There’s a mountain I talk to on a fairly regular basis–really, two mountains, Big House Mountain and Little House Mountain. From the window of my study, one shoulders the other nearly out of view. On a clear day, sometimes I can see the difference. Today both are occluded by dull white mists.
Instead of trying to engage a sulky landscape in conversation, then, I’m browsing the last in-print issue–really, two issues–of Crab Orchard Review, the first magazine ever to pay me for a poem. I have an essay in the general half, 21.1. The company is brilliant: Kaveh Akbar, Kim Bridgford, Chelsea Dingman, Annie Finch, Afaa M. Weaver, and many others. The prize-winning essay, “Slight” by Kristine Langley Mahler, is a stunner. A spooky poem by Emily Rosko, “A Phase,” seems to be about a lost friend, as is my piece, “Women Stay Put.” I have no objectivity at all about this essay, but I can testify that whatever the end results are worth, it was really hard to write. I’m weaving together meditations on place, friendship, and what it meant to labor, in the mid-nineties, alongside an extremely talented poet who occupied a lower rung in the local academic hierarchy than I did. “Women Stay Put” is a hybrid of personal and critical essay–a memoir of Claudia Emerson that also analyzes her first collection, Pharaoh, Pharaoh.
From that essay, first drafted in January, 2015: “My life is patterned by love and meaningful work, but winter’s dark days make me low and antisocial. Lavender clouds pile onto House Mountain.” I talked to the mountain a lot back then, too.
Thanks to Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble for including me. And I love that the issue I’m in is followed by a themed issue called “Weather Reports,” full of pieces that look backward, like mine, but also others testing literature’s predictive powers. When the issue goes live, look, for instance, for “Spell to Bring the Fall” by Ann V. DeVilbiss as well as poem by Michael Hurley, in which the title slides into the first line: “A Persimmon,” begins “when ripe, can be used to predict the weather.” The poem instructs you to split a seed and examine the shape inside for foreknowledge of winter snow and wind.
I predict we’ll have more grieving weather soon, eventually followed by hope weather, although they’ll keep cycling. I predict I’ll photograph these trivial texts from Claudia then finally delete them from my phone, and that no one will ever ask to read them, although people will keep loving her poems. I predict I’ll see the mountain again one of these days, and it will reflect the sunrise, like a mirror.
I spent a lot of 2017 thinking about what poetry can DO. I wish poems could stop inhumane deportations and government shutdowns, and I hope poets will keep trying to make the world more kind and fair. Mostly, though, my aims are smaller in scale: can writing this poem change ME for the better? The stories we tell about ourselves really matter, and I’ve been trying to tell hopeful ones. After all, that’s what I want to read–literature that acknowledges the complicated mess we live in but ultimately tilts towards love.
Now, two weeks into a new class on documentary poetics, I find myself thinking about poems, instead, as testimony, carrying some part of the past into our present attention. That’s not unrelated to poetry as spell, prayer, or action, but the emphasis is a little different. The poets we’ve been reading–Rukeyser and Forché at first, and a host of Katrina poets now, including Patricia Smith, Cynthia Hogue, and Nicole Cooley–are asking what we need to remember. Their poetries still look towards the future but are more explicitly grounded in history. We’ll be sailing even further in that direction soon with Kevin Young’s Ardency, a book I’ve never taught before. (I’m really excited about this class, but once again I’ve scheduled a lot of new labor for myself, as if destroying work-life balance is my explicit goal.)
Then these arrived in the mail. THANK YOU, SCOTT NICOLAY!
There’s art just in the words on the stickers, right? I’m excited to taste what delicious parts of an apparently bad year my friend transformed and preserved for me. And I’m thinking , too, about poems boiling up in me that I can barely snatch time to can, these days. What surplus can I doctor up and put by for another time, when I or somebody else might need them more?
