Small amid the sparkle

Is that a cormorant on that piling near St. Augustine, Florida, drying its wings? Because all the poets at the AWP convention in Tampa the week after next will look comparably, awkwardly exhibitionistic. Yo! I’m not totally unimposing! Come buy my book!

Including me, of course. I’ll be carrying around copies of my new chapbook, Propagation, for sale ($5) or trade (I like books, dark chocolate, and flattery). I’m already feeling goofy about it. I’m also delighted to be participating (briefly) at the Black Earth Institute Reading on March 8th at 4 pm in the Attic Cafe on Kennedy. Otherwise, I’ll mostly be conducting AWP Board duties: attending the board meeting all day Wednesday and the Awards Celebration Benefit that evening; speaking at the program directors’ plenaries Thursday morning; thanking bookfair participants and doing bookfair office hours; introducing the introducers and taking speakers to dinner. This is all a privilege, plus it’s my last year as Mid-Atlantic Regional Chair so I need to savor the fun bits, but I will feel some relief when it’s behind me.

I’m struggling to stay zen this weekend, with a larger world in bloody shambles and my own life as busy as I can handle. Last weekend was W&L’s weeklong midterm break, which we kicked off with a wonderful three nights at the beach followed by hunkering down to catch up on work, most seriously starting Thursday, when my son embarked for the Model UN in Chapel Hill. As usual, I was partly successful. I finished grading, but more comes in tomorrow; I’m ready for Monday, but then comes Tuesday; I caught up on revision and submission work, which was good but also reminded me how much work is languishing. I could use good news, but then again, I don’t want to fail to appreciate successes that ARE happening. For instance, 3 years ago (when I was 47, because I’m precocious), I wrote a poem named “L” about ambition on the cusp of age 50. I thought it was especially strong but just couldn’t place it–until last week, when it was snapped up by a journal I greatly admire. Pale rainbows in mist, right? Not world-changing but lovely all the same.boilinbag

Before I get back to it, huge thanks to Cherry Tree for another great issue, which includes two of my poems in the “Literary Shade” section: a bit of terza rima called “Native Temper” and this sonnet-rant about the KKK flier that landed on my lawn in 2015, weighted down in a baggie by white rice, of all the damn things. I knew before then that I lived and worked at ground zero for what remains of the Confederacy, and everyone could feel the nastiness intensifying as a terrible election approached, but that particular moment remains a watershed for me. May all of us small writers keep boiling for as long as it takes.  I need to believe each grain of good effort adds up, and there will be a tipping point.

Poetry at the Border: Ann Fisher-Wirth

This blog’s intermittent “Poetry at the Border” feature returns with two excerpts from the powerful new collection Mississippia striking large-format collaboration between poet Ann Fisher-Wirth and photographer Maude Schuyler Clay. While focused on a specific state, this book is full of borderlands and hinges: between poetry and photographs, between history and the present, and among races and realities. I’m fascinated by the relationship between word and image here–each poem, untitled, is coupled with a photograph, and the pairings tend to defamiliarize rather than illustrate one another. Next to “He ain’t done right to whistle,” for example, is an image of a ruin. So is the racism that led to Emmett Till’s murder a gutted edifice, still standing but increasingly fragile, doomed to be pulled down by kudzu? If so, what’s a person to do about it?–Look at it, surely. Head-on.

The voice-driven poems in Mississippi also urge us to listen to one another; while including dialogue and depicting multi-voiced negotiations, they sometimes possess an eerie quality, too. This is a spiritual collection, both in image and text. Many of Fisher-Wirth’s poems suggest how mundane world borders a more mysterious one or, as in the second poem below, describe someone in extremity praying for intervention. Words are bridges, creating connections between people, or perhaps among people and the other-than-human world.

from Ann Fisher-Wirth:

There are a number of poems in Mississippi about race, in a variety of voices. Specifically, the two poems here, “He ain’t done right to whistle” and “Well you know back then”–are companion poems, which embody two very different responses to the murder of Emmett Till.

