Coniferous forests of hard thinking

When your child takes a summer internship in Siberia, you think, hmm, THAT’s a long way for a teenager to go to escape parental interference. Maybe you made the normal adolescent struggle for independence a little difficult?

Parents can follow their kids now through multiple technologies and social media platforms, and I do. With trust, and love!–but it doesn’t give a twenty-year-old a ton of room. I went to college only an hour from home, but without cellphones or email or Facebook or any other mode of mutual visibility, just a payphone at the end of the hall that, occasionally, someone would pick up after twenty rings. That could be hard, but also a huge relief.

I’m not saying M. went to Siberia BECAUSE the word is synonymous for “as far away as possible.” She’s long been fascinated by all things Russian, studying the history, literature, and politics. But my eldest has finally, ingeniously escaped my range!

So I’ve been sending my thoughts so far east it’s west again, in between revising mss, organizing submissions and queries, recovering from an annoying back injury (totally unrelated, I’m sure, to stress over packing my child off to the Altai Mountains for six weeks), and building up new research for an August conference in Amsterdam, which has involved the usual leaps and dead ends, excitement and wailing. You know–the coniferous forest of hard thinking, prowled by tigers of self-doubt. The tundra of isolated work, wondering when you’ll find a settlement. Supply your own ridiculous poet-parent Siberian metaphor here.

altai kraiI’m also watching my phone for updates from the countryside south of Novosibirsk, but trying not to appear desperate for them. I’m happy to report that a twenty-first-century voyager can text even from Siberia, and that, from what I can judge, my daughter is having a fabulous adventure. She’s teaching English to kids and working hard to learn as much Russian as possible (from a teacher with a Kazakh accent). The locals are friendly and her fellow interns are a cheerful group of Brits from Bristol Uni (though most of them leave soon, with a couple of new interns coming from other countries). The lowlands have been balmy and beautiful, and they’re heading towards a new camp, higher in the mountains (have you seen The Eagle Huntress?). The stresses are sleep deprivation–it’s light all the time–and food, but neither is dire. M. has become a connoisseur of kasha, preferring the barley-millet version served at lunchtime, with its tantalizing flavor of “burnt electrical cord,” over the less describable breakfast variety. What she can’t get behind, not surprisingly, is the meat–“myaso,” I think, in my alphabet. (“What kind of meat?” Blank looks: “Just myaso.” Ah, mysteries.) I wish I’d insisted on packing another bag of almonds.

From the present wilderness, here are a couple of new reviews, a micro of Niall Cambell’s First Nights up at the Kenyon Review, and a longer one of Athena Kildegaard’s Ventriloquy at Valparaiso Poetry ReviewBoth collections are very much worth your time.

For now, back to the quiet life. Well, quiet on the outside. Here’s a glimpse of the current menage, with Chris helping me rearrange a poetry ms, the still-at-home child eating American food in a Doctor Who shirt, and Poe making sure no recyclable grocery bags wing off to Russia, or the next room.

summer 2017

 

“The wonder is that you are here”: poetry, community, and Anne Spencer

One of my favorite visiting-writer stories involves a New York-based author who, while guzzling artisanal cocktails in a local restaurant, said something like, “I don’t know why anyone would bother to write if they don’t live in Brooklyn.” That was a hilariously awful remark to make to his Virginia-writer-dinner-companions, but I get it. The literary path I’m hiking seems to point only uphill, through tangles that hide my efforts from sight.

asm nasturtiumAs a break from the trail and for inspiration to persist, I recommend visiting the Anne Spencer House and Museum in Lynchburg, Virginia, about an hour and a quarter from where I live, just over the Blue Ridge. The lesson it teaches: how to surround yourself with what you find beautiful–how to fight for it–and write anywhere, on anything, with spirit.

The Lynchburg-based Harlem Renaissance poet gave hospitality to many luminaries, during an era when African-Americans didn’t have many safe spaces to stay while, for example, traveling between D.C. and Atlanta. Spencer became close with frequent visitors W. E. B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes, and published, sometimes with their urging and assistance, more than two dozen poems in magazines such as The Crisis. Her home is still welcoming: you can arrange a wonderful tour led by her granddaughter, Shaun Spencer-Hester, and the gardens are open to anyone without appointment from dawn to dusk. The house built by her husband, furnished colorfully and full of art, still feels like a good place, full of sunny nooks for reading, brimming with evidence of authors at work. The long garden with its writing cottage, abundant flowers, grape arbor, and lily pond remains an oasis.

asm spare bedroomHow Anne Spencer lived is worth remembering, but so are her poems. The title of this blog is from “At the Carnival”, and the poem above, painted on a kitchen cupboard by artist and architect (and neighbor) Amaza Lee Meredith, is the second stanza of “Lines to a Nasturtium”. Many of her writings, however, are uncollected and unpublished. asm-boxtop.jpgCheck out these fragments (a poem?) jotted inside the cover of a panty-hose boxtop. Plus she scribbled all kinds of things on the walls, as the phone booth under the stairs attests. I’m looking forward to studying her papers at the University of Virginia later this summer. One of the questions I’m considering is the relationship between art and activism, in Spencer’s life and generally. The local branch of the NAACP, for example, was founded in Spencer’s living room, and her work as a librarian supported African-American literacy. Nor did she submit to Jim Crow segregation–J. Lee Greene’s book, Time’s Unfading Garden, is full of stories of spirited resistance. But her poems are rarely overtly political, with “White Things,” about lynching, offering a powerful exception.

