam, without some strangeness in the proportion.” Yet, although I see that the features of Ligeia–I mean Female–are not of a classic regularity –I have tried in vain to detect the irregularity and to trace home my own perception of “the strange.” I examine the contour of the short fuzzy forehead –faultless. I regard the whiskers, ivory and sable–her bared teeth glancing back, with a brilliancy almost startling, every ray that emanates from the reading lamp. And then I peer into the large eyes of Female.

They are, I must believe, far larger than the ordinary eyes of Felis catus. They are even fuller than the unnaturally azure eyes of the newborn Florida panther. The hue of the orbs is the most brilliant bronze, foxed with brown spots. The “strangeness,” however, must be referred to the expression. The expression of the eyes of Female! How for long hours have I struggled to fathom it! Those eyes! those large, those shining, those divine orbs! they became to me ominous meteors, and I to them devoutest of astrologers.

The uneasiness of that expression transferred itself to me until my own shaggy mane itched. And too, too slowly, understanding dawned. The obsessive scratching and rolling on Indian carpets–the chemical stink she bore home from a mysterious expedition by automobile–the humans’ alarm and fussing with sprays and tinctures–my beloved’s moon-white dandruff and the rare irritability of her temper–Female has a persistent case of fleas. And yet, helplessly drawn, I continue to stalk her during her restless wanderings, scrambling from piano to coffee table to evade her claws, scratching in devoted mimicry, until naptime doth us part.

Fin

*Female rhymes with Emily. The reason my mother-in-law thought this name funny remains shrouded in impenetrable mists. The reason I thought transcribing this tale a wise use of time, while stacks of grading loom, also remains veiled, except that this dare from Shenandoah worries me like a parasite. And I am beside myself with distress about some sex-based bullying at work, which I spoke up against, then the Title IX officer launched a formal investigation of the perpetrator which is proceeding whether or not I help, so I’m helping, without hope of a good resolution, because my university will protect its own legal interests, as it always has, counting on me to remain better-behaved than the bully, or at least not counting my avoidance of meetings and general stress and alienation as a significant cost–anyway, I’m writing Poe tales to escape the fact that I’m living one, sleepless and upset all the time, which is maybe what Poe himself did too, come to think of it. It’s uncanny, too, to watch a larger and more noxious version of it all play out on a national stage, and I don’t think I’m an unreliable narrator projecting my sense of endangeredness onto the political weather. I really, really wish I could just work and help other people work, and all of us could thrive according to our will and talents, but I suppose such a paradise has never existed, for most of us. Consider this post the unfathomable expression in a female’s eyes.

At any rate, some work of a few months back rises from the dead: my latest Kenyon Review micro-review is up, this time of Jon Tribble’s new book. A review of the new Millay edition appears in American Literary History (scroll down). 

Finally, Happy Halloween, with thanks to the friends who are pulling me through the madness somehow. Safety, justice, and chocolate to all.

 

More on Diversity in Creative Writing Programs (updated 11/3/16)

Last March, I published this list of resources addressing how to make Creative Writing programs more inclusive at the programming and curricular level. Since then, good things have happened. David Haynes has formed an AWP Committee on Inclusion for which I’m serving as librarian, until a list of resources can be posted on the AWP web site itself. Here’s a revision including updates from David. Please comment or contact me if you have further suggestions–I’d love to see it grow. As I wrote at the close of my March blog, this list emphasizes race and ethnicity–subjects on which hard work remains to be done–but we also have to keep talking about sexuality and gender, disability, and the economics of higher education. Students face many invisible impediments while seeking degrees, and too many talented people never get a chance to learn and thrive.

  • Online essays about race, culture, diversity, and the creative writing MFA:

“Why I’m Done Talking About Diversity” by Marlon James, Literary Hub, October 2016

In Our Way: Racism in Creative Writing” by Claudia Rankine, Writer’s Chronicle, October 2016

Ferguson, Whiteness as Default, & the Teaching of Creative Writing” by David Mura, Writer’s Chronicle, October 2016

“Addressing Structural Racism in Creative Writing Programs” by Kazim Ali, Writer’s Chronicle online, October 2016

“Towards a New Creative Writing Pedagogy” by Fred D’Aguiar, Writer’s Chronicle, October 2016

“Challenging the Whiteness of MFA Programs: A Year of Confrontations at UW” by Kristine Sloan, The MFA Years, April 2016

