W&L Writers Resist

mlk-parade
photograph by Stephanie Wilkinson

The work ahead of us is overwhelming, so how to prioritize? I’m watching my friends make various choices, and I respect all of them. Some have stepped up their political activism and local volunteerism. Others have turned off social media and are writing their hearts out. Still others, feeling their words stolen away, unable even to read the news, are focusing on the small good things they can do for their families and in their jobs and classrooms. What kind of effort counts most? Ask me in twenty years.

But I’m proud of my town, which has not always been the case. Friday was Lee-Jackson Day in Virginia, as in Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, leaders of the Confederacy. (If you’re a puzzled reader from outside the U.S. wondering why my state honors a history of treason and slavery, well, don’t get me started.) Lexington, where both generals are buried, is ground zero for the “flaggers,” so we get swarmed annually by outraged white people in period dress. It is seriously intimidating to walk through a cordon of men in Confederate uniforms, some of them waving battle flags on heavy wooden staffs. Then you reach the corner and your sigh of relief is stifled by the apparition of a group of women in hoop skirts, à la Scarlett O’Hara. I hurried along, feeling sick, resonating with that shock many of us felt at election time: when and where do I live?

Yet Saturday, hundreds of people marched down Main Street waving rainbow flags and images of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was at the Bridgewater Poetry Festival, where I heard several really outstanding–and politically urgent–readings, but my phone was buzzing with heartening pictures like the one above. My kids are in that beautiful crowd.

I’m also proud of my colleagues in English. Many of them marched; Sydney Bufkin labored mightily to help organize the marchers. Like most of our efforts to communicate, a parade is ephemeral, but surely this work matters enormously to many, many people. On to the Women’s March in Washington next weekend, to manifest our resistance in the capital.

The creative writers at Washington and Lee are dazzling me, too, with their efforts to make change real. Ellen Mayock and Chris Gavaler are among the founders of a new activist group, 50 Ways Rockbridge, so in addition to blogging fiercely, Ellen about “gender shrapnel” and Chris about the politics of comics, they’re basically trying to counter-balance the Tea Party with kinder voices and grass-roots power. (At least one national umbrella group for these local energies is emerging, as well: check out Indivisible.) For both of them, this activism has deep connections to their research agendas. I admire this synergy even as I struggle with the problem of where best to spend my writing energies, an issue I blogged about recently for Modernism/ modernity under the title “Scholarship and justice.”

W&L writers are also publishing POEMS of resistance, bless them. Many of my recent efforts have had an incantatory quality, like spells or prayers, so it’s interesting to see other local poets wielding similar strategies. Not that we weren’t writing political poems before–we all were–but I see a strong attempt in recent work to summon all the force words can carry to fight, transform, and heal. See, for example, Deborah Miranda’s “Prayer of Prayers,” dedicated to “The Water Protectors at Standing Rock.” Or, more recently, in Terrain.org’s excellent “Letters to America” series, R.T. Smith raining down curses in “Whirling Disease.”

My own most recently published poetic take on the election appeared last week in the journal Rise Up Review: “Imperfect Ten.” I’d been reading Rattle‘s “Poets Respond” series, especially Barbara Crooker’s “Election Ghazal” and Richard Garcia’s “Canada.” Why ghazals? I wondered, then tried my own. I felt compelled to break a rule of this elegant form–the tradition that each couplet is self-contained–because, as another poet said, something there is that doesn’t love a wall, especially lately. You’ll also see that I was reading about the spike in hate crimes reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And, finally, that I was stinking mad. I still am, although starting to try to channel it differently. Rage is important, but you can’t set up house there forever.

P.S.: For a more skeptical picture juxtaposing the MLK marchers against the Lee-Jackson “history and heritage” banner, see my daughter on Instagram. She’s right. I confess to feeling some hope these days, but it’s probably irrational. I have great friends. But this country: still crazy.

 

 

Repress the year, but read the books

Countdowns and confetti: bah humbug. By New Year’s Eve, I’m tired of festivity. Middle age has clearly settled in, because I now regularly find myself closing out the year by binge-reading.

December is always a good month for catching up on The Year’s Big Poetry Books. My university library orders the US National Book Award poetry longlist and the Pulitzer finalists annually, so after grades are in, I rush in to the circulation desk and beg them to finish “processing” my slim volumes. This year I’ve only perused a fraction of them so far. Someone had already checked out Dove’s Collected Poems and while I’m a big fan and have written about her work, I’m letting the anonymous poetry-reader keep it for the moment, with blessings. But I’ve at least glanced at the other finalists and almost everything seems worth attention. While I’ve only read the first few pages of the NBA top selection, Borzutzky’s Performance of Becoming Human, it’s powerful and I will finish it.

