Time out of joint at #AWP19

On a flight crowded with sleepy creative writing professors—the kind with teaching-intensive jobs who can’t escape to the AWP convention until late on Wednesday—I probe for existential dread the way you tongue a loose tooth. No, not sore, not yet.

This surprises me, given how my children’s current transitions have predisposed us all to panic. My daughter is applying for jobs plus finishing her senior honors thesis at Wesleyan; her adviser is moody and keeps missing meetings. My son will hear about the rest of his college applications while we’re at the conference, and he’s anxious, too. I’m not actually worried about either of them, not in the long run, but suspense is keen.

This is my first AWP since stepping off the Board of Trustees and even though I have a few residual duties, I feel giddy. Or is that jetlag? On Thursday morning before heading to the convention center, I pull out a small sewing kit I’d packed, intending to reattach a button on my favorite velvet jacket. The needle has rusted from disuse and I can’t thread it. I’m having issues with orderliness and containment.

“What’s with you?” Chris asks as I keep dropping stockings, medications, and granola bars then being unable to locate them again in a small hotel room. Of course, he forgets to buy the lunch he’d promised to bring while I signed chapbooks at the Terrain.org table. Between missed meals and time changes, I only remember I’m due for ibuprofen when my bum right knee and angry right elbow start aching. At the Shenandoah offsite event I barely reach in time, readings by contributors Alicia Mountain, Isaac Yuen, and Shamala Gallagher event move me intensely, but I can’t stay to thank them because I’m starving to death.

Listening to a terrific panel about poetic influence, borrowing, and appropriation, I learn the word “cryptamnesia”: references that are unconscious because the writer has forgotten the source, mistaking the memory for something original. I can’t remember which panelist used the term.

We run into a poet-friend late afternoon Thursday and head to a brewpub together for an hour. We follow signs through doors and down stairs–ow, ow, ow–to stainless steel vats and barstools located in a basement, and I drink a Black Walnut Celebration Lager, chewing two magic ginger lozenges from my friend’s pouch and talking about literary sexual harassers. She tells me she recently read an excellent review of Rita Dove’s Mother Love in the course of her teaching prep and only belatedly noticed my name at the bottom. I laugh, sort of remembering the review but not where I’d published it. The beer and the lozenges do not improve my mental acuity, but it’s lovely to see her and other friends. Over dinner, part of a powerful reading by deaf and disabled writers, and Colson Whitehead’s hilarious plenary, the buzz wears off, and at 10:30 I am terrifically grateful to be reunited with my hotel bed.

Chris notes how many people at the conference greet me happily and thank me for something. I cock my head when he remarks this, again surprised. I had assumed those were just social niceties, but maybe some AWP attendees actually are pleased to see me? There’s a performance of authenticity you do at events like this, but I genuinely like the people I greet warmly. Well, most of them.

“Voice is a textual rendering of the body,” Adrian Matejka says in another outstanding panel, “Beyond Voice”–I remember the title for this one!–then gives a writing prompt I intend to follow soon. I WILL start drafting poems again, somehow, starting April 1. He told us, “Write down three favorite phrases, five favorite works, and the three most important things outside yourself, then use them in a poem.” I have to leave this panel early because my son receives a rejection from a fancy college in the middle of it and I need to call and check his existential angst levels. He’s okay, but my husband wants to punch Yale in the face. (“Who the fuck wants to go to Yale anyway?” my poet-friend with the lozenges remarks. I love her so much.)

In the bookfair, I say thank you to a lot of journal editors and meet the editor of my new poetry press, Molly Sutton Kiefer, for the first time. Next year I’ll be trying to sell my new book from Tinderbox. This year I’m loopy with tiredness, but also from the relaxation of not having to hawk anything, ask for favors, or run an event. How uncanny. But the hours I’d scheduled there fly by, time spilling from my tote bags.

I finish Friday with a panel on Teaching Spec, another big sf event in too-small room (a mistake this conference keeps making). The rows are packed and many listeners sit on the floor. Kelly Link quotes Holly Black: the first page of any story asks a question and makes a promise, and the latter is often a promise about genre. Karen Joy Fowler counters that just because you make a promise to the reader doesn’t mean that you have to keep it. Also, that one of the things genre offers is rules to be broken. Also, that when she mixes genres in her teaching, the sf writers and poets bond quickly, while realist fiction writers mainly complain. Basically, I write down everything Fowler says in a little turquoise notebook Jeannine Hall Gailey gave me.

We’re supposed to have dinner with Jeannine and Glenn, but she’s exhausted between obligations. Chris and I go to the fancy tapas restaurant on our own and it is utterly amazing. I want to go to several simultaneous evening readings, but instead we’re asleep by 8:30. Saturday involves three flights, during which I alternately read and draft this blog. I start to crash mood-wise, although this time it’s not that competitive angsty thing I’ve had to fight against before–there are so many good writers out there, most of whom could give a rat’s ass about my poems. I’ve got joint pain plus a to-do list as long as the walk to the Portland Ballroom, so I can’t get too bothered about my own obscurity. It’s more sadness about how many friends I didn’t see, brilliant readings I missed, even bookfair tables I never found–I wanted one of those Ecotone pencils!

