Scary days, undignified cats

I had hoped the scariest thing about this week would be giving a poetry reading to a bunch of highschoolers–angry captives under a bell jar fogged by seething hormones. Instead, the students and I shared ghost stories and the whole thing was reasonably fun, while politics are frightening me to death. The president is egging on the very worst and most unstable people among us, rallying them around bigotry and fear. One local manifestation of his efforts is yet another KKK leafletting, this time on campus in broad daylight.

There’s hope that midterm election results will put the brakes on the most abusive vitriol, the most damaging corruption, but I feel sick rather than optimistic. Given Russian interference, voter suppression, and hackable voting technology, I’m not confident I live in a democracy.

A powerhouse poet and my friend, Jeannine Hall Gailey, has been blogging and posting about her own discouragement and trying to restore herself by focusing on literature she loves. Thinking of her, and also about the Civil-Rights-inspired poetry my students are currently reading, I asked the members of an undergraduate seminar why they were studying English and creative writing, why that seemed worthwhile to them when there’s so much anti-humanities rhetoric swirling around. What can poetry do? Why read, write, and study it?

They gave practical answers about learning to write and wry answers about being too unhappy to thrive without English class in their daily lives. They also talked about how reading certain books had educated them, extended their empathy, and set them intellectually afire. They referenced poems and prose that had reassured them they were not alone and not crazy, although the world has gone mad and it can be hard to find your people. Yes to all of those reasons. I definitely treasure the company, these days, of the poets and bloggers, the English majors and Creative Writing minors, and everyone else who loves literary art enough to get a little obsessive about it. So many Americans seem angry at the wrong people or, what’s even more bewildering to me, too apathetic to take even the smallest of stands against this administration’s destructiveness: to vote.

The poets, though–they’re trying to change the world. I see them writing their way out of insanity in the books, the magazines, and in the submission pile. I’m doing it, too, even as I remain skeptical that poems (or blog posts) are effective places to fight political battles. Certainly they’re not the ONLY place we should be fighting. But they can constitute zones of kindness and good company, alternate worlds of clearer thinking and human connection and occasionally something more magical than that–something like sustenance or transformation. Like Jeannine and like my students, I continue to feel relief and wonder when I visit them.

I am also an appreciator of feline powers of consolation, so here are a few pictures of my black cats being less than Halloweenish. Vote. Read. Write. Stroke somebody’s fur. Be well.

 

Still life with two relaxed superheroes and a sparkle pen

seuss

Sometimes, if I wake up extra-early, I’ll make a pot of tea and read one of the many bound-to-be-good poetry books stacked on the cyborg (what we call the sideboard, for obscure reasons). This morning I read Diane Seuss’ Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and GirlIt’s full of elegy and ekphrasis, a very rich book I can’t do justice to here. As far as analytic sharpness, I’m tapped out at the moment by teaching and student conferences; I’m just reading receptively, to fill the well. But I’m moved by her poems mourning a father lost in childhood, friends lost to AIDS, and her own lost girl-self. I’m also processing a brilliant reading and visit from Rebecca Makkai, whose much-acclaimed novel The Great Believers concerns the arrival of HIV to Chicago’s Boystown in the eighties. Rebecca was my student here in the nineties; I remember her fierce intelligence well, how she blew in like a wind ready to strip away stupid traditions, as the best of my students do now. But that version of myself feels long gone. All these texts and memories mirror each other fractionally, so my head feels busy with bright shards.

I’m also especially taken by Seuss’s self-portrait series, perhaps because one of my classes is deep in discussion about confessionalism. Here’s one: “Self-Portrait with Sylvia Plath’s Braid.” But I like “Self-Portrait with Levitation” even better: “Embodiment has never been my strong suit.” Here’s to learning to float again, one of these days.