The oh-my-god discovery in this stack, however, was Diane Seuss’s Four-Legged Girl. What a fierce, smart, funny book! An old lesson affirmed: read the finalists, Lesley. I always respect the winners but fall madly in love with a runner-up.

4-legged
Four-legged girls

Also worth noting: my favorite chapbook was Elizabeth Savage’s Parallax, but the chaps listed below by Janet McAdams, Carrie Etter, Natalie Diaz, and Rosemary Starace are also terrific(Is there a best-annual chapbook post-publication prize? There should be.) For YA poetry, although it doesn’t need to be characterized that way: Marilyn Nelson’s American Ace. Among the books I read for Kenyon Review micros were several charmers, but Ned Balbo’s Upcycling Paumanok impressed me as especially ambitious, crafty, and big-hearted. Books I read for various reasons and liked so much I put them on syllabi include Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Field Guide to the End of the World, Susan Briante’s The Market Wonders, Erika Meitner’s Copia, and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds.

Other genres: I’m finishing Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad right now and am totally dazzled. I was also delighted to discover, a little belatedly, Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being and N. K. Jemisin’s sf. But all the novels I read this year were good, with the likely exception of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, of which I cannot remember one scene. My book-length nonfiction reading was more uneven–a few brilliant tomes, a couple of weak choices–but I hope to do better in 2017.

And on that note, I would REALLY like to catch up with NZ poetry this year–I’m appalled to see not one item here from a country I remain so in love with. Please put the word out I’d be happy to get review copies, print or electronic, for my micro-review gig at Kenyon Review Online. I probably won’t lose 10 pounds or exercise more, but sit around with cups of tea and new poetry collections? THAT’s a resolution I can uphold.

Best wishes for everyone to thrive in the new year, except the orange man, upon whom I wish shame, frustration, and disaster.

POETRY

1/10 White, LettERRS (review assignment)

1/18 Rankine, Citizen (reread for work event)

2/15 Stone, Poetry Comics (friend’s recommendation)*

2/19 Francis, Forest Primeval (review by friend in Kenyon Review)*

2/19 Dungy, Suck on the Marrow (scouting historical poetry)

2/20 Barnstone, The Beast in the Apartment (friend’s recommendation)

2/22 Carson, Nox (knew it would be great and was saving it)

2/23 Gray, Photographing Eden (AWP staff)

2/25 O’Reilly, Geis (review assignment)

2/27 Okrent, Boys of My Youth (review assignment)

3/19 Bridgford, Human Interest* (ms to blurb)

3/20 Robinson, Sometimes the Little Town* (friend and local author)

3/21 Meitner, Copia (bought after her reading at VA Festival of Book)

3/23 Dop, Father Child Water (ditto)

3/25 Powell, Useless Landscape (preparing to meet him at AWP)

3/27 Leahy, Constituents of Matter (AWP staff)

4/2 Rocha, Karankawa (AWP prize winner)

4/3 Day, Last Psalm at Sea Level (picked up at AWP)

4/7 McAdams, Seven Boxes for the Country After* (friend and poet I admire)

4/10 Clarvoe, Counter-Amores (reread prior to Kenyon visit)

4/11 Meeks, The Genome Rhapsodies (review)

4/23 Le Guin, Late in the Day* (review)

5/1 Kildegaard, Ventriloquy* (review)

5/4 Hoppenthaler, Domestic Garden (possible campus visit)

5/4 Dubrow, The Arranged Marriage (heard her read from it 2 years ago)

5/13 Duncan, Restless Continent (review assignment, also recommended by friend)

5/? Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds* (multiple good reviews)

5/27 Stallings, Olives (had been meaning to for years)

6/1 Nelson, American Ace* (poet long admired, picked up at conference)

6/2 Preston, Centennial Poem for Washington and Lee University (research)

6/4 Starace, Unseen Avenue* (friend and poet I admire)

6/13 Davis, Traditional Ballads of Virginia (research)

6/14 Frank, The Opposite of People (review assignment)

6/26 Jackson, ed., Selected Poems of ESV Millay* (review)

7/4 Schroeder, Inked* (met author at conference)

7/11 Tribble, Natural State* (review)

7/18 Dietrich and Ferguson, eds., Drawn to Marvel (reread for class planning)

7/21 Thompson, The Myth of Water* (review)

