Occasional poem on coeducation

bookmark

One of my students is currently researching coeducation at Washington and Lee, a guy whose father graduated in W&L’s last all-male class (’88) and whose mother studied here for a semester after women were finally admitted (class of ’89). He’s writing a series of poems based on interviews, newspaper articles, and even obnoxious graffiti from that era, so I gave him a copy of the bookmark pictured above. When an Associate Dean was asked in 2005-ish to organize a celebration of 20 years of coeducation, she asked me to write a poem for the occasion. I was originally supposed to read it aloud at an event but a poetry-phobe in Development nixed that idea. Ergo, bookmark.

The poem printed on that slip of blue cardstock is mostly sweet, remembering the aspect of coeducation I am wholly unambivalent about: all the great women students I’ve worked with during however many office hours I’ve held here in the past 24 years (if you do the math, don’t tell me). Before it, however, I wrote a spitting-mad sestina based on the research I did on coeducation in Special Collections. The phrases in quotes are all things W&L faculty and students said to the media.

I told my student about having to write my way through a poem inappropriate to the occasion before I could get to more celebratory language. He asked me if he could see it and I lost track of his request until this afternoon, when I finally finished a massive piece of committee work. It took some digging.

No Marthas

A veteran professor declared, seriously, ‘The education of women is a trivial matter.  The education of men is a serious matter. I don’t think the frivolous and the serious should mix.’ -from a Newsweek article by Ron Givens on co-education at Washington and Lee University, October 1985

The banner, a bedsheet really, cleared its throat as day-
light changed George Washington to gold: “NO
MARTHAS,” it politely recommended. Serious
banter draped beneath a finial, a wooden gentleman,
whose once-warm original gave a useful sum,
and his name, to Washington Academy. Tradition

honors his largesse even though, says tradition,
George liked Marthas. “A Roll in the Hay, but Not All Day,”
bumperstickers prescribed, heedless of allergy, but some
feared that constant exposure to women, with no
respite from estrogen, could harm young gentlemen
more than sexually-transmitted rhinitis. Serious

fears in frivolous words but frivolity is seriously
funny, admit it, while shocking, too, as if tradition
might really mean privilege only for gentlemen,
gentlemanly in wallet more than character, not today
of course but back in the eighties, when privilege brought not
just good cars, shoes, and liquor but keys to some

fraternity-shaped hay barn. Respectable capital, sums
and debits, eventually admitted women. Serious
money ebbs and flows with SAT scores, and, no
joke, Goshen was in drought. Wealth is a tradition,
too. Brushing hayseeds off the sheets, Yesterday
went to bed low on cash; Tomorrow woke the gentlemen

with pink curtains and higher enrollments. A gentleman
does not lie, cheat, or steal, suggested somebody.
Or gripe about “girls” during African famine. So days
of swimming naked in the gym pool sank into serious
dusk. Of course, we still pontificate about tradition
with little frivolity and less sense of history. No

school year stumbles by without slurs and assault; no
one drinks bourbon in legwarmers or whines, ungentlemanly,
that “everybody is worried about academics” now. Tradition
originally meant surrender or betrayal. Some
say it does still. Is Martha lucky to be here, seriously,
or does she surrender, betrayed, every day?

The gentlemen were seriously lucky that Martha
respected no tradition, marched in past Gorbachev,
Reagan, New Coke. Like some kind of day, breaking.

It’s red, reflecting all our sunsets

Prompt: next time you’re at a meeting or professional event, write down the weirdest things your colleagues say. Using one of those phrases as a title, without permission, close the door or at least conceal your screen and write a poem when you should be working.

A couple of years ago–maybe it was during a sabbatical, or maybe I missed the awards ceremony for some other reason–Deborah Miranda told me about an especially peculiar public verbal ramble initiated by someone especially prone to such digressions. “I don’t know how or why,” she said, “but somehow he started talking about cabdrivers during the apocalypse.” “Poem title,” I said, and we both bowed our heads to necessity. Deborah published hers on her blog more than a year ago–a radioactive prose poem, or maybe speculative flash fiction, from the perspective of the person behind the wheel. Check it out here, but watch out for the zombie rats.

cabdriver

My cabdriver likes to give advice, has a sort of philosophical take on gender after the end of the world, and is clearly influenced by certain strong female characters on The Walking Dead, a show I still watch compulsively even though it’s much less smart and riveting than once upon a time. It’s also the only show I forgive for casting mostly skinny women, given the post-zombie-plague food situation (though I find their endless supply of tight-fitting jeans implausible). Mostly, though, my poem, like a lot I’ve written lately, is about surviving middle age. Having walked through the door of age fifty, I DO know what the moon really thinks of you. “Says the Cab Driver of the Apocalypse” just came out, appropriately enough, in the new Moon City Review, handed off to me at the AWP last weekend. Thanks to the editors from granting me right-of-way.

