A view from the masthead

I read Beth Staples’ Editor’s Note to the new issue of Shenandoah aloud, in the car, from my phone. Chris and I were on our way to a poetry reading by Sara Robinson, Patsy Asuncion, and others at Ragged Branch Distillery–a gorgeous setting–while sun and clouds chased each other across the mountains. We had read an earlier draft of Beth’s essay, which was prompted by a piece of hate mail:

She nailed the revision, we agreed, and then argued about which was the funniest line in the piece. “From a person with questionable taste in fonts,” Chris insisted. No, it’s her rewrite of the opening of Pride and Prejudice, I countered. In any case, Beth’s remarks are important, reflecting questions I often think about while reading submissions AND reading for fun. In much contemporary fiction by white authors, nonwhite characters are typically described by race, while white characters get to be defined by other characteristics, like status or occupation or temperament–which makes me sputter with irritation when I want to be lounging with a paperback.

In verse, how a white author addresses, or sidesteps, whiteness comes through more clearly over a suite of pieces than in a single poem, mostly because a poem contains fewer words and less story than your average prose piece. A poem gives you select glimpses from which you intuit and imagine a landscape. Race, therefore, is sometimes a matter of hints and absences in the poems from this Shenandoah issue. I love them all, and I delight in the ways they refract different identities and experiences: 68.2 contains poetry about language, immigration, aging, abortion, artificial insemination, difficult parents, difficult children, difficult neighbors, food, friendship, nonhuman animals, love, anger, political treaties, sexual harassment, disability, music, apocalypse, and clowns. Race joins that heady mix, but mostly in poems by authors who are not white–and that’s something an editor, and an author, must think about.

Books of mine currently in the publication pipeline–especially a novel and my next poetry collection–DO concern whiteness. In early drafts of these works, I made mistakes, because my skill and thoughtfulness were inadequate. Many editors rejected many of those efforts–rightly, I now believe, although it was discouraging at the time. Writing about race in a contemporary or historical way, from the perspective of a white person who hasn’t always been required to pay attention to it, was/ is risky, and I’m not sure the products are thoroughly successful–I’m worried there are failures in the books I can’t yet see, and really hoping, if so, that my editors will call me out–but in any case, I did learn some things and end up with at least some good writing. I decided I’d rather fail by trying than by silence.

So I especially appreciate Beth’s Editor’s Note. If you find it provocative and/ or useful, also check out the “Gutting the Chicken” feature, about a flash fiction piece by Stephen Graham Jones that was initially rejected. The editors focused on gender questions the piece raised and missed some things about race, and I would say the author did something similar but in reverse, although all parties are brilliant and careful (I think Jones’ work is amazing). The intro, flash fiction, and accompanying interview would be a great suite to teach, raising some pretty interesting editorial and writerly conundrums.

But every piece in the issue is worth reading! I’m particularly excited about the novel excerpt (and eager for Joukhadar’s book–he’ll give a reading here in February). Don’t miss the special features at the bottom of the page, either, which are full of their own insights and challenges. I’m happy, heading into summer, that there’s so much cool stuff to read, even (or especially?) when it makes me uncomfortable–as long as the author doesn’t address me as “girl.”

The ambit of ambition

A former student, visiting campus for her 20th reunion, was telling me about deciding to remarry, as we shared glasses of wine by the window in a local bar. She recounted how the man she was dating said apologetically, as they started to get serious, “But I’m just not ambitious.” Her face brightened as she described her delighted reply: “That’s fine! I’m ambitious enough for the both of us!”

I love hearing about my students’ ambitions–may they change the world, because it needs changing!–especially when I once knew them as brilliant but underconfident young women. This former student is happily working long hours, while her husband has happily shortened his to care for their two young children. If I helped model that for anyone now building the life she wants, veering from the inherited scripts to do work that lights her up, that would be AWESOME. I felt so guilty about my own choices for so long, but I’ve reached a moment, with my kids aged 18 and 22, when most of that guilt feels quaint. Yes, I failed as a parent sometimes, but never because I had an intense job or wrote poems in my scant spare time. The things I was stupid about, I would have been stupid about regardless of occupational and vocational status, because then, and now, I’m still learning how to be a decent human being. In fact, teaching and writing help me be a better person. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self some things.

After that glass of wine, I walked home through a small town under construction and swarming with alumnae/i, pondering ambition. It was very much on my mind in my mid-forties, when I started writing the poems in my forthcoming collection. My current working title for the latter is The State She’s In, but whether or not my editor ultimately agrees about that, I’m polishing the ms now and the book will be out in March or April 2020. The collection, in fact, contains a sequence of five list-poems called “Ambitions,” and I considered whether I could or should incorporate the word in my book title. I guess I was asking common midlife questions: what is all this striving for? Am I on a path towards something good, goals I genuinely care about? Am I fulfilling my responsibilities to other people, to my work, and as a citizen–not the trivial stuff, but the deep obligations? Then an ambitious woman ran for office, and a man who despises women trumped her, and some of my struggle over that episode is in the book, too.

As I veered off Main St. onto the smaller road that leads home, I realized I may have turned a corner where ambition is concerned. I’m not sure how much of the change comes from turning fifty, or other revolutions in my life, or even just the fact that three books I worked on for years all have contracts now, so I can afford to be less anxious! Maybe my state of relative equilibrium is temporary. But while I still think many kinds of ambition are good and important, and anyone who’s nervous about ambition in women is a sexist jerk, I find I’m not fretting about productivity this summer, for once. I can’t even drum up worry about the reception my poetry book will eventually meet (the novel’s a bit different–still feel like an imposter there). I have a number of writing projects percolating, and I’ll be helping my kids launch into college and the working world, but I’m mainly grateful that a summer slow-down is allowing me to strengthen these mss and plan for how I can help them find audiences. My chief ambition, I’m realizing, is to make the books as moving and crafty and complicated and inspiring as possible.

After this trio (poetry and a novel in 2020, an essay collection in 2021), I may have a few more books in me, but my writing years no longer feel limitless. The lightning of major post-publication attention doesn’t strike most people and probably won’t strike me; I can live with that. I can’t control the luck, but I can make each book deserve readers and find at least some of the people who would enjoy them, and that’s what I’m really striving for. Well, deep down. I’m sure I’ll keep getting distracted by the other stuff, but the kind of ambition that ties a person up in unproductive knots seems to have less of a stranglehold on me than once upon a time.

Is this a Mother’s Day post? Maybe; work and motherhood have been tangled up with each other for my whole adult life, both logistically and emotionally. Plus, on Mother’s Day itself I’ll be reading at the Ox-Eye Vineyards Tasting Room in Staunton with Lauren Camp and Susan Facknitz, thanks to Cliff Garstang’s organizational genius, and then bringing Lauren back down to W&L for a reading on Monday, all of which is right after launching the new issue of Shenandoah this Friday–in other words, there won’t be much blogging time. I will be leafing through poems, though, trying to find the best pieces I’ve written on being a mother and a daughter, and maybe pondering whether I have any other important things to say on the subject. Because, you know, if it matters, I could find a couple of hours.