At the heart of Mississippi’s Civil Rights history is Emmett Till, an African American boy murdered on August 28, 1955, at the age of fourteen. He had come from his home in Chicago to visit relatives in the Delta town of Money, Mississippi. Reportedly he spoke to or whistled at twenty-one-year-old Carolyn Bryant, the married proprietor of a small grocery store in Money. Several nights later, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J. W. Milam came and got Till from his great-uncle’s house, and took him away to a barn. There they beat him and gouged out one of his eyes, then shot him through the head, weighted his body with a cotton gin fan tied around his neck, and disposed of his body in the Tallahatchie River. Three days later, Till’s body was discovered and retrieved. It was prepared for burial in Tutwiler, Mississippi, and returned to his mother in Chicago. There, she insisted on an open casket funeral, insisting that the world see what had been done to her son, and images of Emmett’s barely recognizable face were broadcast all around the world. Bryant and Milam were acquitted in court; subsequently, protected from double jeopardy, they admitted their guilt in an interview in Look magazine. Emmett Till’s death and the worldwide horror that it awoke became a pivotal force in the African American Civil Rights movement. The Money store is now in ruins.

“Well you know back then” mentions Mose Wright. He was Emmett Till’s great-uncle, and he acted with enormous courage when he stood at the trial to identify Bryant and Milam as the men who had taken Till. Nevertheless, the jury took only 67 minutes to acquit.


He ain’t done right to whistle
and talk hi y’all baby and filth
to Carolyn Bryant even if he come

from away he ought to known
how we do around here and I sure
as hell don’t believe his uncle

shoulda stood up and pointed out
Roy and J.W. in that courthouse
I am so blessed tired of people

students and all coming down here
to interview us just because we
was alive then making out like this

is a bad town y’all don’t know
what we do for those who know
their place why just yesterday

Polly I said to the woman who
takes care of me my husband don’t
use this red tee and these shoes

take em for Brewster as for the rest
why that was a long time ago
most folks dead and store collapsed
to ruins why you raking it up again


Well you know back then couldn’t noafw2
black man see justice
down here

so when Mr. Wright come out that door
after standing up in court and
pointing out the killers he

was marked for a dead man
had to hightail to the station
leave his cotton in the fields

and get on out of here
I was just a kid
didn’t think like my folks

was ashamed what they be doing
so when they was talking that night
over chicken and collards

saying get the sheets
go rough up some a them teach em
what’s right I snuck off

hid in my closet prayed Pray Lord
didn’t have no words
for my misery just Pray Lord


If you’ll be in Tampa for the AWP, come see Ann and other Black Earth Institute Fellows read from 4-6:30 at the Attic. I’ll be joining them briefly as an About Place contributor.

afwphotoMississippi is Ann Fisher-Wirth‘s fifth book of poems; it is a poetry/photography collaboration with the acclaimed Delta photographer Maude Schuyler Clay. Other books include Dream Cabinet, Carta Marina, Blue Window, and Five Terraces. With Laura-Gray Street she coedited the groundbreaking Ecopoetry Anthology, with an introduction by Robert Hass. Former President of ASLE, recipient of senior Fulbrights to Switzerland and Sweden, she is a fellow of the Black Earth Institute, and has had residencies at Djerassi, Hedgebrook, The Mesa Refuge, and CAMAC/Centre d’Art Marnay. She teaches at the University of Mississippi and directs the minor in Environmental Studies. She also teaches yoga at Southern Star in Oxford, MS.

Early in her career, Maude Schuyler Clay assisted the photographer William Eggleston. She received the Mississippi Arts and Letters award for photography in 1988, 1992, 2000, and 2016, and the Mississippi Art Commission’s Individual Artist Grant in 1998. The University Press of Mississippi published Delta Land in 1999. Her work is in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and The National Museum for Women in the Arts, among others. Mississippi History was published by Steidl in 2016; another book is forthcoming, and Maude will have a major solo show at the Mississippi Museum of Art in 2019. She lives in the Mississippi Delta.

