The ending’s beginning

manifest west

One cheerful thing about bare trees is the omen of changed rhythms: the hard work of fall is coming to fruition, with dream-time ahead. Two more weeks of teaching, then I hope I’ll finish making decisions about the terrific poems lingering in Shenandoah‘s inbox. Editor-in-Chief Beth Staples is frantically gearing up to relaunch that magazine in the next couple of weeks (the new logo, for instance, will debut by Twitter count-down any minute now, so watch @ShenandoahLit). Other editors are obviously sorting through their leaf-duff, because I had a rejection over Thanksgiving that made me sigh, and an acceptance that made me giddy (Beloit Poetry Journal!–a magazine I’ve long admired but never before cracked). I have poems in the handsome new issues of Cascadia Subduction Zone and Manifest Westand Sweet very kindly featured me on their blog on Thanksgiving Day. I also had the pleasure of slowing down for a few days in a Virginia Beach rental house with my immediate family, my mother, my brother, and one of my daughter’s housemates–as well visiting nearby egrets, sea turtles, sting-rays, and more. I love my students this term and have some cool lesson plans for the end-game, but lolling around with books and pie, as well as taking long walks on chilly beaches and in the Back Bay Wildlife Refuge, were very much needed.

One task I completed just before the trip was a residency application for 2020 (!), which gave me cause to reflect on where my poetry has been and where it’s going. I knew midlife had been a big topic in recent years, but I realized more clearly just how much of my poetry has also been about anger, more specifically women’s anger. Now I’m thinking about the consequences of anger, how it can be useful but also harmful, so my poems seem to concern healing and metamorphosis. My new magazine publications contain some of each–poems from a complete ms, in which I’m coming to terms with being middle-aged in the middle of nowhere in an especially messed-up part of a messed-up country, and from a newer ms, just taking shape, that I feel superstitious about describing yet (except in grant/ residency applications, in which you basically have to act like you know EXACTLY what you’ll be writing for the next two years). Peeks at two of the older poems, “Fifty-Fifty” and “White Noise Machine,” are below.

white noisefifty

November invocations

Write a blog post that is a spell, Oliver de la Paz said to my class, only he said poem, of course, because I had asked him to give us a poetry prompt. The first line and the last line must be the same, he added, as the afternoon light toasted up golden and he reclined in the chair, gazing up at the ceiling. It must contain the color teal, he went on, and the breath of a machine, and bibliomancy–have you done that yet?–pick up a nearby book and incorporate the first line or sentence on page 100 into your poem.

That was Tuesday. During Thursday’s workshop, the last before break, we debriefed on how wonderful his visit had been. But we don’t know how to write a spell, my students complained. I smiled mysteriously, knowing I had writing time coming and the prompt was really for me.

From page 100 of a childhood compendium of Brontë novels: “Threading this chaos,” Charlotte writes in Jane Eyre, “I at last reached the larder; there I took possession of a cold chicken, a roll of bread, some tarts, a plate or two and a knife and fork: with this booty I made a hasty retreat.” Sounds like Thanksgiving week, during which I am retreating with pies and poultry. Let there be solitude for any writer who needs it, and let it be filling.

Let the editors also have quiet brains, the better to appreciate your and my genius, and let them offer us contracts for our masterworks–lo, promptly and with praise! Let our laptops pant with the warmth of our email exchanges.

In the sage-scented steam, let every brain in these territories brim with new metaphors and opening lines of poems yet to be. Let lying politicians swoon under sonnet attacks and be unable to utter any words except in meditative strains of iambic pentameter. Let swords be beaten into sibilance, power-abusers shuffled off in pantoums, and every vacated position find a feminine rhyme.

Let me not care if this blog is a little cryptic, random, and mistily mystical, because I am very tired! Let me read and write for a single weekend, at least, and not get caught back up in the recommendation/class prep/grading/event-planning vortex too soon. Let gray waves of worry calm to blue-green clarity. Let me release hurt feelings at things colleagues and relatives say or don’t say, because, ye gods, my habits of vigilance and bruising are a pain in my unroyal behind.

I know something about spells and there are plenty of things I want to change, within and beyond the spaces of my person and to-do list. If you feel the same, go on.