“Time is not linear, not circular. All time is simultaneous,” Rick Campbell said at the Kestrel table. Apropos of what, I have no idea. If he’s right, how do I extend each non-moment to connect with all the people and books I love in AWP’s overwhelming simultaneity? While also spending as much time at home with my son as I can, because I’ll miss him very much next year? When you’re half-knotted, half-unraveled, time feels short.

A smoke of fox escapes

Originally appearing in December, 2016 in Queen of Cups, my poem “House Call” is a crossroads between the novel and the poetry collection I’ll be publishing in 2020. It’s based on a dream–now I realize, one of a series of dreams–of numinous other-than-human figures visiting with some kind of message or advice. After drafting the poem in 2015, I gave a version of this dream to the protagonist of Unbecoming, although it means something different to her than it did to me. Below is the version of the poem that will appear in my book, or very close. Check out the original site, too: it contains a tarot reading that fits the crisis I was then, and a good writing prompt!

House Call

The black fox kept eluding me,
quick among the party shoes,
chrysanthemum scent of twilight
blowing through lamplit rooms.
Its fur was tipped with flame,
brushed by crimson characters.
Out the door, down the steps
to mist-damp grass. Gone, gone
under sharp-leaved rhododendrons.

What did you bring me, kitsune?
Twigs and dead matter Come sleep
Where are you now? Under your nails
your skin flashing through veins

Will I be fortunate? This dream
is your luck this restlessness
You feared warm rain had ceased falling—

that the onion moon had rolled
beyond night’s uneven floor.

Try to read spirit and this
ensues: writing shivers, a trick,
a tease. Creatures shifting shape
can’t pause at the mirror to preen.
Someone wears nine tails;
something prepares to change
by burning all the words.
A smoke of fox escapes.

This uncanny crossing is on my mind because I’m about to read part of the novel aloud to a real live audience for the first time (although it has had plenty of readers so far, and I’m reading big chunks aloud to myself as I edit). Our old college friend Scott Nicolay–now a prize-winning author as well as editor, translator, podcaster, and cave archaeologist–is a co-organizer of the Outer Dark Symposium on The Greater Weird, this year on March 22-23 in Georgia. I’ll only be reading for 10 minutes, but I can get a short, weird novel scene in there, plus a poem or two. And I’ll have poems in the souvenir program, which sounds like a beauty. It occurs to me that as well as learning how to excerpt fiction for different kinds of audiences, I’m going to have to practice toggling between genres during various public soundings. Here goes!

Part Two of the month of March–the sequel to a wonderful visit by Aimee Nezhukumatathil and a really nasty cold–involves a lot of travel, so I’m going to have to keep hitting the ginger tea and taking care of myself. Thursday I’m hitting a poetry panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book and seeing a couple of old friends; I’m sad I can’t stay and hear Kyle Dargan, but I have to hit the road south Friday. I’ll be immersed in weirdness all weekend, but my reading is:

10:50 am, Silver Scream FX Lab, 4215 Thurman Rd, Conley, Georgia

I come back to teach Monday-Wednesday (and do some Skype interviewing Tuesday), and then I’m off to Portland, Oregon. Come say hello to me at the Terrain.org table, #9029, in AWP’s bookfair on Thursday, March 28th from 12-1. I’ll be signing my recent chapbook Propagation ($5 and VERY light for your luggage), but I’d be delighted just to chat and give you one of my beautiful new Shenandoah business cards. Shenandoah doesn’t have a table this year–we will next year–but we are hosting a reading at 1:30 Thursday at the Jasmine Pearl Teahouse. Chris and I will be home again Saturday night, earlier than originally planned, but that’s probably good. Not only is the first week of April the last week of winter term, and therefore an academic crunch time, but these are the weeks my eighteen-year-old son hears back from the six colleges he applied to (two acceptances so far!), and he’s holding down the fort at home alone for the first time, while Chris and I conference together.

Lit mags I’m reading–with thanks to BPJ for publishing my poem “Dear Anne Spencer”!

Send us all good vibes, please, and if you spot me at one of these places, please say hello. I’ll report back in this space sometime around the kick-off of National Poetry Month. In the meantime, may March winds blow you some good!

A mouth of purple crocus

One of the first sonnets I wrote, as an undergraduate, contained the lines: “A mouth of purple crocus opens through/ the snow, wild to speak the store beneath. / It carries coin.” I don’t remember the rest, although the poem is probably in a bin in the attic somewhere. The lines have been running through my head all week as the weather flips from warmish to snowy to springlike again. March is always a crazy month in my academic calendar, but I am ready for the madness, as long as it brings me color!