Peering across the Atlantic

When, back in the primordial mists of the 90s, I was hired to teach 20th century poetry in English, I well-prepared to construct U.S.-based syllabi. British and Irish poetries, however, were visible to me only as hills and treetops peeking above a general fog. I knew the international modernists and a few later border-crossers, especially Plath and Hughes; I had historical context for debates about Britishness, empire, language, and identity. Otherwise, I had to worked up the field like any grad student of the era, beginning with Norton anthologies and reference essays. A familiar landscape soon took shape: Hardy, the poets of the Great War, Auden, Larkin. Mina Loy sauntered into place among my modernists, and I explored Stevie Smith’s work with delight. Thinking more white women and some, a few, ANY people of color had to be out there, I found Bloodaxe Books and then Moniza Alvi and Jackie Kay, and eventually news of a Black British scene (Jahan Ramazani’s scholarship became increasingly helpful). On the Irish side, my map was similarly faulty. I’d met Muldoon and heard Heaney while at Princeton, so Muldoon’s Faber Anthology of Contemporary Irish Poetry was the obvious place to start, but it included only ONE woman. The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry appeared soon, by way of remedy. The internet happened. Traveling and listening to readings has helped, too (cheers to Carrie Etter and Zayneb Allak, most recently). I still feel, however, that if I were asked to teach a course on post-1900 British women poets, I wouldn’t be confident about how to shape the story–whereas on the U.S. side, I’ve done it, and the only problem is how to give time to all the overlapping narratives, choosing among riches.

historybritwomenWhich is why I’m grateful to have just found the series The History of British Women’s Writing, and in particular, Vol. 10, 1970-Present, edited by Mary Eagleton and Emma Parker. The ten-page opening chronology, interweaving international politics with developments in literary culture, is a tremendous gift in itself. Indeed, the essays collected here are particularly useful on what often seems like the ephemera of literary history: presses, prizes, laureates, and all the other little recognitions that eventually add up to canons and master narratives. Another great strength of the book is its head-on address to disputes over Britishness: Parker and Eagleton invoke a literary world that’s diverse along every axis, while also analyzing the forces that hamper inclusion.

Fiction receives more attention than other genres, with Jeannette King on historical fiction, Sue Zlosnik on the gothic, Ruvani Ranasinha on British Asian fiction, Suzanne Scafe on Black British fiction, and more. Other pieces are multigenre, however, such as Hywel Dix’s essay on Welsh, Northern Irish, and Scottish literature. And the editors devote discrete chapters to poetry, drama, memoir, and media-crossing literary modes.

The introduction and other elements of the editorial apparatus are wonderful, but the chapter that will be most useful to me is Jane Dowson’s “Poetry on Page and Stage.” Her overview of game-changing anthologies and magazine special issues, as well as their often mixed receptions, is pure gold. She tracks laureateships, Oxford poetry chairs, the shifting status of lyric and experiment, and the importance of poetry performance as a mode of innovation that shapes who gets heard. My reading/ listening list is now twice as long.

In other news, I couldn’t be more grateful for the kind notes I’ve been receiving all week for my own essay, “Women Stay Put,” but I am deeply tired. My three classes, now heading into midterms, are terrific–I’ve never had better groups of students–but with all the extra department work and other service that’s been on our plates lately, I am about as ready as I’ve ever been for February Break. I’m planning to escape next weekend and spend a couple of days gazing at a sunnier bit of the Atlantic, and if the waves don’t sound like poetry, for once, that will be just fine.