“Degrees of Diversity: Talking Race and Diversity” by Sonya Larson, Poets & Writers, September/ October 2015

“Dr. Craig’s 11-Step Program to Curing ‘Mainly White MFA’ Sickness” by Craig Santos Perez, October 2015

“They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist” by Jenny Zhang, Buzzfeed Books, September 2015

“Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK” by Sandeep Parmar, Los Angeles Review of Books, December 2015, https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/not-a-british-subject-race-and-poetry-in-the-uk/

“If We Want Diverse Books, We Need Diverse MFA Programs” by Hope Wabuke, The Root, September 2014

“MFA vs POC” by Junot Díaz, New Yorker, April 2014

“It felt like a door had opened: An Interview with Cornelius Eady” by Joshua Barnes,Sampsonia Way, June 2011

“Growing Diversity in Graduate School” by Rochelle Spencer, Poets & Writers Nov/Dec 2007, p.77-82.

Also see an excellent list of additional pieces collected by Erika Meitner and Sarah Gambito: https://muut.com/raceandmfa/. David Fenza’s PowerPoint on race in education will also be of interest: educational-attainment-2015.

  • On craft and inclusion

“‘PURE CRAFT” IS A LIE’ by Matt Salesses: http://www.pleiadesmag.com/pure-craft-is-a-lie-part-1/  and http://www.pleiadesmag.com/pure-craft-is-a-lie-part-3/

Can Black Art Ever Escape the Politics of Race? http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/20/magazine/can-black-art-ever-escape-the-politics-of-race.html

“Why write a novel about a race that’s not your own? The case of ‘Ginny Gall’” https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/why-write-a-novel-about-a-race-thats-not-your-own-the-case-of-ginny-gall/2016/02/02/ce329aa8-c51e-11e5-8965-0607e0e265ce_story.html

  • Reading race

“White bro reading: Yes, I’m reading men and women equally — but they’re still mostly white”: http://www.salon.com/2016/01/10/white_bro_reading_yes_im_reading_men_and_women_equally_but_theyre_still_mostly_white/

Fighting “Erasure” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/07/magazine/the-painful-consequences-of-erasure.html

GrubStreet’s “What An Author Looks Like: On Race & Writing” Series, featuring Brando Skyhorse, Aminatta Forna, Mia Alvar, Celeste Ng, and many others: https://grubstreet.org/blog/column/what-an-author-looks-like

Toni Morrison. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

  • On teaching and inclusion

GrubStreet podcast: What Makes a Good Workshop Citizen: https://grubstreet.org/blog/column/sound-skeins

Report from the Field: Gone from My Heart: Violence and Anger in the Poetry Workshop: http://www.vidaweb.org/report-from-the-field-gone-from-my-heart-violence-and-anger-in-the-poetry-workshop/

We Need A Decolonized, Not A “Diverse”, Education: http://harlot.media/articles/1058/we-need-a-decolonized-not-a-diverse-education

Matt Salesses, “WHO’S AT THE CENTER OF WORKSHOP AND WHO SHOULD BE?” http://www.pleiadesmag.com/whos-at-the-center-of-workshop-and-who-should-be-part-4/

Writing Culture Has An Ableism Problem: http://www.ravishly.com/2016/06/14/writing-culture-has-ableism-problem

  • On literary climate

Marlon James: Why I’m Done Talking About Diversity: http://lithub.com/marlon-james-why-im-done-talking-about-diversity/

Claudia Rankine: Why I’m spending $625,000 to study whiteness: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/19/claudia-rankine-macarthur-genius-grant-exploring-whiteness?CMP=share_btn_fb

GrubStreet’s “Writing & Publishing As a Person of Color” Series, featuring prominent authors, agents, and editors of color: https://grubstreet.org/blog/column/writing-publishing-as-a-person-of-color

GrubStreet’s “Writers React” Series: https://grubstreet.org/blog/column/writers-react

Video: GrubStreet’s Writers of Color Roundtable 2016: https://vimeo.com/174363941

Write-up of GrubStreet’s Writers of Color Roundtable 2016 in LitHub: http://lithub.com/at-the-grub-street-writers-of-color-roundtable/

  • On publishing

“You Will Be Tokenized”: Speaking Out about the State of Diversity in Publishing | Brooklyn Magazine: http://www.bkmag.com/2016/02/24/you-will-be-tokenized-speaking-out-about-the-state-of-diversity-in-publishing/