7/30 Carlson, Symphony No. 2 (review)

8/2 Paschen, Infidelities (AWP board member)

8/30 Baca, Selected Poems (class prep—coming to campus)

9/2 Wood, Weaving the Boundary* (regional author I’ve heard at readings)

9/24 Rackin, The Forever Notes (met at reading)

9/24 Campbell, Dixmont (met at reading)

9/30 Eliot, Prufrock and Other Observations (for class)

10/8 Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (friend’s recommendation)

10/8 Briante, The Market Wonders* (future campus visitor)

10/10 H.D. Sea Garden (for class)

10/22 Savage, Parallax* (by a friend)

10/24 Eliot, The Waste Land (for class)

11/? Hughes, Montage of a Dream Deferred (for class)

11/? Gailey, Field Guide to the End of the World* (for class)

11/? Anderson, Stain (to blurb)

12/16 Diaz, The Hand Has Twenty-Seven Bones (follow her work)

12/16 Balakian, Ozone Journal (Pulitzer winner)

12/22 Sharif, Look (NBA finalist)

12/28 Seuss, Four-Legged Girl* (Pulitzer finalist)

12/31 Gizzi, Archaeophonics* (NBA finalist)

 

FICTION

1/16 Lerner, 10:04 (daughter’s recommendation)

1/20 Butler, Kindred (reread for guest-teaching)

1/31 Anders, All the Birds in the Sky* (Jemisin’s NYT review)

2/7 Gavaler, Patron Saint of Superheroes (unpublished, to give the author feedback)

2/15 Penny, Still Life (friend’s recommendation)

2/19 Atwell, Wild Girls (writer recently moved to my town)

3/13 Jemisin, Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (friend’s recommendation)

3/18 Jemisin, Broken Kingdoms (continuation of trilogy)

3/22 Jemisin, Gods’ Kingdom (continuation of trilogy)

3/29 Jemisin, The Awakened Kingdom (novella postscript to trilogy)

3/29 Grimes, Rainbow’s End (audiobook it took me 5 months to finish)

3/29 Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton* (friend’s recommendation)

4/17 Ozeki, Tale for the Time Being (recommended by friend)

5/4 Martin, Dance with Dragons (reread for TV show)

5/12 Myerson, The Stopped Heart (Weber’s NYT review)

5/23 Weber, True Confections (met author at Kenyon)

5/30 Erdrich, LaRose* (longstanding favorite author)

6/18 King, End of Watch* (another favorite author)

6/22 Sittenfeld, Eligible* (curious about her work for a while, NYT review)

7/10 Hairston, Will Do Magic for Small Change* (Jemisin’s NYT review)

7/16 Hoffman, The River King (friend’s recommendation)

7/28 Brodie, Adulterer’s Club (unpublished, to comment on ms)

7/31 Kohrner-Stace, Archivist Wasp (interest in Small Beer Press)

7/31 Thorne & Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child* (couldn’t help it)

8/8 Walton, Necessity* (favorite author)

8/20 Nguyen, The Sympathizer (dual Pulitzer/ Edgar wins intrigued me)

8/27 Millet, Sweet Lamb of Heaven (recommended by friend)

9/10 Morganstern, The Night Circus (recommended by friend)

9/28 Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate* (sequel I was waiting for)

11/? Willis, Crosstalk (author I follow)

12/14 Jones, Mongrels* (recommended by a friend)    

 

NONFICTION

1/30 Kolbert, Sixth Extinction (daughter’s recommendation)

2/8 Jackson, Marginalia (for research)

2/8 Scholes, The Crafty Reader (for research)

2/8 Coates, Between the World and Me (recommended by a zillion friends)

2/9 Freedman, Frey, Zauhar, Intimate Critique (for research)

2/11 Tompkins, Reader Response Criticism (for research)

3/4 Christman, Darkroom (AWP board)

3/8 Eakin, How Our Lives Become Stories (research)

5/12 MacDonald, H is for Hawk (audiobook; widely recommended)

7/25 Mayock, Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace (by friend and colleague)

7/27 Culler, Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory (course prep)

8/10 Biss, On Immunity (widely recommended)

9/1 Gay, Bad Feminist (audiobook, widely recommended)

9/30 Shumer, Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo* (audiobook, whiling away a car trip)

10/29 Meehan, Imaginary Bonnets with Real Bees in them* (poet I research)

12/24 Connors, Milkweed Matters * (writer is a friend)

12/31 Greene, Time’s Unfading Garden (research)

*2016 publication or pretty damn close