The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

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How intense it was this week to be alternately following and averting my eyes from the Senate hearings as I taught Sylvia Plath to seventeen stingingly sharp students–trying to open up space to talk about anger, violence, gender, and race in powerful but often disturbing poems. Plath’s handling of metaphors related to the Holocaust, slavery, and Civil Rights always seemed problematic to me–it was a big topic in the early nineties, when I attended grad school–but I am now wondering how defensible it is even to keep the poem “Ariel” in particular on an undergraduate syllabus. While Plath’s use of terrible slurs wears worse and worse over the years, however, her bee poems–explorations of rage and other dark drives, sometimes encoded in racial metaphors–also feel more and more fundamental. Plus last year’s news about her abusive marriage , especially as captured in Emily Van Duyne’s “Why are we so unwilling to take Plath at her word?”, is crucial right now. We need to do a way better job at respecting survivors and understanding the costs they suffer.

I assign Plath in part to discuss the complex layering of selves even in apparently confessional work, and how she constructs identity as a performance. I believe Christine Blasey Ford utterly, but I also found myself thinking hard about what it meant for Dr. Ford to perform trauma, especially on a such a public stage. She was wise to play it so calmly, because many people, as she must well know, detest and fear angry women. In contrast, as others have pointed out, a woman candidate for the Supreme Court could never have ranted the way Brett Kavanaugh did, although among some constituencies, his emotional performance probably went over well. And of course their projected selves are inflected by race and class stereotypes, too, as were those of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas decades ago. My class is about sincerity and authenticity in mid-century poetry, during the Civil Rights movement and women’s lib and increasingly open discussions of sexuality, mental illness, and many other vividly embodied identities and experiences–and what a lesson this week was.

It was a lesson, however, I did not particularly need. I’m overloaded with work, struggling to tick down the lists and not get too anxious about tasks I cannot yet get to, and harsh reminders of assaults I suffered–and guilt about men I did not report–brought a level of stress into the equation that I’m just barely able to manage. I suspect I’d be a terrible beekeeper, unable enough to suppress whatever pheromones anxiety gives off, although I seem to keep myself together well enough that most humans don’t smell my fear.

“They have got rid of the men, // The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors,” Plath writes about the bees in “Wintering.” I keep wondering what the world would be like if every unremorseful assaulter–every person who has abused privilege in such a serious way without admitting and trying for atone for that abuse–were swept out of power, so that better people could rise up into those positions of money and prestige. It would be nice to find out, one day. But I can’t say I’m tasting the spring, just yet.

Obliterature

“Obliterature draws attention to the gendered formation of literary value while also denoting the casual, minor, repurposed, and ephemeral writing expelled from literary criticism’s traditional purview. Such writing might include letters to the editor, junk mail, diary entries and their twenty-first-century digital descendants: blog entries, comments on a newspaper and magazine site, Instagram posts, LiveJournals, Snapchats, Tumblrs, or tweets. Obliterature, fittingly enough, is also popular parlance for a ‘letter or email written while drunk off your ass’…The concept, as we develop it in this article, explains the literary phenomenon of not being fully in control of one’s words and the labor phenomenon of not being fully in control of one’s work.”

– from “Obliterature: Towards an Amateur Criticism” by Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde in the September 2018 Modernism/ modernity, a special issue on “weak theory”

None of us knows if our writing careers will be of much interest to literary critics in the future–or whether there will continue to be literary critics, or a future–but I have to add a few more categories of ephemeral writing that consume a LOT of my time these days: comments on student poems, response papers, quizzes, and essays; assignment sheets; teaching notes; course descriptions; recommendation letters; private editorial comments on Submittable; and the smartphone text-i-verse with its debris of emoticons. I’ve also been a lead drafter on a surprising number of university-related guidelines and reports, having been here for 24 years and generally preferring to do the writing portion of committee work over other tasks.

So I like this term “obliterature” a lot, although it’s from an article I’ve so far only read a portion of, because I’m tight on time but got snagged by the title as I was sorting mail. I recognize obliterature as an object of fascination for me as a critic–all the scraps and commonplace books kept by Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Anne Spencer, and many other women as they tried to find time for poetry amid domestic chores, tough jobs, and political urgencies. I also recognize it, with more chagrin, as denoting a body of seemingly-necessary writing I constantly perform, obliterating time for other kinds of writing I am constantly saying I should prioritize.