How Chris Jackson Is Building a Black Literary Movement http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/07/magazine/how-chris-jackson-is-building-a-black-literary-movement.html?_r=0

“We’ve Been Out Here Working”: Diversity in Publishing, a Partial Reading List | Brooklyn Magazine: http://www.bkmag.com/2016/02/24/weve-been-out-here-working-diversity-in-publishing-a-partial-reading-list/

“Bare Lit Festival, for Minority Writers, to Make Debut in London”: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/02/24/bare-lit-festival-for-minority-writers-to-make-debut-in-london/?smid=fb-share

The PW Publishing Industry Salary Survey, 2016 http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/71506-the-pw-publishing-industry-salary-survey-2016.html

Why Publishing Is So White http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/69653-why-publishing-is-so-white.html?utm_source=Publishers+Weekly&utm_campaign=1473a2bb65-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0bb2959cbb-1473a2bb65-304652261

Where Is the Diversity in Publishing? The 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey Results http://blog.leeandlow.com/2016/01/26/where-is-the-diversity-in-publishing-the-2015-diversity-baseline-survey-results/

  • On Lionel Shriver’s speech

Lionel Shriver’s full speech: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/lionel-shrivers-full-speech-i-hope-the-concept-of-cultural-appropriation-is-a-passing-fad

Festival keynote attendee Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s response here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/10/as-lionel-shriver-made-light-of-identity-i-had-no-choice-but-to-walk-out-on-her

Festival organizer Rod Nordland’s New York Times coverage  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/books/lionel-shriver-cultural-appropriation-brisbane-writers-festival.html?module=WatchingPortal®ion=c-column-middle-span-region&pgType=Homepage&action=click&mediaId=thumb_square&state=standard&contentPlacement=3&version=internal&contentCollection=www.nytimes.com&contentId=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2016%2F09%2F13%2Fbooks%2Flionel-shriver-cultural-appropriation-brisbane-writers-festival.html&eventName=Watching-article-click&_r=1

Lionel Shriver’s response to the backlash: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/23/opinion/will-the-left-survive-the-millennials.html?comments#permid=19896530

Sonya Larson’s NYT chosen response to Shriver’s op-ed: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/23/opinion/will-the-left-survive-the-millennials.html?comments#permid=19896530

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s breaks down “Who Gets to Write What”: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/25/opinion/sunday/who-gets-to-write-what.html

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s LA Times piece, “Cultural appropriation: It’s about more than pho and sombreros,” here: http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-appropriation-culture-20160926-snap-story.html

What Are White Writers For? https://newrepublic.com/article/137338/white-writers-for

  •  Other resources on building and nurturing creative writing programs (advocating for multiculturalism but not exploring the issues at length):

AWP Guidelines and Hallmarks: https://www.awpwriter.org/guide/hallmarks_quality

“Policies and Practicalities: Examining the Creative Writing Doctorate” by Kroll, Jeri and Webb, Jen. New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing9.2(2012 July): 166-178.

  • On diversity in higher education (with some relevance to academic creative writing):

Tiffany Martínez, “Academia, Love Me Back”

Lisa M. Stulberg and Sharon Lawner Weinberg, eds. Diversity in American higher education: toward a more comprehensive approach. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Darrell Cleveland, ed. When “minorities are strongly encouraged to apply”: diversity and affirmative action in higher education. New York: Peter Lang, 2009.

TuSmith, Bonnie and Reddy, Maureen T., eds. Race in the College Classroom: Pedagogy and Politics. New Brunswick, NJ,  Rutgers UP,  2002.

  • History/ background of creative writing as a discipline:

Paul Dawson, Creative Writing and the New Humanities, New York: Routledge, 2005.

Tim Mayers, (Re)Writing craft : composition, creative writing, and the future of English studies. U of Pittsburgh P, 2005.