I’ll leave you with a few more pictures plus a link to a recent column I wrote for Modernism/ modernity whose themes resonate with this post: “How to Do Things with Poetry Criticism, or Scholarship and Justice, Part II.” If you’re in the region and have time, I hope you’ll visit 1313 Pierce Street. If not, go write a poem on a boxtop, or paint it on the wall, and read, remembering all the people who fought for the right to.

Poetry and the archives by the sea

pbts sea rose

A lot of poets write from research, and there are myriad ways to explain why. Just a few of the reasons, for me: because the past presses at me as a citizen and as a human being. Because my particular history–of my current region or my ancestors–needs puzzling through. Because I want to look outward and escape my own head already. Because I have a PhD and research is an ingrained habit. Because I’m distancing myself from some difficult subject (responsibility or identity, often) by analyzing material intellectually. Because those documents/ objects/ photographs are just sitting there being fascinating and no one’s telling their story.

All this is on my mind especially because research–including traditional archival work–is a big driver of the poetry book I’m currently refining, with the working title “L.” (I’m infatuated with the weirdness of a single-letter title–of which 50 is just one of the meanings–but I’d be interested to know if you think that’s a bad idea. My second choice so far would be “Chronic Locomotive.”) I’m also planning a senior capstone seminar on Documentary Poetics for winter 2018.

So, as I often do when worrying a problem, I assembled an all-star team to talk to me about it. The panel I ran at the recent Poetry by the Sea conference was called “Poetry and the Archives,” and included Nathalie Anderson, Cynthia Hogue, and Cheryl Savageau. I can’t recap the whole rich experience, but here are a few thoughts, as well as a prompt from one of my brilliant co-panelists.

First: there are many kinds of archives. The term most narrowly refers to public records kept by institutions, but this little four-day conference was full of poets (well beyond my panel) working with parallel but different document collections. Claire Rossini is inspired by calls of extinct birds available through the audio archives of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Cheryl, Nat, Cynthia and I talked about drawing inspiration from inherited objects, old newspapers, interviews, photographs, site exploration, museum exhibits, maps, dreams, and more.

Second: the research itself is challenging in ways one expects (sifting through massive arrays takes time and luck–there can be an enormous amount of chance involved in what one finds and when), and in ways that can take a person off guard.  Nat told us of an assignment she uses with her undergraduates to research the day of their own birth, using two newspapers, and then, further on, to reconstruct family histories using census rolls and other public records. What if you hit a wall, an absence? Or what if you find more than you’re ready for in those papers–say, an ancestor’s bill of sale? Impersonal documents can become terribly personal, and at the same time, no matter how much research you do, the archive is always bigger and stranger and less coherent than one researcher can comprehend, as Deborah Miranda explores in her poem “When My Body Is the Archive.” It’s terrible when other investigators get things wrong and thereby distort our histories, and we have a responsibility to do better–but getting things wrong, or at least understanding difficult truths only partially, is upsettingly inevitable.

Related to this: how does one transform what one learns without betraying complicated, fragmented, multivoiced sources? Answers from last week included collage, notes sections (possible in books but rarely in journals!), and writing oneself into the poem as a flawed, uncertain quester. Clearly the panelists do a lot of thinking about the ethics of what and how one writes. There’s more to say on this subject than I can shoehorn into one blog post, but see this older post for starters. I was teaching the controversy over Raymond McDaniels’ appropriation of Katrina-related materials at the time–a controversy all about ethics, power, and race.

Yet invention–an activity that would appall many scholars–is part of what a poet does with archival materials. I would argue it’s part of what any writer does, whether or not she admits it, but invention is certainly more obvious in historical poetry and fiction than in scholarly writing. When authors invent/transform archival materials well, I’m enormously grateful for their help in reconstructing a vanished past (Natasha Trethewey’s work is a touchstone for many of us here, and I would love to hear Camille Dungy talk someday about Suck on the Marrow). When authors do it badly, however, I get much more angry than I do reading your average personal, meditative lyric. The stakes feel higher.

And on that note: the ability to even access an archive can involve a lot of privilege. I was reminded of this when a friend outside of the academy’s protocols was recently worried about the letters of introduction some archives require. It also takes money to travel to a historical site or park yourself in an excellent library for even just a few days. Freedom from caretaking responsibilities, too. Sometimes I’ve had that money and freedom, sometimes I haven’t, but I do know privilege must be part of this conversation. Hurrah to all the librarians and others who are increasing our digital access to rare materials–it really helps.

Our panel ran out of time to give out prompts we’d designed, just as I’m pushing length limits here. For what it’s worth, my prompt was to write a backwards poem–start with the present and end with the distant past speaking for itself. Keep track of your sources and give them credit.

I’ll leave you with another from Cheryl Savageau. Sleep on it!

  1. Choose a natural object.
  2. Spend a couple of hours researching everything you can find out about it: its physical characteristics, its chemistry, physics, biology, ecology.  What odd stories or facts can you find? Are there any correlations to folklore, mythology? Is there a history? Take it all in. Make notes.
  3. Then dream around it. Let the associations happen.
  4. Write a short poem that synthesizes your research through association. Work in images. Avoid abstract words.
  5. Write a longer poem with a narrative.