Amazing Poet-Thing #1 (2018, first series)

thing alone

Thing-Poet admits to moments of feeling like a geographically-isolated pariah wearing outdated costumes ill-fitted to her post-change, orange, lumpy physique.

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The cool poet-parties occur at League Headquarters far away, and she is not invited. So it was fun, this week, to give a talk and a reading at the first residency for the brand-new Randolph MFA, which was full of superheroes.

thing fly2

That’s in Lynchburg, Virginia, so she didn’t even have to fly. There was an awful lot of car-time, though, for Poet-Thing and Comics-Man, between zipping over the mountain to the residency, picking up their son in Ohio, and driving two cars to D.C. so they could help their daughter move out of summer housing and into a dog-sitting gig (she’ll be home, too, before too long, which is wonderful, although it also means that summer is winding down, which is less wonderful).

thing read

So during this last quiet week, Poet-Thing hopes to do lots more reading and writing and playful working–some of it involving poetry comics. Quiet-work play, after all, is one thing rural Virginia is good for.

Poetry and suspense: more twists

I’m almost always suffering some dire form of suspense and trying to ignore it. Long publishing cycles are a large part of that–I have many mss out there and the odds of success don’t favor me. Often I can receive a rejection with a philosophical shrug, or go for weeks without thinking about a particular submission. On a rational level, I know it’s not personal, and it’s not helpful or healthy to get revved up over such extended, uncertain processes. But I am not rational every hour of every day. Ahem.

Because I spend so much effort trying to calm the hell down, it’s funny to realize I like suspense. In all forms of writing, it helps keep readers on the line. In novels and Netflix, I crave a zippy plot–strong characters in some condition of risk, to which events and feelings keep happening, unpredictably. In poems, I love that gasp-inducing opener that keeps you suspended, sometimes with a plot question (what’s going to happen?) and sometimes with another kind of problem, an image that begs unraveling or a pattern that needs resolution.

I started writing about poetry and suspense four years ago, for a book ms I spent a few years finishing and revising and am still in suspense about. I just reworked that material for a craft talk I’m giving Tuesday for the brand-new Randolph MFA in Creative Writing, at which I’ll be a visiting professor (seriously, click on that link and check out their regular faculty–Gary Dop is doing an amazing job). I hope to revise it again after this week’s adventures and send it out as an essay. In the process, I dug up a related blog from 2014, and it’s fascinating to see what I was in suspense about then: a ms, of course (it became Radioland), and a bad situation at work (which got worse before it got better, but is vastly improved now).

The latter involved a sickening rather than interesting variety of suspense, but a little suspense in life, as in art, can be good. I’m in many ways in a lucky situation, but I don’t want my life to be exactly the same or completely predictable for the next twenty years.  That’s partly why I drafted a novel a couple of years ago, to try something new and see where it took me. I revised it heavily this spring–not for the first time!–and it’s now with a second reader at a small press I greatly admire. I’m in suspense about it, but the reader is expecting twins soon, so she’s in rather more suspense than I am. I need to cool my jets. It’s not easy.

In the meantime, for partial closure, I’ll end where this week began–a long weekend with my spouse in Portland, Maine, for an early celebration of our 25th anniversary (on the actual date, we’ll be visiting colleges with our son, a rising senior in high school). That city deserves its foodie rep–we ate REALLY well, drank great beer, and walked 5-6 miles every day to balance it out. There’s a picture below from the room where Longfellow wrote “The Rainy Day,” on a rainy day, although otherwise the weather was beautiful. I particularly liked taking the ferry to Peaks Island and then biking around the perimeter. On one rocky beach, as the tide rose, we watched a mama duck lead eight ducklings up boulders they could barely scale. All eight eventually reached safety, but it was a nail-biter. We were mostly successful in ducking suspense of other kinds for the duration of the trip, but watching the repercussions from that insane Helsinki summit did ratchet up our nerves. Here’s hoping I revisit this blog in another few years, after some blue elections and writing success, and marvel how it all turned out.

Poetry, politics, and friendship

In the early nineties, I was lucky enough to hear Toni Morrison introduce a reading by Maxine Hong Kingston. Both of them had recently lost manuscripts and many other precious belongings in house fires, and Kingston read a riveting piece about driving toward her neighborhood that day and realizing her home was ablaze. It became part of The Fifth Book of Peace; the burned manuscript was The Fourth Book of Peace, Kingston’s sequel to three legendary books also destroyed by fire.