D. G. Myers. The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.

 

Political poem

Credit

Put that on Lesley’s tab, jokes the mayoral candidate
on line in front of me at the supermarket, waking
me from daydreams about a free-range chicken
roasting at home, good bread and arugula. I laugh,
ask if he’ll be watching—his own debate is soon.
We exchange words, each coin stamped with accord
about the world and passed back warm, until he
wheels off. My turn. My soon-to-be chardonnay
and garnacha, six bottles for the discount. The cashier
surprises me, too. Who do you think is going to win?
Temporize: The town hall tonight? He pauses to key
in cilantro. Sure. My mother taught me good manners,
meaning no religion, no politics, meaning smile,
meaning make people comfortable, never hungry,
never ashamed. My books taught me to speak up,
that one person’s comfort is costly to someone else.
And isn’t civil silence also disrespect? So I answer,
Well, I keep waiting for Trump to cancel it, he’s had such
a bad weekend. Slow and calm, moving granola bars
across the scanner, a substantial man, he returns,
I don’t think so. Now we are both trapped in a relation
that serves neither. Troubled, perhaps he’ll be in
trouble with his manager, anyone could hear us.
This worry gnaws me, but other teeth sink sharper
and I insist, He said such terrible things. The cashier,
to his credit, does not shrug. All men talk like that,
he insists, all men but God, and next I know I’m
defending men, not all, I know men who are shocked,
as if men need my comfort, and perhaps John sees me
then filmed by a bubble of womanly innocence,
the soap sheen reflecting protective dollar signs while
also mirroring with distortion his own face. Kroger card?
he asks and sorry, sorry, I answer, dictating my digits,
inserting a silver card in the chip reader, paying
with imaginary money for actual food, wondering
which of us ought to be kinder, knowing his feet
must hurt, his hands look raw, but feeling like dirt,
like a pussy to use Trump’s word, to be grabbed or
judged not even worth grabbing, disgusting forked
breastfeeding bleeding holder of unwelcome opinions
as I take my wealthy self back to a job where I serve
women and men who at least pretend to value me,
although I don’t pretend to know what that’s worth.

Fever dreams, Pound, & Shenandoah

Last week, I wished for an energy display icon on my forehead. Uh-oh, Lesley’s at 12% and has entered low-battery mode, expect her to be dim. Honestly, I’m not sure how I got through all my classes as well as giving a guest lecture and two weekend readings. I fear I said weird things, and I know I sent a feverish work email I can’t recall writing, because I found it in the printer later.

But Erika Meitner gave a terrific reading that I somehow presided over (here’s a guest blog I wrote about her work for Shenandoah). And the audiences, hosts, and fellow performers in my own readings at Fairmont State and Richmond’s Tea for Two series were particularly warm and kind. On the downside, my forty-ninth birthday was spent trying to get a handle on endless homework while treating an awful sinus infection. I’ll have to do better next year.

It’s funny how work that drains you–such as teaching or hosting a visitor–can simultaneously plug you in and start charging you up again. It was tiring to drive to Richmond after a long semi-sick Friday. Laura-Gray Street and I had devised a plan of alternating reader and topic every few poems. Creating a list of poems for each theme was time-consuming. Yet the scheme raised the energy, I think, giving the event some plot and suspense. Perhaps it even raised the stakes. Laura-Gray had found the following quote from an “unnamed Chinese author, circa 575 B.C.E.”:

“Clothes, food, shelter: Satisfy these first, then teach people to be human.”

So our four topics: clothes, food, shelter, and being human (we chose poems for the latter about meaning and spirit). Turns out I’m a shelter poet and a being-human poet–my food poems are mostly about hunger and my clothes poems about nakedness. It was interesting to learn that. At any rate, I had some seriously lovely conversations with other writers afterwards. Connections sparking all over the place.

One more bright node: I had a late-August essay posted at Modernism/ Modernity last week, where I have a column on the writing process. This post’s called “Teaching/ Writing Correspondence, Part I” . It addresses the study of poets’ letters–a big topic for my current modernism students, who, for a final project, will be annotating some 50s correspondence recently acquired by our library between undergrad Shenandoah editor Tom Carter and Ezra Pound. I’m no Pound scholar and have always been skeptical of defining the period according to his program. He was a brilliant, crazy bigot; I like other poetry better. Yet I can feel myself being drawn into the vortex. I don’t really have time to fiddle around but this project is so interesting.

When I first started at W&L more than twenty years ago, I had a dream about walking into a near-empty classroom. The windows were open to a summer breeze and I could hear students running around on the grass. Sitting quietly at the desk working was a young Ezra Pound, pointy beard and all. He gestured me over and we sat and looked at some of my poems together. He didn’t praise them, but as he pushed them back to me, he nodded, implying he saw potential. He said, “Keep working and you’ll get somewhere.”

Was dream-Pound priming young me for later work on his legacy? Damn and blast.

msa-shenandoah-page
A Tom Carter issue of Shenandoah (and dig that tuxedo ad!)