award

October list, with bright spots

  1. Every U.S.-residing woman I’m in conversation with, of every generation, remains upset about Kavanaugh’s confirmation. For me it’s like trying to do my best work as some disembodied voice mutters in my ear, Even when we believe you, we consider the “assaults” you have suffered laughable. This is worth remembering about people as we walk through the world, how some are raining on the inside.
  2. The day I rotated off the AWP Board of Trustees, the scale read two pounds lighter. You think that’s related to salt consumption, and you’re entitled to that opinion.
  3. Grounded by Hurricane Michael, I missed my last board meeting in San Antonio. I’m sad to have missed catching up with the AWP staff and other board members, who are really the most wonderful people. But I wrote a poem (about Kavanaugh). Rested. Caught up on some work. As soon as I gave up trying to rebook flights, the sun came out.
  4. One of the papers I graded argued that while it was offensive for Sylvia Plath to use Holocaust metaphors in the persona poem “Daddy,” she may have appropriated that collective persecution because she knew that her own story, as a survivor of domestic abuse, would not have been believed. It was such a measured essay, not excusing anything, yet tending towards empathy in a way I found moving. People have to stop trash-talking millennials.
  5. The other essays were pretty damn good, too. Messy, sometimes, but we’re all messes, right?
  6. This is not a to-do list. This is a doing-it-because-I’m-not-yet-undone list.
  7. Have I mentioned that in response to those iffy blood sugar numbers I received in late summer, I’m doing a pretty good job drastically reducing carbs? I’m shocked I can manage it, given all the stresses of the season, but I actually feel better. There’s a certain undergrad I often see walking to school while munching a bagel, however, and every time I pass her, I groan.
  8. Mice are trying to repossess our house. When Poe catches one then absent-mindedly releases it, I’m reminded of the Senate and Brett Kavanaugh.
  9. The president is dog-whistling the KKK again, but my university gave us all some relief this week: a couple of buildings are being renamed (one after our first student of African descent, John Chavis, who was also the first African American in the COUNTRY to receive a college education–and that was here; the other after our first tenured woman professor, Pam Simpson, who was also my mentor); some important alterations are also happening in Lee Chapel.
  10. More sunshine: I received an acceptance this week from The Common, and two other magazines I admire gave me “but send more” rejections. I now understand how very, very kind that is. My thanks go out, too, to Rise Up Review, which featured my sonnet “Inappropriate” last week.
  11. This morning I read Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin and mumbled “holy shit” on every other page. It’s a forever-book. Hayes may be, as he claims in those pages, a Time Lord.
  12. I believe you and will keep on believing you. I’m convinced that matters. I just wish the weather weren’t taking so long to change.
fem lemon blam
Still life with oblivious cat and lemon balm

 

She cannae take any more, cap’n

Trying to teach Robert Hayden on Friday, I had such a mother of a hot flash that my glasses fogged up. I’m not sure my students even noticed. We were discussing Hayden’s complicated elegy for Malcolm X, a small star releasing its own fire, and the seminar is full of canny astronomers with their own strong opinions and expertise. On the whole, it felt like a good space in which to vent the engines–for them, I hope, as well as for me.

I probably won’t blow–my inner Scotty has always been an alarmist–but the past few weeks have certainly been a test. I feel terrible, but not surprised, that after his public temper tantrum of privilege challenged, Kavanaugh is about to join the nation’s highest court. I feel terrible, but not surprised, at how some of my students feel unheard and disrespected on my own campus, which continues to be roiled by arguments over its racist history. And I feel sick about irreparable harms to immigrant children, voting rights, and the more-than-human world that sustains us despite our poisonings. The damage feels so massive–and so gleefully perpetrated–that it’s hard to know where to stand while voicing your own small resistance.

Literature sustains me more than anything else–reading it, teaching it, editing it. Less so writing it, in October, but I’ll get back to drafting someday, and in the meantime I’m trying to keep serving the writing by handling proofs and edits of articles, interviews, and poems in a timely way, plus keeping work under submission. My inner Mr. Spock, that is, keeps the priorities rational and the ship on course, knowing I’m precariously low on fuel. AWP labors dominate this weekend, and I’ll be attending my last AWP board meeting as a trustee next weekend (San Antonio), although I’m on the search committee for a new executive director and that work will continue for months yet. My work for the AWP has felt useful and important, but I’m ready to turn to other modes of literary service. Beth Staples has now appointed me Poetry Editor of Shenandoah, which honestly is a role I don’t feel quite deserving of yet, and hence I’ve been shy about announcing–but I’m working hard and learning a ton from her and also from the great teacher that is the submissions pile, so full speed ahead, I guess, on this little enterprise through which maybe I can help do some good.

I’ll probably skip next week’s blog post–lots of grading to do on the plane–but I’ll leave you with a Hayden poem my students loved, even though including it here means screwing up its spacing (see the link for a broadside version). Some took it as a meditation on self-care for activists. Also, here’s “American Incognitum,” kindly featured by Cold Mountain Review in its special issue on extinction. And last comes another poem of mine, one with an angrier or more desperate tone, with thanks to the Cimarron Review. The italics aren’t quite right but the gist still comes through, I think. I wish it weren’t so timely. Here’s hoping you can find solace and/or solidarity in art you love, because we’re going to have to hold it together, crew.

Monet’s Waterlilies

Today as the news from Selma and Saigon
poisons the air like fallout,
I come again to see
the serene, great picture that I love.

Here space and time exist in light
the eye like the eye of faith believes.
The seen, the known
dissolve in iridescence, become
illusive flesh of light
that was not, was, forever is.

O light beheld as through refracting tears.
Here is the aura of that world
each of us has lost.
Here is the shadow of its joy.

cimarron