It was an astonishing evening, but what recurs to me frequently is Morrison’s introduction, in which she described spending a lot of time on the phone with Kingston. “I only wanted to talk to people whose houses had burned down,” Morrison said.

I’ve been in a version of that space lately, avoiding people with dissimilar views about local and international politics. I know, I know, that’s a bad long-term plan. People have to be able to talk across ideological gaps, blah, blah. Being a teacher means centering your working life around that laudable proposition, but when the news is full of cruel parent-child separations and a crooked president trying to do as much damage to democracy as possible; your neighbors are writing bone-headed letters to the paper; and the local KKK capitalizes on it all by leafleting the town–well, you only want to talk with people whose houses have burned down. I am beyond grateful to a smart and feisty group of local friends who will bring wine to my kitchen and hang out to chat about hate mail, colonoscopies, how Sarah Huckabee Sanders is rather petite in person, and publishing poems about Hillary Clinton’s vagina (they say it needs to be a sequence–a “vagenre”–but we’ll see if I, ahem, have it in me). (And thanks, Rise Up Review! Smart and feisty writers, editors, and publishers who do their good work at a distance from small southern towns are also doing a lot for people’s morale.)

So it’s interesting that friendship conditioned by hateful politics turns out to be central to the writing and research I’m doing. This week I visited Virginia State University to read the papers of Amaza Lee Meredith, an African American artist, architect, and teacher who was a sometime neighbor and longtime friend to the poet Anne Spencer. I leafed through scrapbooks Meredith kept full of letters from students, memorabilia about Spencer, and poems she either copied out or clipped from magazines. She also preserved clippings about a few favorite politicians and a receipt from her $5 donation to Adlai Stevenson’s campaign. Meredith and Spencer were friends during the Jim Crow era and they clearly talked urgently and often about educational inequality and school segregation. I’m not comparing my experiences to theirs–Spencer and Meredith and their families were in physical danger, as well as being subject to daily degradations, because they were black in mid-twentieth-century Virginia–but I think negotiating this political moment is tuning my awareness to aspects of Spencer’s situation.

What sustained Spencer when social injustice and literary rejection demoralized her? Her garden. Reading and writing. And friends like Amaza Lee Meredith, to whom she signed “I love you,” late in life, in a shaky hand.

 

Prove or disprove and salvage if possible

Both your children will be away, people said, thus you will have a productive summer. In honor of my younger child, who is studying number theory for six weeks straight, let’s do the math. On the plus side:

  1. Cooking, cleaning, shopping, and laundry are far easier and cheaper. (I cannot BELIEVE how much less money we are spending on food.)
  2. No one is inconvenienced by my favorite work schedule.
  3. Knowing my kids are happily having successful adventures eases my mind. My daughter communicates constantly so we knew right off she was thrilled with her internship; my son is cagey but when we visited we finally felt assured he was okay.
  4. I can’t think of any other pluses. Until the kids are twelve or so, they need ferrying to part-day camps as well as close attention much of the time. My youngest is 17 and has a driver’s license. He hasn’t been needy, except in that way teens can need you in unpredictable spikes amid long intervals of independence, for ages. If I have more time in his absence, it’s minimal.

Negatives:

  1. Sad, sad, sad. Husband is sad. Cats are sad. Well, one cat is.*
  2. The U.S. government.
  3. My screwed-up town.
  4. Existential crisis brought on by the 3 problems above.

It’s a wash. I’m getting a perfectly respectable amount of work done for an empty-nest academic in the summer, but so far, no holy miracle of ramped-up sentence success. I spent June enacting deep revisions to my novel manuscript, responding to very good advice I received from a small press, and we’ll see where that goes. I enjoyed concentrating on it, at any rate, and it’s definitely a way better book now. And I’m a better writer for having undertaken the challenge.

I’ve also been reading in all genres, working on submissions, and writing a few poems, although I find tuning my brain to fiction-writing makes poetry harder. I’m now revising a couple of essays and finishing research for a third–I’m visiting an archive near Richmond on Tuesday, so Chris and I will stay overnight and share a fancy dinner, maybe visit a museum. I really don’t know yet how much I’ll finish by the time September hits in all its frantic glory. I’m trying not to worry too much about that, either, although being zen about the passage of summers and outcome of my labors–well, it hasn’t been my specialty. Working on it.

*The other cat, pictured below, is wondering if it’s snack time yet. Honey, aren’t we all? Also: good friends for whom I am very grateful; a number theory problem set; taking the mathematician out for dinner; and a new poem in Grub Street, with cool art and a handwritten edit.

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