Well, not much, maybe. I’m working flat out right now just staying on top of tomorrow’s obligations. But I do have some jam from April 2014 to share this Wednesday: I’ll be reading from Propagation, and my colleague in the History Department Roberta Senechal de la Roche will be reading from her poetry chapbook, at 4:30 pm on 1/24 in Northen Auditorium in Leyburn Library at W&L. There will be a fruit and cheese platter, coffee and tea service, and books for sale, and I will endeavor to keep the poetry tasty–but, selfishly, I won’t be sharing Scott’s plum-pluet-Asian pear jam with amontillado. Maybe visit me with a good baguette, and we’ll talk.
In the meantime, here’s a poem from a few years back. It’s about another government shutdown, with salsa verde on the side. My thanks to One for serving it up.
I had a long bout of wakefulness last night, but W&L cancels classes on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, so I slept until the cold January sun had actually risen, hallelujah. Over my first pot of tea, I picked up a section of Sunday’s paper, and found this article about the amazing playwright, memoirist, and poet Adrienne Kennedy, who in her eighties is still producing strong work. The opening made me laugh out loud:
“The playwright Adrienne Kennedy never wanted to move to Virginia… ‘Unfortunately, I’ve been here six years,’ she said of her new city [Williamsburg]. ‘I hate it.'”
The article also mentioned a new poem of hers that I’d missed–check out “Forget” in The Harvard Review. Major Jackson, I will forgive you for continuing to reject my poems as long as you’re putting Adrienne Kennedy out there once in a while. In “Forget,” she writes of her white grandfather, “like the South itself, he was an unfathomable.” Yes.
I never wanted to move south, either. Lexington makes Williamsburg look urban and hip by comparison. I often feel disconnected from literary conversations that would nourish me; attitudes here towards the Civil War and U.S. history can be both offensive and deeply surreal. But I don’t hate it here. There’s good work to do. My surroundings have beauty. It’s intellectually and artistically useful to be in constant talk with people who don’t share my pieties. And what Kennedy says about getting a lot of writing done “because there’s nothing to do in Virginia”–well, I laughed with recognition there, too.
And then I bundled up and marched in our local parade, which was peaceful and joyous. And now I’m back to my desk, prepping for classes. My senior seminar on “Documentary Poetics” just finished working through Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” which I’d never taught before, but which I will definitely teach again. The title of this post is from the title poem of that series, which you can find here. I’m not entirely sure about the social good poetry does, even poetry of history and witness–compared to more direct kinds of activism, I mean–but I know lines from long ago and far away sustain my courage. I’m endlessly grateful for poetry’s camaraderie.
A few last marching words, from the same Rukeyser poem:
I’ve done just enough archival work to be fascinated by poets’ commonplace books. It’s been more than a decade since I worked among Marianne Moore’s papers at the Rosenbach, but I was impressed by her fantastically crabbed hand in a series of tiny notebooks, recording quotations she liked. At the Library of Congress, you can leaf through Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sparser notes, mixing drafts, travel plans, and lists of poems that might go together in her next collection. And how I wish Anne Spencer had kept notebooks! Instead, I learned last summer how hard it is to date any of her drafts, many of which must be lost in any case, because she penciled ideas on any scrap of paper or cardboard within reach.
I’m more organized that Spencer, but not by much (you can see one physical notebook
I kept here, and read a reflection about it here). If the internet ever disappears, much of my “archive” will go with it, not that I really expect anyone to care. This blog is the closest I come to an intellectual/ artistic journal, supplemented by Facebook posts. They’re all personal, although I’m performing and curating a version of myself: in these media, I’m honest, but not always intimate. My poetry and creative nonfiction feel much closer to the bone–riskier.
The space that feels most like a commonplace book for me is, of all places, Twitter. Like many other writers, some of whom the future will actually care about, I occasionally jot lines there from whatever I’m reading, or tweet links or photographs of pages. I like following what other poets are reading, too. I suspect if you peruse a year’s worth of some authors’ tweets, you’d only get a partial sense of the media they’re consuming, but that’s true of my 2017 list of books below, too (kept in Word). I can’t keep similar track, after all, of the vast number of posts and essays and magazines and portions of anthologies I read, much less the Netflix series and SNL clips I watch or the paintings I gaze at. It’s just too much. I’m a hungry art-consumer!