Excerpt from a mess in progress


Once, when she was a toddler-sized blizzard of pure will, I called her “little missy.” Some current of Victorian chastisement must have welled up through me, springing from all the British books I’d read or maybe from some fifties sitcom re-aired in periodic waves. My daughter had created yet another hodgepodge installation of stuffed animals, food wrappers, chairs, stewpots, picture books, Lego, and I don’t even know what else. She refused to clean up. The phrase came out of my mouth. She gazed at me stolidly.

The next day, which brought further eruptions of clutter, she said, before more maternal protest could escape my lips, “Little Messy did it.”


My daughter is twenty and about to spend spring term in Prague. This means all her college paraphernalia—dishes, lamps, bins of sweaters, notebooks, extra bedding, a photograph-plastered bulletin board, matryoshka dolls painted to resemble Russian leaders—came home in mid-December and have been gathering dust in various corners of her room for weeks. On top of them, she and I piled items for the trip: more clothes and shoes, new suitcases, a wallet stuffed with Czech koruna. My periodic reconnaissance missions into the mess turn up many becrumbed plates and cups crusted with dried coffee foam.


She is so smart and funny and demanding and melodramatic. My life will be easier when she flies off. I ache with sadness at the prospect.


The first definition of “mess” in the OED is a portion of food. I chop onions to cook with leftover cranberry beans, chilis in adobo sauce, cilantro. A large quantity of something. Boil rice, mash avocados, grate cheese, open the jar of cactus fruit-purple tomatillo salsa Scott sent. Prep strawberry crumble and breakfast scones, too, because lord knows what the airlines will feed my vegetarian daughter on this long series of flights. An ill-assorted mixture of any kind. Grief, envy, relief, worry, delight on her behalf. A troubled or embarrassed state or condition; a predicament. A person whose life or affairs are disorganized. An entertaining, witty, or puzzling person. A communal meal. Etym. classical Latin missus, meaning sending.


My kids are seventeen and twenty now, needing me only sporadically, and not even really then. No one stops me from working all weekend, typing through the thermal blasts of perimenopause. I’m unable to figure out which tasks I shouldn’t be doing. Everything seems both important and trivial. Hot mess.


So much of my work involves imposing order, or revealing order that is occluded. Divine the bones of a student’s idea and help her build an essay or a poem that will stand steady, bear some weight. Uncover and tell a story latent in the survey results, the aged manuscripts, the tangle of movements and mavericks that make a literary period. Organize aspirations into weeks of future labor, then write the grant application.

But first comes the mess. Notions, images, daisy-chained phrases with their slightly crushed petals unevenly spaced, like teeth in a first-grader’s mouth. Mess precedes order, often succeeds it too, and some of the best writing remains redolent with it. Mess is smelly and exciting. Noisy and damp.


When she says, Mom, you’re so good at packing, I know it’s like my young son announcing, Mom, you’re the world’s best bacon chef: strategic flattery. But I’m glad when my grown-up children ask for help. So I lay the jeans out on the bed, then another pair of jeans perpendicular to them, then a dress perpendicular to that, then leggings, blouses, tee-shirts. The clothes form a cross. Then I fold in the smallest inner item, perhaps a miniskirt, and continue folding in each item, until I’m left with a heavy, airless bundle that takes up surprisingly little space.

Around that we tuck first aid supplies, rain boots, a few snapshots for the wall by the bed in her Prague flat. Almonds and a package of dried mango slices for her backpack. She picks up the dirty clothes on her floor to run one last load of laundry, revealing that her messes had actually been discrete piles, that she’s on top of the mess and understands it. There’s room in her case for one stuffed animal, so she washes Strudel, too. He is a formerly white bear who replaced another white bear, accidentally left among hotel bedding in another city.


Snow sifts down to render the outside world more uniform. My spouse and I take an early walk, trying to describe the squeaky crackles our sneakers make on the snowy sidewalk. A cascade of distant fireworks, I say. He answers, A box of rubber balls tossed down wooden steps.

That morning, I keep reminding her of documents, chargers, and medications, but she has already packed them all neatly. They leave for the airport on messy roads, as snow turns into rain.