Warm thanks, too, to Patsy Asuncion, who has been organizing Women’s History Month events at The Bridge in Charlottesville. I’ll be reading there with Patsy and Sara Robinson a week from today, at 10:30 am on Sunday 3/25 (and there’s lots of other great stuff, too, including a Le Guin marathon reading). There will be mimosas and other refreshments, and I’d be happy to sign a copy of Propagation for you. Until then, back to business, because middle-aged women have serious zombie-fighting to get on with.

Heard at AWP 2018

The meaning of life: I don’t know and I don’t care. Bells don’t ask questions…When you’re old you have fewer questions about the nitty-gritty of poems. There are bigger fish to fry. Dying fish.               -Mary Ruefle in “Hell’s Bells,” a talk on tone

You cannot trust the sea.           -Ishion Hutchinson, plenary reading

On the days after the election, I had nothing to say, nothing to write.    -Virgil Suárez, plenary reading

Was was what we were.         -Diane Seuss, panel on persona poetry

African-American writers and other writers of the African diaspora–we don’t feel the sovereignty to write in the personal I, much of the time.   –Vievee Francis, panel on persona poetry

As soon as I put the I on the page I am abstracting myself. I can never be on the page…even the notion we can pin down a dialect seems kind of offensive to me.                   -Gregory Pardlo, panel on persona poetry

Forgive me, but you have such amazingly thick hair! Sorry, that was inappropriate.            -very nice editor (with thinning hair) to me, in the bookfair, when I bent down to pull out a business card

Above are some high points from a conference filled with literary geniuses. I can also give you the most awesome Q&A reply ever, useful for all kinds of occasions, courtesy of Mary Ruefle: “That is such a beautiful question I won’t spoil it with an answer.” You’re welcome.

There were low points, too, involving aching feet and feeling cosmically inconsequential, despite my super-elite board-member chartreuse lanyard (preserved in the picture below, since next year I’ll wear civilian colors again). I always find AWP exhausting but paradoxically nourishing, too, both because of literary riches and the presence of friends I rarely see. I was moved especially this year by how many women, old friends and strangers, touched my arm and said kind words, in low voices, about my Claudia Emerson essay, “Women Stay Put.” Sometimes you ring a bell and the sound seems to vanish; other times it resonates back to you. I’m so grateful when the tone returns.

I’ll be working to keep the good vibrations going as I fly back to Virginia today. To echo Diane Seuss and Ann E. Michael: is is what I’ll endeavor to be.

 

 

Germinant

My daughter spent the weekend in Budapest, an eight-hour bus ride from Prague, where she’s studying abroad. My son spent the weekend at the state chess tournament, at which he played well and scored a couple of upset wins against higher-ranked competitors. I spent the weekend honing a PowerPoint concerning faculty survey results for the program directors’ plenary at the AWP, which is not my cup of tea, although many cups of tea were consumed in the process. My workload has definitely been tilted too far towards service lately. On the bright side, even as I struggle to meet all those commitments, poems are spraying out of me wildly like water from a damaged spigot. It’s a spring thing–the light comes back and so does the poetry.

I enjoyed editing the “Process” column for Modernism/ modernity, but I’m grateful to be handing that patch of earth to another gardener now. For my last post, I interviewed one of the contemporary poetry scholars I most admire, Jahan Ramazani. “Isn’t that one of the glories of rich, complex, multidimensional poems,” he writes, speaking my language, “that they keep emitting light long after much else in their time has gone dark?” I hereby raise my teacup to scholars and critics everywhere doing good work in service of rich, complex, multidimensional poems. May it keep mulching new poems and reinvigorated conversations.

The other publications poking out of wintry soil this week were two poems in the new issue of Barrow StreetThe shorter one, “Recumbent Lee,” is pictured above, photographed in Payne Hall at W&L. Lee Chapel rises in the background, a building that’s basically a shrine to Lee; Valentine’s statue is housed centrally within it, and the general himself is buried in the crypt. My poem was written and accepted well before the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville last summer, but in a way, it’s overdue. I have a lot of problems with Valentine’s well-rendered work of art. The graceful way it whites out cruelty–that’s not what I wish to teach and honor.

A waxing gibbous moon rising over the rear of Payne Hall, however, after a wonderful lecture by Robert Macfarlane about language and the more-than-human world–that’s a brightness I’d amplify. It’s funny how I can feel so stressed about everything happening outside my classrooms but pretty good about what’s happening within them. But as I prep pantoums, ghazals, blues, and documentary poetry for tomorrow, I do feel nourished by the work of helping their writing and thinking grow. It’s decent ground to stand on when the wind is high.