Write a poem that is a spell.

fem gourd

 

Keeping the minutes on violence, with Lucille Clifton

For a workshop on Tuesday, Election Day, one of my undergraduates submitted a poem based on the day he hid in a closet during a middle school shooting. A different student said there had been a shooting in her school, too; another described an active shooter just last week in the high school her sister attended; a fourth said a friend had died in the Parkland massacre. Stunned, I responded with something like, “Are you telling me that four out of the fifteen of you have had a near miss with a school shooting?” Then two more raised their hands. Six.

Gun violence in the US is insanely, horrifyingly prevalent; every new mass shooting refreshes the horror and also increases the number of Americans directly affected. A good friend’s father’s retirement center was recently in lockdown because of an active shooter. And when I described the workshop discussion to a friend who had come over to watch the election returns, she said, “Oh, that happened to me, too,” describing hiding in a basement when a shooter attacked the university where she was earning her PhD. She always has a plan, now, for how to hide if another shooter comes through.

Nor is our remote small town any kind of a protective factor. We have offices in Washington and Lee’s historic colonnade, which is very much the heart of the embattled Confederacy for certain die-hard white nationalists, who are angry about the slightest possible changes to their sacred sites. Some of whom distributed KKK fliers on campus just a couple of weeks ago. Any place in the US is vulnerable to violence from well-armed disturbed people, but we have an extra source of risk without the security resources of larger universities.

In short, teachers now have dangerous jobs, students are always vulnerable to random violence, and nowhere is safe. So all together, now: let’s write pantoums! Seriously, teaching poetry during any of the crises we’ve been negotiating lately could seem frivolous, but I’ve been feeling the opposite. My poetry classes keep turning into spaces for analyzing and reflecting on disaster in ways that feel more emotionally useful than, say, reading the news.

words ofSome of that is chance resonance between syllabi and world events. Well, sort of chance. For a different course, my mid-20th-century US poetry seminar, we’re studying the usual characters–O’Hara, Brooks, Rich, and others–but I replaced a session I used to devote to Vietnam war protest poetry with several readings from an anthology I’ve really come to admire: Words of Protest, Words of Freedom, edited by Jeffrey Lamar Coleman. It’s been clear especially since Trump’s rise that we remain in the middle of Civil Rights battles that defined the country fifty years ago, or perhaps in a never-ending backlash against them, so I knew it was time to represent Civil Rights poetry more robustly on my syllabus. Coleman clearly did his research, because while the book contains many famous poems by our best US poets, it also features more obscure work culled from little magazines of the era, and the friction is riveting. I’ve been so impressed by how eagerly and intelligently my students are working through material that is even more relevant than I intended. The KKK leaflets were distributed here on a Friday, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting occurred the next morning, and for Monday, the assignment was to discuss poems about the KKK bombing of a Baptist church that killed four young girls in Birmingham in 1963. That synchronicity has definitely brought urgency to our discussions.

But is it synchronicity, now, or just the permanent daily texture of the world? Since I started drafting this post, there’s been another mass shooting. The election cheered me, but the administration immediately punched back with more ways of undermining the law. Poetry gives me access to other minds confronting related crises thoughtfully–it’s personally useful to read Giovanni, Hayden, Brooks, and many others as they work through anger and hope and grief–but it’s also providing small collections of us with a nonpartisan angle of discussion on the human toll of violence, the way it ripples out in space and time, and I’m grateful for that, too. It makes me feel warmly connected to other anxious human beings working through serious questions, and I hope it does the same for them.

Here’s a Lucille Clifton poem from the anthology, from a group of responses to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My students led a brilliant discussion about it: who is included in the “we” who held the “meeting” for which this poem offers a riff on the usually less-than-gripping literary genre of minutes? How are the “we” and the “you” related? What does it mean to be saved? Is the tone of the last few lines wry, disparaging, or sympathetic?clifton poem

We all had slightly different answers, and listening to Clifton reading the poem here (minute 7:14) can change your mind yet again. It’s centering to think about it when your heart needs rest after other kinds of activism. Who are we, anyway? Where are we headed?