Elements of recent frenzy: I injured my right knee a week ago (I don’t know how) and my mobility has been limited; now that knee is improving but I’m realizing there’s background noise of inflammation and low-grade pain that I need to figure out and deal with. My son is at the state chess tournament in Charlottesville this weekend, which meant extra driving, although I’m happy for him. This afternoon’s report is that he played really well. Even though his rating is finally high enough that he was required to play in the championship division–meaning basically everyone he matched with was higher-rated, many of them drastically–he won half his games. And my daughter drove down yesterday for spring break, and it’s her birthday tomorrow. AND Aimee Nezhukumatathil was due to arrive yesterday for the second part of her residency, and got grounded overnight in Memphis, so we’ve been scrambling to rearrange things. That’s all on top of the usual busy-ness of the teaching year, plus trying to resolve all Shenandoah poetry submissions from the reading period that recently closed, plus hitting the crux of the AWP search for a permanent executive director (I’m off the AWP board, but on this committee), plus being stern with myself about carving out time for novel revisions (minimum of an hour 3x/ week).

All this means a lot of juggling, but except for the joint/ mobility problems–and the pain of rejecting good poems, because Shenandoah gets SO MANY GOOD POEMS–I’m feeling optimistic. Put that little spark of good feeling against a big gray landscape–the treatment of refugees at our borders looms large for me, as well as the worsening environmental crisis–and a bunch of purple crocus isn’t worth much, I know. But I’ll take it.

Teaching poetry activism

Coffee at the RARA Benefit reading

Almost everything I do that might make the world slightly more kind and just, I do with literature’s help. Teaching feels like my main avenue for helping others; in writing and editing, too, I try to increase the general light. I’ve failed in those activities many times, but I’m also sure I’ve done good, perhaps in a more lasting way than by attending rallies, signing petitions, and writing letters to congresspeople or newspaper editors. The latter work is vital–my daughter wants to make a career of improving how the government works, and I am so grateful for her intelligence and commitment! But I’m personally better, I think, at kinds of activism that tap the deepest wells of my knowledge and skill.

Poetry’s usefulness can be exaggerated. Writing verses is NOT a particularly effective way of influencing politicians, getting a law changed, or (god knows) attracting money. So even though I created a new course for this term, Protest Poetry, in the deep conviction that poetry helps people, I brought some skepticism to the topic, too. The course is designed for exploration and experiment, and while I’ve done research into its central questions, I’m a genuine student here, with lots to learn. When literature does influence people, how does that work? What poetic strategies are most likely to affect someone’s biases or even, possibly, alter their behaviors? We read a suite of Civil Rights poems and are now working through The Ecopoetry Anthology, discussing (without agreement) the costs and benefits of writing angry poems, grieving poems, and poems of praise; drawing on personal feeling or using the imperative voice; creating works of sonic beauty, grammatical difficulty, or narrative force; and much more.

“Protest Poetry” also carries my college’s “experiential learning” designation, which means the students are creating a couple of public-facing projects. The first, a collaborative venture, happened this Wednesday. We began planning it a few weeks ago, after a tour of the Rockbridge Area Relief Association as well as reading poems about hunger on the Split this Rock database. The assignment was (for very low stakes, grade-wise) to raise money for RARA through poetry. I told them a benefit reading would work–I’ve organized them before–but it was up to them. We toyed with the idea of a Haiku Booth or poetry-related crafts, but decided on an hourlong event that would be organized, promoted, and emceed by students in the class. They chose and booked a campus space, issued invitations to the readers, created fliers, set up sound equipment, decided the flow of the event, and brought refreshments (I acquired a small budget for the latter).

My undergraduates also did some extra work I did NOT expect or require, because, I think, they became genuinely invested in the cause. Some of them made another trip to the food pantry with questions for the clientele, cleared in advance by RARA staff, such as “What’s your favorite meal?” and “If you had to describe RARA in one word, what would it be?” They constructed poems out of the answers, performing them at the event as well as interspersing information between the poems about RARA’s work. They also set up a fundraising table for three days in the Commons, where they offered soft drinks and home-baked treats. Talking to unsuspecting muffin-eaters about how much food RARA can buy for a dollar, they then sweetly solicited donations in any amount. All told, they raised $470!

When we talked about the event during Friday’s class, they were awed by the amount of money raised but also reflected that the event in itself felt good. RARA staff attended and my students watched them tear up during poems. I’m pretty sure a couple of my students choked up, too. They’ll be devising individual activist projects using poetry next, serving whatever cause they feel most invested in, and I’m excited to see what they come up with. I’ll give you an update at the end of term!

Raising money: a clear win. Did the poetry itself change anyone’s thinking? My gut feeling is that it’s way too early to tell. Nobody in my class spoke about having personally experienced food insecurity (not that they necessarily would have), so I’m pretty sure our readings conveyed new information about that flavor of suffering to many, as well as making space for deep thinking about our obligations to each other. Maybe the example of those RARA staff and volunteers mattered most of all.

Back now to more ordinary good works: responding to student writing, preparing for class, reading for Shenandoah, working on the search for AWP’s new director, and maybe, maybe, squeezing in an hour or two for my own writing projects. Whatever you’re up to this week, I hope it involves good art and good food. I’ll leave you with a shot of me reading a poem by Lauren Alleyne from her book Difficult Fruit, plus the poem itself: “Grace Before Meals.” It’s a nourishing one.

Me reading at the RARA Benefit