So, belatedly, here is my very partial new year’s account of myself as a book-reader. I gave the sf highlights in a Strange Horizons’ summary review. In addition to those, I liked Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s first book, Ornament, enough to teach it in a poetry and music class this winter. I was excited by and admiring of all the poetry collections that made the most prestigious year-end lists, but I’d add that David Wojahn’s 2017 collection, For the Scribe, was just as strong as the ones receiving fizzier receptions. Among slightly older collections, Majmudar’s Dothead and Miller’s The Cartographer Maps a Way to Zion were new to me last year, and I loved them. Among nonfiction books, Tisserand’s Krazy probably had the biggest influence on me, and aside the more sf-y novels by Saunders, Hamid, Jones, and others I mention in Strange Horizons, I greatly enjoyed the latest mystery from Livesey, Mercury. Between submitting the review and New Year’s Day, I also finally read Alderman’s The Power, which both riveted and irritated me. It’s definitely a book to talk about. “Chewy,” as reviewers keep writing.
For future record, or for naught (if I remain obscure, or if 45 presses his really big nuclear button and civilization collapses, taking the internet down with it):
Despite the frigid temperatures, my winter so far has been poetically electric. My long-awaited chapbook arrived in early December, then several journals containing a poem or two of mine suddenly went live or hit print (here’s one), PLUS Poetry Daily honored me with a New Year’s Day feature, PLUS Amy Lemmon and Sarah Freligh at the CDC Poetry Project accepted and published my pissed-off ghazal almost as fast as a president can tweet self-serving lies.
The writing life is deeply weird this way. What the flurry of publications means is I was on fire and writing lots of poems a year or two ago, and diligent about sending them out 6-12 months ago. I actually produced very little new poetry in the last few months, “Hibernaculum” aside, although the words are coming back now. I was overworked, trying not to feel discouraged, and spending my limited writing time on a couple of prose projects with impending deadlines. I revised lots, however, and strove to give older writing its due by focusing on submissions. I sent 230 poems to magazines in 2017! Those were in batches of 5, often to 3-4 magazines at once, but still, that’s a crazy amount of Submittable action (and that’s not even counting book mss, essays, and other work I’m trying to keep under consideration). Nor are my stats brilliant. Most of those submissions were rejected, a few with encouraging notes from editors; 18 of those were accepted, plus a few more I’d sent out in 2016; other verdicts are still pending.* I’m kind of shocked, but sheer numbers mitigate the chagrin I’ve been feeling as I post social media thanks and humble-brags. If brute effort counts, I earned those publication credits.
I hope my appalling math gives somebody heart, because here we go again, trying to keep our little fires burning in another year’s chilly climate. The numbers are NOT what matters. I’ll write poems my whole life, I’m sure, but it wouldn’t shock me if one day I decide not to work so hard at finding readers, and if you’ve already made that call, I respect your sensibleness. But for the moment, I have the heart and chutzpah to keep trying, mostly failing, and very occasionally succeeding. I’m ready for 2018 to reject the hell out of me.
I’m much more glad, however, that I’m writing poems again. I’d missed it. The great collections I’ve been catching up on are replenishing the well–I’ll post on my 2017 and early 2018 reading soon. In the meantime, thanks to Donna Vorreyer, and her co-conspirator Kelli Russell Agodon, for a poke in the ribs and some publicity, too, for poetry bloggers committing to 2018 liveliness, including me. Check out her terrific list of participants here.
I won’t keep up with them: my three-prep term starts Monday, to be spiced up by tons of committee work and event planning and lord knows what ordinary-life calamities. But I feel game to try.
*As I wheedled my cat into a photo shoot that clearly bored him, Poetry Northwest just emailed asking to publish 2 poems from one of those 2017 batches. If it has this kind of cosmic influence, I may just blog about rejection all year.