Trying to keep my head above water as a teacher, I’m writing very little for any current or future public these days, except for this blog. But I have been stricter with myself than usual about finishing revisions on long mss and making sure they’re under submission–one of which is a book of criticism mixed with personal narrative, which editors keep telling me they like but can’t publish or persuade their boards to take on. Writing personally is just too feminine, maybe. To quote from later in the same essay: “To read like a girl, or throw like a girl, or run like a girl, is to do it the wrong way.”

I love the feminist call from Micir and Vadde for passionate amateurism, for questioning the grounds of expertise and its forums, but I also observe how professionally the call is constructed, in a top-notch scholarly journal, with 6+ pages of fine-print endnotes. In other words, their petition arrived on my desk via the very mechanisms they put under critique. I just hope they and I are right that there’s a readership for such writing in its long, less familiar, less prestigious, and perhaps girlier forms–and that publishers become more willing to take it on.

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A few of the many cards collected among Anne Spencer’s papers

Poetry and fake news

I don’t think a poem can be true. I also recognize that when a writer works through something risky and important to her in a poem–when the stakes feel personal and significant, and language is used craftily to convey that cost–the end result is a more powerful poem.

That paradox is at the heart of a seminar I’m teaching now on mid-century U.S. poetry (starting with Olsen and Ginsberg and going up to spoken word in the 80s). I’m pressed for time in this busy September, but I thought I’d put down a few ideas here with the hope of coming back to them, as the students in my class will, reading a variety of poets and critics from those decades.

In conjunction with Ginsberg’s immensely powerful, high-stakes early poems, we just read the 1966 essay “Sincerity and Poetry,” in which Donald Davie tries, with obvious chagrin, to come to terms with a big turn in poetic priorities, apparently away from skill and towards something like authenticity, truth, or prophecy.  “Among the hoary fallacies which the new confessional poetry has brought to life among us,” he argues with an audible wince, “is the notion that we know sincerity by its dishevelment: that to be elegant is to be insincere.” He concedes that Beat and Confessional poetry challenge the very grounds of New Criticism, then the dominant approach in literature classrooms and literary scholarship; ambiguity, irony, and self-enclosed symmetry can no longer be the terms of value. He suggests, however–because we can’t simply ask a poet “hey, did you mean it?” and take his word for it–that we must find sincerity somehow within the poem and measure it by the artist’s control: “We must learn, I daresay, to give more weight to other features, notably to the tone in which the speaker addresses us, and to the fall and pause and run of spoken American or spoken English as the poet plays it off against his stanza-breaks and line-division. In short a poet can control his poem in many more ways, or his control of it manifests in more ways, than until lately we were aware of. Nevertheless we were right all along to think a poem is valuable according as the poet has control over it; now we must learn to call that control ‘sincerity.'”

My students found Ginsberg’s art sincere by Davie’s terms (Ginsberg’s portrays an out-of-control world in his lines, but does so with exquisite skill) but also despite Davie’s terms, because control isn’t exactly the feature that manifests a real person behind “Howl” or “Sunflower Sutra” or “Mugging.” In a strong poem read with attention, there’s a sense of presence exceeding the words–a secondary experience that comes from someone once representing some triggering experience in a highly artificial medium.

So is all news, all poetry, fake to some degree? Sure. It’s not the experience it represents, but a selected, shaped version of it. Is what’s important, then, the reporter-poet’s intent to get things right, as far as a brief snippet of language allows, vs. an intent to deceive? Hmm. Poet-Thing’s going to make more tea and keep thinking about it.

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On first looking into Shenandoah’s submissions

Turns out there’s some good news about rejection I never really grasped before. I’m reading poetry for Shenandoah in earnest now and realizing rejected poems DO reach sympathetic readers, at least if you send them to well-edited magazines: the editors and staff readers themselves.

I am moved, entertained, impressed, and intrigued by far more work than Shenandoah can accept. I’m sure some journal readers are burnt-out or ego-tripping, but I’m inclined to guess magazine editors are often a good audience–smart about the field and in love with the art. You’d think I would know this by now. I’ve definitely felt that connection with certain editors who reject my work with personal notes like “admired these” or “came close.” But being on the other side makes it more vivid, and it cheers me.

My earlier forays into editing were less heartening. When I was newer at W&L–hired as a scholar, but writing poetry always–I once picked up a batch of poems to screen for Shenandoah‘s previous editor, R. T. Smith. Everything was paper then, and I remember sifting submissions at home by lamplight. It was clear that certain cliche-ridden lines centered on the page in flowery purple ink were not contenders, but much of the work was good. As an aspiring poet, this horrified me–how could I ever shine in these realms of gold? I suspect my competitive reaction made me a bad reader, but I was also, in those days, much less sure of my own taste and likely to be overly-influenced by the biases of other poets and critics (not unlike other young screeners at some journals now, maybe). Also a problem: I was solidly well-read in early-to-mid-20th century verse, but my knowledge of contemporary verse was spotty. At any rate, Rod never asked me to read general submissions for him again, and I was busy enough never to seek another chance.

Later, working with a couple of undergraduate interns, I edited a portfolio of poems from New Zealand for Shenandoah. That was more fun, but I also learned hard lessons. First: personal feedback in rejection letters is often returned by expletives and other hostilities, and is rarely worth it. Second: I didn’t have a strong enough network to solicit a seriously diverse portfolio, especially since Rod suggested not paying contributors, given the difficulties of international paperwork without a managing editor (I wish I’d pushed back on that point).

What’s changed: I’ve been reading new poetry heavily for years now, so while nobody knows all the names and scenes within even just U.S. verse, I know a lot more. I’ve also become a better poet myself and a better creative writing teacher, more adept at literary diagnosis.

Plus, the new editor, Beth Staples, is fabulous, and she’s framed the gig in a way I love. She reads everything that comes in and assigns many of the poems to me via Submittable. I vote yes-no-maybe on each batch with a brief explanation, and she makes the final call. We agree most of the time but not always, which strikes me as a great thing–two thoughtful people willing to challenge each other’s reactions probably make better choices.

I had feared that reading so much poetry as a teacher might drain my potential well of editorial energy, but even though I will run out of hours when the term intensifies (I’m on the verge!), I find the tasks of responding to student writers and evaluating a submission pile quite different. Basically, the Shenandoah part of the job involves delivering educated gut reactions to Beth bluntly–I am far briefer and more straightforward than I would be with an undergraduate because I’m describing a judgment rather than cultivating promise (for the most part). I’ll note that a poem moved me but the lineation doesn’t make sense, or I was dazzled by the voice but there’s one clunky clause that bothers my ear. Beth has a lot of experience about the tipping points: when might slight changes be acceptable to an author if you frame the response the right way? When is it too much to ask, too interfering?

For anyone who submitted poems to her several weeks back and hasn’t received a response yet: you might be in our growing “maybe” pile, which means at least one of us really liked your submission and we need to come back to it and make some hard calls. We are receiving a high volume of poetry subs and they’re impressive–it’s a much more diverse stack than I expected, too, both in terms of aesthetics and in the identities and experiences of the submitters. This is AWESOME but it does make poetry an especially competitive genre at Shenandoah. 

For anyone who has received a rejection: I am sorry, and please don’t send me hate mail for saying so. Many submissions are powerful without quite making it into the must-have pile; some nag at my memory already and make me wish I had a spare hour to talk with the writer. Bringing urgent material together with strong craft is HARD. Yes, there are batches by people who clearly don’t read contemporary writing, as well as sexist tripe and other obnoxiousness. But most authors are working hard and are worthy of a reader’s respect.

Also know that I look forward to reading submissions and wish I had more time to spend with them, even after long, tiring September work-days. Hang in there, keep ruthlessly revising your poems until the power beams out of them, and do hit send, and send, and send.

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Poe with books I really want to read, but subs are calling me…

Flagging

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In the screenshot above, a racist organization celebrates my university president. It’s been quite a week.

Backstory: in August 2017, as neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville, W&L’s then-new president set up a Commission on Institutional History and Community to study how we teach and represent our history here. “Here” is Washington and Lee, a highly selective liberal arts college with a law school attached, named after one of our early benefactors, George Washington, and another university president, Robert E. Lee, who held that role for five years after the end of the Civil War. The violence and hate displayed in Charlottesville is relevant to W&L not only because of proximity, but because our campus and small town  have been strongly shaped by white supremacy. Three buildings on campus are named for Lee–who for 150 years has been the focus of Lost Cause nostalgia–as well as a city street, a nearby highway, a church (until very recently), and lord knows how many other institutions I’m repressing memory of. The Confederate general is buried on campus and his right-hand man, Stonewall Jackson, is buried in town. Confederate reenactors regularly march down Main St. and pool in sullen groups at intersections, protesting local resistance to displaying Confederate battle flags on city flagpoles. The KKK periodically leaflets the neighborhood, soliciting membership. Ground zero for much of this is our college chapel–Lee Chapel, of course–which is full of Lost Cause memorabilia and sits atop the Lee family crypt. If you think these conjunctions are terrifying, eye-rollingly stupid, offensive, pernicious, a tempting target for more neo-Nazi rallies: yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

In May 2018, the Commission issued a long report recommending many changes, some of which involve altering the role of the chapel in university life; renaming buildings and changing the balance of what’s memorialized; and correcting myths to present a far more complex picture of Lee. After 24 years of being upset by the way W&L presents Lee, I appreciated much of the straight talk in the report, although I know plenty of people who didn’t think it went far enough. The Commission included stakeholders from many generations, backgrounds, and political persuasions, so its consensus surprised me and gave me a little bit of wary hope.

Well, the president just issued a response that started the flaggers cheering (and presumably plenty of deep-pocketed conservative older alums, too). Basically, he was very specific about keeping intact the tradition of whitewashing Lee, and very vague about how other report recommendations might one day, possibly, very quietly be partially adopted. I’m not surprised, but like all the other professors I’ve been talking to, I’m sad and disappointed. What a waste of momentum towards change. What a way, too, to disrespect an already demoralized teaching community. I feel particularly bad for colleagues and students who put hundreds of hours of work into the commission, many of which involved fielding bile from enraged right-wingers, who are invariably louder than anyone with a moderate or left-of-center perspective.

Am I angry? Not really; too tired. I am mad at myself for signing up to moderate diversity discussions during first-year orientation, which will add up to 10-12 hours of unpaid labor, some of them over this “holiday” weekend. Why volunteer to facilitate those conversations when the larger organization won’t support the values behind them? I am worried about the students, though–the first-years moving in this morning as well as my returning students and advisees. I want everyone to feel welcomed, supported, and able to be full participants in the intellectual and artistic community we try to foster. I know many students who felt disenfranchised and demoralized last year; I’m afraid the president’s letter just made things much worse. What DOES seem utterly worthwhile, and what I’ll try to keep my focus on, is continuing to give students what help I can in my classrooms and office hours. Aside from the extra dose of complicity in white supremacy (!!!), I like teaching here a great deal: small classes, great resources, talented students, talented colleagues. It’s not the worst corner a poet can get backed into.

Plus, in meetings yesterday, I saw a revolutionary glimmer in some colleagues’ eyes. Roanoke College professor and general education expert Paul Hanstedt was leading an outstanding workshop on general education and I think the hard-core university citizens in the room were realizing: maybe donors will win all the debates about names, statues, and institutional rhetoric. But the FACULTY is in charge of the curriculum. We can make CHANGES that COUNT.

In the meantime, I loaded some extra protest poetry into fall syllabi. More on poetry teaching soon, and on reading poetry for Shenandoah, which, it turns out, I LOVE–it’s so much fun to read new work pouring in. W&L’s distinguished literary magazine, currently being redesigned by a new Editor in Chief, Beth Staples, is open for submissions now, all genres, no cost to submit, and if you’re accepted, it pays actual money! We’ll do good work with W&L’s resources yet.

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